My research examines ways for classical musicians to design concert programs, commission new music, and use their platform to engage in political musical activity. 

 
Faculty of Arts
Rochester
United States
UBC Public Scholars Award
 

Research Description

My research examines different ways that classical musicians can engage in political musical activity through programming choices, use of public platforms, and commissioning composers. Composers Joel Thompson and Peter Shin are writing two new pieces for my Public Scholars project. Joel’s piece will be a set of songs based on poetry written by prison inmates, and Peter’s will be a work for speaking pianist. I will premiere these pieces in a lecture-recital based around my dissertation.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

It means I have the opportunity to show how my work is useful outside of the university. People are often surprised to learn there is a doctorate degree in classical piano performance. Musicians can internalize, to some degree, an idea that we’re not really academics, or not “scholars” in the traditional mold. Being a Public Scholar reinforces that there is a value to this type of scholarship, and that it is relevant outside of the music school.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

A lot of my work is independent and isolated, and collaboration mostly happens with other students in the school of music. The Public Scholars Initiative can reimagine the PhD experience by facilitating connections between scholars in different disciplines and finding common threads in our research. Making the PhD more broadly collaborative, with other students and the public, can unlock a lot of innovation. Until I applied to the PSI, I hadn’t considered commissioning pieces for my research. This adds a different dimension to my work that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

In the long run, I hope to work with organizations and musicians who are interested in changing our industry. In the last several years, I’ve noticed that a lot of musicians ask what the public can do for us, rather than what we can do for the public. I would like to apply my PhD work to teaching at a university or artistic planning, somewhere I could encourage the commissioning and programming of socially conscious music. Musical organizations are looking for new ways to create meaningful outreach programs and community partnerships, and I’d like to apply my work to that as well.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My research explores ways classical musicians can use their platform to be advocates and allies for today’s social issues. Inherently, there’s an opportunity to connect that work with likeminded advocates and organizations. Thanks to the PSI, I’m collaborating with two great composers who have free rein to write pieces addressing social issues they care about. Performing these works amplifies their voices and spotlights these issues, and gives audiences a chance to learn and engage with them as well. Joel Thompson, one of the composers, is writing a set of songs based on poems written by prison inmates. Mass incarceration is a huge problem, and the set is a way to draw attention to that problem and also presents a lot of options for collaboration with groups outside of the musical community.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

Even for musicians, it can be hard to see how studying centuries-old works by mostly European and male composers concretely helps the “public good.” I’m trying to make the point that there are ways for musicians to make their work to relevant to contemporary problems. I also hope that presenting these issues to audiences in a concert can expose people to ideas they may not have considered. Classical music has an older, whiter, sometimes more conservative audience—but there’s an opportunity to challenge people to step outside of their bubble. Even when presenting a viewpoint your audience may agree with, a musical performance adds a powerful emotional dimension. Joel Thompson wrote a piece called Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which sets to music the last words of seven unarmed black men killed by police or authority figures. Even if listeners are aware of this problem and understand the statistics, hearing this piece performed is a visceral, powerful experience that personalizes the issue and has the power to change the way people think about it.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Entering the last year of my undergraduate degree, I felt way behind where I wanted to be in my own musicianship and technical ability. I decided to enter a two-year certificate program before starting a masters so that I had time to focus on improving. The piano department was probably 80% graduate students, so there was a very clear model to follow. The older students I knew and respected had gone on to doctoral studies. The conventional wisdom was that a doctorate would give you the time and resources to reach the highest level of artistry and also have the best chances at future employability. So it was a logical next step, without much risk. I wish I had a more interesting answer, but it didn’t feel like a momentous decision at the time.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

By the time I applied to UBC, I had lived in Los Angeles and studied at the same school for eight years. Even though things were going well, I also didn’t want to get complacent. I felt like there was basically just one path left for me if I stayed, and I needed new challenges to keep growing. I thought the program at UBC would give me new opportunities and a chance to branch out. And that has been true, in ways I could not even have imagined—through programs like PSI and a ton of unique performance opportunities that would be impossible to find anywhere else.

 

My research explores ways classical musicians can use their platform to be advocates and allies for today’s social issues. Thanks to the PSI, I’m collaborating with two great composers who have free rein to write pieces addressing social issues they care about.