Mari Ésabel Valverde, composer, educator, and overall incredible human being, said that after COVID halted her projects, 2020 became a year in which she was scrambling to find her way. Mari had always kept a small teaching load as a source of income, but they weren’t able to adapt. The commission she was working on had to be refunded. She suddenly found herself unemployed.
The shift in Mari’s fortunes during COVID happened when she was asked to be on a Diversity Initiative panel for NATS. Through her brother, also on the panel, she met Anna Lantry, who had started an online music school designed to offer the trans community music and speech lessons. Anna hired (and trained) Mari to teach remote lessons. Through this, Mari has had the ability to teach people both around the country and globe. She also noticed there has been an increase in her online platform. COVID forced many choral professionals online, and because of that, anyone looking into equity and justice, or women composers in choral musics, are only a few clicks from discovering her music (click here to discover her music).
While she’s missed singing with people, she hasn’t been as frustrated with COVID as she could have been. She’s done a series of virtual choirs. A piece she wrote 10 years ago as a college student has picked up steam recently after Cantus performed it. In addition, cultural shifts such as singing with masks and social distancing have benefited community health. 30 minute rehearsals force people to focus. Mari points out that, up until COVID, people in a rehearsal have been told to simply show up. Changes in COVID that have positively addressed ableism and access can stay post-COVID. Conversations surrounding new practices and implementing new practices have been good steps toward community health.
After the NATS panel, she was invited to speak to different choirs, something that continued into 2021. University of Memphis was the first program to contact her for a call. This was particularly striking to Mari because they were in Tennessee— and she wasn’t sure how they might respond to her— but it went well. In fact, she realized she had been avoiding certain areas of the United States because she didn’t expect people in those regions wanted to perform her music. 2020-21 has shown her that people everywhere want to perform her music. Her music is relevant to the South and and Southwest regions (I might add: more than relevant. She and her music are even needed). “The South is capable of producing incredible food and incredible music. Resources are there to be the premiere everything, but they aren’t [premiering everything]” Mari notes, and then continues, “Because there are issues with intersectionality– racism in queer spaces. Homophobia in Black spaces. It’s hard to come together to make something good for everyone.” But, of course, it is possible to come together in community.
Also, Mari points out, people, structures, and institutions often still operate from the belief that women are actually property. This doesn’t work when you are a trans woman. She’s had to understand her own worth, and in response, she has committed to taking better care of herself. Part of taking care of herself will be asking for what she needs. Being trans and surviving her 20s has helped her to learn some of this, although this is still a work-in-progress. While there seems to be a certain standard of measurement one has to surpass to ask for more, she encourages composers, especially younger composers who have been historically excluded, to ask for and demand what they are worth. She encourages all composers to see they are worth as much as the cis white male composer.
The COVID lock down and George Floyd murder have caused people to ask important and hard questions. “There are truths about who we are as human beings that are constantly being exposed,” Mari commented. Anybody who has been marginalized is already in damage control mode when they walk in the door, with themselves and the world. Others have refused to protect them. But protecting the unprotected matters. So, she’s only willing to engage herself and her music with things that matter. And frankly, she said, there is music that has not mattered. For example, some people talk about “classics” in the choral world. What does this mean? These pieces have teachable and valuable concepts, but “you can’t say it’s as meaningful as something like Seven Last Words of the Unarmed Black Man. Experiencing that piece shakes people to their core.” Mari goes on to explain that yes, Bach can also shake people to their core, but music by Black women can too, yet their music hasn’t been adequately performed.
When thinking about future risks, Mari commented that risk has a different meaning for her than some others. She can’t hold shame. She’s failed, and she’s been excluded so many times that some people would say her showing up is a risk. And, she concurs, sometimes showing up and not being silent truly is a risk— a risk she’ll continue to take.