While it is not the most visible campus initiative, Caltech supports a thriving music program, led by world-class musicians who are here to provide students with an outlet to express their musical talents, to offer a forum for bonding and forging friendships beyond the labs and research groups, and to inspire students to do their best. While it is true that students do not come to Caltech to pursue musical careers, many play instruments or sing, and some perform and very high levels. A musical program at Caltech is not merely a distraction from science and engineering; it is a pressure relief valve that undoubtedly makes Caltech students better scholars, and more well rounded individuals.
In the discussion below, Maia Jasper White describes her upbringing in Los Angeles, and her hesitation but ultimate embrace of pursuing music at the highest levels, first as an undergraduate at Yale, and then at USC's Thornton School of Music. Upon her return to Los Angeles, Maia set as a personal goal to create a chamber music organization on a par matching similar programs in other major cities, and the result is Salastina, which she cofounded with Kevin Kumar. In 2016 Maia succeeded Dolores Bing as Caltech's Director of Chamber music, which, along with her chamber musical performances and studio work for LA's film and television industry, makes for a very busy and joyful musical life.
Maia provides especially important and even poignant perspective on the impact of the Covid pandemic and what this has meant for music audiences, for musicians, and of course, for the students. While remote collaborations provided a vital means to keep up student connections, the days of social isolation served an important reminder of the value and preciousness of being able to come together as a community of musical friends. Looking ahead, Maia wants to continue building chamber music at Caltech, and to expand the definitions of what "counts" as chamber music, according to the interests and abilities of her dear students.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, November 1st, 2023. It's great to be here with Maia Jasper White. Maia, so nice to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
MAIA JASPER WHITE: Thank you for having me.
ZIERLER: Maia, to start, would you tell me, please, your titles and institutional affiliations. I pluralize that because I know you have a very busy work life beyond Caltech.
WHITE: At Caltech I'm the Director of Chamber Music. I started a nonprofit chamber music presenting organization called Salastina, of which I now serve as Executive Director and Co-artistic Director. I'm a first violinist in the LA Chamber Orchestra, and I freelance in the recording studios for Hollywood, which is work for hire. I've had the privilege of playing for movies like Star Wars. Studio work has been a big part of my career and my income.
ZIERLER: Now, what is your forte? What is your home instrument? What other instruments do you play?
WHITE: I play the violin. That is my instrument. It's actually thanks to my role at Caltech that I've even tried to play the viola. I have performed publicly on the viola at Caltech Chamber Music concerts, and maybe once or twice for my nonprofit in more casual performance settings. Though I fumble around on the piano to fill parts for my students, I would never perform publicly as a pianist. I've toyed with the idea of picking up cello this summer, because that would come in very handy with my work at Caltech. But violin is it. When I was in college, I made a little bit of money singing, but I don't do that anymore.
Chamber Music for Caltech and Los Angeles
ZIERLER: Maia, as a representation of all of your responsibilities, on a given week, if we were to visualize it as a pie chart, Caltech, your performance, Salastina, all the things you do, is it about 25% per? Is there a grand majority that takes up most of your time? What does that all look like?
WHITE: It's funny: week to week can look different. Caltech and Salastina are certainly the most stable, in that I must do things for both of them every single day. But the amount of work I'm doing for each fluctuates day by day, week by week, and month by month. Certainly over the summer with Caltech, there's very little for me to do, so I'm more in planning mode for Salastina. When we have concerts at Caltech, I feel quite a bit more tethered to school, and being there for my students by giving them extra coaching sessions. On average, I would say Caltech accounts for about a third of my time, Salastina is just over half, and the studios fill in the remainder. I would fold LACO into that, the kind of orchestral playing. That pleases me. As I have gotten older, I have felt—I remember in my early 30s thinking, wouldn't it be great if my time and my income were more reliant on teaching and chamber music, and less on orchestra—and here we are. I feel very, very happy about that.
ZIERLER: Maia, I wonder if you can explain the different skill sets that are required for studio work, either for albums or movies, versus playing in a symphony or a chamber orchestra, where there might be practice before the big show. What does that look like for you?
WHITE: Definitely. The realities are, as you say, quite different in those two orchestral settings. For the LA Chamber Orchestra, when I've played with the Philharmonic, or when I was in the Pacific Symphony, you are assigned big pieces usually from the repertoire. There's always going to be some contemporary music or a new piece, a new-to-you piece. The longer you've been working, that percentage drops. But there will always be contemporary music on a program, as there should be. There is some amount of preparation of your individual part. That being said, as a string player, not a solo wind player, it's not quite as grueling, because your part is being covered by at least seven other people; usually more. But there's still some amount of preparation. I'll put my fingerings in, make sure that I feel confident about all the trickiest passages, and drill those a few times. Making sure that you are blending well with your section is important. That's something you can really only figure out in the moment.
Even if I'm practicing something at home, a symphony, I might want to spin that phrase one way in the privacy of my own room. But when I'm in a situation where it needs to follow the conductor's sensibility in terms of timing and volume and shape, then that is going to change on the fly. The most substantial commonality between orchestral playing and recording in the studios is blend. In the studios, it's even more pronounced because they are looking for a very particular clean kind of sound, even when it's very, very soft. You're sight reading in that context exclusively, maybe 95% of the time is sight reading. Every now and then, a composer will say, "Here's the music. It's a little tricky. Look at it in advance." But that's by far the exception, and not the rule. Blending and not sticking out is very important. I would say, having nerves of steel is more important in the studios, even though the music is, 99% of the time, 10 times easier, an order of magnitude. Think about it [sings], that sort of stuff is not, Brahms or Stravinsky. It's a different craft, serves a different function musically, and we very much know our place in that the larger work of art that is the movie; not just people coming to a concert to watch you play great music. That's not to say the music isn't good—sometimes it really is—but it just is like apples and oranges in a lot of ways. I'd say maybe another commonality between the orchestral, you know, classical orchestral LA Chamber Orchestra type work and the studios is just knowing how to manage yourself among your colleagues. Musicians can be a prickly bunch.
WHITE: Making sure that you are on time, personable, doing a good job, not ruffling feathers, and even the more kind of subtle nuances of politics and interpersonal dynamics, just handling yourself well in those settings goes a really long way. I've seen people crash and burn in both for that reason.
Instant and Practiced Musical Talent
ZIERLER: Maia, a term of art in the music world, chops.
ZIERLER: For studio work, whereas you explained you have to do sight reading, I wonder if you can explain the differentiation of technical mastery in being able to play something that you've never seen before and it sounds great, versus an audience. When they go to the symphony, they have an expectation that the musicians have practiced for months, and that they're playing at their very highest level. But they're doing something that they've repeated, that they've practiced over and over and over again. I wonder how do you compare those different kinds of masteries?
