I found Marissa Honda in a state of frazzled disbelief. She’d just turned in the final draft of one of her Doctor of Musical Arts capstone projects, and it was beginning to dawn on her that her long career at USC has drawn down to its final few months.
Honda, an oboist, said that over the course of her three degrees at USC, she’s become only more certain of her identity as a musician — and of the power that music holds.
“Now is a really important time to be a musician in terms of political and global turmoil,” Honda said. “Knowing the power of the arts is something that’s important for all of us — to realize and to make a part of our education.”
It’s fitting that Honda’s final paper for her doctoral field in music teaching and learning was a study of how college music students’ beliefs about their craft and their musical identity affects the way they approach their career after they graduate. Honda said most of the existing literature on music and identity focuses on young children and how music can boost their self-esteem. But Honda has turned her focus to college music majors.
“I get fascinated with the idea that when students graduate, they go through this inner turmoil: ‘Should I become a musician?’” Honda said.
I asked her to tell me about her research findings.
“In my reading of research on identity, the most successful ones are the ones that have identities that are resilient — that come from a holistic knowledge of the power of music, essentially,” Honda said. “If all you know is being really good at your instrument, that’s not a very resilient identity, because it’s very subjective. It can be a roller coaster: One day you feel good about your playing, and the next you don’t.”
She added that musicians who believe that music is more than simply a skill tend to be willing to stick it out and devote themselves fully to music — even when their bank accounts and calendars are empty.
“If you have an understanding of how music affects people in your community who aren’t musicians or who are underprivileged in various ways, that builds up a resilience for why you are a musician as opposed to just doing the activity,” Honda said.
Honda has personal experience with this idea, too. After finishing her master’s, she decided to spend a year trying to make it as a freelance musician in Los Angeles and quickly realized she was up against a lot. Honda emphatically told me that learning to embrace failure has been an essential part of her musical journey, and she wishes musicians would discuss the challenges of being a professional musician more openly.
As Honda began to gain her footing in the L.A. freelance scene, she found herself gaining a sense of purpose in her playing. She began to appreciate the urgency of every gig. And so, after spending a year on her own, Honda decided she was ready to come back to school, newly armed with the diligence and focus she practiced as a freelancer.
“In terms of my education, this degree has felt the most fulfilling, but also the most difficult. I think when you go to grad school, particularly at the doctoral level, you feel like there’s a lot at stake because you’ve invested all this time — and in a lot of cases a lot of money — in your education,” Honda said.
For her DMA, Honda has pursued elective fields in arts leadership and music teaching and learning. With that perspective, Honda said she hopes to combine freelance work while teaching young people about the joy and power of music after she graduates.
“I’m applying for college jobs, a few full-time jobs and a few adjunct teaching jobs, all over the world, “ Honda said. “I’m aware that there’s a long road ahead of me!”
But before she can do that, she still has a few capstone projects left to complete. One of them is a recorded album of music on the English horn, the oboe’s misunderstood cousin. Neither a horn nor English, the English horn is a woodwind, like the oboe, but pitched a fifth below. With a robust bulb at its bell end that tapers to a slender double reed, the English horn looks vaguely like a piece of petrified kelp.
I asked Marissa to introduce this underappreciated instrument, and she played a moving solo excerpt from the Largo movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. (Readers of this column may recall the Largo as the piece that was playing when tubist Jimmy Elder was born.) Marissa then unpacked the English horn’s convoluted etymology.
“A word used often to describe the English horn sound is ‘yearning,’” Honda said. “Or, the original Middle High German translation of
engellisches horn means ‘angelic horn,’ so it’s associated with angels. The other translation, though, is ‘angled.’ But it’s not English. It’s just a bad translation. And it’s arguably not even a horn.”
Honda’s capstone recording will be a performance of arrangements of music that have never been recorded on the English horn before. To prepare for it, she’s had to mine archival sources for obscure pieces and adapt new arrangements of works for other instruments so that she can play them on her angelic horn.
Though finishing school is bittersweet, Honda said that the academic legwork she’s put into her DMA has only strengthened her musical identity.
“I think my resilience as a musician — as a performer, a holistic musician, comes from the fact that I did my education at a very holistically academic place” Honda said. “It’s a full university, which is not uncommon, but I think it’s uncommon to have a conservatory level music program so closely associated with a university.”
Honda plans to release her English horn project as a finished album this summer.
Max Kapur is a junior majoring in jazz studies and East Asian languages and culture. His column,“Ears to Hear,” runs Thursdays.