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Musical training gives Stanford engineers a creative lift

A fellowship offered jointly by the School of Engineering and the Friends of Music at Stanford provides music lessons to engineering students.

				Stanford engineers can get scholarships to study music and other arts. | REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak


Stanford engineers can get scholarships to study music and other arts. | REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak


The thank-you letters began arriving not long after Persis Drell became dean of Stanford Engineering. One or two at first, then more trickled in from graduate and undergraduate students alike. But they were not about algorithms or nanoparticles or systems. They were about music.

“These beautiful letters were from engineering students whose music lessons were paid for by the School of Engineering,” Drell says. “And they were just so wonderful and full of sincere joy. I was just very taken by them.”

The letters were inspired by the Engineers in the Arts Scholarship, which provides partial funding for music lessons for declared engineering students who apply. There is no need requirement but award levels for undergraduates may vary depending on their financial aid profile.

The program was started by former Dean James Gibbons, a jazz trombonist, who presided over Stanford Engineering from 1984 to 1996. It continued quietly over the many years until those thank-you notes delighted Drell, a physicist by training and cellist by avocation.

“I’m an amateur. I’ll never perform anywhere, but it enriches my life in incredibly important ways,” says Drell, who has discovered since becoming dean that many of her Stanford Engineering colleagues share her passion for music. For instance, Drell has played with David Miller (clarinet) and Tom Lee (violin), both members of the electrical engineering faculty. Computer programming professor emeritus Don Knuth regularly plays the pipe organ he has installed at his home. Chemical engineering professor emeritus Channing Robertson is known to coax melodies from the piano. And the list goes on.

Nor is the symbiosis between music and engineering merely a Stanford phenomenon. At universities and corporations across the world, countless engineers are dedicated musical amateurs, and many bands and orchestras feature professionals who studied engineering. For instance, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, benefactor of the engineering building that bears his name, is a well-known lover of guitar.

“A program like Engineers in the Arts is the perfect exemplification of what being a Stanford engineer is all about,” Drell says. “Despite perception as single-minded techies, we are actually people of broad interests and talents and we bring those interests into our work as engineers. I think music actually makes us better engineers.”

Prelude to a program

The Engineers in the Arts Scholarship traces its roots to Gibbons, who grew up in Texarkana, Texas, “probably best known in music circles as the home of Scott Joplin,” the ragtime composer and pianist, he says with a smile. He recalls learning how to play trombone from a book he was given by his older brother, himself a trombonist in the U.S. Navy Band during World War II. Gibbons played in his high school band and at dance clubs, but when it came time for college, he was offered a fateful choice: Take a full ride music scholarship at Louisiana State University, or study engineering at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Engineering won, but even at Northwestern, Gibbons earned money by playing clubs around Chicago. Eventually the opportunities of solid-state electronics triumphed and music became a pleasurable hobby. In the late 1950s Gibbons, who received his PhD at Stanford, returned to campus to work part time at the pioneering firm Shockley Semiconductor and also create a lab where faculty and graduate students could do research in semiconductor physics and technology.

But music continued to enliven his teaching. “For many years, as my undergraduates drifted into class, I would play from the composer or performer whose birthday was closest to the date of the lecture,” he recalls. “I started class with a few remarks about the artist and students loved it.”

Not long after Gibbons became dean, the Music Department sought his help. Several of the “first chair” or lead players in the Symphony and Wind Ensemble were engineers, and the Music Department wanted all of their first chair players to take lessons. Gibbons decided to raise the money for this specialized instruction but took the whole idea one step further by making arts training available to any Stanford engineering student who wanted it.

“We called it Engineers in the Arts because it wasn’t just music lessons, but included studio arts, too,” he remembers.

For a benefactor, Gibbons turned to Peter Bing, who, with his wife, would later endow Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford campus. Soon, a $25,000 fund was in place; half funded by the Dean of the School of Engineering, the other half by Bing.

The program, now in its 31st year, endures to this day. That explains why so many students write to Drell — as they had to Gibbons and to former Deans John Hennessy and Jim Plummer before her — with heartfelt gratitude for encouraging and furthering their musical studies.

Scratching the itch

Daniel Borup is among the students who have taken advantage of the program. A doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, Borup uses his scholarship to take classical voice lessons. He likes that music and engineering are both very systematic. He finds the notes of the musical scale to be a sort of engineering parameter.

“Like the laws of physics and thermodynamics to the engineer, as a musician you have to work with the boundaries of the musical notes to create something new,” Borup says, adding of his love of music: “I will always sing and I will always be grateful to the deans for allowing me to continue to develop as a singer through Engineers in the Arts.”

Zach Yellin-Flaherty is another beneficiary of the program. A recently graduated computer science co-term, he came to Stanford having already learned to play piano and used the program to shift his focus to the guitar.

“I find coding and music to be different aspects of the same thing. It’s all about creativity,” he says. “Music might not be quite as logical as engineering, but both involve making connections and tying things together in interesting and inventive ways. They scratch the same itch.”

Yellin-Flaherty took guitar lessons from Rick Vandivier, a lecturer in jazz guitar at the Department of Music who studied at the Berklee School of Music, in Boston. In a career that has spanned 30 years, Vandivier has played with notables such as David Grisman, Mose Allison and Dr. Lonnie Smith, as well as with the San José Symphony Orchestra and the American Musical Theatre of San Jose.

“It was great to take lessons from someone of Rick’s caliber while I completed my education,” Yellin-Flaherty says, adding: “I hope to continue to play to grow as a musician while building a career as an engineer, but it will take balance.”