A CalArts Year in Review: Part Two

Over the past year, CalArts has allowed me to learn at my own pace while providing countless opportunities I wouldn’t get elsewhere. That said, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Like every school, CalArts has serious downsides it needs to address. I can’t speak as much to programs and events outside the music school, but even within HASOM (the Herb Alpert School of Music), there are significant issues that require more management than students or faculty are capable of providing individually. And sometimes, the administration’s what’s causing the problems. So buckle in, everyone. This one’s long.

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Let’s start with my favorite part of every school: the Title IX office. As someone who’s a little opinionated about gender equity in music and all its ramifications, I tend to have a love-hate relationship with Title IX – useful in theory, less so in practice. At a lot of schools, the message these folks tend to send (consciously or otherwise) is “if there isn’t sex involved, we don’t care.” I haven’t tangled on a personal level with the Title IX office at CalArts, but that’s been influenced in part by my first experience with them.

During new student orientation, there are a number of events that are billed as mandatory for everyone who’s getting to know the school. One of these talks was a sexual respect something-or-other, presented and introduced by the Title IX office. Like many of my peers, I sat myself down and prepared to be given the usual spiel about how important consent is. However, our presenter (who, to her credit, behaved professionally and obviously had no idea her talk was mandatory) looked at sexual assault and its effects on victims in detail. Eventually, one brave student (the indomitable Echo Redmond, who I’ve mentioned before) pointed out to the presenter that students who had experienced sexual trauma were in the audience and, as one might expect, were having a bad time. The presenter reacted accordingly, but the damage was already done. The Title IX reps who had introduced the speaker were nowhere to be seen and to my knowledge never addressed this. I’ve written about that night at greater length elsewhere, but suffice to say that I had hoped for a better first experience with a school that generally aims to be on the accepting side.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive into music school politics. One of the things CalArts shouts about left and right is its lack of tenure. Administrators say this is a great thing because teachers have more motivation to be effective and continue their own artistic evolution. Conceptually, that’s true, and there are certainly plenty of professors in HASOM who are constantly furthering their own artistic practice alongside their teaching abilities! However, a handful of teachers are… out to lunch, let’s say. Their classes tend toward antiquated, incomplete, unprofessional, or ineffective teaching. Fewer students have positive personal relationships with them, and they tend to be pretty removed from the school’s collective life. Their students are more likely to leave their classes angry, frustrated, or in tears. I was one of them – despite four years of fairly boys-clubby Orchestra School during my undergrad, I never heard the phrase “this is why some people say women shouldn’t play brass” until I came to CalArts. The fact that I heard it from a professor at an institution with our reputation makes it that much worse. These professors’ identities are fairly widely known among students and faculty, yet year after year (or three years after three years, as many of the contracts function) they are rehired.

If the CalArts administration is taking any action to either help these educators improve their teaching or make clear that there will be consequences for irresponsible teaching, the students have yet to feel the effects. This is particularly frustrating when these teachers’ placement as mentors results in conveying incomplete degree requirements or when their roles in core subjects prohibit students from graduating on time. Administrators are currently more focused on a new curriculum rearticulation (more on that later) than they are on making sure professors are teaching in non-damaging ways; however, because the issues we generally have with these classes aren’t with content but delivery, the faculty issue still requires attention.

HASOM also tends to rehire their graduates. Lots of these people understand CalArts’ culture and have positive things to contribute to the school. However, most of these alumni also check unsurprisingly homogenous boxes. The Music Technology program put together a fantastic letter to David Rosenboom and other concerned parties at the end of last semester asking for a 50-50 gender balance (50% male, 50% female or non-conforming) in the Music Tech faculty in the next two years. This may not be possible in that time frame depending on when contracts are up for renewal, but they make great points – there are eight non-male students out of 32, there has only been one female or non-conforming person employed in Music Tech in the past several years (if ever – and that one person is a doctoral student, not full-time faculty), and women in the department have their accomplishments minimized in classes and on the alumni section of their website. “It’s clear that the department’s tendency in the past has been to hire former students, but because the alumni pool is so disproportionately male, new and different hiring practices should be employed,” the students wrote. They also went as far as to attach a list of suggestions of potential candidates that students within the department are inspired by. To my knowledge, there’s been no formal response from the administration, but stay tuned. If you want to support the women of the CalArts Music Tech world, check out April, Emmy, Sara, and Sarah, then hop on over to Mod Index, a new organization run by CalArtians, and see how you can get involved.

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In the end, the most significant challenges to HASOM’s way of life from a student’s perspective lie in the administration itself. During his tenure as Dean of the School of Music, David Rosenboom has done some pretty spectacular things, including bringing on key faculty and getting the Wild Beast built. (For the uninitiated, the Beast is our wonderful magical behemoth of a concert hall. Go listen to some brass music in there sometime.) To this day he continues to dream big when HASOM is concerned. However, events over the past year have illuminated concerning plans for the student body. This spring, members of the Experimental Sound Practices (ESP) program were hit with devastating news: their department was getting rolled into composition. ESP prides itself on functioning differently than traditional, Western-art-music-centered composition, both in sound production and requisite training. It has long been a masters-only program that did not require a composition degree and as such was very accessible to creatives who didn’t get a bachelor’s in music. ESP students experiment with unique performance practices and learn from different sources than traditional composition students (though CalArts’ comp program isn’t exactly running on the Orchestra School model, either). It is the outer reaches of music, sound art, and performance practice, and the community it encircles is vibrant and necessary.

