Buildings That Teach: Bernhard Music Center

Bernhard Music Center, winner of the 1982 “Cultural Building Concrete Award” by the New England chapter of the American Concrete Institute and the New England Ready Mixed Concrete Associations, is a building devoted to the creation and enjoyment of beautiful music. It is here, along with its interconnected neighbor Chapin Hall, where many of the musically talented members of Williams College find themselves at home. The two buildings host a variety of creative spaces for students and faculty to use, from classrooms and offices to practice rooms and concert halls.

Claire Leyden in Chapin HallThe Williams College Music Department offers a wide variety of courses, spanning different eras and regions. That very diversity is symbolized best in the first floor lobby area of Bernhard Music Center. In the glass cabinet by the main entrance, visitors are greeted by a collection of antique wind instruments. Many of these instruments, with unfamiliar names like ophicleide, oboe musette, and tenoroon, have little labels that read “was replaced with” or “during the mid-19th century”—they survived their times and now represent bygone trends of music history. Behind this wall of antiquated wood and brass, however, lies the much more modern Music Technology Lab, a space for some hands-on experience in music theory and composition. The latest music software programs, updated every year, are available for students. “You can easily experience the whole variety of musical styles, techniques, and approaches,” says Steve Im ’14, “you can go from harpsichords and tinkering with alternative tuning, to MIDIs and microtuning in the lab, just like that.”

This “all-in-one” approach does not stop with the type of music students can find at Bernhard Music Center. The building serves not only as a place to study many different types of music, but also as a venue for studying music in many different ways. Without having to leave Bernhard Music Center, students can enjoy a broad spectrum of experiences in a fluid and comprehensive way. W. Anthony Sheppard, Chair and Professor of Music, refers to this as a “liberal arts ideal” for studying music.  “With the close proximity of classrooms, faculty offices, rehearsal spaces, and practice rooms, the building itself embodies a liberal arts approach,” says Sheppard. “Each day, students move in our building from a music history seminar in room 29, to a lesson down the hall, to a meeting with a faculty member, to the tech lab for some homework, and then to a practice room late in the evening.”Bernhard Music Lab

Of course, it is not just the music majors who enjoy the educational benefits of Bernhard Music Center. About one out of four Williams College students—most of whom are not music majors—take classes or lessons in the music department; many others make use of the practice rooms and rehearsal halls; and almost everyone attends student ensemble performances. Various venues, such as Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, are also used for classes in other departments and public lectures. “It is one of the most intensely used buildings on campus,” says Sheppard, “because it is not only for music students, but for all members of the community who attend concerts and lectures at Williams.”