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The sweet, warm scent of pollen is not the only thing that fills the air on campus during April. Along with its arrival comes end-of-school-year stress, fears over what to do after the semester ends and the dreaded backpacking season.
After reflecting on the fall semester during course selection, I realized that I felt empty from a lack of music in my life. While I enjoyed the one-credit chamber music class I was taking and felt grateful for the opportunity to play my clarinet with others even just one day a week, I missed the three-plus hours I would spend on music each day in high school.
It felt like my desire to have more music in my life was seeping out of me. My fingers would tap restlessly, longing for the repetition of practicing a challenging run on the clarinet over and over again. I missed being immersed in a single four-beat measure, playing the scale it was based in, switching up the rhythm and trying to trick myself into making a mistake — until the pads of my fingers knew only the right motion. I missed the pulsating feeling in my lower lip after a long practice session, a reminder that I’m alive and I get to create.
While I had no intentions of pursuing a major or minor in music, I felt empty without having several hours of music in my day. After feeling like part of my identity was missing, I joined the University Band and an a cappella group second semester, and found others who share the same sentiment. Indeed, there are many students in different colleges across campus who dedicate much of their time to music — who feel that it is such an intrinsic part of their identity they cannot let go of — but who’ve decided against majoring in it.
Some of these people grew up always being around music, while others stepped into their musical pursuits when they were drawn in by the welcoming community. I spoke with students who connected their craft with their studies of technology and politics, and who have found a bit of home in the music scene at the University of Michigan.
Freshman Michael West is a member of the Marching Band, the Basketball Band and the University Band, and he plays the trombone and euphonium — all while being a computer science major in the College of Engineering.
In terms of comparing the amount of time he spends on school versus his music extracurriculars, he explained, “Last semester when marching band was happening, I’d say it was probably 50:50, with the time load of marching band compared with … the homework for the coding class I was in.”
“I’d say right now, because I’m a freshman and my schedule is basically just core engineering classes that aren’t CS specific, I’m spending more time doing music,” West said.
For students like West, their passion for music and their non-music major are not isolated, but rather, they complement each other. They bridge the gap between their studies and the music that is intrinsic to their identity.
“My Engineering 100 section is called Music Signal Processing. Our final project is to build a music app based off of what we’ve learned in the class. And it’s all about like learning the physics and the coding behind music,” West explained.
West told me about research currently being conducted at the University that connects the fields of music and engineering with machine learning models that create computer-generated chorales:
“Basically you give a computer … a bunch of chorales, and in that case it would spit out its own chorale in that style. It learns the rules and patterns by itself and tries to recreate that or something similar.”
Claire Arp, an LSA sophomore majoring in economics with an intended minor in Native American studies, plays several dozen instruments as an auxiliary percussionist and a guitarist.
At the beginning of our conversation, Arp proudly showed me her recent purchase.
“It is a Squier Stratocaster.”
She held up a shiny electric guitar, turning it so I could see the instrument from all angles.
“It’s very pretty … if I was given the choice to save it or my own life, I would have to think about it for a little bit.”
Arp, whose main interests are political advocacy and policy, also found little dissonance between her musical passion and her non-music major. She noted the parallels in how she approaches her study of music and of politics, and the similarities between the fields.
“The way that I have learned how to do music is mostly through finding some type of music that I really enjoy, some song or album or artist that I really like, and just absorbing that and figuring out what they are doing in particular. And that is what I started doing with politics — I’m finding political figures and advocates and commentators that I like … and kind of absorbing how they do things,” Arp said.
These kinds of modeling, intense observation skills and desire to pull things apart and find meaning, works across disciplines.
In my own statistics class, I’ve noticed that the process of writing code for a graph is just like working through a fast run on the clarinet. When I’m coding a graph, I start by cleaning the data, adding rudimentary labels to my variables and filtering out the ones I don’t want, along with any responses where the answer was “N/A.” Once the data set is cleaned, I write \n in my labs() command to give myself a symmetrical title, use stat_smooth() to make the graph less noisy and change my colors to make it as visually pleasing and easy to interpret as possible.
I work through the same steps when practicing the clarinet: I first have to go through the basic motions of learning the notes and counting out the rhythm so that I can play it cleanly. But then it’s on to smaller elements. I have to make sure that the frenetic movement of my fingers does not get sloppy and allow for a listener to hear the metal keys hitting the wood joints. And I make sure that I don’t change my embouchure and air speed as I meander above and below the register. Just like I might experiment with geom_violin or geom_bar commands to see how my data looks on different types of graphs, I try out alternate fingerings that give me a smoother sound. It is the practice of focusing on these small elements that makes all the difference.
