Music, Weaponized Vulnerability, and the Question of Us

The end of my masters degree was a little nontraditional. This is fitting, I suppose, because most of the rest of my degree was largely nontraditional. But in my last semester, I was fortunate to spend quality time with four teachers (now friends) whose work I admire and who all handle life pretty well. My questions to each of them varied, but the gist was the same: what on earth do I do now?

See, I’m a good student, but I’m a professional very much in the process of figuring out what makes a career and how the wheels keep turning. I know I don’t have all the answers I need, and I understand some things will be lessons learned the hard way. But I’m also an artist working with (and through) an injury that could have ended my playing career, and I’m an artist whose creative output travels to very dark places a lot of the time. If I want to keep making work that truly challenges me (and maybe society), I have to develop habits and boundaries that preserve my personal wellbeing through the creative process. And, for the sake of my mental health, I probably need to grow those in the next five years and adapt them over a lifetime.

My last semester was such a relief because I had access to people who do things that I do and still lead generally happy lives. And when I asked about balance and fulfillment and happiness and all that, I got serious answers. On the surface, they might seem predictable: slow down, stay healthy, keep your body happy, choose projects that move you, remember your basics. But the thing about having so many amazing teachers is that I’ve spent a good chunk of time learning about them. I know why they give me the advice they do, and that increased context helps me adapt the concepts to my own life.

I started searching for these answers because it became fairly evident over the course of the last year that I would need to keep myself alive to continue doing this work. Before anyone panics, let’s be clear: I’m okay. I promise. But as you might expect, art about sexual assault and misogyny is a heavy burden to carry sometimes. And that’s on top of working in fields that don’t always think I should belong, in a country run by an admitted sexual predator, at a time when watching predator after predator walk free is particularly public and eternally painful. Most days, I can handle the load—after all, much of the art I make on those subjects serves as a release valve for the tension and pressure—but it doesn’t always work out that way. I don’t expect it too. Never have, really. But I know it happens, and part of being a responsible artist (and self-caring human) is preparing as much as possible and knowing those days will come.

Because as I told one of my teachers, I tend to take my vulnerability and throw it out in front of me like knives. (His response: “I’ve noticed, yes.”) It’s a storytelling style and artistic decision that can serve me well, but there’s an obvious amount of risk involved. I know there are people in my life who wished I didn’t walk this path. Some days, I agree with them. But here’s the thing: I rip myself open because it’s not my right to borrow anyone else’s story without their willing, enthusiastic consent. But unlike some of my (fantastic) peers, who use the music they create to show us some hidden sliver of them, I use my work to illuminate a dark corner of . . . us. All of us.

I don’t normally dive into this in blog format, but we as a human populace actively suck at looking out for each other. We’re conditioned, especially by society, to prioritize our individual needs over those of demographics beyond (or intersecting with) our own. If something doesn’t directly affect us, we probably won’t be super vocal about it, but if we can find a way to connect others’ experiences to our own, we’re way more likely to advocate for and learn about these issues. And while vulnerability serves as my knives, empathy is the putty with which I mold their handles and control their flight. And that, to me, is important, because if I’m going to make you uncomfortable, I want to be as in control of that as possible.

And the thing is, this may be daunting work, but when I have the moment where it’s all put together, when the stars align for the best and everything clicks, it makes me happy. Aggressively so. (Anyone who’s ever seen me say, a little too gleefully, “I love making people cry!” can confirm.) It makes me happy not because the work is necessary or timely—I really, really wish it wasn’t either of those things—but because the feedback I get from audiences tells me I’m hitting a nerve and connecting to a very visceral emotion that lives in a lot of us. Which one I hone in on depends on the piece; sometimes it’s something in the vulnerability category, but I also try to reach for more destructive emotions. Anger. Hate. The need for revenge versus justice. Self-loathing and self-destruction. I think it’s necessary not just for the women and femmes and assault victims/survivors/casualties who encounter my work—it’s necessary for the men seeking to be better and the men who don’t think they’re part of the problem and the rapists who might not realize they’re rapists (and, of course, the ones who do). And all of that matters. So I reach for the things that make people cry and squirm, but I try to do so with as much control as possible, because I want to make sure I do so with as much respect and consideration for everyone’s individual journeys as possible.

