A Model for Faculty Performing Ensembles

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In the Fall, 1977 issue of Symposium, Jerrold Ross declared in his article entitled "The Performing Arts on Campus" that schools of music across the country have become "victims of our own success." His article addressed the matter of our establishing a home for the performing arts on campus, and the financial obligations which accompany that "stress of arts activities that were once considered peripheral to arts departments, but have now emerged as central to our mission." This article is a variation on Dr. Ross's theme, and deals with the phenomenon of faculty performing ensembles, one of the major sources of musical activity on our campuses. These faculty ensembles have also found themselves to be the victims of their own success, or the success of their parent institutions. This victimization is not so much a matter of funding, as per Jerrold Ross's article, but rather it is a matter of justification of their existence within the academic community.

In the mid-sixties, when arts departments in higher education were growing faster than plans could be made for their growth, music schools were adding significant numbers to their faculties consisting of professionals who were trained primarily as performers. Forming these performing faculty positions around the instrumentation of standard chamber music ensembles appeared to be a most natural plan of action. The plan only went so far as to declare the need for such faculty performing ensembles in order to provide a steady source of worthwhile music for the campus. Everyone rejoiced in the windfall—the local community, who began to hear chamber music on a regular basis; the campus administrators, who had discovered a good way to fulfill their public service mission; and the performers, who had found a patron to sponsor them. Unfortunately, local concert sponsorship was the extent of planning on many campuses. Now that economic hard times have descended, institutions are being scrutinized on matters which have been taken for granted in the past. They are being asked to provide evidence of the fruits of their labors, and in the case of faculty performing ensembles this evidence must be brought forth without benefit of well-articulated expectations.

The typical faculty chamber ensemble is a woodwind quintet, piano trio, brass quintet, or string quartet, according to the 1982 report of the National Association of Schools of Music entitled, "Chamber Music: Performance and Study at Music Training Institutions." These groups have typically been released from a token amount of teaching to engage in chamber music activities, if they have been given any recognition for this work at all. (Forty-four percent of these ensembles receive no workload recognition, twenty-four percent receive 1-10% release from teaching, and twelve percent receive 11-15% release from teaching in order to engage in chamber music activities.) Rehearsal and performance spaces are provided in virtually every situation, and other benefits received from the parent institution, although these resources are not universally available, include publicity services and materials, recording facilities, conduit for grants, and management support. This NASM chamber music report gives the profession a fairly accurate picture of faculty performing ensembles from a quantitative point-of-view, but the qualitative aspects have yet to be addressed by the profession.

That faculty ensembles exist to perform is assumed, but for academe, such a broadly stated purpose is probably too informal to assure continued sponsorship by the college or university. Performances generally take place only on campus, with off-campus performances occurring (often as a student recruitment activity) only if some enterprising ensemble member exerts the extra effort to make the necessary contacts and arrangements. Faculty ensembles perform standard repertoire, for the most part, although campus composers usually receive an invitation to write a piece for the groups at their school. Evaluation of the resident ensembles' performances or activities rarely occurs, either by the administration of the music unit or by music critics.

In the professional performance world a loosely understood goal to perform is sufficient because the critics, the box office, and, ultimately, the managers and sponsors will have their say about repertoire and other qualities that go into the performance. If these persons and organizations are satisfied, the group's existence is assured. Academe should be no less demanding in its expectations of faculty ensembles. Academe should be asking, "What is being performed?" "Where are the performances being presented?" "How well is the ensemble performing?" Appropriate answers should be expected, if the college or university includes performing in the ensemble as a part of the faculty members' assigned workload.

Processes for developing teaching or research assignments for faculty members in higher education are well-established by tradition. However, assignments for creative or artistic activities are usually developed through a very "loose" process, if any. The qualitative aspects of a teaching assignment are the result of extensive scrutiny in the curriculum process and lengthy preparation of syllabi, bibliography, and lectures or class presentations, as well as much evaluation and review in this day-and-age of accountability. Likewise, research assignments are undertaken only after a prospectus is developed and a plan for conducting the research and for evaluating and reporting the results is stated. The likelihood of significant recognition for or significant accomplishments resulting from activity in faculty performing ensembles is remote without some consideration being given by the ensemble members, and their administrators, to the same processes that have created assignments in teaching and research.

In developing a plan of artistic activity for a faculty chamber ensemble three criteria from within the traditional mission of academia recommend themselves for consideration. They are:

1. Originality, or the creative aspects of the activity
2. Advancement of knowledge
3. Professional Service

The first criterion deals with how the activity is creative and/or original. In most instances responses to this question deal with repertoire. Is the music to be performed new or seldom-performed? Can the ensemble sponsor the composition of new works through commissions and performances? Perhaps the works being performed are not a part of the standard repertoire of other ensembles and deserve a public hearing. No faculty ensemble can develop its own artistry by neglecting the standard literature of its genre and performing only new and novel works, but to look at an analogous situation, no institution of higher learning is likely to pay a science faculty member to report on research which is already well-known or well-documented. Therefore, the same institution should not be expected to pay music faculty to present recitals made up exclusively of music which is well-known and frequently performed. Each ensemble and each institution will have to determine to what extent they will embrace this criterion as a means of delineating the differences between being a professional performing ensemble and a faculty performing ensemble. Because of their more recent advent, brass and jazz ensembles can more naturally meet this criterion than can string quartets, piano trios, or woodwind quintets who have a sizable standard repertoire to attend to. This fact makes it all the more important that the latter ensembles carefully consider the question of repertoire in determining their own special mission in academe.

