Faculty members and fervent musicians

Jan. 15, 2019, 12:30 a.m.

Stanford faculty are widely recognized for their research, teaching and scholarship. But outside of the lecture hall and the lab, many speak another language: music. The Daily sat down with several Stanford faculty members who have pursued music in varying capacities.

Provost Persis Drell

Physics and music aren’t two separate worlds for Provost Persis Drell — she currently plays chamber music with a group of physicists.

Drell grew up on the Stanford campus in one of the original twelve houses that Leland Stanford built for University faculty. Her father, then a prominent physicist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, was also an amateur violinist who frequently played chamber music. All of the children in her family grew up playing instruments. Drell started off on the piano, but after a brief stint with the violin in her school music program, she transitioned to the cello.

“I got very good at sight reading because I didn’t practice for my lessons,” Drell said.

As an undergraduate at Wellesley, a small, women’s liberal arts college, Drell was less active on her cello, but music continued to play a role in her life. Drell and a friend took pleasure in playing Beethoven symphonies transcribed for four hands on the piano.

She took up the cello once more when she enrolled as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I went to graduate school where all you do 24/7 is physics and I decided that really wasn’t what I wanted life to be,” Drell said. “I went to a Beethoven cycle in Herbst theater in San Francisco and decided I needed to pick up the cello again.”

At Berkeley, Drell enrolled in cello lessons and connected with fellow physics graduate students to form a string quartet that rehearsed weekly at her apartment. According to Drell, the first violinist and violist in the original group did not get along, so the group recruited another viola-playing-physicist. He eventually became Drell’s husband.

Since then, both Drell and her husband have continued playing their instruments.

“We played chamber music always, everywhere,” Drell said. “Through three kids, through different moves — Berkeley, San Francisco, Cornell and back here.”

Together, Drell and her husband have spent three summers participating in a 10-day chamber music seminar with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford’s quartet in residence.

“I think it’s really, really good for a Provost to be a student for part of the year, and it’s really good to be a student in the lower quartile of the class,” Drell said. “It just grounds you. I had not appreciated how much joy one could have as an enthusiastic amateur until the St. Lawrence chamber music seminar.”

On the Friday evening of the seminar this past summer, Drell invited the nearly 100 participating students and faculty to the Meyer-Buck estate, an early 20th century, French Mediterranean style mansion where the Provost frequently hosts events. Small groups of musicians dispersed throughout the house and its gardens, filling the atmosphere with music. While walking through the halls, one might have stumbled upon a Haydn string quartet in the library or perhaps a Schubert cello quintet in the dining room.

“I still think of that as the pinnacle of any party I’ve ever been a part of organizing. It was sheer joy in the music,” Drell said. “That night of music, it didn’t matter whether you were the professional or the amateur. We were all there to make music.”

The chamber music seminar always concludes with a performance. Although Drell has gained some confidence through her experiences in the seminar, she is not too keen on performing.

“It’s really funny because I don’t mind getting up and giving a physics talk … and I’ve now learned to be a Provost in front of hundreds of people. A lot of it is just nerves,” Drell said. “I don’t have the technical confidence [on the cello] that I do with physics or being Provost.”

Drell continues to feed her love for music by hosting chamber music sessions nearly every Sunday at Meyer-Buck. The regular cohort includes faculty, undergraduates, graduate students and co-terms, all of whom happen to be scientists. Sunday afternoons provide Drell with a necessary escape.

For Drell, music is a way to relax and take her mind off the high demands of her post.

“I’m probably playing as well now as I’ve ever played, which is a good feeling. That ability to only focus on the music has gotten even more developed,” Drell said. “Being Provost is kind of stressful … those hours where all I’m focusing on is those three other players and where’s the melody and where’s the melody going, that’s a gift.”

Electrical Engineering Professor Thomas Lee

On the second floor of the Allen building in a room filled with an assortment of gadgets, one may find professor Thomas Lee’s music stand nestled behind a desk stacked high with books and piles of paper. Not far from that spot lies his fiddle.

“I’m definitely an amateur of music in the original definition of amateur: a lover of,” Lee said.

