Office Hours with… Lindsay Wright

Wright, whose research explores such topics as perceptions of musical talent and privilege in music education, shares her work and why she loves teaching music.
Lindsay Wright

Lindsay Wright (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

During her career, Lindsay Wright has taught music in public schools, as a private instructor of violin, and as the director of a youth symphony. Today she is an assistant professor in the Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Music.

Wright, whose research explores such topics as perceptions of musical talent and privilege in music education, this semester is teaching a first-year seminar titled “Musical Genius” and a graduate seminar on “Music, Ability, and Disability.” We caught up with her for the latest edition of Office Hours, a Q&A series that introduces Yale newcomers to the broader university community.

Title Assistant professor, Department of Music
Research interest Musical ability and music pedagogy
Prior institution University of Chicago
Started at Yale July 1, 2021

What do you love about teaching music?

I’ve had many jobs, related and totally unrelated to education, and teaching is by far the most formidable and nourishing and complex work I’ve ever done. The more I’ve taught — whether it’s with three-year-old violinists or musicology Ph.D. candidates or concert audiences — the more I’ve realized that our basic needs as learners don’t differ all that much.

Teaching in so many disparate settings has been a gift in this way, as each community has helped me approach the complexity of learning from a fresh perspective. Three-year-old violinists have convinced me that motivation and joy are the foundation of so much more; youth orchestra musicians quickly exposed the importance and difficulty of challenging students with a wide range of abilities; college students have shown me how good teaching will also prepare students to be good teachers of the material themselves — whether through writing comprehensibly, participating in productive discussions, or approaching their own [musical] learning processes from a pedagogical vantage point.

Is there a particular inspiration for your interests and is there a unifying theme?

My research interests definitely stem from a few core questions. When I was teaching in the School District of Philadelphia, an argument between two middle-school students escalated into a fist fight because one was embarrassed about being seen taking his cello home; he desperately wanted to be seen as innately talented, barely needing to practice. This moment and many others sparked my curiosity about the power and pervasiveness of ideas like innate musicality, talent, and genius — in music scholarship and popular discourses. What are these concepts useful for? Is it true that some people are simply less “musical” than others, whatever that may mean? What can studying historical and contemporary beliefs about musicality teach us about broader systems of power and hierarchies of value — how we design our educational systems, why meritocracy has remained such a predominant dream, how we decide which aspiring musicians “deserve” further resources — and who do not?

You’ve spent the last year working on a book project. What is it about?

It’s called “The Talent Show: Musicality, Meritocracy, and the Aesthetics of Exclusion.” It investigates the history of talent shows in the U.S., from popular amateur nights on vaudeville stages around 1900 to contemporary talent competitions on reality television and even platforms like YouTube and TikTok. I’m not only curious about the music and musicians celebrated on the talent show stage, but those who are hooked, gonged, buzzed, often cruelly excluded — those who are deemed untalented and unworthy of further consideration.

What do you enjoy doing for fun?

Even though I don’t perform professionally on the violin these days, I love playing chamber music with friends; my partner and I just recently performed for a childhood friend’s wedding ceremony. I also like to get away from computer screens as often as I can, sometimes running, sometimes swimming, sometimes packing a tent and joining friends for bike camping trips in new parts of the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have a blast learning new skills. As much as I like teaching, I always treasure the chance to be a student.

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