Teaching and Learning: Putting Words to Your Pedagogy

On Friday, I asked followers of my Facebook page to try to succinctly define their teaching and learning philosophies. There were some amazing responses from educators around the country that were truly inspiring to me; some which aligned perfectly with what I believe and others that helped me stretch the boundaries of how I think about learning.

Here’s my initial answer to my own question:

“My teaching philosophy: Form follows function. Everyone is musical, and through developing their musicality, all develop skill. My learning philosophy: Be curious and brave.”

I get “form follows function” from Jan Kagarice, who describes it as a bigger part of natural law. Meaning: whatever it is we need to do, our bodies will develop the skill or adapt however necessary to complete the task. In biology that’s evolution; in instrumental playing, that’s technique developed through musical expression.

I also firmly believe that we all have some level of innate musicality, and the sooner we are encouraged to use it and grow with it, the longer we’ll feel confident and enjoy our participation in music at any level. Not everyone has to be a professional. I am often so discouraged when I hear people say they have no music talent. I translate that as, “I was told I wasn’t good enough to play professionally, so I must be terrible at music.” No, not everyone is going to be a musical genius. But yes, everyone can be musical.

Some of my favorite responses from the thread include:

-“we learn by doing.”

-“Every student is different. If a student isn’t “getting it”, it’s my responsibility to think of as many different exercises and analogies as I can can until one clicks. Also, the teacher does not get to determine what a positive student outcome is. There is no ‘trombone mold.'”

-“I  hope my students learn from me as much as I learn from them. I strive to inspire my students to love the process of learning rather than focus on the end result, to be fearless and tenacious music makers.”

-“we keep what we have by giving it away”

-” I try to strike a balance between giving information and asking questions to get students to think for themselves.”

There are so many good things here. First of all, “we learn by doing” is a direct offshoot of “form follows function.” Jan would say “the body learns by doing” and trial and error is a critical component of our learning process. We too often get discouraged when we fail, as though failure were not the best teaching tool there is. And by focusing on a task, slowly, critically, letting our form develop as we communicate the function we desire, creates neural pathways that lead to better, longer-lasting results.

I also love “there is no ‘trombone mold’.” I would like that tattooed on every trombone instructors arm so they can remember it every day. Often times I tell my students, “there is more than one way to be a musician” and I mean it. A homogenous, restrictive idea of what success looks like has held classical musicians in thrall for far too long, and it’s time we redefine what meaningful music-making looks like.

“Fearless and tenacious music-makers” comes from Sean Reusch, and I love the symmetry of his teaching philosophy with my learning philosophy. It shows  how much his example has guided me into my professional career and personal creed.

What’s your teaching philosophy? How do you approach learning?

The featured image on this post is John Cage’s 10 Rules for Students and Teachers.

#TeacherFeature: Trombonist and Pedagogue Sean Reusch

Welcome to the first #TeacherFeature of April! Every Wednesday this month I’ll be highlight the work and career of one of my favorite educators and talking about how they’ve influenced my career and teaching philosophy.

It’s timely that I featured this first artist, because he just featured me on his site (and I am very humbled and honored to appear there amongst some truly great musicians!). Please welcome to the blog San Diego-based trombonist and educator Sean Reusch!
f9c99c_7530b3ad23e64146a08e331ae0b31a7b~mv2_d_5000_4000_s_4_2.jpg

Sean was my teacher in high school in San Diego in the late 1990s. We had weekly lessons and I remember always feeling like I had his full attention in whatever I said or played. He helped me prepare my college auditions and was ecstatic when I found out I was accepted to the University of Wisconsin, my first choice. We’ve kept in touch ever since, meeting up for beers and good conversations whenever I’m back in Southern California.

A graduate of Penn State and the Manhattan School of Music, Sean performs regularly around the region and the country and was a founding member of the excellent Presidio Brass Quintet. He’s taught at many higher education establishments, including San Diego State and UCSD, but recently told me he wants to focus more on his grade school students, helping prepare the next generation of professional trombonists from the ground up. In 2017 he ran the tremendously successful Junior ITF at the International Trombone Festival in Redlands, CA.

