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Audio Arts Student Searches for Second Chances
Allie Westbrook, an audio arts student, talks about her transition from undergraduate to graduate studies amid a year unlike any other. She graduated with a B.M. in sound recording technology in May 2020 and was a Remembrance Scholar. Like many students, 2020 left her searching for closure and second chances.
Q: In March 2020, you learned your on-campus experience was ending abruptly—no typical celebrations closing out your senior year and, importantly, no capstone album completed. How did you get to where you are today, continuing your Syracuse experience as a graduate student?
A: There are days I think of what my college career could have been—moments I missed with friends and events we dreamed of, but never attended. Most heartbreaking was work left behind; I never finished my capstone album as planned. When leaving campus, my work felt half-baked and there was no finished product of which I could be proud. Coming back to Syracuse, I really put my head down and tried to learn everything I could, from how sound relates to picture, to how to direct and collaborate with others.
I came back to campus hungry—there was so much left to do and I needed to be more vulnerable with myself. I am self-critical to a fault, which affected my productivity in undergrad. With this chance to come back to Syracuse, I recorded and learned with reckless abandon. I feel like I am becoming a better artist and human being. You don’t realize the value of time until it’s been taken away from you.
Q: What is the backstory of your album? How, if at all, has that story changed and what were the factors influencing that change?
A: Some pieces of the album are still in the works, but this album has been an awakening for me. I essentially scrapped a lot of my senior capstone album; kept the gems I couldn’t bear to leave behind and re-recorded some of the songs that had been keeping me up at night. A lot of this album feels like letting go of fear—I was so worried that my music would gather dust on hard drives of old work. There were songs I was afraid of letting other people hear. Imagine a memory or a moment of your life that shaped you, and when you finally find the courage to say it aloud, nobody listens. That’s what showing my music feels like.
You want people to listen when you speak your truth, you want people to feel something when you speak, you want people to connect to what you are saying. This album is about change, falling in love and wanting to feel alive. I kept a few songs about going abroad and I’m really excited for people to hear about those experiences and to feel like they traveled with me, even if we spent the past year stuck inside our homes.
Q: How has your Syracuse experience as a graduate student differed from that of your time as an undergraduate?
A: I graduated in the spring of 2020 after the University shifted to online in March. I came into graduate school with the right mindset. Some classmates congratulated me saying I had a second chance at a “proper” senior year, but I knew coming into school I wouldn’t have the dream year they imagined for me.
My undergraduate course load as a sound recording technology and music student was rigorous, but quite restricting. Juggling music rehearsals and 20-plus credit course loads, I didn’t have the time or credits available to take other courses of interest. Having experience in audio prior to the audio arts program has given me the freedom to take courses outside of music technology.
As an instructional assistant, I’ve met and taught some amazing undergraduate students. They are unbelievably funny and excited to learn, and their work constantly reminds me how important it is to love what you do. Their questions challenge me to look at media and workflow differently, and how vital it is to be an enthusiastic and open-minded mentor. I would never admit it to them, but I think I learn more from them than they do from me.
Q: How have your graduate studies influenced your professional and personal outlook?
A: My B.M. in sound recording technology has given me a strong foundation in music, technology and electrical engineering. In Newhouse, my immersion in film and business courses such as production management, sound for picture and courses rooted in cinematography and editing have broadened my employability. I’d always been interested in these avenues, but not necessarily qualified on an academic level to possible employers. I feel like a triple threat now, cementing my abilities in music, visual storytelling and pre-production planning and management.
Q: It’s been quite a year. How has it underscored your music and film work? Is there one piece of your work that encapsulates your experiences over the year?
A: After I threw myself a pity party when COVID-19 rained on my senior year parade, I let myself mourn. I tuned the world out and I walked the empty streets of my hometown every night, listening to my Spotify playlists. As I walked, I wrote down thoughts in my phone’s Notes app. My senior year, in all its amazing chaos, hadn’t left me time to reflect like the pandemic had. These thoughts started to find their way into all my songs and scripts, and informed my writing this past academic year.
Right before the pandemic, my brother, Chase, and his girlfriend, Aurora, moved to Denver for grad school and neither had jobs yet. This young couple, who had never lived together before, had a wisp of a plan and they were moving to this new city alone to try to make it work. When home for a visit months later, they looked pale and tired from their time cooped up, white as ghosts. My mother looked on in awe. “Look at them,” she sighed. “They look like flowers in the attic.” I understood the reference, smiled to myself and thought about how much had changed in my life: a senior year cut short and being catapulted into job searching. I was saying good-bye to relationships that had just begun and trying to put plans together in a world that seemed to be falling apart. I thought about Chase and Aurora, how everyone had thought they were crazy. I thought about planting flowers in an attic; knowing that you’re cutting down something beautiful before it has the chance to bloom. In a beautiful, tragic epiphany, I realized I was like a seed being planted in an attic. And that’s when I wrote my song Flowers in the Attic.
Q: As we mark a year of life impacted by COVID, have you found any silver linings? What do you find most hopeful coming out of all this?
A: COVID-19 has affected everyone and every industry in both positive and negative ways. If we measure this pandemic by deaths, lost income, or missed opportunities, we come out on a losing end. There has been tremendous loss, but in a global sense, I think it’s forced people to re-evaluate what’s important. People are recognizing the value that health—both physical and mental—has on our society and economy. Mental health and wellness are finally entering into mainstream conversation; we are becoming conscious of how important it is to listen to our bodies and take care of our minds.