Lacking resources, music department struggles to meet student needs

May 6, 2016, 2:44 a.m.

Cardinal Calypso, Stanford’s student steelpan group, has commandeered many spots on campus as their rehearsal space over the years — some of them more makeshift than others. They’ve used dorms like Roble Hall. They’ve practiced outside. They’ve used “Toyonito,” a space behind Toyon Hall once used by arts groups that is no longer there. Right now, the group holds its rehearsals in Manzanita Dining Hall.  

Complicating the issue of rehearsal space is the fact that Cardinal Calypso has no permanent place to store their hefty equipment: a drum kit and 14 pans made from 55-gallon industrial drums originally built to hold chemicals. The group keeps their instruments in cages on a stage in Manzanita. This situation is not ideal, said group member Tucker Leavitt ’17, who admitted that Cardinal Calypso’s pans make it a tricky group to accommodate.

However, when the group approached Music Department Chair Stephen Sano, hoping to enlist the department’s help in finding a more official home for their practices and pans, they found sympathy but not a solution.

“They said they’re just kind of completely booked up,” Leavitt said. Sano told the group that he wished he could do more, but that the department simply lacks the space and resources.

Like many other performing arts groups at Stanford, Cardinal Calypso has had a hard time finding practice and performance space on campus, a situation exacerbated by the music department’s lack of funding and a feeling among music students that, despite development of a much-vaunted “arts district,” the University’s experience for undergraduates in the arts can still be lacking.

“I think Stanford’s efforts to support arts and humanities feel surface-level sometimes,” said Hannah Pho ’18, a music and computer science double major. “Being deep in the music department, I feel like there’s a lot of funding that’s just not there. It’s the the tech side of Stanford gets all of that funding; they’ve got all the shiny new buildings.”

While it’s hardly unusual for undergraduates and professors to wish their department or general interest area were better funded, the frustration many music students feels begs the question: is Stanford doing enough to support them?


Stretched resources

The music department has not been unreceptive to Cardinal Calypso’s goals. Since talking with the group, Sano has worked to bring it under the official wing of the music department. As a result, students who join Calypso now sign up for a graded one-unit course; the group also has a faculty liaison. Leavitt says Cardinal Calypso’s new departmental ties are mostly “nominal” but have manifested in some specific perks, like the ability to hold their auditions in the music department’s home building, Braun.

Still, he wishes that Sano had been able to provide more resource support.

“I felt like we didn’t get much help from the music department,” Leavitt said, later clarifying, “I didn’t get the sense that they were unhelpful. I got the sense that they were sort of stretched to their limits.”   

Any visitor to Braun the campus building that hosts the music department can tell that the department is hardly running an extravagant enterprise. Space within the building is limited, and music faculty often find themselves uncomfortably squeezed in.

“We’re exploding out of this building,” said Sano, professor of music and Harold C. Schmidt Director in Choral Studies. “I’ve got faculty like two and three to a small office, and they have to actually adjust schedule so they don’t step on each other.”

Music majors who spend their time in Braun also notice the need for space.

“It’s so cramped in there,” Pho said. “There are people sharing offices. The practice rooms are always full. I’ll be there in 11 p.m. and I still can’t find place to practice all the classrooms are full.”


University support

Despite the resource squeeze (literally, in the case of office space and practice rooms), students and faculty in the music department acknowledged that the University has made efforts to support music and the arts.

For instance, Stanford’s Office of the Associate Dean for the Advancement of the Arts offers a bevy of grant programs to support students’ creative projects. These include Spark! Grants, which offer up to $1500 for performing arts and film projects, and Creative Spaces Grants, which offer funding for groups to use on-campus performance venues.

While the number of students majoring in music is relatively small  according to information provided on the department’s website, there were 40 majors across all years in 2014-2015, 15 of whom were double majors like Pho the music department provides services for a huge number of students. According to the department website, “over 1000 student each quarter…participate in lessons, ensembles and lecture classes.”

While this may contribute to a lack of practice space and resources for dedicated music majors, those involved with the music program were quick to express their gratitude for the resources that are available.

“I’ve been here 23 years, and if I look at the amount of resources the arts has gotten in that time – it’s unreal,” Sano said. “The growth in support of the arts – if I think about what it looked like when I started here 23 years ago, oh my god, it’s worlds different.”


Bing Concert Hall

Epitomizing this growth in support is Bing Concert Hall, a state-of-the-art facility completed in January 2013 that The New York Times has called “the envy of any big city.” Bing, which is operated by Stanford Live, brings world-class performers to campus; it also provides top-quality rehearsal and performance space for music department groups such as the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Stanford Wind Symphony and the Stanford Jazz Orchestra.

