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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

Guest Blog: Music and Mayhem by Jess ‘12 by Yan Z. '12

Minus the mayhem. Also features running commentary by Yan. p.s.: Jess, your italics didn't show up when you sent this to me.

Hi, I’m Jess L. ’12.

I met Yan during our freshman year (she even unwittingly snapped a picture of me in Diff Eq. around Valentine’s Day and continued to run into her with increasing frequency until we were living under the same roof this summer at pika*. You might recall we journeyed to New York City at the end of July and survived a gastronomical bildungsroman**.

*In all prepositional honesty, at least half of the living at pika happens on the roof instead of under it. Pika’s homemade, impeccably sanded (by Yan & Co.) roofdeck is a full-service pit stop on the road to cozy summer skylines, breezy sunsets, and barely-interpolated constellations swimming in celestial gutters cluttered with light pollution. As I shiver in the dregs of December and qwertily exercise fingers unwarmed by penurious radiators, I can’t help but rhapsodize my midsummer memories of coarse-grained films splattered onto a makeshift screen on the roofdeck, froth-tipped banana-sweet smoothies on the roofdeck, impromptu rope-climbing on the roofdeck, reading books in eye-frazzling noon sunlight on the roofdeck, listening to Jess discover the 2934829th normal mode of her violin on the roofdeck, absorbing plenty of delightful UV radiation on the roofdeck . . . anyway, I digress.

**Way to steal my polysyllabic descriptors, Jess.

For kicks, I asked to borrow five minutes of her fame, and she gave me a guest blog entry. Yan’s pretty generous.*

*Jess, I could use a little more specificity here. Remember the time you gave me two entire packs of gum because I mentioned that the kind you had in your backpack was the most delicious thing I have ever eaten instead of breakfast while trying to catch a bus? And remember how I was so Oprah-gasmically grateful that I gave you one of my granola bars from Trader Joe’s? Anyway, I think that would have made a fine anecdote about the value of friendship and generosity, etc.

I’m Course 6-2 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) and live on Conner 4 of Burton-Conner. Basically, I’ve got a run-of-the-mill major and live in a dorm populated by a glut of bloggers, past and present.
There are a few unusual things I can share about my experience at MIT, though. For one, I have a UROP (a research job) that’s in a field totally outside my major and so non-technical that it’s slightly blasphemous—it’s in Course 21W: Writing and Humanistic Studies.*

*What in the world is a writing UROP, Jess?

“What in the world is a writing UROP?” you ask.*

*Way ahead of you, Jess.

I’m working as an editorial assistant for Angles (, a magazine of exemplary work written by students in MIT’s introductory writing classes. The authors here aren’t the most polished, professional writers—these are the voices of regular MIT students who take the introductory classes to improve their writing, or out of interest in a particular class’s topic, or even because they are required to by the results of the Freshman Essay Evaluation. Regardless, the essays students produce in these classes are thought-provoking and even intensely personal at times. In the course titled “Writing and Experience,” people have written on topics ranging from coming to terms with their racial identity, to the death of a brother, to ethical vacillations about vegetarianism.*

*Jess, alliteration with the letter V is so passe. Ever since that movie came out that began with the letter V and ended with the letters “for Vendetta,” you can’t say phrases like “vacillations about vegetarianism” anymore unless you wear a plastic halloween mask.

So, there you go, UROPs don’t have to be in your major, or even technical.

I also do quite a bit of music in what time I can squeeze out of my life during the school year. And here’s a not-so-big-secret—the music department at MIT is a gem.*

*Mohs def, Jess. (Mineralogy puns are hard.)

I started piano in kindergarten, violin in third grade, and played in the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras from middle through high school. When it came time to choose a college, music was an important factor in my decision.

What initially drew me in about the MIT Music Department was the Emerson Scholarship Program, which funds half to all of students’ private instrumental or voice lessons if they pass an audition.

MIT has a variety of musical ensembles, from the standard to the exotic: the MIT Symphony Orchestra; Chamber Music Society; Wind Ensemble; Concert Choir; Festival Jazz Ensemble; Rambax, a Senegalese drumming ensemble; and Galak Tika, a Balinese gamelan.

There are many fine musicians* here (especially pianists). Some people here go to Aspen Music Festival and other competitive music programs over the summer.

*Did you know that Feynman played the bongos?

