Dorthea Stephenson

Q: Please introduce yourself and your major.
I’m currently majoring in music performance with a concentration in viola. And I'm also minoring in astronomy.

Q: Please describe the research you have been involved in.
This project started back in the summer of 2020 with the death of George Floyd. My professor, Dr. Molly Gebrian, had emailed me, asking if I’d be interested in establishing a database of viola repertoire by underrepresented composers. There is a big disconnect in the music world between European composers and composers of color and other underrepresented groups. A big issue is that we do not necessarily see composers from underrepresented backgrounds being programmed nearly as much as white Europeans. So, the purpose of this database is to provide people options and opportunities to program different types of music. The database currently has about 1,600 pieces that we found. Basically, what we’ve been doing is finding pieces by underrepresented composers. We log them in the database, and we include things such as their race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, instrumentation, publishing status, and difficulty level. We provide resources to find the piece, such as where you can purchase the piece or where you can listen to the piece in a library. We also reach out to the composers just to make sure all of our information is correct.

Q: Why do you want to work on this research topic? How does it relate to your major or your personal interests and background?
Why I am interested in this project is because of my own background as a black and latinx woman. There are not many people who look like me within the realm of classical music specifically. So, I think it is really important for me to promote diversity and inclusion within the music world. This is my way of connecting to my identity and community as a music major. It’s difficult in general to find music by underrepresented composers, so I hope to break down the barriers and make music more accessible. It also gives people an opportunity to discover music beyond what they normally would know and play.

Q: How do you share this database with the public?
Our database lives on the American Viola Society website. This project was created by members of the American Viola Society, so it made the most sense to post it on there. How it is formatted is that there is a form where you can filter out what you specifically want. For example, you can specify a black composer who is from Jamaica.

Q: What you are doing is really meaningful!
Thank you! I’d like to think so too. I think music can be very discouraging to people of color because there are not many people who look like us. It can be a very isolating field. So, the purpose of this database is to break down those barriers. A lot of people use the excuse of “oh, well, we cannot find music by underrepresented composers”. So, a major part of our project is to prove that misconception wrong and show people that you can actually find a lot of music by underrepresented composers.


Q: If you don’t mind sharing from your own experiences, what is it like being an underrepresented person in your major? Does it pose a barrier in your major or finding research?
It’s hard because of the intersectionalism of being both a woman and a person of color. I feel like I don’t necessarily garner as much respect in my field. I feel like people are less willing to listen to my ideas to promote diversity. But I will say, however, the Fred Fox School of Music has done a really good job over the past few years of putting forth a lot of efforts to promote diversity and inclusion within the music department. They have given me plentiful opportunities to pursue viola performance and do research as well as promote diversity and inclusion within the music department myself. I’ve been able to take up my own initiatives on doing these things.


Q: How is it like working with Dr. Gebrian and your research group?
It’s been really nice working with Dr. Gebrian. First of all, she is accessible basically 24/7. So, if you need anything or have any questions, she is very quick to respond. She is probably one of the most organized people I’ve ever met, and she manages her time exquisitely well. She has a very clear vision that people want to get behind. It’s been a very uplifting experience for all of us in the research team. I’m fortunate to have a close relationship with her because I can go to her for anything without hesitation. We’ve been working together for the past two years. Just seeing how we’ve all developed our work and relationship has been extremely exciting. I’m really excited to see where these continue to go.

Q: How does this research project impact you on a personal level and on an academic or professional level?
My honors thesis for this year is on black composers. I’ve been researching on how the field has developed over the past century to include more composers from underrepresented backgrounds who didn’t get recognition. The project is taking me on a really wonderful academic journey because I’ve been able to find more pieces that represent me. It’s nice to see pieces by composers that reflect your own heritage and pieces that you can relate to on a personal level. Also, it’s been so uplifting to see those barriers being broken down. When we first started this project, we didn’t know exactly where to start because we had very minimal knowledge about underrepresented composers. Just seeing this project blossomed into a more inclusive and open-minded community where many people are accessing this material is a very uplifting experience for me personally.

Q: What are some ways in finding music pieces written by underrepresented composers?
We first went through our own resources of music that we’ve played before by underrepresented composers. Then, we went to a few Facebook viola forums or general music groups to ask if
anyone knew of any pieces written by underrepresented composers. We started with a small group and expanded our network. We also looked online and found general database about underrepresented composers that were already established. We would research those composers to see if they had written anything for viola specifically to add into our database. Once we started finding some pieces, the process grew exponentially and we were able to find hundreds of pieces.

Q: How have people reacted to your music database?
The database has garnered a very positive response. It was actually a major concern that we would receive some negative feedback, but what I’ve seen is a really positive response, and people have been really open-minded about what we were trying to do. A lot of composers were really excited to find that they were included in the database for underrepresented composers and their works would actually be highlighted. They’d be gaining visibility that they might not otherwise have been granted in the past.

