Five Questions with Professor Steven Mackey: Keeping Music Alive for the Next Generation

November 25th, 2013 / Development Com...

Professor Steven MackeyProfessor Steven Mackey, chair of the Department of Music, is a Grammy Award-winning composer and musician. A member of the faculty since 1985, he was a recipient of the first President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at the University in 1991.

1. How does music benefit Princeton and its students?

There are many different kinds of students whom the music department benefits. Some undergraduates enter Princeton knowing that they want to concentrate in music, but just as frequently students decide to concentrate in music after an inspiring course or simply realizing that their passion for music can’t be denied. Not all music majors aspire to careers in music, and the department also provides a supportive home for students who plan to pursue medicine, law, and other professions.

We are also home to two certificate programs: the Certificate in Musical Performance and the Certificate in Jazz Studies. These programs were designed for students with a commitment to and investment in music but a plan to major in something other than music.

I am particularly interested in serving the eager as well as the able, and I am pleased that many hundreds of non-majors participate in our courses at all levels. Some of them enroll in order to keep their interest in music alive, and some are just discovering a passion that will enrich their lives in the future. These students will be the music lovers: the audiences and patrons who will keep music alive for the next generation.

2. What do you find most exciting about the increasing importance of the arts at Princeton?

There are a couple of things that excite me. For one thing, I have noticed an increase in the number of musically focused students, which means a deeper pool of musicians and more activity. The departmental performance ensembles have never been better or bigger, there is an Undergraduate Composers Collective with a couple dozen members, and we are able to produce operas and musicals at a very high quality. But since the blossoming of arts at Princeton is across all the arts, there is more collaboration -- not only the familiar kinds of collaboration with opera, musical theater, and dance -- but many unusual, experimental adventures as well. Last term I taught a class where the students created music-based, interdisciplinary, experimental works. The class was full of students ranging from freshmen to seniors, writers, singers, composers, and actors.

Steven Mackey rehearses with students.

Steven Mackey rehearses with students.

3. How would you describe Princeton students?

Brilliant and independent! In recent years it has become ordinary for students to produce extraordinary independent work as part of their theses. Last year a student wrote the music and words for an opera and also performed in it.

4. What is the most satisfying element of teaching?

I love seeing the students get turned on to music the way I was when I was in college. I feel honored by the opportunity to give students the inspiration and tools to change their lives, and I feel lucky that my job involves talking about music that is important to me.

5. What do you hope students take away from your classes?

Different students will take away different things depending on what they need and the topic of the class, but a recurring theme for me is my belief that creativity is 20 percent inspiration and 80 percent perspiration. It is great to be touched by a divine spirit, but you have to be at your desk working in order to wrestle it onto the page.

For more information on how you can support the arts at Princeton, contact Laurie Russen, senior associate director for leadership gifts, at 609.258.5374.