Rachel Despard

Rachel Despard is a senior majoring in music with minors in public policy and social and economic justice within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. She studies how recorded music boosts community collaboration, affects visibility for vulnerable populations, and addresses systematic inequalities.

Rachel Despardphoto by Alyssa LaFaro
May 6th, 2020

Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: I’ve always wanted to be a singer. There are countless home videos of me performing for my parents with a plastic microphone. I started taking voice lessons at 10 and sang in talent showcases throughout elementary school. In middle school, I sang in the choir and participated in every masterclass and workshop I had time for. By the time I got to high school, I was studying music seriously and decided I wanted to pursue it as a career.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: While music was my passion for most of my life, I had an existential crisis upon entering college. Music isn’t a straightforward career path, and when the time came to make my first big life decision, I was afraid of the potential for failure. I wanted to know: Was there any other career that I could be fulfilled by? So I began to pursue a degree in public policy, which seemed to be a good second option. I thought about dropping my music major altogether. Halfway through my third year, I realized my academics were making me miserable and I was the most detached from music I had ever been in my life. I knew if I decided to pursue music again, I couldn’t have one foot in and one foot out. So I dropped my public policy major and began to commit all of my time to music — and have never looked back.

Rachel Despard plays the keyboard on a stage and is surrounded by her band and a live audience

Despard (center) plays the keys with her band at Cat’s Cradle in January 2020.

Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: Sometimes writing music feels easy, as if it falls out of my brain onto the page. One fall, I had the worst writer’s block I’ve ever encountered. I tried different exercises, practices, tips, and tricks — anything to get out of the slump — but songs still weren’t coming. So, for two weeks, I took a break from writing and instead used my hour of practice time to listen to music, draw, or read. I let myself lean into spontaneous moments of inspiration or curiosity. Most importantly, I wasn’t trying so hard. Finally, one day in late October, I had it. The song I had been craving for so long spilled out in 15 minutes.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: Recording music for deeper understanding.

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: Hiking, running, and climbing. A connection with nature keeps me balanced and grounded and being active helps me feel strong and capable. These are important parts of my life that I will always make time for.

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