Alumnae Bulletin May 2009

Environment of the arts

By Tasneem Paghdiwala '04

Tear of the Clouds, perhaps Kelly's most influential work, was a multimedia piece created in 1989 to portray damage by acid rain to the Adirondack Woods.

Rebecca Kelly '73

Their stories often begin in strikingly similar ways. A brief, even accidental encounter in childhood with a work of art—a play, a chord of music, a beloved children's book—leaves a deep impression. That impression blossoms into a passion, and then turns into a lifelong career in the performing arts.

But despite their similar beginnings, the stories of these nine remarkable alumnae reveal striking differences about what women's careers in the performing arts have looked like over the decades.

Their graduation dates span four decades, and they now work in fields as diverse as electronic music, ballet, and television. Some started out at a time when their industry was overwhelmingly male, like Lynne Meadow '68, the only female director in her class at the Yale School of Drama.

Others, like playwright Charlotte Rahn-Lee '05, are taking their first steps into a landscape of dwindling funding for the arts and shrinking jobs across the board.

The challenges have changed, but challenges remain. And so does the passion that led these women to their present careers. "All of the difficulties of my work has to do with funding, and all of the joys are artistic," says Rebecca Kelly '73, a choreographer who heads her own ballet company in New York. "In today's world of disorder and disaster, I feel fortunate when I get to meditate and work with beauty."

Many of these alumnae came to Bryn Mawr after years of intensive study in their respective arts. Harpist Gillian Grassie '09 was classically trained in opera before choosing Bryn Mawr for its comparative literature department. Kathryn Selby '84 had been studying the piano at conservatories around the world since she was seven, but came to Bryn Mawr for a liberal arts education. That they chose Bryn Mawr over the conservatory or art school often surprised their colleagues. But it made perfect sense to them.

"I turned down the conservatory because I figured I could always keep learning my instrument on my own," says Grassie, a comparative literature major in her senior year. "I came to Bryn Mawr for the chance to study ways of thinking about the world. It's made me a better songwriter."

Kelly, who majored in religion and incorporates Eastern traditions and myths into her choreography, agrees. "I can't imagine being the type of choreographer that I've turned out to be," she says, "if I hadn't had the opportunity to be at a place like Bryn Mawr."

The business of ballet

When Rebecca Kelly graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in religious studies, and years of dance study at the prestigious Washington School of Ballet before that, she knew she wanted to form her own company, and she knew where its studio had to be: Manhattan.

"That is the young dancer's first question when they're starting out: where do I get the space to dance? And how do I pay for that space?" she says. "When I was young, I didn't want to be in Brooklyn or anywhere like that. I wanted to be in the heart of Manhattan. This was a necessity." Kelly found her studio in an old factory building in SoHo, which she and her husband Craig Brashear (Haverford '73) converted into a dance studio and living space.

The studio is now the home of Rebecca Kelly Ballet (RKB), an eight-member ensemble that's internationally recognized for its unusual mix of classic, modern, and ethnic choreography. Kelly is fascinated by the way people affect nature and the environment, and how nature responds. This longstanding interest shows up in many of the company's original works.

For example, Tear of the Clouds, perhaps Kelly's most influential work, was a multimedia piece created in 1989 to portray damage by acid rain to the Adirondack Woods in upstate New York. The company has a second home on Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, and rehearses there in the summer. Having grown up the daughter of a career diplomat in Khartoum, London, Brussels, and Sudan, the company's Adirondacks residence reflects a long-held dream of Kelly's: "to someday build a log cabin in the woods."

"I've always been very sensitive to the environment, and I believe that a sense of space is extremely important to the production of dance," Kelly says. But she advises young dancers today to be flexible—and creative—about practicalities like rent and location when choosing where to work. "The space issue in Manhattan is very difficult today. Brooklyn now seems to be much more humane and very inviting of the arts, and that started with a few people striking out and exploring there. I encourage that. We might be seeing young women making dance in some interesting new spaces in this very strange economy."