He also manages the website Trombone 101, an “information highway for trombonists” which is chock full of resources, insights, learning tips, and amazing materials. I highly recommend the Daily Routine Songbook, aka the book I wish I had written, which offers players simple tunes for each day of the week that cover the basics in intonation, articulation, phrasing, and musicality.

Sean describes his teaching philosophy as simple: “I try to inspire my students to do their best, to be positive, to dream big, to be creative, to be thoughtful musicians, to learn valuable life lessons through music, and to deepen their love of music.” I want to add that what Sean has taught me most about music has come from his intrinsic accepting, optimistic outlook. We’ve experienced a very similar evolution of our teaching philosophies over the years, and come to the agreement that the most important thing to teach is the outward expression of our musical spirit- the rest, the technical, comes along easily if we’re focused on what we want to happen.

I still have in my possession a large three-ring binder that contains just about every piece of music and resource that Sean ever gave me. It’s copies of orchestral excerpts, solo repertoire, articles about playing and practicing health, duets and chamber music. I’ve opened it many times over the years to find something to give to one of my students or use for myself. It speaks to Sean’s incredibly giving spirit that he never asked for compensation or thanks for these materials. The mentorship that Sean gave me first as a young player and then as a developing professional was so invaluable to me that I promised myself I would pay it forward someday down the line. I would love nothing more than to offer the same friendly, encouraging spirit to my students that Sean gives to me and everyone he teaches. His example was my first experience understanding what the importance of a truly kind and supportive teacher means for the learner.

Do yourself a favor and explore the many wonders of Trombone 101, and if you ever have a chance to meet, study from, or see Sean Reusch perform, don’t miss out! He is truly one of the great pedagogues of the trombone and is building a legacy of students well-balanced in ability and mind.

New Theme for April: Teaching and Learning

Hi all, and welcome to April! It was a blast to spend the first three months of this year focusing on a particular topic and developing my website content around it, and so I’ve decided to carry on the theme!

In April, you’ll be seeing posts, links, and resources dedicated to teaching, teachers, and learning and educational theory. This could include a link to something new in music education, observations from my own lessons or experience, and spotlights on educators who inspire me.

Instead of doing a weekly Monday blog, I’m going to start a teaching ‘journal’, aka I’ll be posting in pseudo-real time about experiences I’ve had in lessons with my students during the week and my thoughts on what that means or what I have learned. I want to dive into my teaching philosophy and start to craft language around what I believe as an educator.

On Wednesdays look for the #TeacherFeature (a la #WomanCrushWednesday), in which I’ll highlight an educator who’s really making me think about best practices and making a difference.

Fridays will still be Challenges, so look for prompts on things related to your own educational and learning experiences.

And, fingers crossed, you should start seeing my new video series on brass tone & sound production, aimed at beginners but useful to all, popping up on YouTube this month!

I hope you enjoy the theme and its content this month! I’m off to start plotting my very first #TCT. 🙂

April Gigs

It’s almost April and it’s shaping up to be a busy and diverse month of gigs for me. Here’s a rundown. I hope you can make one or a few!

April 1st, 6a, 730a, 9a, 1030a, 12p: Easter Services at Bethlehem Lutheran FREE

This is my third year performing with the brass and organ ensemble at Bethlehem. It’s a strong, musical group that I am honored to be a part of!

April 18th, 12- 1pm: L2L presents Dameun Strange FREE

26993874_10100130384849705_3084810090904138747_n

I’ll be a part of the premiere of Dameun’s new work Trek|Polaris  at the American Composers Forum lunchtime concert series in the Landmark Center, St Paul. 

April 21st, 9pm-12a: Adam Meckler Orchestra featuring Rex Richardson at Vieux Carré TICKETED- ticket link in event page

image1

Featuring works from the upcoming AMO album Fall Leaves and Apple Trees that we recording at Pachyderm in January. 

April 26th-29th: University of Minnesota Opera presents Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld TICKETED- link in event page

Four performances of a very fun opera, for which I will be playing trombone. 