Lee grew up in a musical household where his parents and brother often sang around the house. Lee developed an affinity for the violin early in life when he listened in on his neighbor’s lesson as a young boy.

“There was something about the violin that made me immediately want to play it,” Lee said.

For years, Lee begged his parents to buy him a violin so he could begin taking lessons. Because he was involved in numerous other hobbies, however, Lee’s parents “waited until they were fairly certain [violin] wasn’t just a passing fancy.”

Lee began playing the violin in fourth grade at his public school. By the time he reached high school, he was studying with the associate concertmaster of the San Diego symphony. Lee recalls the first question his teacher asked him: Do you want to be a musician or do you want to have a hobby that you’ll love for life?

The latter option resonated with Lee’s values. In response, the teacher adopted an appropriate teaching style for Lee’s lessons, weaving in discussions of musicianship and music history while providing him with instruction.

As a violin student, Lee never had to be told to practice.

“I always had fun with it and I think it’s because I never took it that seriously,” Lee said. “It was always a form of mental health management for whatever else I was doing that caused stress.”

Lee received his B.S., M.S. and Sc.D. from MIT. During his undergraduate studies, Lee took both voice and violin lessons and played in quartets and trios. Lee also actively sang with the Boston Symphony Tanglewood chorus as well as other private choruses in the area.

As a graduate student, Lee turned to chamber music as a coping mechanism for stress.  

“It was a great place to go to get unstuck,” Lee said. “And because I was always stuck on my thesis, I became a much better chamber musician.”

As far as his passion for engineering, Lee speculates that it is “a genetic mutation… no one in my family is remotely interested in engineering.”

Regardless, Lee has found parallels between engineering and music.

“Certainly a lot of the ways that you size up a piece of music — how it’s structured, how you phrase things — a lot of that is remarkably similar to the way you approach a design of a circuit,” Lee said. “You look at shapes, you take bits and pieces, motifs that you’ve seen before and then you transform them. There’s a lot of commonality, actually.”

At his 20-year high school youth orchestra reunion, Lee said he was surprised to learn that almost all of the first violinists had discontinued music to pursue careers in STEM fields.

“They were all MDs and engineers and scientists, where interestingly enough, the second violinists were all in symphonies,” he said.

Lee joined Stanford’s electrical engineering department in 1993. Although he has not played the violin regularly as a professor, he still finds opportunities to take out his fiddle. Lee continues to challenge himself by playing the cadenzas from Beethoven and Mendelssohn’s violin concertos. In the past, Lee has also played chamber music with Provost Persis Drell and her husband. He recently arranged a jam session with a group of students from his freshman Introductory Seminar EE14N: “Things About Stuff.”

Biology professor Sharon Long

As far as Long can remember, there has always been music in her life. From Beethoven symphonies to Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Long recalls a household full of song. Her mother, a violinist and middle school history teacher, was the concertmistress of the Austin Symphony Orchestra as a young woman. She also got church gigs playing organ and piano, which she frequently practiced at home.

Long took piano lessons from kindergarten through the end of high school and sang in the local church choir with both of her parents.

“Music is about family to me,” Long said. She recalls accompanying her mother and aunt on the piano in J.S. Bach’s double violin concerto.

Long’s first encounter with woodwind instruments came when she began studying flute as a young girl. She ultimately switched to oboe, which she continued to play for years to come.

“Because oboe is a little bit unusual, you get a lot of opportunities,” Long said.

Through Long’s involvement in her high school orchestra, she eventually became the first chair oboist in the Texas all-state orchestra. Long also had the opportunity to play in the semi-professional Brico Symphony in Denver, CO, beginning in her second year of high school.

“I still remember those pieces and the experience of playing them. There were very few high school students … and the five of us would hang out,” Long said. “Just that sense of companionship and shared endeavor and community and getting to make really good music; I liked that a lot.”

Although Long considered majoring in music, she ultimately decided to let her passion for science take precedence. Still, Long managed to continue playing oboe in a wind quintet as an undergraduate at Caltech.

The oboe produces sound through a double reed: two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other. According to Long, adjusting a reed is a skill that requires consistent practice. During graduate school, Long occasionally played duets with friends at Yale, but it became more difficult for her to keep up with oboe because of the demands of the instrument.