Kelly sees an absence of woman-led companies like her own, and hopes to mentor up-and-coming choreographers into leadership roles. "Many more women than men are prepared for dance in conservatory, but not many choose or are encouraged toward positions of influence in the industry," she says. This year, she is starting a workshop at the SoHo headquarters of RKB for female dancers and choreographers in their 20s and 30s who want to start their own companies. While RKB has offered summer intensive programs in ballet for many years, Kelly says this new project is very different.

"This is a chance to help women ask the business questions, to begin by making them aware of the very questions they need to ask. Like, what are the nuts and bolts of mounting a production, beginning to end? What happens during a full year of artistic production, during the months when the season is over?" She wants to teach seminars on fundraising and grantmaking, and to produce completed works by one or two workshop participants so the group can experience marketing them.

The early years of a dancer's career can involve endless auditions—some with modest entry fees—and long hours of unpaid rehearsal. Most dancers take on second jobs to support themselves during this time, and Kelly says they should be very deliberate about the nature of those jobs. "Avoid waitressing or physical therapy," she says firmly, both common side jobs among young dancers. "They are strenuous on the body, and take a lot out of you."

Kelly worked as a personal secretary in New York after graduating from Bryn Mawr. "I worked for some marvelous women, who were engaged in fund-raising and civic affairs. It taught me the business side of non-profits." She recommends applying for jobs at other art organizations, in departments like special events and marketing, and paying attention. "To get that training, and to be paid for it, is extremely valuable," she says.

A workshop like this would also introduce ambitious dance professionals to each other, and Kelly notes that forming a strong network early on was key to her company's success. "Phyllis Goodhart Gordan '35 and Marie Salant Neuberger '30 were two extraordinary Bryn Mawr friends who helped chart the course of our early years," she writes in an email. "Staunch advocates for the arts, Phyllis was a strong supporter of developing education and outreach programs, and Marie was passionate about ballet. They nurtured us to balance artistic vision with the business of dance."

Ellen Gaintner '08 sounds like the perfect candidate for the kind of workshop Kelly is envisioning. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and started dancing when she was 3 years old, "if you count those first couple of years when we just sort of ran around with scarves," she says. She attended intensive summer ballet programs since she was 15 and did the audition circuit before applying to Bryn Mawr. "I got a couple of offers for apprenticeships, but I wasn't quite ready to commit to a company because once you do that, you stop studying and learning and basically just rehearse all the time," Gaintner explains.

She spent a year studying dance at London Studio Centre. She loved it, but she came to Bryn Mawr "determined not to major in dance," she says. "But by the end of my sophomore year, when it was time to declare, I realized that I just couldn't live without dance." In the spring semester of her senior year, she took a train to New York almost every weekend for three months to audition before companies from around the country. It's an annual tradition, akin to baseball's spring training, where ballet masters and artistic directors travel to big cities to hold master classes and recruit young dancers.

"You show up to the class and wear a number, and each company has different policies for who gets cut," Gaintner says. "Some cut people right away, even before the class starts. Others let everyone stay till the end, and then make cuts. I appreciated that, because you're paying to audition, so even if you don't get called back, you at least got a good class out of it."

Ellen Gaintner '08, center, with fellow dancers costumed for a flamenco number in the children's ballet, Ferdinand the Bull. The costumes, by a main company dancer, are based on costumes in paintings by Picasso.
Photo by Christopher Smith.
Auditions usually cost around 20 dollars, Gaintner says, and she was relatively lucky—she auditioned for half a dozen companies before getting her first call back, from the Nashville Ballet. She knows dancers who auditioned all winter without hearing back, and would have to try all over again the next year. A week after the Nashville Ballet's open audition, the company's ballet mistress offered Gaintner a spot in their training program.