WHITE: That's a great question. I think, in one sense, they're connected because you only develop chops and technique through the very mastery that you described as repetition and experience. But, at the same time, rote repetition will only take you so far in terms of your command because, as a teacher of mine once said it, it's not your hands that are doing the work; it's your brain. What you're really training is your mind to think about the right things at the right moment. Of course, that takes lots and lots of years of careful study and experience, and the stage is your best teacher, knowing what happens to your brain, and therefore your hands, and what comes out of the instrument under pressure, knowing what's going to work. I would say, maybe a clear cut-and-dry example of a skill that you would need to use in the studios is when something is objectively difficult, meaning, there's lots of notes that require a lot of chops, you just have to be able to come up with your plan immediately. [laugh]
For me, that is like I need my fingering. If I don't, if I end up on the wrong finger in this particular thing, then I know I'm screwed. That applies to something that's very fast and maybe jumpy. I say this with love. A lot of the film composers are so used to composing on a keyboard that they will plunk out things that are not exactly idiomatic for the violin. Then you're expected to sight read it perfectly when it's not something that falls in the hand in a kind of more typical and readily doable way. It falls on the player to come up with a solution. Sometimes the concertmaster might advocate for us, and say like, "Excuse me, that's not quite possible. I would recommend maybe changing this note to this," and that does come up. But my point is that you just have to be very, very quick about what your plan is. That also requires some—again, I come back to the nerves of steel, because you don't want your mind interfering in that moment, clouding the thruway between your mind and your hands so that you can execute what you need to do, cleanly and quickly. I would say that's that spontaneity and quickness, that kind of mental, like, the gymnastics just needs to be quite quick. I would also say that when things look objectively easy, we call them footballs. They're just whole notes on the page, but maybe they start from niente, and then they end at niente again. Maybe it's a very awkward, like in the case yesterday, holding 30 bars of harmonics that are stretches in the hand on our lowest string. Just having that mental steeliness to keep it up, and to not worry too much about, "Oh god, what if I drop my bow just a little bit at the beginning of the stroke, and they hear?" Because the room is quiet. Everybody knows not to make a peep. They ask us repeatedly, "No moving, no coughing, no blah, blah, blah."
WHITE: Just having that sort of composure is really important, even when things are objectively quite easy. I remember when I first started in the studios, I was probably 24, and I got there and was like, "What is the big deal? This is so easy. This is beyond belief easy, and everyone's so edgy and on the edge of their seat." Just the atmosphere, you could feel it was very, very tense, kind of like ready to pounce. I was kind of like, "What's the big deal?" It was through the next few years that I realized, oh, there's a set of expectations. There's a lot of money at stake. It's all freelance. Nobody's guaranteed a job. Of course it's like this. How could there be any other way? Just the context slowly dawned on me. Now I feel quite relaxed in it, it's different, comparatively speaking. [laugh]
Music for the Movies
ZIERLER: Maia, some perspective on working as a musician in the film industry. I can imagine any number of structural challenges. We're still recovering from COVID. There's always the question about synthesized instrumentation, outsourcing musical scores to companies overseas, even AI, artificially generated music. What does the life of a working musician in Los Angeles in the film industry look like today relative to what it might have been even 5 or 10 years ago?
WHITE: Great question. I think it's funny that AI is coming up so much more frequently and urgently now in public discourse, especially with things like the writers' strike, because from a musician's, a film scoring perspective, that's been a concern, an area of concern for probably 20 years. I'll give an example. I mentioned earlier that film composers write on the keyboard. That's because they have sample libraries and plug-ins that can, in the box, as it were—meaning the computer—they can create a mock-up of an orchestral sound, but it's all digitized. There's no human beings that have played this music. I would say, and this is a complete estimate—I may be wrong about this—but the vast majority of any TV shows that you watch, the music is that, and most people don't notice because it's in the background, and because of the subsidiary role that it plays that it is good enough for the purposes of a lot of media. If you asked any of the composers, they are just dying to work with real humans, because they're trapped in their hermit cave on the computer, and it's no fun.
There's a very concrete example I could give of how computer sounds have affected even the music that we hear, a lot of the time. I remember hearing this maybe, again, almost 20 years ago, that when composers would demo their computerized orchestral mock-ups for directors of projects, the directors would hear the synthesized oboe sound, and go, "What's that? I don't like that. Take that out." Guess what instruments are not appearing as often in scores? The ones that did not read as well in the digital format kind of get short stick now, and so they've become less idiomatic in the language of orchestral film music, I would argue, because of the way that samples sounded a long time ago. It steered taste in a different direction. That's a pity, in a way. But things change, and I'm not so alarmist about that. I would say my perspective as a film musician is that we've been uneasy about plug-ins and sample libraries and things like that for such a long time, and yet I'm still working. I spent all of last week doing this sequel for Joker and it was really good. Hildur Guðnadóttir won an Oscar for the first one. She's quite good. Again, this was a session, a bunch of sessions that were excruciatingly quiet, asking for a lot of special effects and some spontaneity, and just being able to have that downtime where they're recording maybe just the basses for like 35 minutes. Then, "OK, violins, now it's your turn"—just going from nothing to playing, and it has to be perfect and clean and all of this like on a dime. We've been worried about sample libraries, and yet we're still working. We've been worried about outsourcing since the beginning of my career, again, almost 20 years ago.
I remember older studio players who were retiring, or close to it, saying things like, "Oh, I remember the good old days when we had triple sessions every single day. Can you believe, way back when, there used to be an NBC Symphony, that each studio had its own symphony, and now it's all just work for hire?" There was a lot of decrying this downward slope in terms of amount of work per person. Yet, again, it's still happening; it's just become more incumbent on the musicians to have portfolio careers, and to supplement their income in other ways. I can list a lot of ways that my colleagues in the studios accomplish this. I'm here telling you about the ways that I do, Caltech and Salastina being among them. I would say, even as my husband is a film composer, and I have seen from his perspective why it is that they are forced to outsource things to cheaper orchestras, and it's usually because they're given a package, kind of like a vending machine. The film will say, "Here's your sum of money. Deliver the score." It's not just, "Here's a sum of money for you to do what you do," which is writing it. It's actually produce the music and deliver the music. If they give $50,000 for a movie, that sounds like a lot. But if you're giving $35,000 to the musicians [laugh] and $15,000 to the mixers, some composers end up in the hole after they finish a movie, which is crazy. They have to be not only skilled at writing their pieces for the movie, and navigating all the complexities of personnel, and understanding their place in this process, but they also have to account for all of that math and production expense, and produce and deliver the music. That's been an education for me, seeing his point of view. Again, he would love nothing more than to use Los Angeles union musicians, but it happens very rarely. We're a fairly well to-do family. We're doing just fine. He's not Hans Zimmer or John Williams, and doesn't always have the luxury of hiring live humans, like me. But we are doing OK, considering, if that makes sense.
ZIERLER: Maia, let's move on to Salastina. First, what does the name mean? What is it meant to convey?
WHITE: [laugh] Salastina, what does the name mean? It's like the Carmen Sandiego of classical music. She's just supposed to be this kind of mythic figure —is she a donor? Is she a muse? Is she a musician? Is she from history? Is she from now? That kind of deliberate ethnic and historic ambiguity is very intended, to signal that we are cheeky and fun and pointed about the through line of the art form of classical music, and all of the different kinds of people that it takes to sustain its ecosystem.
ZIERLER: What does Salastina do for you that's not possible either in your musical education world or in your straight performing world where you don't play a leading role necessarily?
WHITE: You just said it, where I don't play a leading role. I think the difference between playing in an orchestra setting, whether it's the LA Chamber Orchestra or the studios, compared to Salastina and chamber music writ large as a medium is that in an orchestra, if I'm gone, nobody cares. They just replace me. The sound is pretty much the same. If you scale that up, let's say they said, "Let's fire all of LA Chamber Orchestra's violinists overnight, and replace all of them," it would sound different. [laugh] But if it's just me gone, and there's a sub hired out, no one cares. They might say, "Oh, I missed seeing you. I like watching you play." But in terms of the sound and the agency that I have in an orchestral context, it's just so different. Chamber music is like the rock band of the classical music world. Who were The Beatles when they had Pete Best instead of Ringo Star? They just needed that chemistry between the four of them. That's the beauty of chamber music for me, and that's what Salastina provides. That's why doing this has been my professional ambition since I was about 19 years old, starting my own chamber music series, being able to play chamber music.
