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Avigail Borah / Staff Illustrator

One evening last November, two nights before giving a Columbia recital, I wandered Dodge Hall’s linoleum halls—as I do many nights—looking for an open room with a piano. As a pianist, I can’t use the piano-less Carman practice rooms, I hate disturbing those studying in the residence hall lounges, and the pianos in Schapiro, Broadway, and East Campus can seem to be missing more keys than they contain. Searching for practice space is akin to setting myself up on a blind date with one of six rooms in Dodge with a functioning grand piano (there are more than 100 active Columbia pianists at any given moment).

I entered one of these rooms and plunked down at the keyboard, tinkering through some particularly hellish runs. The world dissipated, as it does when I enter this space that––though ever-transient––is one I make my own. Twenty minutes in, a fellow Columbia musician opened the door and said, “Hey, I have this room reserved until 10 p.m.—I got here late.” As I do many nights, I left the room so this musician could practice, saying, “Okay, I’ll come back at 10.”

At 10:01, I asked this musician if I could use the room, citing the time and explaining my upcoming performance. A slanted glance and the silent shuffling of steps were enough to tell me that I had crossed a line, that there was something criminal about my using this room. Later that night, this musician messaged me: “‘It’s 10:01 p.m., are you done with the room yet?’ Oh, because you own it, right? Good luck on your performance, Cindy Liu!”

No one owns public practice rooms, of course, hence the reason why Columbia musicians constantly juggle empathizing with other musicians and asserting themselves for their art. Nevertheless, this musician’s language choice of property and possession epitomizes the battle that Columbia musicians fight for practice and performance space.

Tim Diovanni, CC ’18, and I created the Petition for a Purpose-Built Music Performance Space on the Morningside Heights Campus because we saw how fervently the Columbia community supported music performance, and how at-odds this passion was with the space available to contain it. Reviewing potential spaces and their inadequacies with the music department, Music Performance Program, University Event Management, and Campus Services was like a crash course in disappointment.

“This room isn’t soundproofed.”

“That one doesn’t have a piano.”

“Student groups have priority here.”

“That one’s way too expensive.”

Even after our petition garnered 1,006 signatures from Columbia students, alumni, and friends, even after we received a dozen testimonials from our peers at Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, the University of Connecticut, and Connecticut College, even after Provost Coatsworth himself invited us to meet with him, and even after a year of ongoing negotiations, the conclusion has not budged from what it was 24 years prior, when the music department first attempted to create an on-campus recital hall. No space at Columbia fully meets the needs of performance or practice on the Morningside Heights campus.

KJ Mulam
Cindy Liu, CC '18, co-organized the "Petition for Music Performance Space at Columbia University" to address the lack of space for musicians.

For me, Tim, and the 1,004 other petition signatories, making music extends beyond something we put on our résumés to get into Columbia. For many of us, music is integral to and expressive of our identities. It’s a self-exploration that even the most transformative classes at Columbia could not give. I came to Columbia unsure if I would ever play piano and will soon graduate with an experience that would be unimaginable without music. Music-making is as much about freedom and wholeness for me as it is about extending myself to my chamber partners or the audience in a communal experience; no medium other than music could fabricate so intensely, so personally. Pursuing music performance at Columbia has brought me an irreplaceable community. It gives me purpose, and it grounds me when I have lost myself.

All this is why, long after our feet cease to tread the russet-colored College Walk path each day, Tim and I will continue working with underclassmen to promote the petition’s mission. We’ll keep exploring options, meeting with administrators, vouching for peers, speaking to donors, and, above all, creating music. We began this petition with the goal of finding homes for music at Columbia, and we won’t stop until we find spaces in which musicians can share their talent and commitment with the community without fear of being interrupted, without a chance of being uprooted.

And I guess I do “own” that practice room, at least in the capacity of reconnecting with this most essential part of myself while I’m in there. So, fellow Columbia musician, you should know that this space isn’t mine or yours to have. But it could be. One signature at a time.

The author is a senior in Columbia College majoring in English and sociology. She is a pianist and co-created the Petition for a Purpose-Built Music Performance Space on the Morningside Heights Campus with Timothy Diovanni, CC ’18, in October 2016.

This op-ed is part of a Scope on artists at Columbia. To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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