Confused at a higher level

The view from a liberal arts college physics department (and deanery)

Why a physicist needs speech team and wind ensemble

Posted by Melissa on December 6, 2011

Not long ago, someone asked me if I thought my high school prepared me well for becoming a physicist. The short answer is, “Definitely.” I was lucky to attend an excellent public high school in the Chicagoland area that offered an array of honors and advanced math and science courses taught by talented and committed teachers. My classmates and I had the opportunity to take two years of biology, two years of chemistry, two years of physics, and math through calculus II. While I didn’t overload on the science track, a number of classmates did. We all went off to college well-prepared to tackle the rigors of college-level math and science courses. However, as a practicing physicist, it’s not the number or quality of physics classes offered for which I am most thankful, although I am endlessly appreciative of Michael Rolf, who first sparked my enthusiasm for physics in his classroom. The two high school activities which prepared me best for being a physicist were speech team and wind ensemble. Yes, that’s right, more than the academic classes I took, speech team and wind ensemble taught me key skills that I needed to be a successful physicist.

Speech team honed my public speaking skills in a manner that no academic class, in either high school or college, ever did. In particular, I competed in impromptu speaking. Under IHSA rules, competitors in impromptu speaking were given a topic (person, object, quote, event, etc) and then given 8 minutes to prepare and give a speech on the topic. I could choose to divide the 8 minutes however I wanted, but the more time I spent preparing, the less time that remained for giving the speech. Ideally, I aimed to keep the preparation time to three minutes so that I would have at least 5 minutes to speak. The challenge of developing a creative, thesis-driven presentation incorporating the designated topic was excellent for teaching me how to think on my feet and how to create and deliver a clear, convincing argument in a limited amount of time. I also experienced the extreme discomfort that comes when trying to talk about something with which you aren’t familiar. When I didn’t know the designated topic, as a competitor I had to make up something to say, but I came away from those experiences with a profound appreciation that there are times when it is best to say nothing at all. Speech without substance should be avoided at all costs.

If the skills developed by speech team are self-evident, the role of wind ensemble in preparing me to be a physicist is harder to see, though perhaps more profound. After all, I haven’t picked up my clarinet since grad school, and my embouchure is of little consequence in the lab. So why am I profoundly thankful for wind ensemble? First, wind ensemble taught me immense amounts of self-discipline. Unlike my other high school classes where I had daily homework assignments and regular tests, wind ensemble imposed few explicit demands and deadlines, but it required much more consistent and dedicated work. I had to practice daily, but it was a choice I had to make for myself. It required discipline day after day to tediously review those particularly tricky passages, to make the time to practice, to push myself to play better. Wind ensemble required grit, and it taught me that one must be driven by internal desires rather than external reward. Wind ensemble also taught me about the importance of listening, and thinking about how my contributions fit into the whole. As part of an ensemble, one must always hear the other sections and adjust one’s playing accordingly, while in the lab one must think about how one fits in as part of a research collaboration and then how that research collaboration fits within the broader scientific landscape. One can’t simply make music without listening to the music that everyone else is playing.

Reflecting on the contributions that speech team and wind ensemble made to my preparation as a physicist leads me to be concerned about some of the discussion that surrounds public education today. US policy makers often wring their hands about not producing enough students who are interested in math and science, and when budgets get tight, I hear calls to eliminate the frills. Yet my experience would suggest that by eliminating fine arts or extracurricular activities, we aren’t cutting unnecessary extras. Rather we are cutting activities that teach key lessons that are invaluable for future scientists. I’m thankful for the lessons learned from speech team and wind ensemble — I’m a better physicist because of those activities. It’s my hope that future generations will continue to have those same opportunities as part of their public education.

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