Stand Up Tall

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe to be great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” –Steve Jobs

Forgive me, but having listened to heart-warming musicals all week for a school assignment, I’m feeling just a little bit sappy. So I’m going to feel all the feelings for a couple minutes here. I want to put a disclaimer upfront that this post may sound a bit like I’m down on my potential career path, but that isn’t the case at all. Just bear with me.

Something that’s been weighing on my mind since I started graduate work in musicology has been a personal desire to make myself and what I do socially relevant. While there is a plethora of things that attract me to the lifelong pursuit of academia (a pursuit that I find absolutely noble), I can’t stand the idea of locking myself away in the ivory tower for the rest of my life.

This semester, especially, has presented me with many opportunities to reflect on the current state of my discipline and I have to say that I’m not at all satisfied. To me, there is a three-pronged problem encouraging academics not to leave their towers:

1) the trap of tenure-track positions mainly requires us to demonstrate old-school expertise within our disciplines (i.e. publishing a monograph before we can be considered for tenure) if we hope to attain that coveted professorship;

2) the general unwillingness of academics (despite their general liberalism) to propose and accept changes to the discipline;

3) the disconnect (especially in musicology) between theoretical research and practical implementation of that research (I would argue that you see this less in the sciences who are much more highly pressured to prove their practical worth to society on a regular basis).

I’m not really going to touch the first two issues, mainly because I could probably devote an entire semester to each, but also because the rain lately is bringing my mood down and we’ve already been discussing the crap out of these limitations in one of my seminars (something that we’re calling the “bars of the [musicology] cage”).

Suffice it to say, that it can either be incredibly uplifting to realize you’re in a room full of people who agree with you, or incredibly depressing that only one of those people is a professor, and the other 8 are doctoral students, just like yourself. Of course, I truly believe that my peers here at IU are going to be the movers and shakers in our field (honestly, I don’t think I’ve met a smarter group of people in my life), but at the moment, the prognosis for musicology looks pretty bleak some days. And unfortunately, those are limitations that I’ve had to accept (to some extent) to even operate within my field on a daily basis.

Let’s be real, when you have 250+ pages to read in a week, an unruly term paper staring you down, and a pile of music appreciation exams to grade, you’re not devoting much time to pushing the envelope of your discipline; you’re just trying to keep your head above water and keep your kitchen clean enough that you aren’t embarrassed when your friends come over for wine.

Instead of railing on about the problems with musicology as a discipline, I want to talk about my hopes for my future and for the future of music academia in general. As I mentioned above, it is immensely important to me to find some way of making my work socially relevant. While I find writing program notes endlessly entertaining and a vital way to connect with the less musically erudite classical music patron (yes, #nerdgasm), I still believe that there is far more to be done.

It’s pretty commonly accepted at most music schools (especially conservatories), that there is a great divide between the performance departments and the more scholarship-oriented departments (this can include musicology, music theory, and sometimes composition or music ed.). This is always something that’s bothered me, and I’ve always made it a point to cross that boundary and surround myself with not only students of my own ilk, but also performers. Variety is the spice of life, but I often end up learning just as much about music from my performance peers as I do in the seminar room. Again, I’m not knocking my discipline, but there’s something to be said for reaching out to the practical end of what we do. New horizons and all.

The reason I bring up this divide is that while performers often invite academics into their fold, I wouldn’t necessarily say that the same is true the other way around. Which creates a self-reinforcing cycle in which there is little to no interaction sometimes between performers and musicologists. And therein lies my issue with trying to make myself socially relevant. Imagine the possibilities for the concert hall if we (with our powers combined!) created an academic performance environment and used our relationship to our advantage in teaching people how to listen to classical music. Now isn’t that just a crazy idea?


image via

Isn’t one of the biggest struggles in keeping classical music (and hence, what we do in musicology) relevant to the general public that nobody taught younger audiences how to listen to music at an early age? I argue that we could help reverse that by creating a place for academia in the performance hall, and by welcoming performers into our own academic spaces more often. I absolutely believe that there is a time and place for strict, “high” scholarship, that there is a need to move our discipline forward independently for the sake of knowledge and academia (duh, or I wouldn’t be torturing my way through a PhD), but there are so many more possibilities for what we could be doing with our knowledge and skills to effect change and encourage societal participation. And hey, it might actually be fun!

