Thank you for the music: Bands at Stanford and Berkeley thrive despite rough odds

As annual debates over academic and social superiority resurface between Stanford and Cal students amid the buzz of the Big Game, the culture surrounding student bands and musicians at the two universities suggests the Bay’s notorious collegiate rivals have more in common than meets the eye — or the ear, for that matter.

While the Bay Area’s top universities attract their fair share of computer science whizzes and electrical engineers, Stanford and Berkeley also boast an equally vibrant community of musicians, including many that are classically trained.

Stanford bedroom pop artist EASHA (Easha Nandyala ’24) is known for her discography of “manufactured melancholy.”  She found her voice while training in classic Indian repertoire and now has a social media following of 57,000 on Instagram. Similarly, lead singer and founder of Berkeley’s alternative indie group The Pansies, Bella Sonen ’27, trained in classical opera and cello before turning her talents over to the cathartic influences of boygenius and Adrianne Lenker.

According to Sidd Wali ’25, saxophonist for Stanford’s “dad rock of every generation” band, General Consumption, the ease with which students transition from classical repertoire to pop is a testament to the technical prowess abundant on The Farm.

“When you have so many gifted musicians who know how to play so well, it’s easy to switch them into a pop setting,” Wali said. “I think that’s why we’re seeing so many people pop up — there’s so much talent here that wasn’t utilized before.”

Ty Hosein ’26, lead singer of Stanford’s jazz pop and neo soul group Six of Spades, feels that student abilities have gone under-utilized as an unfortunate side effect of Stanford’s post-pandemic policies, which implicitly discouraged the formation of bands in the transition back on campus.

“It was hard to get gigs coming back from the pandemic, so people were playing for free,” Hosein said. “It’s great they got to play, but cultivating a culture of playing for free — for exposure — isn’t what you want as an artist.” 

Creating student bands can be tough in a barren musical community. At Stanford, some bands established their initial presences outside of student social scenes.

When General Consumption was started in 2022, “there wasn’t much of a band ecosystem,” Wali said. “There weren’t many parties to play at, so it didn’t make sense. We were playing a lot of gigs for free.”

Despite early setbacks, interest in the student-run music community seems to be picking up speed as students have the chance to attend more student band performances. Such was the case with Six of Spades’s headline show at this year’s Admit Weekend, Spade Rade. According to Six of Spades drummer Sid Yu ’26, the event inspired a group of current frosh jazz musicians to form their own band. Seeing new sparks ignite in underclassmen brings fulfillment to some of the early post-pandemic pioneers.

“A lot of new bands are popping up,” Wali said. “Now there’s a strong band ecosystem, which is what we wanted. We were part of the original wave. It’s cool to see it paying off.”

Across the Bay, Berkeley’s band culture remains relatively small and casual, which can be a strength, according to Jillian Flynn. Flynn is the lead singer of The Hot Teas, Cal’s one-stop shop for Mariah Carey hits and neo-nineties bliss. 

“There are very few bands on campus, and most of them end up playing for Greek life. We have a lot of DJs here; live music isn’t as big in comparison,” Flynn said. “I think it’s cool that there are only a couple of bands. We get to perform with each other. There are a lot more opportunities to be called upon for shows.”

Miles Griffin ’27, guitarist for The Pansies, said they enjoy the intimate, “laid back” music culture on campus.

While the highly curated environments of Stanford and Berkeley offer unique resources for emerging, like-minded artists, they also pose unique challenges for those with long-term musical aspirations. Forming a band within a highly musically proficient student body is only the tip of the iceberg of hurdles; for one, Nandyala feels that increasing grind culture and world-class academics seek to “discourage the artistic mindset.”

“People are so busy here. It’s hard to ingrain the level of passion you have [for music] onto others when they have problem sets they care about,” Nandyala said. “There’s something about being in a band that goes far where you need that element of having nothing to lose — that element of ridiculousness — which isn’t really on campus right now.”

For Wali, the impermanent nature of Stanford’s band culture reinforces his appreciation for the artform.

“Pursuing music at Stanford is knowing the whole time that it isn’t end-all-be-all,” Wali said. General Consumption has always been temporary. The fact that it’s going to end at some point makes me enjoy every performance and rehearsal we have — it keeps me present.”

Jacob Isrow, drummer for Berkeley’s The Hot Teas, instead views his commitment to music in the long term, whether that be in the form of an official band or through other means.

“Music is not the kind of thing you give up. It changes forms,” Isrow said. “People will find different ways to keep it in their lives, but I think I speak for everyone [in the band] when I say it’s a non-negotiable.”

Regardless of the longevity of their pursuits, Stanford and Berkeley bands expressed frustration with the rehearsal facilities and resource allocation at their universities. According to Six of Spades keyboardist Kai Charp ’26, pianos that are available across campus are out of tune. This includes the tiny upright piano he and his five bandmates use to rehearse in one of Braun Music Center’s compact, three-person practice rooms. 

Not only are rehearsal instruments minimally maintained; rehearsal spaces are also hard to come across, since student bands can’t register to use them, according to Charp. His trombonist bandmate Andrew Zhang ’26 added that there are two rooms allotted for officially registered student music groups.

The Hot Teas and other student bands at Berkeley do not receive financial compensation from the university, as they are not “university-affiliated” organizations. Practice rooms are also often too small to accommodate the sizes of the bands, according to Griffin.

“We’ve bought all of our own equipment,” Flynn said. “The school has practice rooms that students pay to rent. We don’t use those rooms.”

Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley did not provide comment.

Despite the obstacles they face in acquiring adequate rehearsal facilities and support, Stanford and Berkeley bands maintain the vibrant, often eccentric culture that surrounds their presence on campus. 

The bands implement unique traditions to announce their presence and prepare for performances on their respective campuses. Miscellaneous playing cards flashing a six of spades are scattered throughout Stanford’s campus. The Hot Teas pat their bassist, Francesca Estrada, on the head for good luck prior to Row performances.

According to the musicians, student bands play an integral role in strengthening the broader campus community. For Wali, watching live instrumentalists “creates a closer community than listening to a DJ set” because it is a more “tangible” and intimate experience.

“At the end of the day, unbridled by the biases of being musicians, it’s about student life and students being able to enjoy live music,” said Six of Spades guitarist Jules Jackson ’26. “That requires funding, space for live music to happen, space for live music to be rehearsed. It’s possible with the right resources. You can’t neglect it.”

Andrew Zhang ’26 writes for The Daily.