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Da Capo: From the Head with Nick Brewer ’14


Nick Brewer '14
Nick Brewer '14

My academic choices at Hamilton always felt fairly clear to me. I loved learning, and I always knew what classes I wanted to take. The matter of what to do after graduation was much more opaque. By spring of my senior year, I was finished with my computer science final project and my senior piano concert. With graduation just around the corner, I wasn’t enthusiastic about leaving Hamilton behind, not knowing what professional path I should take. Initially it made sense to apply for jobs in the computer science field. After all, it was my major and one could expect to make a comfortable living.

I ended up in an internship program at an app-development company in Cambridge, Mass. Over the course of the summer, I realized that a mainstream computer science career was not for me. I could feel that I was not passionate about programming in the same way as my co-workers, and that I needed to pursue something else. Until then, I had been practicing piano regularly since I was six years old, but now for the first time in my life, I had no access to a piano.

By the end of summer, it was clear that music-making had to be a major part of my life. Coincidentally around that time, a friend suggested we go to a piano masterclass out in the suburbs of Boston, which turned out to be a class for advanced, but quite young pianists. I cannot overstate how out of place I felt among the parents of those students. Nonetheless, since I had come all this way, I figured I might as well stay. Listening to these students play pieces I had just performed in my undergraduate senior recital was strangely motivating. I felt like I needed to get into gear and get back to practicing.

In September, with my internship at its end, rather than apply for other CS jobs, I packed up and moved back home to Maine. I began furiously working on applications to graduate programs in piano and practicing for auditions. Of all the schools where I was accepted, I chose to attend Longy School of Music in Cambridge. Now, even having made this major, positive life decision, I couldn’t help but feel unsure about it.

In the months between my acceptance and the beginning of my classes at Longy, I continued to reach outwards, grasping for something that could be a path to my future. I tried my hand at composing computer music, having gotten a taste for it in a class I took at Hamilton with Sam Pellman, and fell into a strange project with a choreographer in Portland. I wrote and recorded 70 minutes of computer music for him and saw my work performed at the Portland Stage. Days after the performance, I hiked across most of New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. As you can probably see, I had no clue what I was doing with my life or where it was going.

That was six years ago. Since then by following my interests and devouring as much information about them as possible, I've realized that knowledge and its dissemination is my true passion. After receiving my master's in piano, I began teaching it through a local studio. My piano teacher from my master's program also happened to work for the Charles Ives Society, a music-related non-profit dedicated to the American composer Charles Ives. Through my teacher I learned that the Society was looking for a person to run their website and social media. My background in art, music, and computer science made me uniquely qualified for the job.

At the time I did not know anything about running a website, but thanks to the computer science program at Hamilton I was confident I knew how to teach myself whatever new programming languages and environments were necessary to do the job. As the only tech person for this small non-profit, my responsibilities varied greatly. For almost every project I handled for the Ives Society, I had to teach myself new skills. Soon I'll be learning about livestreaming for a panel discussion on Ives Society Board Member J. Peter Burkholder's new book, Listening to Charles Ives.

Self-guided learning has been crucial to not only my web work, but also my piano playing. Through a series of events which would take too long to describe here, I realized my body was totally dysfunctional and I couldn't continue playing piano the way I was. After Longy I spent years completely rebuilding my piano technique from the ground up. I went to physical therapy and decided to learn more about the muscular system. A few years of strengthening both my physical condition and my mental connection to my body had a profound effect on my piano playing, opening up new possibilities in both repertoire and educational opportunities.

With the classical music world currently experiencing a slow but unstoppable revolution regarding teaching style and the use of technology, there are jobs out there ranging from traditional positions in traditional business structures to completely new ones, such as teaching artists, which require an eclectic set of proficiencies. Learning has been my main guide through life since Hamilton; it has also enabled all my endeavors since graduation -- writing weird music for dance, getting into graduate school, working at the Ives Society, and teaching piano. The skills which I've used to teach myself -- inquiry, research, experimentation, application --were all encouraged and strengthened at Hamilton.

Looking back it wasn't really what I majored in that influenced what I'm doing now. It was the small class sizes, with a heavy emphasis on research and writing, which shaped how I learn for myself, and now how I teach. For those who are looking to make a career in music, I suggest you never stop learning, become experts in your passions, and make friends along the way, because it's a much smaller world than you might think.

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