The Social Promise of Music

By Sarah Kramer

As an undergraduate, I majored in music and international relations. When people learn this, they often say these fields of study are so different and disconnected from each other. I hear questions like: Which one do you like better? How do you plan to combine them after you graduate? And now, as I’m approaching my first year in law school, I’m often asked whether I plan to continue in music at all. As if, by pursuing my interests “outside” of music, I’ve somehow abandoned my creative pursuits. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, music is the reason I became so interested in government and international relations in the first place.

The source of my passion for international relations stems from my youth orchestra’s tour of Central Europe. When I was in ninth grade, we travelled to Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, playing the music of great native composers such as Bartók as well as sharing well-known American works. The experience was truly eye-opening for me. The region still had not recovered from the physical and economic devastation of two World Wars and the Soviet occupation. Everywhere we went, there were shell-damaged buildings, abandoned city neighborhoods, decaying houses and acres of gray cement apartment buildings; all reminders of the trauma inflicted by this large-scale violence and oppression. I wondered how people could possibly be so wantonly destructive, and what any one person could do to prevent something like that from recurring in the future. But what left the greatest impression on me was the tenacity and cultural vibrancy that allowed these nations to move forward despite this devastation. It was an honor to be able to participate in this legacy, and to create a bond with our audience that transcended all age, language, and cultural barriers through our mutual love for music.

This phenomenon of “cultural diplomacy” is something I’ve carried with me to this day, and has only been reenergized by my experiences in college. At Eastman, I had the privilege to work with a variety of people from all over the world and to learn about their different global outlooks and cultural values. We came to understand each other better by making music together. By playing music for others, I’ve had the chance to interact with audiences, to see them experience the emotions hidden in the musical score that we musicians work so hard to convey. Through my work with the Strings for Success program, I’ve seen the power music has to provide joy, hope, and educational opportunities to economically underprivileged youth and to help bring together a community oriented towards their success. And, on a more personal note, music has always been a sanctuary to me. It is a place I can withdraw to when other areas of my life become too difficult or stressful; it is a medium through which I can express things I otherwise dare not even fully admit to myself.

What is diplomacy if not cross-cultural communication? And what is the purpose of government, if not to bring a community together for the public good? For me, the goals of government and music are very similar: to encourage cooperation and understanding and to provide a public service to the community. Sometimes, the political and artistic communities collaborate to achieve common goals; the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea, El Sistema, the Big Noise Project, and the activities of the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs are only a few examples. I would like to see more of this cooperation, as I firmly believe that both government and music can be vehicles for positive social change, and I hope that I can contribute both as a future lawyer and a life-long musician.

Sarah Kramer recently received a dual degree in Harp Performance and International Relations from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester. This fall, she will begin her studies at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. 

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