[Nicole Lipman has been my undergraduate research assistant for three years and has helped me immeasurably by transcribing interviews, scanning and indexing press clippings, and doing other work that my book project needed. Nicole is also a musician and music writer, so before she graduated in May, I asked her to update me on the music scene here at Vassar College, which has changed considerably since I first wrote about it seven years ago. Here she describes the organizational context that students who want to play their own music and form bands face, with special attention to a relatively new student group that she’s involved in, the Vassar Student Musicians Union. -LN]


Vassar College has a reputation of being a place of art, creativity, and counter- and sub-cultures, but relative to the size of the 2500 person student body, the Vassar music scene is small, underfunded, and largely invisible on campus. Several factors likely contribute to this, including the organization of the music scene, the spaces (or lack thereof) for music performance and practice on campus, and the sociocultural realities of campus life at Vassar. The contained scale of the music community, however, allows the scene to be flexible and scrappy — giving rise to a music scene unique to the particulars of Vassar’s campus.

At Vassar, music activity is generally divided into two worlds: institutionally supported music and student music. The institutionally supported music sphere contains the activities of the Vassar Music Department, the college orchestra, the student choir, and to some extent, Vassar Jazz. By virtue of being connected to academic structures and schedules, the institutionally supported music sphere is relatively rigid. Students engaged in institutionally supported music often discuss musical commitments in terms of academic ones, talking about attending orchestra rehearsals and concerts, for example, as if they were traditional academic classes. This sphere of music is connected to and facilitated by non-students — Music Department faculty and staff largely set schedules for practice and performance and advertise concerts through formal college channels. Institutionally supported music is centered around Skinner Hall, where students who are taking college music lessons or are otherwise affiliated with the Vassar Music Department have access to practice spaces and a library of sheet music.

All other music activity at Vassar falls into the category of student music, which refers to a world of music activity totally facilitated by students and largely unconnected to formal Vassar institutions. This realm of student music is what constitutes the Vassar “music scene.” Student music activity is vast and varied, but the scene structure can be divided into two overlapping groups: musicians, and the students facilitating music practice and performance on campus. Musicians in this Vassar music scene range from students playing acoustic guitars in their dorm rooms to many-member bands with touring schedules and merchandise for sale. Though some student musicians dream of professionalizing, almost all of the musicians on campus perform at a casual, recreational level.

Currently, about fifty students on campus play in one or more of the thirteen actively-performing bands on campus, which cover a diversity of genres from folk music to glam rock. The members of these bands are largely cis, male, and white, though not exclusively. Most of the active bands on campus have upperclassmen members, whereas freshmen tend to participate in the music scene as solo performers. Band members stretch across class years, but rarely by more than one year (i.e. it’s common to have a band with seniors and juniors, but rare to have a band with seniors and freshman). The insularity of the campus music scene means that band membership often overlaps — student drummers usually play in more than one band, and frontpersons and guitarists often have multiple projects in different genres occurring concurrently. Band composition usually shifts during college, as students quit and join different bands, go abroad, or graduate, but students who become involved with music in their early years on campus usually remain involved with the scene in some capacity throughout their time at Vassar.

There is a slightly smaller number of actively-performing solo musicians on campus, but a much larger number of students who play music independently and either choose not to perform or are unaware of potential performance opportunities on campus. The group of actively-performing solo musicians skews cis, white, and female, and performers generally fall into the wide genre of ‘singer-songwriters.’

In addition to musicians, the world of student music at Vassar also involves students who actively facilitate campus music, primarily through the Vassar Student Musicians Union, or StuMu. StuMu is a sponsored organization of the VSA (Vassar Student Association, the college’s student government) and exists to support Vassar students making music on campus, intending to give students the opportunity to make and perform music, network, and learn through educational workshops. StuMu has existed in its current form since September 2017. Previously, StuMu was a sub-organization of ViCE (Vassar College Entertainment), the student-run organization which books musicians and performers for major campus events. Before 2017, the umbrella org ViCE contained ViCE Music, which booked Vassar’s largest-scale concerts; No-ViCE, booking underground and DIY bands; ViCE Jazz, booking acts of scale between No-ViCE and ViCE Music; ViCE Film; ViCE Comedy; ViCE Special Events; ViCE Publicity; and ViCE Student Music. ViCE Student Music largely fulfilled the same purposes that the Vassar Student Musicians Union now serves, but the group’s associations with ViCE meant that budgets, organization, and event scheduling were dictated by the overarching structures of the larger ViCE org. Moreover, ViCE Student Music was the only ViCE sub-org that didn’t book off-campus performers, making their purpose and activities incongruous with the larger organization.

