The Great Columbia Stalemate

Published on September 27, 2016

In my first year at Columbia, I played the “chalumeau” parts (actually the clarinet; the chalumeau was its predecessor) for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with the Bach Society at St. Paul’s Chapel.

It was a wonderful experience: I got to listen to the terribly sad “Che farò senza Euridice? lament sung by Orfeo to Eurydice’s dead body (played by my good friend Izzy) while I played an airy accompaniment figure and the opening bumbling overture in C major.

I really couldn’t quite pick what my favorite moment playing in the chapel was. St. Paul’s has a great, live sound to it—a sound that can easily reach the very back of the hall, immersing all audience members, getting them to sit on the edges of their seats. Performing in St. Paul’s was really a treat.

Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. Acoustically, great spaces have become a battleground in the well-documented fight for more student space on campus: Music performance groups must jostle with hundreds of other student groups to use them.


When I emerged from the 116th Street subway station for the first time, I circled around, trying to find the entrance to Columbia University. As a high school junior visiting campus, I couldn’t even tell the difference between College Walk and Barnard’s campus. While wandering around outside the gates, a sign reading “Miller Theatre, Columbia University School of the Arts” caught my attention and spurred my imagination. I imagined Columbia musicians playing regular concerts here, having orchestra rehearsals of Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky (and everything in between), and singing classical choral repertoire in the hall.

How wrong I was.

Despite outsiders’ perception of Miller Theatre as Columbia’s student performance hall, it is not a designated space for Columbia musicians.

I am a Columbia musician who has played in well over 40 concerts at the University so far, and I have not played one note in Miller Theatre.

In fact, no designated space exists: There is not a single purpose-built space on campus that Columbia musicians can call home.

The Musician

Imagine you are The Musician and you have spent your semester preparing music by Whitacre, Stroope, and Ticheli for your contemporary classical a cappella choir. You have braved the cold treks across campus to get to the semiweekly two-hour rehearsals in the winter, you sing your part to yourself in the shower—and even on the subway, much to the chagrin of your neighbors—you have played the pieces so often on your iPhone that the “favorite” button is an understatement at this point, and now you are finally ready for your concert.

You have only one thing left to do: book a performance space.

Not so fast, Musician! There’s a catch: Where will you perform? You are one of 15 choir members. You need a small, intimate recital space to complement your group’s sound.

Feverishly, you scan through the Lerner Hall University Event Management page to find the one dream performance space on campus: Lerner C555. And—of course—the best acoustic space on campus is booked for the days you want. (Ralph Nader is coming in to give another inspiring malaise speech.)

All is not lost: You quickly think of the next best space on campus—which is probably the best space for your group, in reality—St. Paul’s Chapel. Years of church choir members singing heavenly tunes throughout this acoustically suitable choir space have enjoyed the practically six-second reverberation that gives the audience spine-tingling chills.

Anxiously, you dial the number of the chaplain. The conversation might go something like this:

You, The Musician: “Good evening, sir! Is St. Paul’s available for my a cappella group to use for our end-of-semester concert?”

Chaplain: “Is your group a part of the music department?”

You: “No, we are not.”

Chaplain: “No? We only have a relationship with music department-related groups. Goodbye.”

That’s it. One minute, on-the-phone, off-the-phone, and you are still left without a space in which to perform.

Out of good options, you defeatedly sign off on the Wallach lounge, where giant, cumbersome columns block your group’s sound from reaching the audience and even block some audience members from seeing you at all.

Reader, this is not an unlikely scenario.

Musicians at Columbia live a nomadic lifestyle—playing in halls and rooms across campus, none of which were expressly built for the purpose of music performance.

These spaces include: Roone Arledge Auditorium and Broadway Room in Lerner (both of which are frequently decried for their poor acoustics), the aforementioned Lerner C555, the cavernous  stage on Earl Hall’s second floor, the Casa Italiana’s concert space between 118th and 116th streets on Amsterdam Avenue, the Social Hall at the Union Theological Seminary, Barnard’s dusty Sulzberger Parlor (with paintings of so many old dignitaries hawking over the room), St. Paul’s Chapel (right in the middle of the nave before the sanctuary area), and the Glicker-Milstein Theater in the basement of Milbank Hall.

They also consist of the piano lounges across campus—those in Wien, Wallach, and John Jay halls, as well as the one on the third floor of Lerner Hall.

