WCC student clears the air

In light of the recent turmoil related to Westminster Choir College’s (WCC) future, I feel this might be a good chance to clear the air a little bit. As a WCC student who has spent a fair amount of time in Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts, I am disappointed to hear the same consistent misunderstandings from students on both campuses. I also understand why some of our peers who study in the Fine Arts building could feel some resentment toward a student body that seems hell-bent on avoiding them at all costs. We WCC students sometimes forget that the reasons for our attachment to the Princeton campus — and stubborn resistance to the proposed move — may not be immediately evident to our counterparts in Lawrenceville. I hope I can provide at least a partial explanation.

When evaluating WCC’s current and future status, it is important to draw the distinction between a conservatory and a college of music. Conservatories are typically independent colleges dedicated to the exclusive study of one or more of the arts — think the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia or the Juilliard School, which WCC shares the distinction of being the only two institutions of higher learning inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. Conservatories are usually very small. Few offer liberal arts degrees — instead, they offer Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and Bachelor of Music (BM) degrees to undergraduates and Master of Music (MMs), Master of Fine Arts (MFAs) and artists diplomas to graduate students. Due to its intimate setting and narrow focus, a conservatory education draws on the combined and “conserved” energies of its students to produce a superior education in the arts. 

On the other hand, a college of music exists within the framework of a larger university. Degrees offered at a college of music may include many of those offered at a conservatory, but typically require more hours in fields other than the arts and often offer a Bachelor of Arts (BA) as well. In most cases, colleges of music maintain facilities on the main campus of the university and students are wholly integrated into the university’s greater population. The very best colleges of music — the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance and Indiana’s Jacobs School of Music, for example — boast facilities and faculty to rival those of top conservatories. Graduates of a college of music may not have experienced the same level of focused training as their conservatory counterparts, but may possess a wider array of skills by virtue of their more diverse education. For a student who wants to pursue a double major or may change their major, a college of music is the more sensible choice. 

When applying these definitions to WCC, one can see that it does not fit neatly into either box. On the one hand, WCC operates on a separate campus from the rest of Rider, where entire classes of 80 or fewer eat, sleep, sing, study, relax, laugh and cry together — trust me, there’s a lot of crying — for no fewer than two full years. Even among conservatories, the WCC community is uniquely tight-knit. It is a rare event to pass one of our roughly 300 students, faculty or staff member and not greet them by name. Within a single class, we are acutely aware of the triumphs and trials of each of our peers. Excellent choirs demand personal bonds of this magnitude. While an individual singer’s voice is the result of training and study, the sound of a great choir is the product of multiple singers’ bodies, minds and souls resonating simultaneously and unanimously. We have to learn to breathe as one — yes, in pursuit of a single musical sound — but also in complete intellectual and spiritual agreement with one another. Any WCC student or alum will attest that Westminster is unique in this respect, and that the WCC experience reshapes both the musician and the person within. 

On the other hand, WCC currently operates as one component of the Westminster College of the Arts (WCA). While our studies only rarely bring us together, WCA students on the Princeton campus and in Lawrenceville are under one umbrella, sharing faculty and funding. WCC students can pursue double majors, work towards a BA and participate in activities and events offered to the entire student body. Though we experience a conservatory culture, WCC is in fact a college of music. 

WCC students rarely consider our charmed circumstances — we get the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, it seems we will soon have to accept either one or the other. As much as I have loved my experience at WCC as a conservatory, I recognize the circumstances that motivate the transition to a true college of music. In the handful of classes I have taken in Lawrenceville, I have appreciated the excellent faculty and committed theatre, dance and music theatre majors studying in the Fine Arts building. But, if WCC students truly have respect for the programs we will be joining in Lawrenceville, why are we so resistant to change? We do not resist plans for consolidation because we cannot stand to set foot on the Lawrenceville campus, we are concerned that the facilities as they currently exist in Lawrenceville are wildly insufficient. The planned renovations would be a necessity whether or not WCC was scheduled to leave Princeton — Rider’s existing Fine Arts programs deserve improved facilities. If WCC is to become an integrated college of music, Rider administration must make a financial commitment that no reasonable person expects them to undertake, especially given the alleged circumstances that mandate a move. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, which performs regularly with top American and international orchestras, numbers over 150 students. Few facilities in the world, let alone at Rider, can accommodate this unique demand. The Cullen Center at WCC, which turns five years old this month, was built for exactly this purpose and funded by generous benefactors who recognized the value WCC’s choirs bring to the world of classical music, and the influence of WCC alumni in their communities on a daily basis. There is no logical reason to dispose of this world-class rehearsal space when no substitute currently exists and likely will never be recreated on the Lawrenceville campus. This only scratches the surface of the facility concerns inherent in the planned move — concerns that have been well-documented in recent months.

To relocate WCC’s programs in 10 months, when no plans for renovation or expansion have even been finalized, let alone executed, would be a death sentence for our school. It is no secret that WCC’s enrollment has taken a devastating hit, precipitated by Rider administration’s reckless decisions, pathetic attempts and messaging over the last three years. We are already struggling to fill the ranks of our choirs. If we are unable to maintain the standard of choral excellence we have cultivated over the last century, we will lose the coveted orchestral contracts that form the backbone of our education and have made WCC famous in the world of classical music. Is it worth it to essentially shutter a storied institution — all to fix a line item in Rider’s budget? The students, faculty and the greater community of WCC ask that the Rider administration either cancel the proposed move or postpone it until they demonstrate a commitment to upholding the legacy of the institution they inherited. If you come visit the Princeton campus sometime soon — and I hope you do — you are likely to encounter the words of classical music titan Leonard Bernstein, who said that “Westminster Choir College provides a great measure of beauty to a world that needs it badly.” We believe our mission is as relevant as ever, and we pray that Rider’s administration can find a solution that allows us to pursue that mission side by side with Rider University for decades to come.

Max Brey 

senior music education major  

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