Princeton Profiles: Berman balances music and academic passions at Princeton

Senior Austin Haley Berman chose to attend Princeton over a conservatory in order to pursue what he called “a world-class liberal arts education” while continuing to study violin at Juilliard and compete internationally.

For high school students with extraordinary musical talent and high-achieving academic ability, the decision of whether to attend a conservatory or a four-year college or university can be daunting. That was the decision facing senior Austin Haley Berman four years ago.

At a conservatory, Berman would be immersed in music 24/7 — with classes on music theory, music history and ear training; private lessons and masterclasses with world-class instructors; and a multitude of performance opportunities — but the breadth of academic experience could be limited. At a college or university, he could focus on a liberal arts education that could lead to an infinite number of intellectual and experiential learning opportunities, but the caliber of music instruction might be limited.

Berman, a highly accomplished violinist with a deep interest in international relations, economics and China, found the perfect balance, he said, by choosing Princeton: “Princeton has given me a world-class education that I really value. … I really wanted to explore my academic interests that were outside of the typical conservatory curriculum. Princeton’s University Scholar Program and proximity to Juilliard allowed me access to violin performance opportunities, unmatched instruction and the international competition circuit while pursuing a top-rate liberal arts education. At Princeton, the broad experience and talent among my peers and mentors has expanded my thinking and shapes my musical interpretation, academic pursuits and worldview.”

With the support of the University Scholar Program — designed for students with exceptional talent in an academic or creative area that cannot be pursued within the regular curriculum — and Princeton’s proximity to New York, Berman was able to travel to New York City weekly for private lessons with his instructor at the Juilliard School. He also worked with his advisers and professors to manage the preparation and travel demands of the international competition circuit.

Berman is majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is also pursuing a certificate in East Asian studies. His senior thesis adviser is Rory Truex, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs. Berman said Truex, a 2007 Princeton alumnus, has helped him navigate the possibilities of combining his passion for music, politics and Chinese in the future.

Berman served as the lead research assistant for a project with Truex, which led to the publication of “Repressive Experiences Among China Scholars: New Evidence from Survey Data” in The China Quarterly. Berman has also taken courses in a range of academic departments at Princeton, including classes in the music department such as “Projects in Instrumental Performance: Chamber Music.”

Outside the classroom, Berman enjoys playing competitive poker (he ranked in the top nine of Princeton’s 2019 Series of Poker), Smash Ultimate and Spikeball at his eating club, Colonial Club; socializing with his friends; and lending his talent to student performances. Earlier in May, he played violin in “Don’t Trifle with Love,” a new chamber opera written as part of his classmate Calvin Van Zytveld’s senior thesis project.

After graduation, Berman will pursue a master’s degree in violin performance at Juilliard. His dream, he said, is to “become the concertmaster [first violin] of one of the major symphony orchestras in the world.”