Reflections: Why Are Ithaca College Pianos a Big Deal?

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At this point, most of the momentum behind what I’ve been calling “IC Pianogate” has probably worn off. We might still get some details about the damage done to pianos and marimbas in the Whalen Center for Music at Ithaca College (like this message from Dean Woodward), but I think most of the community has come to grips with what happened. Now, we all wait for news of who committed this atrocity and why so that we might have some resolve.

For now, I want to take some time and explain to my normal blog audience why you saw so many posts about this matter over the past two days. Some might say, “What’s the big deal?” or “It’s just a bunch of pianos; it’s not like anyone was hurt.” Others are probably curious why I would dedicate so much energy to an issue that doesn’t really fit with the standard mission of my blog: to resist religious privilege and advocate for the queer and atheist communities. I thought I’d offer this final post on the matter to explain why this was a big deal and why it was important for me to do the blogging that I’ve done.

Personal Connection. Obviously, I still feel deeply connected to the IC School of Music. I lived there for four years (2003-2007). For three of those years, I was the music school’s student government representative. Music students came to know me as the go-to person for issues and concerns both within the Whalen Center and on the greater IC campus. During the fourth year I served as the Ithaca College Student Body President and at graduation, The Ithacan called me “Big Man On Campus,” but my heart was no less in the School of Music. I still think of the community of students who live (almost literally) in Whalen, as well as the school’s faculty and staff, as family. Even though a lot of the folks I knew are no longer there, I still feel totally at home when I visit. And just as I felt entrusted to take care of that family while a student, I still feel extremely protective of that community as an alumnus.

Journalistic Instinct. I wouldn’t be a very successful blogger if I didn’t blog like a blogger. That means reporting in the moment. When I first heard about the vandalism yesterday from some students, I immediately started looking for specific details about what had happened. The students I was talking to were concerned, other alumni who were beginning to hear were concerned, suddenly there was a vigil for lost pianos, and nobody really seemed to know what was going on. I decided I had a journalistic obligation to use my blog as a forum for information, even if that information was not “official.” I went ahead with the reports of students and then also did what I could to create visibility for the Ithacan article that was published almost simultaneously. Some might think my efforts were “overkill,” but I disagree. I had well over 3,500 hits yesterday, which I can assure you is unprecedented for ZackFord Blogs. An IC professor I haven’t connected with in years emailed me to let me know he “found out more about the incident on [my] site than anywhere else.” Even though the IC School of Music is not the purview of this site, I was able to serve an important function this week for the community. (I also don’t fault the college for limiting what they put out, as this is a criminal investigation and it could also lead to negative publicity for the institution. I personally hope my own efforts to keep people informed and rally the united support of alumni only shine positively on a school I deeply cherish.)

This was a hate crime. I read about hate crimes on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. They’re almost all anti-LGBT and can be quite brutal. It’s my personal decision to not write about each and every one of them on this blog, but I still think it is important to be aware of them and the implications they have for the LGBT community. In many ways, reading about them regularly has forced me to become somewhat desensitized to them; I wouldn’t be very productive if I let each one bring me down. That being said, I had a bizarre experience when I first processed news of the Whalen vandalism. I responded the same way I do when I read those stories—oh, that’s horrible but I have to move on with my life. Then I realized that this was a unique attack on a community that I have a vested personal interest in. It had to click for me; I had to recognize that this was an attack on my family and I couldn’t cast it off as another sad anonymous piece of news. This was an attack on me and an institution I care very much about.

Now, “occupation” and “field of study” are not protected identities, but I still can’t help but think of this as a hate crime. Fortunately, no one was physically harmed, but the effect is that this was an attack on an entire community. Every music student has to interact with pianos to some extent, and no music student survives without spending many many hours down in the practice rooms. This vandalism constitutes a defiling of a home. It affects every student who has ever walked those halls (as many attested in the videos I posted last night and in the alumni messages I posted earlier today).

We can only speculate at this point about the motives of the individual(s) who caused this, and doing so isn’t helpful. We have to recognize, though, that the impact of the incident affects the entire community.

