By Sarah Guan
A decade ago, Vienna Teng was a Stanford computer science major. She was set to work at Cisco upon graduating and played her songs on dorm pianos for her friends, just for fun. Since then, she’s toured around the world, appeared on Letterman and had multiple albums hit the Amazon bestseller list. In what is undoubtedly an unconventional career move for a successful musician, Teng is currently attending graduate school at the Erb Institute of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan; meanwhile, she’s still writing music and playing the occasional concert, including a performance at TEDxStanford this Saturday. Intermission was fortunate enough to catch up with her and ask a few questions before the show.
Intermission: From one college student to another — how’s being back at school? Do you miss the musician’s life?
Vienna Teng (VT): School’s been great! It feels like I’m leading a dual life. You get so much energy from problem solving, thinking about larger issues, where it’s really not about me — and then I can run away to music when I need a change of pace … or just to procrastinate. It does mean that I don’t get much sleep, but then again, Stanford taught me how to not sleep.
Intermission: What’s the intersection of music and sustainability? Is there one, or are they two different worlds?
VT: I would like them not to be separate. They are, but each opens doors in the other. A lot of the stuff I’m learning informs my music. There’s cross-pollination, too; I was invited to perform at the Clean-Tech Summit, for example. I don’t know how to merge them yet, though. This may sound kind of cheesy, but if you look at business school in romantic way, it’s about learning to connect with people, awakening personal passions, leadership – applying the drier concepts you learn in the classroom. It’s tapping into what’s universal, turning the room into a room full of performers. It applies to music, art, people, everything.
Intermission: Like the audience participation parts of your concerts — the song “Blue Caravan,” for example.
VT: Exactly. I had this moment — you could call it an epiphany — in a managerial accounting class, of all things. The professor was kind of boring, and nobody was really engaged, but sitting there, I realized that this dry topic matters a lot when people apply it to the right thing, to something they care about. That’s what sustainability’s about: making people want to do the right thing by giving them the right incentives, by making it part of something they care about.
Intermission: You’re set to graduate in 2013. What are you planning to do afterwards?
VT: I don’t really have a “plan”; I’m going on instinct, for now. At key moments in my life, that’s worked out pretty well. For a start, I’m going to move to Detroit. It’s an inspiring place, full of artists, social entrepreneurs, grassroots organizations. It’ll be like another form of graduate school. As far as career goes, I’ll be working in management consulting at McKinsey’s Detroit office.
Intermission: You’ve moved twice, now — to New York and then to Ann Arbor. What was that like for you?
VT: I really love the Midwest, and I knew that I’d be moving here for a good reason. I realized that everyone that I like is here, that there would be a critical mass of “my people.” It was where I felt like my tribe was; I visited the dual-degree program and got the sense that it’s not a music world, but my people — who I want to be next — are here. It wasn’t very scary; I landed amongst friends. Like going to college, there’s a built-in community. If I just moved somewhere without a goal, to start something on my own, it would be a lot harder.
Intermission: Sort of like touring, it seems.
VT: Well, when you’re touring, you’re not committing to any one place. You’re just visiting, and if you go on multiple tours, you might establish a circuit of people to visit. You end up meeting people and spending time with them once every six months or so. I remember writing in my journal that I felt like a skipping stone, always skimming the surface and not really digging into a community. I was glad to stop moving — I got to really know my neighbors, make my nest, join a food co-op.
Intermission: I’d read about that somewhere. You’re killing your own food, a la Mark Zuckerberg?
VT: It’s a goal of mine. So far, it’s been nothing too drastic — just fishing and the like. I’d read enough about the food system to want to grow and raise some of my own food, or at least be involved in the processing.
Intermission: Did you have any particularly life-changing moments at Stanford? Looking back, what do you think you gained from your Stanford education? What do you remember about being here?
VT: I was in [Structured Liberal Education]; I remember discussion sections with people like Suzanne Greenberg, or in general, interacting with people of that stature. People like David Kennedy — I took a history class from him and ended up declaring a history minor. I also took a CS class from John Hennessy — that was before he became president. I was sucked into CS by the 106 series; the CS major was one of the hardest things I ever did, but it taught me a sort of elegant programmer thinking that’s stayed with me ever since. Speaking of classes, there was also this CSRE [Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity] class about minority politics in America. It was eye-opening; having grown up in California, you’d think I’d know about this already, but I never encountered this particular angle before. It’s actually made its way into some of my music.
Intermission: Like the song “No Gringo.”
Intermission: Is there anything you would have done differently while you were here? Anything you’d tell current students to watch out for?
VT: Take highly recommended classes regardless of whether they’re in your area of interest. Don’t base it on what you think you need to take. There’s a lot of excitement that comes from great teaching. I burned out a lot at Stanford — it’s something I still do. I’m still learning to say no. As humans we only have the bandwidth to do a few things well, and there’s so much pressure pushing us away from that, so much respect — especially at Stanford — for those who do everything. It’s so easy to overcommit. But go for the deeper experience, quality over quantity. Oh, and leave room for fun things, like friendships and frisbee golf at 2 a.m.
Intermission: What’s an example of something you said “no” to?
VT: I started out as a pre-med. I think I realized winter quarter of sophomore year that it wasn’t for me. Saying no to that opened up a lot of opportunities that eventually led to a music career. I was also in the Harmonics my first year, and the question arose of whether I should direct the group, that sort of thing. I ended up only doing the Harmonics for one year, so I gained the friends and the experience of being in an a cappella group, but I also had the time to do other things.
Intermission: Do you have any advice for Stanford students who might want to pursue a creative career? There’s tremendous pressure around here to choose a major or career that’s low risk and easily employable — like computer science! It seems like a lot of student-artists don’t end up going into the arts.
VT: I actually don’t mind that not a lot of people go into the arts. Arts should be an important part of everyone’s life, but we don’t need lots of people trying to make a living at it. Especially in the performing arts, it’s hard to deepen your craft while stressing out about the material considerations. I’m in favor of creating art for fun as opposed to as a career — and have a day job you really like! It’s like on xkcd, where they talk about the Pratchett point: Basically, the point at which Terry Pratchett became a full-time writer was when he found that he’d earn more from writing than at his day job. The same thing happened with Randall Munroe at NASA, and with me. I ended up taking time off from Cisco to record, and realized that it would be better for me to quit and go on tour than to keep the job.
Intermission: How are you feeling about the upcoming TEDx conference? I remember you once said that one of your goals in life was to give a TED talk.
VT: Well, I’m not giving a talk at TEDx; I’m listed as a performer. It might be a steppingstone to a TED talk some day, I hope. I think giving a TED talk would be an indicator that I’ve done something particularly cool with my life. Sometimes I think of my life in terms of what I would one day talk about at TED. It’s a good goal, I think.
Catch Vienna Teng perform this Saturday, May 19, at TEDxStanford in Cemex Auditorium