For the record, while I will certainly be talking about target audiences and Who Needs To Hear This Stuff again in the future, I do generally try to keep the focus on non-cis-male perspectives. I will continue to do so. But I think it’s important that I point out that allocishet men are part of my audience, because a significant part of why I have to make all of this as eloquent as possible is because the women and queer folks in my life usually nod their heads in understanding when I’m still scrambling around trying to make a point, while my male peers and colleagues frequently do not take my word as the authority on my own experiences unless I can present them clinically and explain how I got from point A to point B in as many little, obvious steps as possible. And as much as I dislike that gap, that’s why my work is about us—all of us, including our differences in communication and understanding. And if I’m somebody’s first point of contact for this discourse, I want to make sure I don’t leave them feeling like I’m judge, jury, and executioner in one. I want them to feel like they can learn and act and have a positive, productive place in the conversation. I want to inspire them to make this a critical part of their personal politics.

So I use my vulnerability like knives, and I’m still looking for ways to care for myself so I can keep pushing toward the art I love. It’s not a perfect process or a quick one. But as someone who’s going through a really big life transition, it’s nice to have something like that to push toward—something that’ll help me and the people I make music with in the long run. But what on earth do I do now?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. ♦

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Okay, Phoenix, Let’s Tango

Sometimes it feels like I, a person with a 408 area code, was always destined for the 480. The universe likes playing tricks, so it’s not a completely unreasonable suspicion. That said, as many of my AZ-native friends understand, I left, and I didn’t really expect to be back. In fact, if you asked me a year ago if I ever thought I’d live and work in Phoenix again, the answer would have been a vehement no.

On the flip side, when your partner gets the opportunity to study with one of the best trombone teachers in the country, you take it. (Dr. E, I don’t think you’re reading this, but if you are, hi!) As a Sun Devil alum, I’m thrilled John and I will both have degrees from ASU (and CalArts . . . but in opposite orders). As someone with a handful of friends I’ve missed desperately, I’m looking forward to reconnecting. But as someone who took some very bad moments and memories with me when I left the desert, as someone who realizes the reasons I was so frequently brushed over and passed by are myriad and gendered, I am . . . less excited.

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Curtis Institute’s Non-Apology and Actionable First Steps

Yes, we’re doing this again.

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a detailed account of powerhouse violinist Lara St. John’s childhood abuse, assault, and rape at the hands of her Curtis instructor, Jascha Brodsky. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do—the article goes into significant detail about St. John’s initial reporting process and multiple attempts to seek accountability from Curtis. The morning the story broke online, Curtis sent a message to its alumni network, asking them not to talk to the press and encouraging everyone to let the school spin the story. This didn’t go over well.

Curtis later backtracked, issuing a pseudo-apology for the gag order and making vague promises to be better. They also announced that they would be creating an anonymous reporting hotline (theoretically for sexual abuse, though they did not specify what the hotline would focus on or whether alumni, staff, and faculty who have been victimized would be able to utilize it). Nowhere has the Institute apologized to Lara St. John—not for facilitating abuse, not for disbelieving her, not for the joke of an “investigation” they rushed through to sweep the crime under the rug. And, if my guess is correct, they aren’t planning to. These continued missteps communicate to the music community at large that Curtis is more concerned with its reputation than actually working to right the wrongs.

This isn’t the first music school to face a story this explosive, nor is Curtis the first to navigate the reality that they willingly enabled a predator who they kept on faculty for decades thereafter. In fact, I wrote a piece roughly a year ago talking about very real ways to ask for consent for necessary touching in lessons and other artistic environments. In short, we’ve heard this song before. This makes it infinitely frustrating that school after school—Curtis among them—reacts like legions of musicians haven’t already communicated quite clearly the things we need to hear from a school truly interested in accountability and improvement.

