Retrospective Dual-Degree Dilemma, or Chellomistry

By Richard Mazuski

During my undergraduate career (completing a dual-degree at Northwestern in cello and chemistry), I constantly questioned the utility of what one degree could do for the other: “What’s the value of my background and higher education as a cellist if I’m going to become a chemist?” or vice versa. Besides synthesizing a better rosin or looking at the composition of varnish, how could chemistry inform cello performance?

Well, fortunately for music-lovers and chemist/cellists everywhere, Alexander Borodin led a fascinating dual-life. As a chemist, he was a postdoc under Emil Erlenmeyer (who invented that namesake flask!!), published articles through 1875, and independently discovered the aldol reaction in 1872. His ‘secondary’ career was as a Russian composer and member of the ‘Mighty Handful.’ Later, I was amused to learn that a physical chemistry professor at FSU, Michael Kasha, designed a more efficient guitar which could reach an idealized potential for sounding louder and more sustained. Beyond these anomalies, however, it wasn’t until I had to articulate what I had been doing with my undergraduate education for statements of purpose that I realized some fundamental, work-based connections between physical chemistry (specifically the lab work) and cello. A few of these include:

  • Probability of ‘success’ is incredibly time-dependent, yet there is no guarantee that your time will lead to the result you hoped for.
  • They are much more fun to pursue in the rare occurrence when everything is clicking
  • They require a balance of long-term project planning (repertoire cycles or research goals) and day-to-day grinding/details
  • Learning from reaching a breaking point in your knowledge/technique

Besides the grandiose ideas of how these fields are related, here are some points of advice I wish I could have shared with myself four years ago.

Things a cellist could have learned from a chemist:

  1. Know your background material and build from it
    • For a chemist, your research needs to fit into some pre-existing model, either to disprove it or to add a layer of detail. This presupposes complete digestion of the previous material. I feel musicians should be aware of and use more resources which can help create an idea for a piece before practicing it.
  2. Be less sensitive/defensive to criticism
    • This is a big one for me, and I know it is difficult. Music performance is so closely linked to who we feel we are as a person, and it is possible to perceive any criticism as a jabbing insult quickly. Scientific discourse allows for direct statements about how one has conducted their research, and these criticisms can be jarring. Ultimately, the objective nature of the commentary is directed towards the betterment of scientific understanding.  Perhaps there is a balance to be struck here, for as we are all trying to learn, closing yourself to criticism is not a good way to improve.
  3. Ask more questions in your classes/lessons!
    • Chemistry research is all about answering questions with respect to previous knowledge. I think for a music student, a good place to start asking questions is in private lessons, especially if a good relationship has been formed with the instructor. Asking intelligent questions is impossible without good understanding, and is also a highly efficient means of solving problems. The instructor, if competent, will give a clear and thorough answer or set you on the correct trajectory to find it out for yourself.
  4. Treat your practice room as a laboratory; decrease the variables!
    • This is something that has been interesting to a bunch of us musicians for quite a time. The active practice room, (as written by fellow blogger Henry Myers) includes learning from what you’re doing. Adaptive learning means treating your work less like an automaton and more like advanced AI. A way I like to think of practicing is decreasing variables and increasing the probability of a favorable outcome. Just like a measurement in quantum mechanics, you can never guarantee the same result out of a system (ie- your performances, even if prepared for equivalently, will be different), but you can drive the probability function in a certain direction.

Things a chemist could have learned from a cellist:

  1. You’re only as good as your practice!
    • Chemistry skills such as presentation, lab techniques, or your own understanding, take time and practice to refine. I know that some groups and universities stress undergraduate lab work and practice of technique more than others, but for graduate school, I wish there were a common set of lab techniques that everyone could learn and refine in a less independent manner. Communicating science is the other big one, and practicing this unfamiliar skill and keeping people engaged in your story might serve society better as a whole.
  2. Learn how to speak the basic language before asking (or trying to answer) too many questions!
    • Just as a cellist first learns to use basic finger-patterns (say D major over the A and D strings) and note names to create tunes, a chemist could benefit from fully mastering a basic vocabulary before trying to tackle complex problems. Eventually, a cellist will learn how the elements that compose music emerge music theory, and hopefully find everything from their foundation explained and expanded. Chemistry research, too, would benefit from a stronger foundation in the language of science without getting jargon-y. It is easy to use a cop-out answer by throwing out big terms which no one wants to ask more about. It is difficult to start from simple and accurate models, making sure the listeners are on board from the beginning.

I hope you have enjoyed quick ideas about being a cellist/chemist. Have you encountered any fun chemistry-cello relations? Do you find there’s anything else musicians could learn from various fields? Comment below!

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