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Music Graduate Reports On Life After Cornish

Jason McCauley was a well-known figure in Cornish’s administrative offices. His beautiful playing of the classics and his own compositions on the six-foot Steinway grand in the vestibule was the soundtrack to our work for several years. A graduate of the Music Department, McCauley has taken his BM and gone an exciting and unexpected direction: graduate study for a master’s degree in liberal studies at venerable, rigorous St. John’s College of Annapolis and Santa Fe. He plans to continue on to a doctorate. McCauley’s study is a vibrant reminder that Cornish teaches not just the arts, but the liberal arts.

From Jason McCauley, Class of 2016:

I started at St. John's College right after graduation, in the summer session. Actually, I left the Cornish graduation ceremony and went straight to the airport.  St. John’s is located in Santa Fe New Mexico, not in the city itself but in the mountains -- the high desert. Sometimes I go out on a trail and it takes me to the edge of a hill. I can sit there in utter silence staring at the mountains and watching birds soar across the sky.  It gets to be quiet warm, and the sky is spectacular. Once during a storm the entire sky was red and there was a huge cloud covering all of Santa Fe. There was lightening striking the ground every few minutes. It was gorgeous. Quite a change from Seattle. Although Seattle has a remarkable sky as well. But just in a different sort of way.

St. John's is a little different from other schools and I couldn't wait to begin. Classes  have about 10 students and we don't have teachers — we have Tutors instead. That doesn't indicate their education level, many have  a PhD. The idea of making the distinction is to emphasize that rather than being an authority on the subject who will tell us what to think, the tutor is a "student" of the books as well and  we are working together as a class to deepen our understanding of the text or if nothing else to at least attempt to better understand our confusions. Classes are discussion based. The tutor begins  with a question about the text and we spend the next two hours addressing it. A question might be as straight forward as "what is Montaigne's conception of the soul?" (actually that was the question I asked in my closing essay), or it might be an implied question, very complex and take five minutes to unpack. But they are always genuine questions and not simply pedagogical maneuvers.

Everybody follows the same curriculum. We all read from the "great books" of Western Civilization. The graduate program is structured so that each semester you are focused on only one subject. Ultimately you cover history, philosophy, litterateur, politics, math, and science. Over the summer I was in the history segment so I read a bevy of early historians and political philosophers: St. Augustine, Herodotus, Livy, Plutarch, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and a few others.

I can't help but reminisce on my time at Cornish. Being away really helped me focus and to see clearly what was most important to my growth and what was perhaps incidental. I live every day with gratitude that I met so many friends at Cornish. The open-door community, which characterizes Cornish in my opinion, is what made it possible for me to discover the school and to become a student in the first place. It's the reason I can now be so grateful for the other teachers I had there: Jarrad Powell — to whom I own my very life or at least my ability to live it artistically well — Janice Giteck, Tom Baker, and so many others. Meanwhile Carolyn Hall, DJ Gomel, Wade Madsen: these are just some of the individuals who, while never officially being my teachers, were also so important to my development as a student. I miss them all.

In spite of all the reading, there is still a lot of time allowed for extracurricular activities, leaving room for much needed reflection time. For me, that means working on my music -- composing and theorizing. I do have time to play piano. There is a 24-hour music hall that has a number of nice pianos. I also enjoy bringing my guitar into the mountains and finding a rock to sit on a play. Since graduating I have made what I think of as enormous progress in my thinking, and my presentation of ideas.

I've even been reaching out to other communities. Over the summer, I collaborated with a team of scientists who were doing a statistical inquiry into something related to music; this was part of a summer program the Santa Fe institute ( a local science community) using my school’s facilities. I'm not sure if the results of the study were ever published or not, but I was sure excited to be part of it and from that experience I found a true collaboration partner-- the leader of the team I had been on. She is just finishing up her Phd in Physics, studying Quantum Gravity. Incidentally she is also a great lover of music and she is a natural composer. I have been sharing my theoretical ideas with her and she has been comprehending them both for her own learning and  also to  help me to “language” them mathematically. Right now we are in the process of trying to get me invited to her institution for a collaboration/lecture kind of thing.

Something came clear to me when I arrived here: Cornish students, one and all, would benefit so much from the kind of learning we take part in here at St. John’s. It seems to me to to be that way at least, and I know that I do — benefit from the nature of the program; and at the same time the students here would benefit so much from going to an art school. I guess what I mean is that I sense an enormous potential for collaboration, a meeting of the minds: these  communities are not so different and yet they don't interact hardly ever, but why not? More to the point, I feel they are actually complementary to one another; each community’s particular "virtues" seem to support and complement the other’s.

But I'm looking forward to the future. I will be graduating in August, so I have begun and international search for PhD programs.