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Students in Harvard/NEC Program Juggle Music and Academics

By Michelle S. Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

While many Harvard students juggle academics and extracurricular activities, a select number of Harvard undergraduates deal with the additional challenge of attending two colleges at once.

One of a handful of students enrolled in a dual degree program between Harvard and New England Conservatory of Music, Jake S. Dockterman ’13 takes the bus to Boston four to five times a week for rehearsals, lessons, and coaching. By 9 a.m., Dockterman, a saxophonist, is in wind ensemble rehearsal. A few hours later Dockterman is in lecture back at Harvard, where he concentrates in Molecular and Cellular Biology.

“I spend a lot of time on the bus,” Dockterman says. “Sometimes I will even travel twice in one day.”

About 20 current students at Harvard are currently pursuing the dual degree between the two schools. At the end of five years, they will have earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Harvard College and a Master of Music at the New England Conservatory. While the competitive program allows talented students to seriously pursue musical study, those enrolled must find a way to split their time between campuses and their academic and musical aspirations.

‘BEST OF BOTH WORLDS’

While the practice rooms in NEC are filled with Steinways and Yamahas, Chase E. Morrin ’15’s first piano was a toy keyboard from Costco. Soon after he received the instrument when he was eight-years-old, Morrin learned to compose his own work on it. Morrin did not have any sheet music, so he began to experiment with his own methods.

“I kind of made up my own music,” he remembers.

A decade later, Morrin is a jazz composition major at NEC and a neurobiology concentrator at Harvard who is also considering a secondary in computer science.

Morrin says that he was attracted to the dual degree program because he was passionate about both his music and his academic interests. He was particularly impressed by the quality of NEC faculty and its location.

“I have a lot of friends going to Berklee and around here, and I’m always collaborating with people,” he said. “There are so many cool resources available including teachers, classes, and people I can play with.”

Danielle G. Rabinowitz ’14 started playing piano at age four, long before discovering her interest in composition. She and her twin sister are both now pursuing the dual degree.

“I was inspired by my twin, who often improvised on the piano,” says Rabinowitz, a history and science concentrator and music composition major.

Rabinowitz says that she never considered solely attending a conservatory. “I wanted to go to a liberal arts school, and there’s no other program like this in the world. I get to have access to a high caliber of musicians and faculty, and am surrounded by the rigor of conservatory environment and the rigor of the academic world,” she says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Despite his plans to pursue a career in science, Dockterman, a classical saxophone performance major at NEC, chose to apply to the joint program because of the unique opportunities to rehearse and perform with high caliber musicians. Dockterman picked up the saxophone in fourth grade as part of his school’s band program and continued through high school, participating in numerous district and state festivals. Dockterman’s longtime saxophone teacher encouraged him to consider the dual degree program as an option.

“I was choosing between Yale and this program, but at Yale I wouldn’t be playing saxophone that seriously anymore,” he says. “I was considering saying goodbye to it earlier, but playing with such talented musicians was something I rarely would be able to do.”

Morrin, Rabinowitz, and Dockterman say they are happy to be in the program, despite the significant time commitment and frequent commutes.

Morrin, who travels to NEC two to three times per week, admits, “It’s really busy trying to commute, keep up with lessons, practice, and have a full courseload here.”

“I tell people it’s like ‘varsity music’ in terms of time commitment,” Rabinowitz says. However, Rabinowitz says that stepping off the Harvard campus is often a welcome break. “I find it really refreshing to go off campus once or twice a week,” she said. “It gives me a fresh outlook that is very helpful in the musical and creative process, especially as a composer.”

ONE OF A KIND

Unlike in a traditional two-year master’s program, students enrolled in the Harvard/NEC dual degree program are granted both degrees after a total of five years. For the first three years of the program, students are only required to take private lessons from NEC. However, many also choose to partipate in ensemble groups or seminars. Students begin and complete NEC coursework during their fourth and fifth years in the program.

In addition to fufilling the NEC curriculum requirements, students are still required to complete Harvard’s graduation requirements.

Because of the rigor of the program, Mary Gerbi, a coordinator for the Harvard music department, says that students in the joint program need to show promise above and beyond that of the average student at NEC.

“We need to see that those students will be at the top of their class and stay on top of their work,” she said.

Students apply for admission to both Harvard and NEC separately. Of those admitted to both, roughly 20 then apply for the joint program. NEC conducts the final selection of about five to eight students for the joint program each year, according to Thomas Novak, provost of NEC and dean of the college.

Those numbers, however, do not represent the extent of the interest in the program, which was started in 2005. Novak says that roughly 100 to 125 students indicate plans to apply to the program if admitted to both schools.

“We look for students who are very advanced musically and would love to be a part of our community while also having strong academic interests,” he said.

Thomas F. Kelly, a music professor at Harvard, says that the program seeks to attract a pool of highly skilled and talented instrumentalists, vocalists, and composers.

“The idea was to attract excellent musicians who might not otherwise come to Harvard,” he said. “It is a chance to deepen and enrich the pool of excellent musicians here.”

According to Kelly, the Harvard/NEC program is the only dual undergraduate and graduate degree program between a university and a conservatory. Though similar programs are offered by Columbia and Juilliard, Tufts and NEC, and Oberlin College and Conservatory, those programs only grant dual bachelors degrees.

BEYOND MUSIC

Ouside of class, Dockterman and Rabinowitz use their free time to pursue interests beyond music.

Dockterman was a member of the varsity squash team and is currently one of the captains of the club tennis team. He is also actively involved in his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Rabinowitz is a director for Circle of Women.

On the other hand, Morrin spends most of his time in music, keeping himself busy with recording sessions, frequent performances, and projects with vocalists and other instrumentalists.

Dockterman says he intends to attend medical school and then pursue a Ph.D., rather than pursuing a career in music.

While Morrin says he is still unsure whether he will pursue a musical career after graduation, he says that the experience of studying at NEC has helped him to gain a deeper understanding of the music world. “I don’t really know what my future will be,” he says. “I think it’s more important what I get exposed to.”

Although Rabinowitz has a passion for global health and is interested in attending medical school as well, she hopes to continue composing.

“I know composition will always be part of my life,” she said.

—Staff writer Michelle S. Lee can be reached at mlee03@college.harvard.edu.

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