Tracy Chapman. Guster. Harry and the Potters. Timeflies. Not bad for a school best known for teaching social conscience and global citizenship. But even before we were “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” Tufts students were making music together—the first official student music group was a barbershop quartet, founded in the same year as the university. We may not be a conservatory-style music school, but there’s definitely an artistic ambiance. All around us, musicians are heading to Granoff to jam at 11pm on a Friday, “din-dinning” in the back of an a cappella group, or just waiting for their moment in the spotlight, on top of a full class schedule.
Some say that it’s Tufts’ “jam culture” that should be credited for this atmosphere of creativity. Thanks to a college application process that involves an emphasis on “well-roundedness” and an admissions department that prioritizes passion, there’s no shortage of musical talent on the hill. According to sophomore Will Lenk, “There are so many skilled musicians per capita here that, if you are a musician, you’re bound to find people to jam with. Even people who don’t play instruments will come to jam with a group of people because they feel the music.” This appreciation of music might even be affecting our social life. “The scene here is changing,” says junior Brian McLaughlin, who sings in the Rare Occasions,. “Underclassmen are starting to realize that the shows put on by [student concert booking] groups like Tufts Applejam are a much more exciting and fulfilling alternative to the lifeless basement party scene; people come to listen to the music and dance and socialize and it’s really a lot of fun.”
However, while bands are becoming fixtures at both these student-organized events and at independent campus parties, that same Tufts atmosphere that leads to a thriving jam culture also inhibits the formation of consistent bands. As McLaughlin explains, “Tufts students are amazing, multi-talented people, but making original music takes a certain degree of focus and determination. Most people who seem interested just can’t dedicate the time or energy because they’re involved in so many other aspects of campus life.”
These problems are exacerbated by a lack of institutional support. Though Tufts’ students themselves support both jamming and the bands’ live performances, the administrative system in the Granoff music center often inhibits student bands from thriving. Musicians often complain about the difficulty of reserving practice space (bands can only reserve up to four hours a week) and gaining access to musical equipment. Specifically, sophomore Peter Stone of the Rare Occasions wishes “a better PA system were available in Granoff’s practice rooms.” According to the band Waldo, these smaller issues are telling of a larger bias. “They make very little of their equipment available to folks outside of the Tufts’ affiliated music scene,” laments Lenk, the singer. “With such a deep body of musicians on campus, you would think Tufts would make their musical resources more widely available.”
While these independent student groups are struggling to make a name for themselves on campus, they also complain that the music groups that are affiliated with the school, such as a cappella and instrumental ensembles, have more consistent performance opportunities. It’s not that these student musicians want to be recognized by the school; in fact, they’re quite happy remaining self-reliant. All they’re asking for is a forum. “[Tufts] could do a better job giving opportunities to independent groups to perform in front of an audience,” Lenk says. “Most open mic nights are student run [such as Vulvapalooza or through SSDP]. Tufts should host more open mic nights because there are so many good musicians and bands already here.”
Tufts may not host many events for student bands, but they do provide one opportunity: the Battle of the Bands. The winner of this competition, which will be held this year on April 7, gets to open for Spring Fling. Last year, the Rare Occasions took the slot. According to guitarist Stone, “I was going back to Spring Fling [after our set] through the secret musician entrance. I was behind this old dude, and they tried to stop him, but he was like, ‘Hey, I’m with the band!’ When I realized he was in Guster, I stopped him and introduced myself. He told me that they played Spring Fling when they went to Tufts. It made me think: if Guster got successful then the same thing could happen for us! So we gave them our demo, and never heard anything.”
So the real world counterparts of Tufts’ student bands might not be the most supportive. Fortunately, this is not true of the campus music culture. Older musicians mentor their younger peers in Tufts 2016, who “might be the coolest class music-wise to come through Tufts so far,” according to McLaughlin. Student groups Applejam and Midnight at Tufts are giving other students more chances to perform through the concerts they organize on campus. It’s clear that this creativity is here to stay. And that’s good not just for the university, which gets positive publicity through the real world success of these bands, but also for the student body. Before Maeve Bell-Thornton found Tufts’ musical community, she felt like she was missing out on college. “I was so sad—just a lonely musician without a home,” she recounts. After a different venture freshman year, Young Excursion, she now plays with Honey Baby, and is looking forward to recording music and filming a TUTV video soon. “You know it’s good in a band when you’re meeting to play, even when you really don’t have to,” Bell-Thornton explains, “and we’ve been jamming all the time. I don’t get anything else done, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Whether or not Tufts is supportive of its student bands is not clear, but it seems that no matter what those bands will continue to thrive. Thanks to the jam culture, busy Tufts students can participate in music. The bands that survive through scheduling conflicts have opportunities to perform in Battle of the Bands and concerts organized by the student groups Applejam and Midnight. So who knows? That girl in front of you in line at Hodgdon, or the kid hogging an entire table in Tisch, or the group guarding the cannon until sunrise — any of them might be the next big Tufts performer.