In addition to all my performances, Brass Lassie horns enter the studio in April and will be laying down our tracks for the forthcoming debut album. Look out for that in early-mid Summer!

#WCW: Deep Listening Guru Monique Buzzarté

Welcome back to #wcw (aka Woman Crush Wednesday) on my blog for Women’s History Month! I’m featuring  a musical artist every Wednesday who has inspired me and driven me to expand and develop my own art in new ways.

With my creative brain ever drawing me toward more improvisatory, experimental forms, I’ve been diving into the catalogue of trombonist and composer Monique Buzzarté.

M_Buzzarte_austin

Known not just as a composer and avant-garde performer, Ms Buzzarté is also a champion of works by women composers and an activist fighting for the recognition and fair hiring of women in musical jobs. She maintains a database of new music for trombone by women as well as her own impressive list of compositions for music, dance, and film.

A student of Stuart Dempster and a certified practitioner of Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening technique, Monique draws deeply from the well of broad, ethereal sounds, utilizing tape, electronics, delay, and other instruments to bring out the mystical sounds a trombone can produce in different environments. She has developed an interactive performance interface for the trombone that allows for live processing during her performances.

If you’ve never heard of the technique of Deep Listening before, it’s definitely worth your time to explore. Many composers and performers of DL offer expansive, meditative, multi-disciplinary experiences that are meant to open the mind and the spirit to new ideas and emotions.

There’s more to listening than meets the ear.  Pauline Oliveros herself describes Deep Listening as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”  Basically Deep Listening, as developed by Oliveros, explores the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature – exclusive and inclusive — of listening.  The practice includes bodywork, sonic meditations, interactive performance, listening to the sounds of daily life, nature, one’s own thoughts, imagination and dreams, and listening to listening itself.  It cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal, and promotes experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, playfulness and other creative skills vital to personal and community growth.  Plus it’s a ton of fun.

To hear more of Ms Buzzarté’s work and performances, visit the music streaming store of your choice and search her name, or visit her website for physical copies.

Happy (deep) listening!

Women’s History Month: Mentoring the Next Generation

This month on the blog I’ve talked about communities of musicians that inspire me, methods to address bias you encounter on the job, profiled some of my favorite working musicians (in multiple genres), and ran challenges on my Facebook page asking you to think about your mentors and musical ancestors, and find your next performance repertoire piece from the database of women composers.  It’s been inspiring for me to think through these posts and present them to you, and I hope it’s been inspiring to read and digest.

Today, for the last essay of Women’s History Month, I want to talk about ways in which we, the musicians working and teaching today, can mentor the next generation of performers and educators to find their desire paths and build a diverse and welcoming musical world.

I have about 30 students, and I see countless others in clinics and performances. 10 of them are young women, high school students who in addition to playing trombone, baritone, and tuba, pursue an array of extracurriculars from track & field, hockey, badminton, Irish dance, ultimate frisbee, Nordic skiing, roller derby, and softball. They study languages like Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, and French, participate in debate teams, march for their rights, and have big plans for their future and their communities.

It’s my job as their guide not to make them the best brass players they can be, but help them realize how music affects their lives and how they can use their own gained skills to express themselves in new ways. Even if they wanted to pursue music as a career, the education they received from me would not be just refining their musical and instrumental skills, but how to develop holistic, healthy attitudes and routines toward their chosen goals.

That said, I’ve been thinking a lot lately (and really, over my whole career) about the myriad ways to encourage young women and men to be the best people in music they can be. I focus on amping up my female students because they have been historically given less opportunity and have farther to climb to find recognition and success, but I give no less of my time and expertise to my male students, in hopes that their attitudes, shaped by my teaching style and example, will offer a more welcoming environment for all performers.

Here are some things I challenge myself to do as a mentor to the low brass players of the next generation:

Match attitudes to actions

I am not perfect. I carry around socialized biases about the talents and abilities of women in my brain just like everyone else, and I have to constantly work to make sure I’m not letting certain ideas or opinions shape the way I treat or teach someone. When I meet a new student, I try to establish a good rapport with them that helps them trust me, and make sure I work to understand their particular educational needs. While I hold all my students to the same standard, it’s not what you might think. My standard is: do you enjoy making music, and are you making it as efficiently and effortlessly as you can? There will be differing levels of ability and commitment, but everyone is a musician. Full stop.

