Notes from the Margins: Impossible Asks

A lot of the lessons I’ve learned in music school were designed for my male peers.

There are a lot of directions I could go from here; I could talk about the homogenization of the classical canon into the Straight White Men’s Club or the devaluation and exclusion of women and queer people in the jazz tradition or the gendered (and racist, and classist) expectations for concert dress. And while I’m sure I’ll spend time with each of those individually, none of them are quite hitting home for me at the moment.

One such lesson, though, that disproportionally benefits the men I’ve been educated alongside is one of the most important ones a composer learns: how to run a rehearsal of your own music. While a lot of the components of this come down to “don’t be an ass, and make sure you respect your performers,” a large part of why we run our own rehearsals is so we can address questions promptly and ensure the music sounds how we want it to. The core tenets of running a good rehearsal, besides regular community maintenance, are these: “don’t be afraid to ask for what you want” and “be picky.”

To be clear, it’s not that these strategies for running an efficient rehearsal are inherently dehumanizing toward gender-marginalized people. It’s that most of them are only acceptable when leaving the mouths of men. And this is where we get into Pushback City, so I need y’all to stay with me and read everything before you go off and grouse internally. See, I’ve been at this awhile now, and I can tell you what it’s like to be in a rehearsal room where you’re the only gender-marginalized person—and you’re supposed to be the one running the show.

Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s not.

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On “he’s from another time”

Let me drop you into a situation that’s happened so many times in my admittedly-still-rather-short twenty-three years of life that I don’t even have to point you at a particular instance of it. Picture, if you will, a rehearsal space. Maybe an ensemble is rehearsing; maybe a master class is happening. In either event, an at-least-somewhat-esteemed guest artist is working with people who are ostensibly there to learn and improve, even if they’re not still in school. That artist has commanded the attention of the room and established a power differential, often simply because they are a soloist or lecturer in that context. Still, regardless of why, they are the authority in the room.

Now imagine this artist begins a piece or introduces a topic by going on a brief, sexually-charged tangent. Perhaps the ladies in the room are told to cover their ears while the artist makes a lewd joke that’s apparently supposed to be okay for men; maybe someone gets hit on during a song. Or maybe it’s comments that belittle young musicians, or a wet-blanket persona that keeps everyone’s guard up. Context aside, though, this guest artist is saying or doing something that makes you deeply uncomfortable, but due to the power dynamics at play, a callout during that moment isn’t a smart move.

So you tough it out, and when you make it to the end—of rehearsal, of the clinic, whatever—you talk to your director about it. In this hypothetical, I’m going to designate this director or teacher as a person you trust and can speak freely and honestly to. So you express your concerns, you talk through your options, and then, toward the tail end of the conversation, the inevitable pops out: “he’s from another time.”

And in every case, without exception, this is where your heart sinks a little.

Continue reading On “he’s from another time”