Prior to 2017, ViCE was the largest organization in terms of finances on Vassar’s campus by far— during the 2016-2017 school year, ViCE was given a budget of $205,000, including a $20,000 “discretionary fund” to be used by ViCE organizations as necessary. This enormous budget created tensions between ViCE and the VSA, who saw the umbrella organization as wielding a disproportionate amount of power and money on campus.

In 2017, the VSA Chair of Finance discovered a deficit of more than $150,000 in the VSA’s budget, resulting from several years of miscalculated student activities fees. Budgets for all student organizations were slashed significantly — especially ViCE. All of ViCE’s sub-orgs received a combined total budget of $41,800 for the 2017-2018 school year. Duties (and budgets) for booking Vassar’s largest concerts (the Spring and Fall Concerts) were handed over to the VSA. ViCE reorganized, splitting into just three sub-groups: ViCE Music, ViCE Weekly (booking smaller, more frequent music shows), and ViCE Film. In the chaos, Student Music seceded from ViCE and became its own VSA organization. The group took on the name Vassar Student Musicians Union in an attempt to more accurately reflect their activities on campus.

Active members of the Student Musicians Union, all of whom are regularly-performing musicians on campus, plan and organize open mics, student band showcases, and house shows. Additionally, StuMu serves as a contact point for other campus organizations looking to book musicians for various events — dorm presidents and other organization presidents will contact StuMu leadership in advance of a campus event, and then StuMu serves as a liaison between these organizations and the student musicians. The Student Musicians Union also runs workshops on songwriting and sound tech and hosts ‘networking’ events for musicians looking to connect with other musicians on campus, in addition to maintaining a database of active student musicians and bands. As of the 2018-2019 school year, StuMu also manages a music practice room in the basement of Blodgett Hall with a drumkit, guitar and bass amps, several microphones, a PA, and an electric guitar, electric bass, and full-scale keyboard. Students interested in using the practice room undergo a brief room training from StuMu leadership and then are able to book time in the room via a Google spreadsheet. Info about StuMu is mostly disseminated to the larger student body through the StuMu mailing list, which currently reaches about 200 students, though Facebook events and posters are also used to advertise StuMu-sponsored shows.

StuMu is primarily a campus-oriented organization, but the group also maintains contacts with people at the Crafted Kup and Darkside Records, off-campus venues where student musicians have historically performed a couple times a year. Still, the vast majority of Vassar music scene activity takes place on campus. In addition to StuMu showcases and open mics, student musicians perform at house shows and dorm events, the largest and most widely-attended event being Joss House Team’s annual Battle of the Bands. Infrequently, a Vassar student musician will open for a non-Vassar musician at the Fall and Spring Concerts in collaboration with ViCE. Some student bands will also organize off-campus shows at nearby colleges or small venues in New York City, but of the thirteen currently active bands on campus, only two regularly book off-campus gigs with relative regularity.


Posted by Vassar Student Musicians Union on Saturday, December 1, 2018

Student music activity is governed significantly by physical spaces on Vassar’s campus. Before this academic year, student musicians had no designated practice space on campus, as Skinner Hall practice rooms are technically dedicated to students involved with the Vassar Music Department, and while many of those rooms remain unlocked, their setup is ill-matched for the gear and drumkits of most student bands on campus. Dorm room walls are thin, generating formal and informal noise complaints against student musicians. The Mug, the only campus space with a sound system available for student booking, is overcrowded with a cappella and student theater performances and rehearsals.