Authenticity is something we define for ourselves.

I also try to combat biases that my students may hold, or that they may encounter in their musical environments. Most of my lady students are pretty savvy- they know what’s out there- but I will help them or fight for them when I see an injustice. Sometimes that means showing them how they can address something that was said to them, or helping them prepare to perform like the boss they are to quash all the naysayers.

Encourage opportunities

All of my students are encouraged to pursue extracurricular musical opportunities, if they are interested and have time. I particularly want the girls in my studio to see the different ways they can make music outside of band. This includes, but is not limited to, auditioning for youth symphonies and honor bands, participating in solo and ensemble contests as well as our studio recitals, and forming their own groups and bands in which they can use the improvisational and ear training techniques I’ve taught them to create music they want to play.

Represent and SHOW UP

I’m living representation for my girl students: I perform, practice, educate, and overall walk the walk. I try to incorporate a diverse array of performers and leaders in the field as examples and role models. I  can also try to encourage my colleagues, male and female, to take steps to diversify what and how they teach so that all their students feel empowered and respected.

There are lots of national and local gatherings and conferences for musical performers, and low brass is no exception. These should be held responsible for providing diverse presenters so that all types of people see themselves represented on stage. And I don’t mean diversity just in terms of race and gender identity, either. It’s important to see the broad spectrum of ways people can be successful as musicians, whether it’s in a large symphony orchestra or freelancing gigging in one metropolitan area. Entrepreneurship and creativity should be celebrated as much as winning “the gig.”

Listen

Believe what your students say- about their experiences, their feelings, and their motivations. See them as whole, engaged humans with agency. Don’t talk over them or refuse to acknowledge what they say because you know better. Have conversations with them, give them pep talks, tell them it is okay to stumble and sometimes even better to fail. Teach them how to get back up and try again.

I have so much faith in this coming generation to change the world. Let’s all mentor them as best we can so they have all the tools to make the music scene the place it was always meant to be.

#WCW: Mysterious Powerhouse Janelle Monáe Monáe

Welcome back to #wcw (aka Woman Crush Wednesday) on my blog for Women’s History Month! I’m featuring  a musical artist every Wednesday who has inspired me and driven me to expand and develop my own art in new ways.

This week I’m smitten with the enigmatic, colorful, sharply intelligent, Afro-futurist musical icon that is Janelle Monáe.

QUEEN

Ms Monáe first caught the public’s attention in 2010 with the release of her critically acclaimed album The ArchAndroid, the follow-up to 2007’s Metropolis Suite I (The Chase). She revealed a plot line largely inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, in which Monáe, as the android messiah Cindi Mayweather, provides a mirror to the representation of Lang’s android twin Maria. In Monáe Metropolis, Cindi represents the segregated “other.” Monáe was inspired not just by Lang’s film, but by sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner,  in which the android alien was maligned and separated from society. As she says: “I could relate to that, the idea of being the minority within the majority.” (source)

poster for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Monáe’s signature early look, a fitted tuxedo, has won her the admiration of many for its gender-bending approaching to femininity and style. 

Born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1985, Janelle Monáe studied drama in New York, and eventually found her way to Atlanta, Georgia, where she and like-minded artists founded the Wondaland Arts Society, bringing innovative pop culture beyond the studio and producer machine. With the release of Metropolis I, Monáe attracted the attention of big name artists like Sean Combs and Big Boi of Outkast. She’s been awarded the Vanguard Award by ASCAP. In 2016 she appeared in both Best Picture Winner Moonlight and nominated film Hidden Figures. 

She released the third album in her Metropolis concept ouevre, The Electric Lady, in 2013, and continues to follow Cindi Mayweather in her quest to liberate Metropolis’s citizens from the suppressive forces controlling their freedom of expression and love.