Really, if you ask most musicians, that's what they will say: chamber music is it. The things that pull you to the craft in the first place, that sort of active participation, that sense of musical leadership, connection with other people, some people really enjoy the feeling of scale that comes with the symphony. But I will choose the immediacy of having a conversation. I think it was Nietzsche who said that chamber music is like watching intelligent people have a conversation, something like that. In an orchestra, you are again watching the conductor, blending in. Nobody notices sonically if you're gone. Certainly, it can be very moving to play Beethoven's Ninth in a sea of other really gifted people. That is an exalted sensation. But I will still choose a late Beethoven quartet over that any day of the week.
ZIERLER: Now, Salastina, is it a volunteer organization? The venues where you play, do they pay you and your fellow musicians to be there?
WHITE: I wish. [laugh] I'm proud to say that Kevin Kumar, my co-founder, and I started Salastina in 2010. We had one concert, and we have now a budget of $439,000 per year, which is a respectable small-to-medium-sized nonprofit. When I say budget, it can be confusing. Does that mean you spend that much? You make that much? That's how much our operating expenses are estimated to be this year. That's what the budget is for. That's part of my role, and I do enjoy it. That's been the biggest surprise of my adult life is how much I have enjoyed learning how to run a nonprofit successfully. In my 20s, I almost took it as a point of pride that I was a violinist. A lot of musicians turn up their nose at the admin side of things, as if it takes away from their seriousness with the instrument, that it's a kind of zero-sum game.
If I am not spending every waking moment practicing or thinking about playing my instrument, then I'm not a real musician—and that is just patently false. I would actually make the case that the more aware you are of the role of what you in society, the better an artist you can be. How do communicate what matters to others in an effective way? And, guess what, dollars are an effective measure of that. I would make the case that having a fuller picture, from the inside, of the role of music in society makes you a better musician, not a worse one, because you have a clearer and deeper understanding of what your art form means in the world. [laugh] It's not just about you being excellent. I think that that's been a great surprise for me, and a humbling sort of journey, throughout my 30s really, when we were building the business. We spent maybe six years, the first six years, we didn't pay ourselves a penny. I remember just feeling, again, like that was a point of pride. Like, wow, we are so noble. Every dollar we raise, we are giving it right back to Salastina, and paying our musicians, and investing in our future. I remember the first time I realized that we had a ceiling, that every concert we did, it felt like we were starting over, because there was no strategy. [laugh] There was no infrastructure. It was just us putting on concerts. If you build it, they will come—just very naive. Certainly there was some amount of grassroots momentum that we enjoyed, but we were not harnessing that in an intelligent way whatsoever. The first time I started to realize that we had the ceiling, oh gosh, maybe I should educate myself. Maybe I have some curiosity now about how to really take this to the next level. I took a certificate course at the Center for Nonprofit Management. My instructor when she heard me say, with pride, that we weren't paying ourselves, she said, "If you got hit by a bus tomorrow, who would do what you do for free?"
WHITE: She was like, "Do you see how insisting on not paying yourself is actually a handicap to your project, because if you get hit by a bus, nobody will do it, and it will die with you." I was kind of like, "What? That's crazy. You're absolutely right." That was just the teensiest tip of that iceberg of education that I have since had the benefit of learning. I'm very, very proud of what we've built, and I'm not sure what the future holds. We're doing a strategic plan right now. But we have a wonderful board, a wonderful and engaged community of audience members, lots of great programming that we provide to the community. It's looking good. [laugh] I feel proud.
Rebuilding Live Audiences
ZIERLER: What does the appetite for live chamber music look like circa 2023 in recovery mode from COVID? I could see that cutting both ways, that there might be a lot of latent energy from when we were all shut down that's now blossoming again, or it might be that people are still in their own world, and not as likely to come out. The whole concept of people gathering is something that really requires rebuilding, and we're in the middle of it. What are you seeing?
WHITE: I'm really glad you asked this question. I think it's the question for our industry. I can speak to it industry-wide, and then from my perspective, as they're actually quite different. The League of American Orchestras is saying that most symphonies are between 50% and 60% of the audience size they enjoyed before the pandemic. It's taken a huge nose dive, and it's a big problem. There are no such statistics available for the chamber music field that I'm aware of, but I think it's probably fair to say that it's pretty symmetrical, at least anecdotally from my colleagues in the chamber music field struggling to retain and rebuild audiences. One of our peer organizations called Jacaranda just folded for that reason. They just ran out of money, and that's very sad. But from Salastina's perspective, we actually are fortunate to have enjoyed 289% audience growth since before the pandemic. I would say the reason for that was a much-needed boost of time and money that the pandemic afforded us.
Prior to the pandemic, Kevin and I only had so much time, being pulled in our other professional directions, to focus on Salastina. When the pandemic came, it was—it's awful and in poor taste to say things like it was a blessing in disguise. But for our organization, I hope that what I'm trying to say makes sense that we suddenly were gifted nothing but time in which to focus on the best way to deliver on our organization's mission in this context, and using technology. We started producing these weekly virtual events called Happy Hours, where we invited musicians to perform on Zoom, and take questions from the audience, and we would interview them. We had the balls, really, to approach musicians who would otherwise have been out of our league in terms of cost, like Chris Thile, Alan Menken, Hilary Hahn, and other really high-profile musicians. One of our audience members said, "You've created a forum for us to personally converse with musicians that some of us can't even pay money to go see in person, let alone meet backstage. This is very special." It had a built-in bonus of free marketing because if Alan Menken and Hilary Hahn are going to come on Zoom and do their first live virtual performances with you, they're going to share it on their social media, and therefore you get this megaphone, the benefit of their megaphones. A lot of people gave us feedback like, "I came for Caroline Shaw, but I stayed for Salastina." We were like, "Thank you." We tripled our membership base and, like I said, our in-person audience attendance has increased by 289%. I know we're just a small-to-medium nonprofit, but I think that a word of unsolicited advice that I have for any organization is, really, there is no reason not to livestream everything. Like you said, some people are reluctant to come out still. I feel still that the story of the fallout from COVID is still being written. We have had a couple concerts this year, having now had two full seasons of live concerts since the shutdown, and people are still coming up to me and saying, "I watched all your happy hours during COVID. I'm so glad I finally came in person." I'm like, "Two years later?"
WHITE: "Glad to have you. Thanks for coming." But livestreaming, I notice when the receipts come in that so many people who watch our livestreams live around the corner from our venue. It's hard to say if that's because habits have changed, if it's because it's cheaper—it's only $10 compared to $40—or if it's because they're still scared to come out. But who cares? It's cheap for us to provide. The return on investment in terms of building your audience is so worth it. It does not cost nearly as much to livestream as people make you believe. YouTube live is free. You just need someone there to set it up with decent quality. Then the benefit is, like I said, it's still playing out, so there's no reason not to do it. I think a lot of my peers are still hemming and hawing about it, and I just think that's such a waste of precious time.
ZIERLER: Maia, let's move to the thing that of course brings us together, your work at Caltech. I want to start with Delores Bing as the founder or the founding director of chamber music. For you as successor, what aspects did Delores build where your feeling is, "I just don't want to break it. I want to maintain what she put together," and where have you had opportunities to innovate?
