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Students, Faculty + Alumni

Alumni spotlight: harpist Noël Wan

Noël Wan

Noël Wan. Photo by Patrick Murray 

Meet Noël Wan ’16MM, Principal Harpist of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra and Assistant Professor of Harp and Entrepreneurship at Florida State University. Wan’s work also includes several scholarly essays, which have been published by The Collective. We spoke with Wan about the yield of her broad intellectual curiosities and more.

Q: You wear several hats: performer, teacher, writer. Was that by design or was it the result of organic creative and intellectual growth?

I started playing the harp when I was 4, and, as a child, I always wanted to be a classical solo harpist, which the realists in my field know is a bit of a pipe dream. It’s difficult to make a living solely as a harp soloist, and an orchestral career disinterested me. So, I initially decided that teaching would be my plan B, which led me to grad school. However, I was also a nerdy, philosophical kid who liked keeping one foot outside of music; as an undergrad, I chose to attend a large public research university (University of Illinois) for the liberal arts experience. At Yale, I had the opportunity to sustain those non-performance interests by taking courses like Eitan Globerson’s “The Musical Brain,” and by the end of my master’s degree, I seriously considered pivoting from performance to music cognition. So, when I returned to the University of Illinois for the DMA in 2016, I took extra courses in psychology and statistics—even emailed professors about joining a lab—but realistically, that transition would inevitably mean giving up performing and teaching (I started two adjunct instructor positions in 2017).

My lightbulb moment came very unexpectedly in an ethnomusicology and social theory class; I realized that social theory ticked a lot of my intellectual boxes and kept reading. The professor of that class—also my dissertation adviser—really pushed me to situate harp aesthetics and performance practices in context of materiality, power, and social identity. That early research germinated a cohesive vision for my performing, teaching, and writing, which I had always viewed as discrete, antagonistic activities. So, I would say that these three roles didn’t really develop by design, but they weren’t completely organic either. Rather, they emerged from some painfully existential moments in which I had to choose a door, figure out how to open it, walk through, and be OK [with] whatever was on the other side.

Q: How did you develop an interest in teaching entrepreneurship? Is it an area your students are anxious to explore? 

When the former harp professor at Florida State University retired, her position re-opened as a dual appointment in both harp and music entrepreneurship areas; the latter was to justify retaining a harpist in a tenure-track capacity. Although this foray into entrepreneurship was the product of a pragmatic administrative decision, my two teaching areas connect well. Historically, harpists have had to be very entrepreneurial since full-time jobs have always been scarce for us. Many of my colleagues rely entirely on freelancing (I took my first gig when I was 8!), so being business-oriented about music wasn’t a foreign concept when I walked into this position.

When developing my curriculum, I had to consider that my students, who come from all areas of our College of Music, aren’t necessarily all interested in performing careers. So, I try cover a broad array of topics, including professional branding, marketing, networking, copyright, personal and business finance, and even mental health and time management (we also use YSM faculty Astrid Baumgardner’s Creative Success Now), and my students have responded positively to this kind of practical course content.

Ultimately, what I love about teaching entrepreneurship is working with students to figure out who they are and what matters to them as artists and citizens, and then helping them break down their professional dreams—whether it’s starting a business, non-profit, solo career, or band/chamber group—into actionable tasks.

Q: You write and publish scholarly essays. Does working in different artistic disciplines inform or influence your approach to each? 

Most definitely, yes. It’s so important to have a scholarly voice, especially for performers who pursue performing/teaching careers in academia, because that intellectual perspective can provide an overarching rationale (or in entrepreneurship terms, holistic branding) for oneself and one’s work. For me, reading and thinking outside the classical harp discipline allows me to expand where I draw my influences. In the case of performing, it’s not just about expanding genres per se, but it might be how I design a program to tell a larger story—narrative and affect drive my curatorial style. When storytelling is one’s primary goal, the mechanisms and rituals of the concert experience also need to change because they influence the audience’s perspective and engagement. That leads me to concepts in film and theater, whether it’s the alienation effect (Brecht) or the caméra-stylo (Astuc), and then I start thinking about where/whether to draw the line between “concert” and “performance (art) event.”

More important, looking at philosophical and social theoretical ideas feeds into my (and many of my peers’) desire for real structural changes in the classical music industry and its institutions. In my opinion, it’s impossible to alter a system without critiquing the values and practices that allow it to flourish, and writing helps me process those critiques and envision a less inhumane future. That difficult, slow systematic thinking—in contrast to the quick emotional reactiveness on the internet—can equip us with the rhetorical tools that facilitate sustainable and radical action. For some people, burning it all down might be enough; my question is, what do we do next?

Q: What are you reading, watching, and/or listening to that you find particularly inspiring?

My picks as a literary omnivore: Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America (highly recommend “Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface”), Eugene O’Neill’s experimental play Strange Interlude, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s post-critique essay “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading,” and two poetry collections, Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband and Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World. I also keep revisiting Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I Am Waiting,” which includes this fabulous, very mid-century U.S. “make love, not war” sentiment:

“and I am waiting / for Aphrodite / to grow live arms / at a final disarmament conference / in a new rebirth of wonder.”

I watch a lot of crime/thriller/noir films. Recent standouts: Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, David Mamet’s House of Games, and Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education.

Finally, my albums on repeat: Nala Sinephro’s Space 1.8, Raye’s My 21st Century Blues, Aretha Franklin’s 1972 live Amazing Grace, and Éliane Radigue’s Triptych.

Q: What interests are you pursuing outside of the arts?

Because my scholarly work crosses into cultural theory and philosophy, I spend quite a lot of time reading academic books related to those areas. My current research interests combine feminist and queer theories, technology, future studies, post-structuralism, and new materialism/post-humanism, so I’ve struggled through everything from Jean Baudrillard’s media theory to Alan Turing’s original “imitation game” paper to Karen Barad’s neo-Bohrian metaphysics to Anne Cheng’s new materialist theory of Asian feminine identities. On a less serious note, I am an occasional knitter—literally in that I only knit for occasions—and have been trying to learn more advanced stitch types.

I’m also lucky to have met smart, passionate individuals in Tallahassee, which has been a lifesaver since my husband (YSM alum Patrick Murray ’16MM) and I live in different countries due to work. My friends and I will have meals together, go hear live music, or just hang out and talk about life. For me, the perfect night out (or in) involves interesting conversation accompanied by a classic gin or whiskey cocktail.

Learn more about Noël Wan at