When Gaintner called home to tells her parents the news, she knew her mother would be especially tickled. At the start of her junior year, Gaintner had read an issue of the ballet magazine Point that profiled Nashville Ballet's artistic director Paul Vasterling. He listed the qualities he looks for in new dancers, and emphasized the importance of "artistry," saying modern ballet had become overly technical. "In ballet, there are trick dancers and there are dancers who try to bring out more artistry," Gainter explains. "Trick dancers receive a lot of attention. They've mastered the technical moves—we're talking people who can whip out six pirouettes on a regular basis. I'm not a trick dancer, but my mom has always said that I bring to ballet a love for the storytelling and the characters." She had clipped out the Point profile and mailed it home, and now was calling to say she'd been offered a spot in the same company.

Her senior thesis, which debuted at the annual Tabitha Performance Group concert in Pembroke studio shortly before graduation, reflected that interest in classical storytelling. It included three short pieces: the pas de deux from the classic Les Sylphides, a modern composition of her own for four dancers, and another selection from the ballet repertory. Gaintner is glad she realized her strength as an artistic dancer early on, and developed that talent at Bryn Mawr before auditioning in front of professional companies. "The idea of ‘marketing' in dance sounds odd, but you do have to sell yourself," she says. And while most people think of ballet as a glamorous way to make a living, Gaintner says professionalism is key.

"You also market yourself through your work ethic. It's so important to show up to rehearsal every day, on time, willing to take whatever they throw at you." Still, she tries not to be hard on herself when an audition or rehearsal doesn't go the way she wanted. "It is an art form, and your instrument is your body. Your body will be different day after day, and sometimes there's nothing you can do about that," she says. Gainter now rehearses full time for Nashville2, an intensive training program for the Nashville Ballet's main company. Nashville2 members rehearse five days a week, usually five hours a day, and dance in small roles in the main company's productions. It's a two-year program, and on top of rehearsal the trainees do outreach work like teaching dance in elementary schools.

There's no guarantee that a Nashville2 member will land a spot in the company's main roster at the end of the program. If spots aren't available in the main roster when Gainter finishes her two years, there won't be any chance of staying with the Nashville Ballet that season. "If that happens, I start the audition process all over again," she says. "But hopefully by then I would have a leg up, with this great experience on my resume."

She agrees with Rebecca Kelly that it's important for a young dancer to sharpen other skills along with perfecting her pirouette. Writing dance criticism for publication like Point is a potential career path, one she started exploring in dance history classes at Bryn Mawr.

"My ‘Plan B' is going into dance criticism. My junior year, I reviewed local productions for a course in dance criticism, and I found I was good at it." Since then, she's gone on to submit articles to an online dance magazine in London. "Someday I'd like to see a story about dance on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section of the Times, instead of another article about Brad Pitt or whatever," she says. "I like the idea of being a cheerleader for dance."

Standing in the Spotlight

Charlotte Rahn-Lee
Charlotte Rahn-Lee
Charlotte Rahn-Lee ‘05 says: "Uncut Pages Theater Company was started by students who worked together on productions at Bryn Mawr…someone once told me we're the most over­educated theater company they've ever seen."
Photo by Christopher Smith.

Bryn Mawr alumnae working in theater say their industry is like the dance world in at least one respect: that first job in theater—or that first job you take to support yourself while toiling away on a script at night—requires a lot of careful planning.

Charlotte Rahn-Lee '05 finished an M.F.A. program in playwrighting at the New School of Drama last May and still lives in New York. She is looking for a day job to support herself while completing two full-length plays she started at the New School. Both plays explore science and history in quirky, unexpected ways, like productions she worked on with the Shakespeare Performance Troupe and Electra Theater Company, student theater groups at Bryn Mawr.

She's furthest along on Goat Song, which began as Rahn-Lee's master's thesis. It's about a scientist dispatched to the Galapagos Islands to try and eradicate an infestation of non-native goats that are taking over the islands.