Her answer to the rising awareness of police brutality is the 2015 anthem Hell You Talmabout: 

Monáe music draws influence from so many genres and styles including classical & orchestral, hip-hop and soul, rockabilly, jazz, and 60s-era pop. Her latest single, Make Me Feel, bears the stamp of Minneapolis Sound legend Prince, and in fact he contributed compositional elements to the finished product before his death in 2016.

definitely NSFW, but still awesome. 

Janelle Monáe strong, unabashed voice and presence in our music scene is a breath of fresh air. She’s empowered and liberated, unconcerned with your opinion of her and willing to take risks to make great art. I eat up just about every new creation of hers, as well as her incredible style and poise. She’s, in  word, goals.

Women’s History Month: Ways to Address Bias or Sexism on the Gig

If your career working as a female-bodied or -identifying musical performer or as a student has been anything like mine, the negative experiences you’ve had have ranged the gamut from subtle instances of patronizing behavior all the way up to outright sexism and harassment.  It’s taken me many years to build up an arsenal of comebacks, attitudes, personal strength, and knowing where to take the fight to feel like I’m on somewhat solid ground in my industry. Today I want to tackle a few of the things that have worked for me, and ask for your suggestions of what you’ve done to address situations as they arise.

A few of the things we can expect to encounter as women on our musical journey:

  • Dismissal/Gaslighting
  • Being interrupted frequently/not being allowed to complete thoughts
  • Distrust or Disbelief in our level of competence and abilities
  • Being patronized/belittled
  • Expected to do a group or studio’s emotional labor
  • Sexualization
  • Harassment/Assault

Some of these are of course more scarring than others, but all can leave a lasting impression on us that is often easy to internalize. I know for many years I struggled to see what I had accomplished and what I was capable of because I had written attitudes about female performers deep into my musical DNA. I had to work very hard to unpack & unlearn certain behaviors, and there are still many ways to improve.

I want to pass on to all generations of young female musicians, and especially up and coming young performers, a few ways to get out of the cycle of keeping quiet and feeling like it must be your fault or that it’s just the way it is. It starts by acknowledging not only  your own skills but also how you want to grow as a musician and how you want to get there. We’re not perfect, no matter how much we practice, and that’s a good thing. There can always be something new to learn, and we can also be proud of what we can do.

Disclaimer: These steps are intended for offenses outside of the realm of physical harassment/assault. If you’ve experienced something like that, you have every right to take that information to the proper authorities.

Step 1: Don’t Internalize. Take Notes. Talk it Over.

You’re at a gig/in rehearsal/at class and someone says something that strikes you in a weird way. You’re not sure if you just got patronized or dismissed in some subtle way, and you don’t want to say anything about it just yet. That’s okay! When you get a chance, jot down the situation and how you felt about it. Or call a friend you trust and relay it, and see what they say. It might just be enough to put you on guard for the next time it happens, so you can start to notice a pattern.

Step 2: Ask why

You’ve definitely heard something kind if icky directed at you this time. One of the best ways to immediately address a sexist joke or comment is to ask for clarification. I’ll use an example from my past that I didn’t address in the moment, and speculate how I could have handled it with a question.

In my new lab band at UNT (I think it was the 5 O’Clock) one semester, the TA running the band gave us a chart that featured the two bass trombonists. I was playing 5th. We read through it and it was okay- a few mistakes and the other bass (a guy) and I traded a few section where we each equally got a little turned around, but we never got lost. Once we’d finished, the TA solemnly looked us all up and down and then stated “I believe in the masculinity of this band. If you don’t have a pair, grow a pair.”

This was clearly directed at me for…not reading perfectly? Seeming unconfident? Existing? Even though the other player and I equally messed up in the reading. I was angry, but I didn’t say anything. Afterward I and  the other two women in the band approached the chair of the jazz department and reported the incident. The TA was forced to apologize to us, but other than that, nothing really happened to change his behavior. He was just more careful about what he said.

