A CalArts Degree in Review: Part One (The Good Things)

Folks, I did a couple of these last year, and I found they really helped me solidify my feelings about my MFA and provided a clear record of how I felt at the time in case I ever need to look back and remember. So, this year, I’m doing them again. Some of the material I’ll include here will be repeated from last summer, either because it remains exceptional or still needs to be adequately addressed, but with time comes more information, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to be a little more thorough and a little more nuanced this time around.

To cover all my bases with my former, current, and future employers, please remember that everything expressed in these posts consists of my own thoughts, opinions, and understandings. Your mileage may vary. This week, we’re starting with the good things and the joys I found at CalArts. The list is long, but it comes down to two core components: the student body and the faculty.

First, let’s talk about the students, because holy shit. On a purely artistic level, CalArts blows every other music school out of the water. We’ve got singer-songwriters, performers, composers, experimental sound artists, music technologists, performer-composers, jazz musicians, and lots of folks who flow between many of these programs. So many of my peers are pushing the absolute limits of our fields and expanding how we perceive sound and music and performance art, and that kind of an environment is an absolute tinder box of creativity. Yes, we have some more straight-ahead folks too, but their craft benefits just as much from the experimental shenanigans so many of us get up to. As a collective student body, we all see the impeccably-made graphic scores; the pieces that make us scratch our heads and wonder if that really went as planned (#ComposerLearningMoment); the performances of Berio Sequenzas and Ligeti violin concerti and pieces of such difficulty that most orchestra programs would flee on sight and that are handed to us with nonchalance; the collaborations with animation and dance and theater and every other medium under our roof; the melodica duos and the instruments made out of pipes and rocks and the million other things that happen at school.

Here’s the thing about the CalArts student body: we’re what happens when you take a whole bunch of kids who were the weirdest humans at their respective schools and put them under the same roof. And despite the administrative issues we have to not only put up with but push back against, the school as a whole is a space where many of us are allowed to explore and own our art in a way that makes us happy. And CalArts, thankfully, understands that not every artist comes in with a comprehensive knowledge of music theory or an ability to read classical notation. It makes space (albeit imperfectly and sometimes uncomfortably) for folks who maybe didn’t have the privilege or desire to grow up with instrumental lessons or a good band/choir/orchestra program. More work needs to be done on this front, and we desperately need recruiting and enrollment to balance the school better in terms of who’s doing what, but I spent two years at a school with peers who stymie and inspire me, and I have nothing but good things to say about that.

Now that we’ve covered how happy my peers make me, let’s talk about our freaking teachers, because again, holy shit. Before we get into this, I do want to say that there are a handful of faculty who these comments don’t apply to, because, like every other music school, CalArts does not seem particularly interested in letting go of teachers who are harmful to students. I’ll explain this a little better in my critique post next week, but for now, let’s leave that where it is.

The faculty are what keep CalArts afloat in every sense of the word. So many of them, salaried and adjunct alike (can’t say tenured because We Don’t Have Tenure™ but more on that next week), go above and beyond their contracts and obligations to make sure that we as students have every opportunity to spread our wings. If we want to spend a semester or a year with a different teacher, we are sent on our way with an enthusiastic word. If we’re reaching for some concept we can’t name yet, they have resources to show us or people to point us toward. If we’re lacking in inspiration, they have hours of performances to show us. And, beyond all that, they care. Not just about us being able to craft anything we like from the air or the paper around us, but about us taking care of ourselves as humans and forming artistic practices that will sustain us existentially as well as creatively. The best lessons I got this past semester were the ones where I was sat down and told in no uncertain terms that my artmaking had to include honoring my own boundaries, time, and effort. (I got different versions of this lecture from four different faculty in the last four months.)

Obviously, I can’t speak to every teacher on campus, but if you’re looking at CalArts because you want to study with Nick Deyoe, Mattie Barbier, Luke Storm, Tim Feeney, Clay Chaplin, Anne LeBaron, Lauren Pratt, or Andrew McIntosh and you can’t study with them elsewhere/need to study with them for a significant amount of time, do it if your financial situation allows. If you end up at CalArts for any musical reason, look into classes with these folks and others—the other great thing about having faculty who can do everything is that you can take courses on just about anything (or run an independent study if there’s something you’re missing). You will take classes here that you will not find at another institution, which is also helpful if you’re going to add another degree on top later on.

While we’re on the subject of courses, it’s worth mentioning that the faculty have made it possible for us to learn how to actually run our careers beyond the artmaking part. We have access to resources on grantwriting, self-promotion, web design, and other critical skills that aren’t necessarily under the standard “artistic” umbrella. While we could always use more of this, the fact that they’re here is a big step in the right direction, and I wouldn’t recommend graduating without taking these courses.

Beyond the faculty, it’s worth noting that you can find supportive people in virtually every corner of the building, both within the Herb Alpert School of Music (HASOM from here on out, because letters) and in the Institute as a whole. You don’t need to worry about anyone telling you to dial down the art. However, this support is frequently complicated or limited by their positions within the Institute, but again, that’s a topic for next week. Do know that the folks here want you to succeed and want you to make art that moves you, though. This is true from the custodial staff to the front desk to the folks working in the offices at the front of the building.

As you begin to look beyond the building and into the Los Angeles community, though, you’ll start to realize that CalArts helps you there, too. Students have opportunities (not all that frequently, but a couple times a year) to play off campus and interact with the LA scene and community at large, and you’ll meet a lot of folks just by going to the shows your teachers and friends recommend or play on. The transition is a gradual one, but if you can afford to make the drive to the venues (which are a little spread out), you have a place in the community. Because we all do artsy things somewhere on the spectrum of Weird, it’s easier to be supportive instead of competing with each other nonstop.

As I wrap up this list, there’s one more thing I wanted to mention that’s been an overpowering positive at CalArts—the commitment to de-standardizing concert dress. The majority of this effort lies in the capable hands of Nick Deyoe and his work with The Ensemble. Our instructions for most shows were something along the lines of “wear something that brings you joy, that is special if not specifically formal; color is highly encouraged, but black is also fine.” That commitment to us, I think, is emblematic of the things CalArts pushes for, chief among them (perhaps) being that artists are individuals lending their unique experience and perspective to a project or performance, not drones that are all supposed to look the same and sound the same. We might be entertainers, but we’re beginning to poke holes in this idea that we need to look upper-class so our audience doesn’t realize their entertainment comes from people whose loan debt might dwarf their incomes for the rest of their lives. It starts tearing down the idea that only the wealthy should have access to music, and it presents a more welcoming environment for folks who might not have the means to get dressed up for a night out at a symphony hall. I think I’m going to write an entire post about this at some point, but for now, I’ll leave it there.

While I’ve experienced countless little moments—with friends, with faculty, with staff, and as part of the CalArts community as a whole—that have redefined my creative practice, this handful has been among the most career-altering. Would I recommend the school? . . . it depends. Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we’re going to talk about the things I really wish had been handled better, from things like technological interfaces to major concerns throughout HASOM. ♦

Thanks for reading! If you like what I do and would like to see more of it, come back every Saturday at 8pm. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.