For Sano and others in the music department, Bing has been a game-changer for teaching. Before Bing, the music department was limited to Campbell Recital Hall and Dinkelspiel Auditorium, which Sano said “honestly…doesn’t do anything well.” As a multi-purpose space also used for lectures, Dinkelspiel is not optimized for musical performance: for example, instrumentalists on the stage essentially cannot hear each other.

“I can’t say to the back of the second violins, you need to listen to the first bassoon,” Sano said. “You can’t teach an orchestra how to play together.”

Thus Bing has filled an important gap in Stanford’s music facilities. According to Sano, Bing was one of the only campus construction projects that moved forward during the 2008 financial crash – a clear indication of the University’s commitment to improving the arts, he said. Bing sprung from a $50 million naming gift from Helen and Peter Bing ’55, but it cost a total of $111.9 million to build.

“That was something the University did at a time it was financially straitened,” Sano said in response to student concerns that Stanford’s support for the arts was superficial.  “That’s really kind of putting their money where their mouth is.”

Yet, some students have taken issue with Bing’s role on campus, saying it caters primarily to outside audiences rather than students and that this is indicative of a broader issue when it comes to Stanford and the arts.  

“I think the situation with Bing feeds into a larger image that Stanford cares more about its external image than about actually fostering its goals among students on a day-to-day basis,” said music student Albert Tomasso ’16.

Tomasso said that, despite “hype” from the University that Bing would join other buildings such as the Anderson Collection and the McMurtry Building to complete the arts district, Bing seems as if “it hasn’t been intended for undergraduates.” For Tomasso, this undermines billing of the arts district as being at the center of the art student experience.

As one anonymous music major put it, Bing does not belong to the music department in the way that the McMurtry Building is home to art students, or that Memorial Auditorium is home to theater students. Theater students even get a key to the building and have night-and-day access.

To be fair, Bing was never intended to be used this way. Ryan Davis, Stanford Live’s associate director of engagement and public programs, described the organization’s primary purpose as bringing in touring artists – and in the process providing students, as well as the broader community, with easy access to both see and interact with top-notch performers, who often hold workshops or masterclasses with students after their shows.

Still, while there is no policy preventing student groups from booking Bing, the costs of using the venue put Bing largely out of reach to student groups as a performance venue. Since the concert hall opened, only a handful of student groups have managed to hold productions on the main stage, including Asian American Theater Project in 2013, a cappella group Talisman in 2015 and Stanford Taiko, which holds an annual concert there.

Stanford Live’s general manager Jan Sillery attributed student groups’ hurdles to performing in Bing to both organizational and financial realities. Even a single day in Bing has to be scheduled well in advance, and the cost of staffing the hall for a show can be extremely high. According to Sillery, staging “My Fair Lady” in 2013 cost the Asian American Theater Project tens of thousands of dollars.

Despite these potential barriers, Sillery wants students to understand that Bing is available to them.

“I don’t want [students] to be discouraged if they feel Bing is the right place to make it work,” Sillery said.

Bing is even expensive for the music department, although Stanford Arts does provide significant subsidies to support music department productions there (Sillery said that the subsidies and costs for the music department’s use of Bing are confidential).

According to Sillery, the music department accounts for about 50 percent of the use of Bing Concert Hall, and the department holds about 30 concerts in Bing each year, or 17 percent of their total performances.

Sano said that Bing’s high costs were largely inevitable.

“I wish Bing could be less costly for anyone to use it, but I also see the reality that, with a complex building like that, there is a cost associated with using it,” he said. “And unfortunately it’s pretty high. That’s why we still do tons of stuff in Campbell and in Dink – it is less expensive.”

According to Sano, staging a show in Bing requires a significant amount of labor – in terms of ushers alone, as many as 48 people might be necessary to staff a show, just for safety and security reasons.

And in many cases, Sano said, venues like Campbell and Dinkelspiel are simply more appropriate. Not every performance calls for 800-plus seating.

Recognizing students’ desire for greater access to Bing, Stanford Arts approached Stanford Live earlier this school year to both set aside dates for student groups to use Bing and to create a system of financial support. Cardinal Calypso will be the first group to take advantage of the program; with the help of Creative Spaces grant of up to $11,000, they will soon hold a show in the slightly smaller “Bing Studio” space.


The broader issue: practice and performance space

While Stanford Live has increasingly sought to include students in Bing’s use – with programs ranging from Stanford Live Ambassadors to Stanford Live Opening Acts, which allows students to create short pre-show performances – students say there is a bigger issue at stake for Stanford musicians and performers who feel under-supported.