There is not a single person who plunged, dove, or stumbled their way into musicology because they didn’t love music (making, hearing, playing, experiencing, feeling, teaching). It’s so easy to get caught up in what we perceive to be the requirements and limitations of our discipline (and fail to see the forest for the term paper trees sometimes). I get that; trust me, every grad student in Colloquium today looked just a little bit slap-happy. I just fervently wish for myself (and I know that many people in my field, most of my professors, wouldn’t agree with this) that I will find a way to effect change in the part that got me interested in this business in the first place: the concert hall. I’ll let you know when I figure out exactly how I’m going to do that.


Striving for Unhistorical

Oofdah, it’s all about the Nietzsche for me this week.


My professor pointed us toward Nietzsche’s “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” while he riffed on uses of myths during class today. I had long forgotten this essay from my undergraduate days and was happy to come home and peruse selections from it. No, don’t worry, I don’t read Nietzsche for fun. I mostly wanted to see if the writing was as difficult as I remember.

Surprise, it’s not!

Or maybe I’ve just spent too much time reading scholarship over the 4 years since I graduated from college. In any case, I remember reading some of this alongside Hegel and not understanding a word of the Hegel, but thinking that Nietzsche might have a couple things right. I have a feeling that I probably still won’t really understand Hegel. But Nietzsche, now he describes living in a way that I can find sort of palatable.

First off, the idea that the man who cannot live in the present moment will never find happiness:

“The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness or fear, will never know what happiness is. Even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy.”

Anyone who has recently scoured a Pinterest board or simply visited a motivational quote website has likely seen some form of this passage. It’s not a new social concept that living in the moment is one of the fastest ways toward happiness. Too much living in past experience can be detrimental to moving forward toward a fulfilling life. It’s hard for me to remember this one sometimes, mainly because I am a person who likes knowing what’s coming next and recognizes patterns from her past. But honestly, the past few weeks have afforded me many opportunities to let that side of myself go and really focus on being present (like I’ve been trying to do since the new year). Maybe it’s my school work load, maybe it’s having things to look forward to on the horizon, or maybe it’s simply the people in my life lately, but it’s been a lot easier to embrace this idea.

Second, the awareness that we, as people, must have of the struggles we’ve endured, but more importantly, the healing we’ve done in the interim:

“In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one’s self.”

Put simply, acknowledging that history has dealt us all wounds; knowing that it has shattered our souls in some way. But that truly living depends on moving forward and growing outward from those very healed wounds. Again, any young lady’s Pinterest board probably has some form of these words in a pretty little graphic. But it’s nice to think of these hardships as universal to the human condition long before the advent of .jpegs. Not every future experience has to come with the risk that those old wounds will be ripped open. And that’s a beautiful thing in itself, knowing that our imperfections are permanent, and that they will always be a part of who we are. And that they aren’t crippling or defining to our futures. That they are enduring, but not always reverberating.

Third, that forgetting and striving for the unhistorical are as essential to human happiness as remembering the historical:

“Cheerfulness, good conscience, joyful action, trust in what is to come–all this depends, with the individual as with a people, on the following facts: that there is a line which divides the observable brightness from the unilluminated darkness, that we know how to forget at the right time just as well as we remember at the right time, that we feel with powerful instinct the time when we must perceive historically and when unhistorically. This is the specific principle which the reader is invited to consider: that for the health of a single individual, a people, and a culture the unhistorical and the historical are equally essential.”

Basically, forward progress is dependent upon a balance between the historical and the unhistorical, between remembering and forgetting, between hurting and opening ourselves up to possibility.

Again, this seems like a major “duh” moment, but it’s hard for me to keep in mind that this balance is always what I should be looking for. Sometimes when I’m missing the forest for the trees, I need Nietzsche to grab me by the scruff of the neck and yank me back to look at the whole picture. Any amount of happiness is truly indebted to our continual striving to recognize the historical and find the unhistorical in our lives. What could happen if we embraced a position of unhistoricity? I’m going to wager quite a few good things!


Your Music Doesn’t Do It For Me, But I Like Your Words

I saw the following Cage quote on Instagram earlier this week:

“Be open to whatever comes next.”

The person who put the graphic up is not a Cage scholar, so I was immediately intrigued and curious about the source of the quotation and its original context. After some light Googling, I found this book review. Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats seems to be an attempt to create a spiritual biography about John Cage. Larson engages in her own dialogue with Cage. It’s an ambitious book, to say the least. Honestly, I probably won’t be picking up a copy, but the idea still seems interesting.

As a musician and a scholar, Cage’s music has never quite spoken to me. But his words always have. One of my most vivid memories of engaging with Cage, was not one in which I connected with Cage the composer, but Cage the man. A music theory paper I attended last year examined Cage’s music through his spirituality. Of course, I understand that I can’t separate these aspects of him, especially in light of his music, but I can find a way to connect with him through his words even if I can’t get on board with his art.

