January 2018

A few days ago Rachel Hacker hosted a regularly recurring Twitter meet-up called musochat. The topic was failure, about which I have many feels and opinions. My response to one particular question elicited some interest so I thought I’d expand on it here.

Here’s Rachel’s question and my response:

For reasons I can’t remember, in my undergrad years (late 90s/early 00s) Virginia Woolf’s question, “What if Shakespeare had a sister?” was floating around my milieu quite a bit, resulting in my participating in a lot of informal debates and generally confronting my own internalized misogyny. I’d been aware of structural inequality before this, but it was that particular question and all the discussions (sometimes arguments) I got into with my peers that really got my early-20s brain thinking about what I was capable of versus what opportunities would be available to me out in the big wide world.

Fast forward to the here and now, and I’m following several Twitter accounts whose business it is to bring to light the (often long-buried) work of hundreds of flesh-and-blood “Shakespeare’s sister”s: i.e., marginalized artists. 20th-century electronic music pioneers who were women (e.g., Daphne Oram)! A 19th-century sculptor who was a woman of color (Edmonia Lewis)! A famous (at the time) Shakespearean stage actor who was an African-American man (Ira Aldridge)! Painters other-than-my-beloved-Frida-Kahlo who participated in the surrealist movement who were women!

All throughout my education (which, admittedly, took place quite a while ago) I’d been fed this canon of white and almost entirely male artists, along with the sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit idea that women and people of color just didn’t create art “back then,” when all along they were there, they were there. I could’ve been seeing myself in these histories and feeling like I belonged as a creator but for the actions of bigoted gatekeepers.

And gatekeeping is where we get to the crux of Rachel’s question: When have we as musicians failed? Is it when we fail to convince the gatekeepers to let us in?

For a long time I felt like a failure for not convincing a hiring committee to promote me from a part-time to a full-time musician position (previously always held by a man) because they perceived me as “too young,” seemingly disregarding my seven years of strong experience in that kind of role. Should I have dressed differently (even though I barely had enough money for food at that point, let alone new clothes)? Should I have acted differently? In the end they split the full-time position into two and hired a much older white man to do the less-specialist part of the job with me. As a result I had to take on two other non-music part-time jobs to make ends meet, and guess what suffered? My development as a professional musician. I was never able to work up to the level of people in my situation who had only one job, because I simply did not have the time or resources (or energy) that they had to devote to professional development. Nowadays, I see the failure as belonging to the hiring committee, not to me, because I am 100% certain that a man of my age at the time with my skill level would’ve been given the full-time position. (I need to acknowledge here that the only reason I was even considered for the job was most likely because I am white; a woman of color would almost certainly have faced even more prejudice regarding her ability to hold that leadership position.)

Musicians—devalued as we are in a capitalist society that sees music as “magic,” the “easy A” class, or in general just not worthy of compensation—are apt to feel the sting of failure because we’re almost always trying to shove our way in to an unwelcoming economy. This sting is even worse when you add onto it additional societal prejudices. We as a society fail when we don’t raise up marginalized students and practitioners into paying positions; we fail when we don’t rewrite our histories to include all of the heretofore buried talented marginalized people of our musical past.

I’ve come to believe that the only real way we can fail as musicians is by failing to use our power (no matter how large or small) to combat the insidious prejudice that says only one race and only one gender are deserving of attention. You didn’t get that grant you needed? That’s not a good thing, but it’s not really a failure (there are always more applicants than there is funding to give out). You didn’t perform well at a concert? We’ve all been there, usually because we’ve been too burdened with the need to work multiple jobs to survive and don’t have the time we need to practice. No one bought your last album? I hate to break it to you, but the music industry is deeply, deeply flawed and hardly ever working in your favor.

So, take heart, musicians. The fact that we exist and create and perform at all is a resounding success in and of itself.

I’m listening to: Diana Marcela Rodriguez. Not only is this piece of hers great to listen to, it has a kick-ass name:

I’m listening to: Esmeralda Conde Ruiz. I like this piece for a sound installation:

and this clip from the Cusp soundtrack: