Author: Katherine Balch

Mentor, Me—Mentoring is Hard

This is the final post in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

I mentioned in my previous article that advice at the right moment or the spontaneous outreach of compassion can turn anyone into a mentor. Of course, the opposite can happen. Tina Tallon recently shared a moving story—worth reading in full—about an all-too-familiar mentorship blunder:

The presenters asked if any of the students composed music, and only two people reacted…They were a seven-year-old girl in the front row, right in front of the presenters, and an older boy (probably 12 or 13) off to the side. The girl shyly raised her hand to about shoulder height, and the boy’s hand shot up in the air and he said “Oh, totally!” So the presenters of course turned and started up a conversation with him, asking him what instrument he played and whether he wrote music for himself or other people. He responded that he played violin, but that he wrote music for full orchestra. They noted how awesome that was and continued asking him questions and complimenting him, all while the girl looked more and more disappointed. By the end of the conversation, she was looking at the floor. The presenters then turned back to the center of the room and asked if there was anyone else, and this time, she didn’t raise her hand at all. She just kept looking at the floor.

Tallon came to the rescue by approaching the young girl after this exchange. She offered the enthusiasm and support the youngster had been denied in a public forum. Tallon also offers poignant cautionary advice to her readers: “It became very apparent that even the seemingly smallest of actions might have significant consequences… especially when working with the youngest members of our community, we need to be very clear about offering encouragement to everyone, not just the most gregarious (or whitest or male-est) students.”

This article is not about the countless studies that show men to be more talkative than women or more likely to interrupt their peers, garnering more attention than their female counterparts. Nor is it about the very real confidence gap that begins to distinguish genders at a very young age. But I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless these cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.

A view of Dublin Lake

Dublin Lake, where I have often sat and thought about teaching when I’m at The Walden School.

I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.

As a young and very green teacher of both classroom and private students, I have no illusions about making mistakes in my teaching. But Tallon’s story made me reflect on one teaching moment in particular.

At Bard Prep, where I teach music theory and composition, my most advanced music theory class this semester was comprised of four very loud, confident preteen boys and a shy, subdued, slightly younger girl—I’ll call her Alice. The boys had a common interest in composition, and they would often leave the classroom talking excitedly at each other about their projects.

Alice was an engaged but quiet participant, clearly listening but only contributing if explicitly called upon. While I was definitely sensitive to Alice’s timidity in the midst of this garrulous boy-dominated classroom environment, I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious by singling her out, nor did I want to disrupt what I thought was relatively productive management of a high-energy class.

After the last class of the semester, Alice stayed behind and asked if she could show me a piece she’d written. Of course, I was elated! One of her classmates, I’ll call him Pat, overheard this exchange and asked if he could stay and listen to Alice’s composition, because “he too was a composer and very interested to hear what she’d come up with.” At first, I hesitated, thinking that perhaps Alice would retreat into shyness if she felt judged by a peer. But Alice consented and proceeded to play a gorgeous blues-y piano piece. Pat, in his sincere excitement, began explaining what he heard and appreciated, which quickly digressed into a monologue about what he likes to compose. When I tried to shift attention back to Alice by suggesting that she and I do a blues improvisation together, Pat automatically inserted himself into the activity.

I felt totally stuck as a teacher in this moment. On the one hand, I was petrified that Pat’s overbearing presence would make Alice feel insignificant in a moment of vulnerability. On the other hand, I didn’t want to exclude or shun Pat, who didn’t understand why his behavior might have been inconsiderate. Moreover, I also did not feel that this was the moment to address issues of peer listening with Pat, as this would further shift the interaction away from Alice’s music and towards Pat’s behavior. Add to that the fear of inappropriately projecting these anxieties onto what should be a positive musical experience, encouraging Alice to share her talents again (and again and again). Might my poor management of this situation create detrimental consequences for the impressionable Alice’s psyche? Gah!!

In the end, I was able to strongly connect with Alice and saw in her a newfound confidence and joy in music making.

This scenario contained several valuable lessons. First, I am ashamed to confess that if Alice had not approached me on that last day of class, I would not have known about her compositional interests because I did not ask. This reveals common challenges that teachers face in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to identify and then overcome this challenge. I’m also glad to have gotten a chance to discover and try to remedy the situation.

Teachers face challenges in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude.

Second, just because I can’t ignore or brush aside the implications of this moment’s gender dynamics and their potential consequences doesn’t mean Alice is not enjoying herself. She was having a blast sharing music—she was not burdened by my baggage, sensitivity, awareness, etc., of the scenario at play. I have to be careful about imposing my anxieties onto her and Pat, making more out of a situation than is perhaps warranted. But maybe I am making the right amount of fuss about it. I just don’t know, and not knowing is why mentoring is so hard.

In what ways should we be vigilant as mentors, and how extreme should our vigilance make us? How do we best nurture a creative person’s individuality? What is our part in shaping that individual into a confident, compassionate community member? I think these are some of the questions that the mentors I’ve written about have considered with great care. As they were mentoring me, they were undoubtedly observing situations like these and making decisions about vigilance. For this I am grateful.

my classroom white board the last day of class. The students would keep track of what they called “Katie’s quotable quotes” and when ever I said something silly or dumb or amusing they’d write it down.

My classroom white board the last day of class. The students would keep track of what they called “Katie’s quotable quotes” and when ever I said something silly or dumb or amusing they’d write it down.

Mentor, Me—Momentary Mentorship

This is the third in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

In October of last year, Ashley Fure became a mentor to me without her knowing it. Fure was a guest faculty member for the LA Philharmonic’s National Composer’s Intensive, a weeklong workshop with wildUp culminating in a day of performances on the Phil’s Noon to Midnight Festival. I had known and admired some of Fure’s music and was looking forward to matching her personality to her sounds. Additionally, my Facebook news feed had been abuzz with citations of her piercingly eloquent article about gender, risk, aesthetic politics, and pigeonholing.

Ashley Fure

Ashley Fure

When Fure presented her recently premiered piece Bound to the Bow for orchestra and electronics, I was mesmerized. It was exactly the inspiration I needed after about eight months of not composing much, and not composing anything I was particularly happy with (including the piece to be performed later that week). Descriptions of music I love always feel trivial, but for the sake of this anecdote, I’ll mention that I was struck by its timeless fluidity and completely engaging sense of pacing. The propeller-like sound source that was the basis for the seamless integration of orchestra and electronics was hypnotic, as was the way this sound melted into and filled the cracks of lush harmonies and timbres.

Beyond the striking impression of the music, I was moved by Fure’s comments about it. She described how her brother’s vocation as an architect was often a source of inspiration to her. A designer of buildings, she explained, creates a sturdy foundation, immobile and rooted in solid ground from which a structure can be erected. A designer of ships, however, has eyes for flexible rather than rigid foundations. Yielding to currents from every direction, a hull too rigid is bound to break.

A drawing of the hull for a ship.

Fure likens this architectural approach to malleability to her musical approach to time passing. She imagines her music bending to and tolerating resistance from a twisting chronology. Time is Fure’s ocean, and her music exists in its expansive mutability.

Time is Fure’s ocean, and her music exists in its expansive mutability.

This metaphor resonated with something that’s been nagging at me in my work ever since I can remember: my music and general modus operandi suffer from a stringency that can result in a sense predictability and constraint by the logic I’ve imposed upon it. I am building cement foundations, not hulls. I’d been mulling over this analogy when Fure congratulated me on the performance of my piece a few days later, and I confessed to her that I felt it was unsuccessful. Fure thought carefully about this, and ultimately suggested that maybe I was dissatisfied with my music because I didn’t allow room for chaos. While it is my habit to associate the musical detail I love with order, maybe I might search for disorder in my details instead and see what forms emerge.

Mentorship moments cannot be planned or predicted.

Fure didn’t realize it, but she touched me to the core with her advice. Ideally, I want my music to wail an emphatic “yes” to bold expression. But I have yet to reconcile the inherent instability there is in such a cry with the conviction inherent in the vociferous “yes” that, for example, called out from Fure’s Bound to the Bow. The timing of Fure’s comment, mingled with respect for her artistry and amiability, has really shaped the way I’ve thought about composing this year. I go back to that conversation again and again as a sort of creative reset. It’s given me fuel to keep writing while concurrently being open to questioning why and how I’m writing.

These mentorship moments cannot be planned or predicted, but often make up the cohesive trajectory that forms a whole person. In 2013, I’d emailed out a recording of my first big orchestral piece, Passacaglia, to friends for feedback. Nina C. Young was the only person to respond, and she did so with a long, detailed email of her thoughts about the piece and my work moving forward. That email, full of loving and constructive critique, continues to shape my approach to orchestration.

We are perpetually both teachers and learners.

