By Janice Chik Breidenbach
Those of us who have a variety of strong interests often struggle with how to synthesize these into a coherent whole as we juggle schedules, psychological energy, and priorities. Janice Chik Breidenbach, who spoke on “Beauty Inside Out” at our recent Fashion Intelligence symposium, shares her journey along this path in the interview below. Janice is currently Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Ave Maria University in Florida. The interview was conducted by Alice Trimmer, of the MHI Board.
You received an AB from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs while simultaneously majoring in Musical Performance. What led you to pursue such a demanding double major? Did you have a clear idea of which avenue you would pursue once you graduated?
Music was my ‘first love.’ My mother is a professional classical Chinese opera singer and dancer, and my father, who was a computer engineer, also sang classical opera as a gifted amateur: so there was always music in the home. My earliest memories of it, however, are of Mozart records being played in the kitchen as my mother prepared dinner and did housework. My siblings and I owe our musical studies to her fondness for the violin, and her willingness to sacrifice much time and money so that we could have lessons. I began studying the violin at the age of five, at the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. I later took up the piano at age eight. In high school, I seriously considered musical performance as a full-time profession, but was held back by the reasonable consideration that I had much to gain from a liberal arts education. At the same time, my older sister was taking philosophy courses at Duke University with Alasdair MacIntyre, and she introduced me to philosophy for the first time. So I went to Princeton, joined the university orchestra, and promptly ‘fell in love’ a second time, with philosophy.
Music, then philosophy. Was that going from the frying pan into the fire in terms of career outlook?
At Princeton, I was immediately caught up in the general student consensus that a university education was a financial investment, a means to an end: that of maximizing one’s starting salary upon graduation. I started out intending to concentrate in economics and finance, but could not quell an uneasy question: ‘What is this for?—Is there a higher meaning than merely economic or material well-being?’ My uneasiness over this latter question led me to then pursue pre-medicine, then pre-law, eventually applying for and concentrating in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs. I was received into the Catholic Church my senior year, and almost simultaneously sensed a strong calling to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. Only philosophy, in tandem with my newfound faith, appeared able to answer the question of meaning with which I had struggled throughout my time at Princeton.
In what way, if any, has your prior music study benefited your current professional life?
In an important way, my appreciation for music always kept alive my sense in the absence of any substantive faith that there must be more to human existence than merely material life, material happiness, and material death. Before I believed in God, I believed in music: in its power to convey truths about goodness and beauty, to move the soul in sublime and mysterious ways, and as a sign of some other-worldly reality. My experiences in musical performance have also informed my recent PhD research, which defends an Aristotelian view of human action as integrating body and mind (‘soul’) against post-Cartesian materialist theories of action and behavior. Musical performance is, I think, a strong example of such unity between body and soul. What we have in video footage of Heifetz, for instance, playing some of the most technically difficult violin repertoire so coolly and apparently effortlessly offers a perfect demonstration of the body’s potential to absorb the complex commands of our minds, to the extent that the activity of the mind is no longer really needed (musicians call this ‘muscle memory’), and yet the mind is present throughout all of one’s complex movements.
Do you play now? Do you find it challenging to keep up your musical skills in the midst of a busy career? What advice do you have for people who have abandoned their music studies after high school and would like to come back? What is the best way to proceed? In such a case does one have to start all over?
These days, as a first-year university professor, I find it nearly impossible to keep up a regular practice schedule for the violin and piano. It is natural to feel frustration when one has certain skills and is unable to fully actualize them—and I have struggled with this—but I have also come to a peaceful resolution of the situation. I’ve had to accept that my main priority at the moment is teaching, scholarship, and service within philosophy: to fulfill my duties well and on time, while also cultivating friendships in my work and outside of it. These new responsibilities exclude the fulfillment of many musical desires, while of course satisfying other enriching pursuits. However, I have found that chamber music is an excellent way to build friendships and forge relationships that would otherwise have never existed. Meeting with friends to play music together on a casual basis, in a relaxed setting, is a wonderful way to refresh one’s musicianship without becoming overly stressed about perfecting technique. Technique will improve with time, often outside of our awareness or effort, when our main focus is the enjoyment of the music itself, as well as our friends.