This term I took two and a half music classes—Musical Improvisation, Harmony and Counterpoint I, and Chamber Music—which combined with last year’s classes finished up my humanities concentration in music. My favorite class was Musical Improvisation, which was taught by a visiting professor, Donal Fox. As a classically-trained musician, I had always played the notes on the page. The professor asked us to keep a journal through the class, so I started a blog for it. The last entry pretty much sums up what I want to tell you about that class. I would just copy/paste.

Although HASS classes are considered by some to be exercises in irritation*, there’s a benefit people don’t talk about much—you make friends through these classes. At least in freshman and sophomore years, when the courses you take tend to be large lectures in which you’re one in a relatively faceless crowd, HASS classes are a good way to meet new people. By virtue of being HASS, they tend to involve more discussion and interaction. All the ones I’ve taken have had fewer than twenty people, and I’ve met a range of students from different backgrounds**—from different majors, living groups, and graduating classes.

*No kidding. Nothing quite jerks your stomach into your lungs like spending two hours fleshing out the harmonic nuances of a Bach chorale in Harmony and Counterpoint II only to discover that you missed the key signature that Bach intended by an angle of pi/2 on the Circle of Fifths. Trignometry hurts.

**Speaking of diversity, I met someone in one of my HASSes who didn’t like any sauces with tomatoes.

And hey, chances are I’ll meet none of you reading this, unless we take the same HASS*.

*Jess is being humble here. Other ways of meeting Jess include but are not limited to: living at pika over the summer, working for the Tech, playing in MITSO, joining the Sport Taekwondo team, spending all your time in Course 6-2 classes, letting me have your gum, writing a guest blog for MITadmissions, spending a happy new year (hopefully) with your family in Massachusetts, and visiting me over IAP because we didn’t spend nearly enough time together this term, right, Jess?

38 responses to “Guest Blog: Music and Mayhem by Jess ‘12”

  1. Jess '12 says:

    @anon: It’s possible to pick up a new instrument – likely the hardest part is finding the time and motivation to do it. But if you really want to do something, go for it(!), even if it seems inconvenient now – you’ll be glad later in life. (I started learning electric guitar by myself just a month ago.) To get an Emerson Scholarship, you need to be proficient in your instrument. However, it’s not hard to find a teacher as Boston is full of music schools (New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Berklee, Boston University School of Music, etc) and there are music teachers that come to MIT to teach (who usually have a few Emerson and non-Emerson students). Just talk to someone in the music department if you have questions and he/she can point you in the right direction.

    I was intimidated going into EECS because I thought it was going to be full of people who had been programming or building circuits all through high school, and I had none of that background – I had actually been planning to major in biology! The EECS classes I’ve had so far have indeed been large lectures (though there tend to be fewer and fewer people in lecture as the term goes on, because some people don’t go to class). What you’ll find, though, is that it doesn’t matter how large the lecture is, as long as the professor is good. A small class with a bad professor is much worse than a large lecture with a good professor. (So far in EECS, all except one of my professors have been good or awesome.) Lecture classes also have recitations and/or tutorials, which are anywhere from five to thirty people and offer more individualized attention. Then there are office hours, which can be very helpful. As for competition… well, I walked in to EECS freshman spring not knowing how to program (it was a tough semester – I had to put in extra time to catch up), and now I’m pulling mostly A’s. So, you don’t have to worry about background! They teach you everything you need to know. As for my peers, I know there are some people here who are very very outstanding, and many classes are easy for them, but I think the majority of students find the material somewhat challenging. It’s a matter of work ethic, and seeking out help when you need it, that probably determines success more than anything. Personally I find it refreshing not to be the best – it gives me something to strive for and keeps my head on my shoulders.

  2. Lindsay '14 says:

    Gosh, Feynman is so awesome! smile

  3. “Other ways of meeting Jess include… playing in MITSO”

    Not anymore! :(

  4. Anonymous says:

    HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Feynman may be a great physics lecturer, but his bongo playing… well…

  6. Anonymous says:

    btw… does anyone know what Feynman is saying??????

  7. Yan says:

    @ Anonymous:

    1 semester of Linguistics tells me that he’s saying “I gotta have my orange juice”, primarily.

  8. anon says:

    But what’s it like studying music if you’re not trained already? I mean, I’ve played violin for years but I wanted to take up piano, is that at all possible (at MIT, that is)?

