Music department wants to make sure it’s part of the master plan

Empty classroom


Space, it seems, is the final frontier at Pitt.

And the Department of Music wants to make sure there’s space for it in the University’s 30-year mission to transform the Oakland campus.

The campus master plan released in February gives conflicting suggestions about the Music Building, which was built at the corner of Fifth and Bellefield avenues in 1884 as the home of William Jacob Holland and his family. Holland was pastor of Bellefield Presbyterian Church and later Pitt’s eighth chancellor from 1891-1901.

Before the music department took up residence in 1971, the building also was the home of WQED and the birthplace of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

And while its history is interesting, the building’s facilities for music rehearsals and recitals are limited and not sound-proof, according to department Chair Mathew Rosenblum and Professor Eric Moe, who have both been in the department for more than 20 years.

The plan at one point says, “Special care should be taken to retain all or part of the Music Building, a contributing property to the Schenley Farms Historic District.” Then in a section about the third phase of the implementation, which is 15+ years away, it talks about putting housing at the Music Building site, and either “demolish or retain the Music Building.”

It also proposes that Bellefield Hall undergo a comprehensive renovation and become the primary home of the Department of Music.

The plan to renovate Bellefield for music, theater arts and fine arts was first proposed in the late ‘90s, Rosenblum and Moe say, but even though there were blueprints drawn up, nothing came of it. They say the University decided it needed to maintain the intramural sports facilities at Bellefield.

Music has been a big part of the lives of many of the best and brightest students, Rosenblum and Moe point out, noting that many of their students are double majors in the sciences. And as the caliber of the students Pitt attracts continues to improve, those students might be put off when they don’t find what they expect in terms of musical spaces, they say.

“The University places a lower priority on the performing arts than its students and the students it wants to attract,” Moe says.

Practice, practice, practice, but where?

Matthew Rosenblum in practice roomThe department has 18 full-time faculty members, 36 doctoral students, two pursuing master’s degrees and 39 undergraduates, along with 52 music minors. There also are eight active music ensembles on campus, which include students from all parts of the University.

For all those musicians, there are nine small practice rooms in the basement of the Music Building, which also houses the Music Library and has had repeated problems with flooding.

“This has been going on for 20 years,” Rosenblum said. “And they’ve tried to fix it in different ways over the years, but just two weeks ago (mid-February), we had sewage in the library and practice rooms downstairs.”

The other issue, of course, is sound.

“This is a Pittsburgh house and the practice rooms are in the basement, including a drum room,” Rosenblum says. “If we move into the next piano space on (the first) floor, you’ll hear the drum right below.”

The jazz ensemble rehearses in the building’s largest classroom, and “it’s a lot of sound in a very small space,” Moe says.

“You can imagine when the jazz band rehearses in a classroom what that does to the surrounding classrooms and office spaces,” Rosenblum says.

“You go to local community college, or you go to local high schools, not to mention our peer institutions, and it’s just like night and day,” he says.

When students and parents come to visit, Rosenblum says they often don’t show them the practice rooms. “We divert them in a different way.”

“We don’t have a lot to offer them in terms of facility. We have a lot to offer them in terms of faculty and resources and I’m very proud of that,” Rosenblum says, including the recent appointment of jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell as chair in Jazz Studies, effective July 1, and director of the Jazz Studies Program.

He says he was very encouraged to hear Kathleen Blee, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, and Provost Ann Cudd speak about music and the arts as a priority at the meeting of new chairs in the fall, and then more recently, Cudd talked about the role of the arts on campus at the Humanities Council.

“I was so pleased to hear that,” Rosenblum says.

Looking for solutions

Recognizing the short-term and long-term needs of all the arts programs on campus, Blee and others have been having talks about what space is available.

“We’ve been in discussion with the provost’s office to think about how to integrate all of our arts programs into the master planning process,” Blee says. This includes music, theater arts, fine arts and art & architecture.

“All of them have space issues — a lot of the school has space issues — but they have particular space issues,” she says. “In addition to space issues around classrooms and faculty scholarly space, they have space issues having to do with performance. We have been in discussions with the provost’s office to think about how we might address those. So they have not been forgotten in the process, but at this point, it hasn’t gelled into a particular direction.”

She notes that the master plan talks about moving the arts to Bellefield “long in the distance.”

“That’s obviously not in alignment with some problems that they’re having in the music building (now),” Blee says.

Patrick Cunningham, the Dietrich School’s executive director of financial and physical resources, says the main issue is rehearsal space, particularly for the drummers. “The way that building’s constructed, it’s a real vibration issue when the instructor and the student get rolling.”

He’s been specifically trying to find a space for drum rehearsals, working with the provost’s office. Some soundproofing has been tried in the Music Building’s practice rooms, and other material might be tried.

For those who want to practice on a piano, Cunningham says he and Rosenblum have been talking about allowing students to use pianos at various locations around campus, including in the William Pitt Union, O’Hara Student Center and David Lawrence Hall. Cunningham says he has a student identifying where pianos are located and then setting up meetings with the appropriate people about using them.

“We all have the same ambition, which is to have really top-notch practice rooms, but there’s a whole process to get there. I don’t think anyone disagrees on the outcome,” Blee says. “And I think it’s also important to note, although we’re very much in favor of resolving the music issue, there’s a whole number of other departments in the school that are extremely pressed for space, including instructional space and research space and lab space.”

Rosenblum and Moe are glad to hear that some discussions are taking place about space for the arts.

“What concerns me now is, it’s wonderful that high-level discussions are taking place, but we would like to be involved in those talks to make sure that they don’t make mistakes of the kinds that have been made in the past,” Moe says.

Even the main performing spaces on campus were not really intended for music. Bellefield Hall’s theater was built as a gym when it was a Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association building. Moe says it’s too small for the University orchestra and too big for chamber groups. And the backstage space is very limited.

“We barely managed to fit in a 9-foot concert grand (piano) back there,” Moe says. “The piano that’s back there is slowly sinking through the floor because there’s not enough structural integrity in the flooring.”

And the Frick Fine Arts Building auditorium was designed as a lecture hall and there are offices in the back that faculty have access to during concerts.

“The stage lighting is optimized for showing slides and not for lighting musicians,” Moe says. “It’s oval, which is, acoustically, a nightmare. Elliptical concert halls, there are none for very good reason. … And there’s no sound baffling of any kind.”

Moe says the University has shown “remarkable vision” in many areas, including creating the Jazz Studies program, “that’s a model of its kind for bringing both scholarship and performance, but they don’t have a place to play.”

“I’m always baffled by the kind of vision that you can have — to go out of its way to hire extraordinary faculty, on the one hand, and then on the other hand, have a broom closet to have our offices,” he says. “But in this case, it’s far worse because the… jazz ensemble needs a place to perform. The orchestra needs a place to perform. This is the only university I know of,  the only community college I know of, that doesn’t have a concert hall or a recital hall. All kinds of places have both.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.