Being in the spotlight is second nature for Ethan Tischler ’14, who has years of musical experience under his belt. So it was no surprise that the Wesleyan Spirits singer was game to be interviewed despite having just returned from a trip to Vassar, where he performed with the a cappella group. Energetic and friendly even after a sleepless night, the religion major chatted with The Argus about secret tunnels, South Indian drumming, and the subjectivity of truth.
The Argus: What are you involved in on campus?
Ethan Tischler: This semester, way too many classes, but most of my time outside of class goes to Slavei (the Georgian a cappella group) and the Wesleyan Spirits. I feel like there’s something else, but it might just be those two right now.
A: How did you get involved in the singing scene here?
ET: I came to Wesleyan after singing a whole bunch, like musical theater stuff and chorus in high school. And I just really wanted to keep singing once I got to Wesleyan, so I jumped right into the Spirits first semester of freshman year, and then found Slavei coming back from my semester abroad. It’s just this really, really awesome, quirky musical community. It’s just really fun.
A: What’s the main difference between Slavei and the Spirits for you?
ET: I mean, the type of music is completely different, and the attitudes of the groups are very different also. The Spirits have this collegiate a cappella tradition and approach the choral music and other music seeking to get into a really high level of musicianship. And not that [in] Slavei, we don’t hold ourselves to also high musical standards, but maybe not quite as high. [Laughs.] And I think that rehearsals are often more relaxed. Slavei gets together once a month to sing songs. Both really hold a place in my heart.
A: What’s your major?
A: How did you decide on that?
ET: I barely did. I came in pre-med and thought I was gonna be, like, bio and psych and, like, French, and then switched more toward Science and Society, and through Science and Society took a class with [Associate Professor of Religion] Mary-Jane Rubenstein that I thought was the best thing ever. That was my first religion class, and I took another religion class with her, went abroad, studied religion, came back, saw that she was teaching a bunch of classes my senior year, and decided to become a major because of that. It’s really interesting.
A: Where did you go abroad?
ET: India, on a Buddhist studies program.
A: How was that?
ET: Awesome and really, really, really challenging. Yeah, extraordinary. It made coming back to Wesleyan really complicated, also. It was a semester, but because it was a Buddhist studies program, we had about three months in a monastery studying and practicing Buddhism really intensively. To come back to Wesleyan straight after that, both for myself and a lot of the other people who were on the program, was just an intense transition.
A: What’s been your favorite class that you’ve taken?
ET: Right now, I’m in [Visiting Assistant] Professor [of African American Studies Sarah] Mahurin’s Faulkner and Morrison seminar, which is just incredible. It’s just been such an amazing class. Either that, or maybe Philosophy of Religion with [Rubenstein]. One of those two.
A: What have been some of your best memories at Wesleyan?
ET: So many things just popped up. Let’s see, I think joining the Spirits will always be one, the giant scavenger hunt that lasts 24 hours. As a frosh, you sort of see how big the campus is. That was just so beautiful. And then, so many different things. Evenings on Indian Hill.
A: Do you have any good stories?
ET: I want to say yes, but I fear that the answer is no. [Laughs]
A: Is there anything you really want to do before you graduate?
ET: Mostly, I want to go to Millers Pond, which I haven’t gotten to do all this semester, which is a really boring answer to give. I’d love to see a hell of a lot more tunnels at Wesleyan, but I don’t know how or when that would happen. I am suspicious that there are really sweet [tunnels] under the field next to Olin and Foss, but I’ve never seen them.
A: What advice would you give to your freshman self?
ET: Don’t let Wesleyan trick you into doing way many more things than you really want to or should do. If my freshman self had known to move slower in the next four years, it could have been better.
A: Were you doing way too much freshman year?
ET: Second semester freshman year was insane. It was so silly.
A: What sorts of stuff were you involved in then?
