Category Archives: academics

Galante: Sealed with a Kiss

Part of being a musician is to push the boundaries of what’s usually done. A lot of times contemporary music aims to do just that and to explore new ideas and sounds.

Someone told me the other day that they can’t stomach contemporary music. They said that it just sounds “weird and bad”, and that there really isn’t any genuine meaning behind it. I mean I feel that way too sometimes — I’m not always sure what to make of the sounds I hear. But I think contemporary music has the ability to explore music in a very non-traditional way. Traditional classical music has rules and boundaries, some of which contemporary music can just break.

My saxophone teacher recently put me and three other students in a quartet. We were given a piece, Galante’s Sealed with a Kiss, to learn in three weeks. On first look, it’s kind of absurd. There are no notes whatsoever and it made me question why I was doing this in the first place. I think I felt similar to how my friend perceived contemporary music.

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[sonic.art]

The piece consists of a series of alternative sounds you make through the saxophone. The instrument serves as an amplifier to the sounds or as a mechanism to make the sounds. Examples would be saying tss tss” through the mouth piece, or fluttering your tongue to make a “khhh” sound. With four different musicians making the sounds at one time, cool rhythms are made.

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Here’s one page of the score. There aren’t any notes, and each marker is a different sound you have to make. The four lines in each of the three sections are for one person on each of the four saxophone parts.

Even my friends in the quartet hated the pieces initially. We wanted to make nice and beautiful sounds, not screeches and puffs into the saxophone. It was like learning an entirely new instrument, and one I didn’t really even enjoy.

I think part of that sentiment came from the fact that it was a mess the first few times we rehearsed it. It was only through more rehearsals and coachings from our teacher that we were beginning to find the groove of the piece. My teacher had told us that Galante was his roommate back in undergrad., and that he had written the piece as a sort of satire to the serious conservatory atmosphere. With this background in my mind, I think the piece really grew on all of us.

Keeping an open mind, I think, is one of the most important things when studying music. As humans, we naturally gravitate towards what sounds good and pleasant to our ears, but what is art if we don’t explore the disgusting and uncomfortable? Studying this piece has been a real learning experience for me, and I’m grateful I had the chance to be a part of it.

We performed the piece on 2/19 at the Words In Music concert at the Peabody Conservatory. When we get a recording, I’ll try to upload some snippets here.

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Recital program!

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Dynamic Music

Search up Hopkins and you’ll find all things innovative, medicine, and STEM related. It’s unfortunate that our Humanities and Arts departments don’t carry as much weight in the name, because they too are doing incredible and ground-breaking things.

This blog is going to focus on what it means for me to be a music major, and what I’m doing right now in the semester as one.

The idea of music has been a dynamic one for me, and it’s changed dramatically throughout my time here at school. It was something I just merely enjoyed coming into Hopkins and Peabody, but it’s really grown into something else.

Music has become a lot more about others, but a lot more about me too. Allow me to explain.


In my Theory 3 class, we’re currently working on analyzing various Bach Inventions (like this famous one, Bach Invention #1). In class we break down the inventions and analyze the scores, finding musical phrases (named subjects and countersubjects), and see how they permeate through the piece in various forms. We see how simple yet genius these inventions are, and really understand how Bach came up with simple, yet complex-sounding music. We also discuss what makes a piece “Bach”, and what makes it Baroque (an era of Western art music of a particular style).

In this instance, studying music has shown me how meticulous and detailed successful composers from the past were. It’s given me an altered appreciation, and it’s changed the way I listen and receive music, new and old.


Every Thursday, Peabody hosts its Thursday Noon concert series, where the conservatory features an instrumental department with a free concert to the public (like Strings, Winds, Voice, even Computer Music). I went last Thursday with my saxophone professor to see one of my studio mates play. He played a piece by Lori Laitman named I Never Saw Another Butterfly. It’s a heartbreaking piece for saxophone and soprano, where an instrumental melodic line is overlayed onto poetic text. Specifically, the poems are written by Jewish children who lived in concentration camps. It’s so tough to listen to, and the piece really challenges the audience to try and explore their stories.

Here’s the text to one of my favorite movements, III. Birdsong:

He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.

