Practice Rooms and Priorities

Tristan Axelrod

Middlebury deserves a pat on the back for the magnificent party held on March 6 in celebration of the naming of the Center for the Arts. Kudos to them, and kudos to Kevin Mahaney for supporting the arts at Middlebury. The food and music were great. Par for the course for the Administration’s CFA soirees.

I hope I’m not the only one struck by the irony of the situation. Was it a great celebration of the arts? If you’re a fan of Market Zero, sure, but there’s something sad about celebrating the arts in a building with few practical capabilities for teaching, producing, or practicing art. With its 100-ft. high leaky ceilings and handful of angular offices and classrooms, the CFA seems to have been designed less for music, dance, and theater, and more for fundraising.

The college has been expanding the music program, as it should, considering the drastic difference in quality between, for instance, Sound Investment (Middlebury’s music fundraising group) and similar organizations at Williams, Amherst, Harvard, etc. In the past decade several faculty positions have been created (Profs. Hamlin, Hamberlin, and Buettner), with more on the way (Forman, an ethnomusicology chair). Funding for the orchestra and Sound Investment has increased, and opportunities for electronic musical endeavors and on-campus performances have increased as well, due to support from the administration as well as student groups such as MMG and MCAB.

The building simply can’t keep pace. The administration knows this—from the CFA, it learned a lesson on program-oriented construction, and the awesome capabilities of Bicentennial Hall testify to the practical approach later adapted. But now, the college is moving too slowly to accommodate the musical growth it has initiated. There are only eight practice rooms in the CFA, give or take performance spaces and the elevator, that are supposed to suffice for hundreds of orchestra and jazz band members, music students, and the rest of the students, faculty, and staff musicians, all of whom are entitled to the use of college facilities. Due to the number of instrumental lessons, finding practice space between 9 am and 4:30 pm is next to impossible, which means all the people taking lessons must compete for whatever evening practice time they can find, often being forced to choose between music and other activities that tend to go on at the same time. And of course, the noise from all of the badly soundproofed rooms is distracting for students, a fact that deters the study of rock, jazz, and other percussion-based music. But frequently, there’s just nowhere to practice. Can you imagine a member of the varsity hockey team unable to use any of the athletic facilities?

Nobody really disputes the practical deficiencies of the CFA. Unfortunately, it has been built and dedicated and we’re stuck with it. However, the practice room situation could be improved, and doing so would raise Middlebury’s musical program and culture to a level commensurate with its academic status. The process has already started with several rooms from the-building-formerly-known-as-The-Mill being donated for rehearsal space, and it can continue. The Mill is a good start, but it’s very far away and there won’t be room for pianos; plus, with other students living in close proximity, noise will be a problem.

The solution seems simple: why not similarly re-dedicate rooms in more buildings across campus, with well-tuned pianos and as much privacy as possible? Coltrane, Ross, Forest, and the Chateau already have pianos, minus the tuning and the privacy. But there are similar and more secluded rooms in Ross, Gifford, Battell, and elsewhere on campus. If two or three more buildings had at least two practice rooms, students could feel comfortable making the trip to another building fairly certain that they wouldn’t be pre-empted by another group or student musician. As the college recruits more and better musicians who have more time and better circumstances in which to practice, we might see some really high quality music and we’d definitely see a more culturally sophisticated student body that would continue to push the college to reassess its priorities.

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