WHITE: I would say almost everything that Delores put in is there to stay. It's the DNA of the whole program, down from its very reason for existing in the first place. The spirit that animates chamber music at Caltech is very much one of this is for your fulfillment, your stress relief, your having a creative, an artistic outlet. So long as you are meeting your end of the bargain, meaning, you are showing up to your weekly coachings, and giving it your best with a good attitude, it's up to me and the other instructors to pick repertoire that is going to be brought up to an acceptable performance level, given the students' levels. But there's no expectation that you practice. This is supposed to be additive to your experience; something that takes stress away, not add to it. That being said, Delores also felt—and I agree—that if some students want to take on something more ambitious, and they make that clear upfront that they'd be willing to commit to practicing a little bit, and that then becomes part of the expectation.
I would say, the way that you can sum that up, or look at it with a more zoomed-out view, is that it's primarily stress-relieving, an artistic outlet, but it's flexible, given the level of interest and the level of skill that the different students show. I'm sure Delores mentioned that our student population in chamber music, musically speaking, is so vast. We don't turn anyone away if they can read music. It's very, very inclusive in that sense. But there are also people who are like, "I majored in French horn in college, and now I'm the only person who is monitoring Voyager." [laugh]
WHITE: What? Excuse me? Some people have their commitment to music. There was one PhD student pianist for my first several years at Caltech. He was from South Korea. He was there practicing every time I set foot in the building. I don't know how he managed that. He even had two children himself. But he was always there, just so dedicated. That spectrum is very, very wide. Delores set something up that allows players of all abilities to have a good experience. The kind of spirit and the ground rules allow for that. I think that's priceless. I would say, in terms of innovation, livestreaming [laugh] is something that I brought to the Caltech concerts because I felt like, like I said, this is so easy to do. There's no reason why the students shouldn't have an archival recording that they can always enjoy.
I've been here long enough now to have students come back and say, "Oh, it was so nice to come back to Music House," and they'll leave me little notes. "I had such good feelings coming back here. This was my best part of Caltech," all of this. Why shouldn't they have a high-quality document of what they did in that area of their academic or just university time? The other is so that their families, you know, a lot of our students are international students or, if not, just from states that are far away. This lets Grandma and Mom and Dad tune in, and watch, and support. I think that's very important. That's something that I have brought to chamber music. Gosh, I really would say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's been my perspective, is just coming in and trying to lovingly maintain everything that Delores set up that works so beautifully.
From Yale to the USC Conservatory
ZIERLER: Maia, let's go back now, and establish some personal history. When you were thinking about college, was music performance, music education, was that your focus? Was that what you wanted to get your bachelor's in?
WHITE: I wasn't sure when I first started. I went to Paris during my junior year, as an experiment, to see how I would feel in a conservatory environment. I would say, from then on, I said, "OK, I'm ready to commit." But I actively resisted the sort of shit [laugh] or get off the pot medieval apprenticeship mindset that most classical musicians are expected to have. Let me put it this way. How many 13-year-olds are told, like, "OK, you've got to decide now if this is what you want to do"? It's classical musicians, Olympic athletes, and dancers. Those are the only fields I can think of where when you're a child, you're expected to make this kind of profound life decision. Guess which one of those is the only one that is a lifelong career.
WHITE: It's music. If you're an Olympic athlete, you might decide to do that, or a ballet dancer, but you're done by the time you're my age. I bristled at that expectation of committing before I really knew myself. I was too big of a nerd in other ways and about other things, so I decided to go to the only Ivy League school that has an in-house school of music, which is Yale—that was very deliberate—just to make sure that I could keep those options open for as long as possible.
ZIERLER: Is that to say that like a Juilliard or an Eastman was available to you, and you actively resisted that path?
WHITE: Yeah. I had actually gotten a scholarship to leave high school early to go to the USC Thornton School of Music. They had this thing called the—what's it called—the resident honors program or something. They really wanted me to go, and I almost did. I was about to send in the signed thing, and I just woke up in the middle of the night and was like, "No, I can't do that." Prior to that, I had teachers who were trying to get me to go to the Cleveland Institute of Music, Indiana, and to all of these different places before completing high school. I never bothered to apply to conservatories come my senior year. It just wasn't on the table. I looked at a few: Columbia, Juilliard. UPenn Curtis was probably my runner-up college choice. But, at the end of the day, even though I had a better experience visiting the campus at Penn, and felt more inspired by Curtis than the Yale School of Music, I think I just was so tired of how I'd felt in high school, of leading double lives, and feeling like my social circles and those two sides of myself were not integrated. I was just exhausted by the prospect of more of that. That's why I chose to go to Yale, and I have zero regrets about it, despite the activity on campus in the past couple weeks [laugh], which I guess you know about. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Yeah [laugh], I've been following. With all of the intellectual and social opportunities at a more general school than a conservatory, why then, ultimately, did you focus on the thing that you might've been resisting or protecting yourself from?
WHITE: That's such a great—gosh. I think that—
ZIERLER: Is it just that the talent is there, and it would be a waste not to go with it? Is it as simple as that?
WHITE: That's definitely part of it. That's definitely part of it. I think accepting that actually requires—it seems prideful—but I think it actually requires a little bit of humility to zoom out, and see this is the investment that others have made in me and that I have made in myself, and something that I have to contribute. I would say my personal value system, my core belief is about, "I am here to share the beauty of this art form that I love and that I have had the profound benefit of learning so much about, and of inheriting this tradition so thoroughly. I am here to share that with other people." In that sense, I actually look at what I do for Salastina and what I do at Caltech as being quite similar. I think that might be an important thing, since you're asking [laugh] about me. I've spent 45 minutes talking about myself. [laugh] Since you're here, asking about me, that's—
ZIERLER: This is what we're supposed to do. I'm doing this on purpose.
WHITE: I know, but I have kind of weird—yeah. I'm a performer only to a certain [laugh] extent.
WHITE: That's the common, you know, the core belief that I have is that that's something that I do well. I even remember my professors in the academic area of music saying like, "You write beautifully about music." I never thought I wanted to be an academic musicologist. My professors would have actively wanted that for me. I think they felt I was good at it. There was no question in my mind that I wanted a more real-world application of my talent for sharing what is beautiful and interesting and noteworthy about these kinds of works of art with other people. I think that's how I look at my life as a performer. It's how I look at my life as an administrator and as a teacher. That's how I rationalize [laugh] my insane tripartite existence. [laugh]
ZIERLER: When you graduated, what was your plan? Did you have any idea that the life you're leading now was what you were bound for?
WHITE: Good question. There was a moment. My first paid orchestra job was actually the New Haven Symphony. I auditioned for that during my senior year and, luckily enough, I got in. That was very eye-opening for me because the orchestra largely consisted of professional musicians who lived all across the Eastern Seaboard, and they would commute into this—I don't know. It's a historic symphony, but it's not the Boston Symphony or Chicago. It's not a major American orchestra. I say that it's historic because we premiered in New Haven Symphony The Unanswered Question, and it's an important American orchestra in a lot of ways. But in terms of, like, as a musician, not a ton of work. Watching a lot of my colleagues in that orchestra commuting from New York City and Philadelphia and Hartford and all over New England to play in something that paid quite little, where I just rolled out of my dorm, and it was literally across the street from my dorm, that gave me a huge kind of come to Jesus about, oh boy, I better go to a graduate school where there's enough work for me to sustain myself there, because I don't want to be doing that. I don't want to be killing myself taking trains, and driving all hither and yon.
