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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.