Reflections on Liberal Arts and Late Bloomers

Vassar College library

The Vassar College library, by Matt DeTurk on Flickr

Last week I had the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds at Vassar College. I was there to sit on a panel of alumni discussing careers in the arts with students and parents. It’s not an easy thing to talk about—arts-driven “careers”—and the panel, comprised of two visual artists, a novelist, and myself, did not shy away from talking about the instability and general uncertainty of working in a creative field. We all presented different approaches to building a life in the arts, and I think the conversations left students with the accurate impression that there is no one right way to be an artist.

Wandering around campus (and noting how comforting it is that the inside of the buildings still smell the same) I felt immensely grateful for the education I received there. I am quite certain that had things unfolded differently, I would not be a composer today, and I think there are plenty of young people out there now who, like my younger self, need something a bit different than the laser-focused, technical musical education one might receive at a conservatory or through some other types of programs.

The argument that a liberal arts education has no workplace value holds no water for those who actually hold liberal arts degrees and also have perfectly good jobs. Aside from the basic essentials that a liberal arts education provides—you know, the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems, not to mention assorted other “soft skills”—there is the simple fact that a teenager entering college often has no clue what s/he would like to pursue as a career. Some don’t figure it out until after college (the acclaimed novelist on the panel was a psychology major, and never took a single English class in college!), and others don’t figure it out ever. (This is by no means a terrible thing—these people are often fantastically interesting and smart about a myriad of subjects.)

I entered college fully intending to pursue the visual arts (way to pick the lucrative fields, right?) and in fact debated between attending an art school or a liberal arts college. In the end, I decided it would probably be smart to learn some other stuff in addition to art, just in case. It turned out to be a wise move, because I quickly changed my mind about a studio art major after enrolling in an electronic music class. The lure of being able to make my own sounds was too enticing, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Although I grew up studying piano and singing in the school chorus, I did not start noodling on an instrument at age three or composing symphonies at age seven, and I never did counterpoint exercises at the breakfast table. Rather, I was at times a super pain in the butt for my very patient piano teacher, and I had barely touched the tip of the music theory iceberg by the time I arrived at college. That’s a late start, but at the time I had no idea whatsoever that I was running behind. And happily, no one ever mentioned it.

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The beautiful thing about the small music department at Vassar was that it didn’t really matter. As I dutifully plowed (and sometimes slogged) through the music major requirements (there were a lot—aside from pre-med, music had the largest required course load), I was receiving, in addition to that core knowledge, a fantastically eclectic musical education. There were two wonderful composition professors—Annea Lockwood and Richard Wilson—whose musical philosophies were worlds apart (and they got along—go figure!). I fell in love with the music of George Crumb, Steve Reich, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Messaien, while meeting in person Nicholas Collins, Charles Amirkhanian, Kyle Gann, and Conlon Nancarrow. I had a job working for composer Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening organization just up the road. As a percussion student, I played in the orchestra, performed Elliott Carter’s timpani etudes, and participated in the performance art works of other students. I never felt a sense of competition (in the negative sense) with my peers, nor was I particularly aware that composing competitions existed in the outside world. That was just fine; it wasn’t time for such things yet.

This is all well and good, but one could conceivably have those experiences at a forward-thinking music conservatory, right? Well, maybe so. But the other piece of the puzzle lies in the acquisition of knowledge outside of one’s focus. The study of topics such as astronomy, geology, biology, and Italian, just to name a few examples, open windows to the workings of the world, and as a result add richness and nuance to whatever one’s focus might be. I actually discovered the music of Benjamin Britten not through a music class, but rather via a Modern German Literature in Translation course, for which I wrote a paper about his opera Death in Venice. Through courses in religion (so many that I considered declaring it as a minor field of study), I became fascinated by the concept of ritual throughout world cultures, of storytelling, of the power of the human mind to conjure explanations for, and forge universal connections between, life events both significant and run-of-the-mill. By having the opportunity to dig deeply into a variety of topics that were interesting to me, I learned how to explore the nature of creativity in a meaningful way and discovered how to engage with ideas that would later serve as conceptual stepping-stones for the development of musical works. While possessing a deep and ever-growing understanding of one’s craft is obviously necessary, there are a lot of other things that can help pull a person to the composing desk (or the easel, or the potter’s wheel) each morning.

After college graduation, the road has continued to unfold in a similarly eclectic way, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It certainly isn’t an easy life, but then it’s not easy for anyone regardless of how focused their training may have been. Many of us have musical lineages that are more patchwork quilt than classic pinstripe, but the past and present of any artistic discipline are inextricably linked regardless of how the connections are formed or which version makes it to the history books. These interconnections are what make it is so exciting to be an artist in this day and age.

So the next time someone asks, “A music/philosophy/history/religion/you-name-it major? What on earth are you going to do with that?” A perfectly sensible response might be, “The sky’s the limit.”

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Liberal Arts and Late Bloomers

  1. Paul H. Muller

    “…, the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems, not to mention assorted other “soft skills”…”

    Thank you for that. Education is about how you learn, not what you know. I know any number of electrical engineers whose college work was based on components and parts now long obsolete. College as vocational training is a losing proposition. The liberal arts will serve you for a lifetime.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Alexandra Gardner Reflects on a Liberal Arts Education | Sketch Modern

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