Advice or the spontaneous outreach of compassion at the right moment can turn anyone into the most important source of guidance for someone else in an instant. Because of my serendipitous experience on the receiving end of momentary mentorship, I feel it’s important to consider this possibility when we engage with each other in our community. We are perpetually both teachers and learners, and in any given interaction we might switch between being one or the other.

Katherine Balch's sketch of the structure for her musical composition Leaf Fabric

A sketch of the form of a recent piece of mine, Leaf Fabric, in which I tried to capture Fure’s suggestion of infusing a form with more chaos.

Mentor, Me—Beyond Musical Mentorship

This is the second in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

Early on in Plato’s Republic, Socrates’s young interlocutor Glaucon asks, “Is there not such a [class of] goods … which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results?” My undergraduate political science professor, Vickie Sullivan, answers Glaucon’s question in the affirmative: she recently told me that for her, mentorship is “both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.”

Vickie Sullivan sitting in front of her desk which has open books on it.

Vickie Sullivan

Mentorship is both good in and of itself and good for what comes from it.

Though Sullivan was a popular professor at Tufts University, particularly well known in the political science and classics departments (both of which she’s chaired), and an important mentor to some of my closest friends, I didn’t experience a class with her until the fourth year of my five-year double degree program between Tufts and NEC. I enrolled in Sullivan’s fall Western Political Thought seminar, a survey of ancient to early modern philosophy, starting with Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, spending generous time on Plato / Socrates’s Apology, Symposium and Republic, and wrapping things up with Machiavelli’s Prince. I was in it for the Plato.

But quickly I was in it for the Sullivan. Her lectures on the Symposium are still among the most memorable, intriguing, and personally valuable lessons of my education. If you don’t know the Symposium, it’s basically a story about a drinking game in which Socrates and his groupies—an aristocrat, a doctor, a lawyer, a comic playwright, and a tragic poet—compete to give the best speech in praise of Eros, the god of Love and the Beautiful, all the while getting more and more plastered. Aside from being wildly entertaining, the Symposium addresses such lofty themes as sex, beauty, the meaning of love, truth, the material versus the ideal, and the ever-complex layers of the human experience.

According to my own biased take, this dialogue is fundamentally about art: why we make it, why we need it, and why it is an endlessly fulfilling pursuit. In Sullivan’s lecture on Socrates’s climactic speech about Eros, she suggests that he depicts Eros (beauty) as an entity of constant in-between-ness and becoming. Beauty is the ascent up the ladder of love for what is to love for what ought to be— a ladder whose steps climb infinitely towards something unattainable that we pursue regardless. This reading resonated with my own reasons for art making that I’d never been able to articulate. For me, music is about creating and re-imagining how the world ought to be. Though material means—pencil, paper, hollowed-out pieces of wood—the musician transforms something real (symbols on a page, vibrations of a bowed string) into something ideal. Like Socrates’s Eros, music is always in a state of becoming. This inherent instability makes it beautiful. Sullivan, in her own pedagogical artfulness, acted as an intermediary between me and Plato, so that I could find personal significance in the texts she taught.

An illustration depicting a description in Plato's Symposium

Her goal of teaching students “to try to take texts really seriously and gain an appreciation of how they were written and can be read” and “of the necessity and possibility of continual improvement” was consequential to my musical studies. During the next two years as her student, TA, and eventually, her collaborator, Sullivan’s guidance in critical reading and thinking made me a more critical musician.  Having a mentor figure outside of music was also really grounding: it reminded me that my art and the skills I need to make it didn’t exist in a vacuum.

Music is about creating and reimagining how the world ought to be.

Observing her teach also made me think about cultivating an audience in music. I often viewed Sullivan’s lectures and seminar discussions as her way of creating a fresh and enthusiastic readership for the texts she loved. Especially as a TA for Western Political Thought, I watched students enter the lecture hall shrugging at this required course for their major, and within the week passionately debating Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue. Sullivan created audiences not by watering down esoteric material, but by diving headfirst into it, inviting and trusting her students to as well. She was concerned with clarity rather than accessibility. She challenged her students to search for nuance and to find the words to articulate it rather than settling for black-and-white explanations. Sullivan taught me that trusting an audience to be open to new experiences is empowering, not cumbersome. I hope to invite listeners into the music I love by being unapologetic to and trustful of my audience.

The vast majority of Sullivan’s students will not go on to pursue graduate degrees in political science or careers that echo her own. Many might never reopen Plato’s Symposium after their midterm exam. But, they will have gained an experience of studying something in depth. This is a gift that can never be taken away from them.

