What does it mean to be engaged, to be empathetic and to strive for understanding at Lawrence University? What does fulfillment at Lawrence University look like, and more importantly, what does it look like in action? This column strives to ask these questions and search for answers by having conversations with seniors working on their Senior Experience Projects here at Lawrence on how they are using their studies and passions as tools to create.
It can be easy for a student enrolled in classes at the Conservatory of Music to become bored or even unaware of just how powerful music can be. Music can function as a tool that can unite, but it can also function as a tool that can divide. Senior Vocal Performance and Gender Studies double degree Keira Jett has worked hard to keep this mentality as a foundation to her studies, and to never take for granted the power music gives us to communicate songs of growth and understanding.
Jett has found great fulfillment in pursuing studies in both music and gender. Both of these areas of study pique her interest as they are surrounded in nuance and complexity. In this vein of thought, Jett stated, “I am finding that gender studies is super interdisciplinary. And when you look at musicology, you might think their courses would be the opposite, but the faculty for musicology are very flexible and open to interdisciplinary ways of thinking too. Being able to do both at the same time has been very rewarding.”
Jett’s interest in understanding the complexity of gender and how individuals are marginalized and silenced on the basis of their identity has led her to take action on these kinds of issues in the Conservatory. Jett stated, “My whole thing has become looking at the institution of the Conservatory, and understanding that it’s made from a history of white European culture. And it is continually uplifting and upholding that institution. This means that anyone who isn’t a white, cis-gender, heterosexual man who is able, mentally and physically, and who has a little bit of money is not represented.”
This has led Jett to strive to create representation and conversation here at the Conservatory. One way she is doing this is by putting together a set of art songs written by Black women composers and understanding how poetry plays into their work.
Right now, Jett is in the stage of analyzing and assessing the language these poets use in their work. Jett stated, “I’m taking some poems by a couple Black women from the nineteenth century, poets like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sarah Forten and Sarah Mapps Douglas, and sending the poems I select to Lecturer of Music Evan Williams, who I’m commissioning to create a set of three or four pieces. And then I’m going to pick other Black composers who have written art songs for mezzos or baritones and with all that I am creating a program recital to tour locally.”
Jett has taken great interest in the subtleness of the language of the poetry she is studying. She stated, “When you look at nineteenth century poetry, it rhymes and it’s strictly metered. It has a song to it; it feels sentimental and it doesn’t feel literary. And because of that, the poetry has been erased. But it actually didn’t serve a purpose of being literary, it served many other social purposes.” Additionally, Jett is also finding the breath of Black composers to be wider and deeper than she has ever been taught through her learning. She said, “I’m finding that there are actually millions of Black art song composers. I actually can’t think of one Black composer who I learned about in a class. Doing this research has led me to figure out how many Black American composers there have been and that their work is amazing—we just don’t talk about it.”
As Jett is working on putting it all together, analyzing and sharing this project, she has also used her passions to help form and establish the ever-important and essential organization at the Conservatory, Performers Enhancing Diversity at Lawrence (PEDAL). While the club was formed last year, it is beginning to solidify its role this year. “So few people last year were realizing how urgent issues on campus and in general were. Even after the election, there wasn’t a great sense of urgency. Because the world is just burning down around us, students are now feeling that the issues PEDAL is advocating for are relevant. A lot of people came to the first meeting this year to talk about their experiences and to get in touch with the ideas of students who have had difficult or negative experiences in the Con.
She continued on this, saying, “We got a feel for the scope of things and now the PEDAL board is going to meet with a faculty inclusivity team to coordinate programming and to figure out what we can do to really start a cultural shift along with policy and actual syllabus changes at the conservatory.”
In the future, Jett hopes PEDAL can be an organization that students can rely on to facilitate difficult conversations and improve relationships between students and faculty. Jett stated, “We’ve had some really unfortunate instances where faculty don’t realize their power to hurt students. And the compounding problem after those instances is the silence among other faculty who maybe know better or think better, but are still silent. This strains the relationship between students and faculty. I hope that PEDAL can help to repair these relationships and prevent future unsafe situations for students from happening.”
Jett hopes that PEDAL can actively work to encourage students to think critically about music. She stated, “We want to encourage students to ask questions like, ‘Why is the only music we study written by old, white men?’ And that they’re practiced in asking these big questions and using music for more exciting things than performing and hour of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. I feel really strongly about using music as tool for cultural change. We want students to be learning that kind of power, in addition to augmented sixth chords.”
When asked where she finds the most fulfillment Jett stated, “My family. Both of my younger brothers are musicians. I love having conversations about music with them and seeing their minds open to new information. They’re also being taught that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are all there is, so they are also seeing that white supremacy is everywhere. Seeing them grow and become socially aware and socially equipped to have difficult conversation in music and outside of music is my greatest joy. It’s not always easy, but it’s my greatest joy to talk with them about how they see the world.”
Jett has truly learned how to use a combination of her talents and interests to engage action and in meaningful conversation. She has found fulfillment through the moments she can feel fully connected with all different types of people. Jett is a fine example of a person that is using her time at Lawrence to work towards discovering her life-purpose and acting on it to make this world a better place.