Office Hours with… Lindsay Wright
During her career, Lindsay Wright has taught music in public schools, as a private violin teacher and as a director of a symphony for young people. Today, she is an assistant professor in the music department at Yale College of Arts and Sciences.
Wright, whose research explores topics such as perceptions of musical talent and privilege in music education, this semester teaches a freshman seminar titled “Musical Genius” and a graduate seminar on “Music, Ability, and disability”. We caught up with her for the latest edition of Office Hours, a Q&A series that introduces Yale newcomers to the wider university community.
What do you like about teaching music?
I’ve had many jobs, both educational and non-educational, and teaching is by far the most wonderful, rewarding, and challenging job I’ve ever done. The more I taught – whether it was with three-year-old violinists or a doctorate in musicology. candidates or concertgoers – the more I realized that our basic needs as learners do not differ that much.
Teaching in so many disparate contexts has been a gift in this way, as each community has helped me approach the complexity of learning from a new perspective. Three-year-old violinists have convinced me that motivation and joy are the basis of so much more; youth orchestra musicians quickly exposed the importance and difficulty of challenging students with a wide range of abilities; students have shown me how good teaching also prepares students to be good subject teachers themselves – whether by writing comprehensibly, participating in productive discussions, or addressing their own [musical] learning process from a pedagogical point of view.
Is there a particular inspiration for your interests and is there a unifying theme?
My research interests certainly stem from a few basic questions. When I was teaching in the Philadelphia school district, an argument between two middle schoolers escalated into a fight because one of them was embarrassed to be seen bringing his cello home; he desperately wanted to be seen as an innate talent, barely needing practice. This moment and many others sparked my curiosity about the power and ubiquity of ideas such as innate musicality, talent and genius – in musical scholarship and popular discourse. What are these concepts for? Is it true that some people are just less “musical” than others, whatever that means? What can the study of historical and contemporary beliefs about musicality teach us about larger power systems and value hierarchies – how we design our educational systems, why meritocracy has remained such a predominant dream, how do we decide which aspiring musicians “deserve” more resources – and which don’t?
You spent the last year working on a book project. What is it about?
It is called “The Talent Show: Musicality, Meritocracy and the Aesthetics of Exclusion”. It investigates the history of talent shows in the United States, from popular amateur parties on vaudeville stages around 1900 to contemporary talent contests on reality television and even platforms like YouTube and TikTok. I’m not just curious about the music and musicians celebrated on the talent show stage, but those who are hooked, bloated, buzzing, often cruelly excluded – those deemed untalented and unworthy of consideration.
What do you like to do for fun?
Even though I don’t play the violin professionally these days, I love playing chamber music with friends; my partner and i recently performed for a childhood friend’s wedding ceremony. I also like to get away from computer screens as often as possible, sometimes running, sometimes swimming, sometimes packing a tent, and joining friends on bike camping trips to new parts of the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have fun learning new skills. Even though I love teaching, I still cherish the chance to be a student.