ET: I ended up taking nine classes, not fully [for] credit, but nine classes. After first semester, fall, I was like, “I’m not doing enough. I need to sample all sorts of dance and music and science stuff.” And I was trying to make myself into a perfect pre-med person. It just got way too overwhelming. Ever since that semester, I’ve been working towards doing less and less and less things, which has been wonderful.
A: And do you feel like you’ve been able to commit yourself more to things that you care about?
ET: Exactly. I get so much more out of doing the things that are really meaningful. I guess I’m really where I want to be rather than where I think I should be.
A: What do you feel like you’ve gotten out of the things you are still involved in?
ET: So many perspective shifts. I think the Religion Department’s really good at teaching people to not seek final answers and appreciate the idea that depending on what perspective you approach a problem with, there are different right answers. So learning how to think in a context dependent on perspective—this is getting really abstract—has been a huge part of my education here. Especially shifting from coming in and being excited about doing science, sort of science as find[ing] out what’s true about the world, and then going into religion and learning it’s not quite that simple. There are many different ways of producing and going back and finding truth, and there are very different methods and ways of doing that that are equally valid and sometimes incompatible. And also, like, yay music and yay art. That also. Those three things.
A: Are you involved in art at all?
ET: Yeah, sort of. I always wanted to do poetry and had a really bad experience with it in middle school. I was like, “I’m never doing poetry again!” And then junior year spring, I took Techniques of Poetry and loved it. I decided to take the intermediate workshop with Professor [of English Elizabeth] Willis in the fall of last year and that was great. And then music is the other big thing. Outside of Spirits and Slavei, a few bands have popped up. I got really involved with South Indian singing and percussion and the world music program here. Again, different perspectives on rhythm and melody and how they work together.
A: Do you know what you’re doing after you graduate? Sorry if that’s a stressful question.
ET: No, not a stressful question. I am, at this point, going back to Martha’s Vineyard to sing for the summer with a group, The Vineyard Sound, that the Spirits helped found in ’92. I’ll be singing there, and then I’ll be going back home to cool off from senior year. And then, if I can save enough money, I might hit the road and try to go back to South Asia again and jump back into the music thing.
A: Do you know what you want to do in the long term?
ET: No, which is what the hope of spending the summer or next year [is], doing the things that I’ve already started doing later on at Wesleyan that I love. I hope that it’s something that involves all those things that we’ve talked about, so writing, music, and just engaging people. But I’m not entirely sure. It might be academics, it might be something else. Maybe medicine will pop in.
A: It’s all going to come back together.
ET: I don’t know. We’ll see. Totally unclear. But basically, it’s to not jump into a path I’m not sure of, and, as much as possible, to use the ways of thinking that this year I was introduced to. In Faulkner and Morrison and MJR’s class, [we’re] really critiquing how power and authority basically construct the world and keep themselves in power. Especially, at least for me, as it pertains to environmental issues that are happening right now. I also feel really, really strongly about working against that. Like, you know the ecofeminism music festival that happened on Saturday?
ET: That kind of stuff is so where my heart is at, so if there’s any way to work in those kind of directions also, I would want to.
A: Have you been involved in environmental stuff here too?
ET: Not really. Mostly just studying it and talking to people through classes and things. But I grew up in Vermont and spent a lot of time outside. I think it’s really good and important for people to get out and for us to renegotiate our relationship with nature. We see ourselves as separate from it rather than participating in it.
A: What do you think you’re going to miss the most about Wesleyan?
ET: The people. The people here are so good. It was that semester coming back from abroad, I was so weirded out by our campus’s emphasis on individualism and maybe competitiveness. [But] coming out of the transition from abroad just made me really appreciate how freeing and wonderful so many [college experiences] are, and how lucky we are to have a space where we can wake up and learn about things that we’re really excited about and spend time learning about it. I’m just looking over at the [flyer-covered bulletin] board, and I know that that concentration of stuff like that going on, and all of these people and amazing minds and hearts—I think that would be hard to find anywhere else.