By Ed Brennen
A piano plays softly behind the door of a practice room as a lunch feast is set near a second-floor window at Durgin Hall: two kinds of quiche (spinach and ham), mixed greens, spinach salad, a plate of apples and oranges and, for dessert, brownies and muffins.
Just as she does almost every week, Dominique Haughton invites her guests to sit and fill their plates. “Did you get yourself some dressing?” Haughton asks in a French accent that’s richer than brie. Joining her today are several fellow piano students from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as her piano teacher, Jacob Hiser, a part-time faculty member in the Music Department.
“She’s the mom of the piano department,” says Charisse Nocera, a senior music major from Nahant who stops by the table to say hi and grab a brownie.
Haughton, who has brightly colored rubber rain boots on her feet and a piano key scarf looped around her neck, disagrees.
“I’m not the mother,” the 62-year-old Haughton says firmly. “A friend, maybe, but not the mother.”
In reality, Haughton is a lot of things. She’s a professor of mathematical sciences at Bentley University, where she’s taught since 1990. She’s an affiliated researcher at the prestigious Pantheon-Sorbonne University in her native Paris, where she rose to the “very top of the French science system” before coming to the United States to get her Ph.D. in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also really is a mother; Haughton and her husband, Jonathan, adopted their daughter, Isabelle, from Vietnam more than 20 years ago.
And now, Haughton is a UMass Lowell undergrad, halfway through a bachelor of music with emphasis in sound recording technology. At a university known for welcoming nontraditional students, Haughton may be the most nontraditional of them all.
She says she’s simply fulfilling a 50-year-old dream.
“I have a grand piano in my heart and it takes a lot of space,” says Haughton, who fell in love with the piano as a child, even though her family couldn’t afford one. When she arrived at MIT in 1979, she descended on the school’s piano lab “like a ton of bricks.” After teaching stints at Swarthmore College and Temple University, Haughton returned to the Boston area with her husband and ended up in Lowell. She taught math in the Kennedy College of Sciences – and decided to pursue a degree in piano performance from FAHSS.
But when the recession hit in the late ’80s, Haughton was laid off, and she had to withdraw from her music studies. She rebounded with an analytics job at the marketing company Epsilon, where she realized that businesses were making “millions of dollars” using data and statistics. A year later, she joined the faculty at Bentley, where she helped build the business school’s analytics program.
Through all her success in research and academia, Haughton’s true love has always been piano. So two years ago, she called UMass Lowell’s Office of the Registrar to see about finishing her music degree. They dug up her transcript and put her in touch with Prof. John Shirley, then the chair of the Music Department. After a successful piano audition, Haughton resumed classes in January 2016.
“I thought it was great that she wanted to come back,” Shirley says. “Maybe some other folks would have a harder time doing it, but Dominique is well-suited for it. She’s fascinating.”
Or, as current Music Department Chair Alan Williams puts it, “I don’t think she knows she’s not 20.”
Between her colorful wardrobe and a mind that constantly pinballs from one subject to the next, Haughton exudes more energy than even most 20-year-olds. And that’s despite driving back and forth from Lowell to Waltham to teach several nights a week. She says her music studies keep her centered.
“This is such a wonderful place,” Haughton says of Durgin Hall. “The moment I walked through this building, I knew it was right.”
Switching roles from professor to student takes some effort, though.
“I have a dual identity, and if you’re not well-grounded, it could really turn you schizophrenic,” says Haughton, who is mindful of respecting the authority of her professors, even if they’re 35 years her junior, like Hiser.
“She’s fun to have as a student,” says Hiser, a second-year faculty member. “As someone just starting out in this profession, she helps me understand my own experience better.”
Haughton is majoring in SRT this time around (as opposed to performance) to help further her research work in music analytics, which fuses her passion with her expertise. She’s part of a Bentley-based interdisciplinary research team that includes members from UMass Lowell (such as Assoc. Prof. Asil Oztekin) that uses modern data analysis techniques to address music-related questions such as “What makes a commercial jingle successful?” or “When does music similarity become plagiarism?” She’s even analyzed how someone raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter to write music for cats.
“I tried it on my cats and they don’t care. It turns out cats prefer silence,” Haughton says with a laugh. “Sometimes analytics is as stupid as that. It’s really common sense.”
But more than for music analytics, Haughton is back because “I want to solve my piano problems.” Since SRT majors must also study an instrument, the program gave Haughton the perfect opportunity to do just that.
While the math skills needed as an SRT major to calculate things like sound reflection angles come easily to Haughton, she has far more difficulty with sitting down at the piano and playing in front of an audience.
“Performance takes a huge amount of strength,” says Haughton, who admits that she was able to “hide” during her first few ensemble performances. “I’m amazingly clever at hiding, but in my fourth performance, I couldn’t hide anymore. And that’s when you realize you’re 60 and not 30.”
She’s grateful to Hiser for helping her find her inner strength to perform.
“It would have been easy for him to say, ‘You’re an old-timer, a nontraditional student. I’ll let you escape.’ In which case, I would escape all the way to Alaska,” Haughton says. “But he forced me to do it. If it wasn’t for his support, I couldn’t do it.”
Which is why Haughton is so happy to host weekly lunches in the piano wing at Durgin Hall, where she is helping build a stronger sense of community.
“It’s becoming like a club,” junior SRT major Lucas DeLisle says between bites of quiche. “We’re all busy in our own heads taking our own subjects, but Dominique has taken a lot of initiative to bring us closer together.”
“The piano students here mean the world to me,” Haughton says as she clears the lunch and prepares to head off to class. “We all have a grand piano in our hearts, which is a big thing to have in common.”