This month our human of Hucbald is Vera van Buren ! Vera just graduated from the musicology research master, focusing on the intersection between music and gender studies. This interview took place in march 2019. Since then, she has found an apartment in Rotterdam and has decided not to work in academia (for now). Find out more about Vera’s interest for musicology, her journey as a yogi and fighting the patriarchy and much more!
Who are you, what are you studying at the moment and where do you live?
My name is Vera, I’m enrolled in the research master in musicology. I currently live in Rotterdam, because I went abroad the first semester of the second year and afterwards moved out of Utrecht. I think the cultural climate in Rotterdam is very interesting, and I was also born there so I know the city. There are a lot of new initiatives and a lot of things happening around diversity and that’s similar to what I find interesting in musicology. I already made the choice to move to Rotterdam after I came back from Canada, so that’s why I’m living there now, but I’m still in Utrecht quite a lot. I don’t have a house, home or studio for myself yet, so I’m kind of living with my boyfriend. I do notice that, just for concentration’s sake, and studying and being with friends, being in Utrecht is giving me more motivation to work.
So you went to Toronto. What did you do there and how do you see it in comparison to Utrecht and the field of musicology?
I went to the University of Toronto and studied musicology there. They have a division between historical musicology and ethnomusicology. I entered on historical track but it doesn’t really matter though; you can just pick any courses within the faculty of music. I loved that they have the faculty of music there, which encapsulated historical musicology, ethnomusicology, music theory, performance, and also courses like music analysis music and psychology and music and education, all these as kinds of directions. It was nice being in a building that has actual music playing all the time and being among people that have the same interests.
It’s very interesting that you can take courses from other sub-divisions: in the Netherlands there is such a gap between performance and musicology. Here, I always have to justify what I’m doing to musicians and why it’s important what I’m doing. They don’t have to justify to me what they’re doing, you know? There is a bridge between musicology and music in Toronto, mostly because musicology in itself does not exist as a separate bachelor, so all musicology graduate students have a performance background. Here in the Netherlands, there is a huge gap. People there can just do both, also in their master, so that’s super interesting.
How it compares to Utrecht… I did the first year of the RMA here, it was a lot of workload, very demanding. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the best choice I could have made and it has opened my eyes to so many things in musicology that I didn’t think of at all when I was in the bachelor. Especially for my specific research field—I focus on the intersection between music and gender studies, where I engage with music made or consumed by, well, everyone but cis, white men—so that’s very good. Then, I went to Canada, and I thought “it can’t be as bad with the workload”, but it was actually worse. In the sense that there was even more workload, I had to read like 200 -250 pages a week and every week I had to present and hand in preliminary assignments. That’s also because they have four months of summer holiday, so it’s probably the same amount of work but then put into less weeks. But I really, really enjoyed it. I think level wise it was kind of the same level. I was glad I had a full year of RMA under my belt when I went there. I did feel a lot more confident, people just assumed I was a PhD student because I already knew a lot of authors and texts. That was good, to not feel overwhelmed, because I could already make a lot of connections. I really like Canada, or at least, the University of Toronto, because they approach musicology in such a socially engaged way. I never had to explain why it was important what I do. When I talked about musicology and gender studies and intersectional feminism I never had to once explain why that was important, because everyone was engaged in those kind of subjects. It was super fruitful and inspiring to hear everyone’s research project. There were very intense discussions, also due to the fact that classes were a bit bigger. Here in Utrecht we are a class of 3 students but in Toronto it was bigger, with 12 or 14 students in the biggest seminars. I took 4 courses there. This was a lot, the equivalent would be 3 or 3,5 courses a block. But it all worked out, and I got good grades!
So you would still recommend it?
Oh absolutely! One of the main reasons that I chose the research master, besides that I really wanted to dive deeper into musicology, was that I wanted to go abroad. You always hear that the students who went abroad recommend it and I think that’s completely true as well as all the stereotypes about going abroad, missing home, making friends abroad, and missing them when you get back. I think it’s really inspiring and was really good to have that perspective and it really helps you grow in many ways.
