On Identity (specifically, mine)

I have tried to write this post three times already.

On the one hand, it could have taken a lot longer to figure these words out—identity is a tricky thing—but on the other hand, most of my blogs have a single iteration. Drafts, sure, but throwing out a whole post and doing it again? Almost never.

I have tried to write this post three times. Enough to know that no amount of smooth introduction is going to do anything useful for me.

So, hi.

My name is Megan DeJarnett. Some of you already know me and love (/fear?) me. I’m a lot of things, and I could list them here, but today I’m just going to mention the ones that aren’t dependent on my art or my career: I’m a demigray genderfluid woman, but usually I just say I’m queer. (I’m also either bi or pan, but I’m still figuring out those specifics, so I’ll update this once I’m sure which term is right. Like the rest of this, that isn’t particularly new, just a continuing discovery.)

Remember the end of Untouchable? When I said things were more complicated now? This is why. Because now, we’re not just talking about sexism aimed at straight, cisgender women. (We haven’t been for awhile, if you look closely—I’ve been sprinkling in more things over time—but I’m not going to keep pretending being female is the only part of the equation that applies to me.) Actually, the original version of Untouchable (which I lovingly called 5700) was going to dive into some of this. The post was going to end with me coming out. It was going to be an even bigger piece than it already was. Thankfully, one of my confidants on my review team pointed out that I owed my identity more than that. (thanks, Leila!)

Continue reading On Identity (specifically, mine)

Empathy, leadership, and “I don’t want to hear it”

[tw: suicidality]

My first truly positive experience with therapy was in the summer of 2018. It was long overdue; the summer had been absolutely hellish, and I was beginning to flirt with suicidality. My partner knew. My parents probably suspected. I’d talked about finding a therapist for a long time—years—but the thing that got me through the door into an office was when my fear that I might at some point actively want to die eclipsed my anxiety about making the appointment, being in therapy, and paying for it. (While my parents have always been of the Healthcare Concerns First, Money Concerns Later mindset, it’s still anxiety-inducing to be incurring major expenses even when they’re paid for.)

My first session was in August sometime. I’d just moved in with my partner, cut all ties with an intensely toxic person, and was trying to start approaching normality again before school got started. My therapist was attentive as I broke down the extensive stress that had accumulated over the previous six to eight months, and when I came up for air, she had one observation: “it sounds like you’re a very empathetic person.”

I can still remember my brow furrowing; for as long as I could remember, that descriptor had been flung as far away from me as possible. “My brother was always the one who got called that,” I told her. But she continued on, and I realized she was right—that empathy wasn’t just the surface-level definition of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It was the echoes of others’ emotions that would frequently parade through my body and life.

I spent the next four months with her learning how to control the trait enough that I’d stop self-destructing every time it took the reins.

Continue reading Empathy, leadership, and “I don’t want to hear it”

Token Hire

I don’t like being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. If you asked my peers about it, they’d probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yeah, that’s Megan. I don’t have to be with other women, though that’s obviously a blessing when it comes along; in LA, there were plenty of occasions when I performed with a section or a group whose members were male-coded but included at least one other person somewhere on the gender spectrum beyond cis man. I’ve fallen in love with working among others whose struggles to be accepted in our professional environments speak to something in my own experience. These moments allow for subtle, important moments of solidarity: little reminders that we’re not alone.

That said, I spend a lot of time being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. (#BrassPlayerProblems #JazzProblems.) It’s difficult to explain why the difference is so stark, especially when I’m trying to make sense of it to folks who have probably never found themselves in such a situation. (And even if my cis male friends have, y’all don’t have centuries of systemic gendered oppression weighing on you and affecting your treatment within that scenario.) But when a well-reasoned fear of the consequences—both professional and personal—of putting even one toe out of line has been bred into you from the moment you chose your career, when you work in an industry that has a tradition of violence of all types against your gender(s), when you’re working around people you know won’t speak up if someone makes you uncomfortable, you spend a lot more time worrying and being quiet instead of working to create the art you want.

However, it’s 2019. Professionals the world over are realizing all-male ensembles can’t continue to be their default. Overall, that’s a really good thing; doors are beginning to open for gender-marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had many options a few decades ago. There’s a dark side to the change, though: musicians are beginning to reach for women and other gender-marginalized performers to incorporate into their ensembles so they can say they have one. It’s a performative, superficial kind of inclusivity that draws in folks facing this kind of oppression without considering the systemic structural changes that might be needed to make us feel welcome. It’s hastily scribbling down the answers to your math homework in the ten minutes before class without bothering to show your work (because you’re copying someone else’s), and the results are usually the same: if you don’t have a plan for getting from point A to point B, you’ll only ever get partial credit.

