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A Very Good Place To Start

Kwasi Enin

In the spring of 2014, a 17-year old from Long Island named Kwasi Enin did something no one had ever done before: he got accepted to all eight Ivy League schools at once. While it appears unprecedented that Master Enin was simultaneously accepted to Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, U. Penn, and Yale, and that he deserves all the credit for achieving such a distinction, this is not really what I’m writing about. I am writing about what got him in.

Yes, he had top grades and a phenomenal SAT score. No doubt, you’d likely have to have those two things minimum to get into all 8 Ivies. What really caught my eye was his essay. It’s all about music. Music is Kwasi’s passion. He played violin in the orchestra, sang in the choir, and acted in the school musical. He described these activities as having a profound effect on his development and achievement. In Kwasi’s own words:

“I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music… As I began to explore a minute fraction of these combinations from the third grade onward, my mind began to formulate roundabout methods to solve any mathematical problem, address any literature prompt, and discover any exit in an undesirable situation.”

Wow. That’s heavy praise. The concurrent ability to negotiate both the STEMs (I know he only mentions mathematics, but I think it’s safe to say that a guy who got into all eight Ivies is probably pretty good at the STEs, too) and Humanities and to quickly think on one’s feet? And all because of music? C’mon. Sounds like an exaggeration. A magic bullet. Too good to be true.

Well, those who have any intimate involvement with music—or sometimes even a cursory involvement—have an idea of where Kwasi is coming from. It is no secret among musicians that music is a type of enabler. It possesses a special kind of magic. It can accelerate ability. It can do a million inexplicable things, really. Even if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument, you know how powerful the emotions are when you only even hear a piece of music from an earlier time. It instantly transports you back to that time. You probably feel something you can’t quite describe. You might cry. Or, think of listening to a piece of music and getting caught up in the moment. How long did that piece of music last? Can you say? Music has that rare quality of transcending time.

But I’m probably overdoing it. Because I really don’t have to extol the virtues of music. I’d venture to say that anyone reading this post gets what I’m saying.

Even so, what struck me about Kwasi’s essay was that he chose to write about music at all, because he could have written about anything, especially to get into the Ivy Leagues. What is even more amazing is that he linked music directly to his ability to achieve academically, especially because he says in his essay that he wants go to into medicine. To me, that took guts. Certainly, the Ivies produce their share of musicians. But when one imagines the Ivies— or at least trying to get into them— one might imagine the “book” smarts side of things, and that the arts would not count for very much. (At the same time, I suppose that a passion for the arts in addition to superior scholastic achievement shows well-roundedness, and this might have been attractive to the admissions committees. All eight of them). Thus I stand in stark admiration of Kwasi’s gutsiness. Because it seems to me that claiming that music is what gives you your academic prowess might be risky, even reckless. You can almost imagine the admissions committees, ceremoniously tossing their heads back in chortles, exchanging knowing glances and sniffing, “Har-har-har. Music? This one’s a looney,” and taking great delight in dragging a great big red X across the essay. Though, in his own defense, Kwasi didn’t think he was going to get into a single Ivy League school (he applied to all eight to increase his chances), so maybe he figured, what do I have to lose?

And yet, that essay about music (along with the circa 2300 SAT score and straight A’s) must have resonated with the admissions people. It must have. Or I probably would not be writing about this right now. And I know that my portrayal of admissions committees is a cartoonish stereotype, because admissions committees are made up of pretty smart people actually. And they must have been pretty impressed with how Kwasi made his case about music’s ability to accelerate his learning— in all areas.

So why do I bring all this up? Well, I wanted you to understand how I came up with the name of my blog, a life in music. It comes from two places. One is from something that one of the research participants in my dissertation said. He said that his music entrepreneurship teacher didn’t use the word “career” to describe what her students would have after graduating, but she instead used the term, “a life in music.” His point was that she believed a career would likely be comprised of piecing together various types of musical and non-musical activities and that the musician would probably have to create these activities, create a life in music. I liked that. A life in music. It sounded, for lack of a better term, grand. Like a journey waiting to happen. That certainly has been my experience, that I’ve been on a rather exciting if unpredictable excursion as a musician. And I felt that I could share some of the scenery— pretty and otherwise— and the stops along the way.

Then I began to wonder if someone had already used the title “a life in music”. It turns out they had. There is at least one book called “A life in music,” which is about child prodigy pianist and conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim. There is also a piece in The Guardian magazine about child actor-turned rock star wanna be Macaulay Culkin, who apparently leads a “pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band,” an unlikely combination of unlikely things.

And then there is Kwasi Enin’s essay. It’s titled “Common App Draft #4- a life in music.” (I presume Common App stands for Common Application, a simplified way to apply to several schools at once, and Draft #4 was probably his final draft, the one he submitted.) Kwasi’s essay is what really sold me on using the title for this blog. Because I was heartened to learn that his incredible achievement was essentially predicated on a music platform.

That gives me hope. It bolsters what I’ve always believed, that music is a powerful force for good in the world. I’m happy to see that people in positions of influence recognize its value, not as some addendum to the more “important” things in life, but right alongside those other things, equal in importance. At least, that is my take on the whole thing. Optimistic. Which is how I’d like to remain. Because while times might be tougher than ever for musicians, they are also more full of possibility. A life in music is what you make it. For better or worse.

So this blog will do a number of things. It will, as I already mentioned, sometimes take a look at my own life in music. At other times, it will explore how things in the world are affecting a life in music for musicians on the whole. Some posts may be philosophical, others just for fun, but all with the overarching aim of getting a conversation started. So I would really like to hear comments from readers. That's what makes this blogging thing so worthwhile-- it's a democracy where all voices matter. In general, I want to leave it open and write about what feels natural at the moment. I’ll try to do that weekly.

Why a blog? Well, more than one person in the last couple of years has suggested I write a blog. They felt both my personal and academic experiences were worthy of sharing with a larger audience. At first, I was reluctant to blog (I still am, actually). I really didn’t think anything I would have to say would be of value. And maybe it won’t. I guess time will tell. But at least based on the opinions of those who encouraged me to blog, my perspective might be valid, probably no less so than the many other bloggers out there who broadcast their musings to the world. I also feel like blogging is how we as a people document our times, like a collective consciousness in prose. I’ve found over the years that I increasingly turn to blogs for information, not necessarily for factual information (there’s Wikipedia for that, *college admissions committee chortling*) but to gain perspective: what does the average person think about so and so? As it turns out, those average people are not so average, because by blogging, their thoughts and ideas influence others in enormous numbers and rise to the top. In turn, they become influential people themselves. Anything but average. Well, all those folks started someplace— with one post. And thus, with this one post, I go out on a limb and take my chances.

Just like Kwasi Enin did.

And so as Julie Andrews said, we “start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.”

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