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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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Fuck the Maestro Mentality

Since I started studying music in college, I’ve only rarely had the opportunity to work with a female conductor or ensemble director. (In fact, I think it’s happened . . . twice? Three times? Really rarely.) Before that, though, I was a product entirely of woman-run programs, and while middle and high school band were a long time ago, that education set me up with the expectation that my accomplishments were first and foremost my own, and while my teachers could be proud of me and talk about me, they could only claim so much credit.

This idea extended from my academic classes into my creative work in large part due to the guidance of the female and nonbinary professors and TAs I’ve had lessons and influential classes with over the past six years. These folks are supportive to no end, so eternally giving of their time and resources, but their support and praise is far less performative than some of their male colleagues’. It’s genuine, frequently private, and usually keeps an eye toward the future and what else I might accomplish. A good chunk of my male teachers, mentors, and colleagues also follow this model, but we’ve always got the handful of teachers who wait in the background, either refraining from genuine praise or being quietly unsupportive unless we jump through a little-communicated, preordained set of hoops (of which they are frequently gatekeepers).

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WICKED and Misogyny: “The Wizard And I”

Anyone who’s ever gotten past my academic, Western-art-music exterior knows I have a not-so-secret love for musicals. As my parents can tell you, I’ve been learning soundtracks since I was six and memorized Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat despite not knowing what half the colors on the coat were (because, really, ochre?). I follow a lot of the trends most musical theatergoers do: I was among the first people in my friend group to get into Hamilton, I think Aaron Tveit was fantastic in Next to Normal, I’m considering shelling out for the expensive seats to get a couple friends to see The Lion King next year (because theater is a thing I share with the people I love), and as a high schooler, I fell in love with Wicked. As a fourteen-year-old, it was awesome from the stage design and the flying down to the music. From that perspective, it read as a story of women kicking ass and taking names and kinda-sorta making it work when the rest of the world didn’t agree. The ending probably didn’t make as much sense to me back then, but hey, I was struck dumb by the music and the staging. That didn’t matter.

This past Christmas, among my favorite presents was a pair of tickets to see Wicked’s national tour at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. My partner and I made a night of it: we got good food at a cute café across the street, we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new star on the Walk of Fame, and we arrived not long after the doors opened to snag a souvenir and marvel at the inside of the theater. It was easily one of the best nights of my year so far. Eventually, we took our seats, and the performance was stellar. The entire cast was excellent, and I couldn’t. stop. fangirling. because Kara Lindsay, who you might know from the original Broadway cast recording of Newsies, was on as Glinda. (I only put two and two together that she’d be performing the night before, and as my partner can tell you, I was ridiculously excited.)

That said, I cried a lot during the performance. I’m not usually a crier—not for live shows. (Books are another story and I will make no apologies.) When I do cry at a musical, it’s usually tears of joy, like when I heard the opening notes of Hamilton or every single time I see The Lion King. But that night at Wicked, I cried when Elphaba made her first entrance. I cried during “The Wizard And I” at a surprise high note. I cried through a lot of “Defying Gravity.” I sniffled a little during both versions of “I’m Not That Girl” (though those admittedly hit harder in high school when I still felt ugly-duckling-ish). I cried in “No Good Deed” and probably through the entirety of “For Good.” And I didn’t understand why.

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the performance of affection in male spaces

I’m really bad at hiding my close relationships. Not necessarily in a PDA sense (though, when I was younger, that was a thing too)—no, I get attached to people and I want them to know it. This isn’t just romantic or sexual; most of the time, it manifests most loudly in my platonic relationships (which, for y’all who could use a refresher, covers the friends-and-family category, plus any acquaintance you’re not interested in dating). However, when most of my friendships spend most of their time in a scene high in toxic masculinity and a little messy in terms of affection of any kind, I feel the effects of my Othering pretty acutely.

