Music Administration: Adaptation or Spandrel?

April 30, 2008

Judith Kritzmire joined the Committee on Administration this year. She has had a distinguished career in music administration with positions as Director of Pedagogy at the American Conservatory, Department Head for the University of Minnesota Duluth for nearly twenty years, and currently as Director of Graduate Studies at Minnesota Duluth. In this essay she explores possible reasons for why one goes into music administration. How does one develop into an administrator? Is it merely accidental, a part of taking ones turn as part of the rotation, a circumstance in which someone had to do it, or is there something else afoot, especially for those who choose to continue as administrators? 

   - Keith Ward, Chair, Committee on Administration

Discussions of the evolutionary value of music are much in the forefront of current conversation among musicians, neurologists, and psychologists. Daniel Levitin, writing in This Is Your Brain on Music, quotes cognitive scientist Steven Pinker on the evolutionary origins of music.

Unfortunately for those of us who endorse the view that the value of music in our culture derives from both its aesthetic and survival benefits (see Hodges, 1996), Pinker challenges this idea, asserting that while cognitive mechanisms (memory, attention, decision-making, etc.) have a clear evolutionary purpose, once in a while we find a behavior or attribute in an organism that lacks any clear evolutionary basis and just comes along for the ride. This, says Pinker, is the case with music.

Borrowing a term from architecture, Pinker calls this attribute a spandrel: the space between two arches and a horizontal molding, or the triangular space between the exterior curve of an arch and the rectangular framework surrounding it. This architectural spandrel was not planned for; it was a by-product of the design, a lucky accident. It ultimately became the site of imaginative artistic sculptures located high in the arches of Gothic cathedrals. In Pinkers view, language is an evolutionary adaptation; music is its spandrel. Levitin observes that, if this is the case, many spandrels are put to such good use it is hard to knowwhether they were adaptations or not (248).

Leaving behind further speculation about the origins of music, the conversation does lead to a consideration of how the development of music administrators might fit into this discussion. How does it happen that good musicians become music administrators? Do we evolve/adapt from initial incarnations as music scholars, performers, theoreticians, educators? Are we just coming along for the ride from musician to music executive? Does our propensity to be where the action is (which often is initially in the leader of the band location) morph into administrative leadership? Like a spandrel, are we an accident of the greater architectural plan, or is it more accurate to define our work as similar to the artistic sculptures used by medieval artists who saw an opportunity to fill this architectural void with meaningful artwork? They saw a need, an inspiration, an opportunity. Perhaps our administrative growth has emerged in much the same way.

A few years ago, at one of the annual NASM Sessions for Women Music Executives scheduled during the annual meeting, the topic du jour was, Why did you become a music executive? Each participant spoke about her path into music leadership. As my turn to contribute approached, I reflected on my first administrative appointments at the American Conservatory of Music, initially as Chair of Pedagogy, and later as Director of External Affairs. The external affairs appointment took place when a new President of the Conservatory came on board and indentified his leadership team. The Conservatory was in Chapter 11 procedures, and he was to save the day, as it were. It was a heady time for a novice administrator.

At the first gathering of the team, I approached the president and asked him how he came to select me for this position. He succinctly declared, Some people are hosts and some people are guests. The hosts take charge of the event, the guests show up. I related this anecdote to the group, and found many aha acknowledgments. It seems I was not the only music executive in this group who understood this to be an accurate description of our personality. It spoke to our qualifications to be music leaders, and the ways in which our paths unfolded.

In reflecting on my subsequent development and career in music administration, and in considering the ways in which so many music leaders evolved into inspiring and competent executives from their beginning careers as (equally) inspiring and competent musicians, I prefer to think that those of us who do administration are not accidents, like the architectural spandrel. While many may protest they didnt mean to become a Department Head or they fell into it or they were coerced because no one else would do it, in reality, I think we like it! We thrive on analyzing music unit problems and working with colleagues to imagine and produce innovative solutions. We delight in the ever-changing landscape of the music office, the administrative council, and the committee meetings. We are proud of the way we can affect musical, and often personal, lives. We actively pursue ideas about how to do better what we do well. We read inspirational books on leadership, or quantum physics, or all types of how-to texts on survival mechanisms; we undergo ongoing episodes of self-analysis. How could I have handled that situation more effectively? What in the world made me think the (faculty, students) would want to do this? What directions do I see for growing the department, for energizing their talents, for creating a distinctive School of Music?

