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From Music Rooms to Policy Meetings: Taking Lessons from a Life in Music
Axelle Miel, former Cohort Leader, Ensemble Ambassadors
I started playing the violin when I was four years old. In the 17 years since, I’ve competed nationally, joined orchestras and chamber ensembles, participated in an El Sistema program, set up my own núcleo, written for The Ensemble as a student Ambassador, led The Ambassadors through the Covid pandemic, and contributed to The Ensemble as an editorialist. I’ve performed in three countries outside of the Philippines (my home country) and studied under teachers from every continent but Antarctica.
And yet, after all of that, I am choosing to pursue a non-musical career. In my first Ensemble editorial, I wrote about how opportunities within classical music allowed me to bypass barriers caused by economic inequality in the Philippines. But this unequal distribution of resources still bothers me today, which is why I’m studying political science and hoping to go into policy research after graduation.
With just one year to go at college, I’ve been reflecting on the ways my musical training has influenced how I approach the social sciences. Here are four lessons that came to mind:
Grit and the growth mindset.
I used to have a bad habit of throwing a fit when I couldn’t immediately nail down a tricky passage in a concerto. A few years ago, I saw a quote on Facebook that read something like, “Today’s difficult piece is next year’s warm up.” Since then, I’ve come to think about musicianship as a marathon, not a sprint. I now cherish the mental tension inherent in learning because it will ultimately make me a better artist.
The grit I’ve developed through music has propelled me through periods of impostor syndrome and writer’s block in college. It also reminds me that hard tasks only feel impossible in the moment––not permanently.
The importance of contextualizing.
I’ve been fortunate to have teachers who don’t just teach technique but emphasize the importance of context. Whenever I begin a piece, I try not to dive immediately into the notes. Instead, I like to first learn about the composer and their musical era, listen to various recordings of the piece, and peruse the score to situate the violin within the orchestra. Music is not made nor played in a vacuum; context is crucial to giving a satisfying performance.
I use these same principles when I am introduced to a political theory. I wouldn’t fully understand it if I didn’t first research the sociopolitical circumstances of the time, as well as the theorist’s background. A professor once told me that every political philosopher is responding to someone who came before them. This is the same lesson I’ve learned in music, where composers reference each other, and musical periods arise as a reaction to previous eras.
Thinking about your audience.
Once I’ve grasped the fundamentals of a piece, I think about the story I want to tell with the music. As a musician, I can shape my listeners’ emotions through dynamics, tempo, and articulation. When I prepare for a performance, I think to myself: who is listening? How do I want them to feel when they leave the venue? How do I feel about the piece? What does the composer want me to communicate?
This line of inquiry is essential in the social sciences, where data can be manipulated to push a certain view. As a researcher, I have the power to critique society and make recommendations on the best way forward. It’s both a privilege and a responsibility. Many scholars use this power to enrich themselves; I want to use it to correct inequities.
Chamber and orchestral music have always left me with a deep sense of gratitude for my fellow musicians. There’s something different about the vulnerability and the trust that you build through hours of rehearsals, immersed in the physicality of ensemble playing. The bonds I forge with fellow musicians are unlike anything I’ve felt elsewhere.
That closeness is special, and it reminds us that we can only come up with truly effective solutions to social problems by working with and intimately knowing the people who are most affected by them. This means having both feet on the ground instead of in an ivory tower when conducting research. I hope to always carry that with me in my work.
I’ll end with a bonus lesson. My life has been changed by growing up as a musician, but it was easy to take music for granted when I was years deep into playing the violin. Last semester, I took a break from music for the first time to focus solely on academics—and I was miserable. Occasionally, it takes stepping away from something to know that you can’t live without it. As I embark on a decidedly non-musical professional journey, I’m positive that I will still find ways to keep playing, because it makes me happy. Sometimes that’s the only reason you need.