Name: Shruti Venkat
Hometown: Edison, New Jersey
Class Year: 2023
Musical Groups: Princeton University Glee Club (Student Conductor, Manager), Princeton Chamber Choir (member), Princeton Consort Singers (member), Princeton Swara (President)
Here we go. Sleep is very important to me, so I never wake up super early. This semester I have an 11 a.m. class on Mondays, so I’m up by around 10 or 10:30 to get to class on time. Any earlier than that is generally a no. I start my day with a shower and just generally wake myself up for what’s going to be a very busy one.
The Twitter experiment. My first class of the day is Computing and Optimization for the Physical and Social Sciences. I’m actually taking it with a couple of friends that I met through the Department of Music! I think we all thought the class was going to be mostly coding, but it actually turned out to be totally different and very interesting. Today, for example, we learned that technology is racist. I didn’t understand that at first; I always thought that humans had biases, but that code and technology and AI were bias-proof. But today we learned about this experiment in which the Twitter algorithm was prompted to pick between an image of Barack Obama and an image of Mitch McConnell. The aspect ratios and everything were adjusted, but nevertheless, it always picked Mitch McConnell — every single time. It was super interesting. Maybe, for some reason, technology prefers these kinds of images, or maybe it’s just the fact that the engineers who made the algorithm might have been all white, and their biases influenced the technology they built. There are all these layers that I just never conceptualized before. It just goes to show that nothing is inherently foolproof in our world.
LunchShowtime. After class, at 12:30, I walk down Prospect Avenue to my eating club, Cap and Gown, for lunch. Cap is definitely one of the more artsy clubs. We have a lot of dancers, singers, comedians, and just performers in general. Christmastime is particularly wonderful because you hear people singing all the time in the clubhouse. It’s also been really nice to meet people from all different parts of campus, people I might not have met otherwise.
Practice, practice, practice. Right after lunch, I spend some time practicing for tomorrow’s music class, Practices and Principles of Rhythm, a three-hour drumming class where we learn how to play different musical styles of drumming. One week we could be learning West African music, and another week Jazz, Pop, Afro-Caribbean. My fingers are getting blisters, which I didn’t realize would happen, but it’s an amazing class. Especially when so much is going on across campus and there’s always so much to do, having a class like this, where I don’t have to touch my phone or open my laptop, where I can just be in the moment and play music, is really rare and special. We often think of drumming as the metronome, just keeping a steady beat and providing the rhythm, but in this class, I’m learning that drumming has emotion too. We’ll play a phrase, and Olivier Tarpaga, who co-teaches the course alongside the musicians of Sō Percussion, will say, you’re all just kind of banging the drum and you’re not giving it the sweetness that it deserves. I didn’t understand what he meant at first, but then when he played it, he fell into a groove and that sweetness was really there. I’ve written a lot of original solo and pop music, and I actually made an album in high school, and I can remember my producer saying, we’re not going to use electronic drums, we’re going to hire a percussionist. I kept thinking, this is just taking more time, it’s more expensive. But now I understand. You can hear the difference. And so this was really exciting to learn. I can’t play with emotion yet, but it’s exciting to see that that’s the end goal.
Taking the podium. At 4:30, I have Glee Club rehearsal with a lot of my first friends at Princeton, so I put my djembe away and walk over to McAlpin. We rehearse so often, but each time it’s just so amazing. Right now, we’re working on this Bach cantata that I’m conducting. (I’m also the student conductor for the Glee Club.) The cantata is BWV 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft. It has orchestra and percussion, which I’ve never conducted before, and it’s so exciting. Growing up South Indian and learning that style of music — which is very rhythm-heavy, very drums-heavy, and very similar to West African music — to be able to conduct this Bach cantata with such impressive musical forces is very exciting. It feels very innate to me. I spent all of the winter break practicing, going through the motions, and doing it with obviously no singers. Now, for the first time, I’m conducting it in front of like a hundred of them. It’s really nerve-wracking, but also amazing. During the second half of Glee, we work on the Bach Magnificat, which Gabriel Crouch, our conductor, is directing.
Cantabimus. After Glee, I have a quick break to catch dinner with friends. We walk together from Woolworth to Cap, and then, less than an hour later, we’re back in Woolworth for Chamber Choir rehearsal. Today in Chamber we’re focusing on a piece by William Byrd called Quomodo cantabimus that we’ll be performing in this William Byrd 400-year death anniversary concert that’s happening in March, so I spend a few minutes thinking about the music and getting in the right headspace for rehearsal as we walk over. I’m involved in a lot of music groups on campus. I’ve got Glee and Chamber, and also Consort, which is I think eight of us. Consort is a music certificate ensemble that curates our own concerts for the end of the year. I’m writing a piece for that actually, a South Asian-inspired Western piece. I’ve been learning Carnatic vocal music since I was around five years old, and that has anchored me throughout my whole growing-up journey. I’m even in Princeton Swara, the student-only South Asian vocal ensemble on campus, which is great. But I remember submitting my music supplement when I was applying to Princeton and morphing myself into the German, French, and Italian things they wanted to hear. It worked and I got in, but I don’t want to have to do that. So to write this sort of fusion piece for Consort is a very, very exciting project for me.
Let’s go, left brain. When Chamber ends that’s when my brain kind of does a 180 back to more quantitative stuff. I’m an Economics major, and I’m writing my thesis on the rise of the digital entertainment streaming industry and how that impacts classical music organizations like orchestras and operas, in terms of their revenues, ticket prices, different programs that they offer, investments, grants, and other funding. Especially because classical music is not something that’s widely streamed, it’s really interesting to look into how this plays out. I really love my advisor, Professor Swati Bhatt. She’s an Econ professor, but she’s really in tune with the digital side of things and with music and entertainment. One chapter of my thesis is going to be all numbers and the next will be, like, okay, based on my understanding of the music industry, etc. But Professor Bhatt is really supportive of that because she has that same excitement for both music and econ. Also, to see someone who is able to combine these things in a professional manner and be able to follow in her footsteps is really exciting. After Chamber rehearsal ends I spend the rest of the evening running regressions and coding for my thesis.
Family time. Every day I have such a mix of right brain and left brain stuff that goes on — it really keeps me engaged and excited throughout the day. But it’s also a lot sometimes, which is why I like to FaceTime my family in the evenings to talk about nothing related to school, nothing related to my thesis. Even though they only live 45 minutes away from campus and I see them all the time, it’s still really nice to be able to just talk about things like my brother’s high school math class or whatever they’re making for dinner. I think that at Princeton, we place this huge importance on the thesis, exams, and all that stuff. But this stuff doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. If I’m ever feeling stressed about something, all I have to do is tell my mom and she’ll be like, oh, cool, so anyway I made this for dinner tonight. It’s like, oh, yeah, that doesn’t even matter! It’s really nice to have that reaction to ground me. After we hang up, I get ready for bed and finally fall asleep around 1.
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