Choosing the right music school. Story of a Cornell professor
Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri is a Greek-born composer and sound artist working around the world. She obtained a Bachelor of Music in Music and Master of Music in Composition from Goldsmiths College, University of London, following postgraduate studies and research at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna (2008). The composer then finished her PhD in music composition at University of California, San Diego (2008). Marianthi composes works that combine the ideas of performance, sound art, music composition, and challenge the conventional perception of sound. Teaching at Cornell University's Department of Music, Marianthi shares her experiences and advice.
Marianthi Papalexandri Alexandri performing her own motor driven frictional instrument and composition Untitled II at Audiograft festival, in Oxford. Untitled VII was created in collaboration with kinetic artist Pe Lang. (Photo by Audiograft festival)
When applying to UCSD for her PhD, Marianthi chose the institution because she had the chance to meet with one of the faculty members who later became her mentor. "The reason I went there was because I thought this is the right person that I should be working with," she recalls.

For Marianthi, choosing the right mentor was her priority, and then it was the overall philosophy of the school, the reputation, and the history of the department itself. "I thought a lot about performers and the faculty that were teaching the performers because, for a composer, it is very important to be selective when it comes to choosing the right collaborators," the professor says.

If she were to be a young composer applying to music schools today, Marianthi tells me she would think very carefully about choosing the right mentor. The question is: how do you know who is right? "I will encourage everyone to get in touch with the people and have a conversation," she answers. In her case, the composer happened to attend a three-week course with one of her mentors — Chaya Czernowin, a composition professor and composer at Harvard University —at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, where Chaya was running a summer course. "I applied and [was] chosen as one of the 16 young composers," Marianthi shares. "During the time that I spent with Chaya, we worked together very closely, and we both felt that this is the right thing to do."

Another problem that people are often stuck with is understanding what makes a school the right place. As this is such an important decision, it can be very hard to know what institution would be the best choice. For Marianthi, however, it isn't about finding the right school — it is the people that make something the right place to be. The professor believes that the new generation has the power to make any school special, but it's not about what the university can do for you, but what you can do for it. "You've got to start thinking about who [you are] about to become if [you] go to that place, and it's through the conversations that you're going to have with mentors and students," she elucidates. The school can offer a lot, but it takes two to tango: learn from others and how to create opportunities for yourself and the people around you.

How do you understand and prepare for your university experience? You need to visualize yourself and design your future in your head. Ask yourself: how do I want to spend my time? Where do I want to put my effort? Am I someone who wants to work closely with performers? Do I enjoy working outdoors or indoors?
Untitled VII (2019) kinetic sound sculpture by Marianthi Papalexandri Alexandri and Pe Lang commissioned for the Rohrwerk Fabrique sonore by the Biennial for New Music and Architecture / ZeitRäume Festival, supported by Ernst Von Siemens Foundation and Swiss Arts Council PhoHelvetia exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. (Photo by Pe Lang)
Education, as Marianthi sees it, should be like a long trip, where you want to visit this place and you are curious about this land. "Let's say I always wanted to go to Japan, but no one sits down and thinks: 'Why do I really want to go to Japan? Where is this coming from? I'm from Greece, but why am I thinking about going to Japan?'" she laughs, and I join, thinking about how funny those questions are in relation to traveling to a different place, yet those are the questions we ask when we are looking at education. She then talks about how we sometimes make choices based on whether we are good at certain things, and one trap we fall into is thinking about mastering something and forget what it is that we enjoy — something that gives meaning to us.

Before traveling to London, Marianthi studied music in Greece. "I wasn't really satisfied or I couldn't really express myself because the studies were so conservative," she remembers, describing those times. "I knew that there has to be something else, something that goes beyond the most traditional harmony, counterpoint." At the same time, she met Dr. Dora Psaltopoulou, a certified music therapist, who introduced her to music therapy. Realizing she can contribute in a different way and use music to help the society, the sound artist started searching for schools that specialized in the field.

While there were great universities in New York, USA, and Paris, France, Marianthi chose to apply to London — New York was expensive, she didn't know French to move to Paris, and Greek students didn't have to pay tuition fees in 1994. Although late to the application process, she packed her suitcase and flew anyway, determined to find a place. Visiting a couple of schools, every single one of them required musicians to pass exams. Thinking she wouldn't be able to attend that year, the composer met a flutist from Brazil, who convinced her otherwise. "Why do you have to wait for a year when clearly you don't need to take those exams — you know everything about harmony and counterpoint. What are you waiting for?" he asked her.

Finding a special degree for students outside of the UK at University of London, Goldsmiths College, Marianthi went straight to their office to speak to Sadie Harrison, one of the composition faculty members. "I waited for many hours, and told her I'd like to join the program for a year," she tells me. "I wanted to be very honest that I'm interested in studying music therapy, [which wasn't offered there], so I want to transfer to City University." Sadie appreciated her honesty, and gave an exercise in harmony for Marianthi to complete. When asked about Stravinsky, the young musician said that she never heard this name before — in Greece, the music history stops right before him. "She was really shocked, but I told her that is the reason why I had to leave my country: I knew there has to be something more," Marianthi says. Even though the university was done with admissions, she entered the program.

You have to ask yourself questions and talk to people, even strangers. Don't be afraid to make big changes. "I never regretted [the] drastic changes in my life," the professor states. Because this is where education begins…

Stay tuned for Marianthi's opinion on how the education system needs to change.
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