On the Mission of The College Music Society

August 31, 1997

The College Music Society was founded in the late 1950s, by a committee of college and university music professors led by Harvard's G. Wallace Woodworth. This was a time when the nation's largely new university music departments were getting staffed by European scholars.

There was a great deal, of course, which "Woody" and his friends could not have anticipated: the gradual involvement of women in the workforce, the growing competition for Americans' leisure time, the development of national endowments for the arts and humanities, the evolving pressures of multiculturalism, the loss of respect for democratic institutions, the gradual disappearance of the nation's aural memory, and the growing power of big dollars to control the kinds of music available to an increasingly international public.

Nor could they have foreseen the problems that have developed, especially in the past quarter century, with respect to music's infrastructure in America: the growth in the number of symphony orchestras during the 1950s and '60s followed in our own time by increasing numbers of orchestral shut-downs; the gradual disappearance of musical instruction, during the 1970s and '80s, from America's urban schools; the gradual disappearance of newspapers and the diminishment of the space accorded to music critics in the newspapers that survive; the continuing rise of concert fees for the best-known conductors and soloists (James Galway now earns twice as many nominal dollars in an evening as the Eastman School paid him in 1975-76 for a year of teaching twenty flute majors); the rise of crime in many of America's cities; increases in the popularity of chamber music and opera (both of which have an aspect of visual immediacy that symphonic music lacks); and the gradual disappearance of concert music from AM and more recently from FM radio. (On the infrequent occasions when concert music appears on television, the medium of our time, it does so only in connection with international celebrities performing in venues until then reserved for rock concerts; the case of the three tenors established the new genre but will not end it.)

Certainly, I do not believe that even The College Music Society can hold back the tides of change. We cannot insist that Smith Corona continue to manufacture typewriters; we cannot save the streetcar as a principal means of urban transport; nor can we insist that "Fibber McGee and Molly" must never die. But, as a Society, we have made significant strides against the continuing pollution of our environment, against the continuing impoverishment of our inner cities, and against continuing discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

More than a decade ago, in The Future of Musical Education in America, the proceedings of a conference honoring the memory of Howard Hanson, I published an article entitled "On the Need for Bridging Music's Islands." There I argued the notion ". . . that modern musical institutions in the United States may be construed as a series of islands, an archipelago . . . the natives of each of which are accustomed to proceed without much knowledge of or interest in the activities of those on any of the other islands."

And I went on to describe the outlooks of several of the archipelago's tribes, including those who teach music in the public schools, the faculties of the nation's professional schools, the managers of West 57th Street in New York City, the critics of the national music press, the orchestras of the American Symphony Orchestra League, the executives of radio stations on which concert music is performed, and the officers of the major foundations that interest themselves in music. My article concludes with the following paragraphs:

When educational reformers stress the importance of what they normally call the basics, reading and writing, I try to remind them that what is really basic is thought-that reading and writing are in fact only the agents of synthesis and cogent analysis. Threatened as we are by a society whose political judgments are increasingly the result of suasion by televised slogans, we should seek out educational means which will increase cognitive capacity. Since playing and listening to music that is not simplistic appears to help develop cognitive capacity, I would argue that aural memory should be encouraged from an early age, as a central part of our K-12 curricula. A national radio network making broader repertories available to larger numbers of Americans would, I believe, also be extremely helpful.

While it may turn out in the end that tunnels and bridges among the islands are simply too expensive a public works enterprise to undertake at this time in our national history, I hope I have demonstrated the need at least for some regularly scheduled ferries, and a telephone or two.

David Willoughby, Editor of the CMS Newsletter, included the following statement in his guidelines for submitting lead articles to the Newsletter. It was distributed recently to CMS members, as follows:

Consistent with the mission of CMS, content of lead articles must relate to music and higher education -- the college, conservatory, and university music teaching profession -- as influenced or affected by . . .

