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Upbeat downbeat

Work begins on MSU’s $35 million Music Pavilion

Schmoozing VIPs crowded a drab rehearsal hall at the MSU Music Building Wednesday, munching ham sandwiches. Piano student Jared Burseth threaded his way through the big shots to eye a set of color renderings.

Burseth didn’t seem to notice that a few feet away, MSU Interim President John Engler was posing for photos with 101-year-old arts patron Selma Hollander and College of Music Dean James Forger.

The big shots were busy basking in the announcement, made that afternoon that a new, 37,000-square-foot Music Pavilion — a combination of new spaces and renovation of the old — was a go.

Outside, on the grassy field just west of the 1940 music building, surveyors were already laying out stakes and stringing out the boundaries of the new space.

The airy practice rooms, rehearsal halls and gathering spaces for students looked spiffy but fairly functional on the easels, but Burseth, his fellow students and MSU faculty scrutinized them avidly, like a unit of heart surgeons who will no longer have to operate out of a barn.

The first time Burseth squeezed into a practice room at MSU and played an old upright piano, without benefit of sound proofing, he started to miss his high school in Minnesota.

“It’s a white box with a piano and you hear 20 other people practicing, like they’re in the room with you,” he said.

With more than 600 music majors and 2,000 non-majors who take music classes, the College of Music has outgrown its old building, but there’s more to the story than that. The last major addition to the original 1940 building was made in 1956.

Rodney Whitaker, director of Jazz Studies, said he “literally cried” when he heard the project was finally a go. Whitaker is more responsible than anyone for the burgeoning numbers and prestige of the College of Music.

“Some of us have sustained hearing loss because the facility wasn’t built to modern specs,” Whitaker said. “Most rooms aren’t high enough and there’s no place for the sound to go.”

Climate control is nonexistent. “When winter comes, instruments crack and people spend a lot of money repairing instruments,” Whitaker said.

A contingent of faculty members helped draw up the plans for the new building. With 12 ensembles in the college, Whitaker said, three rehearsal spaces were needed.

“That will affect our whole schedule,” Whitaker said. “It allows us to have multiple rehearsals at the same time.”

In the new space, faculty members who teach loud instruments, like percussion, will have larger rehearsal spaces.

Former MSU trustee Dolores Cook, namesake of the Cook Recital Hall and co-chair of the campaign that raised private money for the project, was more fired up than anyone.

“This feels like Christmas,” she said. “It has been a long journey. There were days when we thought this would not happen, and we had changes in what we could reasonably expect.”

Cook said the campaign has raised $11.3 million in the past 14 months, with $6.2 million left to reach its goal of $17.5 million. The university will match that sum to meet the project’s total cost of $35 million.

Construction will begin with the demolition of Hart Recital Hall on the west end of the building. (Engler told the group to expect “a symphony of heavy machinery” in the coming months.) The new building will extend west and south toward West Circle Drive and attach to the façade of the current building. The project is on a fast track, with completion expected in 18 months.

Choral director David Rayl said his choirs will use the existing, renovated rehearsal hall, only with state-of-the-art acoustics. For years, they’ve had to walk across campus —rain, shine or snow — to rehearse onstage at Fairchild Theatre.

“The practice rooms are going to be so much better, the facilities for band, percussion — all transformative,” Rayl said. “The current practice room situation is grim. In midday, there are sometimes lines of students waiting to get in. They’re cramped and the acoustics are terrible.”


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“If you don’t get out of classes early, there’s a line down the hall and you might as well scrap your practice session,” mellophone player Nikki Sanford said.

The building has been a stumbling block to recruitment for years, even as the number of majors mushroomed and the faculty swelled in size and stature.

“MSU has one of the best music programs in the Midwest with one of the worst buildings,” Whitaker said. “Sometimes we lose high quality students because they’ll go to U. of M., Hope College, Wayne State. All those places have better facilities than we have.”

Trombone professor Ava Ordman, in her 16th year at MSU, remembers a plan for a new building that got as far as renderings 13 years ago, but never came to fruition, owing to budget cutbacks and the subsequent recession.

“Every year students come to audition and they’d go to Ann Arbor and see these new facilities that keep expanding,” Ordman said. “That’s always been a part of the recruiting process. It’s been a difficult sell.”

Ordman is another example of the disparity between MSU’s facilities and its stellar faculty. She’s going to Iowa City later this month accept the International Trombone Association’s annual award for excellence in teaching. She couldn’t help noting that the University of Iowa has new music facilities, too.

There’s little danger the new facilities will spoil the college’s hard-charging faculty.

In a corner of the old rehearsal hall, plate piled with cookies, veteran drummer Randy Gelispie of the MSU Professors of Jazz surveyed the scene from afar.

Gelispie said he’s happy about the new building, but it wouldn’t change his approach to music or teaching one bit.

“You know me,” he said, pointing to the dirty windows behind the architect’s drawings. “I’ll play in the corner.”


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