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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

UF School of Music building is hanging by a note

<p>Trent Wellers, the building manager for UF’s School of Music, checks whether a piano’s strings are swollen to see if it needs tuning. The piano is about 70 years old.</p>

Trent Wellers, the building manager for UF’s School of Music, checks whether a piano’s strings are swollen to see if it needs tuning. The piano is about 70 years old.

She’s surrounded by empty black chairs.

Her cords contract and expand against her will as cold air seeps into the room. Her tune rings painfully against the cement walls.

The 77-year-old piano waits to be tuned in UF’s College of the Arts for the second time in two weeks, a practice usually done once every three months. She isn’t the only victim of the building’s harsh climate.

Other instruments, especially those made of wood, are harmed by the music building’s open structure. While the garden in the center of the building’s first floor is picturesque, the open rafters expose the interior to rain and chill. Even with the instruments housed inside lockers and rooms, Florida’s humidity dampens the classrooms.

Neither problem is helped by a poor heating, venting and cooling system (HVAC) intended to control each room’s temperature.

These are issues being addressed by the university. However, as students and staff wait for funding and legislation, the piano won’t play to her full potential.

• • •

Steven Thomas’ office is lined with cello cases.

While his office is considered one of the biggest in the building, space disappears in the windowless room with five or six cello cases standing next to a piano. But he’s willing to sacrifice space if it means his students’ instruments are protected from the humidity.

"When it rains, it rains inside the building," the UF orchestra professor said. "With excessive humidity in a building, instruments will begin to buckle."

Climate control is just one issue facing the music students.

Music bleeds from classroom to classroom because the walls aren’t soundproof.

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The roof leaks when it rains. And the college’s nearly 300 students must fight for practice time in the building’s 14 practice rooms.

The rooms’ small size and cinder block walls don’t absorb sound, making it difficult to teach students, Thomas said. Violins and cellos — the softer instruments — can be heard throughout the building as they’re played.

Music

This former practice room in UF’s School of Music building is now used by a graduate teaching assistant. The building lacks acoustic structure and the walls don’t absorb sound well, Wellers said.

Often, he has to coordinate with other professors so he can teach without competing with the sounds of brass instruments down the hall.

"If you’re teaching a music instrument in a room too small, you actually destroy your hearing," he said. "And we’re destroying the hearing of our students."

With more students than intended for the building, Thomas said the music program has outgrown the facility and is in need of a new building. It’s a building he feels is not worth salvaging — it should be gutted.

"When the infrastructure is not good, you can put all the Band-Aids you want on it —it’s eventually going to crumble," he said.

While the problems are persistent, the university is aware of them, UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes wrote in an email.

Last year, maintenance needs for buildings across UF reached almost $48 million. With total funding for repairs under $17 million, there’s a $30 million hole for remaining maintenance projects that could not be completed, Sikes said.

"As a result, the university is forced to prioritize campus maintenance projects, focusing specifically on safety and urgent needs," she said.

Despite being on the priority list, repairs to the building are slow without legislative funding and limited private donations.

Some of the music building’s completed projects include the addition of eight soundproof practice rooms, called Wenger halls, and new railings.

Music

Some of these chairs have been in the building since it first opened as the College of the Fine Arts in 1943. Torn and leaking cushion foam, they are still used for lectures and recitals.

The Wenger practice rooms cost about $25,000 to $30,000 each and were funded through private donations. A larger Wenger room was installed in Fall 2014 for percussion students and cost about $125,000, said Trent Weller, the UF School of Music facilities manager. The anti-slip paint was added over the summer and cost about $40,000.

But the cost of these minor repairs is nothing compared to the price of replacing the roof and the HVAC system, which are projects Sikes said are in the works.

Sikes said the cost for replacing the 29-year-old roof is estimated at $12 million and is expected to be completed April 2016. The 44-year old HVAC system is estimated to cost $2.5 million, but its replacement is still pending.

While the administration deals with funding issues, music students are working to bring attention to the problems in their building.

After students spoke with now UF Student Senator Francesca Levy about the condition of the building during the Spring 2015 campaign, the College of the Arts senator is currently pushing for recognition of the problems facing the music students in their building.

The 19-year-old UF art education sophomore went on a tour of the building with UF Student Body President Joselin Padron-Rasines, its issues apparent as they walked past crowded classrooms and cracked foundation.

They put the music building’s renovation on Student Government’s legislative agenda and will take it to Tallahassee to lobby for state funding. The estimated cost to rebuild the facility is $40 million, Weller said.

"We don’t want to put a Band-Aid over it," Levy said. "If we’re going to do this and ask for money, then we want to completely redo the building."

• • •

When Sophie Press waited for her audition in January, her fingers froze in the 40-degree weather.

"The practice room was so cold that I couldn’t really move my fingers, and the grad student brought me a space heater," the 18-year-old UF music freshman said.

The space heater solved one problem and caused another, drying out the thin, wooden reed essential to her performance.

With the reed needing moisture to fully function within the instrument, it became a challenge she didn’t need during the college audition.

But Press was still accepted and still decided to attend — not because of the building, but because of the chance to study under world-renowned clarinet professor Mitchell Estrin.

"I know we have such a great program," she said. "We can do so much in spite of this building."

UF School of Music interim director Kevin Orr said the building is one of the biggest challenges when trying to recruit students during auditions, but the school continues to grow nonetheless.

"What’s amazing, because our faculty is so strong and our curriculum is so strong, (is that) we continue to get outstanding students," he said.

But Press said she still finds potential students are deterred from attending because they fear the college could lose its accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music’s report. A report comes out every 10 years, and the last two noted the music building does not meet the needs for faculty or students.

But, this doesn’t mean the school would lose its accreditation, Orr said. A college loses its accreditation based on inadequate facility, low graduation rates and poor curriculum, he said.

The 2010 report found the handrails to be a safety issue and the need for a heating and cooling system. It also highlighted the limited practice space, the school’s inability to record performances due to the non-soundproofed walls and the lack of a recital hall, Orr said.

UF is the only state school to not have its own recital hall. The University of Central Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida have their own concert recital halls. UF has to rent the recital hall in the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the University Auditorium for concerts.

It’s estimated that it would cost $18 million to build a recital hall at UF, Weller said.

"What the push here is, we deserve to be able to provide a facility for these amazing students," Orr said.

Will Teegarden, a UF alumnus, said he would have considered doing his masters at UF if the building was in better condition. Now he attends Carnegie Mellon University.

"As vain as it sounds, it really does make a difference in morale (with) the space you’re at," he said.

Current students such as Kayla Poor find the space too small to practice and store their instruments.

"The school of music alone is not big enough for the students it has," Poor, a UF music education junior said. The 20-year-old has a locker that would fit her French horn comfortably if not shared with other students.

It’s her third year in the music building, and she doesn’t see hope for it as is.

"The problems that need to be fixed can’t be fixed with the building they have now," Poor said. "We need a new building."

Contact Ariana Figueroa at afigueroa@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @ArianaLFigueroa

Trent Wellers, the building manager for UF’s School of Music, checks whether a piano’s strings are swollen to see if it needs tuning. The piano is about 70 years old.

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