Music Department Policies Out of Tune with A Cappella Groups
By June Pan '13, Managing News Editor
Music Department policies on the use of rehearsal spaces in Arms Music Center have struck a discordant note with the College’s six a cappella groups this semester. Due to problems with a cappella groups creating too much noise and bringing food into practice rooms during auditions, the music department moved to better enforce previously existing policies in order to keep equipment and facilities in working condition.

Arms is currently home to 12 practice rooms, three of which may be used for group practices. The others, being smaller in size, can hold no more than two at a time according to fire code limits.

In past years, a cappella groups were unaware of these limits. “There’s not a sign anywhere in the music building that says ‘no more than two in a practice room’ or anything like that,” said Jenna Iden ’13, co-director of the Sabrinas. As a result, groups sometimes held rehearsals by cramming up to fifteen people into one of the smaller practice rooms.

“It’s uncomfortable,” Iden admitted. “But we’ve done it.”

A cappella groups more often used multiple practice rooms simultaneously, occupying the group practice room for full rehearsal and the smaller individual rooms for sectional rehearsals.

Jeremy Koo ’12, director of the Zumbyes, explained that “one of the best ways to learn music for an a cappella group is to split off into sections, find unoccupied rooms and work with each other to maximize our time efficiency.”

“It’s what we’ve always done in the past,” said Iden, affirming that sectional rehearsals greatly speed the process. “Instead of taking an hour to learn a song, it can take 15 minutes [in each section], and then we come back together as one.”

Since most groups have three or more people to a section, sectional rehearsals are in violation of fire code limits for the small practice rooms. Their only legal option is the group practice room, which must be reserved one or two days in advance. Difficulties have also arisen around the number of time slots allotted to each a cappella group. The groups generally practice five to seven hours each week. However, to maximize accessibility of rehearsal space for all students, the music department has restricted a cappella groups to two two-hour blocks each week in the group practice rooms.

Suzette Farnham, the Music Department Coordinator, stated that apart from the a cappella groups, “all other students/groups have been following [music department] policies for many years. To keep the rooms in good working order, we needed to pass the policies on to all staff/students/groups that use the Arms facilities.”

Iden felt that though the these policies might be applicable for other groups, such as Concert Choir or Orchestra, they are very restrictive for a cappella. Unlike Choral Society, a cappella groups do not have set rehearsal times. Schedules are built around the needs of individual members. Depending on the group, rehearsal times may be flexible week by week. “For example,” said Iden, “if someone has a test, we’ll move rehearsal to accomodate everyone.”

With present policies, such flexibility has become more difficult. Amherst Association of Students (AAS) senator and DQ member Ewelina Przybyszewski ’13 was frustrated with the sudden policy enforcement changes this year. “Regardless of what the written policy was, it hasn’t been enforced,” said Przybyszewski. “As far as anybody in DQ can remember, that’s how it’s always been. To change its practice is a little unfair, especially without fair warning.”

It is a known issue that a cappella rehearsals can be loud, due to the large number of voices, posing problems for students in adjacent practice rooms. However, Jess Norworth ’13, co-director of the Bluestockings, suggested that noise problems have more to do with sound proofing: even one person practicing loudly on a piano may be heard by his or her neighbor.

A cappella groups feel singled out in having these policies imposed upon them. Not being technically affiliated with the College, Iden voiced her concern that there was no one in the Music Department to stand up for a cappella, and found the department’s policies to be rather stringent.

“We don’t mind being held accountable,” said Iden. “Right now, I have my name signed on a sheet that says, if the Sabrinas are caught rehearsing in [Arms] at a time we’re not signed up for, we get one warning, and then everyone in our group will have their practice room key taken away. I want make sure these rules are followed, and I don’t mind being held accountable, but we’re just not getting any leeway.”

“It’s understandable to me that the department wants to protect their equipment,” said Koo. “They don’t have that much funding, and pianos are expensive, and it can be expensive to maintain the facilities.” He felt, however, that “the instinct is to blame the loudest group... rather than the students that are there individually.”

Currently, piano teachers and students have priority over the large practice rooms. Piano lessons are generally held in these rooms, since the pianos in those rooms are the ones that are in the best condition. Norworth understood that, “of course, piano students have the right to a good piano, but they don’t need all that space.” A cappella groups, on the other hand, have been scrambling to find rehearsal space elsewhere on campus.

