‘Good for a girl’ and other destructive phrases: Sandy Evans on Women in Jazz

‘Good for a girl’ and other destructive phrases: Sandy Evans on Women in Jazz

Sandy Evans is one of the most well-respected jazz musicians working in Australia today. Notice how I purposefully left out the prefix “female”. Why is it that people feel the need to introduce women with their gender? No one ever says, “one of the greatest male saxophonists of our time”. No, because just like “his”-story, the male gender is the expected norm.

These kinds of subtle uses of language are what are continuing the worldview that women’s creative pursuits are somehow less legitimate than men’s. The term, “She’s good for a girl” is one of the worst. Not only does it undermine a woman’s ability but it perpetuates the stereotype that women are just “okay” or “good enough”. These phrases are very destructive because no matter how ridiculous they sound, they become so ingrained in our culture that we start believing them.

I remember when I first started learning the guitar and I thought, “Oh I’ll just learn a few basic chords, I’ll just be good enough.” But as my musical journey has progressed it has been harder and harder to use that excuse – the kind of excuse that stops me from working to my full potential. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the thought has crossed my mind, “I’m just a female guitar player, I don’t have to be that good.” Hmm, I wonder where that comes from…?

There are many reasons why there aren’t as many female musicians as there are male musicians, why we aren’t taken as seriously and why our impact on the history of music has not been as appreciated as our male counterparts. In this series of interviews, I hope to start to uncover some of those reasons so we can move on with being badass bitches who work hard, show up and become the very role models we always needed.


I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sandy Evans to talk about women in Jazz. (Note: Jazz is a specific example but this discussion is just as relevant to all mediums). Sandy has been at the forefront of pushing for Australian women’s involvement in jazz. In 2002 she started the Young Women’s Jazz Workshops which has helped hundreds of women to learn and grow in a supportive environment. This initiative alone has seen a huge increase in the number of women accepted into the Conservatorium Jazz program. She leads her own band and plays in The Catholics and The Australian Art Orchestra, to name a few. She has composed many pieces for different groups including The Sirens, an all women jazz band and has won countless awards for her achievements as a saxophone player and composer.

Here we touch on Sandy’s experience as an improviser, the value of gender balanced ensembles, and the importance of “never giving up”.


What were some of your early experiences with improvised music?

Creativity for me has always been about exploring sound and experimenting. My earliest memories are of being a very small girl in our backyard and just making up songs. My mum taught me the piano and she always encouraged me to just muck about.

When I was a teenager I formed a group called The Birds where I would write graphic scores and conduct them with a tree branch, dressed up in my best friend’s kimono.

I also joined a big band which was a much more male dominated arena and I really enjoyed that as well but I found it much more like being a part of a football team. I felt socially less comfortable there and struggled to figure out how I would express my creativity there.

Were you treated differently in that situation because you were a woman?

It’s very interesting, it’s hard to say. What I have come to think is that the social context of how a mixed group of men and women behave together is very different form a context of men with one or two women in it, is also very different from a group of all women. Those dynamics are extremely powerful and particularly at a teenage level. I mean, it continues all the way through life but I think it’s especially when you’re a teenager and in your early twenties and you’re still figuring out your relationship to the world and in a lot of ways, who you are. I don’t think anyone, with one or two very rare exceptions has ever treated me differently because I was a woman. There have been, a couple of people who are very misogynous but they tend to be people who have a lot of other issues going on as well.

Do you think women have a part to play in somehow undermining ourselves?

Totally. That’s a very big issue. I don’t like to place the responsibility onto women. I think certainly by nature I do that myself and I see that a lot in women, I see it in men as well though. I think two things are important. I think the belief of teacher and authority figures in the persons potential is really important. That’s been proven in education – they call it the pygmalion effect, where it’s shown that if, even subconsciously, the teacher doesn’t expect that person to succeed in the same way that they expect another person to succeed, it’s often how to turns out. Because teachers haven’t had the same examples of females succeeding in jazz as instrumentalists, they may be on a subconscious level haven’t tended to believe that the woman can’t progress to the same level, it’s very subconscious, I don’t think anyone would do that consciously.

