Please give a brief background on yourself and your career.
I’m a professional musician, composer, and music educator, based in the Los Angeles area. I’m rooted in traditional jazz as a flutist and vocalist, but my music reflects the multiplicity of my life experience and musical influences from soul, to classical, to African and Indian music. As a self-employed musician and educator, my work reflects the lives of contemporary independent artists who have found a need to have multiple income streams. Mine are mainly music, music education, and freelance writing. The creative life that has chosen me didn’t make things easy for me–nor is it always “fun” as many people naively comment when I say I’m a musician. Nevertheless, it’s certainly fulfilling and never boring. I’m blessed that my life-path chose me, even when I don’t always feel that way.
I grew up in Inglewood, CA in a family of musicians. My older brother played music (R&B) professionally from the age of 12. My mother sang (light jazz), played piano and drums, and taught high school choir. My father played organ, piano, and sang. He played jazz, adult contemporary and country-and-western music for elderly white ladies with “beehive” hair-dos. Like other middle-class African American girls in my area, I took tap and ballet classes, baton lessons, and loved to cook. At age nine, I started playing flute in the school orchestra and sang in the school choir. I picked flute for the deep reason that it was pretty and shiny, and I liked “girly”, pink and frilly things back then. Plus, it distinguished me from my piano-playing family. I was also a bookworm, and loved school and reading. Music was just one of the many activities I was involved in, as a youth, and I didn’t think of myself as excelling in it at all.
My choice of Wellesley was probably not something anyone could’ve probably predicted. Wellesley seemed to be an unknown entity at my suburban, San Fernando Valley-based high school, where I was bussed in to “integrate”, voluntarily. Most seniors headed to the local universities, and college counselors only spoke distantly of how hard Harvard and Yale were to get into (no other schools on the East Coast existed). One would have to earn straight-As for four years, get a perfect score on the SATs, be a candy-striper, and do about 80 hours of community service per week while taking every AP classes the school had to offer, they pretty much said. So that ruled me out. I wanted a college that would evaluate me holistically and see my uniqueness and potential, not as a bunch of scores and data. One day in 11th grade, I got a brochure from this school with a funny name (Wellesley). I recalled one 11th grade teacher musing at her class to no one in particular: “If you get into Wellesley or Mount Holyoke, you can sit back proudly for the rest of your life and go, ‘ah’.” This teacher didn’t have much confidence in me, so I became interested in Wellesley and Mount Holyoke, as well as Scripps and another Eastern school with a weird name I’d thought was pronounced as “Dart Mouth.” I knew I wanted a small college not too far from an urban center, with an excellent academic reputation, a strong record of student retention–and far, far away from home. I researched the data, and Wellesley was the most intriguing fit. I went into my very first interview ever totally clueless and without any preparation, but it was the best interview I’d ever had. I’d left my interview feeling as if I could fly. Wellesley sent my first college acceptance letter, and I was elated.
Being a musician or a teacher was the last on my list of desired professions. So what did I do? Eventually, I majored in music. Then I composed Classical music in the Masters program at Columbia University. Then I studied how the New York City hip-hop community formed an entire culture around music in Columbia’s ethnomusicology program. After I finished a Ph.D. in music, I played music professionally. Then I taught music, while trying to play it (and played music while trying to teach it) at every grade level from college down to pre-K.
Along the way, I’ve self-produced two recordings of original music (which can be purchased on CD Baby and iTunes), and perform in concerts as a band leader and side musician. I also present concert-lectures; places have included the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Grammy Museum, and the California African American Museum. I’ve appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno accompanying an R&B star named Monica, and have recorded on an upcoming music album by superstar comedian, Eddie Murphy. In February 2013, a dream of mine was fulfilled: I performed a duo concert at Wellesley in a Black History program sponsored by Ethos. This performance is posted on YouTube.
How has your career changed since you originally envisioned it at Wellesley? What other careers did you consider as a student?
When I was 10, I wanted to be a medical doctor, a ballerina, and orchestra conductor. Like other girls my age, my world of future possibilities was big enough to accommodate big dreams. When I was applying to college, I THINK I wrote in my college essays that I wanted to be an entertainment attorney. As soon as I became a student, I didn’t know what I wanted to be! Now that I’m well-into my adult years, in some ways, my original dream of being a professional multi-tasker has come true. I’m a doctor– in music. I’m no ballerina, but I’m a musician. Instead of conducting a symphony orchestra, I’ve directed my own musical ensembles as well as student groups.
How has Wellesley contributed to your career?
Wellesley’s motto, non ministrari, sed ministrare (“not to be served, but to serve”) managed to stick in my head over the years. It’s true. I wasn’t too certain what that meant when I was a student. Maybe I thought it had a cool sound. Whatever the case, the more my life’s paths revealed themselves to me, the more I realized that “giving back” was an important part of the directions my paths took me, whether through my music, mentorship or teaching. Another important lesson has been in making certain that I’m good to myself, as well.
What is a typical work day or work week like for you?
