If you moved into a dorm this semester, you probably caught a glimpse of a guitar case or keyboard among the endless heaps of baggage and bedding. To what rooms are these instruments going? Who keeps them played and polished and, most importantly, might they be down to jam later?
With students prohibited from meeting in dorm rooms or MPRs to share interests and instruments, Vassar’s music scene might appear to have gone into hibernation, or disappeared completely—but the music hasn’t gone anywhere. Biking across campus, I often hear a violin wafting from the top of Jewett, or the sounds of speakers spread out along Sunset Lake, boasting the thoughtfully curated Spotify queues of new friend groups. Electric guitars sing down my hallway, the volume tuned delicately so as not to wake sleepy neighbors.
Despite the prevalence of artists and creatives of all media on campus, Vassar can be a tough place to assemble a band. Musicians may recall lugging gear down the precarious spiral staircase into the Mug, just to lug it back up again after their all-too-short hour-long slot. Other groups may romanticize countless late nights spent sneaking into Skinner Hall after hours, the empty building set ablaze with raucous, high-energy rehearsals.
It wasn’t until StuMu (Vassar Student Musicians’ Union) stepped in a few semesters ago that the possibility of group practice opened to all—not just Mug managers or nocturnal jazz students with key access. In the winter of 2018, StuMu opened up a practice space in the basement of Blodgett, generously equipped with a drum set, guitar and bass amps, keyboards and a full PA system.
StuMu President Liam Manion ’22, band leader of the folk rock juggernaut Pattern Addict (Give their stellar 2020 release, “Someday, Some Afternoon” a listen), told me he once could only dream of such a space on campus.
“It started off pretty rough. You would have to book out the Mug, hoping that no one was using it. So many groups wanted to work there, always vying for time,” Manion said. “The Blodgett practice room was huge because it was a space specifically equipped for band rehearsals that could be democratically booked out every week by anybody. I also like its location in the basement of Blodgett; it kinda feels like you’re not at Vassar anymore. Going down into the boiler room—that’s pretty punk!”
Brook-The-Band, Vassar’s premier high octane indie rock outfit made up of sophomores Nathan Asbury, Ben Holmes, Miles Shulman, Max Weiner and Duc Dang, were some of the first students to hone their sound in Blodgett. After meeting through Facebook, a game of capture the flag and the line at the Registrar, respectively, the band took advantage of the new practice space.
“Our first rehearsal was in the Blodgett practice room, which was definitely the best spot on campus,” said guitarist Ben Holmes ’23. “We’d practice on weekends, not caring about being loud or anything. Really just having a space to let loose. That’s how we first found our footing, just jamming out and playing loud.”
Countless other bands followed suit, rehearsing regularly for upcoming campus gigs, both with and apart from StuMu. Thursday night showcases in the Mug featured diverse lineups of bands, both old and new. The Halloween cover show, for example, is now a Halloweekend staple, where costumed student ensembles impersonate bands such as Radiohead, Fleetwood Mac and Paramore.
Debuting as a concert space in the Fall of 2019, TH 148 (The Arts Commune) soon blossomed into the premier DIY venue on campus. With capped-out cover shows and ripping DJ sets most weekends, its events soon began to blur the line between school-sanctioned shows and weekend nightlife. From there, the shows just kept coming, with new artists and venues emerging every week. Brook-The-Band found themselves on the cutting edge of Vassar’s DIY scene when they fronted an underground rock show in an abandoned greenhouse outside Skinner Hall. Opening with Car Seat Headrest’s “Fill in the Blank,” they blew the roof off of the place.
“That was our drummer Miles’ idea,” recalls frontman Nate Asbury ’23. “He had said that we were gonna play a show in the bike shop, we were down—then three days until the show, he said, ‘By the way, it’s gonna be in a greenhouse.’ Well what the fuck is the greenhouse?”
Holmes ’23 was equally confused. “He didn’t tell us anything about it until we got there, so we kinda had to go through with it, which was good,” he admitted. “We might have backed out if we knew in advance just how sketchy it would be…[The greenhouse] was in pretty poor condition, not to mention that it was raining. We had to cover the speakers in plastic bags, just like at festivals, but it ended up turning into something really special.”
The landscape has undeniably changed. COVID-19 precautions have made sneaking into Skinner Hall an impossibility. Key access to the building is heavily restricted. Large gatherings such as indoor shows and DJ sets are a safety hazard. While it has become painfully clear that Vassar’s campus will be unable to facilitate the same packed indoor concerts this year as they did last, StuMu is as motivated as ever to continue cultivating a strong platform for musicians.
When asked about his goals for this semester, Manion responded emphatically.
“What we hope to do is empower student musicians,” he stated. “That’s everything from providing a practice space, providing workshops for people to meet each other, providing a database, providing showcases, anything that you can do within the confines of Vassar to try to make the dream a reality in terms of starting a band and getting music out there.”
Manion brings a remarkable level of dedication to all of his work with StuMu, creating for others the spaces and resources that he would have wanted in his first years on campus, fueled by his own passion for music.
“Music, for people who are well acquainted with it, is just how you bond with other people, on a level that is normally not reachable through conversations or other means,” Manion mused. “Coming to Vassar and meeting other musicians was a vital part of my experience, both socially and musically. I would definitely say that our work is as important as ever…people still want to put themselves out there to meet like minded individuals, so we‘re doing our best to facilitate that on the music front.”
Specifically, StuMu is encouraging students to join their Google spreadsheet-generated database of musicians as a means of discovering and reaching out to possible jam members. They will also be organizing small, outdoor, socially distanced jam circles once restrictions ease up a bit. In terms of reopening the Blodgett practice space, Manion is cautiously optimistic. The upcoming second phase of the Vassar Together plan will allow groups of 25 or less to gather outdoors for jam circles, and small groups to gather indoors, specifically in Blodgett for rehearsal. A max occupancy limit and strict cleaning procedures will be enforced, but Manion hopes to see the space open up within the month.
However, for the time being, bands might have to get a bit more creative in finding practice venues. This weekend, you might even hear a Brook-The-Band rehearsal out your dorm room window.
“We’re planning on practicing outside—Nate and I with acoustic guitars, Duc has a mini speaker for his synth and Max has an amp for his bass. Basically any outdoor, empty space with outlets is fair game. Miles was even drumming up near the golf course the other day. No one likes schlepping their gear around, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” said Holmes.
I’ve found myself out on the library lawn most afternoons, guitar in hand, with my friend Rivers on the banjo. Together, we play our favorite folk and indie rock songs: Bob Dylan, Alex G, Phoebe Bridgers, even some Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks). Friends congregate, singing along with the choruses. Acoustic jam sessions are easy to organize, and infinitely rewarding. However, for supersonic volume junkies like Brook-The-Band, electric rehearsals are still feasible. Finding open space and power outlets seems to be the name of the game.
Manion agrees: “Keep your eyes peeled when you walk to class, spot some outlets, bring a rug out there maybe, bring a couple amps and extension cords…It takes a bit of commitment, but commitment is key.”