Token Girl

Kalia Vandever
9 min readMar 16, 2018


I was often referred to as the “poster girl” during my time at Juilliard. You’d walk past the school and my face would be plastered across the glass wall, with the words “Jazz Studies” over it. One could also find my face on the cover of a pamphlet promoting the program, or on the cover of a program for a jazz performance. This exposure not only misrepresented the program as a diverse and safe space, but it bred a false sense of inclusion and openness. I was their “token girl” and I suffered more than I benefited from that title.

I started realizing the disadvantages and challenges of being the minority within the jazz community in high school, when I attended a week-long jazz intensive with 25 young men and no other women. I was really looking forward to this particular program because it was being led by a respectable and influential musician in the jazz community, and quite honestly, I wasn’t tremendously phased by the lack of women. It wasn’t until a few days into the program when I started noticing some of the guys were acting strange around me, whether they were uncomfortable with my presence or attracted to me and attempted to flirt. I ignored most of the comments made either directly or indirectly to me, but I was soon shocked by something I learned after the program concluded. One of the guys I had grown close to as a friend called me a couple days after the program and confessed that on the first night of the week, all of the guys had congregated and made bets on who I would hook up with. To their disappointment, I “hooked up” with no one. This is one of the first times I felt alone and helpless within a community I had been proud to be a part of. Little did I realize this would be somewhat of a regular occurrence once I reached college.

In Spring of 2013, I decided I would be attending the Juilliard School for Jazz Studies. Not only was I thrilled to move to New York City, a place I had romanticized for years, but I was excited to be attending such a prestigious school. There are around 40–50 students at a time in the program, and between 2013–2017 there were only two women, including undergraduate, masters, and artist diploma, until my final year, when there were only three women in the program. They also hired the first woman on faculty in the Jazz Studies program during my junior year and she taught one class offered to Masters students only. I cannot stress how thankful I was to have had that one other woman in the program because if it had just been me, I definitely would not have that degree today.

One of the first incidents to scar me happened during my first year in the Jazz Studies program at Juilliard. I was in a small ensemble, made up of six members which met twice every week. We had a male ensemble coach, which was typical considering a woman had yet to be hired on faculty in the Jazz Studies program. I was the only woman in the ensemble because they had to disperse the only two female students among the ensembles, so it appears as if there’s some semblance of diversity.

As an assignment, we were asked to bring in an original composition to rehearsal. We were almost done with class when we had one final piece to rehearse. This piece was written by the bass player. He had come up with the concept to write words or phrases on little pieces of paper and hand them out to specific individuals in the ensemble. We were instructed to keep the pieces of paper face down until directly before we played the piece in order to “channel” whatever our individualized papers stated into the music. As instructed, I waited until a few seconds before playing the piece to read my word or phrase and when I opened the paper, it read “Kalia — Rape.” I should have immediately walked out of the classroom with the paper in hand and reported it to administration, but I was scared, confused, and beyond angry. I played through the song with tears welling up in my eyes and once finished, we were asked to share what had been written on our individual notes. I stated mine and then asked the bass player what he had intended by directing this word at me. His response was that he wanted me to channel anger into the composition. This was met with silence and a few laughs from the other guys. I glanced at my instructor expecting a response but he did and said nothing, so I waited a few minutes until class was over and ran out to cry in private. There were many moments like this; when I was overwhelmed with sadness or anger and didn’t feel like I had any support from other students or teachers, thus resulting in my rushing out of class before anyone could see me crying.

The school often invited guest artists to coach specific ensembles, and this particular semester, an older male jazz trumpet player was asked to coach my ensemble and another group. This was no different from the last guest artist because they only hired male musicians and educators to work with the program. Two rehearsals were scheduled, both being open rehearsals where other students and teachers were invited to sit and watch. I was warned by one of my best friends who attended the Manhattan School of Music that he had a history of being inappropriate with younger female students, so I tried to mentally prepare myself for any commentary directed towards me during the rehearsals.

The first rehearsal was held a couple weeks before our performance, so we had already prepared all of the music. His role was to come in and provide notes for improving the music. This idea was immediately shattered when he began asking questions completely unrelated to the music, but rather the background of the minority of the band. He proceeded to ask me what my ethnicity was and after I responded with “Filipino,” he said “ooh that explains a lot.” After he humiliated me in front of the class, we finally chose a song to rehearse. We opened by playing the melody of the song and after about 30 seconds, he stopped the band. The comment to follow is something I’ve received countless times in various iterations since I started playing the trombone: “You’re playing too quiet,” “play like a man,” “you’re playing too feminine,” “play with more aggression, play like you’re mad,” and one that I received as a thirteen year old: “play like you have balls.” In this instance it was posed as such: “Don’t be so shy around the guys. You don’t have to be so polite.” I must have really made an impression in the 30 seconds that we played. Thankfully in this particular situation, a teacher recognized the racism and sexism displayed by him and confronted him after class. The confrontation of a guest artist in this manner is rare; it never happened again during my time at Juilliard.

