This post will be mostly about abroad terms, but due to my imminent earth science exam, I should at least pay lip service to the studying I’m supposed to be doing right now. Phreatomagmatism describes volcanic eruptions characterized by the explosion of groundwater due to sudden heating. These eruptions often lead up to, and in some cases precipitate a major volcanic eruption (i.e Mt. Pinatubo (1991) in the Phillippines, or Mt. St. Helens (1980) in Washington State). Essentially, sudden increases in temperatures causes water to vaporize and burst out of the ground in huge clounds of smoke and debris.
If you wanted to be metaphorical (and if you attend or aspire to attend Dartmouth, you probably spend a decent amount of time being metaphorical), you might compare my decision to study abroad to a volcanic eruption. If that is the case, associated phreatomagmatic events would probably include the dire decision to drop my Spanish class before the 6 native speakers in the class destruyen la media y mi GPA. Following that line of reasoning, the next sudden vaporization would be my decision to fill the opening in my schedule with a music class on Brahms and Berlioz. That class taught me more than I could have hoped – I now have a very informed view that Hector Berlioz is my least favorite composer, especially considering his place in music history, his ego, and his inability to write a bass line. More importantly it introduced me to Autumn, the principle bassoonist in the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra. It is a little embarrassing that it was sophomore fall and I was still meeting other ’16s in the DSO, but after our mutual sufferings in that class, we were better acquainted than the average high string and low wind player. These explosions of groundwater eventually triggered the main event. Over the course of 48 hours late in November, Autumn suggested I enroll in the music study abroad to London, I thought about it briefly, and I accepted an offer to be on the program. This analogy is all very absurd when you think of the lack of volcanic activity in Hanover (we are nowhere NEAR a subduction zone) so I will stop using it. Sorry EARS 5 – studying will have to wait until after this blog.
Autumn and I writing about Symphonie Fanstatique. It’s awful.
In perhaps the quickest and least predictable D-Plan change ever, I had decided to go abroad 2 months after the application deadline and 3 months before I was slated to leave. I said sayonara to my old plan of staying in Hanover in the spring and studying History abroad my Junior Fall, and I started reading Wikipedia pages about Queen Elizabeth II on the off chance she invited me over for tea.
Flash forward to me, sleep deprived and still woozy from the flight, trying to explain to British customs why I was there. “No I’m not a student in a British University. I’m in an American University, but there is this program here…..read this sketchy letter that sort of explains it.” It’s a miracle they let me in. I probably would still be rotting in the tower of London if it weren’t for Autumn swooping in and explaining our moral right to return to Mother England. I could probably write a book about my time in London, so I will condense to the basics for the sake of this post. There were 12 of us travelling to study music in the undisputed classical music hub of the world; 4 singers, 1 clarinetist, 1 classical guitarist, 1 bassoonist, 1 flautist, 1 pianist, 1 organist, 1 violinist (me), and 1 digital music specialist/I don’t really know what he did the whole time. The program housed us in student flats in north London (anti-shout out to Camden Town and The Stay Club – it’s like if you turned Hot Topic into a borrough). Our coursework was a collage of musical offerings. We attended five concerts a week, usually hearing one of London’s premier orchestras, but occasionally attending operas, ballets, chamber music performances, and jazz shows. We had two classes – one on London’s Music History (taught by the esteemed Roderick Swanston, notable for giving lectures on Mahler in which he accuses octogenarians of obsessing about sex while listening to the 6th symphony) and one on Performance. The performance class was taught by Sally Pinkas, our FSP leader, and it included discussions of the shows we saw as well as chamber music coachings. The main course, so to speak, of the program was our individual lessons. Most of us were paired with teachers from the Royal College of Music, London’s top conservatory. The finale of the 10 weeks was a set of two concerts, one for chamber works and one for solo works, that showcase the music learned over the term. The auxiliary defining feature is the 10 day travel break in the middle. Since there aren’t weekends during the term (most concerts happen on Fridays and Saturdays), we took all our weekends at once, and were given 10 days to travel around Europe at our own discretion.
I will leave off the travel subplot, but I will just mention it here to give an idea of what it entailed. Autumn and I started dating around week 3 of the program (to exasperated sighs of “obviously” from all of our friends) and decided to travel to Barcelona and Amsterdam together. We objectively had the best trip, although other groups had varying degrees of fun in Scotland, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. We all survived, despite several close calls.
Although the program only paid for 8-10 hours of lessons, I was fortunate enough to be paired with Dona Lee Croft, an esteemed music educator who had recently retired after 30 years on the RCM strings faculty. She generously allowed our lessons to extend beyond 2 hours every week, and I ended up with something like 20 hours of lessons (not to mention the additional recital she scheduled for her studio which I performed in). Without getting into the technical speak, she had a transformative impact on my playing and outlook. If any violinist are reading this, I’ll just say that this book reminds me more of London than any Harry Potter book:
While I’ve gotten good at explaining what the program entailed, its hard for me to express the experience of being there. I can’t really even conceptualize it fully when I think back on it now. I just remember walking around London with my violin and riding the tube with my headphones in and a book settled on my case. I remember picking up food at the grocery store and eating beans out of a can when I was low on money. I remember the first time the barristas at the my favorite coffee shop remembered my order; I remember my excitement upon finding cool pubs. I guess all of those things sort of blur into this memory of freedom I’ve never experienced at any other time in my life. Despite my decision to attend a liberal arts institution, I was living as a musician in London, playing violin 2 hours a day and taking notes on where to find the cheapest wine at convenience stores. I have a lot of stories. If you cared to know, you could ask me about Autumn and my experience with a certain Jolyon, my weekend excursion to St. Vincent’s pub in Edinburgh, or the time I was trapped in the women’s restroom at the RCM. I could talk to you about skin lice and getting robbed and countless times different group members almost got hit by double decker buses. Those stories are fun, some even informative (or medically pertinent). But if you really want to get an idea of my abroad term, I would paint a quieter picture, one of packing peanut-butter and cheese sandwiches and writing on a beautiful spring day in Hyde Park, of watching the city lights at 3 in the morning from Primrose Hill, of living life with the second movement of Bruckner 9th stuck in your head. It is a great way to live, maybe even my favorite way to live. It’s a special sort of freedom to do what you love in a city that you love with people that you love. Everything feels a little fresher, a little more real. So when people ask “how was your abroad term,” I’d rather answer with a joke about being drunk under the table by a 45 year old father of two. Saying the truth would risk making it false; putting it into words somehow cheapens it. Going abroad is a lot like a pyroclastic flow – it is a burning hot cloud of tephra – volcanic debris – that scorches everything in its path as it descends to earth and leaves discreet geologic evidence of the volcano’s activity.
Mt. St. Helens Erupts