"The interesting thing about the Galapagos Islands is that no animal life is native there—everything that lives on the islands found its way there through shipwrecks, pirates, and settlers from other places," she explains. "And once a species got there, it inevitably changed—that's why Darwin was fascinated by the Galapagos. The islands are an interesting snapshot of evolution, and the way humans try and control their environment."

Writing plays comes naturally to Rahn-Lee, who majored in biology and French at Bryn Mawr, and her work has been well received. She's been writing since she was 14, at a young playwrights program at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York. Her freshman year, her play All That We See or Seem won the Young Playwright's Inc. National Playwriting Competition, and her junior year, her play Production Values was produced at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Since graduating, a short one-act called Philosophy 398: Practical Applications was produced at the Producer's Club in New York, and was also a semifinalist in the Samuel French Short Play Festival in 2007.

But figuring out how to write regularly now that she's out of school for the first time—and free of pressures from professors and due dates—is a new challenge. She'd like the regularity, and the paycheck, that comes with a day job, but in this economic climate, and in a city glutted with young, underemployed college graduates, desk jobs are scarce in New York.

"I came out of school at a very bad time," Rahn-Lee says. "I'm not particular about what I do: receptionist, something like that. I don't need a job that uses my talents as a writer. I'm going to be using them myself. But the most surprising thing about finishing school is how dif­ficult it has been to find a job, any job."

Fortunately, she left Bryn Mawr with a strong network of colleagues, and friends, who are also just starting out as playwrights, directors, and actors. The group, which calls itself Uncut Pages Theater Company, started in 2004 with nine members who worked together on student productions at Bryn Mawr. They wanted to find bigger audiences for their original works, and Uncut Pages' first production was Rahn-Lee's Production Values at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2004. Last year, the group produced Calderon's Life is a Dream in the DC Fringe Festival. All of its members have graduated now, and they're scattered in New York, Boston, and on the West Coast.

"The guiding mission was to find wide audiences for the exciting, unusual work we were producing in school," Rahn-Lee says. "And we knew it's harder for women to find work out in the real world of theater. Especially since a lot of the people in Uncut Pages aren't primarily pursuing artistic careers." For example, Rahn-Lee's twin sister Lilah ('05) is working toward a Ph.D. in molecular biology. "Someone once told me we're the most overeducated theater company they've ever seen," Rahn-Lee says.

Maggie Siff
Maggie Siff
"I would find myself weaving something I read in a Sandra Berwind seminar on Yeats with the Strindberg play we were producing. Mark Lord always encouraged us to braid together everything we were learning that way." —Maggie Siff '98

Today Maggie Siff '98 is well known as a television actress for her role on the blockbuster AMC drama Mad Men, a critically-acclaimed period piece about life at a big, boozy, smoke-filled Madison Avenue advertising firm in the 1960s. But Siff is a relative newcomer to the small screen—she spent her 20s as an award-winning stage actor in Philadelphia and New York, and didn't appear on television until she was 30. "I was very fortunate to get my start in the theater," she says. "Theater can be a very nurturing place, and I felt free to stretch and experiment. Roles for women are often quirkier and more complex in theater than what you regularly get in Hollywood."

Siff performed in several productions of the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Theater Program as an English major, working with Director of Theater Mark Lord. "My work with Mark felt like an extension of the work I was doing as an English major," she says. "He had us keep journals, and I would find myself weaving something I read in a Sandra Berwind seminar on Yeats with the Strindberg play we were producing. Mark always encouraged us to braid together everything we were learning that way."

After graduating, Siff moved to Philadelphia and began acting full time. In just two years, she earned nominations for three Barrymore Awards, winning for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Nora in the Lantern Theater Company's production of Ghosts. She also performed in several Philadelphia productions with which Lord was associated, including Big House's critically-acclaimed production of The Ride Across Lake Constance at the Philly Fringe Festival in 2002.