What are your hobbies?
I could say something cliché like reading, hanging out with friends. I would say yoga, but it’s not only a hobby, it’s more for mental health and wellness. I do it everyday since January. I think we are living in such a high demanding academic world, so self-care is very important. I think it’s really toxic how things are going now, as a master student they already expect you to have work published and speak at conferences, while being enrolled in a highly demanding study program. I don’t know how to do that and have a life besides it. That’s what I struggle with, and I think other people too. Yoga is a good way to stay with myself and, as my favorite online yoga instructor says: “give your thinking mind a break.” In our western society, the gap between your body and mind is enforced through academia, so it is good to realize that and go back to your body on a regular basis.
I also volunteer at Tivoli, so I go to concerts a lot. I go to concerts once a week at least, sometimes more. It’s really nice, and good for your repertoire knowledge but also for fun. I also like karaoke, singing in choirs and I play piano. But I don’t have a piano right now. I had a membership at Parnassos last year, which was really useful, I can really recommend it. I think all the musicologist, as far as I know, derive from a musical background, music really enriches your life. I think it’s very good that Hucbald organises these open stages, then you get to see another side of your friends and colleagues. I’m definitely looking for a piano, so I can play again.
Because of my thesis, I’m planning to go to a lot of drag shows, which is really nice as well. I’ve been to one so far. I want to call that my hobby in the future.
How many instruments do you have and how many are in your house right now?
So, I don’t really have a house. My boyfriend and I are looking for a place together, but I’m also looking for a studio because we live in Rotterdam, but it’s difficult to get something there. He is a musician, so my instrument, which is piano, is not in the house at the moment, but he has 2 electric bass guitars, 1 acoustic one, an electric guitar and a modular synthesizer. And his roommate is also a musician, so are 2 trumpets at home. There’s also a drum computer. They have a recorder and a mouth organ. They actually have quite a lot. There is a microphone and a little studio downstairs. My current living situation is filled with musical instruments.
What made you decide to study musicology and why this master?
I’ve been playing the piano for a long time, I had lessons for about 12 years and got really inspired in the last 5 years and started playing a lot. When my piano teacher started the ‘piano academy’, I entered a group of motivated students who wanted to know more about the theory behind the music, which started my love for music theory and the knowledge behind the music. Then I went to art school to study fashion design, so I didn’t play at all anymore. That didn’t quite work out, it was a difficult world, very cutthroat, and I didn’t really want that. I was glad I had another passion, which is music. I didn’t want to go to a “better than you” environment, I didn’t want to go to the conservatory. Then I learned through a friend that musicology exists. I don’t really like Amsterdam and I really liked the fact that the university in Utrecht listens to the students a lot, so I did the bachelor here. I kind of already knew I wanted to do a 2 year master, because I wanted to go abroad.
From what I heard about the Applied Musicology, it’s very much focused on entering the musical world, so writing reviews, and programming but also marketing and stuff like that. So I thought, if I’m looking at the skillset I can acquire at both masters, I do think the skills you get at the RMA is very valuable and I couldn’t be achieved in any other way than through the master. I’m very glad I made this choice. It’s such a high quality master. The courses are inspiring and given by high quality professors. Because you’re such a small community, it helps you find your path within academia and musicology. What do I actually think? What are my beliefs? I knew I wanted to get those skills. I’m not sure if I want to stay within academia.
Name something you’re proud of.
Well, I’m proud of graduating the bachelor. And that I went abroad and did it all by myself. That I ‘thrived’ as they say, that I could take care of myself and make friends. I’m proud of myself of surviving the master. What I also try to do is build a little bit of a community. I really wanted to involve the first-year students, they are a really tight group. It’s nice to know that you have people to support you, have a support group of people that know what you go through because they do the same, also people from the year above you.
If you could bring only one album or composition to an uninhabited island, which one would it be?
