Princeton Arts Profiles

Driven by Students

…these students are brilliant and … their artistic endeavors are as valid as any other form of intelligence that is celebrated on this campus.

steve-2To be sure, the role of the arts has changed dramatically over the past decade in the wake of Shirley Tilghman’s arts initiative and explosively in the wake of Peter Lewis’s generous gift. However, having been on the faculty in the music department for 30 years, I see the eruption of the arts at Princeton as ultimately coming from the students, not the administration or the generous patrons.

When I first came to Princeton in 1985, I was surprised and impressed by the artistic ambitions of my undergraduate students. (I expected the ambition I saw in the graduate students because they had already committed themselves to the profession.) Right from the beginning I had students making full-length recordings of music they had created as singer-songwriter/ bandleaders. (Although negotiating what was full-length—a 50-minute LP or a 74-minute CD— was an emerging topic.) I had students composing and producing musical theater pieces ranging from avant-garde to opera to Broadway-style. Students were composing masses and symphonies and mounting performances with their friends from around campus.

It was all there from the sweat equity of our visionary undergrads who are now “50-something.” What we have done in the past decade is to merely acknowledge that these students are brilliant and that their artistic endeavors are as valid as any other form of intelligence that is celebrated on this campus.

The biggest shift that I have seen is in the role of live performance. Again, the changes in how performance is viewed on campus were foisted on us by the students… and we should thank them for that. Every year (back when I was only slightly older than my students) we sent a student or two off to grad school in musical performance. They were attracted to the kind of broader education they could get at Princeton combined with a music department that provided some performance opportunities, instruction, and the kind of theoretical and historical context that would support their prodigious gifts as performers. By 1991 the number and quality of vocal and instrumental performers with professional aspirations was so high—and they were so convincing about how their contributions to music at Princeton were undervalued and under-validated—that we had no choice but to establish a Certificate in Musical Performance.

Those forces have percolated uninterrupted for the past two decades and this is where we are now:

  • The Lewis Center for the Arts is a hub for interdisciplinary arts that often involve music.
  • There is a new building being constructed as I write this which will be a home for our talented students and faculty to study, rehearse, and perform, allowing them to stretch out from the cramped quarters of the Woolworth Center basement.
  • Our vocal and instrumental faculty, not that long ago, were independent contractors. That is, they were not considered employees of the University but were rather like caterers. Starting next term they will be lecturers— members of the faculty.
  • All the required University committees have approved a pilot initiative which will allow us to give academic credit for studying an instrument or voice.

I thank Nassau Hall and Peter Lewis for making my life easier by allowing me to say yes more often. Ultimately though, the arts at Princeton have always been, and continue to be, driven by our incredible students who have never taken no for an answer.


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