Now, the Othering (read: I am female (and queer, though allocishet-passing)) doesn’t seem to be inherently connected to the affection problem if you look at it on the surface—at least, if it is, we choose to ignore it or lump it under sexism generally. But here’s the truth I’ve been able to articulate for five years and known even longer: if you are a female-presenting person and you hug the same male-presenting person a whole bunch, people assume you’re an item. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if you’re just sleeping together or something more, though in certain circumstances, being someone’s girlfriend or partner can afford you a great deal of protection. (That’s a whole other post waiting to happen.) In fact, it doesn’t matter that usually, you’re not sleeping together or dating; the rumor mill gets going, and it doesn’t favor you. No amount of “we’re just friends” will convince anyone who doesn’t know you well.

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I Need a Nap (Because Sexism)

If you follow me or the drum corps world, you know what happened this week with Phantom Regiment. They released their show concept for the 2019 season, based (veeeeeery loosely) on Joan of Arc, using the tagline “burn it all down” and claiming to be focused on women’s empowerment. The show repertoire accompanying this announcement revealed that Phantom would be performing this “empowering” show to a soundtrack of music written exclusively by men. I and many others critiqued the decision and battled harassment and cyberbullying in the comments sections of posts for three days before Will Pitts, head drum major of the fan-favorite 2009 Spartacus show and current head honcho at Phantom, put out a statement addressing the whole ordeal. While it was appreciated, it said little more than expected: Phantom isn’t changing its show, they didn’t realize the optics would work out this way (emphasis mine), they considered works by women composers, blah blah blah.

Let’s be clear: I in no way expected Phantom to change repertoire. They are less than a month from the start of their season, and even if they wanted to add a piece by a woman, I doubt there are many female composers (whose work they would want, anyway) who would be willing to go near them with a ten-foot pole right now. Those arranging permissions would be expensive. This announcement, while maybe preventing them from further putting their feet in their mouths, is a full two days late and several dollars short. But as much as I hope Phantom and its creative team learns from this experience and significantly reconsiders how they program their shows, experiences like this that are so widely visible both remind me why I do what I do and reinforce that as much as my own experience and perspective understands perfectly well why we should center some voices over others in artistic works, most people are not engaging with art and music on that level yet. There is still work to be done.

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The International Women’s Brass Conference and the Price of Sisterhood

Have you ever gone to something expecting to have a reasonably good time and come out of it with your life forever changed? I’m not talking about I-went-and-got-another-degree; no, I mean the kind of thing where you come out with unexpected new inspirations, role models, and routes of exploration, the kind of thing that makes you get out of bed at a reasonable (or maybe even unreasonably early) time because you can’t just stay still when there’s so much to do, the kind of thing that stays with you in ways you don’t expect.

It’s been awhile since I had one of those experiences (I think the last thing that even comes close was when I premiered He Probably Just Likes You with the Nash Composers Coalition), but I spent this past week at the International Women’s Brass Conference, where I presented two of my own works and a solo set. After just six days, I’m a different person. Like, my hair is still (blissfully) purple and I still need to practice for approximately forever, but I’ve got new paths dangling in front of me that I desperately want to explore. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about what it took to get here.

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Clinging to my Femininity

I spent a lot of my early life wanting to be a tomboy. Though I didn’t always understand what exactly that meant from a presentation standpoint, I associated it with the results it got in the books I read—being sporty, popular, and seemingly effortlessly gorgeous. For awhile, the label really didn’t stick, but I spent fourth through sixth grade playing soccer with a bunch of boys, and by the time I hit middle school, I felt like I belonged more with them than with my own gender.

I navigated this in-between fairly well in middle and high school—I did largely male-dominant things, but I had enough female friends to keep me going. It worked out. But college arrived, and with it came an entirely new set of problems. I didn’t just happen to be around women anymore. Most of my friends were guys. Most of my teachers were guys. And in a matter of months, I went from a well-adjusted girl who liked everything from basketball shorts to ballgowns to a young woman who didn’t understand why her image suddenly conflicted with how the world around her expected her to act.

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