At the time, Emily Hsiang did not know she was crafting her senior thesis when she jotted down her favorite lines from a short story by J.D. Salinger that she read in her first year of college.
“I felt like it was about me,” says Hsiang in reflecting on “Franny”, from the novella Franny and Zooey (1961). “I was in my first year of college, absorbing the shiny newness of campus life,” she said. “I didn’t know what else to do with my excitement.”
Hsiang went on to major in music at Haverford and anthropology at Bryn Mawr. Her senior thesis “Franny: A Musical” is a one-act musical written for two voices and piano, originally performed by Aviana Rivera (“Franny”), Joseph Correale (“Lane”), and Ting Ting Wong (piano). It follows the changing romantic relationship of Franny and Lane over one tumultuous weekend visit.
Running twenty minutes, with five songs and no spoken dialogue – which she calls a rather unconventional format with several practical limitations – Hsiang says the work incorporates advice from a musical theater writing mentor. “I love a simple storytelling set-up featuring a high level of wit and complexity with minimal characters and spoken dialogue.” She is proud to have worked on a musical for her thesis, as it’s not a genre that is traditionally studied and performed within her department. “I hope my music provides continuous opportunity to experiment, and to fuse the traditional with the untraditional.”
Since the music department is relatively small (only five majors in her graduating class), she had the opportunity to build a very close relationship with thesis advisor Professor Ingrid Arauco. “We met one-on-one in her office every week,” says Hsiang, “so you can imagine that it was a rather collaborative process. I would write music independently throughout the week, then go over my progress with Professor Arauco at our meetings. When working together, we would sit at the piano and essentially do musical problem-solving. We would listen repeatedly to what I had written, talk about what worked and what didn’t, review possible solutions, and then make a plan for what I should work on next. Overall, Professor Arauco was the only other person who witnessed the development of my musical on a week-to-week basis. The opportunity to gain her insight, regularly seeing my music through her eyes, was extremely formative to how I will write music from here on.”
Hsiang says that the biggest takeaway from her thesis-writing process was simply what she learned from seeing the creation of an original musical from start to finish and everything that goes into it. “Writing a full musical is something I have always wanted to do, but is quite an intimidating process to take on; now I know that I can do it. Of course, there are smaller, more specific things I learned about composing music, such as how to embellish and complexify an accompaniment so the music feels rich and full, how to build space and time into your music to control the flow of the narrative, or how to communicate with the people performing your music to get your vision across. In the big picture, I still believe it is most valuable that I can look back on this process and not only recall how I made it through conflicts or progressed from step to step, but gain confidence from the fact that I did it at all.”
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.