By the Numbers Figure Skating

The Olympics are always nostalgic for me: I was an aspiring competitive figure skater in my youth and was in my prime during a time of great growth in public interest in the sport. My competitive years were in the early half of the 1990s, falling squarely at the time of names still great and notorious in the sport: Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and Michelle Kwan. I was that wide-eyed kid glued to the television during the Winter Olympics thinking I might someday be able to work my way there. Alas, it wasn’t to be—other interests and talents took over as I went into my high school years and I changed course to become a professional musician. (And while I was a natural jumper, I lacked the grace between the jumps.) But the Winter Olympics still retain a lot of their glimmer for the pre-teen still inside of me. And my background means I know what the heck the skaters are doing, on a more technical level, out on the ice. It’s my insider baseball.

When I was a skater, there were requirements for programs but there wasn’t a strict points system set up to reflect those requirements; judging was done more on feeling and whimsy. It amounted to subjective judging that was highly prone to bias. It meant that skaters who didn’t embody the right body type or skin color were often marked down erroneously. However, skaters’ artistic abilities were rewarded equally to the jumps. Many don’t remember this time because we’re all used to a strict points system now. At least it seems that way, given the reactions of many to the team competition in figure skating at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

To summarize: In the men’s long program, the US skater Adam Rippon skated a nearly clean program full of triple jumps (but one under rotation). And he came in below both the Canadian and Russian men, both who fell. How could that be? The relatively recent points system awards points based on the difficulty of the elements attempted and skaters recoup some of those points even for attempting harder elements. Both men who placed higher planned harder elements, such as quads, and recouped a higher amount of points for attempting and falling on those elements than Rippon’s clean but lower hanging fruit triples.

The sport, however, still hasn’t found a great way to account (judge) for artistic elements, known as the component score (vs. the technical score). The sport may have become a showcase for the latest high-octane tricks and jumps but we all know the difference between a jumping machine and a skater who can sell a performance. And this is where I personally have difficulty with the scoring in the men’s long program.

The Russian skater Mikhail Kolyada had a lackluster performance, seemingly bored or uninterested after some of his tricks didn’t go as planned. But Rippon’s movement, through his delicate choreography, radiated all the way from the tips of his toe-picks right through to the tips of his fingers. Rippon was breathtaking and a clean program just added to his beautiful skate. Yet their component scores were nearly identical: 86.22 for Kolyada and 86.78 for Rippon. Anyone watching those two programs would easily see that their components were wildly different qualities and that the component score should have reflected that difference. But that’s the danger of competing in a sport where there will always be an element of subjectivity. Any attempt to enumerate the artistic score more than it is would be criticized for prescribing what it means to be artistic. I’ll also agree that Ashely Wagner was the victim of lower-than-expected component scores at Nationals, but whether or not she deserved to be on the US Olympic Team is another issue entirely.

Many of us “old-timers” (which aparently I am, not sure where the cut off was!) bemoan the points system, which we feel effectively took away the incentive for artistic creation in the sport. Exhibition programs and touring shows have sort of picked up that slack. But we also remember a time when the sport was even less fair than it is today. I can only hope, though, that the judges think hard about the place of component scores and award those points judiciously in the individual competition. Figure skating is one of the unique sports disciplines with an artistic element and it should be embraced rather than squashed.



Female Boss

I had a recent experience where I was leading a group of people and received feedback about my leadership style that no woman in a position of authority wants to hear (but probably has): that I was too assertive, bossy, aggressive. When pressed for examples, I simply got the “it’s just your style” and “it’s just a feeling.” I immediately recognized these labels as gender-coded language, i.e. labels that express gendered expectations, ones that wouldn’t be equally distributed to someone of the opposite gender in the same situation. In my situation—and particularly because I was aware that I had a strong style but treated people fairly and kindly—this language was used because the expectation was that a woman (especial one small in stature) shouldn’t be a strong, direct leader who expresses her thoughts and opinions and delegates tasks. And more so, such labels subtly express that women can’t do the same jobs as men. But it’s good to keep in mind that this isn’t something only leveraged against women: There are gendered language codes that express the expectations we have for men, too. Both men and women use this language, sometimes to describe someone of the same gender; it’s a socio-cultural phenomenon more than any discrepancy between how the sexes see each other. Although it wasn’t surprising for me to hear this from a male (white and from a privileged background, too, since gender, race, and socioeconomic status are not mutually exclusive).

