Kristin Chesnutt

An Emotional Conversation

My senior reflection project was something that is near and dear to my heart. It is a project that I have pursued, in some form, throughout all my life, and especially over the last four years. Music is one of the most important parts of my life, and represents the other pillars of my person, which are my family and my faith. Music has the ability to bring people together and move people in ways unlike most other mediums. This project helped me consolidate many thoughts and feelings I had been developing for years, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to participate in The Senior Reflection.

During the spring before I entered Stanford, I remember talking to my conducting teacher. When he asked me what I wanted to study, and I told him I had been considering Music. His response was immediate and lacked any sort of support or encouragement of my musical pursuits at Stanford. He said, “If you want to do music, go somewhere else. If you want to go to Stanford, do something you can only do at Stanford”. This quote deeply affected me. I remember defending my answer, telling him I really meant to say that I felt like a person who understood the value of music, but also didn’t want to do music professionally. Therefore, I would be the person that would, effectively, live my life fighting for the value and continuation of the professional lives of my musical peers. Once again, he dismissed my potential pursuit, thinking I was compromising my goals by attempting to fulfill some part of the musical dream that he and my grandmother probably wanted me to.

At Stanford, I discovered the human biology major, which would allow me to keep music in the picture, while also doing something unique to Stanford. My concentration in Music, brain and behavior has given me opportunities to meet incredible professors with similar interests to me, as well as provided me an opportunity to see how my skill set can best be utilized post-college. Last summer working at Dolby Laboratories, I learned about the corporate culture of a company that has profoundly impacted the way that humans interact with sound. Through TV, Netflix, Theater and Music, Dolby Technology has sought to improve individuals’ experience of sound. At Dolby, I realized that through industry, systematic improvement of sound is able to elicit a more impactful and emotional musical experience.

The structure of the Senior Reflection gave me an opportunity to build out a project that otherwise would have been much more difficult. I think that the most impactful part of my project came at an unexpected time, during fall quarter. As I have said countless times in my proposal and presentation, I feel much more competent communicating through music than I do with words. This project challenged me to use words to describe my influences and experiences in a way that would explicitly communicate the range of emotions. Once I got my emotions and experiences on paper, I was able to process the depth of my life experience and how unique some key experiences have been. This gave me the opportunity to further discussions with my friends and family that allowed me to get a better understanding of the importance of music in my life.

My great-grandfather started the tradition of music in my family in an unconventional manner. He acquired a violin in one of his gambling deals and became renown throughout his small town for his fiddling. My grandmother grew up in this musical environment, and through the encouragement of her mother’s parents, began classical piano lessons. Her father explicitly refused to support her post-high school education because there was “no point in educating a female”, but through a piano scholarship, she was able to attend college. Music enabled her to pursue an education, and, transcendently, was a value she instilled in her own children. My mom began piano at a young age and played with many performance groups both in high school and beyond. She attended Stanford, where she performed solo with the Stanford Wind Ensemble. My father also grew up in a musical family, and played the bass throughout childhood and at Stanford with the Symphony.

Although in my family, music wasn’t going to be a voluntary activity, it was apparent that I had a special affinity for the art form very early in my life. My mom always tells me that I could have been hungry, tired or needed a change of diaper yet when she would start playing the piano, I would become mesmerized and happy and stop crying. I began playing the violin at the age of three, because I wouldn’t stop begging my mom to let me join my sister in her violin lessons each week. Once my mom finally gave in and bought me my first tiny instrument, she was baffled to watch me sit under the piano in my violin teacher’s studio during my sister’s lesson and practice. My practice work ethic did not continue as confidently throughout all of my childhood, but the passion remained evident. Through countless performances and lessons it was clear to my teacher and family that my violin gave me a special voice.

When I was seven years old I was asked to play my first wedding. I didn’t understand how the service format would go, but my mom directed me from the piano and I played the beautiful pieces as the bride walked down the aisle. I never understood when people would come up later and applaud my performance, because to me it seemed like I was sharing something so simple and natural. Sharing music for me was just the same as my peers and family who would share beautiful notes of encouragement or even just smiles. It was a gift I had been given, that I always understood as a commitment to share. A story I have told many times in this class came after many years of weddings and even a few memorial services, but nothing I could understand. When my mom asked if I would go and play for our family friend’s grandfather in the hospital room I didn’t hesitate to agree. Just like any other after school performance, I loaded my violin into the car and jumped in next to my dad. We didn’t talk much about the elderly man, or even the situation, until we got out of the elevator on the fourth floor of the local hospital. I vaguely remember him reminding me that there would be a lot of people in the small room and just to be quiet and listen to see if he was stable enough in the moments before I began playing. I took my violin out of its case outside of the room in the bright fluorescent-lit hallway as my dad and his close friend cracked an awkward joke. Once I was ready they opened the door into the dim room and as I took a few meager steps, I strained to recognize the faces of the many shadows crouching around the old man. To be honest, I had never talked to the man outside of the after-church “good mornings” as a scooted past him to embrace his grandchildren. But in the moment, the relatively distant old man was unrecognizable. I plucked my strings to check their pitch and was startled how the soft noise broke the stark silence. The man, a devote Christian, always appreciated traditional church music, so I decided to begin with a song that was most familiar to me, Amazing Grace. I remember cringing at the sound that came from my violin as I noticed how the volume filled every corner of the stagnant room. The song progressed and I grew more comfortable in the space and in my role. Finishing the last notes of the hymn, I started to hear whispers again, but this time the whispers felt different. It was in that moment that I realized he had responded.

