Credit: Nick Belsten

Nicholas Belsten: The unstructured symphony of grad school

Nicholas Belsten (STARLab) recounts his experience navigating the challenges of academia and the parallels between jazz music and their journey through graduate school. Read the full article on the MIT GradBlog

My first solo
Over the past 4 years at MIT, I have often had my comfort zone pushed. To name a few things, I’ve presented to NASA leadership, received my first peer reviews, and traveled alone to conferences. But one very different anxiety-o-meter peaking experience occurred about 40 seconds into the hard bop standard Nutville (à la the Horace Silver Quintet). You see, I had been drifting about academically in those doldrums between finishing my Master’s thesis and writing my PhD proposal. I had some time to spare and thought I’d try out for the MIT Jazz Band. Before I knew it, I was sweating in the basement of building 24 at 7:30 PM on a Monday. I’d just barely held on as we read through the head (the only part of a jazz piece where the melody is written down in sheet music), and the saxophone player next to me had just finished somehow crafting a solo out of the melodic turbulence running by at 300 beats per minute. Now the piano player was giving me “the look” which meant it was time for me to take my solo. Uh oh.

It’s important to note that I had never played in a jazz band before. I had been part of various community bands, marching bands, and concert bands throughout my life since picking up the saxophone in 6th grade, but this was my first foray into jazz. At 25 years old, I somehow believed I could effortlessly embrace this new art form. Let’s just say my initial attempts at soloing were, well, not great. I’ll spare you the painful details; your imagination can’t be worse than the reality.

Over the past year, my understanding of jazz theory has deepened, and my ear for melodic progression has improved. However, I’ve also come to see my weekly struggles in the jazz ensemble as a reflection of my overall experience at MIT. Being a graduate student here is far from easy. While you make friends, attend remarkable classes, and benefit from the guidance of brilliant minds, MIT at its core is a journey of growth–and growth often comes with growing pains. For me, the key to staying sane has been embracing discomfort, whether in the jazz ensemble or the laboratory.