It led me to think about leadership in the arts and how women have fared. A recent study by the League of American Orchestras on gender diversity among American orchestras showed that, in general, the gap between genders in orchestral staff makeup is closing. But this didn’t tell me much about who was at the top. What is the gender make-up of executive directors, for instance? I did a quick survey of the executive directors of the 13 highest paid orchestras in the United States to see how many were administratively led by a woman:

  1. LA Phil: male
  2. Chicago Symphony Orchestra: male
  3. SanFrancisco Symphony Orchestra: male
  4. Boston Symphony Orchestra: male
  5. New York Philharmonic: female (relatively recent move by Deborah Borda, who was behind a period of great success while previously at the LA Phil)
  6. National Symphony Orchestra: male
  7. Philadelphia Orchestra: male
  8. Cleveland Orchestra: male
  9. Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra: female
  10. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: male
  11. Minnesota Orchestra: male
  12. Houston Symphony Orchestra: female (but interim)
  13. Dallas Symphony Orchestra: female

The statistics aren’t good, even with just a snapshot of the top orchestras, with only four women leading orchestras out of the top 13 (and one of the four isn’t in a permanent position). A more comprehensive study probably could and should be done to see how wide-ranging this is throughout the field. Another interesting study (maybe already done?) would be to see the gender breakdown for deans of music schools and conservatories. But the assumption that I think most of us would make is that women and men don’t equally occupy the top positions of arts organizations. As for the women who have made it to the top, I would be interested to hear their strategies for working around gender bias and climbing the executive ladder. (Perhaps an interview with one will become a forthcoming blog post.) Two particularly successful women I look up to are Deborah Borda, who did great work at the LA Phil and is now trying to wrangle the stalwart institution that is the NY Phil, and Melissa Smey, the Executive Director of the Miller Theatre in NYC, who has built a reputation for thought-provoking programming and innovating marketing of niche new music, bolstering the Miller Theatre’s place in NYC’s cultural landscape.

I’ve spent some time over the last weeks thinking about strategies I could employ in future situations to communicate more effectively and to co-opt people into the causes I want them to achieve with me, rather than creating any feeling of disjuncture and falling into the trap of gendered expectations. To be fair, I wasn’t leading a big organization; just some local musicians who had an idea to start something new. There are other factors in my situation that set it apart from most other professional work environments. I’ve been reading into nonviolent communication, a way to relate to people in a compassionate way about their needs, thoughts, and feelings that can help resolve conflicts in a way that leaves everyone feeling positive; when you validate the people you work with, they’re more likely to feel positive about the directions you take together. Other strategies purport that you have to expose the different ways men and women communicate and lead, and the consequences this has on organizations and corporations, in order to basically win at the other’s game (see Hardball for Women: Winning at the Game of Business by Pat Heim and Susan K. Golant). While others like Stephen Covey in his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (which isn’t specifically about women in the workplace) put a premium on genuine communication and thinking about success as a sharable resource, not something scarce that only a few people can attain, all in the name of eliminating destructive competition in the workplace; I interpret this as a way to work towards eliminating the battle over power between men and women in the workplace.

But, I also want to consider that an appropriate response to hearing that I am too assertive, or bossy, or aggressive, is “yes, I am.” One way to disarm these labels is to reclaim them and to refuse to give them power.  My next steps, though, are to continue my research and use the next year to learn about various leadership strategies that can help me as a woman who wants to have a significant impact on the arts.

New Years Resolutions for the Music Academic

The New Year is a time for new goals and fresh starts for most people. But for the academic music community, it’s a time to take stock of your work from the last year, estimate what you think you’ll get to in the first half of the new year, and shrink it into 350 carefully chosen words. It’s the elusive abstract, one meant for your subfield’s most ambitious and visible meeting (one of three, with mine being the American Musicological Society Conference). Nothing is quite as terrifying as having your research–your raison dêtre–judged on 350 words. It’s not so much a new beginning as it is a culmination of past work and approximation of future work.

To mitigate any red flags, it’s best to have everyone in your network essentially vet your submission, have your advisor steer you away from cliches and jargon (or add some, as the case might be), and tear it apart until you aren’t quite sure how the original version got to the one you’re about to submit. I didn’t do any of that this year. Not because I didn’t want to. But because this year, I have a small child.

Said small child and I got sick more times than I can count in the last three or four months. That means I don’t have care for her, as childcare centers refuse to have a sick child around others. So I take “time off” to be a mom, caretaker to my baby, and occasionally to take care of myself. To help support the additional costs of a small child while a graduate student, I take on additional paid work that must be done each week, taking up the little bit of free time I have on these sick weeks. Add in additional projects that I take on because I can’t say no, and postpartum health issues that I’m still working on, and you have a situation where the 350 words of my abstract are not as carefully chosen nor vetted by my network.

Still, I think they came out OK. Could they be better? Always. But my research is sexy, contemporary, and–importantly–relevant. It gives me a little bit of an edge over projects on really interesting but small corners of music from hundreds of years ago. But lest I get too confident, the majority of abstracts are rejected each year, so I won’t be surprised if mine is too. And I certainly won’t be able to place the blame anywhere but on my last-minute work.

To add to it, I also wasn’t able to offer a set of eyes to other colleagues looking for feedback. That kind of inter-community network is almost as important as getting your research selected, as it builds your internal reputation.

Rather than turn this into a sob story, I’d like to take a cue from the many who view New Years as a fresh start. It may not be on the academic timeline but I think there’s no better time than the present to make scholarly goals for a new year. My goal is to do a little each day, as is feasible. It’s easy to have a sick day and think you can’t do anything, or have most of your day taken up by something else and not use the 15-minutes you have to read or write a sentence. But I’ve learned over the last year that waiting for the perfect situation to write holds you back. I mean, it was only 350 words, right? Here’s to a new year, new abstracts, and new productivity goals.