    Also, just how is it majoring in EECS? Are all the classes huge (well, huge for a private school, I guess)? And does the extra competition make it a harder major (than it already is)?

    (I like parentheses with my interrogatives)

  9. anon says:

    And happy new year, of course. smile

  10. Reena says:

    MinerAlogy, Yan (sorry :p).

    Also, prefrosh, Jess is a great example of why it’s not a huge deal which major you write about on your app. I can personally attest to her being a die-hard bio nerd in high school.

  11. anon says:

    Wooooow thanks for that extensive response, Jess! Unfortunately it raised some more questions:

    Is MITSO extremely competitive? And what are other options if I were to not be accepted into MITSO?

    What is the course 6 workload like (when you compare it to, say, what your friends in other majors are doing)? You seem to have a lot of extracurriculars– how do you balance everything out?

  12. Oasis '11 says:

    I don’t remember how I met you, Jess. raspberry

  13. Jess '12 says:


    MITSO is not extremely competitive. It is pretty good for a college orchestra though. There’s also Chamber Music Society, or you can just get friends together to play chamber music. (This is admittedly easier once you get to know people through MITSO or CMS.) Or, you can simply take private lessons and you’ll probably play in at least one annual recital – teachers usually set those up. (If you do Emerson though, you will have to play in either MITSO or CMS.)

    Course 6 is considered one of the harder majors by the conventional wisdom around here, but it seems that everyone is busy regardless of major. I think you can in theory get through course 6 by taking two course 6 classes per term starting sophomore year. ( People usually end up taking three classes (or more!) in some semesters though, because there are a lot of interesting classes to fit in. So the amount of work depends somewhat on how much you push yourself. Classes are usually 12 units, meaning they take an estimated 12 hours/week. But based on student feedback, depending on the class, a course 6 class can take anywhere from 10 hours/week to over 20 hours/week, with higher-level courses and labs tending to take more time. You’ll find that most people have only one or two main extracurriculars. I did too many last year, slept too little, and had to cut back (to correct Yan, I’m no longer in MITSO or Sport TKD – I’m doing Emerson for violin lessons, Chamber Music Society, the Tech lightly, and UROPing nowadays). I’m glad I tried a lot of different things though, and discovered what I truly like. Use freshman year (especially pass/no record fall semester) to test what your limits are, keeping in mind that as time goes by, those limits may change.

  14. enriqueve says:

    that awesume!!!!

  15. Sounds sort of like he’s talking about juice?

  16. Jess '12 says:

    You can follow me on my personal blog and bug me in the comments section when the time comes:

    Best of luck.

  17. Yan says:

    @ Lucy:

    The physics “stratification” goes something like:
    -Smart people who work hard and do really well
    -Smart people who procrastinate too much and may or may not do very well
    -Super geniuses who take 7 grad classes a term and struggle to do really well.

    Even so, I had a difficult time coming up with these categories,since practically everyone has to work really hard in some way or another. The learning atmosphere, as a result, is generally encouraging.

  18. Jess '12 says:

    @ Lucy

    I don’t think Course 6 is too laid back or cutthroat. I agree with Yan – the learning atmosphere at MIT is generally encouraging, though it is certainly tough. In my experience, when I go to office hours, students help each other out when the TA’s are busy. Then again, the atmosphere you perceive will likely be influenced more by your particular group of friends than anything else. Whether your friends are super grade conscious, or more chillax – the people closest to you will probably frame how you view the academic culture.

    The stratification may be somewhat accurate, but I don’t really think about it when I’m doing my work. In general, the effect of being in school with a lot of other smart people is that it keeps you from slacking off; you know you can’t rely on your intelligence to make you outstanding (like maybe it did in high school). It’s also important to note that people can do really well in one class and not in another. As an extreme example, a friend of mine (also a sophomore) is getting fast tracked out of course 6 – his adviser is petitioning for him to get to skip all the intro classes, and he’s taking grad classes already. But he failed 8.01 (intro physics: mechanics) even though he gave it at least some effort. (“I just don’t get physics,” he said.) It’s possible he just didn’t put in enough effort. But I mean, many people pass 8.01 just fine, without being as much of a “super genius” as my friend. Sometimes people seem perfect from your point of view, but they have it rough in another aspect of their life, be it academic/personal/emotional/etc (a general observation in life).

