What does it mean to be an arts major at Stanford?

By Sebastian Hochman

Being an artist should be as much a part of Stanford culture as someone wanting to patent an app or train for a Mars mission. What will it take for that culture to change? At a time when other universities are struggling to keep their humanities departments, Stanford’s commitment to the arts has the potential to pave the way for thousands of institutions across the country to follow suit.

May 28, 2023, 10:50 a.m.

It’s not at every college that you learn that the lead singer in your band is planning on becoming an astronaut. Coming into Stanford this year as both a frosh and as an artist, there’s constantly been some sort of tension. Throughout New Student Orientation and the first few months here, I began to notice a consistent reaction when I would respond “music,” to that now-dreaded, “what’s your major?” The response would be one of several options:  “That’s so interesting,”  “Music and…” or “Oh, haha. I’m in a major that I know I’ll make money from.”

Here’s a common scene for me: I walk into a room of new people, playing some of the best jazz I’ve heard college students play. We begin to introduce ourselves. One by one, the musicians go around, talking about what they’re studying. Biomechanical Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, International Security, and then we get to me. Music. Just music. It’s intimidating, to say the least. 

What does it mean to be an arts major at Stanford? The school, known around the world as the leader of STEM and startups, is not a place commonly thought of as a welcome home for actors, musicians and other artists. People like me so often are cast as side players in a drama that puts science and math as the central theme. 

And yet, I was told I have a place here. 

Of course, Stanford still attracted students like Ted Danson, Reese Witherspoon and Adam West (none of whom graduated, in pursuit of either acting professionally or transferring to a more rigorous program). Still, the question I and all my peers in the arts seem to be asking is: Can an artist find their place at Stanford?

It wasn’t always this way. “In the seventies,” said Jim Nadel ’72, the founder of the Stanford Jazz Workshop (SJW), “There were around 200 music majors… It was quite a different scene.” 

The Stanford Jazz Workshop (SJW) is an internationally renowned organization dedicated to jazz education through summer camps, workshops and jam sessions on campus. When he attended Stanford, there was no jazz department, but the amount of music majors then was over six times the current amount. 

Nadel chalked it up to it being “a different time… It was possible to live in San Francisco, pay rent, run a non-profit that didn’t pay much. There was a larger desire for experimentation and the US was in a totally different economic universe than we’re in now.” In other words, not everyone at Stanford was focused on landing six- and seven-figure salaries. 

However, he attested that there are currently more jazz musicians than ever at Stanford. Why?

Stanford musicians crossing the street in a similar manner to that of the Abbey Road album cover
(Photo courtesy of Jason Lin)

“I think word has gotten out that Stanford is a great place for jazz music… If you’re interested in jazz and something else, it’s hard to find a better place than this,” Nadel said. You can see this in action at the CoHo’s Monday night jazz jam sessions. Truly incredible musicians playing next-level jazz. Their majors? Physics. Math. Computer Science. Maybe a minor in music, sometimes even a double major. It seems like there’s a distinct difference between these arts-interested people and the more intensive cohort of artists, those who wish to pursue a career in the arts.

Something giving all Stanford artists hope is the newly launched interdisciplinary arts minor (inter-arts minor) as well as the Honors in the Arts Program.

“It’s true that there aren’t a lot of art majors at Stanford, comparatively,” said Jessi Piggott Ph.D. ’19, associate director of the Stanford Arts Institute (SAI), who develops the inter-arts minor and Honors in the Arts program. “It’s a small but mighty group, [but] the students who are [in that group] are fiercely committed to the arts.”

I really find value in these programs. There’s a lot that is great about the idea that non-artists and artists alike can have an opportunity to combine forces and create great work in all sorts of fields. The minor allows the student to pave their own pathway through the world of interdisciplinary art through three years of study, while the Honors in the Arts is a year-long capstone program with a focus on interdisciplinary artistic study.

“Art classes at Stanford are so over-enrolled,” said  Jessi Piggott Ph.D. ’19, the associate director of SAI, “Students want art to be a part of their life, there’s just no question about that.” 

It’s true. There’s an overwhelming demand for arts practice classes. I have friends who’ve declared an arts practice minor as early as their first quarter just to get into them.

And that’s the kicker, right? If you’re interested in the arts and something else, it’s hard to find a better place. I know that’s why I’m here. But now, after having been here for two full quarters, I’ve realized it’s difficult to imagine a world as an artist after Stanford. The “Stanford” instinct for the arts is often “how can I apply my arts to an alternative career,” instead of “how can I make a career out of my own practice?” What Stanford needs is a stronger focus on letting artists be artists. The same kind of career planning that exists in the STEM world needs to exist in the arts at Stanford. 

