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USA Today’s recent ranking of America’s top music schools has made waves—or, sound waves—on Boston College’s campus. The ranking has revealed BC as the #2 college on the list, putting Boston College ahead of the Ivies, and behind only Southern Methodist University. If you’re also wondering if this was a typo made on behalf of the USA Today staff, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
Four of BC’s resident musicians—from various backgrounds—weigh in on what the ranking really means, if it’s deserved, and what music on campus honestly sounds like. Listen up as music major, Andrew Gaffney’16; Former WZBC General Manager, Nick Benevenia’14; Boston College Symphony Orchestra prodigy, Jesse Mu’17; and Chris Vu’17, on behalf of Modstock-openers, Juice, add their own noise to the mix. You might be surprised by what they have to say. After all, it’s the students—not the statistics—we should be tuning in to.
I began by asking each of them if they thought the USA Today ranking was true, or, if it was deserved.
Jesse Mu: Judging by the metrics used by the rankings, it's not surprising to me that BC is ranked second, but this methodology is entirely flawed. College Factual bases the ranking on hard facts and statistics - median income, percentages, and the like. But what really makes a "good" music school lies in the intangibles: the school's professors, its atmosphere, and how much the school truly cares about its music program. Salary statistics barely matter when focusing on the collegiate musical experience. BC's music program is by no means bad. Although I have a few gripes with it, I've been very happy. However, I'd argue that when judging by what really matters, I don't think BC deserves the #2 spot.
Nick Benevenia: From the perspective of post-grad starting salaries and structured musical opportunities on campus, I believe BC deserves a strong ranking. However, in terms of a community that fosters the creation of music, BC fails miserably. Boston College excels at structured musical activities, but the student body fails at supporting musical expression.
Both Nick and Jesse seem to reach a consensus: based on the economical and statistical numbers, it makes sense that BC would earn an equally impressive ranking on the list. However, like any good composition, there are many more components needed throughout the process than what the final product reveals. Behind those shiny salary tallies, there were the four-year experiences that shaped the students entering the job force. USA Today does not have a metric for quality of collegiate experience. And, like Nick implies, although the administration can hand out equally glossy pamphlets with lists of music-related clubs and organizations, it’s how the student body responds to those resources that really counts.
My next question for our music men was whether they were surprised by BC ranking in at #2. I wanted to know if any of them saw it coming.
Andrew Gaffney: I was surprised by this ranking because BC’s major/minor is not very big, but USA Today does not seem bothered by that fact. The faculty members do not seem discouraged by the department’s size. In fact, they all seem more determined to give each student the
best music experience possible. The large professor to student ratio allows many professors to take personal interests in a student’s success, and students can feel free to explore music in their own way with faculty encouragement.
Spoken like a true mathematician (he is a double major, after all), Andrew was able to see BC’s smaller musically-involved population pragmatically. Interestingly, Juice seems to agree with Andrew that bigger might not be better:
Just from a band perspective, I think the community as a whole has been the best part of the music scene, in terms of the amazing support we've gotten as a group of students, and the support the community gives to musicians as a whole - albeit maybe because we're few and far between.
Perhaps, USA Today wasn’t so far off, after all. Although, despite these small groups of support, I was more curious to find out about the bigger picture: I asked how each person’s specific area of music was treated on campus, and how the student body at BC seemed to perceive and embrace that area of music. The responses were mixed.
Jesse Mu: BC cares about music insofar as BC cares about allowing every student to pursue his or her interests freely, but I don't think music is at all a particular area of specialty for the school. There are certainly great programs on campus that promote the arts (Arts Festival come to mind) and there is ample support for student organizations. Due to our chamber music program and accessibility of resources, any student who simply wants to play music with others can do so freely.
That's not to say that our music program is without problems, of course. For example, we must be one of the only schools in the world whose collegiate level orchestra doesn't have the privilege to perform in the school's theater. And, although the BC symphony orchestra is open to all classical musicians, we have a disappointing lack of participation and variety in our brass and wind sections.