A couple of my peers in the orchestra were grad students at Yale, and it was interesting. They seemed quite a bit farther ahead of me. But, of course, looking back now, they were probably only three to seven years older. They felt trapped in New Haven, just like, "where should I move in the absence of a job? This is where I have my connections." That was very, very revealing to me. My two criteria for graduate school were major metropolitan area where there's going to be enough work such that while I'm in school making my connections when school is done, I am working. Also, it must be free. Those two conditions were met at USC [laugh], so that's why I ended up at USC. My family, being a Los Angeles native, my parents were also here. My partner at the time wanted to work in Hollywood, so it just seemed like, OK, let's go to LA. That makes sense. Again, I have zero regrets. That's advice that I routinely dole out to younger musicians. Just go to college for the teacher. If not the teacher, if you want to be like me and go to get a more well-rounded education, that's great, but go to graduate school in a place where you can work, and don't take on a ton of debt, because you're not going to make a [laugh] ton of money, and don't be crippled by that. I've no regrets about USC.
ZIERLER: Maia was—?
WHITE: It felt more like entering into LA's working scene than it felt like school, and that's OK. I feel like that's what graduate school as a musician should be.
ZIERLER: Coming to USC, coming back to Los Angeles, was this your entrée for studio work? Had you ever done anything like that before?
WHITE: Believe it or not, growing up in Los Angeles, it had never once occurred to me, where does the music for movies come from?
WHITE: As a classically trained musician, I never knew. All my teachers were from the Philharmonic, and they didn't do that kind of work. I was completely clueless about it. I just started in graduate school hearing things about this coveted, you know, "Oh, the money is so great, and you get royalties, and you have to be really good for them to call you." It just started having this kind of glamorous aura around it. It started for me when I—and this is also advice I give to younger musicians that you have to show, because it's freelance, you have to show the contractors that you stand up well against your peers. The only way to do that is by auditioning for things, and doing well. That's what happened to me. You don't even have to win. If you get to the finals, they know you are good. You stack up. That's a vetting mechanism. That's what happened for me. I started working. Once I was the runner-up for the LA Chamber Orchestra when I was in my first year of graduate school. That was an audition I decided to take on two weeks' notice. Initially, my teacher was like, "Oh, you're not going to be ready. Don't bother." Then he heard me a couple days before, and was like, "Give it a shot." Boy, am I glad I did, because that really kick-started, you know, not only being the runner-up; it also allowed me to shortcut to the finals for the audition that I then won when I was 27. Just putting yourself out there is the only way to, well, I won't say the only. There's a fair amount of nepotism that goes on [laugh] in there, you know, with friendships and romantic relationships. All of these things can funnel you into the studios too. But in the absence of those things, you can't go wrong by good competition, showing that you stack up well against your peers. That's what worked for me.
ZIERLER: Maia, not wanting to become a professor, PhD musicologist, did that affect what kind of program you wanted to join, how committed you wanted to be to the academic side of things?
WHITE: Yeah. I would say, I didn't think of myself—I didn't see a teaching position for myself throughout all of my 20s. That was kind of like I'm a performer. This is what I do. I want to set up my chamber music series. I'm going to have my hands full with that at the time. My orchestral career started, fortunately for me, pretty early. I joined Pacific Symphony when I was 23. I think I got in my last month of the second year of my master's. It was like [snaps fingers] wow. I was very lucky [laugh], very, lucky. I was spared that sort of agonizing period between grad school and just abject unemployment. It is an upward spiral when you get into things like that. But I never pictured being a teacher, ever. I think with the necessity of supplementing my income, I started teaching more and more. I realized, "I like this. It feels meaningful. I like helping people learn." Delores invited me to be a guest—they called it a Hudson guest artist—at Caltech. I remember [laugh]—this is relevant to the Caltech oral history—I was teaching the kids. As we've all said, the levels were quite different. Because I was young, Delores gave me the students who were the least advanced. After maybe two years or so, I just was like, "I'm too good to be working with amateurs. I just need to spend my time working with my kids at Colburn, where I went as a kid, and getting them ready to be in it to win it." I left Caltech. "Thank you so much, Delores, but I can't do this anymore. I don't have time." Frankly, the pay rate was also not great. It was not the best use of my time. But I find it quite amusing that something that I thought I was too good to sub in for -- I'm now in charge of the whole thing. You just change as a person. Your priorities change. If you'd told me then like, "Guess what? You're going to be Delores in eight years," I would've been like, "No. No way." [laugh]
Succeeding Dolores Bing
WHITE: But you grow up a little. Life has a funny way of doing that.
ZIERLER: Now, was Delores your point of contact at Caltech? Had you been aware that there was a music program of any kind at Caltech? Had you even heard of Caltech before?
WHITE: Oh, I'd certainly heard of Caltech, being an LA native, but I didn't know the first thing about it. Delores was definitely my point of contact. The guy who was the contractor of the LA Chamber Orchestra hired me to be like guest concertmaster of the Master Chorale. Delores played a lot with them, and so I think she was impressed that a younger musician with an Ivy League education might be able to relate well to these nerdy young musicians who, at the time, weren't that much younger than me. I was probably 25 at the time. I'm actually grateful that she entrusted me, inwardly condescending as I may have been at time [laugh], I'm grateful that she entrusted me with that. The truth is that now I'm quite moved by my students, and sometimes especially the least advanced ones [laugh]—
ZIERLER: This is the—?
WHITE: —because they're trying so hard, and they're doing it for love. That's what the word amateur means. It's such a dirty word in our language, but it means someone who does something for love; not because of their ego or because of the money they can make or because they want to be excellent. They are doing it because they love to do it, and they're willing to fail miserably in front of others just to experience that. That is quite moving to me now in a way that it wasn't in my 20s.
ZIERLER: This transition that you're narrating, it's really one of growth, of personal maturity, and recognizing what's important to people?
WHITE: One hundred per cent. It's quite humbling, and I have so much to say about that. [laugh] I had a student—I feel every time I say that, it feels so weird and wrong—I had a student who was a professor of physics, astrophysics, who played clarinet in one of my groups. He would routinely write the most lovely emails. "Maia, I learned so much from you this term." I'm just like, "You know the secrets of the universe." [laugh]
WHITE: "I'm just telling you you're sharp in measure 55." What the hell?
WHITE: That's ridiculous. It's so humbling. It's so humbling, and just means a lot to me that such wildly intelligent people find anything that I have to say about anything worthwhile. [laugh] It's just very, very humbling. Maybe Delores brought this up, but I think I'm very interested in this idea, the medieval idea of the quadrivium. You know what that is?
WHITE: Let's see, the medieval university curriculum involving the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, and everything else in the medieval university was like rhetoric. It was more stuff around words. I think that as much as university culture has shifted towards integrating lots of disciplines within hyper, hyper specificity, there's still a lot of truth to this more ancient kinship between music and the sciences. Look no farther than—Albert Einstein is the shining example that everybody likes to give. But it's so much deeper than just him. I feel that keenly. I also feel, you know, we've talked a little bit about how my work with Salastina and with Caltech feels integrated. I don't mean this in a mercenary way. I mean this with all sincerity that the Caltech population are the audience members and philanthropists of the future. They're integral to the ecosystem of the art form. I feel very honored to have a hand in nurturing that, not only for them personally but for my art form as a whole. I think that it's a very privileged position to occupy.