In response to the lack of formal practice spaces, students have turned to dorm basements, senior housing, and off-campus housing for practices and jam sessions. Though the dorm basements are conveniently located, these spaces are subject to campus noise regulations and complaints, and while senior housing and off-campus housing often provides reliable practice spaces, these spaces are often inaccessible to underclassmen. Moreover, senior housing and off-campus housing spaces are further from the center of campus, making transporting instruments and gear there (especially without cars) a sometimes-insurmountable difficulty. It’s unclear how the StuMu Blodgett Practice Room will shift the dynamics and geography of practice spaces for the campus music scene, though use of the space this year and the new availability of instruments and equipment in Blodgett points to a positive future.

Music performance spaces for student musicians are only slightly less limited. Almost all of the StuMu-sponsored showcases and open mics take place in the Mug, the grimy former-nightclub in the basement of the Retreat. Shows happening in the Mug must be booked through a campus organization, so bands looking to play in the Mug must go through StuMu. Occasionally, smaller acoustic shows are held in dorm common rooms and parlors, or when the weather’s nice, outside. A few times a year, Ferry House will host larger, non-acoustic shows on campus. House shows are rare and more likely to occur in off-campus housing than senior housing, as campus party regulations put senior housing house shows at risk for being shut down.

A scene from last year’s Halloween themed-cover show. Source: Boilerplate Magazine.

In addition to the geography of practice and performance spaces, several other tangible factors significantly impact the shape of the Vassar music scene. For starters, Vassar’s status as an isolated, residential college means that large portions of the student body travel great distances to attend school here, many of them flying across the country or even internationally. As a result, students can’t necessarily travel with gear or instruments that they would like to have for making music on campus. Though the StuMu Blodgett Practice Room now holds amplifiers, a PA, a drumkit, and several electric instruments, this gear is confined to Blodgett. Once on campus, most students don’t have their own cars, making transporting heavy equipment across campus difficult, and making off-campus access for gigs nearly impossible.

Vassar’s academic structure also shapes the music scene. Vassar students are over-worked and under-slept, leaving little free time for independent music practice.  Additionally, JYA (junior year abroad) has a reputation for significantly disrupting the music scene, as juniors active in bands leave campus and force a reshuffling of band members or, more generally, a band hiatus or disbandment. On the other hand, JYA also creates what students refer to as the “junior year shuffle,” where social relationships shift and new friendships are formed based on who’s around campus, theoretically creating links that can lead to new senior year bands. In practice, however, JYA seems to mostly affect the music scene in negative ways.

Other intangible factors also majorly affect the Vassar music scene. Most significantly, campus social relationships govern who knows who, who goes where, and which opportunities are available to which students, regardless of musical talent. Participating in the Vassar music scene requires a kind of social and cultural capital: you need to know people who can host shows in their houses, people who can play music with you, and people who you can borrow gear from, among others. Drawing audiences to campus shows requires social and marketing savvy. The Student Musicians Union has attempted to democratize the music scene and lower this barrier, but one must also know about StuMu in order to benefit from the organization’s efforts. It is not insignificant that the Vassar music scene is largely cis, male, and white — larger social structures of privilege, marginalization, and visibility lower the social and cultural barriers for participation in the music scene for some and raise them for others. Most significantly, socioeconomic background affects students’ access to instruments, gear, and training, both before coming to Vassar and while attending school here, and assumptions about class and privilege built into the student body often obscure these lived realities.

Though the limited spaces and gear available on Vassar’s campus can potentially cut students out of active participation in the campus music scene, these limitations can also foster closer social relationships between members of the music scene on campus, who must work together to overcome institutional barriers. Campus musicians across backgrounds and class years trade instruments, equipment, and knowledge with both close musician friends and acquaintances, and StuMu increasingly secures more funding from the VSA to support campus events and furnish the practice room. Vassar’s music scene will always be shaped by the particulars of campus life, but as social links form, the music scene will grow in both size and prominence on Vassar’s campus.

The author in center, flanked by her fellow 2018-19 StuMu co-heads. Source: Miscellany News.