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Physics

Christine McLeavey Payne ’01

Pianist

As luck would have it, the weekend I visited Princeton as a prospective student coincided with the physics department’s annual music recital. Even in high school I had struggled with whether to pursue physics or music, and it seemed an incredible sign of encouragement that Princeton had so many people who were similarly torn. To make things more complicated, I then proceeded to try out almost every other subject available and had countless angst-filled talks with family, friends, and professors along the way. Eventually, I ended up returning to my original loves and concentrated in physics with certificates in engineering physics and piano performance.

The physics department was a wonderful fit, and I chose it as much for the students and professors as for the subject itself. There were only a few physics majors that year, and we bonded through the boot camp of “death mechanics,” “death quantum,” and the like. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but we were very lucky to have such a small class, with such a large number of eager faculty members looking out for us. Often at my piano recitals, I would look out to see a couple of physics Nobel laureates supporting me out in the audience.

Though physics won out for my undergraduate major, and even for a few years while I worked for a group in New York City designing a supercomputer, I ended up choosing music. I did a master’s at the Juilliard School, and now play and teach piano professionally. It took me a while to take the leap of faith that I could support myself financially doing something I love enough that I would do it for free, and it is definitely a challenging path. In today’s day of social networking and Internet marketing, it is more possible than ever to imagine and then create your own career, though it does mean more uncertainty and a constant need for self-motivation. Nevertheless, I recently came across a password security question, “What is your dream job?” and it was an amazing moment to realize my immediate answer was “this one.”

A different perspective

While it’s true that I don’t often field questions on quantum mechanics in my life as a musician, it is very useful to have a background distinct from my career. It’s an immediate way to stand out from the crowd, and after almost every concert, someone from the audience comes up and asks, “And you were also a physics major?”

To me the beauty of physics is that it becomes an approach to looking at the world. You are given an overwhelming, messy problem, and you learn to see that in essence it is a collection of simpler, manageable forms. You can add the details in later, but the main task is to see through the complexity to find the core of the problem. Piano is exactly the same way. It is not a matter of playing one piece over and over for hours, but rather the skill of breaking a passage down into known elements. A run of notes is easier to play when you see it as a slight elaboration of a familiar chord, much the way a physics problem becomes trivial when you recognize it as a disguised version of one you’ve already solved.

Choosing a concentration is not the same as choosing a career. While I would be more careful before endorsing a career choice based only on passion for a field, I would absolutely say go for the concentration you love. For now, it is about learning how to approach the world, how to ask interesting questions, and how to tackle independent and group projects. When I teach piano, I see the kind of work students put into a piece they love versus one someone else tells them they should do, and there is truly no comparison. Choose the piece you love.

Payne-Christine