A CalArts Year in Review: Part One

This time a year ago, I was a newly-minted college graduate, enjoying a verylong summer and preparing for the rigor and adventure of a master’s program. I’d already made my choice – CalArts won for a number of reasons – but like most students approaching an arts school with an absurd reputation, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I came in prepared to work hard and hoping for an academic culture better than the one I’d found (and struggled with) at ASU. And while life spent a large part of the last year throwing me for a loop, I’ve had some time to reflect on what CalArts has given me and what I wish I’d gotten out of my first year. I’m going to present my findings in two posts; this first one will focus on the positives.

First of all, the student body generally cares more about the inner workings of the school than you’d expect elsewhere. This is absolutely due in part to CalArts’ hefty price tag (tuition is quickly approaching $50K per year, and many undergrads don’t get scholarships of any kind), but it’s also reflective of students’ commitment to making the school work for them. We’re all aware that although there is diversity within our ranks, countless deserving minority artists are unable to attend. We also recognize that though campus is generally pretty liberal, students, staff, and faculty alike exhibit problematic viewpoints that need to be addressed. As CalArts is a small school, most students can facilitate discussions online through a couple incredibly useful forums, but everyone’s always looking for more ways in which their tuition funds can provide greater benefits. (As an aside, priority one for most faculty members is more scholarship funding for students, so that’s a plus, too.)

Second, the amount of collaboration within the school itself is astounding. Once the semester gets rolling, walls are covered with posters – animators looking for composers (or voice actors or sound designers or foley artists or you get my point), musicians and producers and visual artists advertising shows… you name it, it’s probably up there. There’s gallery nights, where visual artists celebrate their work, concerts in the Beast more nights than you can count, and you get pretty used to hearing “oh, my [large project] is premiering soon!” The student body is among CalArts’ greatest resources for an incoming student.

Third, you get to do all the things you didn’t get to do in orchestra school. Yes, you still get to play orchestra things – just last spring, our large ensemble played Lachenmann and Ligeti (which probably shouldbe orchestra-school rep, but that would require that people stop being scared of extended technique) – but you also get to play chamber music and stupid hard solo pieces and basically whatever you want. And CalArts won’t push you toward the tonal, been-dead-for-a-century-or-three repertoire (unless that’s what you want). No, you’ll get to look at things you’ve probably never seen before and music with electronics and scores you can’t read. For a musician trying to fill in the gaps of their education, that’s vital. The brass studio also makes a point of pushing for unaccompanied solo work, which is a huge logistical asset. Not having to pay or rehearse with an accompanist makes your job as a performer exceptionally easier.

Lastly, if you’re looking at CalArts because you want to study with a particular faculty member, you’re in a good place. Faculty are generally very invested in their students, and the variety of specializations enables students to study more skills than they could ever hope to acquire elsewhere. Nick Deyoe is leading the instrumental department. A veritable army of composers are on faculty and available for lessons. Performance faculty can be found sitting in on student ensembles almost all the time. And, shockingly, most folks get along with each other. Though only a handful of faculty are full-time, there’s a high level of dedication to students across the board.

In short, if you’re looking for collaboration and opportunities to work simultaneously with your peers and professionals already in the field, CalArts is the place to be. What do I wish was different? Come back on Saturday to hear from my diplomatic voice. ♦

Want to see what I hope CalArts is working on in the coming year? Check out Part Two of my CalArts Year in Review!