Reading over that list makes me a little breathless, the same way student musicians feel when they walk—music cases and amps in hand—to find yet another new space to perform in both on and off Morningside campus. You can trust me on this one—I’ve played concerts in every one of these spaces: I, too, am The Musician. I am one of the nomads.

Like St. Paul’s, a small number of these on-campus spaces actually have wonderful acoustics. Lerner C555 is a great space for musical performance, one in which I have made cherished musical memories.

Last winter, I performed clarinet for themes from Forrest Gump with Columbia Pops. There’s one part at the end of the arrangement heard many times throughout the movie, but most prominently when Forrest’s mom is walking him back from the doctor’s office, telling him that he is no different from any other child with whom he plays in school. I played this simple scalar figure that blended in with the texture of the piano’s theme and the high strings’ ethereal held high note. The resulting sound was exquisite: The hall welcomed the sound like a long-lost brother coming home—music coming home to the space where it belongs.

It is understandable that both music professors and musicians on campus are frustrated when Lerner C555 is being used by a small group of graduate students holding a club meeting.

“The school reserves it for lectures, meetings, church services. It’s not exactly a space for student performance groups to use,” observes Fernanda Douglas, who graduated last spring from Columbia College with a bachelor’s in music and is currently on staff for Lerner Technical Services.

The problem with Lerner C555 is that it is the best acoustic space for performance on campus, but music groups have to contest with non-music groups—such as the lectures or meetings Douglas describes—that don’t need great acoustics for their meetings while booking.  

So what are musicians to do?

Strapping my bass clarinet onto my back and grabbing my unusually heavy Bb/A clarinet case in my right hand, I set off for Symphony Space on West 96th Street. It is far away, but not far enough to justify using a subway swipe. There I was, tux-clad and speed-walking down Broadway to play in the Columbia University Orchestra’s concert of Pini di Roma and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor.

I had to walk 20 blocks downtown because Columbia student concerts given at halls specifically  built for music performance can only be heard far, far beyond our gates, at places like the Symphony Space, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall.

Columbia’s theater program has purpose-built spaces, like the Black Box Theater in Lerner, the Glicker-Milstein Theater, and the Minor Latham Playhouse. And the visual arts program has the LeRoy Neiman Gallery, available to host exhibitions by visual arts faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, invited artists, and of work produced in the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies. But the music department has been left in the dust.

“So what?” you might retort. Why does Columbia, a liberal arts university with prestige for its world-class academics, need a purpose-built performance space? The answer, as is obvious to anyone who attends the school, lies in its student body.

The unheard community

In the past three years, I have been privileged to play with many phenomenally talented musicians. By many, I mean many.

In total, somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 musicians commit to weekly or semiweekly rehearsals, preparing for concerts both at the end of the semester and during it. Their commitment is not without results: The concerts musicians give at Columbia are at an unexpectedly high level—many people from both within and outside of the community are astounded by the level of music-making heard on Columbia’s campus.

Don’t believe me? I don’t have to convince you with words; I can let the music of the many groups on campus do the talking for me.

Last year, the Bach Society staged a production of The Magic Flute, a timeless work by Mozart. This year, CUO will follow up on its Petrushka and Sibelius Violin Concerto Program at Alice Tully Hall with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The Vivace Chamber Singers, a contemporary classical a cappella choir, will give recitals including music by Barber, Rachmaninoff, and Lauridsen this year. Columbia Pops, relatively new in the music performance scene, has delighted audiences with renditions of popular film scores ranging from Forrest Gump to Mulan. Jazz House, a collection of Columbia jazz performers living together on a floor in River Hall, has given diverse concerts, such as a night of music from the Pokemon songbook and a collaboration night with the alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion.

There’s one crucial point to remember about all of these groups: These student groups are not all run through the music department, which is what Susan Boynton, the chair of the music department, suspects some administrators have thought in the past.

Boynton, a passionate advocate for a music performance space on campus, thinks that administrators believe musicians performing at Columbia are only the 15 or so undergraduate music majors and around 30 graduate students per year.

“The lack of the symbolic space is sort of a lack of acknowledgment that music is important, that music is part of what the University is doing, that music is an important and valuable and treasured activity for hundreds of undergraduates—not a few,” Boynton remarks.

