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The sound and the fury

I’ve been playing guitar and singing for a good chunk of my life, and it’s become a personal and therapeutic activity for me when things turn bleak. Over the past few months, however, I’ve been involved in a “music war” with my neighbor. Typically, I will begin playing, and within 15 minutes they will have placed their speaker against the fire door connecting our suites and blast the type of music DJ Action spins every Wednesday. I can’t plan a time every week to be stressed, and so reserving the practice room ahead of time doesn’t function well as a solution. I wish I felt comfortable going somewhere more public to play, but Yale is not a welcoming place for musicians who don’t fall into specific categories. This musical elitism ranges from personal taste to institutional support, but regardless of the arena, I am trapped, not welcome to play outside or inside my home, left only to consider alternate courses of action.

At Yale, there is a sense of musical superiority among groups of students such that there is constant dismissal of divergent opinions. I don’t like being told that my opinion isn’t valid simply because I don’t have a favorite symphony or because I wasn’t really feeling the new Chance the Rapper album. Our experience with music is inherently subjective, and our interpretation and reaction to any given piece of music is personal and unique. Given this, we are all bound to have different tastes, and that is a good thing. You may despise something that I like, but all you really mean is that you personally don’t like it, not that what I’m listening to is “bad music.” It also doesn’t mean that my opinion is dismissible—just that we have different perspectives and tastes. Nonetheless, this lack of acceptance of differing opinions still exists, and it often leaves people feeling invalid when they don’t agree with an overriding popular sentiment. It astounds me that people in this supposedly progressive era can be so intolerant with regards to something as universal as music.

The institution of Yale does not in any way attempt to overcome this sense of musical elitism. Unless you are a talented a cappella singer or classically-trained musician in an orchestra, it is difficult to pursue music at Yale. One reason for this is the generally competitive nature of these groups, which discourages students with little musical experience from “officially” engaging with  music on campus. Another reason is the very limited nature of these groups; if you don’t feel like singing but also don’t want to be in an orchestra or concert band, you have few options. There are some exceptions, like the student-led jazz and folk ensembles, but they are rare and depend on the chance meeting of multiple students with similar musical interests. In the short span of time that we spend as students on a campus of over 5,000 undergrads, this is often very difficult. I’m not proposing the eradication of a capella on campus or anything similarly drastic—current groups on campus are doing great things, and they should continue making and enjoying music. However, there are many musicians at Yale who lack any kind of institutional support to create music for themselves, causing them to forfeit their musical identity upon enrollment. Also, Yale’s requirement that venue reservations be made through the Creative and Performing Arts (CPA) Application places an unnecessary burden on students. This burden manifests itself both in the requirements for a CPA application itself, and through the strict and short time deadlines. Some possible improvements would be small yet significant: creating performances spaces separate from the CPA application would make a huge difference for currently underrepresented musical populations.

Additionally, more affordable lessons for students not looking to make a career out of music should be available to students. For many, learning an instrument is exciting, fulfilling, and even therapeutic, yet instrument lessons are not facilitated at Yale unless you are pursuing a music program. The current registration process for lessons only opens once a year, barring many potential students. Moreover, if you don’t meet certain requirements of skill (such as “showing promise of a performance career”) upon audition, lessons do not come cheap. One solution could be the creation of a program where students teach each other, creating affordable private lessons as well as opportunities for both those interested in teaching music and those who wish to learn. This kind of program has been successfully implemented at many other institutions with strong music programs, such as Oberlin College and SUNY Potsdam.

Another issue is students’ accessibility to musical instruments themselves. Transporting instruments, especially large instruments, can be an expensive and cumbersome ordeal. In addition to logistical problems of transportation,  Purchasing instruments can be equally expensive, and beginners can feel wary of making such an investment so early on. Although there is a clear demand for instrument rental, Yale has no programs to ease this demand unless you are currently enrolled in a music program. Just as the Digital Media Center for the Arts lets us check out equipment, Yale should consider investing in a facility for students to check out musical instruments and equipment such as amplifiers and microphones, which would eliminate many of these problems.

At Yale, musical elitism exists on many different levels. Not only are specific musical opinions and tastes celebrated at the expense of others, but the very structure of musical groups on campus elevates certain musical communities over others. As an additional challenge, underrepresented musical communities, especially musicians not pursuing music as a career, lack affordable access to lessons and instruments. It seems like a platitude to say that everyone should be able to pursue music, regardless of genre or level of skill, and yet many here at Yale are still left with the impression that we are not welcome to contribute as artists.

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