Young Lions (and things I’ll never be)

Though as a professional musician who’s friends with other professional musicians, I live my life in a deluge of Facebook event invitations, I do try to take the time to read through most of them so I know who’s playing and what’s happening. A recent one caught my eye: “We have chosen Michael Kocour to give voice to some of the ‘young lions’ of the Phoenix jazz scene . . .” The description was apt—the lineup was full of folks who are skilled and particularly roar-inclined—but “young lions” made me pause. First, because it shouldn’t be in quotes if you really want to sell it, and second, because it’s one of those terms I instinctively know would never be ascribed to me as a default.

This morning, I wandered into our office (which, despite its stated purpose, is not where I do most of my work) and mused about this to my partner. “You’d be a young lioness,” he reassured me, but I was having none of it.

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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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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.

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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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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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On Jazz Performance and the Isolation of Women

*If you don’t like opinions, keep scrolling, friends.*

I don’t talk very much about being a jazz musician. I’m not sure I specifically discuss being a classical musician, either; I’ve spent enough time crossing between the genres that I’m not sure I really care what my label is right now. But I do spend quite a bit of time in the jazz world, listening to jazz music and interacting with jazz people. A lot of them are really awesome, and almost all of them are rational, reasonable individuals when spoken to one-on-one. But the problem with jazz, as with plenty of other male-dominated fields, is that when you get large groups of us together, mob mentality takes over and things are said that shouldn’t be said.

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