Taking notes from a trio of Stanford music majors

Dec. 5, 2019, 10:58 p.m.

At Stanford, the rarity of music majors is so acute that they’ve become almost mythical. Indeed, only around 10 music degrees are conferred every year out of 7,000 undergraduates, so it’s hard not to express intense curiosity and delight on the precious occasion that you meet a music major in person.

To learn more about the perspectives of music majors, The Daily talked with three music majors about personal obstacles, future plans, stigmas and words of advice. Sonja Johnson-Yu 18 is a second-year computer science coterm who studied both computer science and music with a concentration in conducting as an undergrad. Nnamdi ‘Papa’ Odita-Honnah 20 is a senior studying flute performance, playing in a variety of ensembles including as a featured soloist with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. Joss Saltzman 20 is a senior studying composition and has composed classical music for solo flute, electronic music, musical theater (most notably Gaieties 2017) and film music.

In conversation, the trio of music majors candidly revealed that the path of a music major is, as we’d expect, unpredictable and self-critical. But there is just something special, sometimes unidentifiable, in their music-making experiences that keeps them going:

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Would you ever talk someone out of becoming a music major? 

Sonja Johnson-Yu (SJ): You need to want to be a music major. But in order to enjoy being a music major, you need a certain depth of experience with music. People can learn, but, just the way that the department is set up, you want to spend time doing enough private study to make significant improvements and display those, and I think it’s important to have some sort of musical background coming into the music major for that reason. I’d say if you’re someone who didn’t have a musical background but was willing to make music their life at Stanford, I’m a believer that if you put in the work, you could succeed. 

Nnamdi ‘Papa’ Odita-Honnah (NO): No, I definitely wouldn’t. I love talking to people who are interested in being a music major. If I ever hear even a slight inkling of maybe thinking about it, I would encourage them to just look into it. You could either be just a music major or you could concentrate in something, which is what most people do. There’s composition, performance, history, theory, science and technology. Every major has its ups and downs — that’s just being a college student — but I love being a music major. It’s great learning new information about something that I already love.

Joss Saltzman (JS): There are practical reasons. Music isn’t designed to prepare you for careers outside of being a performer, composer or a teacher or researcher of music. If someone doesn’t have a certain degree of background by the time they get here, I wouldn’t recommend it. It would just be incredibly challenging. I’d be surprised if someone came to Stanford to major in music without having an extensive musical background. The other case would be if someone doesn’t have at least a general idea of what they want to do with their career with a music major. For instance, if someone’s been playing French horn since they were young but they don’t want to be a French horn player and they don’t want to be a French horn teacher, I would probably ask them, what do you expect to do after majoring in music if not those?

TSD: When you feel like you’ve lost motivation, who or what do you turn to?

SJ: I definitely hit a rut with my voice at the end of my junior year at Stanford, and I actually ended up developing a lot of stage-fright after I had my vocal crisis. I kept trying, but I realized I couldn’t do it on my own. That’s where I think my voice teacher, Greg [Wait], has been huge in helping me find the will to go on in my vocal study, even when things looked bleak. In general, though, if I feel burned out about anything, I usually try to go for a run and get some sleep. That usually helps.

NO: I realize now that if I ever go days without playing my instrument, my days will get steadily worse and worse, and even when good things are happening, I’ll just think, “Wait, what is going on? Why do I feel so down?” And I’ll realize that it’s because I haven’t practiced recently. Regardless of if I were to major in something else and go do whatever, if I didn’t continuously have music in my life, I would just be unhappy. It’s less of a motivation thing and more of a survival thing.

JS: I’m motivated by seeing my friends succeed, and not just in quantifiable measures — like the awards they get or their career prospects — but seeing people achieve the kind of goals that they set out for themselves creatively or academically is the one thing that keeps me going. In the same vein, I feel like my successes can be motivational to my peers. Especially as a senior in the music department, I feel like, if I can be successful in a career in music, then that would give a kind of validation for people to pursue music here. 

TSD: Do you think there’s a stigma in studying music?