Looking back on my accounts of sexual harassment and misogyny, it’s difficult not to wish I had spoken up in the moment or confronted my peers or teachers directly after the misconduct, but I didn’t have the guidance, knowledge, nor confidence to say something at the time. More importantly, it shouldn’t be my responsibility — especially within the classroom — to say something. It’s the school’s responsibility to hire experienced and trained educators, require them to attend sexual harassment training, and to take accountability for the misconduct from the teachers and guest artists they hire. It’s also their responsibility to support their students, without exploiting them for the betterment of their program.

As I opened up to a few of my male peers in the program, I felt a little closer to the Juilliard community, yet never fully supported within a classroom setting, especially when the teacher was the one causing harm.

It wasn’t only the students and guest artists who engaged in misogynistic and racist behavior. A few of the teachers consistently carried those torches, too. It began my sophomore year in studio class, which is a class that met once a month comprised of the trombone students in the program and taught by one of the two trombone instructors on faculty. The trombone population in the program never exceeded five people and I was always the only woman. Studio class was considered mandatory but it wasn’t entirely required, meaning it wasn’t on our schedule and we didn’t get graded for it. I regularly attended the class until about halfway through my Junior year, at which point, I only attended if my specific private instructor was conducting the studio class.

The other trombone instructor, who I eventually tried desperately to avoid, often created sexual scenarios to demonstrate how to place a mute into the bell of a trombone. For example, he would use the end of a mute as a penis and instruct us to “shove it all the way in there,” referring to the bell as the vagina. This type of demonstration was commonplace in the classroom, along with many other disturbing jokes. It didn’t matter whether I was present or not.

During my Junior year, I was directly targeted by him inside and outside of school. When I would run into him in the hallway, he would look me up and down, blatantly objectify me, and comment on my weight. That year I was hired to perform on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) as part of the horn section for the musical guest performer. The show called for me to dress in a black leotard, fishnet tights, and tall knee-length leather boots. I honestly felt empowered in the outfit playing alongside an all female horn section until the aforementioned trombone instructor at Juilliard noticed me. He was playing in the SNL house band and approached me to say hello. He took one long look at me, his eyes trailing from my feet to my chest and asked “why don’t you wear this kind of stuff to school?” My friend witnessed the interaction and confronted him, to which he played it off as “just a joke.” I quickly went from being excited to perform to dreading school the coming week.

It was a constant push and pull with the Jazz administration at school because I was the “token girl” of the program and expected to show up to every event and every performance with a smile on my face. I was also chosen to be a student ambassador for the school at large, which included attending monthly breakfasts with the president and going to cocktail events with donors and alumni. I was once asked to write a speech for an honorary doctorate and after completing it, administration had already decided they wanted to go a different route. When I didn’t jump at every opportunity to represent the program at an event or when I occasionally missed a class, I was met with an email or phone call asking where I was or “are you okay?” After a while, this became extremely exhausting and I started missing more school and not responding to things, which rightfully led to being put on probation until I graduated the following year.

At this point, I certainly stopped attending the classes led by the trombone teacher after being harassed and objectified by him on numerous occasions. I was continuously asked by administration why I wasn’t attending studio class, but I usually responded by saying I forgot it was happening or I wasn’t feeling well. It took me until the last month of my senior year to say something to administration because I was afraid of what would happen.

I later realized that my fear of what would happen might have included fear of what would not happen. It was about a month until I would graduate from Juilliard and I felt neither excited, nor sad to leave. Simply complacent. I was trying to reflect on my time there, but couldn’t do so while I was in the midst of studying for finals and preparing for my last jury. One conclusion I came to was that I wasn’t okay leaving school without saying anything about the trombone teacher. I wasn’t okay with the possibility of another young female trombonist going through the program and dealing with harassment from this teacher and I wasn’t okay with administration thinking I didn’t attend most studio classes for two years due to laziness. So I decided to make an appointment with the chair of the department, and tell him the truth. It didn’t start very well due to the emotions that had been festering for years, but I finally told him about every encounter with this teacher in and outside of the classroom. He was shocked and wanted to make sure he had all of the details of my encounters written down correctly. Once we sorted out all of the details, the tone strangely shifted to a lecture. He began asking me why I didn’t confront the teacher right after he would say something inappropriate and shared methods of handling these situations. He gave me “tips” on how to stand up for myself, instead of being quiet. He concluded the meeting by thanking me for bringing it to his attention — and nothing happened. I graduated a month later and I’m writing about my experience 7 months later. I’m writing this because I thought I would come to some sort of resolve upon graduating, but I did not. I’m writing this for all of the women who suffer from sexual harassment within institutions, at rehearsals, and on gigs every day. I’m writing this so my voice will finally be recognized and heard and I’m writing this in hopes for a more accepting, respectful, and inclusive community.