Piggott told me about the idea of “the fuzzies and the techies” at Stanford — a term that’s the subject of numerous Daily articles. A “techie” is someone who studies STEM, while the “fuzzy” studies humanities or arts. I ask you, dear reader, which term sounds more pejorative?

Being an artist here should feel different. I spoke to a handful of students and artists in my own dorm who agreed that they would be more likely to pursue the arts if there were more solidified arts resources. Someone who is extremely passionate about creative writing should not need to major in CS or Econ just because of a fear of going out into the world as an artist. Stanford students are often among the best in their field; not all careers may roll in the same amount of cash, but CS, Engineering and Econ aren’t the only career options.

It’s important to acknowledge this truth that with a degree from Stanford (whether in biochemical engineering or clown-ology), you’re better off than those same degrees from other institutions — an arts degree from Stanford could likely take you further in life than any degree from other institutions. It’s a privilege that’s built into the University after all these years. 

But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. Stanford needs stronger support for artists to use their skills as artists. Often, there’s an atmosphere of “as a creative writer, you should go into marketing and use those skills,” or “as a theatrical improviser, you could use that in your job at a quant firm when things go south to ‘improv up’ a solution.” As artists, there should be more clear pathways for us. This could look like several things. There could be a program for visual artists to learn how to get their artwork into galleries. There could be a course entirely on how to promote your music as an independent artist or how to get signed at a label. There should definitely be even clearer options for summer work as artists.

Meanwhile, artists at Stanford are deprived of the same depth of faculty offered to other fields. There are many incredible visiting artists at Stanford — Joshua Redman is a great example. He’s probably one of the (if not the) world’s best saxophonists, and he is sharing his craft with students here. 

But arts hirings like that are not yet institutional. Redman is still a visiting artist, so there’s no saying if he will remain a part of Stanford for future years. What’s needed are more arts professors who are serious practitioners in their fields and have decision-making positions within their departments — and are here to stay. This could mean giving certain current lecturers and guests more power or prominence within their fields. Their permanence and stature will not only allow students to be more confident in choosing to stick with the arts but it has the potential to bring in a multitude of new students who might otherwise be attending arts conservatories.

“I like to think that [the idea of the fuzzies and the techies] is outdated,” said Deborah Cullinan, Vice President of the Arts at Stanford. I asked if there was a possibility that the fuzzies and techies were merging in this new era. “That’s why I do what I do,” she said. “We all need to live creative lives.”

She insisted that artists are welcome at Stanford. “Some [students] are here to be musicians or visual artists or poets or performers, and that is as valid and valuable as those of us that might be here to study computer science or be policy makers.” She added that being an artist here isn’t just about careers, it’s about how you engage with the world. “It’s about how you live that creative life and how you access creativity,” she said. 

Personally, I think a major in interdisciplinary arts could be invaluable for the arts at Stanford. “I think more people need to know there is that kind of demand,” Cullinan said.

Being an artist at Stanford is a student right but it’s also a privilege. As such, it’s important for the school to prioritize funding for arts students who lack resources, just as Stanford does with its STEM students. Otherwise, “we run the risk of Stanford arts being only for ‘the privileged few,’ said A-Lan Holt, director of the Institute of Diversity in the Arts (IDA), who added that racial justice and equity need to be considered in any discussion around the arts curriculum here. 

For the arts to succeed at Stanford, the school needs to have a culture shift. Or perhaps a shift toward culture. 

That means putting resources towards arts faculty who have more of a say in decision-making and increasing career opportunities for artists at every level. Being an artist should be as much a part of Stanford culture as someone wanting to patent an app or train for a Mars mission. What will it take for that culture to change? I don’t have a clear answer but I’m guessing it would take on a combination of improving the current internal system, while also having stronger recruitment for future artists at Stanford in the years ahead.

“I don’t think the arts are ever going to go away,” said John Chowning DMA ’66, founding director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Chowning’s work at Stanford in frequency modulation synthesis was the basis for the creation of so many of the synthesizers that we hear today in almost every song on the radio. “The artistic impulse gets channeled, wherever you are at Stanford.”

Not only are the arts not going away, I believe Stanford has a responsibility to be a beacon on this front. At a time when other universities are struggling to keep their humanities departments, Stanford’s commitment to the arts has the potential to pave the way for thousands of institutions across the country to follow suit — and I know Stanford has the money to do it. 

A year in, I’m finding my way. I’m immersed in the arts dorm community through ITALIC. My peer group consists of the Stanford Improvisors, and musicians from jazz bands, pop bands and even a klezmer band. I’m able to think about music even in my linguistics and religious studies classes. And none of it feels fuzzy to me. I’m designing my way forward, and I guess that’s what it means to be an artist. Stanford may have some room for me after all.

Sebastian Hochman is a staff writer at The Stanford Daily for Arts & Life and University desks. He is a music major. Maybe. You can contact him at shochman 'at' stanford 'dot' edu.

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