  • any aspect of the total college-university environment ? the professional music world
  • school music
  • community music
  • the music industry
  • technology

It is hard to imagine an America in the new millennium in which the broad array of different kinds of educational outcomes produced by our primary and secondary schools will lead seamlessly to a national music curriculum, for concentrators and non-concentrators, on the collegiate level. But I worry, given the continuing focus in a great many colleges and universities on curricula devised before the days of the Kennedy administration, lest musical studies of the new millennium go the way of studies in classics during the course of the past half century. An avid student of high school Latin myself during the early 1950s, my abhorrence of the disappearance in the meantime of collegiate curricula in Latin and Greek has done nothing whatever to keep such studies from disappearing, wholesale, in both American high schools and colleges. Given the constant need for university administrations to respond to pressures for new interdisciplinary studies and for the development of new centers of intellectual activity that grow up at the interstices between previous disciplines, that seems to me a real possibility for collegiate music in America a generation from now, if we do not succeed in getting our act together.

Thus, I write in the spirit of David Willoughby's new guidelines, strongly to propose that The College Music Society urgently consider making the future of music in America a central focus of our activities, intellectual and political, in the new century that lies ahead. Such a focus would in my view inevitably give rise to thinking together about answers for the following kinds of questions.

  • Does musical activity in infants and children in fact lead to improved cognitive capacity in adolescents and adults? All kinds of musical activities or only some kinds of them? How can we define the sorts of musical instruction and activity which work best?
  • What kinds of musical activities in children lead to musical interests on the part of college undergraduate and graduate students? How can those interests be best enhanced during collegiate years towards the development of a life-long love of music? Do we make a mistake by focusing so much collegiate musical activity on the instruction of concentrators and graduate students rather than on non-concentrators?
  • Will support for the future of art music in America come primarily from the private sector, as in the past, or from the public sector, as the founding in the 1960s of the National Endowment for the Arts and the state arts councils began to suggest? On what does a public willingness to be taxed in support of artistic activity depend? Is there anything to be learned from experience on such matters in other industrialized countries? What is unique, if anything, about the American experience in these areas? Can we change any of that through new curricula?
  • Do we make a mistake in our professional schools of music by focusing so much activity on a student's ability to play or sing marginally better than the next artist? To what degree are such abilities germane to the continuing development of the careers of so-called concert artists? Are we making a mistake to allow current concert activities to be so centrally controlled, by the managers of West 57th Street and by the record industry? Are we making a mistake to insist on so subsidiary a role for musical avocationals? Would we really have been much better served had Charles Ives made a living from teaching music rather than from working as an insurance executive? Should we treat Gilbert Kaplan's incredible accomplishments with the works of Gustav Mahler as a unique happenstance or as a role model for other very gifted future leaders in politics, business, law, and medicine?
  • Do we make a mistake when we imply that our students -- rather than the faculty who teach them -- should be responsible for musical and intellectual synthesis? Should it not be a constantly sought after goal for musicians trained in narrow specialties to work together towards broader musical understandings and towards the creation of a more vibrant musical culture? Should such a culture comprise only materials imported from Western Europe? Should it not synthesize musical repertories, of various kinds, from all over the world?
  • Is music really a universal language? That is, is a Brahms symphony equally accessible to all human beings, or are there methods of musical instruction which will make various repertories more accessible to broader numbers of people than is the case at present? To what degree is the isolation of large numbers of people from a broad array of musical repertories neurobiologic? To what degree is it anthropological and sociological?
  • Should the job descriptions of symphony musicians -- or of college music professors-remain exactly as at present? Or, in the fashion suggested a decade ago by Ernest Fleischmann, ought we not to find new kinds of artistic possibilities, more general in their design, put together in a way that preserves musical enthusiasm for a lifetime while helping to bring music to a broader number of people? If people are to live in increasing numbers to be 90 or 100 years old, would it not make more sense to invest in educations which will keep us productive, spiritually and physically, to retirement at higher ages?
  • What should be the role of the media-public radio, newspapers-in making music of all kinds available to broader numbers of Americans? For example, must the daily press continue to focus on reportage about musical events which have already taken place, rather than on the opening of ears and minds to works not yet performed?

What is our role as college professors in improving the supply/demand ratio for music in the new millennium? Clearly, there is much to be changed, and a good deal to be thought about with respect to the ways in which young musicians and music lovers of the future in our own country are educated-as children and adolescents, as adults, and as senior citizens. It is my hope that The College Music Society will take a central role in thinking about such matters, a mission that seems to me very much in keeping with the views of G. Wallace Woodworth and the Society's other founders of almost forty years ago.

Who is to talk about such matters if not the members of The College Music Society? What is of importance to our common future, if not a continuing openness to questions of the kinds just reviewed?

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