I think a lot of the people who attend shows are personal friends, but there does seem to be a legitimate appreciation for the arts, and while many students may not be personally interested in these activities, most understand how important they are to the musicians on campus. Concerts, including BC symphony orchestra performances and chamber music showcases, are generally well attended, and I never feel like our programs lack support from the community. I do completely feel like BC embraces what I do in multiple ways, with its supporting professors and availability of music programs.
Nick Benevenia: WZBC explores the underground of music. We seek out and support bands and artists that the listener will not hear anywhere else because popular and mid-level bands don't need college radio as much as the guy who just recorded his first demo tape in his garage. WZBC is there to help the little guy reach the next level of popularity and success.
For this reason, WZBC is perceived by the student body as "weird" and "hipster." Some people choose to join us in the exploration of new music, while others prefer to stick to their own Top 40 playlists. Both are fine, no judgment there.
The student perception of WZBC has not changed, but I think students are becoming more interested in musical exploration. WZBC has seen enormous growth in student involvement over the past four years. When I first became a DJ in 2010, there were about 25 students involved in the club that were eligible to be On-Air. By the time I graduated in 2014, WZBC had grown to over 50 students on the airwaves, without including the hundred or so interns that pass through WZBC every school year.
WZBC has very few listeners on-campus, however, the station boasts a strong listenership in the Boston area. We estimate that at any given time, there are about 1,000 people tuned in. We are one of the oldest and more most respected college radio stations, and many people turn to us for new, interesting and unique music.
Boston College has been very supportive of WZBC over the past 40 years. They recognize the community service aspect of our work, which is often overlooked. Many colleges are abandoning their radio stations under the guise that "no students listen to radio," but they fail to recognize how important college radio is to the surrounding community in providing quality programming to help build a stronger community. I hope that BC continues to give us the freedom to explore new music and provide a service to the people of Boston who want to hear something different.
Andrew Gaffney: I’m not quite sure of the general perception of other students towards music majors. Concerts and other music events are very well attended, but because music falls under the ‘Fine Arts’ section of the Core, very few kids ever take a single music class. I’ve been alongside many other students who aren’t music majors but are taking classes, singing in choirs, or playing in bands simply for their interest and enjoyment. That being said, I know there are plenty of students who don’t even know where the music department is. Each year only a handful of students graduate with a music degree, and many of those have a second major. Granted, music is very different from all other areas of academia, and music schools should not attempt to manufacture musicians at factory-like pace.
Whether music events and programs on campus are beginning to gain more involvement because these newer classes of Eagles are better and more supportive friends, more curious towards discovering great sources of different sounds like the kind WZBC can provide or simply just have more of an interest, one thing is certain: although unexpected, the music scene at BC is becoming a force to be reckon with because of the people involved.
As someone who has been heavily involved and passionate about music throughout both his life and his four years at BC, Nick Benevenia thinks the increase in interest is long overdue:
Music on campus is not very impressive beyond structured organizations of Orchestra, Jazz Band, a Cappella, etc. The culture of the Boston College student body does not support musical creation or expression. To see this in action, attend an open-mic night. They are heavily promoted, yet sparsely attended. I can only think of a few BC bands and artists in recent memory who crafted new and interesting material: Camp Island, The Novel Ideas, and St. Pepsi.
I chose WZBC, because it is the only organization that effectively promotes new musical material and fosters the development of artists. Our success comes from the Boston community, not Boston College students. For this reason, I believe that BC is a poor school for unstructured and DIY music.
Juice hopes to change that DIY music scene, and with their recent success, they have witnessed the rhythmic drive of the newly passionate firsthand.
We believe BC music is beginning to flourish, largely due to a surprisingly nourishing environment. We've been given awesome opportunities like playing small shows on campus, playing at Faneuil Hall alongside other BC musicians, and participating in a battle of the bands. The bands here work hard and love what they do and the singer/songwriter population here is growing. Juice is happy to be part of the movement and what better place to be a musician than Boston.
With a musical revolution to spark some creativity and appreciation long overdue at BC, what better place, indeed, than Boston College. Maybe USA Today has found a way to see into the future.