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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On Pen Names, Impersonation, and Identity

Greetings, folks, and welcome to another episode of Posts I Didn’t Want To Write. Today, we’re using a real-life example to talk about marginalized identities in composition and repertoire. However, this example, highlighted this week by the band and orchestra communities, is of a white man using a pseudonym to represent himself as a female Japanese composer (and, by extension, to represent his appropriative works as authentic).

The man in question is Larry Clark, an educator-turned-composer who has achieved some prominence as a large ensemble composer, particularly for young groups. Clark has, since at least 2005, published some works under his own name and others under the pseudonym Keiko Yamada. Titles from Clark’s catalog are fairly standard for a white composer in this century—“Subatomic,” “Intuition March,” etc. (I will not be linking to his website or any of his content during this post.) Yamada’s titles all lean into the supposed Japanese identity—“Hotaka Sunset,” “Kon’nichiwa,” “Japanese Lullaby” . . . you get the picture. To make matters worse, parts of this false identity seem to be co-opted from actual Japanese women—one student presentation on the “composer,” found in a basic Google Search, conflates Clark’s Yamada with the popular Japanese manga artist of the same name. The “composer”’s birthdate, available through Schott Music’s page dedicated to her, is listed as August 18th, 1972, which is the birthdate of Keiko Komuro, lead vocalist of the pop group Globe.

Through this, Clark has created two footholds for himself in the world of large ensembles: one in which he profits off his own name and one in which his racist, sexist, colonialist, and transphobic business practices allow him to profit from work misleadingly billed as authentic. He has created a persona that tiptoes into spaces he would not otherwise be welcome in. He has taken advantage of the intentional programming movement; Yamada’s name and work is listed on mandatory repertoire lists in at least two states. Further, the decision to publish under a name carrying double-minority status means he, a white man, can take up spots on concerts reserved for women, people of color, and women of color.

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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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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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Stay Informed, Help Your Friends: A Survivor’s (Super-Abridged) Guide to Things You Should Know

I’ve spent much of the week wondering what to write to close out this spree of blogs for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I thought about writing about how doxxing and internet threats can endanger women’s lives. I thought about writing about the fight/flight/freeze mechanism (which will definitely come up later, I promise). I thought about making a list of ways in which my assault consistently changes my life and worldview. All of these would make great posts, but as we round out the month, I think it’s important to talk about things going on in the greater public consciousness that we should all be aware of. Some of these things involve policies that directly affect survivors’ wellbeing, and others are high-profile events that have produced significant negative side effects. In putting them all in one place (though there are undoubtedly too many others to name in a reasonable amount of column space), I hope you can start to see how policy and society at large work to limit women in ways that can have permanent, potentially fatal consequences for women.

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Don’t Shout (And Other Suggestions for Allies-In-Training)

Earlier this week, I observed to my partner that a lot of my female friends are excited and aggressively supportive of the work I’m doing, both musically and in these posts, but I don’t get nearly the same feedback from my male friends. (Let’s also take a moment to remember: I am a brass player and a composer and occasionally I think about the word “jazz.” Most of my friends are men.) He considered this for a moment, then replied, “I think most of your guyfriends are too scared they’re the people you’re talking about.”

What a freaking moment, right?

That said, it’s a good point. I don’t have a great grasp on where my peers and colleagues think they fall on my spectrum of Nonthreatening Human to Violent Human Who Should Not Be Approached At This Time. And that’s not a question I should be asking them, because it’s not something they’re obligated to tell me. But I wanted to take a moment this week and offer up a series of points that might help the people who worry they’re maybe in the Mildly Threatening Human category (also: this scale does not actually exist) and who might want to become someone women with assaults in their past are comfortable trusting. Working toward being a better person is a great endeavor! I will support you from a distance that feels comfortable for me! If you’re just getting started with that journey, though (or if you’re on that journey or think you’re done with that journey, because we’re never done with that), here’s a few things I think might help:

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The Men in the Gray Area

For this second weekend of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight some of the behaviors that women are exposed to that can create a slippery slope down to assault and rape. They’re the things people do to us that make us feel unsafe, even though there’s very little we can do about them (if we even realize what’s happening at the time). Societal standards have told us that it’s important to give people what they want, sometimes at the expense of our own wellbeing. I considered writing more clinically about this, like last week’s piece about mandated reporting, but in the end, I decided it might make more sense just to show you.

So, below are four examples of things that happened to me that made me more wary of the people walking through my world. (If I were going to rewrite He Probably Just Likes You, I might consider drawing from some of these stories. However, that piece is perfect the way it is.) I’ve done my best to highlight why they made me deeply uncomfortable or afraid or slightly traumatized or whatever the case may be, but talking about grooming and other insidious behaviors can be very difficult for me, especially with these memories I don’t spend as much time rooting around in normally. If you have questions, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to clarify anything.

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