With a serious, determined expression, she adds: “Performance of music is not a department, performance of music is an undergraduate activity that Columbia College and GS [General Studies] and Engineering and Barnard all have a stake in.”

The problem of not having a symbolic space, a home expressly built for music performance, on campus affects hundreds of students—including those sitting in Shakespeare seminars, experimenting in the chemistry labs, and looking at the stars in Rutherfurd Observatory.

The most frustrating part about all of this is not the issue of music space itself, but rather how long this has been an issue. Music department efforts to acquire a purpose-built music performance space can be traced back to the early 1990s. But the problem has existed for longer than that—since the early ’80s, according to Elaine Sisman and Walter Frisch, who both became music professors at Columbia in 1982.

“The lack of the symbolic space is sort of a lack of acknowledgment that music is important, that music is part of what the University is doing, that music is an important and valuable and treasured activity for hundreds of undergraduates—not a few.”

—Susan Boynton, the chair of the music department

But if you ask most Columbia students, they would have no idea about the pains that the lack of performance space has caused faculty and students for so long.

Even worse, administrators have told Magdalena Stern-Baczewska, the Music Performance Program’s director, that space is an issue that many faculty members and students have been grappling with.

“I am often told throughout the multiple meetings Susan Boynton and I have attended with administration that we are not the only people asking for more space and … it’s made clear that we are not on the top of the priority list,” Stern-Baczewska tells me.

It’s been over 30 years.

The music department and all music students on campus must be be recognized and have their voices, their cellos, their clarinets, their pianos, heard.

Sometimes, Frisch looks out of his sixth floor Dodge office window and watches our new Manhattanville campus being built in the distance. He now knows that one of those buildings is not for music at all—despite its misleading moniker: “for the Arts.”

The long fight

It’s no secret that space is tight at Columbia. But the problem for musicians is that whenever a little bit of new space is acquired, it always seems to go to someone else. A cursory glance at the history of the right for music performance space reveals a pattern of continually dashed expectations.

In 2014, at Stern-Baczewska’s first music department meeting as MPP director, a fellow faculty member resurrected a 10-year-old appeal for a music recital hall on campus. Stern-Baczewska was shocked at its age.

Little did she know, the lack of space was a problem that would force her only a few months later to carry instruments and amplifiers through the pouring rain for a jazz concert several blocks north of campus for a winter concert.

Magdalena Stern-Baczewska, director of the Music Performance Program. (Mercedes Chien for Spectator)

In a Spectator piece from 1986, Brian Cohen, a musician in the jazz band who graduated Columbia College in 1986, speculated that the problem had even dissuaded students from coming to Columbia.

“At an Ivy League school, you expect to come out roaring. It’s discouraging to have to leave your school to get something you should get in school,” he lamented.

A Spectator article published in 1987 reports that when the proposed East Campus residence hall was being built, students hoped a theater would be housed there. Their hopes were disappointingly unfulfilled.

The same Spectator piece reported that during the same period, students looked forward to the then ongoing renovations of McMillin Theatre (now Miller Theatre) so that they could one day use the additional space there.

In this instance as well, hopes were only partially fulfilled. Miller is not a center primarily used for student performance: Students perform there only on few occasions during the year.

But Miller was not always like this. Its predecessor was a place over which the music department could claim priority use for rehearsals. After the renovations and a name change, though, the hall was turned over to the provost’s office and subsequently to the School of the Arts. Though Frisch recalls administrators mistakenly saying in meetings that it is, the music department does not fall under its umbrella.

As I meet with Executive Director of Miller Theatre (and also Director of the Arts Initiative) Melissa Smey, I am repeatedly told—at least four times during the interview—that Miller is meant to “be a campus producer of professional performances.” Given the focus on professional performances, student music groups rarely perform at Miller. And when they do, they must go through a process of working with an advisor to rent out the space.

Granted, the performances at Miller are great for Columbia students to see, which they can do at a student discounted rate. But it is ironic that five floors above the construction of paper lanterns on Miller’s stage—which Smey happily advertises to me as preparation for Morningside Lights, the annual lantern parade through the neighborhood—the music department chair and MPP director are fighting for a space for their students.

And again: In 1989, Schapiro Hall’s newly built theater space was called the Alma Schapiro Theater and Music Center. At the time, musicians were cautiously skeptical of the level of access they’d be given to the space, but still anticipated that music would also be performed there.

