It’s a casual Thursday afternoon, and I’m trudging up the stairs of Braun Music Center in search of a place to practice piano. My backpack is made ridiculously heavy by the dozen or so music books filled with Brahms and Beethoven and Bach — the daily journey to the practice corner is just as much a struggle as it is an anticipatory trek to the pianos within.
But by the time I get to the dimly lit and rather messy alcove of practice rooms, slow dread creeps up on me. Room after room is filled with intensely concentrating cellists, frustrated pianists and semi-aware vocalists scrolling through Twitter in between practicing scales and arpeggios. Across from Braun, the dark and under-construction basement of Dinkelspiel Auditorium is similarly packed. I’m left out of breath and frustrated, but more importantly, without a space to practice.
It’s no secret that Stanford is not a music conservatory. Our school undoubtedly finds its strength in its extensive computer science, biology research and niche humanities departments (in the 2016-17 school year, computer science boasted a total of 663 majors, while music majors — most of whom were double majors — amounted to a meager 19 students). Students involved in the various orchestras and a cappella groups are simultaneously — and most often primarily — pursuing futures that lie well outside the concert hall. And although students are required to fulfill academic requirements in Creative Expression, which can be done through classes in the music department, the arts are still understood to be a rarer, secondary area of study in this academic haven.
While Stanford students may view their musical interests as extracurricular rather than core, the department itself does not deserve to be treated as subsidiary in relation to its more “academic” and visible counterparts.
This isn’t to say that Stanford doesn’t support the arts; the music department received a more visible push of support in the 2013 Bing Concert Hall opening, and similar renovations were made in Stanford’s arts departments at both the 2015 opening of the McMurtry Building for Art and Art History and the Anderson Collection Museum’s 2014 opening. These newer and more public displays of arts advocacy certainly speak to Stanford’s financial capability to improve its arts programs, yet they highlight an important disparity in the allocation of arts funding on campus. Behind the glitzy cover of the new, high-tech fine arts buildings, the music department’s underpinnings — the rehearsal spaces and practice rooms — are left ignored in favor of these public, outward displays of arts advancement.
As a musician in constant need of practice time and rehearsal space, the lack of musical resources for daily use available on campus is not only frustrating but also counterproductive to improvement within any musical discipline; it makes it rather tough to perform in those glitzy new concert halls when most of the work a musician presents on stage is perfected within the confines of a practice room. In the small alcove of practice rooms at Braun, there are only 12 rooms total, two of which are locked to non-pianists. Similarly, the Dinkelspiel basement boasts just 11 practice rooms, only one of which contains a grand piano. In the “rush hours” for practicing — after lunch and before dinner — there are virtually no practice rooms open in Braun and a meager few left in the basement of Dinkelspiel.
While the lack of practice space available is frustrating in itself, it’s the actual state of said spaces that exacerbates the music department’s marginalization. With the exception of one room, the practice rooms on the upper floor of Braun host a single grand piano and a music stand … and not much else. The hall is noisy by nature, both inside and outside of the rooms — soundproofing is minimal since most of the rooms were constructed in a time of less effective noise reduction technology. The rooms are cramped to the point where cellists and bassists have virtually no room to move from side to side, and certain rooms are even impossible for them to practice in because the space is so small.
The pianos in the practice cove are also uncomfortably out of tune, the keys unevenly balanced and the wooden framework chipped and worn down from years of practice (and abuse). Most of the pianos — Steinways and others alike — are scratched through the veneer and feature stains from leftover coffee mugs and unknown substances.
Stanford’s musical resources thus create this vicious cycle in which the typical benefits of trying to practice music are actually hindered by the poor quality of available instruments and rehearsal space. The department itself sees musicians of conservatory-level caliber, yet it can only treat them to average areas for practice. The high-level students involved in private lessons — where homework necessitates adequate practice space — cannot fully immerse themselves in their musical craft when they are limited by, frankly, uninspiring and cave-like practice alcoves.
This may seem like a resentful diatribe from an embittered musician, but the practice space issues of Braun should not and cannot continue to be swept under the rug simply because the department’s academic presence isn’t as obvious.
Over 200 students are also involved in the Stanford Wind Ensemble, Stanford Symphony Orchestra or the Stanford Philharmonia — all ensembles that encourage musicians to practice outside of rehearsal, to improve not only their skills but the overall musical quality of the groups in which they play. Numerous other students enroll in private lessons and chamber music groups, courses that actually require daily practicing to keep up with the demands of the instructors. The number of majors may be small, but music lives on in Stanford as an essential and omnipresent part of many students’ lives. As such, the academic statistics of music involvement does little to speak for the actual population of active musicians on campus — musicians who deserve more practice spaces and better quality practice spaces in general.
Remedying a problem such as this is often contingent upon the generosity of a kind donor, but the mindset toward the importance of music at Stanford can easily be changed. We have to realize that although music is minor in academic stature, it is major in its importance on campus. As a way to satisfy creative expression (both internally and for WAYS), music must persist as a vital part of Stanford’s artistic culture; the most immediate way to do so is to fix the very aspects of the department that are put forth to encourage further musical growth, rather than just the more noticeable spaces in which music is performed for the public.
As I struggle to find practice space and a decent piano to practice on in the next few weeks, I hope Stanford realizes the disservice it does to the numerous musicians on campus who simply seek more available and better quality practice spaces.
Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.