Piano ZackThe culture of professional musicians. Many might not fully appreciate what it means to be a student of music or a professional musician. I doubt I can convey the intensity of the experience in these paragraphs. The relationship between a musician and hir instrument might best be compared to the relationship many have with God. There is an intense affection, a real sense of a relationship, even though (not unlike God) what the instrument produces is only a direct result of what the musician contributes. Still, it is a venue for expression and understanding oneself. I often talk about my piano as a friend who is always there to listen. Where many see “a piano” and think it’s just a piece of furniture, I see “the piano,” an entity that has been with me through most of my life. Expressing myself by playing the piano is uniquely therapeutic. Many piano majors are incredibly picky about which piano they practice on and have been known to take over practice rooms indefinitely. The student in The Ithacan article described how music students felt like there was a “horrific murder.” He wasn’t exaggerating.

Compound that profound intimacy with the intense discipline it takes to be a successful music student. Many might think of the study of music as “easy,” because they see it as just a liberal arts major, or “superfluous,” because they think music is a luxury and not an essential contribution to society. Both perceptions are totally inaccurate. The study of music is incredibly rigorous. Consider simply adding 15-45 hours to the average college student’s weekly schedule to account for practicing alone and rehearsing with others in various ensembles. Students only succeed at meeting these high expectations if they are truly motivated by a passion that music truly can change the world.  I recall many of my peers complaining that the music building’s hours were insufficient (7 AM – 1 AM, 2 AM for finals), and I would always have to report back, “The Deans insist you go home and get some sleep.” (My fellow ’07 alum Leslie informs me that she could usually get in around 6:30 AM. See what I mean?)

I share all this to emphasize how cloistered the School of Music can be. Heck, when I was there we jokingly called non-music majors “Muggles,” adding, “They just don’t get it.” It’s also important to note that the faculty and staff do an incredible amount of work to make the Whalen center such a magnificent learning environment. My deepest thanks go out to the piano technicians and everybody who has given their time to respond to this incident.

Truly, the destruction of multiple pianos and percussion instruments isn’t mere “vandalism,” it’s desecration.

Returning to regular blogging. Unless details about the vandal(s) surface, this will be my last post about IC Pianogate. I will return to my regular ramblings about religious privilege, queer equality, and spirituality in higher education. This isn’t a blog about Ithaca College. Still, my time at IC very much shaped who I am today, and I expect I will always be a servant of South Hill. I hope the reporting I’ve been doing over the past 24 hours has been valuable to the IC Community; please know that you are always in my heart. To all of you who care nothing about atheism or LGBT rights, that’s too bad, but thanks for visiting my site this week!

To my Bomber family, thank you for always making me smile and for being my lifelong friends.

And to my regular blog readers, thank you for tolerating this barrage of seemingly obscure posts. Later this week, look for posts about the Salvation Army and the expectations we set for student leaders in regards to diversity outreach.

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There are 4 Comments to "Reflections: Why Are Ithaca College Pianos a Big Deal?"

  • Joseph Alkana says:

    Zack, I found your blog practically inspirational! Your words on the Piano catastrophe at Ithica were very well thought out and well written. One can sense that you are a very sincere young man who has experienced a successful acadenic career and learned far more than just the rudiments of music in pursuing a degree.  I found your blog while searching for information on the pianos at Ithica. I’m a piano technician and was feeling some empathy for Don, the school’s technician. Best of luck to you, and thanks for an edifying message.

  • Anne Woodard says:

    Zack, this is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have ever read.  You nailed it, front and center!  Honestly, this is truly award worthy! 🙂  I am proud to know you and call you a friend! 🙂


  • […] In a post on his blog (which has become one of the major sources for information on this incident,) Zach Ford said that he considers this incident a hate crime. When I read that it really rang true for me. I guess I’m not sure who was being hated or why, but this feels so clearly like an act of hate. I find this both as intolerable and as incomprehensible as any hate crime that I’ve heard of. […]

  • flask says:

    it’s the same thing when a church or library burns to the ground; something is lost.
    it’s been a LONG time since i depended on those pianos, but they never stop being part of my foundation.
    ripples spread. we are all lit with the same taper.

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