Music does not exist in a vacuum at Swarthmore. “Here, social justice is ingrained into everything, including music,” says Deborah Bergel Aquique ’24. “Music has been a thread that ties together so many things that I enjoy and am passionate about.”
Growing up in Venezuela and Peru, music opportunities did not come easily for Bergel Aquique. “As a child, I’d always really liked performance . . . but the majority of opportunities I had were in theater—the only musical experience that I had access to in Venezuela was a community choir at the age of four. Growing up with CP [cerebral palsy] also meant I had impacted manual ability and would need modifications and adaptations to play instruments. In Venezuela, accessibility was only targeted towards ‘essential things,’ so unfortunately arts education took a backseat.”
Bergel Aquique began to receive formal music instruction at the age of 12 in Peru, when “my mother realized that I didn’t only like acting, but I also liked singing. I was at the height of my One Direction fandom and I was singing 24/7.” At school, Bergel Aquique joined the choir and received basic vocal and ear training. At around the same time, she became interested in social justice and its connections with music.
When Bergel Aquique first started at Swarthmore, she didn’t plan on being involved with music, partly because she was “really shy about being a mezzo [soprano].” But due to the pandemic, classes started out on Zoom, including Music 48 (Individual Music Instruction). “Since the auditions were recorded, I didn’t have to worry about performing to a live audience . . . so I decided to take the risk.”
Her risk certainly paid off. Bergel Aquique was accepted into the program, and through her voice lessons with instructor Lara Nie and vocal coach Debra Scurto-Davis, she rediscovered her love for singing. “I had been insecure about my voice, but my lessons taught me that female voices don’t have to be high. My teachers gave me a safe space to explore and discover authenticity in my voice.”
In the spring of her first year, Bergel Aquique felt confident enough to join the Swarthmore College Chorus; she has been a steadfast member every semester since. This year, she is one of only two altos in Critical Mass, a Fetter Chamber Music Program group focused on complex early Renaissance vocal repertoire.
Although she loves singing, Bergel Aquique was hesitant to pursue her desire to study music from a theoretical and academic lens as she had previously faced accessibility limitations. “Due to my cultural background, I believed that if something wasn’t ‘essential’, it wasn’t worth pushing other people into adapting to my needs because it felt like too much to ask.” Nonetheless, thanks to the encouragement from friends Mariam Muhammad ’24 and Lauren Park ’24, Bergel Aquique approached Professor Andrew Hauze ’04 and Professor Jon Kochavi, who were more than happy to adapt their courses to her needs.
“I am eternally grateful for the openness that Jon, Andrew, and my friends have shown me. My professors were extremely helpful in helping me adjust and be able to focus on learning the music itself. I’ve never been made to feel like it’s bad that some things have to be changed; in fact, I have been able to see the value in that.”
Although Bergel Aquique greatly enjoyed studying music theory and general musicianship, it was a course in ethnomusicology — Performing Resistance with Professor Tracey Stewart — that set her on her academic path as a Psychology major and Music and Peace and Conflict Studies double minor. “Through my culture and ethnomusicology classes, I have been able to explore how music can be used as a vehicle for social justice, for example, exposing issues that indigenous and Native American communities are facing in the United States.”
Bergel Aquique’s wider experiences in Swarthmore’s performing arts programs have allowed her to explore and “connect to so many aspects of [herself]” in ways that she would not have expected. She has long been fascinated by the skill and technique of opera singers, and has had the opportunity not only to learn operatic singing in her voice lessons, but also to shine in an operatic production: Speed Dating and Operetta by Hannah Sobel ’22. “Participating in that production was a major highlight for me.”
In the fall of 2022, Bergel Aquique embraced another way to bridge music with her early love for theater, as well as her interest in environmental justice, by taking part in Swarthmore’s annual Dramathon. Under the timeframe of 48 hours, she and her team devised and performed an original musical set in the underground tunnels of an apocalyptic, overheating New York City. “It was one of the wildest, most chaotic and fun days I’ve had here.”
Reflecting on her holistic musical experience at Swarthmore, Bergel Aquique is quick to express her gratitude. “Music hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been an enjoyable challenge that I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to face. It’s always been so worth it; I’ve learned to do things here that I’ve never thought I would be capable of doing.”
Post graduation, Bergel Aquique is keen to continue exploring music and its applications to psychology and the social sciences. “I would like to go into clinical psychology. I’m still figuring out what that will look like for me . . . I want to work directly with people, and I’m very interested in music therapy and music as a form of healing or communication, so I’m always happy to talk to people about that!”
Favorite music course at Swarthmore: Can I say all of them? In addition to all the ones I’ve already mentioned [above], I really enjoyed ‘Native American Cultures and Music’ with Professor Davina Two Bears; she really wanted us to care deeply about the injustices that Native Americans have faced.
Favorite music-making experience at Swarthmore: There’s a lot! The Dramathon was great and a few of my voice recitals and auditions have been truly emotional experiences. The minuet composition project in Music 12 (Harmony, Counterpoint and Form 2) is also a favorite as it was one of my first true experiences with composition.
What you’ll miss most about Swarthmore: Having this supportive community of people both within and outside of Music, the safe space to be myself, and the structure of going to class and participating in discussions every day.
What sound or noise do you love: Laughter
What sound or noise do you hate: Fire alarms
What’s the last song you played on your phone: "Little Freak" by Harry Styles (the love for One Direction is still going strong!)