When I’m offstage, I teach private music lessons and for no reason in particular, I’ve ended up with almost exclusively young girls for students. It’s been such a pleasure to spend so many hours a week with them, but only recently did it click for me that I want to do more than that.
My whole life, I’ve struggled with choosing art versus something to help the world for my career. There are so many issues we face which drive me mad and sexism is a big one of them. How do we live in a developed country where the brilliantly smart and qualified, though flawed, Hillary Clinton had the presidency stolen from her by a sexist man with more rape allegations than public service credentials? How do we live in a world where women still earn less per dollar than men and where it’s a well known platitude that girls have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously?
I don’t live in the political or STEM spheres, but in my art form of music, there is still rampant sexism. Look at all the “greats”: Mozart, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, Debussy, Chet Baker… notice anything? Way back in the ages of classical (in the broadest sense) music, women were almost always denied access to a musical education at all. Even if they had the talent in them to be great composers, the combination of exclusion from education and the even more troubling sexism of the time leaves us with almost no well known classical female composers. Jazz has always been a boys’ club, where most female artists were singers, if there at all. “Jazz bros” are such a thing. I can think of a lot of female jazz singers, but only one pianist comes to mind. And now, in my own life, all of my bandmates identify as male. Most of the bands I’ve listened to my whole life have been fronted by men. Even as our society makes progress on gender equality, something is lacking that only time and continued improvement can create: female role models in all fields.
Of course a woman can be president. It’s so obvious. Of course a woman can be a scientist. Of course a woman can be a rockstar. But if you’re a kid and you don’t see anyone who looks like you in the public eye doing these things, it’s a little bit less intuitive to aspire to your full potential. That’s not to say that there aren’t tons of ambitious, badass little girls. All I’m saying is that it might not be the obvious default to know you can do anything and we need to change that.
Back to my army of little female musicians. I have this one student, lets call her Sasha, who is 12. She’s done some rock camps and has a little Ibanez electric guitar that she loves to strum as quickly as possible with the drive up all the way. She’s starting a band playing a bunch of the songs we’ve been working on. Her favorite, which we go back to every lesson, is Bad Reputation by Joan Jett. It’s such an anthem of the “fuck it, I can do whatever I want” brand of feminism and it makes me so happy to help her improve on it. A recent lesson with her is when it clicked for me that even though I chose art, there’s still a lot of good I can do for the world. I practically have all I need in the palm of my hand. While Sasha may not have a ton of female musicians she knows about, she has me. I can research those musicians and show her more and, perhaps even more importantly, I can tell her she’s awesome and give her the tools she needs to be the best damn guitarist and singer than she can be. I can help her learn to make charts and understand music theory so she can walk into her first band practice the expert of the group and an obvious leader. I want to instill confidence in her using the vehicle of mastering the guitar.
And Sasha’s not the only one. That day, there was a subtle shift in how I was framing all of my lessons. Yes, I want to help my students become better players, but my new mission statement is, “I want to empower girls.” I want them to feel confident and give them the tools to be masters of their instruments and be the best they can be. Help them be diligent and practice and see how continued effort in themselves can pay off. I want to tell them about my musical journey and inspire them to pursue their own, wherever it takes them.
I doubt there is a woman alive who doesn’t have at least one younger female in their life who they are already subtly influencing. My challenge to you is to take that influence and make it active. We are all ambassadors of girl power and badassery. Even if my students aren’t yet listening to a ton of women, they’re listening to me and I’m listening to them. As Lady Gaga says, “We can make it easy if we lift each other.” I want to be a role model and a constant voice of support for them musically and personally.
In one of our lesson’s, the tomboyish Sasha showed up after a formal brunch wearing a dress and marveled that she couldn’t believe she was playing rock guitar in a dress. Not every girl has to by into dresses, but letting yourself be “feminine” shouldn’t mean you can’t take yourself seriously because most of your idols are dressless men. If a girl wants to wear a dress, I want them do it while to picking up her guitar, bumping up the distortion, and singing, “A girl’s gonna do what she wants to do and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Enjoy this Spotify playlist of feminist songs to pump you up to get out there and support the heck out of each other.
A while ago I felt myself craving music that would made me slither and wiggle my arms, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what I wanted to hear. That put this playlist in motion.
As I went about my recent daily listening, I was thinking of some SUNY Purchase Conservatory alumni. Going to Purchase led to me discovering so many talented artists who’d gone there. Mitski’s Last Words Of A Shooting Star was still in the back of my mind when I remembered Evan Shornstein, a music theory classmate, and his project Photay. No Sass’s serpentine groove provoked just the dance move I’d been waiting for.
Vampire Weekend is a band I hadn’t listened to in a few years. I was thinking about the Spanish word “contra”, against, because some Spanish speaking friends were in town and it had come up and instantly Vampire Weekend’s second album came to mind. Horchata is the first song on the album and just takes me back to an older time, sepia tinged and softly faded in my memory.
When you love someone deeply, something about them permeates your being. Once I felt that and wrote Your Skin On My Sheets.
Oh, Sampa the Great. This song. She’s such a badass woman and the more of those I get in my vicinity, the better things are. The groove on Born To Be Blue is so beautiful and dizzying, like falling down a rabbit hole. As I started falling in love with hip hop, she was my girl.
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Degrees of Light by Taylor McFerrin, but it’s also dizzying and delightful.
Them Changes is just brilliant. The production is so lush and stratified and every baseline and melody is gorgeous in my opinion.
Yes, I’ve become obsessed with Frank Ocean. This is the song that first drew me to him.
On New Years Eve, we listened to Flying Lotus all night. This music is how going into this year for me feel in a good way. And Kendrick is one of my idols. Him being on this song is the icing on the cake.
And James Blake is just stunning. In feel such a deep groove in this song while the washed out tone in the beginning feels so hypnotizing and beautiful to me.
Anyway, that’s what I think of these songs. I hope you dig them!