Music executives radiantly watch a glorious opera produced by their music unit because they had the vision to see the possibility, the tenacity to raise the funds, manage the myriad production details, and the wisdom (or just plain good luck) to find the musicians to sing the roles, direct the work, and play the score. We like what we do, and we are doing what we like. When questioned, we may say something like I enjoy the challenges (a euphemism for problems or worse). But I doubt we really take pleasure in having a group of faculty members stride into our office ready to argue about some decision we have made with which they take great exception, or in having to tell a faculty member s/he will not be reappointed, or any one of a myriad of tough and unpleasant tasks which come our way. It seems much more likely that the pleasure comes in understanding, respecting, (and often enduring) the process by which difficult, as well as positive, choices are made.

Another current buzz-word (heard frequently from current political candidates) is transform or transformation, To transform is to change markedly, the form or appearance of, or, to change the nature, function, or condition of; to convert. A transformation is the act of transforming; an instance of being transformed. When we evolved from music faculty member to music executive, were we also being transformed? When a fledgling administrator adapts to the rigors of music leadership, is a transformation occurring? In the context of evolutionary thinking, the route from musician /music educator to music executive might also be considered for its transformative qualities or characteristics. Was there a transforming moment when we saw the path ahead and made a choice to become a music administrator? In what ways are we transformed as we march through the days and years of executive leadership?

I clearly recall when my choice was made. I attended an NASM meeting in Chicago; the meeting was just a few blocks south on Michigan Avenue from the American Conservatory of Music, where I was Chair of Pedagogy. I walked in to the sea of dark suits and other attire, primarily adorning males or females associated with religious orders. The climate in the meeting room was serious, but energized. Big decisions were clearly being made by those assembled. And look at that: hardly a female among them! I saw an opportunity; I already had the interest; I had been targeted as a host, not a guest.

For others, the call to music administration may be less dramatic. I have had colleagues tell me I wouldnt do your job for all the money in the world, or, You couldnt pay me enough to be the Department Chair. In these circumstances, the call is more like a fall: we seem to be pushed into the role. At least, that is what we tell others and perhaps ourselves, initially. But I suspect that those who stay in the role, are transformed by both the responsibilities and opportunities of these positions as Chair, Dean, or Director. One of the most respected writers on leadership is Thomas Sergiovanni, the Lillian Radford Professor of Education at Trinity University, San Antonio.. He notes Defining leadership is not easy, yet most of us know it when we see it. (82) However, he cautions that In academic circles the topic of leadership represents one of social sciences greatest disappointmentsdespite thousands of studiesconducted in the last seventy-five years we still do not understand what distinguishes leaders from nonleaders (36)

Which returns us to the initial question of how music leaders happen. Are music administrators evolutionary accidents? Are we merely mishaps of our musical beginnings? I think not. I think most of us, in fact, did not make mistakes in judgment, or take unintentional side-trips into administration while we werent looking. I see those of us who chose, and those who in the future will select a career in music administration as having solid adaptive qualities of energy, creative spirit, balance, visionall characteristics which feed the music species well.

Music administrators, then, are not spandrel-like by-products of basic musical material (i.e.; the trained musician). Our adaptation into music administrator adds qualities to the world of music making and music learning, which surely enrich, strengthen, and ensure the continued work of the music unit. Like the feathers on a bird which developed initially for warmth but evolved into mechanisms for flight, music talent and accomplishments joined a hard-to-define, ineffable quality of leadership, and musicians evolved into music executives who couple the joy that is music and music making with the satisfaction and rewards of overseeing this remarkable process.


Hodges, Donald A. Human Musicality, in Handbook of Music Psychology. San Antonio: IMR Press, 1996, 2968.

Sergiovanni, Thomas J. Rethinking Leadership. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007.

Levitan, Dan. This is Your Brain on Music. New York: PLUME, 2006.

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