When I came to campus, I quickly became aware of the stereotypes surrounding each major — of what it meant to be a business major or an engineer, a math major or a musical-theater student.
When thinking about what to study, I considered the associations people have with each major and whether I fit into them.
A fun and notably accurate example of these characterizations is found on the Instagram meme account @cccb_umich. The page takes characters from “Peppa Pig,” “Mean Girls,” “Monsters University” and “Sesame Street” and assigns them to a major that fits their personality and overall vibe.
I enjoy scrolling through these posts and seeing if I or the people I know are similar to these characters. After all, Peppa is undeniably film, Janis Ian is clearly sociology and of course, Big Bird, with his curiosity and big smile, is environmental science.
But beyond these light-hearted categorizations of students based on their interests are harmful preconceptions. Trying to encompass all of the personalities and layered interests of people in each major into one archetype can make people feel that the major isn’t for them.
But majors and the labels they come with don’t necessarily box people in. For some people, the opposite is true.
Quinn Newman, a sophomore majoring in RC drama and film, television and media (FTVM) and minoring in music, explained that their music and theater-oriented majors gave them an opportunity to lean into their full identity.
“The performing arts are definitely a very safe space for people who are queer and nonbinary like me … I think when I started theater and music I had no idea what being gay or nonbinary was, I was that young and I did not have that sort of education. But you know, the (theater) community … does tend to gear towards a lot of people in the LGBTQ community, so it’s definitely a place that I feel like really allowed to be myself,” they said.
They spoke about a recent production in which the structure of the roles allowed them to perform as their authentic self.
“As someone who is nonbinary, it’s definitely been a great opportunity here to play roles that aren’t necessarily specifically gendered … Recently I played Love in the RC Players production of ‘Everybody,’ and I think almost every character in that show has no gender, because they are all concepts like friendship and kinship and love and death so, it was such a great and versatile play to do because anybody could have been cast in any role. And I think it was really great to play love as myself rather than as a prewritten version of love,” Newman said.
A validating connection between oneself and art can form in all sorts of spheres, regardless of whether or not you happen to be majoring in that genre of art. Arp, for example, highlighted the connection between her identity as a trans woman to hyperpop, a modern style of music.
She described hyperpop as “the modern autotune track type of thing, coupled with like industrial, and experimental electronic, and electro-clash, and bubblegum pop, and just a massive massive fusion of all kinds of different genres.”
“It’s a genre of music that is very much the internet. It is kind of a musical reflection of internet culture,” she said. “And that entire musical scene is a very very very gay place.”
“The standard-bearers right now is a duo called 100 gecs, and one of the people in it, Laura Les, is a trans woman who is my hero and also I’m in love with her,” Arp said.
She talked about the origin story of one of her favorite bands, Against Me!, whose lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, is also a trans woman.
“In 2014, their front woman comes out as trans, and when that happens, like half of the band leaves, and it almost destroys the band, and people thought they might just be over. But the one person who stayed, they reformed the band, and wrote one of the best albums ever made. It’s a punk album called Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”
Arp explained the deep roots of the history of trans musicians and electronic music, and the pioneers in both the movement for trangender rights and the rise of electronic music.
“There’s this whole meme about like, the most perfect duo imaginable is a trans woman and a synthesizer. From today with like your Laura Les and your hyperpop world, back to literally the beginning of electronic music. The first person to ever win a Grammy for an electronic music anything in the (’70s) was actually a trans woman, Wendy Carlos …she’s one of my heroes,” Arp said.
During my first semester here, I felt grateful for the way that music grounded me in my identity.
Shortly after the end of a long-term relationship, I decided to take myself on a date to see the Michigan Pops Orchestra at the Michigan Theater. I felt anxious as I sat in the audience waiting for the lights to dim. While the point of the excursion was to become comfortable with just my own company, I secretly wished that anyone who saw me would assume that I had come with another person, who was maybe running late or in the bathroom.