It’s certainly cyclical though.

It’s totally cyclical. To break the cycle to change it, does take a considerable amount of effort and I think it’s about women’s belief in ourselves, it’s about other peoples belief in us and it’s also about role models and social context. When women are either in a more gender balanced group or in an all women group that makes a very big difference.

In the history of Jazz, the contribution of women has been undervalued. Instrumentalists who have been there throughout the history of music have largely been ignored but worse than that I think the tendency to think that it’s an instrumental music first and a vocal music second means that the way the history has been written has given much greater weight to the male input and for whatever reason, women’s input has been most influential in vocal music. Of course people recognise the greatness of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae but it’s often as a sort of secondary category to the “real thing” in the way the history is presented.

I think there’s something very clear in that which speaks to the way women have been viewed historically and also, perhaps it is at the core of what you’re exploring, for whatever reason, women have expressed their creativity more confidently in that arena whether that’s social acceptance or whether there are other factors involved as well I don’t know.

I know for me, directing my own band and being the only female in the group has been a challenge. What is your experience of being a band leader and taking charge in that context?

My first proper band was called Women and Children First (cool) and we had three women in it. One of the women Clayce Pearce was the one who showed me how important it was to believe in my creativity. She’s very much about trusting her own voice. I think having her as my colleague in a band early on helped me a lot. I really had no confidence. When it actually came to the music, to having a clear vision and believing in my vision, especially if other people had a different vision, it was very challenging.

How did the Young Women’s Jazz workshops come about?

In the Jazz scene it’s only by being proactive about the role of women that change is going to occur. I’ve watched for a long time without proactive steps being taken and nothing was changing. That’s when I started the workshops

The most wonderful thing is to watch the workshops develop. And there’s the Jane Rutherford awards and the mentorship scheme in high schools. Every so often you question whether these things are necessary and every so often you get flack from people saying, “Well why aren’t women better? They have all this extra support.” But I don’t think that’s a productive attitude. I think there are probably some very deep seeded reasons but proactive support is helping.

It takes courage for a group like The Sirens to exist because people question, “Why do you want to have an all women band?”

There are plenty of all men bands.

Exactly. And just through taking action like that the ramifications become really widespread.

What about the term, “She’s good for a girl.” How do you feel about that?

I often say to guys, “Not bad for a bloke.”

It’s one of those little phrases, people don’t think about it but it does undermine the value of women. I think that’s a very destructive phrase and we should question it whenever we hear it.

The way women behave, our natural tendencies, not all women but particularly if you’re not feeling confident in the first place, there’s a tendency to withdraw and that’s why I think all women situations are really good for women who are trying to build up skills in an area where they’re feeling vulnerable.

Do you think the reaction to withdraw is connected with shame?

Yeah. Definitely, “I’m not good enough,” which then can translate to, “I’m a bad person.” It can reinforce a negative self-image. I experienced that myself. I still do. If I make a mistake or don’t feel I’ve played as well as I want to then I definitely notice those tendencies.

It’s so easy to associate your self-worth with your playing, but really they’re separate things.

Exactly. And I think that’s a really big struggle and it’s important to find the separation between those two things. But it can be very challenging. Especially if you’re vulnerable in your life.

I think a lot of creative people are.

Absolutely. Historically speaking, part of the reason behind a lot of drug and alcohol abuse, within the jazz scene anyway.

What kind of advice would you give to young women in Jazz?

My number one piece of advice is don’t give up. Because most women who just keep at it and are dedicated with it, break through enough barriers to really have a good time. And it is a very amazing life path. To be able to create improvised music with your friends. That’s basically what we do. It’s amazing.

