Sarah Kate Sweeney, Physics & Astrophysics Student and Pianist

Originally Published 5 March 2021

What I love the most about playing the piano is how cathartic it can be when you really need it. I have a few relatives who are also musical, and as one of them once said: “If you can play an instrument, you’ll never be lonely”. It’s been a lifeline for me during the pandemic. In 2020, I was supposed to have a big eighteenth birthday, do my Leaving Cert, have a Debs, go on lots of amazing adventures with my friends, go to college lectures – all things that are part of the normal coming-of-age experience. That was taken from me, and replaced with fear, isolation, and uncertainty. I know that I definitely am very fortunate compared to many people, but the loss of so many rites of passage was still very difficult to come to terms with. As much as I love physics and wouldn’t swap my college course for the world, having to do my entire first year online and completely alone, without much of an opportunity to make new friends, is not easy. If I didn’t have a way to release this anxiety in a healthy way through music, I don’t know how I would have coped.

My name is Sarah Kate Sweeney, but most people just call me Sarah. I’m eighteen years old and I’m from Cork, Ireland. I’m a first-year BSc Physics and Astrophysics student at University College Cork (UCC) and a part-time classical piano student at the CIT Cork School of Music (CSM). I also work at Hayfield Manor Hotel as one of their resident musicians playing piano and singing. I adore physics and music; both are an integral part of who I am.

I always loved physics growing up. When I went to secondary school, I discovered science competitions like Scifest and the BT Young Scientist Exhibition. I entered many different mathematics and physics projects – I won more than a few awards and travelled to the most incredible places. I really love scientific research, and my experience playing music on-stage cured my stage fright, meaning I’m a pretty good public speaker – a vital skill for science communication.

I had a lot of difficulty choosing between studying music or studying science, because I’m really not willing to sacrifice either one. When I was offered my job at Hayfield Manor about a year and a half ago, I realised that I didn’t need a degree to be a musician – I already am one! I was also very lucky to be offered my scholarship at the CSM, where I am now studying for the Associate Trinity College London (ATCL) exam, which is the equivalent of the first year of a degree in piano.

Regardless of my education level, I consider myself to be a musician just as much as I am a physicist. I couldn’t imagine life without either.

My initial interest in music happened by chance. When I was about nine years old, one of my school friends took up piano lessons with a local musician, and my Mum asked me if I’d like to give it a try. After a few lessons, I took to the piano like a duck to water. At first, I was shy about playing in front of others, but my Dad always asked me to play for house guests – over time, I grew comfortable with it. At this point, I only played instrumental piano.

After a while, when I was about twelve, I started singing and accompanying myself on piano in secret. I was too shy to sing in public. One day, my secondary school music teacher asked me to play at the school Open Night. The gig went on for longer than I anticipated and I ran out of instrumental music, so out of desperation, I sang a song and accompanied myself with chords on piano. It went very well and was a big hit on the night – I was congratulated for days after, which boosted my confidence. After that, I incorporated my classical piano training with more modern vocals, which I found was very popular. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have a lot of musical influences, but the biggest one has to be Dr. Brian May. He is the lead guitarist of my favourite band of all time, Queen, but he also has a Ph.D. in Astrophysics and was a part of the team that launched New Horizons, which took the first-ever up-close photos we have of Pluto. He even wrote a rock song about New Horizons and released it when it launched! My favourite song of his, however, is a very underrated one on the same album as Bohemian Rhapsody, called 39. That song means an awful lot to me. It sounds like a cheerful folk song, but its lyrics are actually about time dilation, a result of relativity. It’s a really beautiful nod to that fact that he, like me, is just as much of a physicist as he is a musician. I always listen to it when I need to be cheered up! Speaking of Queen, my party trick is a one-woman-one-piano rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, start to finish, operatic section and all. Nothing is off-limits!

In terms of my style of music, I really love the Romantic and Impressionist composers – the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and so on. The full name of the piano is the ‘pianoforte’, literally meaning ‘soft-loud’. This refers to the expansive dynamical range it is capable of. Hence, the piano is a particularly powerful instrument, capable of conveying an even more expansive range of emotion. The Romantics integrated these emotions into their compositions in the most breathtaking way possible, and this is something I try to emulate in my playing.

