More than technical analysts: How the MSBA program is bringing music to the School of Business

As the second oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, William & Mary is widely known and revered for its history and traditions. In addition to campus-wide celebrations like the lighting of the Yule Log and the ringing of the Wren Bell which signify the end of each academic term, students, faculty, and staff at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business have begun a small tradition of their own to mark the completion of each fall and spring semester.

Since its inception in 2017 by the then-newly hired Clinical Associate Professor of Business Analytics Dr. Aaron Koehl, the end-of-term jam session brings together the Mason School community for an informal and lively demonstration of their musical talent.

“I am a professional musician and I play piano with a number of bands in the Williamsburg area,” explained Koehl. “When I came to Miller Hall, I wanted to share that with the students. At my first Christmas Party before holiday break, I decided to bring all of my equipment in and I played a thirty-minute set.”

Koehl’s performance was met with cheers and applause so at the end of the academic year, he brought in all of his equipment again. But this time, following his set, he opened up the stage to students in the residential Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) program and invited them to perform as well.

Since then, Koehl has set up his equipment to play for the students following the luncheon that is held before final exams and again prior to commencement. He estimates that out of each class of approximately 90 MSBA students, at least 15 members of the cohort are gifted performers, pianists, instrumentalists, or vocalists.

“Our MSBA program attracts excellent students from all over the world. I especially cherish a moment last year when twenty of our international students spontaneously began singing a song they knew in unison as another student began to play,” Koehl explained. “[During these sessions], students take turns playing, singing, and literally coming out of their shells to share a moment with each other as only musicians can. It’s pretty magical.”

Connecting through analytics & music

It’s no coincidence that so many analytics students have musical talent. Since the rise of Big Data, there has been published research theorizing the correlation between how the brain processes data versus how the brain processes a piece of music.

“You can see some of the overlap between someone who is good at math and someone who is good at music,” said Koehl. “There’s a lot of well-known connections between the two. The things that make you good at both include a lot of practice, a lot of repetition, and a lot of focus.

Koehl himself is an example of someone who excels at both analytics and music. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science and has served as the faculty director for the MSBA program at the Mason School, and music has been a part of his life since he was a kid plunking out the notes of nursery rhymes on a toy keyboard. In addition to bringing these two interests together for the end-of-term concerts, Koehl has set up an at-home recording studio and posts videos of him playing piano on social media. He’s covered songs from a wide range of genres, everything from the classic “Hallelujah” to Metallica, and he’s begun using programing tools to create visual accompaniments to the video recordings.

“I was working on some 3D visualizations using Python, a language we use extensively in our MSBA program when a muse struck,” he said. “I decided to use [it] to create some visualizations around my piano playing. Little did I know how I would come to rely on it during the pandemic.”

Leveraging music as an outlet

Koehl uses the video recordings of his piano playing as a way to stay connected with friends, family, and his church community during the COVID-19 crisis. He says that it provides an escape – a distraction – and an outlet since he is unable to physically be with them due to the stay-at-home orders.

“I have been a church pianist for 25 years. In this time of social distancing, I have continued to connect with my congregation and others, releasing a new song each week until we can be back together,” he said.

And he is not the only one.

Stephen Blotkamp MSBA ’19 plays piano, harpsichord, organ, ukulele and most recently began learning how to play the guitar. He had the opportunity to participate in the Mason School jam sessions when he was a student in the MSBA program and says he has been using music as an outlet during the pandemic as well.

“I enjoyed the events we had that had live music. For one it set a more casual atmosphere for the program, and it showed that there’s more to school and a graduate cohort that just group projects and study sessions,” Blotkamp explained. “The performances also let us see other facets of the faculty’s life.”

“Music has been a good outlet for me throughout the pandemic. I’m lucky enough to live in an environment with access to a bunch of different instruments I’ve collected throughout the years. I’ve transitioned to online lessons for guitar, and each lesson is a point I look forward to at the end of the week.”

Chris McCoy, Assistant Professor for Accounting is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who has written, performed and recorded music for international TV and radio. He too has relied on music as a creative outlet during COVID-19.

“I continue to play piano or guitar daily,” McCoy said. “I have a 2-year-old and she and I like to play in our home music studio. She and I also built a small electronic synthesizer while staying at home.”

McCoy says he has not had the opportunity to attend one of the end-of-term concerts hosted by Koehl and the MSBA students, but he looks forward to going to one in the future. At some point, the stay-at-home orders will lift and students and faculty will return to a new normal on campus, which includes, according to Koehl, resuming the twice-yearly concerts in a continued effort to build community and connections throughout the business school.

“Music is a language for the soul, and with it you can communicate and elicit real-time responses in ways that are otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve. Playing music and being a musician has unlocked more conversations with interesting people from around the world than any other pursuit. It’s a great equalizer,” he concluded.