Any time that you find the negative emotions coming in, use it as a motivation to work on those nuts and bolts and get it outside of yourself. You’re not a bad person just because you played flat or you played out of time or you missed the chord changes. Go and work that out and then celebrate the fact that you worked it out. And that’s the building block of confidence. And you don’t lose it. You might get a bit rusty but it’ll come back.

You do it for yourself. You don’t do it to get appreciation or recognition from others. And don’t compare yourself to others. Valuing the fact that whatever you bring to it is really important, worthwhile and different from everyone else. That’s what’s so fantastic about Jazz and improvised music, difference is celebrated in a way that can include everybody.

One other thing I find helpful is I really like hearing other women perform. I find I get a different sort of sense of myself from that. Somehow watching women play gives me a different sense of what I can do. There’s something in that. That’s why female role models are so important. Getting excited about what other women are doing and supporting each other but not to the exclusion of men by any means. The beauty of supporting each other, it’s an important thing to nurture.

Advertisements

What My X-Factor Experience Revealed About The Dangers of Comparison

What My X-Factor Experience Revealed About The Dangers of Comparison

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from the X-Factor asking me if I wanted to come to an invite-only audition (oh the glamour). A producer from the show had seen me at a gig and asked for me to come, pretty old me! I was obviously flattered but I had never seen myself doing something like that.

In the past, when people had told me with unsolicited authority that I should go on a show like the X-Factor, I had always shaken my head. “Fuck no!” which was usually met by a puzzled, frowny face, to which I would defend: “It’s just not my path.” But on this day, as I stared gleefully out my window, I could feel myself being swayed. Here they are specifically asking for me. Maybe I should give it a go. No harm in auditioning, right?

Now let me be clear: I’ve always had qualms about reality television and in particular with singing competition shows that aim at pinning singers against each other in a gladiator-esque fight to the death. What happens is it cements the idea of what we as artists are constantly trying to escape: our success is dependent on how many people we beat. On the flip side of that, everyone else’s success is a reflection of our own failings. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” Theodore Roosevelt said. Not only is comparison the thief of joy but it’s the thief of a self-loving, sustainable life in the arts!

I am constantly having to remind myself of my unique talent and abilities instead of comparing myself to others. Like Taylor Swift, who earned $73.1 million last year, while I started working as a nanny again to help fund my expensive taste in high quality gluten free bread. Why aren’t I a platinum selling recording artist touring the world with a girl posse to boot?! I HAVE ACHIEVED NOTHING!!

These shows also perpetuate the belief in a supposedly narrow limelight; that only a few people will be able to achieve success (and certainly not after you hit 30). We constantly hear the phrase: “This is her last chance to make it,” as though, if you don’t get to work with Dani Minogue you’ll die in a hole or worse, take a 9-5 job in corporate marketing.

But how do I define success? And does climbing the ranks of a reality TV show (X) Factor into that? (see what I did there) Either way, I was ready to find out!

The day came and I shlepped with my guitar case to Olympic Park. When I arrived in the waiting room it was like a scene from every Idol show from the last ten years: young hopefuls warming up with their head to toe H&M wardrobes and their parents eagerly by their side. I cringed and turned away to sign in.

They handed me an application form: a ten-page document that included questions like: “Describe an emotional time in your life” and “What happened in your childhood that made you want to sing?” They may as well have written: “Please describe the most traumatic moment in your life so we can milk it for ratings.”

I skipped most of the questions as I’ve always hated this aspect of the show. An artist’s personal life has nothing to do with the success of their sound or their ability to sing with emotion. But that’s what these shows are built on and what people have come to expect as they sit comfortably on their couches on a Wednesday night, tissue box in hand.

Who was I kidding? I didn’t want to do this! Looking around the room and seeing people whose dreams were pinned on this show, people who have been back years in a row, their hopes still set on reality TV fame. I thought about walking out, but I’d come this far.

