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.

Sometimes things start well, then go off the rails. Sometimes your decisions are questioned at every turn. Sometimes you take unnecessary flack because intentional artistic choices you made are misconstrued as deficiencies within the nineteenth-century canon you’re most definitely not part of. Sometimes you’re made to feel as though each of the little corrections you ask for are the straws that repeatedly break the camel’s back—even when the music’s written for the instrument you play, so you know you’re not asking too much. Sometimes what begins as a playful aside from one player to another turns into a raucous joke about the performance of your own music, spinning off in directions you don’t want. Sometimes you get swallowed up and diminished to the point that you’d probably be better off not having come at all.

The nice thing about having a composition degree (and a half) is that I’ve been to my fair share of open rehearsals. I’ve watched my peers work with ensembles and make many of the same notes and requests I do. I’ve realized, over time, that it’s not how I’m asking or what I’m asking that’s the problem.

It’s that many of the men in my field are programmed to talk over me, to override my opinions and my decisions, to treat my own work as less important than them doing whatever the hell they want with it, even when it goes against the integrity of the piece itself.

When I say my friends and peers and colleagues and superiors haven’t yet learned to see me, this is (part of) what I mean. Because for all the moments when someone goes, “oh, yeah, she’s cool” or “I know who she is,” there are countless more where I’m ignored, dismissed, or belittled despite being the expert in the room. I’m expected to see their skill sets because that’s my job as a composer, but the mandate doesn’t seem to go both ways. It is rare, to this day, to find an ensemble or a performer who understands and acknowledges that my choices about my art aren’t bad decisions solely because they don’t like them.

And years upon years of this treatment have made me a far less effective communicator. I struggle to get myself back in that “be picky” mindset, even when working on world premieres, when my comments are ignored or overruled. I don’t always ask for what I want—not (necessarily) because the people in front of me have been disrespectful and dismissive, but because scores of performers before them have, and it’s difficult to put myself back in that space.

In 2018, I posted that one of my goals for the year was to say no to things I don’t need, including “letting other people talk about my work as if they understand it better than I do.” This is (part of) what that meant.

For the most part, it’s something I don’t talk about. It’s an acceptable loss within the pile of acceptable losses that accumulates when you are a queer, gender-marginalized composer.

But then, every once in a while, the clouds part. And for just a moment, the sun shines.

Because last month, I was beyond fortunate to spend time rehearsing as part of Biddy Healey’s Salt River Bed for our performance at The Nash. Biddy’s got one of those minds that’s sharper and faster than most folks’, and she’s inclusive and giving and a wonderful beam of light all at the same time. I like a lot of the music I play on the gigs I’m called for, but it’s still somewhat rare that I leave a late-night (or late-ish) rehearsal with eyes alight and a smile on my face. Part of leaving the SRB rehearsals with a light heart comes from the music—it’s fantastic, and that’s putting it mildly—but part of it is getting to work, for a rare moment, under the leadership of a woman I admire immensely.

Biddy Healey’s Salt River Bed (minus me and Chris Stover) in rehearsal.

See, Biddy’s rehearsals are beyond efficient. If things went well, we usually only ran them once. That’s both daunting and incredibly fun, and I found I took much better notes in my parts as a result. Biddy is also an exemplar of all the lessons my comp teachers instilled in me, because at the beginning of our first rehearsal, she explained two things: one, that she cues and leads with her body, and two, if we weren’t watching and she couldn’t get our attention, she would be letting us know. We had a couple instances like that, where someone got really engrained in their motive and sort of tuned out the rest of the world. It’s neither unheard of nor totally surprising. What was refreshing, though, is that Biddy followed through. She waited, or made noise, or called someone’s name, until they got back with us. She spent time telling us exactly what she wanted, exactly how she wanted to communicate it. She was picky.

And I saw brief flashes of the skepticism, the internal pushback, on occasion, but none rose to the surface. For maybe the first time in my entire composing life, I saw how the process was supposed to work—and I saw it function as designed when led by someone who’s a lot like me.

The result? Another rare thing: a performance presented without a host of musical compromises.

Because here’s the thing that happens when we don’t stand up for our work that way: we get overruled. Performers decide they know our work and our intentions better than we do. They decide their musical decisions are better or more important than ours. And for old works, or pieces whose impacts change as time and context shifts, sure, that can make a lot of sense—but when the composer’s in the room? When it’s a premiere or a regional premiere or something similarly important? We shouldn’t walk out of a rehearsal thinking it maybe would’ve been better if we’d just stayed home.

All of this comes back to how performers and composers interact. I’ll freely admit some composers treat performers like trash—but this isn’t about them. This is about how I’ve gotten two degrees from two schools, and both institutions gave composers guidelines for working with performers, but neither seemed to place much emphasis on teaching performers how to streamline rehearsals with a composer in the room or even how to prepare a piece that’s never been played before. Sure, CalArts got closer to trying to accomplish those things, but at ASU, in most cases, it was nonexistent. And while you still eke out a few good rehearsals with folks regardless of where you are, it’s discouraging to walk into room after room and fight for your right to be heard and treated like the person who put the notes on the page.

There’s more to say on this subject—there’s always more to say on this subject—but if we were to get into it now, I’d end up with about six thousand words on the page, and y’all don’t want to read it all in one sitting. When I get the chance, when a quiet week without a pre-scheduled post arrives, I’ll intersperse some of those ideas in. We’ll talk about them; we’ll just do it at my pace. For once in my life, I’m being picky.

But if you ever get the chance to play with Biddy, take it. Promise me.

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