“What If? and “Why Not?”: A Reintroduction to CMS Forum

November 15, 2022

In the landmark 16th century treatise The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that "there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new." (Machiavelli 2010, 21)

Regardless of what one thinks of Machiavelli—a figure often viewed as amoral and a “teacher of evil” (Strauss 1958, 11)—and the controversial ideas he promulgated, we should give him some credit here: change is hard. Yet change we must, both as part of the natural evolution of music, higher education, and the broader world, and in response to more proximate currents and challenges that impact our everyday teaching, performing, and research activities. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the Forum component of College Music Symposium has served a unique role as a vehicle for change-oriented dialogue in higher music education. The central goal of Forum is to create a relevant, dynamic, and at times provocative interchange of ideas that inspires debate and “encourages the exploration of topics from a variety of viewpoints so that we can learn from one another” (College Music Symposium, n.d.). Forum presents a uniquely valuable platform for sparking learning, innovation, and change, and I would like to thank the past Forum editors—most recently, Stan Pelkey and Sandy Yang—for their efforts to preserve and grow this tradition of stimulating discourse toward the betterment of music as a discipline.

As I assumed the reins of Forum a few months ago, two simple questions—guideposts, really—came to mind: “What if?” and “Why not?” Creativity and communications expert Andy Eklund cited these two questions as the most important when brainstorming for change. A question of exploration, “What if?” asks what might be: “In a world geared toward making all of us the same…‘What if?’ dares us to uncover something different, something unusual, something else, something not the same.” The goal is to produce lots of ideas—as many as possible without judgment—since even “bad” ideas can inspire optimal solutions. “Why not?” is a different question altogether, a challenge to the real or perceived limitations one might hold about a particular idea. According to Eklund, “it’s vital to acknowledge and understand the issues and problems raised by ‘Why not?’ because it’s why the idea can’t be put into action…Without knowing the answer to ‘Why not?,’ you go nowhere” (Eklund 2011). When used in tandem, these two questions provide a yin-yang balance of possibility and reality, or future and present, that can help guide much of the discussion and debate generated by Forum contributors.

Thus, with “What if?” and “Why not?” in mind, I offer the following suggested topics for future dialogue in Forum that I feel are particularly vital to the current landscape of music in higher education:

  • Now that we have (hopefully) reached a point of stasis in the COVID-19 pandemic, what are its near- and long-term implications on postsecondary music education in terms of online learning, overcoming learning loss, and/or other considerations?
  • It has been about eight years since the initial version of the College Music Society’s “Manifesto” (Campbell, Myers, and Sarath 2014) was released. Where do things stand regarding the challenges and ideas described in the Manifesto, what progress has been made, and should the priorities outlined therein be revisited and modified?
  • Similarly, many of us are involved in initiatives at our institutions centered on diversity and equity issues, community outreach, and developing entrepreneurially-minded and career-oriented music students. What is the nature of true progress in these areas, and are there particularly effective models for achieving these goals that could be shared and adapted elsewhere?
  • Nearly all of us will contend with enrollment challenges brought about by the impending “demographic cliff” (Kline 2019), which many believe will be followed by a second enrollment drop related to the COVID-19 pandemic (Schroeder 2021). How can we as higher music education professionals prepare for these challenges, and what might we do to diversify what we offer or expand our reach to turn these challenges into opportunities for innovation and growth?

Please consider contributing an essay on these or other priority issues, or short of that, engaging with others about their Forum essays via the comments section on the College Music Symposium website (https://symposium.music.org/index.php/forum).

Even though the bulk of the contributions in this issue were begun before I assumed editorial responsibility for Forum, in many ways they reflect the “What if?” and “Why not?” ethos I described above. In “Creating Content for the 21st Century Music Student,” Anthony Bushard details how he and a colleague utilized readily-available technology to author and self-publish a digital textbook customized to the needs of their students. Similarly, Reba A. Wissner describes development of an engaging “Music-Driven Syllabus” as a means of addressing the age-old problem of students not reading or attending to course syllabi. In “The Creativity of One,” Courtenay L. Harter details an innovative curricular structure that engages a variety of undergraduate music students—majors, minors, and nonconcentrators alike—with fundamental skills, diverse repertoire choices, and a tiered course sequence. Bringing us full circle to Machiavelli’s sentiment about the plight of the innovator, Eric J. Lapin’s “Achieving Faculty Buy-In for Visionary Change in Music Higher Education” examines the difficulties and opportunities inherent to the process of effecting change in postsecondary music and better equipping students for the modern music industry.

It is an honor to serve as Editor of CMS Forums. I hope you enjoy the essays featured in this issue, and please join the conversation by contributing your own manuscripts (and commentary on our website) as we ponder the “What if? and “Why not?” of music in higher education.



Campbell, Patricia S., David Myers, and Ed Sarath. 2014. Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors. https://www.music.org/pdf/pubs/tfumm/TFUMM.pdf.

College Music Symposium. n.d. “Submission Guidelines.” Accessed August 13, 2022.https://symposium.music.org/index.php/submission-guidelines.

Eklund, Andy. 2011. “The Two Most Important Questions for Brainstorms (What If? and Why Not?).” Last modified May 9, 2011. https://andyeklund.com/the-two-most-important-questions-for-brainstorms/.

Kline, Missy. 2019. “The Looming Higher Ed Enrollment Cliff.” College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Accessed August 13, 2022. https://www.cupahr.org/issue/feature/higher-ed-enrollment-cliff/.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 2010. The Prince. Translated by Michael Ashley and William K. Marriott. Campbell, CA: FastPencil, Inc.

Schroeder, Ray. 2021. “A Second Demographic Cliff Adds to Urgency for Change.” Inside Higher Ed. Last modified May 19, 2021. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/online-trending-now/second-demographic-cliff-adds-urgency-change.

Strauss, Leo. 1958. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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