The orchestra happened to be playing “Mars,” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” suite. I had listened to “Mars” on repeat over quarantine, pulling apart its rhythms and focusing on different layers of the sound each time. I love it for its chaos, its unrelenting and regimented 5/4 time signature, and crescendos from the brass section that give way to impossibly difficult woodwind chromatic runs. The endings of many phrases are joltingly chopped off, a contrast to the usual instruction of conductors to carry phrases over the bar line. The sound is furious, mysterious, evil and almost romantic at times, with string parts that stretch with vibrato.
I soaked up every measure, in awe of the beautiful, in-person performance that was coming together on stage in front of me. Bittersweet tears of relief filled my eyes as I felt the closing of two phases of my life, quarantine and that relationship. And in that moment, when I felt disconnected from myself, being away from home and having lost someone who felt like home for a period of time, I realized that I know who I am: I am a musician. It’s not my entire identity, but it’s whole and it’s mine and it’s something I love.
In college, I’ve made peace with the fact that music is my piece of home I can take wherever I go — major or no major.
West recalled his first music-related memory going to see his dad play in a community band.
“I went to my first concert when I was like three weeks old or something apparently. And they always had this children’s concert once a year, and my dad plays trombone, and there’s a photo of me holding the trombone at like age four or something, and playing it. So growing up I kind of always knew I was going to play the trombone.”
And Newman explained, “Music has always been a very big part of my life … with all of my combined interests, music is kind of a tie-in.”
For me, music has been a connecting thread across all parts of my everyday life, from listening to my dad play the “Peanuts” theme song on the piano when I was very little, or passing someone in the hallway on the way to my dorm room, waiting for the quintuplet beat of them walking down the stairs. I blast “Rhapsody in Blue” in my headphones on my way to my chemistry lab to gather my confidence. And I listen to its marcato brass parts in my head as I watch the gradual decrescendo of an intensely pigmented Red 40 dye during serial dilutions.
So why not spend a career pursuing music, starting with a music major?
I have been somewhat put off by my image of the music industry as a place where everyone is replaceable, and the pressure of being outplayed by newer, younger talent.
Arp in particular explained that she feels a responsibility to focus on her policy-related interests:
“I’m trans, and there’s a certain extent of — oh, I have the capabilities to get involved in political things and advocacy and actually possibly make a legitimate difference … there’s a certain part of me (that thinks) it would be nice to get a degree in music and spend my life playing guitar, but like, I kind of need to make sure I have rights and that the Earth doesn’t catch on fire … I feel like I have a responsibility to focus more on my interests in politics and advocacy.”
And other students cited logistical difficulties of pursuing music from a different college within the university.
“There was some confusion about whether the music major was available to LSA students, and … having to grab an advisor from SMTD specifically that’s only for my music minor and SMTD things, it’s been a little hard to navigate,” Newman said.
It’s not unreasonable to wonder why college students with busy schedules and varied interests choose to spend so much of their time making music as an extracurricular. For many people, it is the community that draws them back to their practice.
Newman, for example, is still friends with the people they performed with at age 9, now 11 years later.
Toward the end of our conversation, they credited their former jazz band director, Vaughn Ambrose.
“I feel like he sort of saw something in me that I didn’t, and he was very much there to foster a love of music for me.”
While preparing for a college audition, Newman reached out to Ambrose for guidance.
It did not go unnoticed that Newman mentioned the name of their former conductor. It’s a common but respectful move — to take care of those who took care of you.
My closest friendships in high school were with other musicians, relationships that remain strong. Bonds form quickly when you experience the sweatiness of marching band, the jokes from conductors that get old very quickly, the heavy emotions that come with chair auditions and the hours upon hours of time spent on weekends, nights and in classes together.
“My best friends, I’ve gotten from the marching band. We’re a pretty tight section, I hang out with them a bunch of times a week, even in the off season when marching band is not happening … (There’s) a sense of community, you know, going on trips. I went to the NCAA tournament and that was pretty cool.”
Something so special about music is that the relationship we can have with it emulates music itself. With its dynamic swells and sound that retreats only to grow again, it’s something we can always come back to.
The woody clarinet sound in “Molly on the Shore,” one of my favorite songs, will always be waiting for me when I tune back in. I can count on the smooth French horn sound to cradle me across the waves, like the ship rocking back and forth that I imagine when I listen to it. And I know it will make me smile with its clarinet features and almost comical speed. It’s like an old familiar friend who you can call after two months without talking and pick up right where you left off.
This is what keeps people coming back to their music, whether it’s in their curriculum or not, semester after semester.
Statement Correspondent Caitlin Lynch can be reached at email@example.com
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