Slightly less terrible

This week’s headlines have been tough, and they’re only going to get tougher.  To recap: millions of Americans soon might not be able to afford to, you know, stay alive; and thousands of brave U.S. military personnel are set to lose their right to serve their country and, accordingly, receive veterans’ pay, medical care, and honorable discharge.  Scrolling through my Facebook feed, all I see is outrage — rightfully — and there’s a prevailing sense of hopelessness.  Like, all we can do is watch the headlines roll in and post diatribes of caps-lock FURY, because the system is broken and we are angry and we are hurting, but we are also small.

And, at the end of the day, we are comfortable.  It’s hard to admit.  But while people who are transgender or queer or people of color face wildly unjust and dangerous systems, I can quietly write a blog post about it, sip my chai latte, and stroll out the door without a care in the world.  I can proclaim myself to be an ally and petition my senators not to repeal the ACA — but Trump is still president and people are literally dying, and all I have to offer is an oboe and a bleeding-heart blog post.

As the Facebook rants deluge and the helplessness mounts, there’s a question that’s been haunting me.  We’re musicians, my Facebook friends and I.  We’ve dedicated decades and degrees to a craft that is highly competitive and woefully underfunded — there must be a reason for it.  What can we do — music performers, composers, educators, administrators — what can we do to make the many terrible things that are happening, slightly less terrible?

A beautifully written call to action by queer trans non-binary Filipinx-American artist Angela Dumlao asks cisgender people to consider how to engage privilege with genuine, impactful allyship.  “You likely won’t get Trump to stop being terrible,” they write.  “But you can look in the mirror and be better.”

One of the questions for reflection on Dumlao’s list: “Do you intake media by trans people?  TV?  Books?  Articles?  Art?  Music?”

For those of us in classical music, the answer is, Probably not.  Programming and visibility of trans composers is virtually nonexistent in major concert halls — unsurprising, in a world where an opera house can program literally one work by a woman in an entire century and be applauded as “making progress” — while trans soloists have been systematically silenced and oppressed.  “In the United States, once I came out as Sara, I couldn’t get bookings with the top orchestras anymore, nor would any university employ me,” trans pianist Sara Davis Buechner wrote in an article for the New York Times.

But just last month, Buechner played at Carnegie Hall.  Last November, just after the election, Seattle Opera produced As One, with libretto by a trans woman, women behind the score and stage direction, and singers of color in the leading roles.  There is beautiful, important music being made around the country, and there are small steps we as musicians can take to support these projects and build projects of our own.

If you are a person who decides programming for an ensemble, or if you are a student choosing rep for an upcoming recital, consider programming music by a trans composer.

If you are in a position to commission a new work, seek out a trans collaborator.  Make sure that commissions offer real, professional pay.

If you manage an ensemble, professionally or academically, make the dress code safe and inclusive.  Avoid associating specific attire with different genders, and offer an all-black alternative to skirts and tuxes.

If you’re able, buy recordings and scores from trans composers and performers, rather than (legal) streaming or downloads.

If you perform with a trans collaborator, use their preferred pronoun.  Print their name correctly in the concert program — even if it’s not the same name they enrolled with at school or provided on their W-9.

If you’re an educator, add trans artists to your curriculum.  Composer Xavia A. Publius’ graduate thesis at the University of Northern Iowa suggests an extensive discography for an intersectional, trans-inclusive Western classical music syllabus.

If you’re an audience member — and all of us are — actively seek out performances that include trans musicians and tell trans stories.  Every seat filled for As One (which, I’m told, sold out) proved to Seattle Opera that it’s sustainable to program contemporary, marginalized narratives and artists without sacrificing ticket sales or community support.

Be intersectional: support trans musicians of color including Indigenous trans and two-spirit musicians, trans musicians with disabilities, genderqueer and non-binary musicians, and trans and queer artists of all religious and cultural backgrounds.

Avoid tokenism: don’t let programming a piece by a trans composer be a one-time thing.  Engage frequently and genuinely with trans musical collaborators.  Support, normalize, and listen.  That is, after all, what musicians do best.

I have a lot of questions about what role classical music plays in society.  Our field is inherently oppressive, definitionally — and proudly — tied to a centuries-old tradition.  But if our community effortfully supports and amplifies artists who have been marginalized, there would be very real benefits: financial support for marginalized artists; representation and visibility; introducing audiences to diverse perspectives, that they may discover common ground with their neighbors; and introducing music students — children — to models of inclusivity, that they may discover in music a safe space for learning and expression.

Classical musicians: let’s take Dumlao’s words to heart.  Let’s be better.

To conclude: don’t pay attention to me.  I’m just a cis person with opinions, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m still learning.  Here are some writings by trans and non-binary classical musicians to get you started — and feel free to comment and suggest additions to this list:

And, to get the ball rolling: if you are a trans or non-binary composer who would like to write for oboe — or you know such a person — I’d like to commission you.  Shoot an email to  Let’s make some music.


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