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Starting OverNever too late to follow your passion

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From musicologist to journalist – and work that I love

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  • Starting Over: More in this series
  • About Leah

    Leah Harrison, 27, was an intern covering the arts for the Observer from March through July. On Aug. 20, she will start a full-time job as a writer and editor for Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston.



In 2010, I had a fresh master’s degree in musicology and was starting doctoral coursework, a track that would land me in front of a college classroom as a teacher, spreading the facts and theories I’ve amassed from a life spent in classical music.

I would be a tough but fair professor, showing my students how symphonies and operas fit into the history of the world; I would attend academic conferences for like-minded nerds; I would sport tasseled oxfords and suede elbow patches.

Instead, a growing realization of what I really liked to do, coupled with a profoundly disappointing encounter with a thesis committee, led me to throw my plans out the window.

Given how stubborn I am, I’m still surprised I did it.

* * *

I started playing the piano when I was 4; musical proficiency was required by my mother, who made sure we practiced every day. She wasn’t a tiger mom, but that’s probably because she didn’t know it was an option.

When I was 15, I auditioned for the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a residential school that took about 100 students from the state, seven of them pianists. I owe a lot of my outlook and personality, good and bad, to that hallowed place.

When it came time to apply to college, we traveled to four schools to audition, and as an afterthought – because my high school roommate had an extra application with a waived fee – I auditioned at Converse College in Spartanburg.

That audition turned out to be my best, and I won a financial package I could not refuse, even though I desperately wanted to attend school far from home. The poor admissions officer was confused when I called in tears to say I would accept the scholarship.

I had one of the greatest teachers imaginable at Converse, but after a while I got burned out on practicing four or five hours a day. Music history was the most appealing alternative within the school of music, so I switched.

I don’t know that I ever dreamed of professorship, or really anything specific, but a music history degree is useless without more advanced education. This was the train I was on, and I had no reason to get off.

Making the change

In 2008, I was in graduate school in Florida and loving musicology. But partway through my second year, the isolation of academia began to gnaw at me. My studies often centered around notes on a page, but I was mostly interested in music as it communicated with people. Still I kept going.

I occupied a permanent spot in the music library morning to night, poring over yellowed pages and battling the microfiche reader.

A nasty episode at the end of my degree work proved to be the impetus I needed to look around and admit I was in the wrong field. Some faculty members on my thesis committee failed to read it. Ultimately it was accepted, but I struggled with the injustice of the whole horrid ordeal.

I fought to glean a greater message from the experience and decided it was meant to point me in another direction. All I had to do was yield.

Rewarded by the risk

There is a song by the Fleet Foxes that starts, “So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter. Now what does that say about me?”

When I left musicology, this became my anxiety-laden mantra. I wasn’t concerned that I had no husband or baby, as in the song, but I felt like starting over meant moving further away from adulthood instead of closer.

Taking such a big risk during the great recession felt reckless, but beginning a career in a field for which I already harbored cynical feelings felt worse.

In 2011, I started on a master’s in arts journalism at Syracuse University. I’d always loved writing about music, and the idea of reaching a broader audience was appealing. The prospect of joining a journalism graduate program without so much as a high school newspaper clip felt brash, but I jammed everything I owned into my 1999 Honda CR-V and headed north.

Six weeks later, I was asked to review an international fortepiano competition at Cornell University; it came easily. I took an internship as an arts writer at the Syracuse Post-Standard and freelanced other stories, amassing 30 published clips by the time I visited home for Christmas.

Doing what I love

Today, journalism feels right. As an arts writer, I spend my days talking to performers and artists, learning about their muses and accomplishments. I’ve interviewed conductors, opera singers, composers, actors, aerialists, novelists and poets.

I also love the environment. The curiosity every reporter and editor displays is endlessly fun to be around. While we all share an outlook, there’s a great diversity of personalities in a newsroom, something necessary to create a complete newspaper. I appreciate the pressure and stimulation: I feel like that’s how I’m built.

When I was still working on the musicology degree, I heard someone refer to their 20s as the best years of their life and proceeded to hyperventilate. I remember thinking: “This is as good as it gets? Am I a masochist? If these are the best years, something’s got to change.”

I don’t actually buy the idea that the 20s are the best decade; I intend whatever decade I’m occupying to be the best. But when I started working at the Observer, talking to artists every day about why they do what they do, the thought that this was as good as it gets left me feeling warm and fulfilled.

That I almost didn’t take the plunge frightens me; I didn’t want to be a quitter. The urge to prove something – that I could cut it in academia – nearly kept me from work that I love.

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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