Chin: Music for the Masses

by Clara Chin | 11/10/15 8:44pm

Every college student should have an opportunity to pursue music, no matter the level and genre of experience. Though I am not training to be a musician — as I once thought I might — some of my fondest high school memories are about music. I enjoyed playing the piano for ballet class, taking weekly lessons with my teacher for 12 years, jamming to Bob Marley and Jackson Browne tunes with my cousin and learning West African drumming at a music summer school. Music does not have to just be for musicians. It can provide community, stability, inspiration, relaxation and passion, which means musical experiences translate well to other disciplines.

Because I wanted to continue pursuing music, I have tried to find musical outlets at the College similar to the ones I had at my high school. Though the a cappella groups and the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra are popular and give well-attended performances, I felt that the musical choices available to me as a pianist wishing to branch out of my classical bubble were limited. This lack of musical opportunities affects not just the College, but other campuses as well.

Many colleges at least have a fair number of classical and jazz performance groups, but they are hard to break into for inexperienced players. These groups use selective auditions and are therefore inaccessible to students interested in exploring new music. This creates the impression that certain musical genres are too exclusive. Some ’19s with no prior piano experience have not even been able to take piano lessons recognized and paid for by the College, which also require an audition. Even students with many years of experience in one genre can find it difficult to break into another. I had been hoping to play in a jazz ensemble but found that most of them were for those with experience. This is unfortunate because despite our minimal amount of formal jazz instruction, what little training we do have could be enough to join a jazz group and improve quickly, with the right guidance.

The situation is even worse for punk, garage or rock musicians. Unless you are lucky enough to have similar-minded musicians in a class or on your floor — let alone the right combination of instruments — finding a group is nearly impossible. If you do start a band, performance venues are still an issue. The Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra can perform in Spaulding Auditorium because it is linked to the Hopkins Center, and a cappella groups have been performing at fraternities for many years — having a connection to fraternity brothers seems to be the only plausible way of getting an audience.

Besides exclusivity and few chances to try new styles, participation in general poses a problem. Even though the College has a fair number of groups for certain genres, the overall interest level in music appears to be low. Unable to join an a cappella group or the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra and encouraged by my prior positive experience with African drumming, I tried out for the World Music Percussion Ensemble. While learning new rhythms on various African drums was at first enjoyable and exciting, the fact that the group had about seven regular participants, some of whom were not Dartmouth students, eventually led me to quit.

Though vocalists and classical and jazz musicians may find their place, other musicians might feel excluded. While Western classical music and jazz dominate music studies at most universities, world music is less popular, as well as garage band performance groups. The World Music Percussion Ensemble is at least a step in the right direction toward a more diverse offering of genres. With more groups on campus, students are more likely to get involved. A lack of publicity may also cause low participation rates. I recently found out about a bluegrass band, the College Folk Society, which meets every Monday and is open to the public. Despite my desperate search for accessible, non-classical performance groups, I heard about the ensemble for the first time after a casual comment.

Music ensembles are a great way to meet new people who share common interests, particularly those seeking alternatives to more mainstream social activities. At the very least, they provide a break from busy day of work and let you use your mind in a different way. While a few performance groups are thriving, even more open musical groups catering to diverse tastes can only benefit the College.