Today’s Lauren definitely would have piped up in that moment. “What do you mean by that, sir?” “Can you say that in a different way?” “I beg your UNBELIEVABLE PARDON?!?” Usually, when someone is called out for saying something questionable, they’ll have to reconsider their words and actions. It may mean they apologize or rethink immediately. They may double-down, in which case you have more ammo to take to some of the later stages in this blog. But usually, you can call someone out and they’ll backtrack. Now, in a perfect world, you, the female performer, wouldn’t be the only one to say anything, but you’d have male colleagues that objected to the incident as well. Men reading this, speak up. This is really your problem to fix.

Step 3: Talk in Private

If you feel comfortable talking alone to the person who’s offended you, arrange to do it. Take your notes from the various encounters and be prepared to speak calmly and rationally about how you feel, but don’t be afraid to be a little fired up if need be. People are more likely to see eye-to-eye with you if you speak in person. One word of caution- don’t go overboard exaggerating your own faults or mistakes (I know because I do this). Have confidence in yourself. Think about what they say when you’re in a car accident: Don’t admit fault at the scene. If someone is truly and intentionally biased against you they will use that as ammo to knock you down again later. Been there, experienced that. Just state what you’ve heard said/what actions were taken and how you feel that might be inappropriate or how it has affected you. I always ask to be treated with agency, to be seen as someone with valid motivations and ambitions: i.e. the default way we treat men in our society.

Step 4: Say No 

Similar to the situation in step 3, be able to turn down a suggestion, comment, or opportunity that you feel puts you in a bad light or place. Someone might suggest you wear something more sultry at a gig, and whether you would or not, that’s not their place to comment. You can say, “I know how to dress myself” or “No, I’m not comfortable with you suggesting that.” Clap back if you need to. I’m not the strongest sight-reader (although I’m not terrible) and there have been a few occasions where someone’s come swooping in to ask me if I know what I did wrong. I’ve developed a pretty good script of “Hey, I screwed up, and it’ll be right the next time, but I don’t need you to explain music to me” that usually makes my point for me.

Just saying ‘…nah’ to something you don’t feel is right is not going to jeopardize your career. You don’t need to put yourself in situations where you’re put upon or looked down on. There are better, more equitable opportunities for you out there.

Step 5: Escalate it

Ok, so nothing’s worked, and you’re pretty sure the behavior directed at you violates some rule of the establishment, job, or just basic human decency. Is there someone above that you can talk to? At school, it’s your departmental or school advisor, or a conflict center. On the gig it might be the band leader (if the band leader is not the perpetrator) or the person who hired you. Whoever it might be, schedule a meeting and prepare your notes. Just like in the private conversation above, be calm and insistent that you think something is wrong. Offer some solutions that might work for you if you can see them. Follow up on the meeting; take it from experience, sometimes they will listen to you sympathetically but hope that you’ll go away after that having ‘therapized’ your problem.

Step 6: Spread the Word

Ah, my favorite step, the ‘burn it all down’ moment. Higher ups have not been helpful and the issue is not going away. It’s time to ORGANIZE. Find your community and see if other people have stories that relate to yours about your harasser or situation. There might be someone with some legal experience who can advise or direct. There might be a public or private forum you can use to document your tale and get the word out that someone is behaving badly. And again here: Don’t internalize. It’s likely at this point people will say some pretty nasty things to you or insinuate that you are somehow responsible. Again, this is NOT YOU. This is an endemic, societal struggle that men and women alike have to fight. You are doing your part to further the success and recognition of women in the music industry.

What other ways have you addressed a bias while on a gig or other situation? What’s worked and what didn’t? Share in the comments!

#WCW: Indie Rocker Neko Case

Welcome back to #wcw (aka Woman Crush Wednesday) on my blog for Women’s History Month! I’m featuring  a musical artist every Wednesday who has inspired me and driven me to expand and develop my own art in new ways.

Today I want to highlight probably my all-time favorite rocker (of any gender) and songwriter, whose music has given me strength, vulnerability, and beauty, and who drops amazing truths on Twitter when I’m least expecting them. Please welcome to the blog, Ms Neko Case!

seriously look at this boss babe, #goals

Neko is best known for her solo career, and for her part in the indie rock band The New Pornographers. She started off as a drummer, joining the punk scene at the tender age of 14 and playing the scene in the Pacific Northwest. She dived into country early in her solo career with the 1997 album The Virginian,  with her vocals being compared to Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.

