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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Shows, Closed Books, and Genre-Bending

Hello, friends, and welcome to another episode of Posts That Will Drive Me Insane While Writing. I am one sentence in, and I can already tell you this one’s going to be a headache of an intentionally-worded piece. Yay! At any rate, this has been on my mind since that Paying Your Dues post (which went up last week, but in my time was written about three weeks before this one). In my writing, blogs frequently spawn from other blogs, and this is no exception—tonight’s installment of Music Is Hard comes from one of the thousand or so questions I posed in that entirely-too-long edition. The question in question? (Yes, I’ve had caffeine.) This one:

“Which organizations are profiting off the free labor of student musicians and then closing their calendars to those same artists looking for a place to launch their own projects?”

And, as I’ll get into later on, why aren’t we getting onto these calendars, who controls who gets onto them, and how should we work within and around these institutions to ensure we’re getting the opportunities we want?

In the initial post, I followed the quoted question with a quip about late-stage capitalism, but that paragraph largely went under-explained out of sheer necessity (read: the weight of 3300 words). I could probably come back to most of them at some point in time, but this one in particular is lighting a fire under my butt currently, so we’re going to dive in.

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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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“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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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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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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The Pursuit of Relaxation: Brianne Borden on Music, Yoga, and Balance

Mornings start early in the Arizona desert. Though summer and fall are by far the most torturous, runners, cyclists, and the athletically-inclined start going out before dawn as early as March in order to avoid heat stroke. It’s part of the state’s culture—get up early, be outside, then retreat to the depths of air-conditioned buildings until it’s safe to set foot outdoors again.

Brianne Borden’s mornings start early no matter how warm it is (or isn’t).

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Band: Dreams and Doorways Release ‘Hidden Reflections’

The members of Dreams and Doorways don’t make a big deal about their entrance.

Sure, a fog machine is at work and they’re accompanied by the fixed-media piece, aptly titled “Enter,” that opens their album, but they don’t need an elaborate light show or an announcer to herald their arrival. Their 150-odd audience members are already cheering.

That fact itself is perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of Dreams and Doorways’ live show: the five men on stage are unassuming and earnest, there to officially release their debut LP, Hidden Reflections, and have fun doing it. Their stage, swimming in amplifiers and instruments (everybody does at least two things over the course of the show), is otherwise simple; a few model ships and airplanes accompany a sole hot air balloon, but visual distractions are minimal. This show is all about the band.

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We Now Return to our Regularly Scheduled Performances

Man, what a semester it’s been! I premiered five new works (Don’t TellLiar, LiarTipping PointStorm Warning, and Flatline); I gave my senior recital; I visited Michigan, Canada, and Los Angeles; I spent quality time with family and friends; and I made big decisions about my future. After all that, it’s been nice to get back into the routine over the last couple weeks. I thought I’d take a moment to outline where I’ll be playing, attending, and presenting work for the rest of the semester, for those of you who are interested:

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