On Teaching in Challenging Times
Published online: 1 November 1993
We are educating musicians in challenging times for the arts in the United States. At every hand, we receive information about budget shortfalls, program cuts, increasing financial barriers to graduate study, diminishing course offerings, golden handshakes, loss of faculty positions, and increasing competition for those positions that remain in music. In The New York Times, William Grimes described "a crisis in government and corporate support for the arts, the near-collapse of musical education in the primary and secondary schools and a shrinking marketplace for classical musicians" (June 2, 1993, B1). In his column on changes at Juilliard, he also referred to concern about the shrinking marketplace for students of music in higher education, regardless of their area of interest. He also referred to those who think there is no problem. But they may not be teaching in southern California, Virginia, the northwest, northeast, or other hard-hit regions of the United States.
What are some obvious ways in which we can meet the challenges of this era? Efforts to monitor the cultural environment in the United States. Michael Greene, President and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, mentioned recently in Grammy Magazine the importance of being aware of what is going on in American culture. Seventy-five percent of the students in Juilliard's piano department are reported to be students from outside the United States, many of them Asians, although they may plan to make their artistic contributions within the United States.
Let's look for options in administrative or institutional structures. The Graduate Education Project of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has encouraged a regional perspective in graduate education, promoting resource sharing between member institutions. Access was provided to selected programs in 35 graduate institutions that were not available at the student's campuses. Reduced tuition and special admission consideration were given to out-of-state students applying to these programs. This model offers exciting possibilities in a period of economic difficulty. Programs are nominated and reviewed for their contribution to graduate education. There are other such ideas and options around the country that I hope that you will identify and draw to my attention over the next few months. We need to become proactive and creative in dealing with the difficult situations we are facing in higher education.
Let's look at options for action involving students. For one thing, perhaps it is necessary to admit fewer students in programs where the viability for positions in that area of specialization is limited. Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard, was quoted (The New York Times, June 2, 1993, B6) that "We have to be sure that every student admitted has the potential for some kind of life in the arts." