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The Musical Divide

September 28, 2017

I can say without a doubt that when I was in high school, I was that weird band kid. We’ve all known them. I was the one involved in every musical group that my small school offered, and if you heard piano music coming from the band room hours after school was over, that was me. So coming to Wheaton as an English major, I found myself extremely confused as to why I was suddenly on the other side of the musical world. I sensed an unspoken divide between BA/BS students and conservatory students.

To find out more, I set out to interview five BM (Bachelor of Music) and four BA/BS (Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science) students about their thoughts and experiences to get an idea of how this divide affects students and whether or not they see it as a problem. After interviewing the students, I found that while BA/BS students didn’t see the gap as consistently in their everyday life, conservatory students often did. One thing that contributes to the divide is the fact that conservatory students, or “conservies,” seem to spend most of their time in McAllister Hall. So then the question becomes: Why is such a divide present?

When I interviewed both BM and BA/BS students, the first thing I asked was what they thought the stereotypes of their major were and if they feel stereotyped when they mention their major. I interviewed an AHS major, a computer science major, an elementary education major and a philosophy major. For BA/BS students, most answered with quirky things like being a bookish, introverted philosophy major while others brought up gender or busyness. Generally, the students seemed to be relatively unbothered by the stereotypes of their major and felt that such stereotypes weren’t necessarily negative. Additionally, the BA/BS students seemed somewhat unaware of the divide. Senior philosophy major Jeni Eklund commented, “I’m sitting here and it’s occurring to me that I’ve never thought about this before so maybe … drawing attention to [the divide] is valuable.”

The “procrastination table” is a table to the right of the entrance of McAllister Hall that is visible as soon as one enters the door. While interviewing the conservies, the matter of unintentional intimidation by means of the “procrastination table” was something that was surprising to them. For conservies, it’s fun to walk in and see all your friends — and procrastinate in between practices by hanging out with people — but for other students it becomes a physical embodiment of who is and is not in the conservatory. From interviews with students across various majors, as well as my own personal experience, I’ve realized that this table seems to epitomize the divide between conservies and BA/BS students.

If you’ve never been in the conservatory’s main building, McAllister Hall, let me enlighten you about the procrastination table. I will do so from two different perspectives: the first as a BA/BS student and the second as a BM student.

BA/BS student:

When you enter McAllister, you are greeted with the hushed whispers of a recently ended conversation from a crowd of students sitting around a wooden table to your right. A symphony blares from a laptop speaker, staff paper with scribble and sheet music is strewn haphazardly across the table. You avoid all eye-contact and eventually find an abandoned practice room.

BM student:

As soon as you haul open the door to McAllister, you’re immediately greeted by waves from all your friends sitting at the procrastination table. Dvorak Symphony No. 9 blares from your section-mate’s laptop, and brand new Henle edition singles are spread out over the table. You eventually tear yourself away to finally wander down to find a practice room.

For most of the BM students I interviewed, the thought of the this table being intimidating or divisive to BA/BS students had never occurred to them. Junior trumpet performance major, Joel Campau, remarked, “When non-majors come in here, everybody’s like ‘Who are you? What’re you doing here? And I do that too, but for me it’s like, ‘Wow I’m so glad you’re here, who are you?’”

Students talk at the procrastination table in McAllister Hall.
Photo by Jared Smith

In order to better understand BM students, students sent me schedules of their days. The following is a narrative of the schedule of one of those students. This is a typical day in the life of a conservie.

The morning starts around 6:30 a.m. Rolling out of bed, you get ready and make your way over to Saga for breakfast. You squeeze in a quick practice before your 8:30 a.m. history class and then it’s off to a group sectional at 10:30. From there you zip over to 11:15 aural skills, grab lunch and then it’s back to a practice room to warm up for your two-hour lesson. After that, you trek over to Edman for orchestra rehearsal and then finally get a little break hanging out with your friends at orchestra dinner. But then it’s back to the grind with another section rehearsal. By 8:30 p.m. you can finally get around to some homework for a few hours when you can chat intermittently with friends in between their own practices. You end your day with another hour long practice on your instrument and finally get around to sleep about midnight.

This schedule illustrates a fact that I discovered throughout my interviews with conservatory students: Nearly all music classes for conservies meet in McAllister Hall, but BA/BS students rarely step foot in the building. “I can definitely come across as antisocial just because of how much time I spend here,” said Campau. “I throw myself into conservatory life just because of how much I love it.” In fact, sophomore music education major Cameron Harrs said that his involvement in the conservatory impacted his experience on his freshman floor. “Some people’s floors and halls are a very central community for them, but that’s just never been my experience because it’s not possible.” In a way, the spatial divide between the two groups creates a cultural divide.

When asked how they felt about their interactions with non-music major students, there was a common sentiment of inevitable limitation due to the amount of time conservie students spend practicing. “The biggest thing is that we have no time. Ever,” said Harrs. “Within music, it’s like we all have no time collectively,” said Sarah Harkness, a junior flute performance and music history major. “It’s hard because we have to spend hours alone in a practice room … Sometimes you can feel segregated from other people in general and it can be a bit lonely.” Gabe Miller, a freshman trombone performance major, explained, “I’m more willing to hang out with people than others think, it’s just that I’m often busy with practice.”

While nearly all of the interviewees mentioned busyness as an exaggerated stigma, there were other, more negative stigmas they felt were associated with them, such as being antisocial, weird, elitist, unfriendly and exclusive. Freshman piano performance major Liana Muzik shared, “Generally I say I’m in the conservatory and they have a confused look, which is annoying.”

Senior Karina O’Byrne summed up conservatory life as a combination of the academic demands of a difficult major and the tight community and outside practices of a sports team. O’Byrne said, “If you add those three things together — the academics, the outside practice time and the practice with your coach — that’s what you get here in the conservatory.”

Throughout my interviews, the impending completion of Armerding was the hallmark hope of BM and BA/BS students alike for attempting to bridge the divide between the two groups. “It is a lot more central to campus and I think that it’s a space that lots of Wheaton students used to be in and out of,” Eklund said. “It does feel like the old conservatory building is peripheral to campus.”

Even now, many BM students are working to welcome others into their space and time — a pursuit which they believe will only be advanced by the new building. “A lot of us want to make it an intentional change in how we receive non-majors who come into the building,” said Campau.

“I think when we move to the new building,” Harkness said, “it’ll be really good because people can pass through easier. Hopefully it will be more of a welcoming place.”

But sophomore computer science major, Asher Bernardi, pointed out that maybe the divide isn’t something that can be inherently fixed. “I don’t think we should be holding ourselves to the standard that everyone is friends with everyone and the whole community is one homogenous entity,” Bernardi said. “You can’t expect every BA/BS student to have a lot of conservatory friends.”

Harrs, though optimistic about what the new building will bring, explained, “Just being on the center of campus will make us seem less far away — I think it will help some, but I don’t think it’ll radically affect the divide.”

I, personally, have found that even though I’m a BA/BS student and I’m not that weird band kid anymore, I can still form friendships with likeminded BM students — even if we don’t spend our time the same way or consistently inhabit the same space.

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