ZIERLER: In distancing yourself from Caltech, from your first experience, from Delores's first invitation, what was your plan? What did you want to do?
WHITE: At the time?
WHITE: Oh, I wanted Salastina to be the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center of the West Coast.
ZIERLER: Oh, so that was really your focus? That's what you were focused on building at that point?
WHITE: Oh yeah, oh yeah, and everything else was subsidizing that. I looked at everything else as almost moonlighting.
ZIERLER: This would be tutoring, studio work, live performances, all of that was to support this vision that you had for Salastina?
WHITE: Yeah, to get by and make a living while making this other thing happen.
ZIERLER: Did it need to go down that way, in retrospect, because working at a more involved capacity at Caltech would've deprived you of the bandwidth you needed to get Salastina where you wanted it to go?
WHITE: Yeah. I think I had an intuition about that. My mother would send me things like, "Hey, there's an assistant professor of musicology at Saddleback College. Don't you think you should apply?" [laugh] I'd be like, "Mom, no." [laugh] Driving to Saddleback College and teaching academic musicology is not in my life plan at the moment. [laugh] I think even she now would concede that that was correct. I would never have considered, had Delores invited me to replace her in my 20s, I never would have taken that on. I think that the timing of the invitation and the job opening—and when I say "invitation," it was a formal job opening at Caltech. But Delores made sure she said, "I think that I would like for you to be the person who succeeds me. Would you consider applying?" Someone else actually wrote to me. A musical colleague of mine, his brother works at Caltech, and is an amateur musician himself. He said, "My brother thought you would be the perfect person for this…" It just seemed like a lot of people outside me who knew me a little more objectively were kind of like, "You should apply for this." I remember by the time—I was pregnant with my son at the time. What was I? Thirty-five, I think. Just very ready to—I'd had so much teaching experience at that point at Colburn and at Chapman University. I think at Chapman, what I learned that prepared me well for Caltech was that—and we're talking about growth, right, and growing up. Arguably, teaching music at Chapman, they have their own school of music, but the students that I had, objectively speaking, they didn't have much of a chance of becoming professional musicians.
I only lasted there for maybe two or three years, before I resigned. I didn't feel good about participating in a university ecosystem that was only rationalizing my own existence as a teacher. Even though on paper it's like, oh, but that's a conservatory, and Caltech is not, it almost feels like my role at Caltech is more honest in the sense that it knows its place, it's good for the ecosystem of the art form. I'm not sure what good, really trying to help earnest but not very talented undergraduates who are maybe a little deluded about what it's going to take to improve enough to be competitive as a musician. I just couldn't really participate in that anymore. It felt disingenuous. Also, I wasn't getting paid enough, and it was too far away, so [laugh] these kind of more grown-up, practical considerations led me to feel Caltech would be a better job in every respect. I would happily quit Chapman and Colburn if I got this Caltech job. I remember when I interviewed for Caltech thinking, yeah, for the first time—and I say this with all modesty—for the very first time in my life, I was like, "If I were them, I'd hire me." [laugh]
WHITE: I speak nerd. I get what's going on here. I've been here. I've evolved into the kind of person that this position needs. I'd hire me if I were them, and here we are. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Was Delores part of the selection committee?
WHITE: No, because she had retired, so she had no place in that. Who knows? Maybe there was some unofficial ear-whispering [laugh] happening. But that's not how that's supposed to work, as you well know, with HR things.
ZIERLER: By the time you joined Caltech, was Salastina basically where you wanted it to be? Had you felt like it had even a momentum of its own where it didn't need you to baby it in the way that you might've had to earlier on?
WHITE: Yes and no. I think I'd already begun my education in nonprofit management. We'd been growing like this, and then it started going like this. COVID caused exponential growth, and no one could have seen that coming. But certainly at the time, when I took the position at Caltech, I felt just taking the grand scheme of things, the balance of things into account, going to have my first child, the nonprofit having much more momentum, and having a much clearer picture of how to build a business, and having a much clearer picture of stability mattering to me, my role as an educator, what I was speaking about with changing perspectives on what it means to educate who [laugh] about music, just all those things congealed in a way where it was like, I will absolutely apply for this job and I hope I get it, and if I were them, I would pick me, you know, that degree of certainty, which is very rare for me. When I mentioned I didn't want to commit to music for undergrad, that was huge, so to kind of be so certain about, like, this is good, this makes sense. I live in Glendale. [laugh] Being a musician, you are driving hither and yon constantly. There were just so many reasons why it made sense.
ZIERLER: What year did you start at Caltech?
WHITE: 2016. It's hard to believe.
ZIERLER: What were you working with? How many students were already involved in chamber music? How much was it important for you to do outreach for people that were either in other musical groups, or just getting the word out? Lots of Caltech students played music in high school. Maybe they just need a gentle push to say, "You can continue. I understand how busy you are, but you don't have to give this up now."
WHITE: Absolutely. It is tough. Getting the word out seems to fall more on our PVA department as a whole, because I'm sure, having spoken to a lot of our colleagues at PVA, you've heard the same thing a couple times now about how it's very surprising, given the robust participation that all of our different program areas have, that it still seems like, "Really, this exists…?" Like what? Between 65 and 110 kids do chamber music every year. That's crazy. That replaces a fraternity system, scale-wise. It is surprising. But I would say, as far as getting the word out, I've tried to do things like pizza parties, and we've tried to spiff up our more public-facing department presentations, like the open house and club fair and all kinds of things like that. But, at the end of the day, I think what it really comes down to is student word of mouth. Of course, we have descriptions in the course book too. All those things are out there. Let me put it this way. I'm sure you've noticed that Caltech looks like a research institute, not a college. That's by design. The undergraduate thing that sets Caltech apart, as far as I understand it, is that the undergraduates feel more like they're helping with research than they're having a typical undergraduate collegiate experience. It's just wildly different. I think that profound focus does exclude some peripheral vision, and that's a gravity problem that we have in the arts. But, at the end of the day, our participation is very strong and high, proportionately speaking. The people that we do have are our best wingmen and advocates, and certainly they talking and inviting their friends, and things like that. But constantly, even this year, I have a sophomore who's quite good at violin. I'm like, "Where were you last year?" "Oh, I just wasn't—my friend Misha plays guitar in one of your groups, and if I can play with him, I want to do it." It's like, "Really? That's your in? You just want to play with Misha? OK. [laugh] Sure." But whatever it takes, everybody has their own kind of points of entry. It's hard to paint a solution with a broad stroke. I think especially with such a small student body, it tends, in my experience, to be more case-by-case, things like that, that bring people in.
ZIERLER: Maia, how would you go about deciding what music to play? How expansively can you define chamber music? When can you throw out convention, and be responsive to what the students are interested in?
WHITE: Oh, I try to be responsive to what they—that may be something I'm a little different from Delores in, actually, is that I try very hard to honor every single request that they have in terms of personnel and style, instrumentation, and even repertoire. I had, just as an example, one student was like, "I want to play the Grieg Quartet." I was like, "That's at your level. Sure." I have absolutely no need to equivocate. If that's why she wants to be here, why would I not indulge that? I placed her with a student who likes romantic music in minor keys [laugh], and they're roughly at the same level. I was like, "Grieg's quartet in G minor. You'll love it. Perfect." [laugh] I try to honor their requests—that comes first, really—unless they're wildly out of touch, which really rarely happens. I feel like their self-assessments tend to be pretty healthy, for the most part—
ZIERLER: To go—
WHITE: —and that's a credit to them, because they're very smart, and they very well could be the kinds of people who wildly overestimate their abilities in this area, but they tend not to. They tend to be pretty accurate self-assessors.