  19. anon says:

    @Lucy– ugh, that sounds like high school. :|

    Then what would you consider a “cutthroat” major?

    Also, kind of in the same vein, does there tend to be a lot of spotlighting of “super-geniuses” where “average kids” (haha) get pushed aside?

    Sorry for all the questions– you both are just really good at answering them. heh.

    Your blog is open to invited readers only (I’m guessing that’s on purpose raspberry). Thanks, though.

  20. anon says:

    Oh, another question for Jess! :/

    Had you already taken a lot of intro bio classes when you decided to change your major? And if so, did that make it harder to catch up to those people who had started with course 6 from the beginning?

  21. Jess '12 says:

    @ anon

    I wouldn’t know about cutthroat majors. Hah, I guess there’s still the ubiquitous grade-conscious pre-med stereotype. Generally a lot of people help each other out. People often work in groups, study together, etc. (Perhaps it’s a product of my being in a pretty social dorm, but I think this is true across campus.) And the “super-geniuses” – they’re the people I’ll go to for help! There is totally not a lot of spotlighting on “super-geniuses.” I’ve never seen professors pick out favorite students or be partial to certain people. Everyone is generally treated as equals.

    Oops, I fixed the privacy settings on my blog. Now open to anyone.

  22. Yan says:

    @ Anon:

    I’ve never encountered anyone at MIT who’s complained about murderous competitiveness in their major, but I’m going to assume that the pre-meds have it worse than most of us. Of course, this is just a result of a competitive grad school market and doesn’t have any specific relationship to the learning culture at MIT.

    Super-geniuses (whatever that means) don’t get special attention in lectures, etc. If you publish a groundbreaking research paper in your freshman year, you’ll get a lot of congratulations, but you’ll get treated more-or-less as a regular student. High school accomplishments, especially, have practically no influence on your (academic) street cred.

    The only problem with the physics major is that you inevitably feel like you have to be Feynman. Probably a quarter of the physics undergrads have Feynman Inferiority Complex.

  23. Yan says:

    Dangit, Jess, why are we the same person? I didn’t even read your comment before I posted mine.

  24. Jess '12 says:

    @ anon

    I passed the Advanced Standing Exam for 7.01x (intro bio) and took 7.03 (genetics) freshman fall. That’s really as far as I got in Course 7, because I took 6.01 in the spring to see if I’d be interested in Course 6, and was quickly converted to the dark side. (I did however work in a bio lab doing wet lab work this summer at Biogen Idec, and I realized for real that I preferred circuits to pipettes.)

    As Ben Jones said, “Life is too short to stick with a course of study that you’re no longer excited about. Switch, even if it complicates things.” (#46 on his list: He’s right: four or five years in college is relatively little time compared to your future career. I know someone who decided to add a double major in Course 6 in sophomore spring, and he sure is having a heck of a time with all those classes (his other major is Physics), but he’s doing it because he wants to. Another friend basically did Course 6 in two years. (Ended up with a double major in Course 7 and Course 6.) It’s hard but not impossible to catch up. Most of all, if you love what you’re doing, you won’t regret it.

  25. Jess '12 says:

    Dangit, Yan, how does this happen? Also you still have my library card, so you kind of are me, a little bit.

  26. bukhosi says:

    Heres to the new year and i dont know much about symphonies but hopefully if i make it to mit Yan can u teach me

  27. Lucy says:

    @Jess/ other knowledgeable parties
    My uncle taught at MIT in your major and he says that the students were stratified into smart people who worked their tushes off and did alright, really smart people who did minimal work but were pretty successful, and super geniuses who did next to nothing and aced their classes. Would you say that this is accurate? If so, does it negatively effect the learning atmosphere? And is it applicable to other majors?

  28. anon says:

    Ahhh thanks so much again Jess– your answers are really helpful. Is there any way I (or other prospectives, I guess) can contact you with questions later (read: after decisions come out)?

  29. m says:

    “Mohs def, Jess. (Minerology puns are hard.)”

    Yan, you are just incredible.

  30. Jess '12 says:


    I know Course 6 students who have double majors in Management, Math (there’s some overlap of classes for this), Physics, Mechanical Engineering, Biology, Brain & Cognitive Science, Music. This is not an exhaustive list. It’s reasonable to also imagine a Course 6 double major with any of the humanities, or Economics.