In the ensuing discussions, including a forum with Rosenboom, it became unclear if ESP was newly being rolled into composition, if it had technically always been that way, or if entrance requirements or class sizes for the concentration would change. And while the administration’s stated goal of wanting more students (particularly those on a conventional comp track) to get involved with ESP isn’t inherently bad, students felt and still feel blindsided by a decision and process they were never privy to. And, frankly, I can’t blame them – they chose ESP, not composition, and while majors at CalArts are nebulous at best, their community is one of the most tight-knit and well-connected groups in HASOM. Renewed commitment from the faculty to preserve that sense of uniqueness means the CalArts-cultural ramifications of the decision remain to be seen, but it’s important to note that this merger, whether past, present, or hypothetical future, is part of a bigger issue.

In short: David Rosenboom’s ultimate goal for the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts is to homogenize the program and stick it under one umbrella. The artistic reasoning behind this, on the surface, seems not-completely-bonkers. Lots of professional musicians end up taking on multiple gigs and wearing dozens of different hats. Nobody’s going to argue that we don’t need to be capable of doing approximately a zillion things. However, the idea that every musician to ever pass through CalArts’ admittedly-too-small building should be awarded a BFA/MFA in Music (Actual Concentration Here) is complete codswallop.

Let’s break this down a little. After the rearticulation and any other necessary restructuring, as I mentioned above, the degree any music student receives from CalArts would read something like this example: BFA Music (Concentration). The doctoral students get to keep their Performer-Composer label, likely for accreditation reasons, but bachelors and masters candidates get lumped into one pool. I can speak from personal experience that the longer your degree title is, the less of it people actually want to know about. My official, actual, this-is-what-shows-up-in-your-student-portal program at Arizona State was BM Music Theory and Composition (Composition), also known as “no, I’m actually not majoring in theory.” However, I technically had both a composition emphasis (as I wasn’t majoring in theory) and a trumpet emphasis (as composers are required to do at least two years of heavy performance requirements), and neither of those made it onto my diploma, which reads BM Music Theory and Composition with no indication of which of those two things was more important to me.

Reducing everyone’s official area of study to Music brings in even more questions: how exactly would that look on a degree checklist? How would mentors be assigned? What classes get shuffled around when there aren’t enough orchestral performers left to staff even a chamber orchestra? Who exactly would we be recruiting? How would the school, which has already given up its NASM accreditation, maintain those externally-regulated standards? Would private lessons still be available, and if so, who decides who has access to them? How would a potential employer distinguish between one BFA Music graduate and another? What, in the end, would separate a BFA in Music from a BA in Music (which, for better or worse, many music students are pushed away from as a BM is supposed to net you the best opportunities in grad school and the working world)?

Beyond these logistical questions rises an argument that CalArts music majors understand and often identify with. Ultimately, many of us (particularly the MFA students and those pursuing Performer-Composer, Experimental Pop, or ESP degrees) choose CalArts because they offer a specific, written-down-on-official-paper degree that we can’t get elsewhere. Yes, faculty and school culture and all those fun things play into it too, but particularly for those seeking graduate study, we aren’t looking for a degree in “Music.” We want our degrees to tell you something meaningful about the work we did to get them. We want our concentrations front and center, not tacked on at the end like an afterthought. We want the advantage we’re at when a professor outside our immediate field of study writes us a letter of rec, not saying that we barely focused on any one thing at school but that we focused on one thing and still found time for more. We want our friends in Music Tech to be able to land their sound engineer jobs and producing gigs because they got a degree in Music Technology, not have their abilities questioned at every turn because their degree just says “music.” Masters students want their degrees to supplement the general music education we got at our last schools (or, in the case of ESP, they want their degrees to prove that you don’t need a BA or a BM to be innovative in the experimental music/sound practice/performance art world). And, frankly, we understand the power of conferring different degrees. It allows us to understand what each student’s standard path of study is, and that makes it so much easier to tell when they go above and beyond. We aren’t just here for CalArts culture, we’re here for a degree that tells us something. Administrators seem to have forgotten that. (And, really… what happened to letting the undergrads minor in something else?)

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I can’t speak for my peers, but from my perspective, CalArts is a great school, despite the hefty price tag; it facilitates collaboration and opportunity in ways most programs only dream of. (Does your jazz department record a CD at Capitol Records every year?) However, I and people like me will face enough adversity in the working world simply because of who we are and what we look like. The ramifications of imprecise degrees and faculty who maximize men’s accomplishments while minimizing women and nonbinary folks’ right to space and equal education put us further at risk of harassment, being written off, and leaving music entirely.

And that doesn’t seem like a good thing.


Want to see what I’ve really enjoyed about CalArts this year? Check out Part One of my CalArts Year in Review!

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