When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
and earth’s aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to open your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is
To be alive

Being able to explore a work of music with others (my saxophone professor in this instance), means being able to discuss the meaning of a work, why it’s effect is so powerful on an audience, and what the performer did to let us discover and feel particular emotions. After the performance, my professor and I talked about how the composer uses harmony, dissonance, and color to paint music onto text. In this instance, studying music has shown me its raw importance and how it’s a vehicle to explore ideas and experiences. It’s become a lot more about the performer-audience relationship, and why it’s important to think about such things.


These two occurrences are just part of the reason why music is becoming such an integral part of my life. What I love about it is its fluidity and subjectivity – I’m never put into a box of what’s right and wrong. I’m thankful that I’m surrounded by such like-minded people, and shocked even, about what my peers are accomplishing. I love it here, and wouldn’t want to be learning this anywhere else.

On Failing A Test

I failed my first Nervous Systems exam.

There. I said it. I’d say there’s no shame in saying it, but oh there’s so much shame in saying it. I’ve never flat out failed a test before, and it pains me to say that I’m a Neuroscience major. I mean, if it were a class I was taking that wasn’t related at all to my course of study, I’d probably just drop the class. But this is Nervous Systems – this is the class of the major, the one class everyone freaks out about and the one everyone studies so extremely hard for. I have to take this class if I want to be a Neuroscience major, and there’s no way around that.

I studied hard for the test. I kept up with my readings, I went to every class, and I studied a considerable amount for the days leading up to the exam. I never wanted to fail (of course, no one does), but yet I did. Maybe I’m not time managing well, or maybe it’s because I’m living in a totally new environment. Maybe it’s all these excuses I’ve come up with in my head, and maybe the reality of it is just that I could’ve studied a lot smarter instead.

Nervous Systems is an amazing class, and no one will contest that. It’s taught by two wonderful professors, Dr. Haiqing Zhao and Dr. Stewart Hendry who pour their heart out into the material they teach. The class is taught in the traditional lecture-style, but the both of them discuss the course material in a very personable and appealing way. It’s an honor being able to learn from such intelligent and humble people.

Zhao and Hendry try their best to let us succeed. The class is very transparent and organized extremely well, and they provide more than enough resources to help us learn the material.

That’s part of why I’m so ashamed and disappointed in myself. I’m in a neuroscience class at Hopkins, where everyone around me is excited and willing to learn material from two of the best professors I’ve ever had, but I still failed the first exam. After I got my grade back, in the midst of being in disbelief, Dr. Hendry sent out an e-mail that really stuck with me:

“Here is a story, a composite in which 4 former Neuro majors are used as exemplars for many others.  Each of these four is currently a medical student earning both an MD and a PhD at one of the best med schools on the planet.  All of you would recognize the names of the med schools and all of you would be ever so happy to trade places with these four.  What they have in common is this: each of them failed the first exam in Nervous System I and all of them went on to earn A’s for this semester and A+’s for the next.  One student stands out because after failing the first Nervous System exam, she missed a total of 5 points for the rest of the year – both NS1 and NS2 combined.  And here is my point: lots of folks go into the first exam without much feel for how well Dr. Zhao and I expect you to understand the material. Now you do appreciate how well we expect you to understand it and I am sure all of you have a much better sense of what it means to really understand it.  If you have any doubts, look at the annotated key and pay particular attention to the answer to question 4. And then appreciate you would need to rent out Shriver Hall to hold all the people who have done poorly on the first exam in Nervous System I and then have gone on to earn A’s in this course and in the one that follows.  If you are disappointed in your score, let me encourage you to fix whatever let you down for this exam, and be another of those who recovered beautifully, so that I can talk about you next year to the next group.”

I’m not used to failing, and I never want to be. I’m not going to say that I’m okay that I completely screwed up the first test, but I’m going to come to terms with it because it’s already happened.

What’s left for me to do is to reset my study habits from the past couple weeks and to start anew. There’s a need for me to not only prove that I can do this to myself, but also to my peers, parents, and teachers too. I want to be able to succeed in an environment like Hopkins, because doing so really means that I’ve learned the material concretely and well. It means I know how to learn, to problem solve, and most importantly to grow.

Here’s to admitting my faults and learning from them. My next Nervous Systems exam is in a week, and I’m going to do everything I can to ace it.

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