God, I have no idea. That’s difficult. It’s always difficult to answer when people ask what music I listen to. You feel like on the one hand you should answer socially accepted things and on the other, like, what do I really want? I would say that now, at this moment, maybe I would just take Beyoncé’s Lemonade. When it came out I was obsessed with it, but I haven’t listened to it in a long time. I think it will give me power.
What is the last concert you’ve been to?
This past Friday I went to the Noord Nederlands Orkest. They played Debussy and a piano concerto by Ravel and the symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. It was really nice. The soloist was amazing, she walked on stage barefoot and I thought “ yes girl, break the rules.” When I look at concerts to volunteer at, I like to look at whether females are included, either as soloist or composer, or woman conductor or a person of colour. Not your average white person, or males conducting. That enables me to hopefully contribute to the popularity, as in, then I will go to those concerts, not others. I would like to see more diversity in Tivoli. All concerts halls are quite terrible with diversity. But it’s being addressed more and more in the media. I want to be more activist about it. This is one of the very subtle ways I’m doing it. I really plea for both a gender-quota and sandwich technique where you just play something that people don’t know. It’s working a little for new composed music. If I had the power, I would do it for people of colour and women too.
What is on your bucket list?
Graduating and relaxingly looking for a job. Oh, also, relaxingly graduating. I definitely don’t want to get burned out. I was almost overworked last year because I do a lot besides school, volunteering, having a side job, having friends and a boyfriend et cetera. My goal is to just relaxingly graduate. I say that because it’s like the pink elephant. If I say don’t stress about graduating, I’m going to. So I just say relaxingly graduating. I don’t know what I’m gonna to do after graduating. So many people can ask about musicology, “what are you going to do when you’re done?” I’m just gonna see what is out there. I do know where I want to end up, somewhere I can have impact. Contribute to some things I have said before, a diverse musical programme, musical world. Those are kind of my only conditions for a job. It doesn’t really matter if it’s academia of more practical music world, as long as I can contribute to change.
Who is/are your favourite musician/musicians/composer?
Another very difficult question. For popular music, Janelle Monáe and Sara Bareilles. Janelle Monáe is awesome and mixes activism and music. And Sara Bareilles too, writing themes on equality and fighting the binary. I’m also just a fan of woman composers in general, and classical music. They are already badass for working in that system.
I don’t think I have a favourite composer, but that can change. I plan to listen to a lot more music after studying. Paradoxically, you don’t really have time to do that that often. I think about just writing a blog about music when I’m done, just exploring and reporting about my exploration of woman-composers and composers of colour. There is a new database right now. Such a thing in popular academia is very interesting to me. People keep asking if I can recommend women composer, and I’m like, well a few but I want to know so much more.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve experienced during your bachelor and master?
The thing that pops up immediately is in my first year of the bachelor, when we had an exam at the Uithof. The teacher wasn’t done putting together the exam. And some girl passed out because of anxiety. So many things went wrong. That thing will always stick with me. But my bar is really high for weird stuff, I usually enjoy those (not people passing out, of course, but I like when the mundane breaks down).
If you could master one musical instrument immediately, which one would it be?
A string instrument like a violin or cello. I think the violin. People always assume I play the violin. I think I would really love to skip all the practice and immediately know how to play. I also think it would be nice to form an all-woman band one day.
To which composer/musician would you compare yourself (personality or appearance)?
No one really. I would begin to think about people who stand for the same things as I stand for. In that sense a lot of artists I mentioned before. Fighting the patriarchy! Appearance wise, I don’t think I look like someone except for my identical twin and maybe my mom.
What is the best journey you’ve ever made?
When I was in Canada, my boyfriend came to visit and we went on a roadtrip to New York city. It was a 6 hour journey. We stopped at Niagara falls and Ithaca, it was really hilly and beautiful. It was fall. New York was impressive. It was nice to travel there by car, North-America has great roads for that. But I do think it’s important to keep in mind the indigenous people who suffered, and are still suffering for those roads and other land that is still taken away from them. Toronto is like Rotterdam, it has a lot of tall buildings, and Canada is pretty nature-wise.