I tend to plan my life according to sessions: Fall, Winter and Summer. This has to do with the years I’ve worked in schools and colleges, in addition to the twelve total years I spent in college and grad school. I don’t have a typical work day, because of the nature of my work commitments. Some jobs are seasonal, perhaps two-three months out of a year, and others are part-time, regular or on-going. Some commitments are single events, such as a concert or recording session. Work flow is unpredictable; after painfully slow periods, I can suddenly have sudden sustained bursts of intense business. However, I do try to maintain a degree of regularity. If I’m not scheduled to be away from home, I use Mondays to brainstorm and drum up new business opportunities, and the remaining to write and return emails, make calls, work on the business end of things, and of course, do the “art stuff”. I aim to exercise outdoors at least three times a week, with weights. I try to hit a nearby beach for a weekend evening walk. Unfortunately, I go to bed too late and often I find my brain trying to problem-solve while I should be trying to sleep! Part of my goal of achieving balance is to learn how to “turn off my brain”.
What piece of advice would you offer students looking to get into your area of interest and expertise?
Mentorship is valuable, whether in the academic, professional, or artistic areas. Forming a bond of mutual respect with a professor or professional whose work you admire, and who sees your potential, can be essential, wherever you are in your career. Because these seasoned people have “been there,” they can give you advice on early pitfalls to avoid; they can also put you in contact with their own network. This can be a relationship that continues a lifetime. “Clicking” with a professor or professional may or may not be something that happens immediately, but as you go deeply into your areas and distinguish yourself, it should happen at some point, naturally. Admittedly, I found the process of bonding kind of hard. In fact, I developed these bonds later in my academic career, and to this day, I check with one particular professor for advice. Even though she has retired, she still sends me professional opportunities and writes recommendation letters for me.
The best way to plant seeds of networking is through an internship with an individual, organization or a company that interests you. Aside from a formal internship, artistic apprenticeship has become more informal than generations ago. I’ve heard from older jazz musicians that one should seek mentorship from an elder, established musician. Go to this person’s concerts, tributes, special events, and let her or him know you as a person. Learn from being around this artist, and let them know your best work as well. Speaking frankly, sometimes gender has gotten in the way when I sought to work with some male musicians who responded to me more as a potential conquest than a peer. Some women professionals may not have an affinity for singling out other women to mentor, for whatever reason. But you keep on going and maintain your own integrity; if you’re a true artist, you do what you do and aspire toward excellence, regardless of recognition. A huge reason why I take mentorship so seriously was because I wanted to be that mentor I didn’t have growing up! When you do find those individuals who want to help you, count yourself blessed. At the same time–recalling non ministrari sed ministrare–consider how you can be of use to this artist you admire. The great equalizer of generations is social media. Many established people you admire are on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Some professionals (at least, jazz artists) welcome being respectfully appreciated. A great documentary about the special relationship formed between jazz legend, Clark Terry, and a budding young musician is Keep on Keepin’ On (2014).
As you become established in your career — recalling the non ministrari, sed ministrare principle– seriously consider how you can place yourself in a position to help others, through mentorship, volunteering, or other outreach. Did you ever hear one bit of advice that changed the direction of your life? Imagine having that impact on someone else. Even if you’re still in college, you are still an expert on some area that can be useful to someone else. Some of the lessons you’ve learned can be useful to a younger person just starting to find their own way. During the bumpiest of life’s travels, if you find yourself wallowing in self-pity, try volunteering your time in some capacity. “Getting out of yourself” can be the best therapy! In the midst of a major financial setback, I began volunteering my time to work with an NAACP-sponsored program where I help bring out the talent in young musicians. It not only brought me out of my self-pity cocoon, my work actually helped to fuel the creative life cycle. Helping others can literally help save your own life.
What do you wish you had known as a student?
If I’d known it was OK not to “fit in” early on, if I’d been more confident in my uniqueness, I would’ve been happier. I’d spent too much time thinking I should fit in somewhere. After spending my junior year exploring jazz and world music as an exchange student at Wesleyan, I’d made a decision to only be involved in those activities and organizations I wanted to be involved in when I returned to Wellesley as a senior. I finally was fine with navigating among very different groups of friends with very different interests. For the first time, also, I took myself seriously as a musician, and began to invest in the possibility of being a professional musician of some sort.
The unpredictability and ups-and-downs of the self-employed, creative life resulted in prompting me to question, then redefine, “success” for myself. So many of us define success by what we achieve, how much money we make, where our kids go to college (if we have any), the quality of vacations spend at The House on The Cape. Even for those in the traditional workplace, placing so much weight on stuff and status can easily send you into depression. Success by comparison, I’ve learned, is designed to make me feel “less than”. Once I rooted success in what I could give, rather than get, I had a broader appreciation of my own strength, relevance, impact in the world. Success, for me, now includes these concepts: mentorship – literally getting out of myself and sharing the knowledge I do have with others; challenging others to see success as inner-driven, rather than outer-imposed; challenging myself to learn and try new things and directions as an artist; and never seeing myself as having “arrived” as an artist.
If you could come back and take one class at Wellesley what would it be?
I probably would’ve taken a class in Women’s Studies or Africana Studies. I would’ve taken a class with the late professor, Tony Martin. But I don’t have any true regrets about the courses I took. Perhaps I would’ve tried out for the volleyball team. That was the only sport in which I had potential. I was too afraid of hurting my fingers, as a flutist, however.