From her Philadelphia successes, Siff moved on to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, from which she earned an M.F.A. Back in her hometown, she has given several well-received performances. In 2007, Siff earned a Jefferson Award nomination for Outstanding Leading Actress in the Goodman Theater's production of Dollhouse, Rebecca Gilman's updated version of the Ibsen stage classic. When Siff first read a script for Mad Men, she was impressed by the nuances Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, also a writer for The Sopranos, brought to his female characters. "The women are so wildly intelligent, sexy, fierce. You see them adapting so quickly as the world changes around them, better than the men, often."

Before Mad Men, Siff had roles on Law & Order and Third Watch, but was still primarily known as a stage actress. "Luckily, the producers weren't looking for big names," Siff says. "They were looking for the right actor for the job. If I had read the script and not been as moved as I was, I would not have fought so hard for it."

Siff landed the role of Rachel Menken, a client of Mad Men's Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency who hires the firm to help her modernize her family's Manhattan department store. Rachel's professional ambitions and relationship status—single—throw her in sharp relief alongside the stereotyped portrait of the young secretaries at Sterling Cooper hoping to find husbands, leave work, and move out of the city. "Rachel has a steely wit and a fiery intelligence, but she also deeply believes in the importance of love," says Siff. "She has so many qualities that typify a Bryn Mawr woman for me."

Mad Men was recently signed to a third season, and Siff is waiting to hear whether Rachel's character will return. In the meantime, she plays another fierce, successful woman in Sons of Anarchy on the FX channel. She says she's been lucky in the quality of roles that come her way. "I'm never asked to play the ditzy girlfriend or the ingenue," she says.

That's evidence of a bigger shift toward better material for women onscreen, Siff says. "Something really good is happening in film and television right now. There are more and more roles for women in their 40s." She cites hit shows led by Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, and Toni Colette, all actresses over 40, a demographic that often gets regulated to typecast roles at the same time their male counterparts hit their stride. "It seems like things have started to shift in a way where there is room for people like me, who don't fit a particular mold."

The shift that Siff points to may be the latest wave of a change that Lynne Meadow '68 helped usher in a few decades ago. Since 1972, Meadow has served as the artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club, a highly regarded theater company in New York. But when she graduated in 1968, women heads of theater companies were virtually unheard of anywhere in the country. In fact, women rarely even gained admission to graduate programs in directing, Meadows says.

"I had a very strong desire to be a director when I graduated from Bryn Mawr," Meadow says. "Not an actress—that might have been easier. But I wanted to study directing at the Yale School of Drama. I just assumed that, being a Bryn Mawr woman, I would be accepted," she says. She wasn't, and she wanted to know why. "I went up to New Haven and sought a meeting with the dean, who was very nice and said they'd received hundreds of applications for just five spots." It was a plausible explanation, but Meadow asked whether any of the accepted candidates were women. As she suspected, they were all men. Her question led to a frank discussion with the dean about the school's track record in recruiting and encouraging women directors. Afterward, Meadow was accepted as the only woman in her class.

"It was a time when there was a lot of change going on for women," she says. "The statistics on women in the arts were nowhere near what they are now." She can count on one hand the names of female artistic directors at theater companies when she left Yale in 1972, partway into her program. She moved to New York and, with the help of a Haverford alumnus at the head of a search committee, she interviewed for a job as the head of the Manhattan Theatre Club.

The MTC was then a tiny company housed in a crumbling East Side building with a deficit of $75,000, and Meadow was 23 years old and had worked summers, but was hardly an experienced artistic executive. Still, she got the job, and the MTC has expanded to earn numerous Tony, Obie, and Pulitzer Awards under her direction.

Today, Meadow says, she's happy to see women working in every position imaginable in the theater, from artistic director to sound engineer. "1968 was a huge turning point," she says, "and I think it had special meaning for women. There was a tremendous amount of expectation for the women of our class, in the face of a huge paradigm shift in how women were thinking about ourselves. Back then, the landscape wasn't full of women in top level positions working in the arts. Things have certainly changed in the last 35 years, but we still can't take anything for granted."

