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Graduating music student aims to create a sustainable solution with science and music

April 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Alexis Mitchell's honors thesis project involves using measuring equipment to plot oboe cane characteristics and relate them to reed performance with the goal of creating a material viable for synthetic reeds for oboists. Reeds are also influenced by weather and humidity. Mitchell is trying to solve these problems by identifying a synthetic material for more sustainable practice and access.

A high school field trip to ASU helped Alexis Mitchell, Barrett honors student graduating with a Bachelor of Music in oboe performance and a Bachelor of Science in materials science and engineering, discover the possible connections between these two distinct disciplines.

“Mitchell’s academic accomplishments are not only unique with her concurrent music and engineering degrees, she is also an innovative problem solver with her pursuit to create a sustainable solution for music practice and access,” said Heather Landes, director of the ASU School of Music. “She has been an active member of the School of Music community performing in all of our large ensembles, with her woodwind quintet and as a soloist, in addition to being involved in the community teaching young musicians and volunteering her time at schools.”

Mitchell’s honors thesis project combines music and science and involves using measuring equipment to plot oboe cane characteristics and relate them to reed performance with the goal of creating a material viable for synthetic reeds for oboists. Reeds are also influenced by weather and humidity. Mitchell is trying to solve these problems by identifying a synthetic material for more sustainable practice and access.

“Making oboe reeds is an art form that requires time and advanced technique and years of practice,” said Mitchell.  “Younger players are often not equipped with the necessary skills to create good reeds, and other students simply cannot afford the tools and materials.

“Materials science and engineering is basically the creation of materials that last longer or are stronger, cheaper or better than anything that is already being used. It’s all about combining different forms of science — chemistry for composition, physics for forces that materials are put under and engineering for innovating and creating.”

Mitchell has her own private studio of young oboe students and has volunteered her time with her Driftwood Woodwind Quintet performing and teaching sectionals at the Arizona School for the Arts, Dobson High School and Southwest Elementary School.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to study and major in music. It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I discovered the field of materials science and engineering on a field trip to ASU. Once I was introduced to this field I immediately started seeing possible connections between the areas, including the subject of my honors thesis (synthetic reed development). After seeing these connections, I knew that I wanted to pursue concurrent degrees in both disciplines.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I discovered a love for chamber music while attending ASU. Through the chamber music course, I ended up playing with a reed quintet composed of current and former ASU students for almost three years. I attended four summer music festivals focused purely on chamber music, and I will be attending two more chamber music festivals this summer.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU primarily to continue studying with Professor Martin Schuring, who has been such an amazing teacher and influence in my life. I also chose ASU because both the School of Music and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy were supportive of my pursuit of concurrent degrees.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: For your first couple of years in college, say "yes" to every single academic and professional opportunity that presents itself. Then when you start to feel overwhelmed, teach yourself that you are allowed to say "no" when you get too busy. It is important not to let opportunities slip away, but it is even more important to monitor your mental and physical well-being.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My absolute favorite place on campus is the raised carpeted areas on the second floor of the music building between the west and east wings, which a friend once coined "the people shelves." I have spent so much time sitting there talking with friends or studying between classes.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be attending the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in the fall to pursue a Master of Music in oboe performance. I will be studying with Rob Sheena, oboist and English horn player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Though unrelated to both of my areas of discipline, this is something I am still passionate about. With $40 million, I would start a nonprofit that would provide financial incentives to cities that pledge to switch over their energy usage to 100 percent renewable energy. Burlington, Vermont, is the first city in the United States to get 100 percent of its power from renewable sources, such as hydroelectric and solar power, and sets an excellent example that more cities need to follow in order to decrease our effect on climate change.

School of Music
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