Farnham and the Music Department encourages groups to practice in the rooms located in the basement of James and Stearns Dormitory. Farnham said, “When we learned about the renovations to James and Stearns, we jumped at the opportunity to alleviate some of the frustration that both students and the department feel as a result of the space limitations. Our main objective in securing practice room space in these buildings was to ensure a place for a capella and other large groups to rehearse. The rooms are both bigger and more sound proof than those available in the music building. A cappella groups said they needed pianos in those rooms in order to rehearse, and new pianos were purchased for these rooms. However, until this semester the a capella groups have resisted rehearsing in these rooms, even with brand new pianos in them.”

“Those pianos are not new,” Norworth disagreed. Though they are in tune and usable, neither the pianos nor the rooms in James and Stearns are as well-maintained as those in Arms.

Space frustrations are compounded by the fact that most a cappella groups tend to practice on Tuesday night, since there are no orchestra or choral practices then, and so most singers have the time. The limited number of rooms in James and Stearns means that groups still cannot find adequate rehearsal space.

Managed by the Dean of Students Office, the rooms in James and Stearns are meant to be open to any student who wishes to practice. Thus they cannot be reserved ahead of time. And unlike Arms, where one key provides access to all 12 practice rooms, each door in James and Stearns has its own key.

“If anybody’s in those rooms [when our group wants to practice], we’re out of luck,” said Koo. Hard-pressed for space, a cappella groups have resorted to holding sectional rehearsals in whatever space they can find. Johnson Chapel is one alternative, albeit limited, for a cappella groups. “Or I have a $15 piano I got at Toys R Us,” said Iden, “and we rehearse in the stairwell using my woefully flat toy piano to teach parts.”

“It’s been difficult,” agreed Norworth. “A lot of times, I’m teaching a part by sight-reading in the stairwell. It isn’t the easiest thing to do.”

Farnham expressed the difficulties of the situation not only for students, but for the administration as well. “Space is at a premium all over campus, and many departments and programs have outgrown their facilities. The music department is no exception.”

But Koo felt that, with some judicious micromanagement, it might be feasible to make Arms more accessible to all students and groups. Jorrell Bonner ’12E, the Zumbyes’ business manager, suggested having sign-ups on a week by week basis to allow more flexibility. This might also increase efficiency in room usage.

“Students who aren’t planning on using [their assigned] rehearsal times cannot allow a cappella groups to use their timeslots, as Suzette has expressed that it would be too difficult to micromanage that on a daily basis,” said Koo. “I’ve always wondered about the possibility of the department hiring a student to sit on the top floor and manage the practice rooms after hours. For example, if a student doesn’t show up for a scheduled time, and an a cappella group comes in, the monitor could check out that room for the group to use by taking IDs. And if the student who has the room signed out shows up, the monitor can ask the a cappella group to leave. The monitor can be directly accountable to the department and handle all the micromanagement... including periodically checking the rooms to ensure that nobody is using them in violation of the rules.”

Przybyszewski has brought the problem of rehearsal space to the attention of the Senate, but the AAS is hesitant to take action on this issue, lest they encroach on administrative and bureucratic jurisdiction.

“I know there’s been a lot of voiced displeasure about the change in policy, and I think that there’s obvious tension,” said Przybyszewski. “I don’t know if the music building is unwilling to buckle, because there’s been no change in policy that we’ve been able to see so far.”

As far as the issue of students not fully using their allotted practice times, Farnham expressed that, “At this time there is no plan to change this policy since we have to ensure that students taking lessons have time available for rehearsal.”

“At the beginning of the semester there were several complaints,” she added, “but since we have been working out the glitches in the policy, there haven’t been any additional complaints. The Music Department is extremely pleased with the way the groups have been following these policies and the way the rooms have been kept.”

Ophelia Hu ’12, co-director of Terras Irradient, thought a better way to keep practice rooms in good condition might be to hold key-holders responsible for damages.

“Although this certainly won’t prevent all damage from happening to the rehearsal rooms, there may be more incentive to monitor the behavior of individuals and groups, be they a cappella choirs, chamber groups, independent ensembles, etc.,” said Hu. “This school prides itself in its singing culture, and it is a disservice to the singing groups to take away their necessary rehearsal spaces.”

Iden pointed out that the College uses a cappella groups as a major selling point to bring in new and prospective students. “We’re happy to do that [for the College],” said the Sabrinas co-director. “It gives us publicity. But then as soon as we need something, it gets a little more difficult.”

Greg Barrett ’12 expressed a similar view on a cappella’s contributions to campus life. “We are ‘The Singing College,’ and I think what a cappella groups bring to the student body is some great sound, creative performances, and an all-around good time at our concerts.”

“We know that we’re performing as students of Amherst College, and we pander to our audience,” said Barrett. “We really do work to make it a great time for those who come.”

Issue 10, Submitted 2010-12-01 04:04:19