“Really what [Bing] is symptomatic of is the larger lack of affordable rehearsal place on campus,” Pho said. “It’s too expensive to rehearse, or to perform.”

Pho said that Stanford Savoyards, a student-run theater company she is part of, will be holding their show outside “because it’d just be too expensive to actually perform on a stage.”

While the cost of putting on an event varies greatly, Sano said that a simple production at Dinkelspiel Auditorium or Campbell Recital Hall would cost $500. More complicated productions needing extensive rehearsal and tech could cost as much as $20,000. However, Sano emphasized that these fees do not generate revenue for the music department but only cover labor and equipment.

Students also wished that both the quantity and quality of practice spaces on campus was higher.

The music department has 12 practice rooms in Braun, as well as a handful in the basement of Dinkelspiel Auditorium dating back to 1957 that Sano called “dark and dingy and not really well-sound-proofed.”

Sano said that he hopes to refurbish these in the future and is currently discussing the matter with Central Facilities.

Practice rooms are open to all for a $50 quarterly fee. But multiple music students said that, if Stanford is serious about fostering creativity, it should make practice space more widely accessible across campus, particularly in residential settings.

Tomasso contrasted Stanford’s resources to those at Yale, where his sister is a drama student. He estimated that Stanford has perhaps four or five dedicated practice spaces outside the music department’s complex, while Yale has arts practice spaces in nearly every dorm.

“The commitment there is much stronger for any student or student group that wants to do something or practice anywhere,” Tomasso said.

“Creative spaces are fostered when you can just shout down the hall and say ‘let’s go play,’” he added. “And so you need to have a space that’s nearby and available for that to work.”

Tomasso said that his student band often practices in one of the member’s houses, which, fortuitously for their group, is not far from Stanford.

“But we shouldn’t have to leave campus to find a good space to practice,” he argued.

Even in the practice spaces available, equipment is not always up to par. Leavitt said that a practice room in Stern Hall just recently reopened after repairs; previously, two of the room’s three microphones were broken, and the snare drum and cymbals lacked stands.

“All the equipment basically was falling apart,” Leavitt said.


Looking to the future: a need for space

The Music Department is far from deaf to these issues, and Sano seconded many of the students’ concerns about practice and performance resources on campus. In Sano’s ideal world, more residences across campus would have performance spaces akin to the small theater in Roble Hall. The music department would have two or three times as many practice rooms as it currently has.

So Sano and students agree: music at Stanford simply needs more room.

Unfortunately, the department faces multiple barriers to expansion. The most important of these barriers is the Stanford’s General Use Permit agreement with Santa Clara County, which limits the amount of construction Stanford can pursue at any given time. Even though the University sits on private land, it cannot build indiscriminately, and all projects, even the carving up of an existing space, must be approved.

Either way, Sano said, there is no funding at the moment for such expansion. And, even if there were, the music department would have to “get in line with every other entity on campus that wants to expand in some way.”

As a music professor, Sano said he would love to get green-lighted for growth. But, as an administrator, he understands why the music department – which is after all on the smaller side – might not jump to the front of that line.

Over the years, the University has made attempts to address students’ concerns over arts resources. Sano pointed to Roble Arts Gym, a $28 million project that will open next fall as a drop-in space for student artists. The “arts gym” concept grew out of advocacy efforts by students. Nevertheless, Sano admitted that this alone will not address all of student musicians’ needs.

“Is it going to be enough?” he said. “No. There’s still more need than we have facilities.”

Some of the University’s efforts toward the music department never materialized. Years ago, when the University’s “arts district” was in its conceptual stages, there were plans to give the music department an entirely new building. The department was slated to move to what was formerly known as GSB South, the space that now houses Lathrop Library.

“This would have put our department in closer proximity to Bing Concert Hall and MemAud, and across Serra Street from the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, therefore creating from a physical plant perspective more critical mass for arts departments,” Sano said.

But Sano says the Lathrop plans were only ever “notional.” Instead, the Lathrop space was tapped to house library services in anticipation of Meyer Library’s demolition in spring of 2015.

Pho, who says a new music building would be “wonderful,” had heard only rumors about the Lathrop plans. But she questioned the priorities that bumped the music department from the spot.

“Of course now it’s a tech space,” she said, referring to Lathrop’s current role as home to Academic Computing Services. “That makes a lot of Stanford sense.”


Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ and Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’


A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Albert Tomasso as a music major. The Daily regrets this error. 

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

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