Multidisciplinary STEM major demonstrates passion, talent for music

Physics and mathematics double major sophomore James Canning is not your typical science major. Originally from York, N.Y., Canning has been and continues to be heavily influenced by his family’s musical background.

Canning’s parents are both trained musicians—his father is a steel drummer and his mother is a cellist. Following in his father’s footsteps, Canning started playing the steel drums when he was six years old.

“It’s an instrument that comes from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago,” Canning said. “I originally started playing with a community steel drum band that my dad runs, and as I grew older, I began to play in a professional band that my dad runs and also in my family band.”

Canning eventually branched out from steel drums to other forms of percussion. He currently plays percussion in the Geneseo Symphony Orchestra and pit bands.

Before coming to Geneseo, Canning took a gap year to travel to Nicaragua—a country that is rich in music history. He volunteered with the Enlace Project, a nongovernmental organization that funds community development projects in Nicaragua.

“When I was volunteering part-time, I helped mostly with small business development projects, local cooperatives and English classes,” he said.

In addition to volunteering, Canning conducted ethnomusicological field research in music and art while in Nicaragua. Ethnomusicology studies the connections between music and culture, while examining the folklores of a region or group. 

“Nicaragua has always been going through changes,” Canning said. “Even in the past 50 years, they’ve had revolutions and civil wars––a lot of the musical identity comes from that. There’s a great sense of patriotism that you find in the music; ideas of the natural beauty of the country. Music brings people together, both through the economic and national struggles with the wars.”

Canning’s fieldwork involved finding local artists within the region, meeting with them, talking about their art and taking recordings. The hope was that future Geneseo students would have access to this information when traveling to Nicaragua through the Enlace Project. 

Canning’s experiences in Nicaragua helped strengthen his passion for exploring the ties between music, culture and human interaction.

“I was able to bring and play some steel drums for people in Nicaragua who had never seen anything like that,” Canning said. “They invited me over to their house and taught me some of their traditional music. Through this exchange of music, we made a connection that wouldn’t have been there before.” 

Canning—a fluent Spanish speaker—hopes to travel again in the near future. Specifically, he is interested in doing a similar project in Cuba.

“Cuban music is something I don’t know a whole lot about,” he said. “But what I have heard is really intriguing and really interesting to listen to. Nicaragua and Cuba had close ties, especially during the revolution, so I’ve always wanted to see the similarities and the differences between the two places.” 

While Canning seems perfectly qualified for a career in ethnomusicology, he has decided to choose a much different career path in mathematics and research. Canning plans to attend graduate school and study mathematics. He hopes to one day do math research for the government. 

“I always want to keep music and ethnomusicology part of my life,” Canning said. “I really enjoy what I’m doing in math and the research possibilities that are there. But music has been such a strong part of my life, and I can’t imagine abandoning it forever.”u

 Physics and mathematics double major sophomore James Canning has volunteered in Nicaragua through the Enlance Project, which advocates for community development. Canning’s work in Nicaragua allowed him to share his love of music and culture with the native people. (Izzy Graziano/Knights’ Life Editor)

Physics and mathematics double major sophomore James Canning has volunteered in Nicaragua through the Enlance Project, which advocates for community development. Canning’s work in Nicaragua allowed him to share his love of music and culture with the native people. (Izzy Graziano/Knights’ Life Editor)