Now fresh off of her 40th reunion, Meadow says the words she delivered in a commencement address to the Class of 1999 hold true a decade later. "When I left Bryn Mawr," she said at the time, "I certainly thought that following my bliss meant a life in the theatre. And to a large extent that has been true. But over the years I have come to understand in the deepest way that bliss is equally having a wonderful relationship with my husband and son, bliss is the friendship I share with many women, some of the deepest of which were made here at Bryn Mawr. And bliss is taking a walk around the reservoir in Central Park. I have come to understand that career and work give a certain definition to our lives but that the true path to self-knowledge comes from staying open to a myriad of influences—it comes from allowing art into our lives, it comes from our relationships, it comes from an open availability to whatever life seems to be presenting us at any given moment."

Kathryn Selby
Kathryn Selby
Kathryn Selby '85 (right) with ensemble members.

Kathryn Selby '85, a classical pianist and a native of Australia, recently received her country's highly prestigious Australia Council for the Arts fellowship. It is a two-year grant of $90,000 that funds a project of the recipient's choosing, and Selby used it to launch a national tour and create a series of recitals and workshops with young musicians at the Sydney City Recital Hall.

The timing of the grant couldn't have been better, says Selby. Her long-time touring ensemble had just lost its university funding, and Selby, a prolific performer, was wondering where the next challenge would come from. "I had been very disheartened," she says. "The fellowship came at a very fortuitous time. It allowed me to literally pick myself up and continue presenting concerts around the country, and to provide work to many of my colleagues."

The Australia Council for the Arts fellowship may be the largest distinction Selby has earned in a career that is studded with grand achievements. Growing up in a home that highly valued music, she began her piano studies when she was seven years old at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and at 14 she received the Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship to study in the U.S. That year, she also performed before the United Nations General Assembly at concert for UNICEF.

"I think as a young girl I was quite unaware of my early success," says Selby. "My concerts and awards were all part of my life in general. For a competitive and ambitious girl, they worked to help my self-esteem and create an image of the type of person I wanted to try and become."

She moved to Philadelphia at 14 to study piano at the Curtis Institute of Music (where she was a classmate of Ketty Nez '87), and was inspired by a teacher there to apply to Bryn Mawr and extend her education beyond music and performance. She entered Bryn Mawr at 16, her first time in a highly academic environment.

"BMC really taught me how to think," she says. "It also gave me a life-long love affair with learning. I am moving house at the moment, and have found old papers I wrote for courses at both Bryn Mawr and Haverford and have been remembering my lovely days there." She graduated Bryn Mawr with the Horace Alwyn prize for music, and went on to earn a master's degree from Julliard.

As a concert pianist, Selby debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1984 and went on to perform with orchestras and philharmonics around the world. But, she says, "people are music lovers the world over, and so the impact a performance can make in Carnegie Hall or in outback Australia is really the same. It took me a while to come to this realization, but if people enjoy the performance, it doesn't really matter where you play. That makes each performance as important as the last."

Selby returned to Australia in 1988, where she lives with her husband and their two children. After returning, she launched her national touring group, "Selby & Friends," and began recording solo and chamber recital albums, including a disc of the complete piano trios of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvorák.

Throughout her career, Selby has focused on developing her entrepreneurial streak alongside her concertos. "I believe, now more than ever, that an artist should have skills other than those associated strictly with their craft," she says. At Bryn Mawr, Selby was encouraged by then-President Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. '69, to organize her own series of concert performances at the school. "Marketing was not something one studied at music school or college at that time. My practical experience over four years at Bryn Mawr in publicizing and presenting my own concerts would stand me in good stead as I pursued my career after Bryn Mawr."

Gillian Grassie
Gillian Grassie
Gillian Grassie '09. Photo by Fred Maurer.

In a way, Gillian Grassie '09 was halfway into her second career before she was a freshman at Bryn Mawr.