She teamed up with The New Pornographers in 2000 on their debut album, and remains a staple lead & backing vocalist with the band. Personal note: NP is where I first heard her voice, but I had no idea she had a solo career until much later.

I discovered her solo work in 2006, when someone recommended I pick up a copy of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I could hardly believe a human could have such a clear, expressive voice.

I remember bus rides in winter, Minneapolis, on my way to work downtown, immersed in this open and mysterious sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. I would often get so tied to hearing a song all the way through I would frequently be late to my destination.

It was easy to delve into the rest of her back catalogue from there, and continue to follow her career. 2009’s Middle Cyclone was an absolutely godsend.

As a songwriter, Case intentionally writes poetic lyrics open for the listener’s interpretation:

“My intention is often to get people engaged in the story, and maybe be able to put themselves in the story, because that’s what I really love in other people’s songwriting,” she says. “A lot of classic pop songs are written about things that are as popular as love or whatever, but they don’t give you a time or place, and they remain kind of magical somehow. Unfortunately, I’m a little wordier than somebody like Cole Porter, so mine are definitely little black holes of stories, little rabbit holes of stories.” source

Neko Case is also an outspoken feminist and champion of women’s voices, but she also fights to be seen as a musician first. Famously, when Playboy reviewed her 2014 album The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love You with the lede “Artist Neko Case is breaking the mold of what a woman in music should be”, Neko fired off a tweet reading, “Am I? IM NOT A F*ING “WOMAN IN MUSIC”, IM A F*ING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!” and took off on a tear from there. Her point? First off, look at the artist first. Understand the value of the music for its humanity and depth. Secondly, ‘should be’ is such a prescriptive, horrible, backhanded compliment. There is no one way to be a woman working in the music industry. It’s part of a larger problem in society that tries to mold female expression into particular boxes that can be segmented off from one another, can be seen as ‘other’ and therefore either an exception or somehow less valuable than the default male musical voice.

Neko is about to release her first new solo album in nearly 5 years in June, and I couldn’t be more excited. A clip of the first single and title track, “Hell-On” has been released and features Case (and some slithery friends) singing lyrics about God in her trademark mysterious and erudite style.

You should tap into her catalogue, and follow her on Twitter (@nekocase), right this minute! It’s music for any time of day or mood, but it’s perfect for right now. Enjoy!

Women’s History Month: Women and the New Gig Economy

“It’s who you know, not what you know.”

Networking has always been a part of the music industry to the great advantage of some and the overlooking of a great many more. Women and other underrepresented minorities often struggle to find footing in the different branches of professional music, from classical to popular styles, and it can feel like there are extra mountains to climb just to get noticed, much less hired.

In psychology, this feeling reflects a trend toward “in-group bias” (the proverbial ‘old boys club’), in which the dominant members of a profession or group select new members based on how well they relate to them. I don’t necessarily think there is always intentional discrimination involved, but that as men in our society have been socialized primarily to interact equally with other men, this can feel like the most comfortable route to take when booking for a gig or filling a position. There’s less risk of conflict and less need to ‘speak a different language’. The end result is that a whole swath of the population that is looking for work or recognition is left out, or feels marginalized.

The fight against sexual harassment through campaigns like #metoo and #TimesUp are incredibly important, and I think go hand in hand with the ways women in the music industry are fighting for equal representation and the ability to be authentically themselves without fear of repercussions. Besides seeking visibility for the issues women and other marginalized groups face in the broader industry, I also see and participate in so many powerful internal movements that, behind the scenes and in the public eye, are changing the game for female performers. I want to highlight a few of my favorites.