I also really liked all my Hucbald trips. I liked Madrid and Rome. It’s great that there’s such a diverse group of people. And you see something of the world. I didn’t like the opera in Madrid. Parsival took 7 hours and it was my first opera. It wasn’t a great introduction to opera. I also like the lectures we got from professors there.
What is your favourite quote?
My dad always says “does it cost energy or does it give you energy? Because if it only costs energy, why bother doing it at all?” I think I always stop and consider whether something is taking or giving me energy. It’s really a great quote to live by. I always say to myself: you do what you can in the time that you have, which is derived from that quote.
What is your favourite project within Hucbald?
I really like the choir project. I’m not a singer, I will not pretend to be, but singing in a group is such a lovely thing! I think Gerrit [Maas] is amazing and so supportive. Literally, this is my only performance this year. Also, I’m rooting for the symposium which I’m moderating so much. The educo is working on the lectures. So it kind of shifted for me: in the bachelor I did the social things, now I do the educational things. I’m glad that Hucbald does both. Not only drinking beers or only music theory.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
10 years is a lot. When I look back 10 years, everything was so different. My life has taken so many different directions. I hope to have a job that I really like and love and that allows me to grow intellectually, emotionally, and contributing to a more inclusive and diverse music world. So that’s one thing. It’s also important to me to develop in my life, as a job is not all there is, I want to still play piano. I really like go to museums and concerts and plays, and I want to still feed myself with those things in 10 years.
If you were to write a serenade to your favourite drink, which drink would you attribute it to and what would be the title?
That’s a good question. It also really depends on my mood. If it’s a hot summer day, a cold beer is all I could ever ask for, but there is one drink on my mind, which is also a special drink so that’s nice you know, serenading another drink than beer. It’s called “mi no umeshu.” It’s a sake based on plums and I first drank it when I went to dinner at LE:EN, the restaurant I work at. The best restaurant in Utrecht. Shamelessly promoting it for everyone to go to! No but it’s really nice. I had it with ice, it’s like liquid dessert like that. I don’t necessarily like rice wine, so sake, the traditional one. It has a really strong taste but this one is so delicious, a lot of layers. I would serenade that drink and call it “lovely blossom.” That’s nice, right?
What is your favourite chord?
Dominant septime akkoord. It’s funny, I was talking to friends this weekend who are jazz musicians and they don’t understand why we call it that. It always sparks discussion. I like it because it creates tension, and that’s what I want to do in musicology, creating tension.
You’ve studied abroad, was there something different about the music scene over there compared to the music scene in the Netherlands?
It’s a huge city, so if you want you can go to a concert every night. Also, because all my classmates derived from performance backgrounds, I could go to see them play as well. Everyone is still in ensembles and stuff, still making music. It was really nice to see them play. A few really big artists come and perform in Toronto, but not always when I was there. It’s different, they have more country inspired folk music, that’s lesser known in Europe at the moment. Of course, everyone knows what it is but to just go and listen to it is nice. There was also an old church/building turned into a music hall, where I saw Tank and the Bangas, which was super nice, especially because of Big Freedia. I know her through Beyoncé’s album, she makes bounce music, creating a whole bounce scene. She brought bounce dancers. Look it up, I think it’s amazing.
I didn’t go to as many concerts as I do here in the Netherlands, because I volunteer here, but it was easy to explore. It felt much more international, but that’s me saying international just meaning North American because it’s all so close to the USA.
Do you have any advice for (future) students?
I think: stick to your guns. If you think that you have found something in musicology that raises your heartbeat, go for it. Also, stay open minded and engage in dialogues about your own interests. Be considerate about how much you speak, let others speak as well. For finding a master: speak to the people of the masters, ask what their goals were. Think about what you want in the future. Utrecht musicology has so much to offer, and could offer so much more. The focus of musicology is shifting and I think that’s really good. Come talk to me if you want to do the research master, I’ll convince you.
Yoga with Adriene