ZIERLER: To go back to what Delores built, the performance schedule, the cycle, did that pretty much stay? Was there anything to change, looking at the calendar?
WHITE: Yeah. With the calendar, I did make a little adjustment. I felt that five concerts in the winter was too much, that with COVID especially, there's now a kind of implicit or a tacit implication that we remain more flexible to the students' schedules, mental health, all these kinds of things. What's worked out better since we reopened is only three winter concerts, and then when kids are actually ready. It's a little more work for me in the sense of corralling, you know, the herding cats of corralling all their schedules is always fun. It's a lot easier to say, "These are the winter concert dates. Be there or be square." But that's not so accommodating. If someone has an interview, or is sick, or just had a rough go of things in the fall, and needs more time, then I will have to set up a separate concert for them, preferably with another group or two so it doesn't feel weird to just have a concert with one group playing like maybe two movements of something. It's a little bit more cumbersome, but it's more flexible now than when I first started. Instead of five winter concerts, we do three, and then usually two or three around that; sometimes even before. If they can't make the winter concerts, and they're ready earlier, then it might happen before. Then for the spring cycle, it's still the two that Delores set up, the Mother's Day one, and the one after that, and then the commencement concert, the senior concert really. I call it the commencement concert because I let graduate students perform on it too. [laugh] It doesn't seem fair to just let the seniors, when some of the graduate students have arguably invested even more time in music, because they've been here for six years. I let the graduate students play on the senior concert too. It all wraps up around the middle of June when commencement happens.
Music is a Vital Caltech Outlet
ZIERLER: Maia, you've alluded to it, but I think it's worth asking directly, the benefits that being in chamber music confer to Caltech students. Caltech is famously demanding to the point of being brutal in its curriculum. What role does this play for students' wellbeing, and how liberating is it for you that you are decoupled from any expectation that this is anything more than just a good thing for them?
WHITE: Oh my god, deeply liberating—I'll just get that out of the way—deeply liberating. It's funny, technically I think I'm a staff member, and I feel that way because I feel so removed from the crushing academic standards and load that they take on. Sorry, what was the first part of your question? It was about—?
ZIERLER: Your sense of enjoyment that you're providing this outlet to students who are intellectually, scientifically, they're in a pressure cooker.
WHITE: That's what it's all about for me there. I couldn't really say it in better words. Musicians, we pay so much lip service to all these transcendent, lofty ideas. But my work with the people at Caltech is a very, very real everyday quotidian kind of manifestation of that. I think specifically with chamber music, it's worth remembering that that art form was actually developed for amateurs. [laugh] It became the kind of loftiest one, but it was always designed to be something that anyone could play at home with their friends. I think that spirit should always animate it in every way. My husband—and I just heard him come home right now—it's so sweet for me to hear him repeat the stories that I tell him about my students, and how much their musical life means to them, because that means a lot to me to be the person who gets to steward that for them, and nurture it with them. But I'm very, very humbled and inspired by them. Maybe another good example, I mentioned that South Korean pianist who was in the Music House constantly [laugh] just—and he was a beautiful musician. He was actually someone who could have been a professional pianist, had he wanted to, and that's inspiring in its own way. But even the far less advanced students, their kind of commitment and enjoyment is very humbling and very inspiring.
But I have a student now who is in his last year of PhD, and he really wants to do the Kreutzer Sonata of Beethoven. It's funny, I've now done this piece twice with people who are graduating, because they want to go out with a bang. It's a stretch. It's a stretch. But I've used my judgment, I think, reasonably enough times. "I think you can do it." I know him. I know the piece. I know the situation. "OK, let's do it." Even seeing that sometimes [laugh] I can tell they're a little nervous to play for me, but I read into that how much they care and want to do a good job. I try to hold that very gently because I recognize—I don't know—just what it means to them, how out of their element they are in some ways. Another way of putting it is that it is 100% their element. That is a part of them. It's part of their lived experience, as it were. It's just an honor to steward that for them. Sometimes it's difficult, and I have to keep my—you only get to a certain level of musicianship by having a very finely honed critical ear. To have to override that, I've had to learn to override that so that's more about their experience than about my wanting to make it better, if that makes sense. There's certainly a Venn diagram overlap of that, where they will only have a good experience if they improve and they feel confident and comfortable performing, and they know that it's going to be OK in performance. But I have to let go of a ton of other things that I might want to say or might want to improve upon with more serious music students, because it just doesn't matter as much in the Caltech context. I'm beyond OK with that at [laugh] this point. I wasn't in my 20s, but now, oh my god, it's just—I only mention that to prove a point, like, not because it means anything to me now.
ZIERLER: That is to say that, contra a place like Juilliard, where professors would feel pressured to push strongly in the pursuit of producing the world-class performers, even here, when the personalities and the larger context suggests that it's the right course, you will push, you will inspire students to challenge themselves?
WHITE: Absolutely right. That's absolutely right. There are a handful of groups where it's been—those are the ones that are inspiring and humbling in a different way, where you go, "I am treating these people like I'm at Juilliard or USC, because they're that good. That's amazing. That's truly amazing." That can happen. But I routinely use the phrase, "This is not Juilliard" with my students [laugh], and usually in a context where I'm disabusing them of worry and of feeling afraid that they're not going to measure up or be prepared. I just say, "Please, look around. This is not Juilliard." You have to be flexible to their different levels. But I hope it's clear my overriding point in all of this conversation is that the spirit that animates the program is that everybody, no matter how accomplished they are, has a good experience musically and personally, and it's just an honor to steward that for them.
ZIERLER: Maia, you mentioned live streaming as one of the things that you innovated. Is that a response to when COVID hit, or were you really lucky that you had that in place prior to the pandemic?
WHITE: No, it was after COVID. I think Salastina really showed me there's no reason we shouldn't be doing this for Caltech too. I always run under budget here, because what expenses do we have really for chamber? So many of the things that I might ask Glenn for, it turns out they fall under a different budget altogether, like, let's get a new viola for the students because we only have one that's OK, and it would just make such a big difference. That's not even the chamber music budget. Many of the things that I ask for don't come out of our budget. It just seemed like such an easy, "Duh, we have this money every year from this fund where we get a little bit every year. Let's just use it for this. This is perfectly reasonable." It gives them a quality recording. Prior to that, it was me struggling to set up this kind of semi-fancy video recorder, and not really knowing how. I'm just not the most [laugh] tech-savvy person—shocker [laugh]—and how to get that onto the computer, and deliver it to them. YouTube Live is just 1,000 times easier. Who knew?
Pivot to Remote Collaboration
ZIERLER: I wonder if an added impetus during COVID was all of the social isolation, that music, even if it was done over Zoom, was especially important to students during those years.
WHITE: Oh my god, yeah. We've always taken very seriously the charge to monitor our students' wellbeing, and it's very clear. I've never set foot in a Caltech lecture. But certainly my understanding from Delores and Glenn is that chamber music is actually, in many cases, the most one-on-one opportunities they have with an older instructor, so someone who's wiser and in a position to assess, "Are you OK?" That certainly came out during COVID a lot. Maybe just as a side note, something that's intrigued me [laugh], every single year, a lot of my students ask me to write them letters of recommendation for SURF. It took me a while to figure it out, and I was like, oh, because I know them. They would feel weird asking their Professor So-and-so, because they'd be like, "Who are you?" I can actually speak to their conscientiousness, their personality, their agreeableness with other people, their teamwork capacity. In a way, I have the best vantage point on some of those things. But that also comes with, like you said, being charged with just making sure that they're OK. COVID was definitely—it was hard teaching chamber music [laugh] on Zoom. [laugh] We used all kinds of funny things. I can't even remember the name of the software now. Basically, we'd spend half the time, "How are you doing? What's going on?" It was therapy time.
