In the 11th grade, Nora Lee abandoned her Latin language studies to learn Arabic. Although her initial motivation was to learn a new alphabet, Nora quickly became committed to mastering the language and ultimately sought a university that would allow her to pursue both music and Arabic. As a Junior Viola Performance and Arabic double major, Nora adopts a focused approach to reaching her professional goals, and is carving her own niche where music, language, and culture intersect.
Cara Fleck: How did you learn about the University of Maryland?
Nora Lee: I used a college search engine website and plugged in the terms “Arabic” and “Viola Performance.” As you can imagine, there were only a handful of results. University of Maryland was one of them. After doing more research, I found that UMD had the strongest music program with the strongest Arabic program. Additionally, one of my friends from my hometown in Tennessee went to UMD and spoke highly of his experience.
CF: What attracted you to the UMD School of Music?
NL: When I came for my audition, I took a trial lesson with viola professor Katherine Murdock. Of all the lessons I took during my college search, this one was the best. She took into consideration what I had to say about my approach to playing viola, and her comments were helpful and clear.
CF: When and why did you begin studying Arabic?
NL: I decided to learn Arabic after many years of studying Latin. Arabic was a greater challenge, and I was interested in Middle Eastern culture. I started to learn the language in 11th grade, took one year at the college level at Middle Tennessee State University, and participated in a summer program at Brigham Young University called Star Talk. When I came to UMD, I tested out of 12 credits of Arabic.
CF: Why did you decide to double major?
NL: I wanted to explore the relationship between music and another academic discipline. With a foreign language, I can do that.
CF: What are the challenges of double majoring?
NL: Time management is a huge challenge. In addition to my required classes, I must choose electives for each major, such as “Orchestral Repertoire for Viola” or “Arabic Conversation.” With so many options between music and Arabic, it’s difficult to pick just one. I always let my goals guide my decisions.
CF: What would you like to accomplish while at UMD?
NL: For Arabic, I want to be able to communicate clearly and comfortably. This year specifically, I’d like to learn music vocabulary. For music, my goal is to feel prepared for graduate auditions. I’d also like to learn about the music of the Arabic-speaking world. This semester, I’m taking an independent study with Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Kendra Salois that explores music in Islam. My focus will be on instrumental music, which is where my interest lies as a performer.
CF: What is your time management strategy?
NL: I am very intentional about how I spend my practice, study, and social time. Since one of my goals is to be prepared for graduate school auditions, I try to structure my day around practicing. I know that by saying “yes” to one thing, I’m saying “no” to something else. It’s impossible to do everything and give 100% the entire time. It helps that Professor Murdock has been supportive of my interest in Arabic, and has encouraged me when I’ve felt overwhelmed by coursework.
CF: How do the skills you are learning in Arabic and music relate?
NL: There’s a grammar to both of them: music has a technical, physical grammar, while Arabic has literal grammar. Learning and mastering the grammar in each discipline allows to you to communicate.
I’ve also started using performance techniques to prepare for presentations in Arabic. I tend to worry about speaking with the correct verb tenses and sentence structure. Now, I’ve learned to trust myself. Just like when I walk on stage to play viola, I accept that I’ve done the work and do my best to express myself and let the details unfold naturally.
CF: What shape do you see your career taking?
NL: I’d love to be involved in the Arabic speaking community wherever I live, and I’d like to play and teach viola. One of my long term goals is to live in the Middle East for at least a few months in a capacity that incorporates music and speaking. This could involve playing viola, studying viola, teaching viola, or researching Arabic music. Hopefully, it will be a combination of all of these things.
CF: What are some of the highlights of your time at UMD?
NL: In Arabic, I remember the first time I had a conversation that was truly meaningful. My conversation partner and I talked about how Americans and Egyptians view political power in light of the Arab Spring. I felt like all my work had been worth it. I could actually talk about something besides the weather!
In music, I’ve enjoyed performing for my friends and faculty at our weekly noon recital. Some of the relationships I’ve had with the School of Music teaching assistants in sight singing and music history have been extremely valuable. They’ve been helpful in clarifying lectures and given constructive feedback on assignments. I would recommend to any student: get to know your TAs! Finally, performing Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with movement, from memory, was an incredible experience I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else in the country.