I am a musician. I started to play the piano when I was 5 and the violin when I was 6. I got a viola when I turned 10 and started voice lessons at 12. When I was 14, I started teaching both violin and singing. I taught consistently (even while traveling) until I had an unfortunate accident (I fell off the roof of my house, breaking a bunch of bones and sustaining a head injury at the end of the first year of my PhD) and needed to take a break from music while I recovered and focused on my studies. My approach to academic teaching and research is grounded in lessons learned as a musician.
As a musician, you quickly learn that practice does not really make perfect, despite how frequently that phrase is said. There is an quote from Jascha Heifetz that is perhaps more apt: “If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it”. The same thing can be said for progress made in other areas of life, such as learning and research. After a day, you notice what you have done. After a week, your friends (teachers, and mentors) notice what you have done, and after a month, other people notice what you have done. The last piece, of course, is only relevant if you step outside of your corner of the world and share what you have been working on with others.
I love singing in choirs, playing in bands, quartets, and orchestras. Spontaneous jam sessions or kitchen parties may be one of my favourite things in the world. People know that there is a need to blend your contribution with that of the other musicians. While there may be a soloist, more often than not the melody (or power if we compare music to collaborative research) gets shifted from person to person, with each supporting one another and everyone working towards a shared goal.
Perhaps the most important lesson from music that I always try to instill when working in communities or teaching, is that interpretation is the key to a beautiful performance, but interpretation does not work in isolation. You still need to be technically proficient and rigorous in your approach. If you haven’t mastered the technical skills and know the notes, you will not be able to move your audience to a place of joy or a place of sadness. It is only through the combination of the master of skill and a solid interpretation vetted by external listeners through hours of practice and dress rehearsals that memories of a strong performance can linger well after the curtain is drawn and the audience has gone home.
What I bring to the table through my research, teaching and mentorship is my ability to foster a space for people to work together to answer relevant questions and plan a path forward. As a musician, when performing, I like to start off quietly, to build the piece of music adding more and more voices or instruments, until the work is so powerful the audience can’t help but take notice. The same holds true with my research and education. I take my ques from the people I work with. Sometimes I am the one who takes the lead, while other times it is others who do so (other academics, community members, students, policy makers or other stakeholders). No one person has all the answers. It is when we work together, that something meaningful and memorable can be created.