Spencer Tate ’22 lives at a plastic desk in his living room, and as we talked over Zoom, I could see one of his three sisters in the background. He laughed and told me that’s the sister now staying in his old room.
Keeping up any pretence of normalcy was difficult, and we both quickly acknowledged how different life is outside of the Swarthmore bubble of a couple months ago. As a current Engineering major and Music minor at Swarthmore, Tate still has a lot of work to keep up with. But right now, making music and sharing it on Instagram is all he really wants to do.
Tate has some experience with extended stays at home.
“I started out playing classical violin at the age of six, and that’s pretty much my main instrument. It was my mom’s idea. I was homeschooled so I had a lot of time to, you know, practice and such. And I wasn’t really opposed to the idea of playing violin, like a lot of six-year-olds might be. I just went with the flow.”
Tate’s early passion for the violin quickly morphed into several instruments, from the piano, to mandolin, guitar, and the bass.
“I started branching out into different genres and different instruments through YouTube,” he explained, laughing when I complained about what six years of guitar lessons have done for me — let’s just say, not nearly as much.
For most of his pre-Swarthmore days, Tate studiously practiced with the help of the Internet.
Although music and performance are a large part of Tate’s identity, he has actually only taken one class in the music department, and is really excited about a potential new professor that would be offering classes in black studies and music.
“So, I thought [having a new professor who specializes in these subjects would be] really cool, and I was hoping for more emphasis on Black music. There are influences everywhere. Before this [possible new professor] I was kind of disappointed, you know, not having a lot of opportunities to take classes related to Black music,” Tate said.
But what else is Tate focusing on? Oh right, engineering, a path that most don’t see as having much to do with music. When I asked about the intersection of engineering and music in Tate’s life, he explained that while they are relatively separate passions, he was able to connect them.
“One way that I can see them possibly being connected is through people,” Tate said. “This desire to help people.”
On the STEM side Tate revealed, “I’m really into environmental engineering. I’m interested in solving water quality issues and promoting air pollution problems.”
Through engineering Tate hopes to solve physical problems, and with music, he hopes that can provide for people in ways that tangible solutions do not.
As for opportunities still on the horizon, Tate plans on apprenticing for an instrument maker during the summer, learning the secrets of construction and design. And if it does not happen, Tate is happy with the ability to continue producing music from home.
On Swarthmore’s campus, Tate plays violin in the orchestra and was supposed to perform in a piano quintet this semester. While I have had the honor of hearing Tate perform chamber music, I generally see him performing with other Swarthmore artists around campus.
“I jam with a lot of people on campus; really anybody that wants to jam, I’ll do it,” Tate said, and I believed him.
Tate has performed with fellow Swatties Fouad Dakwar ’22 and Veronica Yabloko ’22, but I remember him most clearly from Ethan Moreland ’23 ’s Jazz Poetry Nights in Parrish 4th Lounge. I remember Tate would be there from the time I showed up, which was usually around 10 or 11 at night, to the very end, when only a small group was left, some people taking turns on the microphone and Tate backing us up with some jazzy chords. I remember wishing so badly that I could just pick up a guitar and play like that.
“Today, I totally consider myself an R&B guitarist,” Tate said, referring to over fifteen of his videos on Instagram.
From original music on the acoustic guitar, to covers making use of the violin, guitar, and bass, Tate has been delving into Blues and Jazz alike.
With everything going on in the world, Tate explained why virtually performing is so important to him.
“That was a major influence for me doing it, like it’s not just for me, it obviously helps me get through this pandemic, but also I know there are people in way worse situations than I am,” Tate said.
If there’s any way that Tate can reach people during this time, he hopes it can be through music.
During this global pandemic, it can feel very isolating, like we were ripped from the Swarthmore community and scattered across the globe. Experiencing human connection can be scarce, and it may feel like we have limited outlets for creative expression. But if we still have some precarious connection to the internet, there remain ways to be a part of a community. From sending in art to Kitao, to writing for voices, your art still exists, and it matters.
Featured image courtesy of Spencer Tate