A Conversation with Hannah Wang

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Photo courtesy of J. Kinney.

As you may have noticed, I really love talking to people who are doing something different, especially when it comes to exploring and combining their interests in ways you wouldn’t expect. One of these people is my good friend and talented rock gym colleague, Hannah Wang. She was kind enough to take some time during Snowzillapocamageddon 2016 (or whatever they’re calling it now) to talk to me about music, climbing, science, and how they’re all a lot more connected than we might think.

 When did music come into your life?

For as long as I can remember, music has had a presence in my life. My mother was a pianist in Taiwan – the top pianist in her district, actually (along with my aunt, so you can imagine the sibling rivalry that existed!). My earliest memories are of my mom bringing me to the piano, sitting me next to her, and playing. I’d try really hard to bang along – I was only two – and just thoroughly enjoyed those times we got to spend together. When we moved from Delaware to Maryland, my mom enrolled me in piano lessons, and that’s how my musical education formally started. I was about four at the time.

But then one day (years later, I was probably about nine), we went to an open house at a music school and I saw and heard this magical-sounding instrument. Everything about it really spoke to me, and I wanted to play it. Turns out that was the cello…and now I’m a cellist!

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Hannah and her mom. Photo courtesy of Hannah Wang.

So what made you decide to pursue music academically?

So funny story here. I started high school wanting to be a biochemical engineer and help find a cure for cancer, or something like that. Turns out I’m god-awful at chemistry, and only slightly better at biology, so that took the whole saving-the-world thing out of the question. After spending some time soul-searching (I tried the skateboarding punk scene for a year), I realized that I loved music and I loved teaching, so why not combine the two and spread the love? I started to put all my energy into the cello, and found an amazing teacher (Kerry Van Laanen), who really kicked my butt into gear and got me ready for all my auditions.

Speaking of teaching, you just finished your Masters with a thesis called “Applying Practices in Teaching Adult Beginners: Sharing Ideas from the Climbing Field with the Music Field.” Can you talk a little bit about what it was about and how you incorporated your climbing background into the project? Do you often find parallels between music and climbing?

Sure! Coming from a teaching background means that I’m always trying to assess how to reach people better, and make educational opportunities more accessible to those who have a desire to learn. I realized a common thing I heard among adults was something along the lines of “I wish I could play the ______, but I don’t have much spare time, and I’m just not good enough to learn, you know? I’m just not good at music….” etc. etc. I wanted to find a way to help engage these adults, so many of whom are willing and able to try other things like rock climbing, dancing, cooking, etc. – so then why this barrier with music? Since I’m also a rock climbing instructor, I have that experience of teaching beginner adults. I wondered if there was any overlap in the two subjects in regards to teaching adults, and if not, what ideas could be shared? So that’s what started the project.

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Hannah at the crag. Photo courtesy of Hannah Wang.

It was really neat talking to so many different people in both fields. It turns out folk music, or traditional music, has more freedom in their teachings, but classical music is pretty stringent (as is usually the stereotype on TV and in movies). With folk music you have more chances to explore and kind of throw a bit more personality into it, or fail. Along the way, I got to talk to Andrew Yasso from the American Alpine Institute, and he mentioned how he sets up safe spaces for people to fail. This was neat to hear because so much of classical music is rooted in perfection – and while perfection is important, it’s also intimidating and sometimes just plain scary, especially as an adult. Creating a venue where it’s okay to mess up and fail is something I think classical music could learn from. We fail, and then from that failure we can learn and eventually get to perfecting those skills.

I often see these links between music and climbing, but that’s probably because I’m so heavily involved in both. But I’m definitely incorporating lessons I’ve learned from climbing into my own practice: finding good rest spots, remembering to keep breathing, controlling the fight or flight response, sequencing the music, etc. This is stuff that wasn’t included in the paper, but still neat connections!

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing music education (and arts education in general) today?

One of the biggest challenges is really advocacy, and justifying why our subjects are important and necessary for schools and students. Since there isn’t a direct correlation between test scores and the arts, we (art/music programs) are the first to get cut, because, you know, we just play music and paint stuff and whatnot (a completely false assumption). I can go on forever about how music has shaped me as an insanely organized, persevering human, but that’s for another time. It comes down to teachers having to justify their subjects. We’re being wiped out, even though we can see the success of restored arts programs in schools with high populations of homeless children or that cultural deprivation is actually harmful to a child’s development, as well as numerous studies about arts effects on the brain. In fact, there’s a neat program out there right now that uses hip hop to get students excited to learn about vocabulary and reading. If drawing or singing or dancing gets a student motivated to learn and engages them, why would you take that away?

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Photo courtesy of J. Kinney.

But I digress. It’s a major challenge to advocate. So really the best hope is to have others speak out about the importance of the arts in their lives, to help fight the good fight and keep these essential subjects from being wiped out.

This was in the news recently too – there was quite a bit of buzz after the inclusion of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Design, Mathematics) in the Every Student Succeeds Act. What are your thoughts? Are the arts and sciences compatible?

Oh my gosh, yes, they’re all connected. STEAM has been a buzzword for at least the past 10 years now, ever since the education world coined the term “STEM”. There are even variations like STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Arts, Math). And I think this is great because the arts and sciences work together in so many ways. If I had to do another research project, it would be the link between Science and the Arts, and the need for STEAM or even STREAM.

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Photo courtesy of J. Kinney.

One thing I have noticed is that there are many brilliant musical minds are very talented scientists, and vice versa. For instance, one of my really good friends from undergrad was an amazing violinist, but also an aerospace engineer. My sister had a friend who wrote his college admissions essay on how musical intervals helped him learn about chemical reactions. On a grander scale, you may know of Alexander Borodin. He discovered the Husdiecker-Borodin reaction, along with numerous other chemical reactions, but also composed music in the room next to his lab and cranked out musical compositions that are still orchestral classics today. Basically, he’s awesome!

So yeah, art and science are definitely linked, and I think in order to be a well-balanced person, you need learn about all of it. Science is about discovery, and the arts are just a different venue to channel that same type of discovery and exploration.

For more information on the STEAM initiative, visit http://stemtosteam.org/.

What is your favorite way to explore?

Oh man…that’s a loaded question! I have found in the last few years that climbing has become a huge vehicle for exploration for me. I’ve done so many things I would’ve never done, or imagined myself doing, both musically and physically – it’s been incredibly exhilarating. I also love to explore through food. So much food. I get fat. Maybe I climb to eat and explore, eat to explore more, and play music to feed my soul to be able to do it all again? But in all honesty, climbing is probably one of my favorites. I get to go to literal great heights to see views that aren’t normally seen. I get to meet A LOT of phenomenal people, and soak in music around fires because of it. I got to play in a cool video for Earth Treks and explore new territory that way, which was super awesome. So yeah, climbing is probably one of my favorite vehicles for exploration.

Problem of the Week – Earth Treks Rockville – Mello Cello V6 from Earth Treks Climbing Centers on Vimeo.

To learn more about Hannah, you can connect with her online via the Hannah Strings site, Instagram (@hannahstrings), Facebook, or email her directly at hannahw(at)hannahstrings.com. She is accepting new students and gigs at this time – in her words: “In fact, if you’re down to even just try something (like a climbing video) and need a cellist, I’d be down.”

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