Be honest—if someone were to tell you that they planned to pursue a PhD in Ethnomusicology, or that they were considering a career in anything related to the arts, whether music, writing or even painting, what would your first reaction be? Besides, of course, the obvious question of “What on earth is ethnomusicology?”
There exists a prevailing notion, perpetuated by the media and sustained through cultural stereotypes, that those who endeavor to attain a degree in such “frivolous” disciplines are doomed to a life as a hermit, barely managing to scrape by on their meager earnings from the fruits of their dreams. One professional overachiever from North Carolina, however, is setting out to prove all of them wrong, from North America all the way to China.
Emory University’s Mallory Carnes is a double major in Chinese and Viola, and having just recently earned the Beinecke Scholarship for her graduate education in Ethnomusicology, the study of how culture and music interact, it’s looking like her dream of earning a PhD in the field that she loves and eventually becoming a professor, is closer than ever.
Carnes was born with an ear for music that has served exceptionally well in making her an accomplished viola player, but as with most students initially scared off by the prospect of being unable to earn a living through a passion for the arts, she was intending to major only in Chinese, and music was just sort of a side thing that she wanted to keep doing. Once she started playing consistently, though, her passions derailed her plan. “Little did I know,” she says, “that it would become pretty much my whole life.”
As it so often turns out, all it took to change her life and push her toward pursuing her dreams was one person with an eye for talent, someone that could see her gift and everything that she could achieve with the combination of dedication and talent—a music professor at Emory. To say that Carnes has made great strides since that day is an understatement, as not only has her hard work allowed her to secure a future in postgraduate education, but it has also allowed her countless life-changing experiences while embarking on projects that would come to make her professors see her as more of a colleague than a student.
Indeed, when she initially approached her music history professor in hopes of conducting independent research in Germany on a seventeenth-century German hymn, a task that would require her to research one hundred twenty separate hymnals across multiple centuries, it would have been difficult for him to imagine an ordinary undergraduate succeeding in the endeavor, especially considering that the timeline would give her only a month to learn German before conducting research in Germany’s Leipzig Bach Archive; however, Carnes is no ordinary undergrad. In the words of her professor, Stephen A. Crist, Carnes is an intellectual sponge, engaging and soaking up ideas and cultural practices at an exhilarating rate.
“As a Music major, I simply couldn’t go an entire semester without playing my instrument,” she says.
It’s certainly difficult to argue with such an evaluation, considering Carnes’ successful venture in Germany, along with her extensive experience studying abroad and conducting research while working as a translator in China. The irony here, with Carnes being of German descent, is that her trip to Germany was more isolating for her than going to China, because, based on her appearance, the locals assumed that she knew German; whereas in China, the realization that Carnes is fluent in Mandarin came as more of a pleasant surprise to those that she encountered.
That isn’t to say, however, that the culture shock that comes with traveling to the other side of the globe was something easy to cope with. “The bathrooms are different, the showers are different, the bedrooms are different,” she says, “the way of interacting with people is different…everything is just different.” One of the most difficult things to adjust to, aside from the language itself, is that differences in social norms make it perfectly reasonable, for example, to stare at people for extended periods of time and even take pictures, without it being considered rude.
That being said, Carnes is grateful for the experiences and cultural immersion that she has been able to experience in her excursions around the globe, and credits the factor of immersion with much of her ability to learn such complex, intricate languages in relatively short periods of time. While Carnes does admit that immersion may be the most efficient way to learn a language, it is not without its difficulties, including the nerve-wracking fact that you have to be prepared to react to whatever they say. “There’s no prescribed response,” she says. When dealing with a language that consists of over fifty thousand characters and 216 possible pronunciations, each of which can dramatically alter the meaning of a word, it’s easy to see how some things might get lost in translation, but both the patience and kindness of those she encountered, along with Carnes’ undying love for the culture, prevailed in the end.
Unsatisfied with simply adapting, Carnes took the initiative to seek out any possible avenue to continue refining her musical prowess even while conducting this research. Most would feel content, or perhaps even overburdened, with the sheer prospect of attending school, conducting research and mastering one of the most difficult languages for Westerners to learn, but not her. “As a Music major, I simply couldn’t go an entire semester without playing my instrument,” she says.
Her dedication to the craft served not only to bolster her talent as a musician, but also managed to earn her the prestige of being the very first non-Chinese person to ever play in Peking University’s orchestra. With so much experience under her belt, and so much left in the bright future ahead, the question remains: What is it that drives Mallory Carnes? “I would love to keep performing all my life,” she says. “It’s one of the things that drives me. You’re never done perfecting a piece, just like you’re never done editing a sample of writing. There’s always something you can change to make it better.”