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A musical Catch-22

Music groups are widely celebrated and loved on campus. From the department ensembles to niche performance groups, rock to a capella, it seems like we have it all. The University frequently uses these groups as a selling point, hosting “This Side of Princeton” performing arts showcases at each Princeton Preview event. For bright-eyed prefrosh, the musical opportunities seem so beautiful and boundless — it’s easy to be captured by the talent and mesmerized by the fun. One arch sing, and before you know it, you’ve committed.

But what it doesn’t tell you is that most of these groups require a certain level of music prerequisite in order to join. It’s not said explicitly, but how are you going to make it through auditions if you don’t even know what a scale is? This barrier alone disadvantages many students from low-income backgrounds who’ve never had the financial means to take music lessons that would prepare them to join these groups.


It used to be that anyone on financial aid could take free music lessons through the University — this way, at least, there could be some way to bridge the gap. But starting Fall 2019, this system is changing to one in which subsidies are only offered to music majors, certificate students, or members of faculty-led ensembles. Only after that, if there are remaining funds, will financial assistance be offered to others.

This is a huge problem.

Maybe you’re not convinced yet. Can’t anyone pick up a guitar, sit at a piano, or belt out the latest pop song? Are music lessons even useful? To which I can only say, absolutely. Having a good teacher guide you through your musical growth is so crucial. Sure, anyone can play around for fun. But in order to really get good you need to practice, and that doesn’t mean mindless repetition either — it means identifying mistakes or weaknesses and overcoming them intentionally. Oftentimes, this is nearly impossible to do without the help of a teacher who can watch you play or hear you sing.

But music lessons are expensive, and it takes a level of financial stability to afford continuous years of training. To give you a sense of cost, University lessons are offered at the rate of $1,300 for ten one-hour lessons. That’s over a thousand dollars, and just for one semester. Plus, music lessons are like vitamins — you have to take them consistently and continuously to see results. Taking one stand-alone semester is probably a waste of time.

Under the new system, essentially only music majors, certificate students, and members of faculty-led ensembles are guaranteed financial aid. This seems like the ultimate catch-22, because certificate programs and faculty-led ensembles typically require a background in classical music and are audition-based — in other words, in order to get into these programs and qualify for aid, you need to come from a family that could afford music lessons. If you want the financial assistance, you must have money to begin with. 

To corroborate, my experience as part of the faculty-led choir, Glee Club, has shown me that the overwhelming majority of members are those who have spent years with private music instructors or studied at world-renowned conservatories. Personally, my own musical background consists of almost a decade of violin lessons and a handful of years of vocal training. Though not impossible, it is very rare that someone can make it to Glee with no prior experience.


One caveat that I must note is the choir called Trego, which as far as I know is the only non-selective faculty-led ensemble. Students can be a part of this group, audition-free, and receive a 50 percent subsidy towards lessons. This is wonderful— but still, even half of $1300 is much more of a financial burden completely financed lessons. Also, there is no non-selective faculty-led instrumental ensemble.

This new system will exacerbate the already-problematic lack of racial diversity among campus music groups. It’s not the fault of these groups for being selective. Rather, this problem stems from an experience gap between students who come from different financial backgrounds. It’s the University’s responsibility to do as much as they can to close this gap. The University should continue to provide full and unbiased aid for music lessons so that these students have the opportunity to audition successfully into selective groups.

The University loves to flaunt its beastly $26 billion endowment, yet this new system fails to adequately support its students. Providing music lessons doesn’t even have to cost more money — it would only take a rearrangement of priorities. (Do we really need $5,000 chairs? Or to spend $30,000 on t-shirts and gear that students will never wear? Couldn’t that money be directed away from material goods and towards personal enrichment?) Alternatively, in order to use money efficiently, an effort-based system could be implemented in which students have equal access to lessons, but continuation would depend on practice and demonstrated work.

Overall, the University must consider that students arrive on this campus with an experience gap resulting from economic disparities. This gap affects students’ lives, and to some extent causes socioeconomic sorting in extracurriculars — the kind of grouping that stratifies such a seemingly diverse population. The University can admit as diverse of a student body as it wants, but there will always be a difference between being diverse and being inclusive.

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Some will argue that music is an excess or luxury, and that we as students are really only here to do book-learning. But I don’t believe so, and given the University’s emphasis on non-academic activities, I don’t think it believes so either. Plus, in this Trumpian era in which arts are usually the first impacted by budget cuts, Princeton is setting a terrible example by reducing funding for music lessons.

The effects of economic inequality are accumulated over a lifetime, and that can’t be fixed overnight. Music can’t be learned overnight. But still, there should be an opportunity for students who are truly eager and talented but have never been given a chance to at least try.

Siyang Liu is a sophomore from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at siyangl@princeton.edu.