Another View of Faculty Roles, Responsibilities, and Opportunities

August 31, 2005

Music faculty teach music in many different situations. The starting point for a statement like ours is an interest in creating a more holistic approach to the study of music, in making connections between the various subdisciplines with which we are concerned, as well as interest in making a greater impact on American cultural life.

I have difficulty with the suggestion that music teaching in the community is every musicians responsibility. Many teaching responsibilities exist and some of these are predicated on a narrow, specific area of music. If I, as a department head or a dean, have the good fortune to have as a colleague a fantastic musician who lives and breathes to play the violin and frankly, is unaware of much else in the universe (such people exist), what is my most sensible response? Should I dictate (or try to dictate since dictating to musicians is something like trying to herd cats) expanded responsibilities and horizons for this individual?

My answer, after spending twenty years teaching music in academe and working under some top-down managers whose answer would be an emphatic Yes!, would be No! I believe it is the music administrators responsibility to recognize that different teachers have different gifts and will handle different parts of the composite experience that each student will take from his or her years at a given institution.

A better question might be, Under what circumstances is the above statement true? I believe that Education in Music, writ large can be every musicians responsibility. At Muhlenberg College this has taken a very specific shape. We are a liberal arts college. 90% of our students will not make music their career. The same is true of students in our Art Department and probably other academic departments as well. Since 90% of our graduates are going to make lives and livelihoods which involve many things other than music, what is a sensible model for an undergraduate education in music or indeed, in any other field?

We have decided here to envision music study as a holistic undertaking. Our idea is that the piece that a student is preparing in any given week can serve not just as a vehicle for solving a performance problem but also that it can be taken into the music history class and examined from the standpoint of its location in a tradition. Further, that the same piece can be taken into the music theory classroom and examined from the standpoint of its architecture, the materials of its construction. We remind ourselves that it is as much a part of our charge to help students to develop their critical thinking skills and their abilities to argue a position elegantly and powerfully, both verbally and in writing. (This, by the way, is a position that I can comfortably argue with parents who want to know why their son or daughter should pursue a music degree.)

This suggests that music faculty, in spite of their focus or narrow specialty, can make connections, and can demonstrate both the connections and the means of connection to their students.

Music administrators are in a position to make our statement have force. Music professors could be evaluated on the basis of their music specialty and on their ability to make connections we have discussed above between various aspects of music study. Many music professors identify themselves as violinists, composers, theorists, and other specialties rather than as teachers or musicians. As faculty at institutions of higher learning, we must see ourselves as specialists who have a responsibility to make connections.

The rewards given by our colleges and universities come with responsibilities. I am a composer-performer who chose twenty years ago to accept certain responsibilities in order to continue to compose free of the necessity of selling each of my works in order to eat. I have been a free-lance percussionist who had to find constant gigs to make enough money to live. As a percussionist in a college I have the luxury of performing literature that is anything but cost-effective to learn. Am I paid for learning that literature or do I have other responsibilities? I have a responsibility to continue to mature as a composer and performer, and also to expand teaching and service.

The question is how do we want to define the balance between those responsibilities for ourselves and our colleagues? Maybe we do care about our colleagues abilities to make connections between various areas of inquiry, but perhaps we want to exempt some from this requirement. Perhaps we believe education in music is every musicians responsibility but this may sometimes require exceptions. Some performers have created careers which earn them the right to be evaluated on the basis of being performers and teachers of performance skills. Some, by contrast, excel in their ability to make real the connections we have discussed above.

It seems to me that the real solution to the various criticisms that many have all leveled at school music programs has more to do with the one size fits all attitude than with any intrinsic problem of large ensembles. I share the dislike for the concert or marching band model as necessarily the best or only model for developing music skills in high school students. When I was a high school student I had nothing to do with what I thought of as school music. My various Rock and Roll bands were much more exciting and certainly did all of the things a teenage boy was interested in (that would be to attract teenage girls).

Music offerings at all levels of study should mirror in some way the diversity of interests that our students possess. Courses centered around music literature could serve the same purposes that more standard history courses in the curriculum address. Courses in music theory could be offered with an eye to attracting students more interested in the structural aspects of music and, more broadly, thought. Courses in electronic music would be very attractive to students and, with the recent dramatic drops in the costs of computers, provide a relatively low-cost entry into composition, recording, and other a spects of music technology.

Perhaps the single most important shift that needs to happen relative to high school music programs, and some college programs, is the idea that the students are there to serve the greater glory of the program. The music program must serve the students in all of their diversity of interests.

2063 Last modified on May 8, 2013
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