Sullivan’s Glaucon-inspired teaching philosophy has put my approach to classroom teaching in healthy perspective in several respects. First, most of my classroom students will not become professional musicians, but they can become curious music lovers and engaged listeners. To me, this is the “good for what comes from” teaching music. Second, and more importantly, studying and listening to music in depth is an experience “good in and of itself” that merits no further rationalization or objective. At conservatory there’s this assumption that everyone is going to be a professional musician and one trains to achieve that goal. Sullivan showed by example that rigorous training can be good in and of itself, and this made learning music satisfying even if I had days or weeks or long stretches of time when I thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the whole composer thing.

Undoubtedly, Sullivan’s role in the classroom is very different from Kati Agócs’s role as a studio teacher (whom I wrote about last week). When I recently asked Agócs for some of her opinions on teaching, she immediately drew the distinction between studio and classroom teaching. Indeed, Agócs lessons had a set of expectations hinged on the assumption that I was training to be a professional composer, while Sullivan was almost always communicating to a broad range of personalities and interests. The assumption of my commitment to music was an important social contract in my studio lessons: Agócs treated my work seriously because she was invested in my development towards the particular vocation I sought for myself. There was a material goal to our working together, whether it was a finished score or my long-term career trajectory. My contract with Sullivan was very different: to be an engaged and curious learner.

Observing Sullivan teach political science made me think about cultivating an audience in music.

Yet, both likened mentorship to parenting: When I asked her about navigating the issue of teacher/student boundaries in a conservatory culture where these relationships can be quite intimate, Agócs told me that “it is a little like parenting. Children value boundaries because they make them feel secure, best for learning, then they are always challenging and testing them. The boundaries shift and change as the relationship develops.” Similarly, Sullivan described mentorship as a “kind of intellectual family” in which the mentor “is in a position to model professional behavior, setting an example, sort of like parenting. You’re really trying to focus on the development of that individual and you’re not getting anything out of it except that satisfaction of seeing that student develop.”

Bookshelf

Mentor, Me—Sustained Musical Mentorship

This is the first in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

My mom, a professor in the sciences, whimsically refers to her PhD adviser as her “tor-mentor”. While the exact ratio of joke-to-truth in this pun is still unclear to me, I grew up in a family of teachers and academics hearing over and over again that the lines between mentor and tormenter, mentor and family, mentor and friend, mentor and colleague, mentor and therapist, etc., are thin as spider’s silk in the web of personal and professional connections that bind together any creative community.


Kati Agócs

Kati Agócs

Dr. Kati Agócs’s office was a small, narrow room on the third floor of NEC’s Jordan Hall. It was a modest space with a large rectangular desk at one end and a clanky upright piano perpendicular to it. The desk’s surface was almost entirely clear, welcoming the mess of papers that would often accumulate during my lessons. This unremarkable room, which I saw once a week for four years, was like a magic wardrobe for me. I recall this room as the space where worlds of sonic possibility opened, and where I gathered fundamental artistic values and musical techniques.

Agócs was a patient and thorough teacher who guided me like the complete beginner I was but treated me like a professional. She encouraged me to write by hand and ditch the notation software for a while, so for my first few lessons, I brought in some haphazard pages of meandering scribbles on bleached white notebook manuscript paper. None of these notes felt important, and she was quick to address this with pragmatic, tangible advice: perhaps this easy-to-crumple, 8.5×11-7mm hole-punched spiral-bound binder-paper didn’t inspire me to take my writing seriously. It was time to invest in some “serious” composer paper. My first notebook of 14¾x11½ Carta No. 25 felt heavy and important when I carried it out of the bookstore immediately following my lesson. Through simple and seemingly superficial means, Agócs impressed upon me the incredibly valuable lesson that I must take myself and my own practice seriously if I am going to write the music that I love.

Lots of Carta No. 25 music manuscript paper

She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.

Agócs intermingled necessarily rudimentary technical lessons (“Can you tell me the open strings of the ‘cello?”—“Uhh…”) with lessons about building confidence and finding happiness through disciplined creativity. In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was struggling to finish a solo piano piece that was—at that point—the most substantial thing I’d written. Agócs had been spending the year coaxing me into consolidating my ideas and generating longer, more fluid forms. But by this point, the 20-plus pages of music I’d written on my beloved Carta No. 25 were long but not fluid, rambling through a consecutive list of possibilities without ever saying yes to any one of them. Already feeling stressed and insecure before my lesson, I entered the magic wardrobe and crumbled into tears. Ever temperate and unhindered by this outburst, Agócs asked me to lay out the piece in chronological order all around the room. The manuscript snaked around her small office like a dotted-and-lined ivory worm. She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.

