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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sing Until I Can Fly: Cilience Releases Debut EP ‘Fetters and Feathers’

Fetter (n.): 1. a chain or shackle for the feet. 2. something that confines.

Some of my favorite hooks in the world are the kind where you can tell something’s being revealed or turned on its head, but you won’t figure it out without a little research (or an extensive vocabulary). And man, Ian Stahl sure knows how to write one.

The line in question comes at the end of the chorus of “Fetters and Feathers,” the title track of Cilience’s debut EP. Backed by intrinsically satisfying syncopation, frontman Stahl sings, “Waiting for something better/Until fetters are feathers, I’ll sing until I can fly.” It’s the kind of music you’d want to listen to during a sunny drive up the Ventura coast­—which, for a song intended to highlight racial inequality, is impressive. Its parent record, Fetters and Feathers, is a conceptually quirky but idiomatically sound ride through a host of styles and existential quandaries that invites listeners to explore as far as they want to go.

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Commission Season: I’m Looking for Collaborators!

As we move into the fall semester (or quarter, if you’re weird like that), I’m happy to announce I’m accepting commissions for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019. I’ve had a fantastic time working with individuals and groups this year, including the Spring View Middle School Jazz Band, Failsafe Duo, Willis Dotson, John Pisaro and Ian Stahl, and Oakwood Brass. That said, something I’ve come to realize is a lot of my friends, peers, and colleagues are interested in commissioning new works but don’t necessarily know how to approach the process. I can’t and won’t speak for all composers, but these are the most important things to know if you’re interested in working with me.

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A Manifesto? (otherwise known as An Intro to My Creative Practice)

Hello, friends! I hope this finds you well.

I’ve spent much of the past week reflecting on my experiences at the Rafael Méndez Brass Institute and getting back into the daily grind. I had such a great time getting to know everyone at RMBI, but it’s dawned on me that as someone who actively identifies as both a composer and a performer, I don’t talk as coherently about my creative practice as many of my new friends do. To be completely honest, I’m a little envious—from the outside looking in, it seems nice to be able to start by saying “I do this” and then getting more specific instead of explaining that you do two or three or five different things and having to elaborate on each one. I’ve also realized that I haven’t at any point sat down and written out how I describe and view my own work. (Grad school application essays don’t count.)

Generally, I dismiss myself pretty quickly. I tell people that I try to marry traditional technique and tonality with experimental idioms, and that’s true. Making weird things accessible to audiences regardless of their musical background is and always will be a priority. Even still, there’s so much more to my writing and performing than “it sounds a little weird but also sort of normal.” There are facets of my creativity I haven’t talked about very much. So this post has two objectives: to introduce myself a little more thoroughly to my friends (new and old, musicians and non-musicians) and help define for myself how I frame my creative practice.

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A CalArts Year in Review: Part Two

Over the past year, CalArts has allowed me to learn at my own pace while providing countless opportunities I wouldn’t get elsewhere. That said, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Like every school, CalArts has serious downsides it needs to address. I can’t speak as much to programs and events outside the music school, but even within HASOM (the Herb Alpert School of Music), there are significant issues that require more management than students or faculty are capable of providing individually. And sometimes, the administration’s what’s causing the problems. So buckle in, everyone. This one’s long.

♦♦♦

Let’s start with my favorite part of every school: the Title IX office.

Continue reading A CalArts Year in Review: Part Two

A CalArts Year in Review: Part One

This time a year ago, I was a newly-minted college graduate, enjoying a verylong summer and preparing for the rigor and adventure of a master’s program. I’d already made my choice – CalArts won for a number of reasons – but like most students approaching an arts school with an absurd reputation, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I came in prepared to work hard and hoping for an academic culture better than the one I’d found (and struggled with) at ASU. And while life spent a large part of the last year throwing me for a loop, I’ve had some time to reflect on what CalArts has given me and what I wish I’d gotten out of my first year. I’m going to present my findings in two posts; this first one will focus on the positives.

Continue reading A CalArts Year in Review: Part One