They were shaken by this searing music. “How can I do work after that?”
It’s been my privilege to teach thousands of music students in my time at Princeton. Only a tiny percentage of them have had career aspirations in music. I’m deeply proud of the achievements of those who did go on, but no less proud of the attorneys, teachers, engineers, etc., who made time for orchestral playing while here.
What brought me to Princeton 37 years ago was the opportunity to conduct. What kept me here is the richness of the teaching experience that revealed itself. It’s very much the diversity of student backgrounds and interests that helps create such richness. There is, of course, no area here that does not provide splendid teaching opportunities, but the arts provide pathways of knowledge into ourselves—particularly that area we call the heart— that are unique. Minds at Princeton are honed, critical abilities brought to a keen edge that will last a lifetime. But the heart needs fertilization as well, and at Princeton, the performing arts faculty try to do so in a way that both supports, and draws support from, intellectual rigor.
In a recent season, the Princeton University Orchestra was rehearsing concert excerpts from the opera Tristan und Isolde, one of the peaks of 19th-century Romanticism. In the last minutes of a rehearsal, we were playing through the closing passage of the Act I prelude, a profound expression of desperate longing and unfulfilled desire— maybe not a state easy to express for many in the college years. I had taken time in rehearsal to talk about how Wagner achieves this emotional state using harmony, with delayed resolution, and I hoped that that would help the students find a path into the music’s meaning. We ended that night with the shattering climax, I thanked everyone for their work, and said good night. This time, instead of quickly filing out to do schoolwork, the members left the stage in seeming slow motion. Something had changed. I looked down from the podium and saw the first stand of violinists, seniors Nick and Brianna, still sitting, faces slack, eyes welling. I knew that it had happened for them (and others)—Wagner’s dark magic had entered directly into their nervous systems and flooded into their hearts. Their cognitive minds, sharpened over three years by the rigor of their classes and research, had been bypassed in a way they had not experienced or expected, and they were shaken by this searing music. “How can I do work after that?” Nick finally asked. “Well, that’s what Wagner does. You always need some recovery time,” I said.
Recover I’m sure they did…but once Wagner speaks to you, you’re never quite the same, never fully recover. Brianna and Nick have taken their abilities in critical thinking, acquired with so much hard work, into their post-Princeton lives, where those abilities will always serve them well. They also have had the experience of Wagner’s white-hot beauty emblazoned on their hearts, and they will be ambassadors for beauty, wherever they go.
All of the performing arts professionals at Princeton have tales like this, and many former students tell us that as their Princeton experience recedes into the past, some of the most lasting memories are about beauty that they themselves created, with which they branded their own hearts.
It’s the best job in the world. Really.