Balancing books and band practice in university

Willie Stratton and Cheryl Hann share stories about how schoolwork doesn't have to kill your creative passions.

Late-night shows and early-morning classes don’t always mix. - AZIZA ASAT
Late-night shows and early-morning classes don’t always mix.

It’s no secret that being a student eats up your time, body and spirit like a hungry piranha. University demands a lot. It’s an all-consuming beast that spits out an exhausted version of yourself who probably just wants to spend any free time playing beer pong or hitting The Dome’s dance floor.

The majority of students just don’t have the energy to commit to much else. But a small population of resilient and determined students take on the additional burden of juggling schoolwork with their art.

These are the people who stay up all night writing plays or wait to go on stage for their 1am set time, yet are still able to roll into next morning’s 9am class. They get by on little sleep, Mr. Noodles and willpower.

Willie Stratton spent two years at NSCAD studying visual art, and one year at Saint Mary’s in the Atlantic Canadian studies program. Throughout that time, he produced two albums and played as many shows as he could. It was tough.

“It’s all kind of a blur,” he says. “Lots of running around, lots of sleeping at school. Finding the balance is just something that comes out of forcing yourself into it, I guess.”

Today, Stratton is an award-winning musician, known for his twangy western tunes. He’s currently touring with his band, and is set to release his third full-length record in September. That was always the plan, he says. University wasn’t career training for Stratton (who never got his degree), but an opportunity to cultivate his mind. His music career was well on its way when he left, and he had grown tired of writing essays. He was just sort of...done.

“I was always really interested in what I was studying,” he says. “I don’t regret any of it, that’s for sure.”

School also thrust Stratton into an artistic social melting pot, where he met musicians who became influences and stage partners. In those respects, post-secondary education was more than worth the work. Even if it came with its own unique costs.

“Don’t party too much, I think that was my secret,” advises Stratton. “Only party when you’re playing shows, and that will make you play more shows.” Cheryl Hann had a different experience. The stand-up comedian, artist and drummer is about to start her PhD at Dalhousie. She wrote some of her master’s thesis—a queer reading of The Diary of Anne Frank—while on tour with her band Heaven for Real this summer.

It’s actually a return to academia for Hann, who began her undergraduate degree at Dal in 2007 with a double major in philosophy and English before dropping out when her sketch comedy troupe, Picnicface, blew up with a movie, book deal and national television show on The Comedy Network

“I figured school would always be there when I was ready for it,” she says. Hann enrolled again at Dalhousie years later, finishing her undergraduate and eventually getting offered paid positions in higher education. Simultaneously, she continues stand-up comedy, and most recently toured North America with her band while trudging along a hefty duffle bag filled with 25 hardcover books—her summer reading list.

“It takes a lot of willpower,” she says. “Sometimes you end up doing your readings in the back of a van, and you have to pull over every 10 minutes because you feel sick.”

Both Hann and Stratton say they’ve seen a crossover between the academic theory they studied and their own art.

Reading Atlantic Canadian theory helped Stratton create the kind of music he identifies with this part of the country—a sort of a cowboy take on east coast folk.

“If you want your art to have a geographical connection, it’s good to tune in to what’s going on around you,” he says.

Likewise, Hann says her years performing in front of live audiences have helped her academic career.

“I’m going to give a conference this weekend,” she says, “and if I didn’t have 10 years experience standing in front of people, I would be crapping my pants.”

Hopefully school is making you into a smarter, more thoughtful and introspective person, says Hann, “and that can’t be anything but good for the kinds of art you’re producing.”

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