Cold weather, double standards harm student musicians

I’m not a drummer, but I have had a drum kit bobbling around in the back of my car since I arrived on campus in August. At the beck and call of over 250 registered student musicians, I have lugged it, along with a 40-pound amplifier, to every corner of campus, where a band eagerly awaits their opportunity to finally play music together. I’m the President of Vassar’s Student Musicians’ Union (StuMu), so I’m happy to facilitate this—but it’s not exactly what I signed up for. 

Because of COVID-19 regulations, our usual practice space in the basement of Blodgett has been inaccessible since the semester started. That space is normally open seven days a week and contains everything a band needs to play; it’s an equalizer for student musicians. But with its closure, I, along with a small group of other students, have been struggling to fulfill StuMu’s mission of musical accessibility and have been tasked with transporting heavy and clunky instruments around on other people’s schedules. Again, while I’m happy to be helping other students get practice time in, frankly, I’m exhausted. And with the cold weather moving in, combined with no significant regulation advancements for bands, it seems like us student musicians are soon going to lose any hope of doing what we love. 

For people that aren’t musicians themselves, the artform might seem enjoyable but expendable. This sentiment has certainly been reflected in a grand sense via the federal government’s refusal to provide legitimate relief packages for performance venues and musicians, even with notable pressure from nonprofit organizations like the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). Real musicians know, however, that music isn’t just an activity. After a long day of classes, a runner goes for a jog to decompress, a writer journals and a musician makes music. It’s part of who we are. It’s such an important aspect of our lives and identities. That’s why I knew, with the Blodgett space closed, we needed to work hard to open up opportunities for everyone who wants to play. 

Our search for our new corner of campus started at the observatory, one of the few spaces with outdoor electrical outlets. Student bands would informally organize times to play in succession, offering their own personal gear for others to use and waiting until late afternoon so as not to disturb classes. However, this ended quickly, as one day a resident of the neighborhood below (ironically, a music professor) complained about the noise spillage. A few interactions later, we knew we needed to move on. Since then, bands have been popping up wherever there are electrical outlets to play, and I have been driving around after them offering what equipment I have. We love it, so we make it work, but it is frustrating to see the administration grant other groups more privileges while we have been overlooked and seemingly left out to dry. 

Campus Activities (CA) has done everything within their ability to help us, but the problem is the administration’s regulations at large. For instance, CA went out of their way to help StuMu book a tent once every weekend throughout the semester. But the limit of one hour-long slot per band was a significant hindrance for groups used to rehearsing over six hours a week. Additionally, the tent rehearsals have racked up a significant amount of noise complaints from students squeezing in some weekend studying and are not sustainable in cold weather. What bothers me is that we’re coping with heavy restrictions while other groups are taking advantage of Vassar’s opening up amid minimal cases. I don’t mean to convey that Vassar is being too lenient towards others in their updated restrictions—truthfully, I find some of them long overdue. I simply wish the administration would begin to consider musicians as part of the conversation about reopening efforts. 

There are numerous communities that have received more attention than musicians in reopening. I also write this from the perspective of a student athlete. In our rugby practices, we are allowed to engage in full-contact tackling activities. Furthermore, classes have been meeting in person—in real-life classrooms—and people have been eating in person, without masks on, in the Deece. All musicians want is a dedicated space where they can play after the responsibilities of the day end and people leave. Bands would consist of five or six people tops, all wearing masks and spread out. This is far less risky than some of what Vassar has allowed, including the administration’s decision to allow off-campus visits as long as they are for “academic purposes.” 

With access to a room, it will no longer be students’ responsibility to lug equipment across campus with only the prior notice of a random phone call, and there will no longer be noise disturbances. The cherry on top is that, with a designated room, we could return to the norm of equitably sharing gear and time, honoring StuMu’s mission of providing for and empowering all student musicians.

I know that a small, congested room in the basement of Blodgett isn’t COVID-19 friendly, and I get that its reopening would come with measurable amounts of restrictions. So I am proposing that StuMu be granted a separate space for the time being, because the current situation is exacerbating the stress already innate to college students. With all the unusable space freed up because of COVID-19, I cannot imagine there is nowhere available. So many theaters and lecture halls are either gathering dust or have gear closets and are free after 7 p.m. when musicians could grace their stages. And action needs to happen soon because, with the impending cold, we’re going to quickly run out of options. With the darker months upon us and music being so critical to musicians’ mental health, music has never been more important. 

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