Bandleading, Phoenix, and Three-Year-Old Scars

I met with some friends tonight (back when tonight was in September)—mostly folks in the young generation’s old guard, who were around the last time I lived here—and while we mostly got together to play, we inevitably got to talking, too. At one point, I mentioned that I was considering pitching a new project I’d be bandleading, figuring I’d get some useful insight from the group.

What I didn’t expect was the instant pushback.

Frankly, it was startling. It always is, even though it was an interesting hallmark of my last trip around the Phoenix block. The refrain this time was different: multiple folks mentioned concerns that the venues I’m considering pitching to might turn me down or give me subpar billing because they already have a token woman they hire in that capacity (and, theoretically, they aren’t interested in doing anything more than the bare minimum). While this isn’t the vibe I’ve gotten from conversations with Phoenix musicians a decade to two decades older—they’re generally very supportive of my pitching, actually—the fact that my peers (and close friends!) are shooting me down immediately is troubling at best.

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“It’s Better Now” And Other Well-Intentioned Half-Truths

As I’ve begun settling back into Phoenix, I’ve decided that being upfront about my plans and trepidation is the best policy at this point in time. As a result, I’ve been honest with folks—common refrains are “I don’t play standards anymore,” “I’m still figuring out what I want to put energy into,” and “I’m picking projects I really like and going from there.” These ones are easy to swallow for most folks (though the standards one often raises some eyebrows until I add “this community killed that for me”); however, some of the truthful answers further down the playlist of “how are you?” are already raising some pushback.

The big one, unsurprisingly, is the simplest: in some ways, it’s terrifying to be back.

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Meet in the Middle: When You Want to Improvise, but it’s Not Entirely Jazz

I grew up playing classical music and longing to be in jazz band.

Granted, it didn’t take long for that to come to fruition—by eighth grade I was taking solos and groaning at lead parts like I’d done it all my life—but with jazz comes an often-stifling series of mistreatments. I don’t have to tell you that; I haven’t touched the art form in over a year, and while I still miss the music, I’m waiting for the opportunity to get back into it on my own terms with people who won’t shut me down at every turn. The thing I loved most about jazz, though, was simultaneously what I hated: the improvisation.

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New Music and the Performer Problem

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of reading a post from my friend and colleague, Nico Bejarano, on cultivating acceptance of new music in a professional world that can at times seem dead set on only playing the repertoire already elevated to the echelon of “the classics.” (A comment my mentor Jody Rockmaker once made on my counterpoint homework, here taken wildly out of context, comes to mind: “Get your ears out of the nineteenth century!”) I concur with many of Nico’s sentiments, and I encourage you to check out his post here. I also wanted to take a few moments to address many of those same ideas from the perspective of someone who’s spent a long time being a composer first and a performer second.

Nico talks at length in his article about how the availability and mass consumption of recorded music has diluted audiences’ tastes down to an aural experience that prizes the familiar over all else. It’s an apt correlation; however, I argue that the demographic most affected by this oversaturation of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler isn’t our concertgoing audience­—it’s the armies of performers rising through the ranks of schools and orchestras that treat new music as an afterthought. These folks are used to cross-referencing recordings of the symphonies they’re performing that semester. They endlessly study their favorite soloists’ versions of their solo rep. And they lose the ability (or maybe the imagination) to look at a piece of unfamiliar music and bring it to life in their mind.

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