Challenging Times Call for Bold Action

September 1, 2009

Now is not the time to be complacent. Nearly every issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about how difficult financial times are challenging the institutions in which many of us teach and study. State universities are being hurt by tremendous state budget deficits, many of which are resulting in drastic reductions in state support for higher education. Nearly all institutions are struggling with declines in charitable giving; not surprisingly, individuals who have watched their investments dwindle are less likely to donate. In addition, the values of many endowments have plummeted, leaving our institutions with fewer resources to support ongoing programs and new initiatives. Stories of institutional struggles are rife, and music units are not being held harmless; I hear many reports of unpaid faculty and staff furloughs, elimination of positions, cancelled searches, elimination of programs, and substantial, across-theboard cuts.

In this climate, we cannot continue business as usual and assume that all will be well. Change is inevitable, but, as C. Tayloe Harding said in his November 2006 President’s Message, “Change in music requires leadership…leading change is what we must do.” What can we, as music faculty, administrators, and students, do to lead and position ourselves for success as our institutions struggle to move forward at this critical juncture? Although these struggles are difficult and often painful, if we engage in them meaningfully and thoughtfully, they can result in increased quality and strength. Now is the time for critical reflection concerning how we are engaging the larger communities both inside and outside of higher education. Then, that reflection must translate into action so that community members personally experience the value of music and education in music.

Any of us can articulate why music and music programs are important and should be supported. We would not have chosen to spend our lives pursuing music making and teaching at the very highest levels if we did not believe that these pursuits were valuable. Yet, has what we believe about the value of music been made visible to and embraced and experienced fully by our institutions and larger communities? When budgets are being cut and positions are being eliminated, a natural response is to pull inward. Yet, I believe that we should do just the opposite; we should look outward and build partnerships and meaningfully engage as many “others” as possible so that they can experience the power and importance of what we do. By engaging others, we also will learn, which will result in our growth as musicians, scholars, and teachers.

Some of the easiest and most natural constituencies to engage can be found within our university communities. We have been interacting successfully with some non-musicmajors through our ensembles and classes for decades. Not surprisingly, many of the students enrolled in those classes and ensembles came to our institutions with meaningful music experiences; we deepened their musical experiences, but they already understood that what we offered was meaningful. Yet, we have little contact with the remaining students who make up even a larger portion of our student bodies. Ironically, music is an important part of their lives. Most of these students wear headphones as they walk around campus listening to their iPods. Many are active, performing musicians, playing guitar, writing songs, and expressing themselves musically in nonclassical venues. Unfortunately, most of these students see little connection between their musical worlds and what happens in our music units. How can we engage them?

As is usually the case with successful engagement, rather than offering what we think these students need, we need to consider and gather information about what they want. Then we can offer courses or other learning opportunities that relate to their interests. Once students enroll and we begin to meet their musical needs, we can begin to build bridges between their and our musical worlds. For example, John Kratus, a colleague of mine at Michigan State University, regularly offers a songwriting class that is open to both music majors and non-music majors. Many students enroll who have never before considered taking a music class. Music majors have enrolled as well and have found the class challenging and a little scary, as they have never been asked to create their own music before. Often the nonmusic- majors who regularly write songs are the best students in the class, which is unsettling for the music majors. However, the music majors bring knowledge of music notation and the theoretical and historical constructs of music that the nonmajors do not have. The result is music majors who begin to view themselves as creative musicians and develop better aural skills and non-music majors who begin to view themselves as legitimate musicians for the first time and who have a clearer, deeper understanding the expressive qualities of music and its formal knowledge base. Are there other classes like this that can enable us to engage with the students who are not music majors, using their musical cultures as a starting point? We need to continue to explore the possibilities, many of which will require stepping out of our comfort zones, both as teachers and musicians, into the musical worlds of our students. In doing so, we will all benefit.

We also can benefit from engaging faculty colleagues from other units. This could begin by inviting a colleague to give a lecture in a class or for members of a studio. The exchange could develop into more meaningful, richer ventures such as jointly taught, cross-listed classes or even joint research projects or lecture recitals. By interacting in meaningful ways with colleagues across campus with related interests, we can situate our scholarship and creative work more securely in historical, cultural, and philosophical contexts, and our colleagues can learn more about the role music plays in their disciplines. We can also model for students that music does not occur in a vacuum. The more intertwined our work is with the work of others across our campuses, the more it will be viewed as relevant and central to the campus community.

Building bridges to the world beyond our campuses also is essential to helping others embrace and experience the importance of music. Donna Emmanuel, Chair of the CMS Community Engagement Committee, wrote in the November 2008 Newsletter, “The goal of community engagement activities is to establish relationships and create environments in which music faculty can join more people in encountering music in all of its powerful manifestations: in ways that (a) are accessible to everyone, (b) meaningful within specific social contexts, and (c) recognize the aesthetic and practical value of all musics.” By creating sustained partnerships with constituencies in our communities, we can share in, as Emmanuel puts it, “a collaborative process of musical discovery.” (I encourage you to read her outstanding article that articulates the differences between engagement and outreach.) This engagement could take the form of giving a lecture or recital that would be meaningful to a particular population and allowing time for discussion afterward, establishing and coaching a chamber music program at a local high school with the help of your students, establishing a composition club after school for interested students at a local high school, or composing a new work in collaboration with and for a community ensemble. The possibilities are only limited by our abilities to imagine meaningful ways of engaging our communities and by our willingness to commit the energy and time needed to make these types of engagements successful.

CMS is already leading the charge to make campus and community engagement a part of music faculty culture in higher education. CMS provides its members with resources to help them be successful in their engagement endeavors through conference sessions and publications about best practices in and issues surrounding engagement. CMS also provides monetary support for engagement activities through its engagement seed grant program and the Gunstream Award, which rewards excellence in community engagement. At its conferences, CMS members go out into the conference communities and model successful community engagement for other conference attendees. (This will take place at the Portland National Conference; sign up at the conference registration table.) Music in general studies and community engagement are both important discussion and action strands within the CMS community and are represented by committees within the CMS structure, ensuring that the discourse surrounding engagement within and outside of our campus communities remains central to CMS.

So, in these times of financial challenge, be bold. Reach out within your campus community or beyond and share your musical gifts with others. In turn, let them share their gifts with you. Then share your discoveries with others in CMS and move the discourse forward. I look forward to hearing your stories and sharing in your triumphs and concerns.

2015 Last modified on November 18, 2013
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