About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
Nora Lewis ’99, an oboe professor in the Conservatory of Music since 2018, took on a new challenge this summer when she was named associate dean of faculty.
She is now providing key leadership within the provost’s office while continuing to teach and perform.
Lewis has performed widely, taking the stage with, among others, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, Boston Lyric Opera, and Boston Classical Orchestra. With clarinetist Phillip O. Paglialonga and bassoonist Eric Van der Veer Varner, Lewis was a founding member of the PEN Trio, a chamber ensemble that from 2010 to 2019 commissioned and premiered numerous new works and gave concerts, master classes, and workshops throughout the United States, Canada, and abroad. Summit Records recently released PEN Trio's album, Found Objects New Music for Reed Trio, featuring music written for the ensemble.
Grow your artistry, build your technical facility, and expand your musical possibilities in a community of empowerment, collaboration, and support.
Lewis earned bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and music from Lawrence, a master’s in music performance from Yale, and a doctorate in music performance from Northwestern.
We caught up with her to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
I came to Lawrence as a double-degree student in the mid 1990s to major in music performance and “something more practical.” My second degree became philosophy and has served me well on my personal and professional journey. Lawrence challenged me to embrace a growth mindset.
Growing up, I had an illness that caused me to miss a lot of school; I felt like I was so behind when I got to Lawrence. Fortunately, I was surrounded by a wonderful community of faculty, staff, and fellow students who made me feel like I belonged here. My First-Year Studies (then Freshman Studies) professor was John Dreher, from the Philosophy Department. He was an amazing teacher who modeled the Socratic method in our classes, and I was terrified. The first work we studied was Plato’s The Republic, and I will never forget my first one-page paper—my professor’s comments were longer than the paper itself. I felt devastated and cried. A few hours later, I actually read the comments, and they were so helpful. While I had “finished” that first paper, my work was only beginning.
For me, attending Lawrence was a truly transformational experience, but I had to first accept that change can be uncomfortable. As a teacher, I want every student to fully engage in their work but to show themselves some grace when they feel like they have fallen short.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
My work with the oboe studio energizes me—I observe musical, intellectual, and personal growth each week and show students how to become their own best teacher. Through the LURF program, I have had the opportunity to work with several students on my book, Notes for Oboists: A Guide to the Repertoire, which is under contract with Oxford University Press. One of the best feelings as a teacher is when your students begin to become your professional colleagues.
I am also energized by my work as associate dean of the faculty, which I began in the summer. While I’ve had administrative roles at other universities, working with the faculty and staff here at Lawrence is truly inspiring; there is so much work that happens behind the scenes, driven by an overwhelming dedication to Lawrence students and to the LU community.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
As a musician and teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to explore more of the world than I ever imagined. Working with students and collaborating with musicians in places such as Cuba, Central America, Haiti, East Asia, India, the UK, and Western Europe has shown me a prevailing beauty of humanity and the powerful connectivity music can bring to the world; music is an agent for change. While I always wanted to teach at Lawrence, I honestly never expected my path would take me back here; I am so grateful to be part of a place that feels like home and offers so many opportunities for members of its community to thrive.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
I’ve always been interested in exploring the intersections of music and philosophy, and here at Lawrence I teach an Aesthetics of Music course, which explores notions of musical meaning, expression, emotion, and beauty. This type of discipline is inherently limited by human perception and language, and words often fall short. Over the past decade, I’ve become increasingly interested in the intersection between music cognition and neuroscience, initially through the work of Daniel Levitin and his book, The World in Six Songs. The popular cliché, “You don’t choose music, music chooses you,” definitely applies to me. If I wasn’t a teacher and performer, music would still be a big part of my life. I also enjoy working with my dog, Cleo, an 18-month-old standard poodle, toward becoming a therapy dog. I think that would be a rewarding experience as well.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
My favorite spot is in the balcony of Memorial Chapel. The ephemeral nature of musical performance can be as fascinating as it is frustrating. I like to imagine that the windows, walls, ceiling, lights, and stage share a collective memory of so many great performances, convocations, lectures, and events, which seems magical.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks was an American black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, when she was 31. Without her or her family’s knowledge, cells from her biopsy were used to conduct groundbreaking medical research, and they continue to be used in highly profitable ways to this day. This book examines issues of biomedical ethics, bodily autonomy, privacy, informed consent, and legacy and shows how reckoning with the past through meticulous research can lead to greater truth, understanding, and the possibility for reconciliation.
Recording: Compostela (2022)
Compostela was recorded by bassoonist Eric Van der Veer Varner in 2018 and was inspired by the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It was just released on MSR Classics. This pilgrimage fascinated Eric; he researched it extensively and hoped to make the journey someday. For me, this recording has an ethereal and transcendent quality. Eric and I were colleagues for 10 years in a woodwind trio. He was 45 years old when he died suddenly while we were on tour in Bangkok, Thailand, shortly before the pandemic. It felt like my world had collapsed. Last year, I used Lawrence’s winter break to walk the Camino de Santiago from Lisbon, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in Eric’s memory. I walked more than 500 miles, and photos from this journey were selected for the cover and album art for his recording. Through sadness, grief, hope, joy, and gratitude, a pilgrimage reveals the power and beauty of the natural environment and offers ways to reconnect with ourselves and to the world around us. I’m really looking forward to Lawrence’s spring-term convocation, when professors Madera Allan and Constance Kassor will be talking about pilgrimages.
Movie: Somewhere in Time (1980)
This movie was highly recommended by my first oboe teacher, back when I was in elementary school. I mentioned the movie to my mom, and it quickly became one of her favorites. It’s one of those movies that I didn’t really get when I was young, although I always loved the ways it used music by Rachmaninoff, one of my mom’s favorite composers. My mom passed away about 10 years ago, and I miss her dearly. She was an amazing person, and through this movie, I feel like I can reconnect to her in some way and get to know her better as a whole person, not just as my mom.