Cage likely meant the above quotation in the context of his music. He seems to have been asking his audience to open their minds to whatever might come next in the process. I like to think, though, that this is a universal sentiment: “be open to whatever comes next.” Cage goes on to say:

“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

To Cage, this is probably borne out in his art.

To me, this is about letting go of holding the reins to life so tightly. Easier said than done for this overachiever, but it’s a lesson that I need to keep reminding myself of. While this is certainly a way to achieve a sort of Zen-like existence, it also makes me think about all the aspects of my personality I would have to eschew in order to reach that plane.

Above all: ambition. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I am ambitious. I think that in order to exist in a highly competitive academic environment, you must be at least a little ambitious. Otherwise, you’ll never finish your doctorate. But what would it feel like to shift the focus from achieving my ambitions to allowing the results of my hard work to come back to me? What if, by sending only positive energy and thoughts out into the universe, the fruits of my ambitions and desires came back to me in a sort of Karma-like cycle?

This is a philosophy that has been popularized recently by the book The Secret. I won’t go into the full detail of that life philosophy (as it seems like mostly another self help book to me), but I think the main idea there is a good one. As a senior RA at NYU, my supervisor had all of us prepare what the book calls a “vision board” during winter training. The idea was that we come up with a list of things we ideally would want to come to us in the next year, and that by creating a physical manifestation of them (i.e. sending positive energy about those desires out into the universe), that we would increase the chances of attracting those things to us. Of course (no offense, Nekesa), but a lot of the tasks I completed for the sake of team-building as an RA didn’t speak to me all that much. But this one really stuck. And it’s a practice that I’ve continued every year since. Rather than just making a list of goals or ambitions or resolutions each year, we can take an active role in attracting their possible fulfillment. You place your vision board in a place of prominence upon completing it, hopefully somewhere that you will see it everyday, to remind you to always be sending those positive thoughts to the universe.

What is most interesting about this practice, to me at least, is that my vision boards have grown increasingly abstract since 2010. What was once a detailed list of bucket list experiences, places to see, and jobs or degrees to obtain, has turned into a collection of self-improvement values, intensely personal goals, types of people I want to include in my life, and the sorts of relationships that I want to develop. In other words, it’s become less about checking things off a list, and more about attracting and cultivating the sort of life I want to lead. A way of encouraging myself to “be open to whatever comes next.”

Let’s be honest, none of us really knows what to expect next out of life. As a die-hard planner, not having a clear picture of my future certainly makes me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I’ve seen time and again in my own life that one dead-end path (perhaps by choice or not), only opens us up to the possibility of a better and longer one in the future no matter how bleak that future may look from this current vantage point. Yes, life is a series of choices that we make, but isn’t the defining part the one where we choose what to do with what we’ve been given (or haven’t been given)?  A lot of people in my field talk about their lives beginning after graduate school, but the truth is that we’re already living those lives. I, for one, could be a lot better about affirming the life I’m already living.

Magical Thinking

Warning: I’m going to get a little weird and patchouli-ish on you right now.

I need to talk about a thing called “magical thinking.” Don’t worry, I’m not going to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat or make you pick a card or anything. I’m just going to ask you to open your mind to some slightly illogical thinking.

Have you ever just had a feeling about something, someplace, someone, but you couldn’t explain why, so you discarded that feeling?

I have always thought that I am, by nature, an extremely logical person. I fill in blanks when I’m not given enough information, and I draw conclusions based on what I’ve filled into those blanks.

But I’m starting to realize that while I am a very logical thinker, most of the time I’ve already formed solid opinions about situations, places, things, and people by the time I think through the logical consequences. I form these opinions based on feelings. But I tend to shy away from admitting that I’ve already made sense of my intuitions because I feel like I should rely on my logic. Ramsey Dukes would beg to differ:

“Trusting feeling is not a question of being swept away by it, it is a question of giving it as much value as reason and knowing how to use it.” (Ramsey Dukes in SSOTBME–An Essay On Magic–Revised)

I should probably explain the context of this advice before I try to (as my professor would say) “run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it.” The idea of magical thinking relies on accepting that there are world views which differ from the traditional Western one of a causal universe. The illustrious source of Wikipedia defines “magical thinking” as:

“the attributing of causal relationships between actions and events where scientific consensus says that there are none…It is a type of causal reasoning or causal fallacy that looks for meaningful relationships of grouped phenomena (coincidence) between acts and events.”

What is a causal universe? It rains because water evaporates into clouds when it’s hot, and eventually the clouds collect too much water. A 30-year-old man drops dead on the corner and an autopsy reveals that he had congenital heart failure.