Grassie, a Philadelphia native, began studying the harp when she was very young. By high school she was winning awards in major harp festivals around the country and, eventually, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

She was well on her way to becoming a professional Celtic harpist when, at age 18, Grassie decided to switch tracks and try her hand at writing her own folk-and-pop inspired tunes and working the Philadelphia singer-songwriter circuit.

"Up to that point, my goal was to be the best Celtic harpist in the world," says Grassie. "Competing at festivals was very encouraging, but since the world of Celtic harp is very small, by the time I was 18 I'd gotten to perform with all of my musical heroes. Competition started to seem beside the point. I wanted to find a way to contribute in a more meaningful way."

Grassie, who was used to performing in front of hundreds at international festivals, started over from the beginning. She took some time off after high school, moved to a West Philadelphia apartment, and started composing in her living room, playing at open mic nights at coffeeshops and small venues. "It was a humbling experience," she says. "I was used to being this hotshot in the world of Celtic harp, and here I was saying, ‘Please allow me to play your free show.' I was back at the bottom of the barrel."

As Grassie adjusted to her new life as an aspiring songwriter, she started applying to college. She decided to steer clear of conservatories or schools with intensive music programs. A longtime fan of the poet Philip Larkin, Grassie chose Bryn Mawr for its comparative literature department. "I wanted to have a whole world of reading and knowledge at my fingertips when I sat down to write songs," she explains. "As voracious a reader as I was before Bryn Mawr, I feel holistically enriched—and confident—in this new way here."

After her first open mic at the now-defunct Point in Bryn Mawr, Grassie started booking shows at bigger clubs around the East Coast. Right before starting Bryn Mawr, Grassie released her first full-length album, Serpentine. Critics have compared her style and her voice to Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell, but they also note that Grassie's harp sets her apart. "People think of the harp as something that puts you to sleep, and they only see it at church and weddings," says Grassie. "I want to reintroduce people to this incredible instrument."

It's clear that Grassie's unusual approach has struck a chord. In November, during the fall of her junior year, her song "Silken String" landed her in the finals at the prestigious New York Songwriters Circle contest out of 40,000 hopefuls. The contest encourages and recognizes young songwriting talents, and launched the careers of Norah Jones and Gavin DeGraw. Grassie won second place, which included a $3,000 prize and a free session in a recording studio.

Grassie says her studies as a comparative literature major have transformed her experience of writing songs. "I like the way comp. lit. looks at the world through the lenses of literature, anthropology, and history. I try to bring that complexity to my writing," she says. "I've never worked this hard in my life, and I think it's taking my songwriting to a deeper level."

Elizabeth Schulze
Elizabeth Schulze
"The study of philosophy forced me to think outside of the box in creative ways. It developed my analytic skills and problem-solving abilities, two extremely important tools for a music director whose job description calls for exceptional musical and administrative abilities." —Elizabeth Schulze '79 (Photo courtesy Maryland Symphony Orchestra.)

Today Elizabeth Schulze '79 conducts the symphony orchestras of Maryland and Flagstaff, Arizona, and the list of orchestras she has led or guest-conducted in the past is staggering. Her baton has directed symphonies both large—the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C., the New York Philharmonic—and small—the San Francisco Women's Philharmonic, the Omaha Symphony. Her work also takes her around the world, as guest conductor for the Paris Opera, the Hong Kong Philharmonics, and the Israeli Opera Orchestra.

But when Schulze arrived at Bryn Mawr from Interlochen Arts Academy, a prestigious boarding high school in Michigan for exceptionally talented young artists, she was ready to drop music as a profession. "I had decided to pursue a career in law rather than music," she says. "The prospect of spending eight hours a day alone in the practice room for the next four years was no longer appealing to me."

She chose Bryn Mawr for its strong liberal-arts program, and because she liked the performing arts scene on campus during an admissions visit. She majored in philosophy, steering clear of courses in the music department. Still, she enjoyed playing her instrument—violin—and joined the Bi-College Orchestra, which was under the direction of Tamara Brooks, then a professor of music at Bryn Mawr.

