Harmonious Collaborations: The Art of Making Music Happen in a Small Department

September 1, 2009

The College Music Society serves a broad constituency. Collectively, one of its biggest blocks may be that of faculty in small music departments, those numerous programs with ten, thirty, or fifty majors. Programs in this cohort face challenges different from their larger cousins. How do such programs, many offering a single Bachelor of Arts degree and many with limited means, grow, thrive, and gain recognition? Nancy Ypma, head of the Department of Music at McKendree University, offers ideas for the smaller department on curricular development, raising visibility, and becoming an integral part of both one's institution and community. She offers ideas that may be particularly useful during these difficult economic times, but also will serve the chair of a small music department well beyond the current recession. 

  - Keith Ward, Chair, Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration

I have been at my institution for twenty-one years and have had the pleasure of seeing the music department grow from a program with no music majors or minors, only one full- time faculty member, and housing in one of the oldest buildings on campus to a program which now has 60 majors and minors, four full-time faculty members, eighteen adjunct professors and housing in a new Center for the Arts. I have enjoyed being part of this building process. With the economy being what it is, I have become more aware of the challenges we face now and in the near future. As I reflected on these challenges, I realized they could be organized into basically three areas of concern: developing an ongoing successful and "recruit-able" curriculum, increasing the recognition of the program throughout the community and state, and maintaining the program despite the ups and downs of the economy. Every music program faces these challenges. In a small department at a primarily tuition-driven institution, these challenges can be daunting. In this essay I share both ideas and initiatives that have served my department well in helping it face these changes, become a more visible participant both on and off campus, and grow.

When it comes to building and developing a successful music curriculum, having a support system outside the department is crucial. Partnering, especially with other strong programs at your institution, can be quite beneficial. At McKendree the School of Education is large and is well-known for producing excellent teachers. When we developed the music education program, we looked to Education for advice and assistance. The result: we cultivated a relationship that has been to both programs' benefit.

Development, however, is only the initial step. One must also make concerted efforts to sustain the partnership. When the music education major moved from the School of Education into the Humanities Division, our music education professor still attended monthly School of Education meetings, and we keep the education faculty informed of all developments in the music education program. Sustaining such partnerships can lead to initiatives that expand opportunities. For example, we developed a music minor specifically designed for Elementary Education majors. The Education faculty appreciated this development; for us, the number of students completing an emphasis in music increased.

In addition to working with the School of Education, we expanded our constituency to include local high school music directors, asking them for assistance and advice in developing our music education curriculum. By working with them we are able to say we have a "Music Education major built by Music Educators." Consequently, area teachers we serve feel good about sending their students, since they had a hand, as consultants, in designing the program.

Another partnership, this time with the School of Business, was crucial in the development of our music business degree. In the past many students had majored in business and minored in music, and these same students had expressed an interest in majoring in music business. With the assistance of the chair of the business school and other business faculty, we were able to develop a degree that in great part is supported by our School of Business. This collaboration has been an asset to our music department.

As a department develops its curriculum, it must also gain recognition for the program. Since our institution is located in rural southern Illinois, 25 miles from St. Louis, we can easily be overlooked as people look at the larger institutions in the state or the universities in St. Louis. So how were we to face this challenge? Most music departments our size do not have a large budget for advertising and marketing, so the first and most economical step was to develop a relationship with the Alumni Office. They helped arrange, with the assistance of alumni, opportunities for students and faculty to perform, thus giving the program more exposure. A second step was to invite high school students to campus to participate in a special event - in our case, it was "Be a Marching Band member for a day." We also have raised our visibility by hosting band and choir festivals, including the Illinois State Music Educators Honors Jazz Festival. We have presented master classes which feature our music faculty, and we have invited local high school students to perform alongside our students in those classes. All of these activities exposed students and local music teachers to what a music education at McKendree has to offer.

In addition to getting support and recognition from alumni, high school students and directors, we also needed the music program to be recognized by the community at large. When I arrived at McKendree and was asked to rebuild the music program, I was also asked to develop a performing arts series. This series proved to be a great asset for us. Subscribing community members, in addition to attending professional performances, attend student performances on a regular basis. Many of the performing artists featured on the series have offered to give public master classes, which resulted in bringing more people to campus. It was the performing arts series which brought to campus a community member who wanted so much to support the arts on our campus that she graciously donated the funds to build our new Center for the Arts, which in turn has brought recognition to our theatre and music programs. As this experience shows, allowing the community to be part of what you do can bring amazing results!

Building a program and gaining recognition for it are difficult, but in fact it can be quite enjoyable as there is a sense of accomplishment as you conquer these challenges. On the other hand, less enjoyable and more difficult, and yet equally, if not more important, is the challenge of maintaining a quality program after the initial jump in growth and recognition. Enrollment will plateau, recruitment may not go as expected, and funding may decrease. And yet one must be able to maintain quality in the program while at the same time showing fiscal responsibility if a department is to maintain administrative support. At McKendree we have done this in part by designing various curricula so that there are only two to four required courses specifically needed for the specialties other than music education and music business. We also track all our students so we can offer those courses either once a year or every other year, thus increasing class size and thereby making the course a better experience for the students. (It also saved departmental funds.) For the same reasons, we cross-list some courses which work well together (pedagogy and methods courses, for example).

Although fiscal responsibility is important, our paramount concern always is to maintain the quality of our curriculum through quality of instruction, pedagogical vision, and strategic use of funds. We also seek qualitative, evaluative data. This requires ongoing assessment. Each year we review our offerings, and we survey our recent graduates to see if they have any advice for us after working as directors in various schools. We also review the skill levels of our current students and then determine if we need to make changes in order to better prepare our students. In the long run, we know that a well-educated and prepared graduate is our best recruiting tool.

Finally, when faced with the challenges of building, developing recognition for and maintaining quality in a small program, I believe the key is productive partnerships. Partnering an "idea" person with a "manager" who enjoys working out details to make an idea work can lead to unique accomplishments within your program. Encouraging adjunct faculty to be full partners in the music program and using their ideas and suggestions can lead to new and innovative developments. Seeking out faculty in other departments to help in developing and supporting your majors can lead to stronger degrees and a stronger presence on campus. Communicating and partnering regularly with other offices on campus including the Alumni, Development, and Admissions offices will lead to more involvement of others in, and therefore more support of, your program. Inviting high school, community and professional musicians to campus produces more exposure for your program.

I have learned many things over the last 21 years as a music professor and administrator, but most importantly I have learned that smaller departments must make "music happen" on campus in ways other than in the rehearsal hall or on the stage. Just as performing a beautiful composition in an ensemble is the result of the successful collaboration of many musicians, the success of a music program on any campus is the result of the successful collaboration of many different partnerships beyond the concert stage. In a small department, it is crucial. It can be one of the characteristics that make a program unique and can be some of the most rewarding work for a department chair.

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