SJ: Maybe a little bit when I told my parents I’d just get a CS minor and be a music major. The thing is that it just looks better on your resume to have double-majored, regardless of how competent you might be; people are just reading your resume. The only other stigma would be, perhaps, the perception that it is comparatively less rigorous than other academic programs here at Stanford. Is that true? I don’t know, because I’m obviously partially biased. I started studying computer science in my sophomore year. I’d never seen a line of code before that, so of course, I found CS to be hard, whereas I’ve been studying music since I was five. But, regardless of my CS background, when I’m in the music department, I’m a music student. The standards are just as high.

NO: From what I’ve heard from people who are friends with non-humanities majors, I think there’s some sort of condescension towards humanities or arts majors. I would assume it’s because they’re trying to analyze the arts and humanities industries the same way they analyze their industries. They won’t necessarily see their terms of success in our industry, so they end up attributing less value to it. If that’s the way they think, then I can understand that, even though I think it’s the wrong way to think about things. But all my friends happen to be in the humanities or arts, so we’re very supportive of each other. I know I’m very supportive of other music majors and other humanities majors, and honestly, any other major just because I know everything’s so difficult.

JS: There is a certain expectation of being able to attain a certain lifestyle after Stanford, specifically in terms of how much money you make. But, people are people, and the stigma isn’t very aggressive. They’re more so like, “Good luck with that,” rather than actively putting you down. Personally, I don’t feel very bothered by that, but there is something that I do feel more bothered by, which is the second kind of stigma, that you’re just majoring in music. And the fact that a lot of people are double majors in music contributes to the idea that music is not as rigorous as a STEM major. But, you know, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

TSD: As ambassadors of the music department at Stanford, what would you want the rest of campus to know?

SJ: One of the things that makes me really happy is that people are making great use of a lot of the classes that the music department offers. These classes are intended to give you some exposure and some experience with music without priming you in the same way that might prepare someone who wants to study music for their life. But, the music department could do a lot of wonderful things and serve more students with greater funding, particularly in terms of hiring more personnel to teach students. More money to hire more personnel will help us to serve and support student musicians better. That’s my diplomatic way of phrasing it.

NO: If you’re even slightly interested in the music department, I would encourage people to look into the new music minor that just came out this year. It’s a lot more flexible. I know some seniors who were not minoring in music until this year and are able to do so very easily. If you’re not interested in majoring or minoring, but you’re an instrumentalist or vocalist, I would definitely look into the different ensembles we have on campus because they’re great communities. They’re not as exclusive as they may seem.

JS: 90% of our events are free. Please, please, come support your friends. There are student recitals, different department ensembles, music-oriented VSO’s, and sometimes professional musicians come to Bing. Just go to some of those things if you have the time. You’ll never be in a place where there’s so much music going on in one place again. You might not get exposure to the vibrant musical culture on campus if you’re not directly a part of it. It’s there for you if you want to experience it.

TSD: If you could choose one piece of music that would make anyone fall in love with what you do, what would it be?

SJ: Brahms Intermezzo in A. There are multiple intermezzi in A, but it’s the one, [she sings the theme of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2.]. It’s really good.

NO: [Prelude to the] Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy. It opens with a beautiful flute solo and flute excerpts that most people ask for on auditions. Sometimes I listen to that piece and want to burst into tears; it’s such a gorgeous piece.

JS: Whatever your favorite movie is, go listen to the soundtrack. That’s the kind of classical music that I’d like to be involved in, even if the stuff I write doesn’t always sound like that.

Sonja will hold a vocal recital on Friday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Campbell Recital Hall. Her senior conducting recital will be on Saturday, May 16, 8 p.m. at Memorial Church. Currently, Sonja is confirming her undergraduate degrees and pursuing a coterm in CS.

Papa will perform in their senior recital for solo flute on Saturday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m., Campbell Recital Hall. Currently, they are applying to graduate school for music.

Joss will premiere a work for string quartet in the winter quarter, details to-be-announced. His senior recital will also be held at the end of winter quarter. Currently, he is considering coterming at CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics).

Contact Timothy Dai at timdai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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