It took me a while to understand what happened, but when we got home and my dad put the experience into words, I started to process it all. Years later, I remember playing violin for one of my friends’ mother’s funeral. Once again, I didn’t question that I would accept the invitation to honor an incredible woman and mother. I remember being extremely uncomfortable when leaving the house, trying on outfits for my mom to see what would be most appropriate. She kept reminding me to wear whatever would attract the least attention, because I would be standing in front of hundreds of people playing solo and that I wouldn’t want to distract anyone from their mourning. Throughout the prelude, I remember standing and playing, just like usual, until I saw a friend of mine walk in the room. I love smiling and usually wave to my friends, but just like the clothes I was wearing, I needed to blend in. After the beautiful service, I saw many friends who I hadn’t seen in years. The conversations progressed the same for each sequential interaction. “Hi!” “Hello!! So good to see you!!!” “You too. You sounded so good on the violin today.” And suddenly it would switch - I would look down at my feet and respond, “It really is an honor to play. I am happy I could be a part of such a beautiful service”. I would switch back and forth between my childish happy demeanor and that of a somber human weighted by the representation of death that I had just embodied. When that same friend’s grandfather passed away two years later I played for his service as well. The same switch of emotions overcame my experience, but this time I was weighted by the fact that I was becoming a repeating representation of death. People switched their comments, incorporating the comment that it was so sweet to hear me again helping that same family mourn another loss.

Although my experience playing for funerals was heavily weighted and pivotal for my understanding of music’s power, they were not the only part of my experience in music that impacted me deeply. There is no other experience I have had in which I have understood overwhelming joy than in music. My time in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra taught me the power and emotional grasp that could be achieved through orchestral music. During my freshman year at Stanford, the Symphony Orchestra took a tour throughout Europe, In Beethoven’s Footsteps. The range of emotions throughout his nine symphonies truly astonished me and allowed me to feel more deeply for each of them. During his ninth and final symphony, it is truly incredible to listen to the majesty that he is able to cultivate. Beethoven includes so many different musicians and instruments that the collective sound is both unique and overwhelming. It is impactful that the symphony taught me lessons of love and joy through their music, just as I was able to learn weighted mourning and sadness in recurring sad experiences.

Finally, my third most impactful musical experiences have been in intimate settings with friends in the audience where I have no restrictions but to share music. In that setting, I have explored how to engage with friends, showing them ways that they might be able to appreciate and engage with the music. I have select friends on campus that have performed with me on many occasions and it is interesting that each time we come up with a completely different show. One of my favorite cellists is named Nikhil, and we constantly come up with extremely varied experiences for our audience. Just within our scattered concerts, we have explored different styles of concert, both agreeing that our goal was to deeply impact each member of our audience. Nikhil and I are the types of people that are laid back and positive individuals. In this smaller setting, we can really engage with our audience and look for casual and easy ways to help them feel engaged with the music that they might be hearing.

I really enjoyed the Senior Reflection for many reasons. The first is that it gave me a chance to write and process a lifelong exploration of music. Once I put my experiences on paper, I could more deeply understand my purpose in this project and further in my life through music. Another aspect of the senior reflection that I really valued was that it provided the structure for peer feedback. Especially for my project, my target audience was my peers who might understand less intensely than I do. The peer responses allowed me to ask for feedback and even test some hypothesis because I knew I would receive authentic and sincere responses. The Senior Reflection sections provided structure that perpetuated our projects and peaked our interest to encourage and learn more about each project. I especially love the authenticity of each project and how you got to know each peer from a subject that they find very compelling.

After long project timelines, it is nice to take some time to reflect and consider factors that might have influenced a project in different ways, or to reconsider artistic decisions that were made. If I could do the process of Senior Reflections again, I would take a long time to decide and develop who my mentors might be. My mentors were definitely influential in my project, but I feel that I might have chosen individuals who could have supported me better if I had developed the project more before I chose the people. Additionally, because music is something that many people have some experience in, but yet many people have broad experience in, I sometimes felt isolated by comments in class that directly conflicted with advice or direction from my mentors or from previous mentors. If I had chosen a mentor or a group of mentors that would have grounded my project more intensely, I think I might have felt less isolated.

I also recognize that my role in the class was much different than my peers. As a professional in my creative area, my project took on a different role. Instead of exploring the art medium throughout the year, I had to think deeper to consider larger questions.

Finally, I want to extend an incredibly thank you to Andrew, Sue and Sally. You three have poured your heart and soul into our projects and into our passions. There are few experiences at Stanford in which professors wholeheartedly encourage and validate deep introspective creative expression. Your open-ended guidance and encouragement meant more than they were expressed through this project. Every week in The Senior Reflection, I felt uplifted to pursue my passions within and outside of this project. Thank you for encouraging discovery of the arts and of individual passions here at Stanford. Your instruction has incredible benefits to each of us!