This ritual of expunction produced positive short-term and long-term effects. Most immediately, I learned to say no to some ideas and yes to others, consolidating and finishing the piece by the end of the year. Further, I’m not sure if this was her intent, but seeing my paper worm fill the room gave me renewed confidence: look at all the music I’ve written this year! Here is it, literally laid out before me! Surely that work counted for something, and surely, if I’d done this much, I could do more.

Beyond this piece, I carried with me the value of erasing materials. And I began to embrace a guiding principle in my artistic practice and existence in general: the problem is never that there is only one right tune or texture or harmony or piece of music; rather, the problem is that the world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.

The world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.

What made my lessons with Agócs so special was her attention to detail. She elucidated the general through the particular. The focus she brought to understanding my music and advising me made me a more focused composer. I wanted to bring in work each week that merited the deliberation she gave to it. Attention to detail is something that increasingly defines my music: I find expression through specificity, and lately, I’ve been trying to write music that creates dense, but delicate, intimate spaces. Agócs cultivated the tools and concentration that enable me to imagine these worlds now. In lessons, she’d put a timer on and make me try to hear my way through an unwritten piece to develop an internal clock. She’d sit by me at the piano and tell me to compose right there and now if I hadn’t brought in any music that week, nudging me to explore richer harmonies at the keyboard. She brought her studio to Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, and demanded a sensibility to the unique technical and sonic features of each instrument as the foundation for new timbral possibilities. She encouraged me to write imitations of pieces I loved. What happens when I try—really, really try—to sound like Alban Berg? Perhaps what’s different is the seedling of me-ness.

I took Agócs guidance extremely seriously and worked hard to demonstrate progress in my craft over the four years that I studied with her. I believe that everything she had to teach me was more valuable to me because she was also a woman. I believe I was such a sponge with Agócs because I was able to look up and see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me. When I look in the mirror now, I can see myself looking like Agócs. I simply can’t see myself looking like the male teachers that I’ve had, as wonderful as they’ve been. I was able to learn best from this person and envision a future for myself in part because of this person’s womanhood: in the shared experience, imparted wisdom, and leadership by example that I trusted wholly.

I was such a sponge because I was able to see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me.

Agócs was a clear model from the start of my education that a great composer can also be a great teacher. When she gave birth to her daughter, Olivia, my last year of studying with her, she embodied for me the oft-dismissed possibility that a great composer and a great teacher can also be a great mom. Being witness to Agócs’s uncompromised strength in these arenas affirmed my hunch that the creation-education-motherhood trifecta is not only possible, it is a cycle of self-fulfillment with each part benefiting from and enhancing the other. I’m not talking here about “avoiding working-mom burnout” or “balancing career and family”— rather, I’m referring to a fundamental capacity dormant until provoked by the enduring elasticity of the creative mind.


My experience studying with Agócs fits into a broader discourse about the culture of arts education. As our community of composers has more conversations about inclusivity in the concert hall, I often end up thinking about inclusivity in the studio or classroom, and the gigantic role my teachers have played by including or excluding students from the creative and professional world they are training us to be a part of.

My femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community.

I would like to think my femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community. An awareness of the obstacles faced by young women in my field has undoubtedly affected the educational choices I’ve made for myself (I’ve sought out female mentorship), and now, the pedagogical choices I make as a teacher. Over the course of my education, I’ve encountered lots of anecdotal evidence of the challenges women face in finding relevant role models and teachers. In her article from 2013, Ellen McSweeney recalled:

My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment. In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.

Sarah Kirkland Snider recently noted that her graduate studies “featured male-only composition faculty, and very few—if any—female students.” Mara Gibson reflects: “Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher—both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.” The majority of women I look up to and admire today—my mother included—did not benefit from having a female mentor or role model. Many of these women are now mentoring young women and I know from my experience are, like Agócs, forging mentorship roles that they have no exact precedent for.

In the next three articles I’m going to write about my experience being mentored in different circumstances by different women and reflect on my own teaching as I navigate being a potential source of guidance to young women.


Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch’s music seeks to capture the intimacy of existence through sound. She is based in New York City, where she is pursuing her D.M.A. at Columbia University.