"It was the first time that I had worked with a woman as a conductor, and it was a revelation," says Schulze. "Dr. Brooks was, and is still, a brilliant, charismatic and consummate musician and an ideal role model. She gave me my first opportunity to conduct a small ensemble. When that went well, she accepted me as a conducting student. I worked with her for the rest of my time at Bryn Mawr and then for a few years after graduation."

By her junior year, Schulze served as the Bi-College Orchestra's concertmaster and had decided on conducting as a career path. She has found that her philosophy degree informs her conducting life in interesting ways. "The study of philosophy forced me to think outside of the box in creative ways," she says. "It developed my analytic skills and problem-solving abilities, two extremely important tools for a music director whose job description calls for exceptional musical and administrative abilities."

Along with her worldwide conducting engagements, Schulze has emphasized community outreach and musical education throughout her career. For the last eight years, for instance, she has conducted more than 100 high school students in the D.C. area who comprise the All-County High School Orchestra of Washington County. Recalling the mentorship of Tamara Brooks early in her own career, Schulze hopes to continue encouraging new voices toward the field.

"When I graduated, the conducting profession was virtually closed to women," she says. "There were perhaps two or three woman who were conducting professional orchestras regularly, and none of them held a top position as a music director. Happily, I have seen the doors open wide to women and minorities in the past few decades."

Ketty Nez
Ketty Nez
Ketty Nez '87

Ketty Nez '87 is a composer, pianist, and a conductor—with a Bryn Mawr degree in psychology. It's a common theme among Mawrters who work in the performing arts. They went on to successful careers that, at first glance, seem to share little with their major. In Nez's case, this was by design.

"Having grown up as a musical prodigy of sorts, practicing 10 hours a day, I decided that Bryn Mawr was my time to explore other areas," she says, "like science, literature—and social life."

Before coming to Bryn Mawr, Nez earned a bachelor's degree in piano performance from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she met a future fellow alumna, Kathryn Selby '85. Selby, who is also a pianist, was studying at Bryn Mawr and Curtis simultaneously. "Kathy was very much a role model. She was one of the cool older girls," says Nez. "When I found out she went to Bryn Mawr, I wanted to follow her example."

Nez threw herself into academics at school, taking a slew of math and physics classes. She began working with Professor of Psychology Howard S. Hoffman on his research on memory, and decided on a psychology major. "Studying how people learn and remember sounded fascinating," Nez says. She joined the Bryn Mawr Chamber Society as a pianist and enrolled in a composition course at Haverford, but most of her time at Bryn Mawr was spent in the science labs.

After Bryn Mawr, Nez went on to earn degrees in composition from the Eastman School of Music and the University of California at Berkeley. After earning her Ph.D.,

she became interested in electronic music and studied at the Institute de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in France and at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Today, Nez teaches in the composition and theory department at the Boston University School of Music, which she joined in 2005 after teaching composition for two years at the University of Iowa.

"While I didn't investigate any music at Bryn Mawr other than playing chamber music for fun," she writes, "the rigor of studies there has served me tremendously in my further graduate studies, and now, as I design syllabi and curricula as a teacher myself."

Nez is currently touring and lecturing as part of the Wolfe/Nez Duo, a piano and violin duo with Katie Wolfe, a colleague at Boston University, where Nez also directs a new music ensemble called Time's Arrow. The Wolfe/Nez Duo's tour includes a premiere of Nez's Postcards from the 1930s, which Nez created using transcriptions of Serbian and Croatian folk songs by the renowned Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. She is also working on a chamber opera based on those folk songs.

The Bryn Mawr Chamber Music Society also remains a part of her life. "I fly out to Bryn Mawr about once a year for reunion concerts," she says. "It's a blast. We all stay in Wyndham and play a lot of Brahms. I don't know why, but the Chamber Music Society is always full of Brahms addicts."