Pardon Our Dust (this work is messy)

On this blog, I try to write about the intersections of womanhood, music, misogyny, and my own creative practice. The balance is a tenuous one to strike, especially since world events and major (musical) institutional announcements can necessitate posts that both move beyond my usual material and interrupt the flow of my thoughts. As such, even though I try to tie everything back to music or the work I do specifically, sometimes I think some folks forget that this all ties together for me.

And yes, it can be tempting to ditch the writing about feminism and activism and navigating music’s social scene in a decidedly female body. At times it feels like it would be easier to try to be the Buzzfeed of contemporary classical music. I know full well that I could opt for the familiarities of topics like leading ensembles and earning respect (now there’s a phrase fraught with male undertones) and inclusive programming. I already touch on these things from time to time, but they could become the mainstays of my written work. I could emphasize the traditional (or, at least, expected) career components we’re all familiar with.

Continue reading Pardon Our Dust (this work is messy)

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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. ♦

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.

Continue reading Curtis Institute’s Non-Apology and Actionable First Steps

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.

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

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:

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

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.

Continue reading The Men in the Gray Area

A Counterintuitive Guide to Mandated Title IX Reporting

This is a very difficult post. (And this is only the first week of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so buckle up, because in all likelihood it’s all downhill from here.)

I’ve been working within the confines of the collegiate system for six years. My future career path probably includes teaching, likely at community colleges and/or four-year universities. My creative work intersects nearly constantly with sexual assault. I hear a lot of stories. And in the near-ish future, I’ll probably be a mandated reporter.

Let’s get something straight here: I know some stories need to stay quiet. I’m well aware of the toll an assault or rape or even just gendered harassment can take on folks. I know that for a lot of people, the idea of reporting to Title IX goes hand in hand with expected retaliation. I’m one of those people. And whenever I can, I’ll be committed to making sure my friends and fellow victims/survivors/casualties can communicate freely with me about their own experiences, questions, and uncertainties. I’ll make sure you know in advance when I’m unable to keep stories brought to me by certain groups, especially any college students I may teach in the future, confidential. I’ll find workarounds so I’m still available to give advice and support to folks who need it.

On the one hand, Title IX is (for the most part) a great idea. We should absolutely be combatting gender inequality, whether it’s discrimination or harassment or violence of any nature, in colleges and universities. However, I’ve found that the links between mandated reporters and the folks who field Title IX complaints can be stretched too thin. When lower-intensity solutions might be more apt—for instance, when mouthy, young, subtly-sexist undergraduate men in male-dominated programs could perhaps be told by their faculty that their behavior needs to change before they seriously hurt someone—complaints get lost, washed away, and never followed up on.

The crux of all these issues? I think mandated reporters don’t feel like they have power to change their institutional/studio culture for the better without the guidance of Title IX, and I know students aren’t informed about what the system will do for (and to) them if they report.

Continue reading A Counterintuitive Guide to Mandated Title IX Reporting

Recital in Review: face the mirror and its process

Hi, all!

Wow, what a crazy first half(ish) of the semester. I’m spending the weekend sleeping extra and getting back on a somewhat normal schedule for, well, everything. I’m still a little shocked that I spent two months working hard on an intense show about sexual assault and victimhood and somehow it worked. We had a great run last Sunday—my dancers were superhuman and my chops were happy with me—and now I’m diving deep into footage, thinking critically about the next steps for face the mirror. I’d really love to take it on the road in California and the Southwest, so if your school or venue wants to host a night or two, give me a shout. For the time being, though, I just want to take a few moments and expound a little on what this show means to me and how it came into existence.

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From act 3 of face the mirror. Photo by Eric DeJarnett.

Continue reading Recital in Review: face the mirror and its process

that girl onstage isn’t me

Tomorrow night, I take the stage to bare a piece of my soul.

Mine, and a thousand others’.

Tomorrow night, I take the stage with a little fire in my feet and a spark in my eyes and I bring the world into a story I might’ve told a hundred times by now. I bring the world in, and I shut myself out.

You see, that girl onstage isn’t me.

Sure, she wears my face and laughs and cries like I do. She carries with her the same sense of wonder, the same reactions to old wounds made new again. She lives a story that is rich and complex and devoid of the words I’d choose to write for myself. Her experiences shape her, ever so subtly, in different ways than mine shape me. Sometimes they look the same, outwardly—she falls to the floor at all the same times that I probably would—but her motivations, her qualms, her relationship with herself is dramatically different.

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Schrödinger’s Rapist and His Presence in Male Spaces

I spent much of the holiday season catching up on sleep and composing projects, and I’m happy to have some new things off the ground and some long-awaited scores nearing their premiere performances. This semester alone, I’ll have works performed in four to five states (which, for an early-career composer, is a Big Deal), and Letters will reach more audiences than ever before thanks to a couple large ensemble performances, a student recital (away from CalArts, even), and my own graduation project, face the mirror, which will have its own page soon but for now lives in my Projects catch-all. I’m super excited for each of these milestones and will devote more column space to each of them over the course of this semester, but I wanted to take a moment this week to talk a little about a piece I’ve just completed and how the concepts at play within it affect my own life on a day-to-day basis.

The work is called walking/I’m sorry, Mom and it was commissioned by my dear friend and fellow musical troublemaker Tanner Pfeiffer for the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble at CalArts. For CVE’s spring concert this year, Tanner is assembling a collection of works that explore, in some way or another, movement, theater, and/or dance within a musical performance context. Much of the art I currently enjoy making incorporates theatrical or dance elements, so I was excited to hop on board to contribute something new. Originally, I’d been aiming for a work that established strong connections between physical aftereffects of assault and their mental repercussions, but as dark works tend to do, the music pulled me in a different direction.

I wrote walking about what is [unfortunately] a quintessential part of the stereotypical female experience—a strange man, with unclear intentions, following a woman home late at night. “Don’t walk alone in the dark” was one of the sentiments that shaped my own coming-of-age experiences; ASU’s campus is lovely at night, and frequently the only reasonable time to walk around and enjoy the area is after the sun goes down, so eighteen-year-old me admittedly didn’t follow my mom’s advice to the letter. I’m fortunate that I started walking with friends before I could run into cause for concern, but I have friends (both from my time at ASU and other moments) who have dealt with these issues repeatedly.

More than that, though, walking isn’t just about being alone at night. It’s about being approached by a man—in any situation—and having to make that snap judgment of how to react. It’s about Schrödinger’s rapist.

Continue reading Schrödinger’s Rapist and His Presence in Male Spaces