Long stopped playing the oboe when she moved to Harvard to conduct research on plants and symbiosis for her postdoc, but the music has stayed with her.

“Mostly, I carry the music with me,” Long said. “There are entire pieces I can play in my head and I hear them. I hear all the parts of the pieces I know really well.”

Many of the skills that Long gained as an oboist have served her in other areas of life, including her career as a science professor.

“If you learn music and you perform, that’s a reality check like nothing else … You might think you understand something, but when you have to teach it, you really have to know it,” Long said. “Having the experience of needing to practice and learn and perform is somewhat helpful. You know what it’s like to have to keep track of a lot of different things at one time and that’s a skill that involves both analysis and imagination.”

Long assured a musical upbringing for her two children through piano lessons and outings to live performances. After becoming a Stanford faculty member, Long sang in a church choir in Palo Alto for 20 years.

“The nice thing about voice is that your instrument is always with you — no reeds required!” Long said. “Plus, my church choir provided a wonderful opportunity for making music with a group … Music in any context takes you to a place that words can’t take you and I’m so glad that that’s possible.”

Dean of Engineering Jennifer Widom

Jennifer Widom, Dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering, received her B.S. in music from Indiana University (IU), where she trained to be a classical, orchestral trumpet player.

Widom started playing the trumpet in her high school band.

“My high school wasn’t very academic,” Widom said. “By the time I was done with high school, music was the thing I was spending most of my time on, so I just chose it.”

As a music performance major at IU, most of Widom’s credit hours were devoted to lessons. Outside of lessons, her other requirements included studying music theory and history, playing in ensembles and taking a few elective courses.

“When I was a music student I was just doing music, so I didn’t really ever have this balancing question,” Widom said.

One of the electives Widom took during her third year of music school, however, led her into new territory. The course, called “Computer Applications in Music Research” introduced Widom to computer programming, an unexplored field which immediately piqued her interest.  Widom proceeded to enroll in more courses related to programming and incidentally ended up with minors in both computer science and math by the time she received her music degree.

“I was lucky,” Widom said. “If I had chosen a different music school, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take this career path. I had the opportunity to take computer science [at IU] while I was still finishing my music degree by just walking across campus.”

A number of programming classes later, Widom also received her M.S. in computer science from IU. She then went on to pursue her PhD at Cornell, where she remained an active trumpet player.

“There weren’t that many people trained as I was, so I got a lot of opportunities to play when I was in graduate school,” Widom said. In addition to playing with university ensembles, she also had the opportunity to substitute for members of the Syracuse symphony.

After completing her PhD, Widom continued to play the trumpet actively for about nine years before discontinuing her practice.

“At some point I actually decided I wanted to stop practicing every day, so I just stopped, cold turkey,” Widom said. “Trumpet isn’t something you can just pick up and do for fun. It takes several weeks of daily practice to get back into it.”

Widom’s husband also holds a music degree in trombone performance and their two children grew up playing music, as well. For a short time, the family formed an ensemble.

“Our daughter is a pianist and percussionist and she arranged music for trumpet, french horn, trombone and percussion,” Widom said. “We used to rehearse every Sunday night. We’d just play until the two kids had a fight, and then we’d stop.”

Although Widom is no longer an active trumpet player, she maintains a strong appreciation for art and music, recognizing the ways in which her strong musical foundation translates into her profession.

“I had to perform a lot. I had to give two solo recitals, which is a major psychological [challenge],” Widom said. “So I think teaching and giving talks, I’m very comfortable performing in front of an audience.”

Due to the nature of her path, Widom never had to balance music with another competing pursuit.

“I think it’s challenging to keep up the intensity in music while also doing something else, but it’s not impossible,” she said. “There are lots of opportunities at Stanford and in the world to play music as an avocation, so it’s just time management.”


Contact Olivia Mitchel at omitchel ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Olivia Mitchel '21 is a staff writer for the academics news beat. Born and raised in San Francisco, she fell in love with classical piano and various styles of dance at an early age. A biology major on the pre-med track, Olivia plans to complete the Notation in Science Communication.

Login or create an account