They were right to be skeptical: Nowadays, the theater studios in Schapiro are run by the theater department and it the space is now called the Schapiro Theatre and Schapiro Studio. Though tantalizingly close to Schapiro practice rooms, the area is not host to any music performances during the year.

In 1994, renovations to build a new music library were underway in Dodge. Frisch, who was chair of the music department at the time, worked with administrators and architects to try to get a recital space—one that would fit around 100 people—on the third floor of Dodge. The painful obstacles continued. Frisch was unable to get the room because of exit point concerns.

Three floors above where Frisch tried to get the recital space—and three years later—an internal report was conducted by the MPP. The unsurprising result of the report was that the program was suffering from the lack of adequate facilities for practice and performance. The report also touched on the effect of the lack of space: The poor state of the facilities sent students the message that instruction in performance is not a priority.  

These were not the last meetings with architects that the music department would have. Three years later, in 2000, Department Chair Sisman met with architects and Bruce Ferguson, dean of the School of Arts at the time, about reconstructing and consolidating space in Prentis and Dodge halls. On the drawing board were ideas of performance spaces and black boxes. And, as Sisman laments, “That went nowhere.”

The music department sang the same song three years later with a vision statement sent to the then-interim vice president of Arts and Sciences that included a desperate appeal for a performance space.

In the statement, Sisman noted how the Manhattanville project would provide additional space that the music department could use for a small recital hall (250 seats) and/or a large concert hall (1,000 seats). When there was a rumor that the School of the Arts was going to relocate to Manhattanville, Sisman also suggested the reallocation of spaces in Dodge. She imagined that this, in addition to more regular use of Miller, would create an atmosphere for music similar to what Cornell University achieved with its Lincoln Hall. The ballade for more space sadly fell on deaf ears.

In 2006, a review on Columbia’s music department conducted by an external organization revealed that the music department’s number one pressing need was a performance space they could call their own.

Boynton says she has been trying to meet with University President Lee Bollinger to discuss the space issue since last winter, but has not yet been able to arrange a meeting time.

Only a few months later, final construction plans for Manhattanville’s Lenfest Center for the Arts reveals more tragic news for music: Lenfest will open without a single room designated for use by the music department.

Student-musicians unite

The measures students reach to address Columbia’s music and art space issues go far. In the late ’80s, Debra Laefer grabbed a hammer in her right hand and a nail in her left and built up walls in the gallery space in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel.

Through her own physical labor, Laefer was able to create a performance space on campus that is still active and beloved by students today. These poetry, art, and music concerts taking place in St. Paul’s were the early iterations of the Postcrypt Coffeehouse concerts.

“What I see now after my two years here is that music is not an ornament of our students’ lives. It is a way of their lives.”

—Magdalena Stern-Baczewska, the Music Performance Program's director

Another student-led advocacy group, the Performing Arts Space Advocacy Group, popped up in 2004. PASAG (pronounced like “passage”) aimed to help with the space rehearsal crisis for performing arts groups by organizing their individual voices into one group.

With the help of Columbia College Student Council and various administrators, PASAG was able to establish a Miller Theatre fund. Groups were able to apply to get funds to use Miller’s coveted space. After 2008, though, all traces of PASAG vanished.

Last fall, Douglas tried to create a music organization that would unite performance groups across campus. The benefit of a group like this would be a united effort to secure practice and concert space.

Douglas also believed the uniting of music groups under the Columbia University Performing Arts League, which advocates for and negotiates space for most theater groups and only some music groups on campus, would be beneficial due to the longevity CUPAL has enjoyed. This would help mitigate the concern of having music performance groups’ interests not reported down the line due to the disbanding of an umbrella organization, as had happened with PASAG.

Douglas’ ideas thankfully did not fizzle out with her graduation: Louisa Tambunan, a secretary on the executive board of CUPAL, is continuing with Douglas’ vision. Tambunan hopes to represent music performance groups’ concerns as a music representative. She also aspires to make more Dodge classrooms, which have pianos, accessible to Columbia student groups. (Groups like the Bach Society currently book those spaces—Tambunan is hoping for more rehearsals in those rooms for student groups.)

These student actions to acquire and coordinate space on campus are all great efforts to improve the current state of music performance rehearsal and recital organization on campus. However, these are all temporary solutions: These groups help make use of existing space, yet the problem of having space expressly built for music on campus still remains.  