Then I noticed someone I knew, a well-respected musician sitting there with his arm around his girlfriend. As soon as I saw him I turned away to hide.

Was it that I was embarrassed to be seen with the people here or was I embarrassed that I was more like them than I was ready to admit. Being seen here meant revealing my own desire for the very thing they all sought: stardom.

As much as I reject superficiality and say that I’m all about the art and connecting with people, I’d still like to do so with a big fan base and a tonne of money and red carpets and all the glamour of a “successful” life.

It was then I caught myself in a macro reflection, the kind where you zoom out and realise you’re doing the very thing you’ve been scrutinising (like road rage, technology consumption or childish behaviour).

Here I was beating everyone else down in order to prop myself up. Comparing myself while still asserting my high and mighty ideas about the dangers of comparison. I sat up in my chair and looked around. 

How can I have more compassion for everyone I come across, while learning that that compassion is a reflection of the way I love myself? The way I nurture my own dreams, which are just as legitimate as anybody else’s.

And even though I still want to achieve more, where I’m at right now is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. I have a great job teaching music and inspiring people, playing gigs where little girls dance in front of me, going for long idle walks in my leafy neighbourhood. I’ll never be Taylor Swift and she’ll never be me: living a dope-ass life where I can still go to the supermarket without staging a coup.

I will not define success based on the number of people I’ve beaten. Everyone has their own path. Mine is unique and doesn’t fit neatly into a category on a reality television show.

“What you think about others is basically a declaration of what you think about yourself.” – Osho

And I choose to think with love.

In Loving Memory of My Ass

In Loving Memory of My Ass

On a recent trip to LA I decided to lose a few kilos. I have always had an issue with my thighs which sounds so ridiculous now, like they’re the inappropriate uncle at a family gathering or an artsy friend who wears flowy pant dresses. But it’s true. Even though I’ve always been pretty healthy, I never had that thigh gap business and my bottom half was always disproportionate to my upper half.

So I started dieting in LA. And by dieting I mean skipping dinner. I started sharing my weight loss secret with other hourglass women I met. When a friend came to visit and remarked that I’d lost weight, he asked me if it was because of being in LA, had that changed me somehow, was I conforming to the beauty standard of Hollywood? I swore that I wasn’t. But maybe I was.

We’re so inundated with media that presents women with stick thin legs and hook lines about how being slim will make you look better in that pair of jeans. And I’ve always denied being influenced by them but I guess I really am. No matter how many hippie, ‘I love my body’ women’s circles I go to, at the end of the day, I’m still looking to lose that last few kilos, no matter good I look or feel.

***

Things were going well and I felt accomplished that I’d starting getting skinnier. But then something awful happened. I looked in the mirror and my ass had disappeared.

 Beloved ass,

 I am sad and inconsolable. When I walk down the street I can’t look in shop windows and admire your once fleshy derrière. Nor can I, while lying on my side, pick up your fatty parts and wiggle them about gleefully. I find myself comparing you to every ass in yoga class, desperately trying to gain back my confidence. 

I wish someone had told me how great my ass was. But I guess they had and I just didn’t listen. I wish they’d told me that if I lost too much weight there would be no guarantee that sweet pear would return to its full glory.

Today I ate a croissant because I thought it would go to straight to my ass (here’s hoping).

NEW MOON INVESTIGATIONS

IMG_5266.jpg

I had an incredible time this full moon just passed. I did a lot of clearing with my partner around letting go of expectations and releasing old patterns that were causing us to butt heads without ever really expressing truthfully, with robust vulnerability that we were doing so. I felt refreshed from this deep conversation and it has brought us into a more compassionate place.

The work doesn’t stop there though.

The new moon is a perfect time for setting intentions and getting clear on the way you choose to live your life. 