Q: What skills have you gained from this research experience?
The database requires a lot of organization. I had to learn how to use Google spreadsheets and put the database together in a cohesive way. Another major skill is communication with other people. We had to ask a lot of people in our networks. We had to reach out to even people we didn’t know to make this database happen, so a big part of that involves creating professional emails. Another skill that I gained was finding resources. At first, as mentioned, no one really knew where to start with the process. I became really good at finding hidden gems of information on the internet. For example, we were missing information for certain composers in the database that weren’t accessible by a quick Google search. We had to figure out how to find this information in more nuanced way. Searching things online is definitely one of the biggest skills nowadays. Eventually, we gave a presentation on this database at the American Viola Society, so I was really glad to gain public speaking skills.

Q: How would these skills and connections help you with your future plan?
I hope that when I continue to develop my career, get a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate degree in music, these connections will stay. The viola community is very small, so those connections can stick around forever. I hope to become a performer, play in orchestras and create film scores in the longer term, so the connections will be very helpful in searching for these jobs.

Q: Have you composed music recently?
I’m finishing a viola quartet piece that I write for the vocal ensemble course. I took a lot of inspiration from a wide range of composers with difficult and interest rhythms, where many of them are from the underrepresented composer database I have been compiling.

Q: You mentioned earlier how classical music was heavily European-based. When you work on this research project and learn more music from diverse composers, does it impact your music writing?

I’m really interested in contemporary music, which definitely sounds a lot more different from what you expect from composers like Mozart, Beethoven or Haydn. For me specifically, I want
to incorporate the use of rhythm into my music, because it’s especially relevant in different cultures around the world. I really want to incorporate the use of rhythms you might see in jazz music. I take inspiration from both the lyrical and spiritual aspects of jazz.


Q: Before you did this project, what was your image and expectation of music research? Is it different from what you initially expected?
It’s interesting that when I think of undergraduate research, music doesn’t even come to mind. I usually think about research in a lab or more STEM-based fields where they analyze scientific data. When I think about music research, I think about ethnomusicology, analyzing the development of music in different regions and cultures around the world. In a sense, that is what we are doing with the underrepresented composers database.

Q: I like that you brought up how when we think of research, it’s usually STEM-related. We want to promote more the idea that research can also be done on the arts, humanities, social sciences and other fields. It will be great to share your stories to other to promote the diversity in research.

It’s really cool to share this. When you reached out to me, it was unexpected because I didn’t really think my project as research. It’s like I knew we were doing research, but I almost still didn’t even consider it research because of my own conceptions of what research means, being mainly associated to STEM fields.

Q: Scientific research is typically thought of as creating some concrete knowledge about the physical world. In your opinion, what is the impacts of music research to our world?
I think music research gives us a greater understanding of the world and how it works. Music and art create empathy and understanding for different cultures. With our project, we are trying to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the music industry. We want to break down those stereotypical conceptions that good classical music only exists from old European repertoire, so people get access to a more variety of musical pieces. Music research is making people feel empowered and giving them the opportunity to step outside of their bubble.

Q: For music students who might not do a graduate degree or conduct music research, would you still recommend them to do undergraduate research?
I definitely recommend the research experiences because it’s just helpful for their skills and future
career in general. It can give you a more worldly view and I think it’s really important for musician
to understand and empathize with other perspectives. I also think building the skills in research
like communication and networking is incredibly important for a musician’s career.

Q: How did you get in contact with Dr. Gebrian and start this project?
She just happened to be my viola professor and I have worked with her for about four years now. That’s just how it works in the music department and this is probably pretty unique for music majors to have a professor assigned to your chosen instrument. We’ve been working one-on-one every week for the past for years, so we foster a very close relationship.

Q: What do you think about the current states of undergraduate research in the music department?
Most music majors are here to do music performance, so it’s not uncommon for students to do research. the performance aspect of our major takes up a significant amount of time. That said, I think that the music department can do a much better job with promoting research initiatives. I think they can do that just by having the ability to propose projects specifically designated towards research. I think we currently can’t propose research ideas and receive some financial awards to fund the research. Students are not incentivized to partake in any research. It’s definitely not a part of our culture in the music department. I think they should try and promote that more because again, research can help diversify people’s perspective and make our music department a more inclusive place. For us, it’s hard to even think about research because where would you even start if you wanted that opportunity. For STEM majors, research is a vital part of their career development, whereas for us, it’s definitely not a priority. It’s more of the performance aspect where you are able to network and develop your career, even though research can serve the same purpose, but people don’t necessarily see it that way. Research is a very empowering tool.

Q: Do you have anything else to share or any last thought?
It’s been such a privilege to work with a team in promoting diversity and inclusion. I feel lucky to have a professor who is so devoted on those values. I don’t think all professors are interested in promoting equity and inclusion, so I really appreciate her for doing so. Thank you so much for your time today. I wish you all the best with your honors thesis and applying to the Master’s program.