Then it would be, "Sara, you're going to record your part, and then I'm going to layer it with So-and-so's part, and we'll put it together, and see." It would be like a mini lesson for each person in the group, and then record them, and in Zoom in real time put them together and go, "Let's see how that sounds. Hey, remember when I said you were flat on that note? Listen to it in context. Do you see what I mean?" It was just a very, very different way of teaching. It wasn't really about the music at that point. It was the togetherness, I think, just trying to do something together and make a go of it that counted more. But that was a very, very weird time. Oh my god. I remember we did a concert, actually on Zoom during COVID, because I wanted to maintain that kind of we're building towards something, and we wanted to share their recordings. I thought that was really cool. I made the mistake of making it open to the public, and it got Zoom-bombed, and that was horrible. [laugh] I felt horribly guilty for not having had the foresight to think of that, and make it a Caltech-only community thing, because our regular concerts are open to the community, and it just would never in a million years have occurred to me. But that was awful. [laugh] But thankfully my students were very understanding. [laugh] They didn't blame me at all. But, rest assured, I felt wholly responsible for that. That was a dark moment. That was probably the darkest moment for me at Caltech, and that's saying a lot, because it was one thing that my students were right to point out was largely out of my control, and how could I possibly have known? Anyways, that was that.
Coming Back Together
ZIERLER: Maia, as we inched back to in-person encounters in 2022, last year, I wonder if you can convey a particular moment or memory that was so meaningful to you to see students playing together, to hear live music, and what that meant for you, what that meant for the students.
WHITE: Good question. A couple, yeah, a couple. I think the reality is that when we came back, it still felt a little fraught and unnatural, because everyone was wearing masks. We had to stand far apart. There was such a flurry around, well, if this person's playing the flute, what kind of mask are they going to wear? Are we going to play outside or inside? How public should these be? Should the audience wear masks? That time felt very, very dominated by policy, actually. I'm sad to say that that almost stands out more [laugh] than any concrete memories of being moved by seeing the kids playing in person. There are, that being said, a couple things that I remember, really, many though, but they're very specific. If I'm speaking more broadly abstractly, I think of policy. But if I'm thinking of specific memories, I think of people. There were maybe three things that stand out. One was a group that I had, two Chinese students who had been playing a duo for a while. They had really practiced at home on Zoom. When they finally got together, it was like that groundwork was still there. That was heartening because, like I said, teaching music on Zoom is almost impossible, for so many reasons. [laugh] But when they got together and played, they kept it together. Even though they had to stand crazy far apart, and they were wearing masks, and couldn't really read each other's faces, it was still like that investment of time and care.
I was moved by that. That's one example. This particular group, too, they were so consistent in their attendance on Zoom too. I guess maybe that connection, seeing how dedicated, reliably dedicated they were to showing up every week on the computer, as disheartening as that was to do over and over, that it actually did have some practical real-world benefit, that was heartening. Another was a senior that I had who had taken one of the COVID years, very wisely, in my opinion, off of school. She was like a fifth year. When she came back to in-person, that almost felt like a more concrete example of a thawing, because [laugh] she had put herself in a cryogenic freezing of sorts, and then come back to reanimate in a reanimated campus life. I remember that was her last year. She was in two groups, one playing the Kreutzer Sonata—[laugh] see, it just keeps coming up for graduating students [laugh]—and on the viola on another piece. It was hard to say goodbye to her, because she was one who really, really cared about the music program, and participated in both instruments in a lot of beautiful groups.
Then the last would be one of the more advanced groups that I've ever had, which was a current senior who's one of our most—he's the concertmaster of the orchestra now. They just played so well, and they had an exchange student from Scotland playing piano with them for the semester. You asked, how do people find out about it? How does an exchange student who's here from Scotland for one term find out that we have this opportunity, third-year undergrads are like, "I never knew until my friend invited me to this concert"? There's only so much you can, like, the resources are there. That whole you can bring a horse to water thing. If they look, they will find us. We've made that part pretty easy. But they have to look first. They played so well. It was just a highlight, how beautifully they played. Anyways, I can't say broadly any post-COVID kind of meaning beyond those specific memories of people doing well for where they were.
ZIERLER: Maia, now that we've worked right up to the present, if I may, one last question that sort of looks to the future. If you ever have that opportunity to interact with the president or a trustee, the kinds of people that really have a say in the resources in keeping the arts and music going at Caltech, what would you tell them, both in the sense of what do you need to keep this beautiful program going, and what do you need beyond that for making it something bigger and better than it might even be today?
WHITE: The first thing I would probably say to the leaders of the Institute is, thank you. Even in my time, I feel that the culture has shifted in a positive way towards more support for our activity areas. [laugh] A side note, my former student Raymond Gilmartin, who is Kevin Gilmartin's son.
WHITE: Kevin and his wife, Susan, were always so lovely when I was a 23-year-old teaching their boy when he was 8, and he's now a grown man, a Stanford graduate. But I think Kevin has done a lot to shift the, you know, the fact that they got a humanities guy to occupy the leadership roles that he does says a lot. My students still are afraid sometimes to register formally for chamber music because they don't want to overload their course schedules. I think that's a cultural thing I would love to have shifted, that there's just more of a foundational understanding of and respect for the role that we play, rather than, oh, this is a distraction. Some graduate students won't even invite their advisors. They don't want their advisors to know that they're doing anything outside of their work. It's like how I felt as a musician in my 20s, like, how dare I do anything besides my instruments? Oh, grow up. [laugh] But I think that's not their fault. That's the culture of their teachers. But I would tell them, "Thank you for sustaining this." I would speak to the quadrivium idea. I think that higher-ups at universities like those big ideas about the role of big learning institutions and that sense of academic tradition that goes back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. I would just ask for a little bit more of a spotlight on the contributions that the students provide. I wouldn't be surprised, and I have no evidence for this, but just short of my experience with my own students, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the students who are involved in the arts also happen to be the ones who think a little bit more about ethics and science [laugh], rather than science and scientific pursuits, as its own worthy enterprise, full stop.
I certainly take it upon myself to ask them a lot of questions about those things. When they tell me what they're studying, I ask them about the applications, and any of the kind of negative, unintended consequences. I routinely hear about how those things aren't talked about in their coursework and in their research. I would hope that the upper leadership of the institute would agree that those questions are important. It wouldn't surprise me if it's the students who are involved in the arts who are the most readily able to contemplate those questions. For that reason, I think that it's valuable to actively encourage work in the arts, and the humanities for that matter. But I wouldn't want to tiptoe into a like, "So why don't you become a liberal arts" [laugh]—
WHITE: —because that's just apples and oranges. But in the spirit of the quadrivium, I think that it is worth pointing out that this is a connected area for a reason, and that it is additive to scientific exploration.
ZIERLER: That message really has already landed. It explains why music is at Caltech at
WHITE: Exactly. Yes.
ZIERLER: Maia, this has been a wonderful conversation. I want to thank you so much for spending the time.
WHITE: Thank you too, David. I appreciate it.