Continue reading Token Hire

Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences

At the beginning of the school year, despite not being in school, I raided the back-to-college section at Target with one of my best friends and brought home things I’d never intended to buy. (You know, as a casual Target run usually goes.) Among the knickknacks and forty-eight-cent tape dispensers was one of those small, interchangeable sign boards. It was magnetized; it was green and purple; it was under $5. I caved to my inner white girl (not to be confused with my outer white girl) and took it home. The next day, I carefully sifted through the letters and spelled out a declaration: “LEAD WITH LOVE.”

The sign has since evolved to include more text, but that original phrase remains, staring me in the face every time I open my fridge. It’s probably time for something new, but I can’t quite bring myself to start fresh again, because it’s a simple thought I take very seriously and an action I’m prioritizing as part of my return to the desert. It feels a little squirmy to say I’m leading intentionally; I feel like it’s always been considered cooler/more humble/more subversive to sort of imply that any authority any of us has just fell onto our shoulders by chance. It’s the easy way out, in part because it gives us wiggle room to duck out of things we don’t want to be responsible for or bad decisions we’ve made—if we weren’t doing it on purpose, if we didn’t know our actions were setting an example, it’s not our fault, right?

That said, as I continue working toward a more inclusive musical community and holding the people and institutions around me accountable for misdeeds that need correcting, it’s disingenuous at best to pretend I’m doing this accidentally. Maybe when I was just starting to post about gender and misogyny and music it was true. At the time, it was more a byproduct of my reality than a conscious choice. But it’s not now. I may not work at the forefront of the Phoenix community, I may not be gigging and rehearsing nonstop like some of my friends, but I’m sticking around. Checking up on people. Listening. Taking it all in and allowing myself the time and space to think about what the interactions and decisions around us mean to the people who don’t always get a fair say. I’m aiming to be not only a voice but an example—where and when possible. That might not be every day, but hopefully it’s whenever someone feels left behind.

Continue reading Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences

Performing, selling out, and toxic masculinity

As many of you know, I grew up dancing. My mom half-jokes she first enrolled me because I was a clumsy kid (fact check: this is entirely true), and when my first progress reports came in, my teacher’s primary remark was “she’s so graceful!” To this day, if you put me on marley or wood floors in dance shoes or bare feet, I’m far more coordinated than anywhere else in the world, where I frequently trip over my own shoes. But coordination aside, dance class was the first time I was able to fall in love with being on a stage. And I fell hard—even now, my relationship with the stage remains far deeper than my connection with any human. It was a defining moment very early in my life, one I wouldn’t change for anything.

Along with my quickly-developing stage presence came a broader, less easily defined love: an undying passion for performing. While I know most musicians also list that among their great loves, mine was introduced far differently. Mine was ushered in with the abject excitement of the day we were fitted for costumes, a dozen tiny girls anxiously glancing from our barre exercises to the side of the room where an eternally patient dance mom sat, cloth tape measure in hand, moving alphabetically down the roster. It was heralded by the visceral, almost tangible joy of the day costumes arrived. That tended to cement things every year—the recital was real, we were going to be presented in looks that matched the choreography and the music, oh my goodness the costumes are here it’s time to work. We were given reason after reason—dress rehearsals with the whole studio! dancing in the finale! flowers after the performance!—to be unapologetically, aggressively excited about what we were doing. And even though I was a slow learner, even though I took two or three classes a week and not the five to fifteen others did, I was allowed to be exactly as in love with the art and the stage as my friends who spent their lives en pointe or dashing from hip-hop to tap to modern to jazz to ballet.

So I grew up craving a full and complete product, a show, an experience, a stage presence intentionally and carefully curated to enhance the performance. Maybe as an eight-year-old I didn’t have the words to talk about what heartbreak should look like, but I knew what a bowed head and slumped shoulders and wobbly knees meant. I learned the movement languages of emotions, knew when to use them and why. I understood how to use vulnerability and strength as tools. I learned how to smile so big you could see it from the back of the second balcony.

Continue reading Performing, selling out, and toxic masculinity

Female Friends and Coercive Solidarity

I don’t usually start posts with housekeeping, but this week’s is a particularly hot take that I’m sure is going to ruffle some feathers on all sides. In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a floatation device . . . really, though, let’s keep the comments section cool both here and on socials, yeah? I’m fully aware that some folks will feel like I’m talking about them, and other folks will feel the guilty twinge of “oh, I may have encouraged that without fully considering the consequences.” But if you’ve arrived at my blog before, you know we’re all here to feel the uncomfortable feelings. That’s how we grow. This is just my reminder to you that a) you can and should process at your own pace, and b) processing in real time on the internet may not be the wisest choice for you and those around you. (Considering this blog has gone through many drafts and multiple beta readers, I am definitely taking my own advice here.)