So how, after repeated efforts by both students and faculty, has the problem of access to musical space on campus not been solved?

Stern-Baczewska says she believes that music is just not considered a top priority in the eyes of the Columbia administration.

To the administration, the music department’s repeated appeals to acquire a space on campus built for music—through means of repurposing space for example—might appear to be an isolated issue just for music department undergraduate majors and concentrators, graduate students, and music faculty. In other words, the lack of performance space is seen as an issue that affects only somewhere around 100 people.

However, the sheer number and quality of musicians on campus makes English professor Sharon Marcus’ statement that music is an “interest” a gross understatement: For The Musicians, music is so much more than just an interest. It is a part of them, the way they live and the way they identify.

“What I see now after my two years here is that music is not an ornament of our students’ lives. It is a way of their lives,” Stern-Baczewska strongly asserts.

Finding solutions

Boynton and Stern-Baczewska have worked tirelessly over the past three years as directors of their respective departments to find ways to get a space for musicians on campus. They have met with administrators again and again to talk about repurposing existing on-campus spaces, like Uris Hall, after the Business School moves to Manhattanville, or Earl Hall’s second floor auditorium space.

They have also had extended discussions about Lerner C555, making sure to note how nothing new—no construction, no renovations—would need to take place in order for Lerner C555 to become the designated music recital space on campus. All that would take is a new written policy.

But the question still lingers: What else can be done?

The problem must be rethought of in terms of community needs. Jacob Gelber, a Columbia College senior majoring in music and also a participant in the Barnard-Columbia-Juilliard Exchange, believes that the heads of music performance groups, the music department chair, the MPP chair, and administrators all need to sit down face-to-face and have a serious discussion about the role of music in Columbia’s community.

In Gelber’s mind, this meeting will create a ground zero from which all parties involved can take the next steps. From there, they can consider the current distribution of spaces on campus—especially those that would work well as music performance spaces, like the second floor auditorium of Earl Hall, St. Paul’s, and Lerner C555.

Gelber’s solution would fix The Musician’s problem. In fact, The Musician is modeled entirely off of one of Gelber’s own experiences during a quick phone call to St. Paul’s chaplain. By rethinking the role that music plays in Columbia’s community, the phone call between Gelber and the chaplain would be much longer—and much more fruitful—next time.

Community building is already happening in MPP concerts. Last year, after concerts in the Symphony Space, Stern-Baczewska was complimented by several Upper West Side neighbors on how great the performances of the Columbia musicians were. They had no idea how much music talent there was at Columbia.

Community building through music could also be happening at the Manhattanville campus—falling in line with the new campus’s mission statement.

My personal feeling was the idea of a small auditorium or performance space properly managed would be available for the community; one of the ideals of Manhattanville is not to be closed as a Columbia structure—or series of structures—that really should be open to the community in as many ways as possible,” Frisch remarks about the power music would have if it was included in the Lenfest Center for the Arts in Manhattanville.

Because the problem of a purpose-built musical space on campus is needed by many students and faculty, it is about time—or, according to Frisch—“past time,” for the designation of a place musicians can call their symbolic home.

Not all hope is lost. Thanks to current efforts by faculty and students, the problem is continually being addressed. With greater awareness of how large the issue is for student-musicians on campus comes a more vocal support for a space. Boynton believes that the administration just doesn’t seem to know how many people are affected by the lack of a purpose-built music space.

And history is not all bleak. During Frisch’s time as department chair, he was able to get a great music library installed in Dodge. The need was vocalized by the department and subsequently addressed. The same could occur here, but students need to make their many voices heard by taking action: It cannot be assumed that the problem will be solved by administrators or faculty on campus without any uniting, sustained action by students.


“Our students are Columbia students, and the precious memories that they form of being members of the MPP should be from on campus, not off campus,” Stern-Baczewska says mid-way through our conversation.

The musical memories I have made while at Columbia are ones that I know I will always keep with me. But I also wish the memories of playing beautiful music in exquisite music spaces like St. Paul’s Chapel weren’t so few and far between.

The hope is that one day there will be a single place where Columbia musicians’ memories will be made on campus. One great recital hall where they can count on finding all their friends in the audience; a home that all will recognize as their space on campus. It’s a home that can also beckon to the rest of the city: Come in, hear us, we’re playing our instruments, we’re singing our songs. Come in and hear the music!

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