What would be an example of magical thinking? It rains because because Aries is a sun sign. The man on the corner dropped dead because he had a curse set on him. (There are much more fantastic ways to explain magical thinking, but I happen to believe in a causal universe, so it makes it hard to stretch that mental muscle.)

Now, obviously, these are very extreme examples of two ways of looking at the world and navigating what we perceive to be reality. But there is some merit in considering the idea of trusting something other than logic. Dukes says that:

“…to really understand magic and its place in our society, it is more helpful to begin by considering it as a different way of thinking rather than as a distinct type of activity.” (vi)

I invite you to set aside logic for a moment and consider what would happen if you walked through life trusting your feelings, intuitions, hunches, and gut reactions more than your logic. While reason is certainly the most comfortable knee-jerk reaction for me to fall back on (believing in that causal universe and everything), I need to come to better terms with the fact that my reasoning skills and processes often do not rely on what I know about the causal universe I live in.

If I’ve learned anything about myself since last summer, it’s that I should trust my gut feelings more, and that I should not discard my intuition. Time and again, the value of my own “sixth sense” has proven to be just as reliable as my logical reasoning skills.

Of course, at some point, a healthy mixture of both would probably serve me best, but the lesson I take away from this is that suppressing intuition in favor of reason is not the only path. Maybe we don’t always have to choose between following our hearts or our heads, maybe we can choose both. That’s a liberating feeling, knowing that I don’t always have to make sense out of every situation.

And now, back to Game of Thrones. Spring Break is in full swing over here in Maryland.


“Me and Elgar Hit It Off”

A friend posted this absolutely fantastic review of a Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra concert by a sports writer. Yes, a sports writer. And he makes this absolutely brilliant point:

“I reckon me and Elgar hit it off. However it isn’t a test. They don’t give you marks. You don’t pass or fail. You experience. And it’s an experience that doesn’t need that explanation or base knowledge. You already have the base knowledge. You are a human that thinks and feels.”

I’m having trouble containing the pure joy I felt at reading these words. Somebody who has absolutely nothing to do with classical music and admits having nothing to do with classical music gets what I’ve been trying to explain to people for my entire life. You don’t need to know anything about classical music to understand it. And I don’t mean understand it entirely or understand the way it’s put together, or how the structure is made clear throughout, or how Elgar brings back that motive when you least expect it… I mean the parts of the music that are written BY humans and FOR humans. You don’t need to be technically versed to have something meaningful or important to say about classical music.

We all know something about art, and it’s time academics and musicians stop shutting the “lay people” out of the conversation. That’s essentially what we are doing by limiting the erudite conversation to one kind of analysis. The danger in limiting the discourse to only the musical elite is the eventual death of classical music in American cities and concert halls. Accessibility is key, and we are, frankly, making classical music inaccessible to those who have never played it or been formally educated in its language. There is a time and a place for scholarship, but maybe that time and place isn’t always in the concert hall.

I’ve been on this soapbox before, but I feel very strongly that something needs to change about the way that classical music is presented to non-musicians, particularly patrons of my generation. There are some very cool things going on already (see this great mashup of Bon Iver’s “Calgary” and a Bach chaconne by the ISO’s trio in residence), but more of this music needs to be arranged and played. This has to be one way to bring younger people to the concert hall.

I believe another way is wrapped up in Neil Atkinson’s review of Elgar. Just because he doesn’t use technical musical language to describe Elgar 2 doesn’t mean that we can’t find value in it. The following is just as meaningful (and perhaps even more so to the general public) as a close analysis by a musicologist:

“In the first movement I heard an initially joyous loss of innocence which became restless and regretful as it wore on. There was tenderness to the second movement, mourning the thing that had been regretted, not entirely able to let it go. In the third movement there was crushing process and in the fourth we are churned along before we return to the first initial flush though are probably a bit wiser, a bit smarter. Across the four movements, it was vigorously wistful if such a thing is possible. It confronted its reality but still wants to strive for more. Still believes more is possible.”

Doesn’t that passage say as much to you about music’s role in and relationship to humanity than what you’d find in a textbook? Sure, it may not be the most erudite reading of a complex work, but it’s still articulate, thoughtful, and rife with feeling that is usually missing from scholarly analysis. I’ve spoken a bit before about interpretive analysis, and this is a perfect example of what can happen for people if they feel free to do that sort of work alongside “listening in detail.” Elgar said something to Atkinson, and this is what it was. Why can’t we welcome more non-musicians into that space?

Okay, stepping down off soapbox. Enjoy some Elgar before you go.


Happy Hump Day!