Binders Full of Women

As a Minneapolis-area local, the whole game changed for me the day Andrea Swensson started a private Facebook group called “Binders Full of Women in Minnesota Music” (a spoof on Mitt Romney’s 2012 unfortunate comment about the number of female applicants he’d seen for cabinet positions).  Someone added me, and suddenly the whole diverse, beautiful community of women, female-identifying, and non binary folks in my music scene was at my fingertips. Immediately, I knew we could all use it as a place beyond networking- a place where we all felt safe, seen, and valued, a place where we could complain about an incident, spread knowledge about things going on, tell people who to avoid and who to watch out for, and most of all, HIRE EACH OTHER. A whole community of people in love with music and performing, ready to each other up.

Since becoming a part of that group, I’ve hired and been hired, attended a free clinic on sound engineering hosted by one of our members, started a roster of local freelancers, and added exponentially to my list of cool local music to listen to and support. And that leads me to my next feature…

Happy Hour! 

Last year, my good friend and collaborator Rebecca Hass and I decided to go beyond digital networking, and starting doing semi-regular happy hour meet-ups for female-identifying folks in our local music scene. Since then, we’ve hosted 3 or 4 of them (I’ve lost count!) in which a collection of women both diverse in background and musical genre have attended, trading cards and war stories, and agreed to keep in touch and promote one another. Our next venture is to host a jam session, and Rebecca has plans to do composer-specific meet-ups. It’s informal, friendly, and fun- and I’m so glad to have a colleague to coordinate it with.

BrassChix

Sarah Schmalenberger, horn & musicology professor at the University of St Thomas, and another good friend and colleague, started BrassChix ten years ago as a way to bring multiple generations and ability levels of brass-playing women together for a day of music and camaraderie. She hired me in 2012 to be the “Celebrity Trombonist” and I was delighted to present my experiences and educational philosophies to the trombonists in attendance. Since then I’ve presented or participated every year. Women are a minority in brass performance at most levels, but having a community to draw from is so important for the next generation, and so soul-fulfilling for us ‘old guard’ that are paving the way for more women to pick up brass instruments.

The Art of Asking

It’s not necessarily a community (although AFP’s fans would argue differently), but an idea- in 2013 performer Amanda Palmer presented a TED talk on “The Art of Asking” detailing the ways a new, digital marketplace could be a humongous asset to artists and musicians. She had just crowdfunded an album through the most successful Kickstarter in history to that date, and people were listening.

In some ways, I find the approach simplistic, and perhaps not the route everyone would go, but what really hit home for me is the idea that asking for what you want is not a bad thing. I think we are afraid to ask/trained not to. “American exceptionalism” tells us that we should do it all ourselves, bootstraps, etc etc. But what if we made our goals known, showed clearly how we wanted to get there, and then asked for help?

Last year, my student Caroline did something I never would have done in high school. She had an audition for her fall band assignment and it didn’t go the way she wanted to. She was convinced that she could do better, that nerves got in the way of preparation. So she went to her band director and asked for a second chance. He said yes, and after re-audiitoning, she was told she’d made it into the next level band. I was so proud of her for knowing her ability and her power that I could barely contain myself. I think maybe I cried a little bit.

Years ago I was back in my hometown of San Diego having a beer with Sean Reusch, who taught me in high school and continues to be a friend and mentor to this day. I was going through some stuff, really discouraged by the music scene in Minnesota and feeling like no one saw me. I was ready to burn it all down and do something else, ANYTHING, where I didn’t feel like a ‘woman in music’, power- and gig-less. Sean acknowledged all my concerns and then said, “You deserve to play; you’ve done the work. Now you need to ask for what you want: an opportunity, an audition, a lesson, whatever. But you need to ask, you need to be available for it.”

When I got home I messaged a few ‘power players’ on the trombone scene and asked to get together for coffee or lessons or just to be considered on a gig list. I started my professional Facebook page and started marketing myself more as an educator and unconventional performer. It hasn’t all been up from there- and I wouldn’t say I feel like the biggest trombone success on the scene, but I’m happy with the opportunities and experiences I can now rely on getting regularly.

So for #womenshistorymonth my message to you is: Go out, find your people. Ask. Share. Give. Hold each other up. The new gig economy is all of us, creating  and sharing our humanity through art.