    @ Amethyst
    Hey, sounds like you’re ready for college.

    @ OffKeyAlum
    Emerson does indeed give you pressure to practice. I would likely otherwise shove it to the side in favor of academics. But music gives a separate sense of accomplishment and enjoyment, and that’s why I keep going back to Emerson. You’re right though, there is absolutely a good amount of stress in trying to find time to practice before lessons or to memorize pieces at the end of the term for the recital.

    You’re also right about MITSO’s competitiveness. I would add that Chamber Music Society can be just as, if not more competitive, depending on the instrument. I got into MITSO freshman fall, but didn’t make CMS. I think MITSO tends to always want strings, and CMS has a glut of violinists and pianists. Plus, MITSO requires an annual audition for everyone, old and new, whereas CMS requires one audition only, just to get in.

    Cool link!

  31. anon says:

    Is it possible to not have a Feynman Inferiority Complex? ._.
    Now that you mention it, what’s it like being a physics undergrad in general (sorry– that’s incredibly vague, but… classes, courseload, things like that)?

    What are some other double majors you’ve seen with course 6?

    @Jess and Yan
    You both are awesome. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up here again long after decisions come out asking for life advice, MIT or no MIT. smile Thanks so much.

  32. One reason I am definitely looking into college, and hopefully either a really selective college or one with a good honors program:

    I am SICK of being treated as the “smartest one in my class” !!!

    Seriously. I know I’m smart and put my nose to the grindstone, but that does not mean I should be singled out or treated like a super genius when I am so not…it drives me crazy!! I am looking forward to being in college courses where I can just take a big, deep, sigh-of-relief-y kind of breath, let it out, and just blend in without having to give up any of my passion for learning. Maybe I can avoid being called a “nerd” or “genius” by attending classes with several thousand of them. smile I like being around interesting people with a good work ethic who also like to have fun and engage in eccentric hobbies…in college, anybody who wants to compete with me for grades, go right ahead. I just want to learn and go do my artwork/violin/knitting in a local Starbucks…

    Whoa, sorry for venting! I think that entry came out a little bit exasperated…lol. But seriously! I think a lot of you reading this could probably agree, right? Oh well, signing off.

    PS: ReCaptcha– “duchies Jr” Interesting…

  33. OffKeyAlum says:

    Mmmmm delicious punnery funneries.

    The Emerson music program forces one to practice one’s instrument when it would otherwise languish. Good and bad… nowadays though I seldom open my case…

    MITSO’s competitive level depends on the instrument (i.e. the incumbent personnel) and also the conductor’s subjectivity. It’s one of the more selective groups.

  34. Oasis '11 says:

    “I passed the Advanced Standing Exam for 7.01x (intro bio) and took 7.03 (genetics) freshman fall.”

    This is impressive. D:

  35. Yan says:

    @ Anon:

    Majoring in physics feels like being a kid in a candy store. Except it’s even better, because the candies are actually profound and beautiful mysteries of the universe. You can’t decide which one to buy, so you try to sample them all and get really, really sick. And then your mom walks in and tells you to go home and write your senior thesis or else she won’t let you graduate.

    Sorry, I’ll give a better analogy some other time.

  36. @Jess ’12: I have been wanting to go to college since I was in middle school smile

    @Yan: I like your analogy a lot. It sounds like a lot of other fields of study, too–isn’t it awful how candy (and music, and physics, and philosophy and cognitive neurobiology) does that? There seems to be an inverse relationship between how fun and/or interesting something is and how damaging it is to your health, or at least your stomach and stress levels…

    @Everyone: If you don’t get into MITSO/CMS etc., what sort of opportunities does MIT have for aspiring young violinists who aren’t that good (yet) but really have heart and practice enough to keep the bowbugs at a distance? Or how hard are the auditions for MITSO, etc.?

  37. Jess '12 says:

    @ Amethyst:

    It’s hard to say without hearing you play where your ability falls in relation to MITSO. Just try your best. You can always take lessons with Emerson program teachers even if you don’t make Emerson – it’s convenient because they teach on campus – or any teacher in the Boston area. (I could even refer you to my current teacher if/when it comes time to decide.) There are less traditional options too. One of my friends plays violin in a band, Supa Dupa (

  38. Feynman rocks!!!! Although not as much in music as RAMBAX MIT!!!!!!