I also have a Classical Piano Scholarship. In October 2020, I sat my Grade 8 exam in classical piano in the CSM. The grading system for exams in the CSM is very strict – they’re marked hard to begin with, and you need a minimum of 80% just to pass! In addition to that, if you achieve a score above 90%, the CIT will pay for 50% of your fees for the coming year; they call this a Scholarship and it’s a big honour to get one! I spent a lot of time in the first Covid lockdown practicing hard, and my exam went very well. I scored 93%, giving me one of the highest scores in my Grade and entitling me to a Scholarship! Since Grade 8 is the final Grade exam, the school typically doesn’t offer students a place back after finishing, so I’m very lucky to have been offered my place back to study for the ATCL (my goal for 2021 is to sit my ATCL!).

I have a lot of great experiences with my music. Something I absolutely adore about playing in public is bringing joy to people. It can be hard to see in concerts, as you’re far away from the audience, but I see it every time I work as a resident musician in Hayfield Manor, as I’m up close to and interacting with the guests often. Sometimes, I will stumble upon someone’s favourite song, and I savour the look of pure joy that crosses their face when they recognise it. I also find that children very much enjoy my music. Particularly on Sundays, when families come to the hotel for Sunday lunch and the like, the children will congregate on the ground next to me or on the stairs up above me and just listen.

One day at the hotel, I was playing my usual repertoire. At the time, I was almost finished learning Clair de Lune by Debussy – a beautiful piece, but a very intricate, difficult one. I did not plan to play it in public yet as I didn’t feel it was ready, but something at the back of my head was nagging me to play it. I worked through my usual songs, and the urge got stronger. Towards the end of the night, I decided, “to hell with it!” I played Clair de Lune, and it turned out surprisingly well. After my shift ended, I packed up and was ready to go when a lady stopped me. She complimented my playing and said that her young daughter was listening to me from the restaurant adjacent to the piano. She had heard Clair de Lune and loved it so much that she decided there and then that she wanted to start piano lessons. I couldn’t stay and talk with her long, but I like to think that maybe I inspired at least one future pianist to try sitting down at a piano for the first time.

My long-term goal is to explore original music more. I’ve written a few songs already, but not much, and I’m still shy about performing them; it feels like reading from my diary! I know I’ll get over this with experience, though. My ultimate goal is to perform a concert of original music. I’d also like to record one of my songs, but first I’ll need to get the hang of music production!

I see a lot of similarities between music and physics. The neat thing about physics is that it not only relates to everything – it IS everything. Through my knowledge of physics, I understand how the strings inside my piano resonate in just the right way to make the perfect harmony. I understand the mathematical basis of tuning systems and timbre. A few years ago, I had a project called “Maths Behind Music”, in which I used a Fourier Transform to analyse the waveforms of a few different instruments (the piano being among them) to learn the exact harmonics that make a piano sound like a piano, and how one might go about recreating them digitally. Regardless of what you do in life, an understanding of physics is indispensable.

My advice to any beginners looking to play piano is that natural-born talent doesn’t exist – the only thing that matters is the time and passion you devote to your instrument. Learning to play piano is very hard work, but don’t be discouraged when it gets tough; that’s when you learn the most. In fact, I would go as far as to say that you should deliberately choose to learn pieces that are too difficult for you, because at the end, when you can play them, you’ll know you’ve improved! Often, music can be cathartic – I find music to be a very soothing form of self-expression. Don’t be afraid to get out there and perform – that’s where you’ll have the most fun!

There is always more than tech. There’s a stereotype I see in a lot of movies about scientists that really gets on my nerves – that every scientist and technologist is one-dimensional, anti-social, and has nothing else going on in their head apart from their work. I have worked with many incredible scientists and I’ve never met anyone like this! The STEM community, like any community, is an incredibly diverse bunch with a lot to say. Tech, by its very nature, requires immense creativity – our job is to find new, ingenious ways of solving problems, asking the big questions, and then digging for answers. It logically follows that many of us are creative in other ways.

I was having a very similar conversation with one of my lecturers recently – many great physicists were also musical! Albert Einstein played violin, Richard Feynman played bongos, Brian Cox was a rock star before he was a physicist, and lest we forget my hero, Brian May. I rest assured that I’m in great company!

“Every atom is a note, and the universe is a symphony.”
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