That said, it’s true—I generally don’t preface posts with lists of disclaimers. I haven’t for a long time. However, it’s somewhat rare that I take on a topic like today’s. I spend a lot of time talking about my relationships and interactions with men—personal, professional, adversarial, musical. I almost never talk about my relationships with women.

Continue reading Female Friends and Coercive Solidarity

Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Since moving back to Phoenix, one phrase (besides “it’s better now”) has begun to permeate my consciousness—and weigh on my mind—more than it ever did while I was in California. I absolutely spoiled any chance at a surprise with my title, so yes, that phrase is “paying your dues.” Despite all the time I’ve spent wandering through various genres and fields of music, it’s never quite rung true to me. This is, I think, partly because of how intentionally nonspecific it is and partly because of the conditions under which I make music and move through the world at large. The depths of this issue are murky, and from here it’s difficult to see the bottom, but if I had to take a stab at a thesis, it’d be this: the gatekeeping, favoritism, and institutional bias that create the foundation of “paying your dues” stifle creativity, discourage participation, alienate newcomers, and serve the white patriarchy.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. So let’s take it a bite at a time, shall we?

Before we get into it, I’m not sure why this didn’t come up a lot while I was in Los Angeles, but the answer is probably partly regional and partly cultural. A wise jazz musician once pointed out to me that the prevalence and outward manifestation of misogyny varies drastically by location. Generally, New York and LA are noticeably different (though not necessarily less misogynist) than most of the rest of the country. And while this “paying your dues” thing can undoubtedly play into that, I think another part of the equation is that mindless playing-for-the-paycheck work isn’t as looked down on in LA as it sometimes is in some pockets of Phoenix—in part because gigs are a step up from the carousel of day jobs, plural, needed to pay Los Angeles rent.

The other part of this, I suppose, is that I wasn’t told to pay my dues in LA; I was told to put in the work. While both phrases carry similar weight, there’s a lot more flexibility to the latter. My friends and teachers saw me making angry assault music and counted that as “doing the work.” They saw me advocating for student life improvements and institutional change and counted that as “doing the work.” They see me blogging about the need for better treatment across the board and count that as “doing the work.” But regardless of the details, I didn’t hear or talk about or think about “paying my dues” much in California, and I do in Arizona, so it’s time to break down some concepts.

Continue reading Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

“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.

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

Thank You, Los Angeles

Thank you, Los Angeles.

I arrived in town two years ago as a twenty-one-year-old tornado of a human being. I was enraged, confused, and searching for something I hadn’t yet learned to name. I’d spent four years honing one craft after being told I didn’t have the work ethic for the other. I’d realized it mattered to me what my art said to the world, and I was looking for people to help me articulate and realize it.

It’s a little more than that, though, too. When I arrived, I just wanted not to be the girl everyone looked at and brushed aside; as I leave, I know I’ve become a force that’s much more difficult to ignore.

Two years later, I’m leaving—I know, I know, not what I would’ve expected either—without all the answers I was looking for, but with new ideas of how to approach my creative life. Some of the lessons I learned are maybe a little backward; for instance, the city where saying no to the wrong gig can mean no calls for six months taught me it’s okay to pick and choose so you put most of your energy toward the projects you value most. The town I came into with the intention of putting jazz (mostly) behind me gave me the tools to re-approach the genre on my own terms.

Continue reading Thank You, Los Angeles

Audience Participation vs. Performer Protection: A Snapshot

I am sitting onstage with the Nash Composers Coalition—either at our inaugural concert or second; I can’t remember which—and we are almost through our set. The adrenaline is pumping, and despite the weight of carrying my gender on my back on that stage, I’m smiling. We’ve been riding the performance high all night, and spirits are high. As we round the bend into the last couple tunes, we call a free improvisation, with the title to be determined by the audience.

The first few suggestions are fine, harmless; they prompt thoughtful nods or friendly chuckles from me and my colleagues. They’re what we expect. Then someone—a guy, and by the self-satisfied tone of voice, it was probably a young or young-ish guy, though to my knowledge not one of my peers—shouted out something super sexual. I can’t remember if it was “seductive” or “foreplay” or something else entirely, but I remember the discomfort it brought to me immediately.

Hang on; I have to go look through those recordings now and see if I can find it. I want to get this right, and it’s a story I try not to remember.

Continue reading Audience Participation vs. Performer Protection: A Snapshot