Three years ago, I began a job teaching English as a second language (ESL) at the Boston Conservatory. There were no pre-existing texts for teaching second-language learners to use English to write and speak effectively and naturally about music, so I made my own. Despite success in many aspects of this endeavor, a glaring problem remains: my students have tremendous difficulty with the seemingly simple task of describing a piece of music.
There is a deep, reverberating echo of history in composer higher education, and a palpable unspoken dialogue between current and past students, faculty, and guest artists. Today I continue to look for new ways to engage with our students, all the while drawing upon the words and wisdom of those who laid the foundation for my own pedagogy.
In the last few months, there have been a number of highly circulated articles about women and contemporary classical music. Reading all these articles got me thinking about the role that gender plays in my own musical life. So here are some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.
With my antennae more or less permanently oriented toward music and the arts, the defining mood of this year’s commencement season has been realism. This is a year in which, it seems, society is determined not to let students of the arts out into the world without making sure they’re painfully aware of what awaits them.
Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization. Against that historical backdrop, I also practiced a form of racial profiling of musicians. To like a “white sound,” or worse, a white musician who “sounded black,” was cultural treason. But jazz at the beginning of the 21st century is appropriately black, brown, and beige.
Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. But progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age and ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango.
We all know what is meant when the accusation of academicism is lobbed: that person (or their line of thinking) is cloistered, out of touch, has little bearing on the real world. But really, there is no “real world” and no “general public.” They are ghosts we chase or sticks with which we composers use to beat ourselves up.