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Department: Music

Master Music

Emily Liao Master ’01

Arts Administrator, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Pre-med to music

My decision to major in music came as no surprise to anyone—except to me!

Music has always been a part of my life. I started playing the piano just a few months before my fourth birthday and was decently proficient at the early Beethoven piano sonatas by the time I was six years old. But, though I had eight years of pre-professional training at a music conservatory by the time I started at Princeton, I never intended to pursue music professionally. Instead, I had grown up wanting to be a doctor, a pediatrician (an ironic ambition for someone who is now more squeamish about the shots her kids get than they are).

So why did I major in music? First, listening to a presentation for aspiring doctors, I took to heart the advice of some pre-med advisers who presented an absurdly high medical school acceptance rate for music majors. And I just couldn’t take any more lab classes than I already had to fulfill the pre-med requirements. When I flipped through the course catalog each semester, I was always drawn to the description of courses in the music department. I also realized that the individual attention and the opportunities to work closely with renowned scholars, while rare in the larger departments at Princeton, was the norm for those studying music.

Finding excitement in the arts

By the time I graduated from Princeton, I was fairly certain that medical school was not for me. But I had no idea what I wanted to do. I fell back on the only thing I thought I could, my degree in music. Despite having little specific management experience, I landed an internship at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO)shortly after graduation and have found a professional home there ever since. My position has used my musical background, challenged my professional skills, and provided the flexibility for the complexities of my life.

The CSO has allowed me to cut back my work hours after the birth of my first child and still maintain an active role as an arts administrator. I currently manage an annual budget of roughly $3.5 million and negotiate contracts of over a hundred guest artists and conductors who participate in the musical life of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra each year. I have even been able to invite my former Princeton professor to hear one of his pieces performed on the CSO’s new music series, MusicNOW.

My time at Princeton encouraged me to pursue what I love and to make the most of an unconventional course of study. My studies in the music department have enabled me to engage in dialogue with some of the world’s greatest musicians in my everyday work and to further the mission of an organization that is making world-class music week after week. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.