At Pomona College, music is everywhere. From the muffled noise of occupied practice rooms, to violins resonating through the residence and concert halls, to a cappella concerts outside Frary at Snack, students have access to a wide range of vocal and instrumental music. Amid all of this activity remains an important distinction between the academic music program through the Department of Music and extracurricular groups, a distinction that can be lost on prospective students looking to discover the college’s ensembles.
The Thatcher Music Building is one of four or five stops on the Pomona tour, where tour guides are supposed to stop and talk to prospective students about music at Pomona. Tour guides are not allowed to mention student-run a cappella groups inside Thatcher, but instead they must wait until they have exited the building.
For Donna Di Grazia, David J. Baldwin Professor of Music and conductor of the Pomona College Choir and Glee Club, the distinction seeks to emphasize academic and extracurricular music ensembles that function differently but cooperatively. She said that enforcing a restriction on what kind of music opportunities tour guides can mention within Thatcher ensures that academic music and extracurricular music both receive appropriate attention and that prospective students leave with an accurate understanding of music at Pomona.
“I think it’s important at the college to speak about the curricular offerings in the arts in the same way we do science, social science, and humanities. To not speak about the curricular performing ensembles is a significant oversight to prospective students. It also wouldn’t represent the college to not talk about the student opportunities that are run on campus. I’ve always hoped there would be a balance,” Di Grazia said.
Daniel LaPook PO ’14, Pomona tour guide and president of the a cappella group Ninth Street Hooligans, emphasized that because a cappella groups are 5C clubs, it makes more sense to mention a cappella with other clubs to avoid overlooking academic music.
“I think there was a tendency for people, because [a cappella] is a very popular activity on the 5Cs, to jump into that when the topic of music came up, which I think is unfair to the music department because they have so many programs within their department that people can choose from,” LaPook said.
Justin Gutzwa PO ’14, Pomona’s Tour Guide Intern, has in the past received e-mails from faculty and staff in Thatcher regarding the failure of tour guides to make this distinction clear. However, no such e-mails have come up so far this year.
“What we talk about inside of Thatcher is the availability of practice rooms for 24-hour access, music lessons, music programs, and music classes, and then a cappella comes after that. It’s not a hierarchy; there are different sets of programs available to different people with different sets of interests,” Gutzwa said.
Academic music programs such as Choir, Glee Club, and Orchestra offer students course credit toward graduation, but there are other major differences between these ensembles and extracurricular musical groups.
“There are some very serious demands that any class that is part of a curriculum is going to have. So the two choral ensembles that are part of the curriculum [Choir and Glee Club] have as their primary focus, above all else, an intellectual and artistic engagement with the music,” Di Grazia said.
“The repertoire is significantly different, and the primary goal is different, and rightfully so. There should be a place for both kinds of experiences, and they shouldn’t be confused as being the same experience,” Di Grazia added.
On the other hand, a cappella groups at Pomona are student-run, which creates an entirely different experience for participants. Dane Zielinski PO ’16, who sings in Choir, Glee Club and the a cappella group Men’s Blue and White, explained some of the differences between these opportunities.
“There’s definitely a different vibe within the a cappella group. During rehearsals, especially because it’s all student-run, a lot of it is more focused on the social aspect, whereas obviously the academic programs are more focused on the music,” Zielinski said.
Though the academic music programs and extracurricular programs have different styles and objectives, Di Grazia explained the importance of music as a significant feature of Pomona.
“There’s a discipline in learning music that requires you to engage your own mind. There’s problem solving, working collaboratively as a team player with a number of other people whose strengths and weaknesses are different than your own. These are life skills,” Di Grazia said.
“Whether it’s the campus community or the greater Claremont community and beyond, I firmly believe that music is a gift, and it’s a gift that one can never really know how important it is to someone who is hearing what we offer,” Di Grazia added.
The music department, though it is not directly involved in a cappella, maintains communications with the various groups. At the beginning of each year, Di Grazia meets with the leaders of the eight a cappella groups on campus to discuss scheduling and vocal health.
“We work well together,” Di Grazia said.
One of the most important aspects of this collaboration is vocal health, which can be difficult to maintain given the exposure to sickness and the dry climate, among other factors.
Hannah Walhout PO ’14, a member of the Choir, Glee Club, and the Women’s Blue and White a cappella group, emphasized the importance of learning proper singing technique.
“For the academic music, it’s really important to our director and to us to sing healthily and not over-sing. If you’re taking voice lessons, or if you’re in Choir or Glee Club, you learn how to support and eliminate tension and all sorts of different things, and that’s really important,” Walhout said.
Student-run a cappella groups should also focus on healthy singing, Di Grazia said, but this can be more difficult to organize.
“In ensembles run by somebody who has experience and is trained to teach, versus a student leader who isn’t trained to teach, there’s going to be a different ability to help protect the voice,” Di Grazia said.
“For me, it’s hard to sing so much … One of the things about a cappella is it’s easy for you to sing in a way that’s not healthy … so [Di Grazia] is very clear about what she thinks our priorities should be and just making sure that we balance all of that effectively,” Walhout said.
Students who participate in both academic music and a cappella are able to take skills learned in Choir or Glee Club and transfer those skills to a cappella groups.
“Having to balance that many different groups, I have learned when I need to take a breather from rehearsal or just listen, and to be able to sing a cappella-style music with good technique,” Walhout said.