Westminster Choir College: identity and experience after transition

By Kaitlyn McCormick

Since the move into integrate the Westminster Choir College (WCC) onto Rider’s Lawrenceville campus and the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, this semester has been one of the first relatively normal opportunities for WCC students to experience classes and daily life in their new setting.

Many students, however, have complicated feelings regarding the transition after seeing its aftermath firsthand.

Ties to the Princeton Campus

If there is one thing to know about WCC students, it is that they are proud of their college’s history – one that has thrived and was entwined with the physical setting of the WCC Princeton campus.

Sophomore music major Bella Nakum, who uses they/them pronouns, reflected on their own personal connection with the old campus.

“The choir college has its own history with a lot of really famous and reputable conductors using their spaces. … The Princeton campus has a lot of rich, rich history, and I’m finding that over time, a lot of that is kind of dying,” Nakum said.

A lot of Westminster students like Nakum and junior music education major Rachel McNamara grew up on the Princeton Campus attending various camps that inspired them to apply to WCC in the first place.

McNamara explained, “I transferred to Westminster the year that they moved to the Lawrenceville campus. But I have a lot of connections to the old campus because I went to camp there for several years. So that was the first campus I was ever introduced to.”

Marion Jacob, a second-year master’s student studying choral composition, also felt drawn to the Princeton campus and has been more or less disillusioned with the new Lawrenceville experience.

Jacob said of her time surrounded by other musicians during a choral institute workshop in Bristol Chapel on the Princeton campus, “I just was immediately steeped in this rich musical tradition.”

Students fear erasure

This move was not the first for WCC, originally cited as Westminster Choir in 1920 by John Finley Williamson in Dayton, Ohio. In 1929, WCC was officially established and resided in New York on the Ithaca College campus, before moving again to Princeton, New Jersey in 1932, merging with Rider in 1991 and now landing on the university’s Lawrenceville campus.

Students like Nakum, however, want to be proactive in ensuring the future of WCC’s legacies and traditions.

“I don’t think, and a lot of people don’t think, this move necessarily means the end of anything. But one thing that is different about this move is that Westminster’s identity as a school is kind of being dismissed,” Nakum said. “I think a change a lot of us would like to see is that Westminster history kind of be acknowledged and that the legacy of the school continue as it has for many years because I don’t think this move has to stop that from happening.”

Another point of concern is keeping the distinction between Westminster Choir College and Westminster College of the Arts, which was originally established in 2007. McNamara expressed disappointment in a lack of WCC specific signage around campus and merchandise in the bookstore, for example.

McNamara said, “I was under the impression … that we would be keeping most of our identity and would be merging with Westminster College of the Arts, but still keeping our WCC identity. But I don’t think that that really played out the way that we expected.”

Physical concerns and constraints

Aside from the legacy and history of WCC, a tangible concern in this merger is the space, or lack thereof, for rehearsals, practices and performances.

Jacob said, “The facilities on the Lawrenceville campus are completely inadequate to support the robust program that we do have at WCC. … Instead of having several different rooms available for different classes, for performance-based classes and singing studio and conducting classes and choir rehearsals, we have Gill Chapel, and that’s our only rehearsal space. And it’s not quite big enough to accommodate our symphonic choir, which is why it had to be restructured.”

Being heard in a bigger way

After feeling ignored and dismissed in an administrative capacity, Jacob and Debbie-Ann Francis, a first-year graduate student studying piano pedagogy and performance, created a petition addressing their disappointment with the handling of WCC’s integration onto the Lawrenceville campus. The petition, which was emailed to Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo, Provost DonnaJean Fredeen, Westminster College of the Arts Dean Marshall Onofrio and the Board of Trustees on Nov. 30, received over 130 signatures and counting from current WCC students as well as alumni.

The petition outlined several disappointments on the Lawrenceville campus: “Gill Chapel is acoustically deficient …pianos for students do not reflect a conservatory-level department …These [Fine Arts] classrooms are unsuitable for choral and ensemble rehearsals and studio classes.”

The petition also calls into question the lack of WCC memorabilia on campus, decreasing enrollment from students and the “lack of transparency and clear communication from the administration” regarding unfulfilled promises from the WCC move.

Signers are requesting “a response from the administration before Dec. 15, 2021, indicating that [their] petition has been read thoroughly, and providing details regarding how these issues will be addressed and resolved.”

Administration response

University spokeswoman Kristine Brown provided a statement to The Rider News regarding WCC student’s concerns: “We welcome all feedback from students on their experience at Rider. Given the opportunity to investigate and respond to such concerns, we are extremely confident in our ability to resolve them to the satisfaction of students, faculty and staff.

“Ensuring our facilities meet or hopefully exceed expectations is a constant focus. That’s why we worked closely with industry experts to create or adapt practice rooms, performance spaces, classrooms and more on the Lawrenceville campus, including the same acoustic consultants who worked on Hillman Performance Hall on the Princeton campus.

“This fall, audiences have enthusiastically greeted new recordings by Westminster choirs and their long-awaited return to live performance. We are fully dedicated to maintaining the high level of artistry and musical expression that makes such events — and Westminster’s unique legacy — possible.”

Moving forward

WCC students have made it clear what actions need to be taken from an administrative standpoint to alleviate their stressors and concerns, and now Rider needs to follow through.

While some people are trying to remain positive, like music education professor Jason Vodicka who mentioned how nice it has been to be near Lawrenceville campus colleagues, especially in the education department, it is clear that this entire situation could use some improvement. WCC students have lost a lot of tangible history in this move and have felt dismissed by Rider’s administration. Diligence on the administration’s part in not only making the Lawrenceville campus suitable for WCC practices but allowing WCC to thrive as its own entity with its own history may bring the overall Rider community closer to what Vodicka likes to describe as a “blended family.”

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