Pitch Please: Legitimizing Choir at Pomona

More often than not, I find myself turning down invitations to on-campus events on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I decline to attend not because I’m uninterested or reclusive, but because doing so would mean violating an irrevocable oath: thou shalt not miss Choir rehearsal.

From 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, I sing alongside 80 or so other members of the Pomona College Choir in the Thatcher Music Building’s Lyman Hall. As we near a performance, our rehearsal time extends to 8:30 p.m. and then 9:00 p.m. We never start early and we never go over time.

Directed by Professor Donna Di Grazia, who is currently on her decennial sabbatical, the Choir has been a staple of Pomona College since the College’s inception. Unlike most courses offered at Pomona, though, MUS31 is offered only as a half-credit course.

It is quite baffling that Pomona College determines MUS31 to be half as rigorous as any other academic course. In reality, participation in the Pomona College Choir is not simply an artistic exercise. It is a class that is as challenging and requires just as much energy and time as a typical college course.

For starters, members of the Choir spend three to four hours a week in class. And, unlike a history or Calculus course (no offense to either), one cannot fall asleep in Choir. The class involves hours of grueling, intensive work and, as Professor Di Grazia often reminds us, every member’s participation is critical to the choir’s ability to function smoothly. While staying fully present for hours on end may seem daunting, it is further compounded by the taxing task of deciphering complex melodic and rhythmic phrases without any significant period of rest.

Moreover, it is not simply enough to copy someone’s notes or cram the night before an exam. Musicians learn through laborious practice and repetition, the kind only hours of rehearsal and sitting at the piano plunking notes in solitude will achieve.

Choir also facilitates the learning of new languages. In the past year alone, the Choir has sung in a dialect of Creole, Czech, English, German, Hebrew, Latin, and Russian. Of course, it is not merely enough to learn the text; learning a piece requires translating the text, researching its author, and understanding its historical context.

And yet, the language of music itself is just that – a language. Like any other language, musical symbols indicate the pitch of a note, its volume, and how long each note, word, and phrase should be sung. Yet music adds a crucial component not found in conventional forms of communication: beauty. This aspect of music makes learning, understanding, and performing it all the more difficult.

Choir is not only a language class, but also a P.E. class. Due to the physicality of singing, participating in a Choir has enormously beneficial effects on the heart, lowers stress levels, mitigates anxiety, and improves a person’s quality of life. Choir is therapy, meditation, and aerobics all in one – the trifecta of physical activity.

Skeptics might question why MUS31 should be considered a full-credit class even though there are no regular exams, midterms, or finals. What they fail to realize, though, is that the most intensive, nerve-wracking final exam possible is a public performance. Performing while anxious and jittery in front of hundreds of people is not only cathartic, but a demonstration of an entire semester’s work, just like any final.

Pomona’s decision to treat MUS31 as a class undeserving of a full-credit is not particularly surprising. All across the country, in academia and elsewhere, music and the arts as a whole are treated as expendable; nice to have, but the first thing to go when the purse strings tighten. As an institution that prides itself on being unafraid to defy convention, Pomona College must rethink its policies towards music classes, and MUS31 in particular. The academic rigor required by Choir warrants full-credit status and we, its students, deserve as much.

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