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Music

Geoffrey A. McDonald ’07

Conductor and Music Director

I arrived at Princeton with a strong impulse to make a career in music, as well as the fear that perhaps I had already made a critical misstep. I had studied piano, cello, voice, and music theory alongside my school subjects, and I was reluctant to abandon any of those pursuits in favor of one discipline. That breadth of interest had led me to Princeton in the first place, instead of to a music conservatory, but I was concerned that I would never be able to balance my time between the practice room and the lecture hall. I was, in fact, prepared to give up a life in music for another field should something lure me away, but that something never materialized. Instead, all roads led me to the music department, where I found a nurturing home and the reassurance that I had made exactly the right choice in coming to Princeton. 

I took classes in performance, theory and analysis, music history, composition, and ethnomusicology. I was exposed to just about every genre and historical period, in almost every region of the world. Far from studying repertoire in a vacuum, I was encouraged to examine and contextualize the ideas that transform those black dots on the page into music. In one theory class during my freshman spring, my professor sat at the piano to play the opening of Tristan und Isolde, in order to demonstrate a harmonic concept. Instead of stopping after making his initial point, he continued to play the phrase from memory, narrating Wagner’s music in real time. A phrase became a whole passage, giving way to an entire excerpt—maybe two pages worth of music. Breaking from his trance, the professor sheepishly acknowledged the tangent: “Sorry, once I get going with that piece, I can’t stop.” 

I was hooked. Equal parts passion and erudition—musical eloquence both through words and through performance (at the same time, no less!): I wanted that artistic symmetry. And, of course, it wasn’t just one professor; at Princeton I was constantly seeing that composers, performers, and theorists need not observe an artificial divide between academic rigor and deep musical feeling, or to limit themselves to any one area. That same Wagnerian happened to be an authority on the music of Africa; another of my professors was an eclectic composer of folk-inflected art music and orchestral pieces, who also built his own unique instruments and amplifiers.

Synthesizing interests

I zeroed in on conducting—a discipline whose component parts lie scattered across many fields—as a perfect way to synthesize my far-flung interests. The courses and concepts I learned outside the music department inflected my work within it: German language and literature (for which I earned a certificate), philosophy, semiotics, acoustical physics. My departmental courses and my independent work were the proving ground for ideas I drew from Princeton’s exciting intellectual environment, and have helped to shape my approach to studying and performing music since graduating.

I did end up going to conservatory for a master’s in conducting, at Mannes College, The New School in New York. While I was there I was able to study the more technical aspects of music-making, and to continue the lifelong pursuit of refining my musicianship. Now, as the conductor of the Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra and the music director of the Columbia University Bach Society, I often think about those many moments in Princeton music department classes when something suddenly clicked, and I was hearing and understanding a piece of music in a new way. I want the students I conduct to have a similar experience—to love the music for its beauty, but also to take enjoyment from understanding how it’s put together, how (and even why) it works. As an assistant conductor for the American Symphony Orchestra and the Gotham Chamber Opera, I am learning the professional trade, constantly absorbing new and often unperformed repertoire alongside the masterpieces of Western music. Taking a cue from those multifaceted professors, I also compose concert music and play cello in a rock band, Miracles of Modern Science, with four other Princeton alums. My concern that I was making a false step by going to Princeton was completely unfounded. It was, instead, the first step toward a gratifying professional life that encompasses instrumental, operatic, and choral music, one that allows me to continually broaden my repertoire and my horizons.

McDonald-Geoffrey