Here is part of my new moon ritual. (Keep in mind that I am constantly engaging with my inner world; staying informed throughout the month as to what triggers me, patterns I notice, moments of joy, moments of frustration). I cultivate an informed, curious and playful way of living that allows me to set considered intentions at this time of month. 

_____________________________________

A few days before the new moon I’ll start by reading the Astral Insights from my favourite astrology site (I love MYSTICMAMA.COM) and investigating specifically and deeply how they show up in my life.

(For anyone who is an astrology sceptic: the reading really just helps me tune into what’s going on for me and how I can harness the magnetism of this time to get the best results for my spiritual, physical and emotional growth)

I’ll copy and paste sentences that resonate with me into a document on my computer. If there are questions, I’ll answer them, if there is something particularly pertinent, I’ll write about it. This is messy, and so it should be, research always is.

Here’s some of my personal investiagion:

(Text in italics are taken from MYSTICMAMA.COM and text in regular font are my own musings)

_____________________________________

New Moon Aires 

A bold *NEW MOON* – (bold: showing a willingness to take risks; confident and courageous:) bold=theme for the year

Our beliefs lie hidden in the unconscious until we turn our attention to them. These beliefs are what we learned as children—often limiting, involving guilt and shame. Once we turn the light of self-love and consciousness on them, they can transform and grow.
   • the belief that there is not enough love to go around. the belief that if I appear less than, vulnerable, not as good as, I am not deserving of love. 

not by fighting against the old but by imagining and living the new.
Hold them in balance, ask for the truth, hear the truth and get on with it

a deep need to align with complete personal freedom from any form of limitation.
the potential for wholeness and evolution coming out of an experience of conflict

we actually need to temper our will, drive and ego energy otherwise actions taken in haste right now could shoot us in the foot. discernment, analytic

burn off sleepy habits
   • where do I use tiredness as an excuse? – not to practice, not to read, not to go out and engage with creative people.

Aries is the total bravery that leads to brand new beginnings. 

So certain are we that we know best, we can easily shut down to life’s nudges and messages which tell us there may just be another way we’ve dismissed or ignored for too long.

It takes time and patience to come up with a plan or gain enough clarity to know that, in fact, nothing need be done.
to know when we don’t know is a wise and noble abiding. (moving to LA, changes with K)

The wisdom of this New Moon is accessed in the quiet of inner reflection
The key to fulfillment is found in living for life
It’s time to wipe the slate clean of expectations and let life lead us step by step, gifting us its wisdom as we go.

_____________________________________

Then from this place I’ll start brainstorming some goals or intentions for the moon based around the themes that spoke to me in the reading.

I try not to dwell too much on the how, rather on the feeling, using specific words that fire up my belly or swell open my heart. I recommend starting big with lots of descriptions. Have fun and be loose with this. Then get specific by narrowing down exactly what it is you want to create.

Other things to consider are areas of your life: health, relationship, career, personal growth.

Out of this I got:

What is it that I really want?

   • new job opportunities that nurture my creative life but create routine and balance as well. 

   • a learning opportunity to improve my vulnerability in my acting, opening for tears and    challenging myself emotionally

   • creating discipline around my creative practice day to day, getting on with it! One hour a day commitment.

   • softening with K when it comes to “I know” paradigm. Feeling of resistance and defence around not being good enough, disguised by “I already know that”, you don’t need to tell me. Tightening in the chest and jaw. AWARENESS and SOFTENING

The core theme I want to work with this month is: softening defensiveness.

That encapsulates my relationship intention and career/personal intentions. What I like about this is that I’ve narrowed down in a specific way what I want to be bringing awareness to this month. So that when I’m out living my life and catch myself on auto-pilot I can remember this phrase “soften defensiveness”. (Even still, I’m not sure it’s the right intention, I might look at it again tonight to make it clearer).

The more specific, the more refined my intentions are, the easier it is for me to remember, actively engage and create the life I want.

I hope this is helpful for you lovely people.

I’ll post again in a few weeks about my process around the full moon x