Given Three Wishes ...

March 1, 2004

In January I wrote of change—both small and large—within the profession, the difficulties of affecting it, and the need to start somewhere. In response to that last issue, the CMS Board has posed a question to the membership for national discussion: Given three wishes, what would you change about your role as a musician/teacher in academe, in your community, and in American society? Congresswoman Barbara Jordan intoned the same question to a broader audience from the rostrum of the Democratic Party Convention of 1992, “Change—from what?—to what?”

If this question intimidates you, join the club. Howard Prince, the Board’s consultant at the Miami meeting, quipped that he now has three boxes on his desk: the in box, the out box, and the Too Big box. Indeed, where does one begin? For starters, we might wish to see the position of serious music in society change from a tiny niche to a more central necessity. I’d like to see music schools, arts service organizations, and presenters such as orchestras, opera companies, and concert series all working together as a network for the greater good instead of the present situation in which we all go our independent ways, wasting effort and funding. How about “music education” as part of every music student’s curriculum, instead of a separate degree geared only to teaching in the public schools?

Unfortunately this, or any, glowing vision of the future is impossible to achieve—alone. However, should the 9,000 members of CMS all wish for the same thing and realize their commonality through communication, then we’re getting somewhere. The question for national discussion is a sincere attempt to learn our members’ wishes about the most fundamental aspects of their careers. Lasting change can only occur as an expression of the stakeholders’ central values.

But why change at all? We have learned to accept our musical role on the fringe, to eke out a living. We avoid rocking the boat, and positively loathe it when those around us start fidgeting. Worst of all is change imposed, mandated from the top in the name of the general good. “A curious and troubling aspect of human behavior,” wrote James O’Toole in Leading Change, “is that reasonable men and women resist acting on social knowledge that would advance their collective self-interest.”

Change comes about only when there is a sense of true urgency. Change—or die. The evidence suggests we’re nearly to that point. Gunther Schuller’s keynote address at the last Annual Meeting cited chapter and verse to fifty years’ deterioration in the place of serious music in American culture. There is today a chronic shortage of music education students; even with the cutbacks to public school music programs, positions go unfilled because there isn’t anyone to carry the torch forward to the next generation. That sounds urgent to this member.

It is not enough to state the urgency once—it must become a shared concern, affirmed many times in a multitude of places. Who else senses this need for change now? How do we find one another? Establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to fostering the cooperation needed to affect change. With complacency high, it is difficult to find the forces to work on the problem, whatever it is; people will find a thousand ways to avoid the issue. By asking the question for national discussion, the CMS Board is urging the membership to acknowledge that the situation is indeed urgent. It is an invitation to realize your energies and dreams, contributing them to the benefit of serious music in America.

Out of these discussions, many ideas will come to light. If the decline has taken fifty years, it will take at least as long to repair the damage. What are you most interested in changing about your role as a musician/teacher in your school? If you could affect that change, it’s likely to improve both your life and that of the institution. Multiply this by the membership of The College Music Society, and continue on out into the community and society as a whole for some real excitement.

While individual change can help, it is much more likely that coalitions of members will form to work on bigger problems. During the CMS Board’s learning session in Miami, consultant Howard Prince outlined an eight-stage model for change based on the work of John Kotter. The second step toward real change, according to Kotter, is the creation of a guiding coalition. This view of leadership is new; rather than looking to one charismatic leader for all the answers, there is instead the recognition that for change to occur, we must all be both leaders and followers. No single larger-than-life person is ever able to do it all; on the other hand, a strong guiding coalition made up of people with a shared objective and a sufficient level of trust is more likely to succeed. We’re not talking about a committee appointed by the chair—such a group is self-selected and proceeds out of sheer desire. Everyone owns the results.

The first step necessary to real change, you ask? Establishing a sense of urgency! Hence, the Society’s Regional Chapters will be addressing this issue at their spring conferences. This is a grassroots issue, after all, and the Regional Chapters are a great place to begin this discussion. I urge you to make a special effort to be part of those meetings. We can (some would say must) have a voice in determining the future course of American musical culture. If we do not try, it will be determined by forces that do not share our values. May 2004 be the year we take responsibility for our profession.

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