The second criterion is closely related to the first and pertains to the question of how the activity of the faculty performing ensemble advances knowledge about the discipline or art form. It is expected that a research assignment for a professor of history or anthropology would most certainly be directed toward the discovery of new truths which advance the frontiers of knowledge, even though the topic being researched may well relate to other times and places. Since performance is a creative activity, and creative activity is the artistic counterpart of research, then it behooves the members of our academies to expect no less from those who are assigned to perform in faculty ensembles. Ensemble members and their administrators should be asking if new insights into the performance practices of standard repertoire are being discovered and presented. Not to be overlooked here is that the activities and repertoire with which the faculty ensembles are engaged may serve to develop the musical abilities and insights of the performers. Learning new pieces from the standard repertoire is an example of such worthwhile pursuits. However, ensembles in academe must recognize that to devote all or even most of their activities to this pursuit, worthwhile as it may be, is for the faculty performing ensemble not to satisfy the second-stated criterion derived from the traditional mission of academia—the advancement of knowledge.

A third criterion to be considered in planning for artistic activity of a faculty chamber ensemble deals with the question of what services are required of the group. Does the music unit, college, or university embrace a mission to present cultural events of which recitals by faculty performers are an integral part? Such a mission could be considered appropriate without regard to the first two criteria mentioned previously. Perhaps the faculty performing ensemble is considered to be a part of the institution's recruitment program or of its service program to the public schools.

Whereas the first two criteria for developing a plan of artistic activity for a faculty performing ensemble are more academic and artistic, the third criterion is more oriented to institutional mission. The nature of these three criteria suggests that the members of the faculty ensemble lead the thinking in the first two and the administration lead the thinking in the case of the latter.

Finally, the profession must decide what constitutes accomplishment in the area of faculty ensemble performance. If performance is all, or only a part of the mission, will presentation suffice in fulfilling the goal, or will qualitative evaluation be required? In some instances, external evaluation may be appropriate. This evaluation can take many forms, ranging from media reviews of performances, to size of audiences, to invitations to perform on other campuses, or for prestigious and critical professional societies such as CMS, NAJE, NACWPI, ASTA, or MENC. In establishing performance expectations, the ensemble genre must be taken into account. A baroque ensemble, performing on period instruments, may have more opportunities to perform than a woodwind quintet due to its unusual instrumentation. A jazz quartet should not be expected to receive the same kinds of invitations to perform as a string quartet.

The external evaluation process requires that the profession address the question of what constitutes publication for a faculty chamber ensemble, other than public performances. Logical considerations include printed editions, arrangements, transcriptions, original compositions, and recordings. Articles on performance practices and reviews of new music published in professional journals are an obvious outgrowth of faculty chamber music activity. Vanity publications for which the ensemble must pay for production should probably be excluded unless the publisher has a strict editorial policy involving a board of professionals which passes judgment before publication. Critical reviews in professional journals and/or the record of sales of the vanity publication in question could serve as appropriate external evaluation, however.

The attention to external evaluation is not meant to negate the necessity of evaluating the success of a faculty performing ensemble from within the music unit. Self-analysis and colleague and administrative evaluation can readily be achieved if the goals of the artistic activity are clearly articulated. That is to say, if introducing significant new works into the repertoire is a stated goal, then accomplishment is fairly easy to assess, although value judgments must be made in dealing with the term "significant." A word of caution may be in order at this point, lest the false assumption be taken from what has been stated thus far that worthwhile artistic achievement can be guaranteed by clearly stating the goals and objectives and subsequently measuring the results. The creative process simply does not work that way, and I am reminded of what Alistair Cooke said on his February 10, 1974, broadcast over BBC of his Letter From America series. His comments illustrate a lesson which can be applied to the topic at hand:

This very day I have had in the mail four separate appeals for contributions to cancer research, three of them boosted with reminders of President Nixon's appeal to apply massive money and massive brains in, I think he called it, a "frontal assault" on the dread disease. It is the kind of crusade that makes first-rate researchers groan. I have a great friend who, during the Second World War, was approached by the military and asked to follow a particular line of research. He was a botanist with splendid credentials, a modest man and an exact and patient scientist. They kept coming back to him at six-month intervals and saying, "Well, fella, any results?" Then they came back at three-month intervals. This drove him up the wall. Finally he said, "Look, when you're doing basic research, you haven't a clue where it's going to take you. I may get the results you want tomorrow, or next year, or never. I may get a result you don't want." They wrote him off as a sluggard. He went on doing his own research, on seaweed. And when Sir Alexander Fleming stumbled on his great discovery of penicillin, which occurred by accident while he was studying molds, this fellow too was promptly designated as a mold chemist and offered fancy jobs from Harvard to Berkeley. He turned them down and stayed with his seaweed. Who knows? One day he may be seen to be the first link in the conquest of—I'd better not say what, or people will be begging me for batches of seaweed.

The hard rule in these things, and very hard indeed for presidential hopefuls in an election year (and here we might add, college administrators trying to account for and justify all for which they have a responsibility) seems to be: Trust the good, patient ones, and the remote possibilities of basic research, and stop kidding people with the promise that two billion dollars set aside for cancer or bunions is going to cure either of them.1

If creativity is seen as the artistic counterpart of research, this lesson can be seen as applicable to faculty performing ensembles.

The model for faculty performing ensembles has been viewed in this discussion on a planning-and-evaluation spectrum. These ideas are certainly not beyond common thought, requiring further development or intellectual attention. No certain solutions have been suggested, but rather only questions have been raised. For faculty performing ensembles to be able to assume a rightful place in higher education these questions, as well as ones which apply to particular campus circumstances, will have to be addressed. Without a doubt, clever faculty performers and campus administrators will find appropriate answers to these issues in a way that will promote creativity and sustain the faculty ensemble as a musical resource for the campus, the community, and the profession at large, without stifling the artistic process.


1Alistair Cooke, The Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp. 72-74.

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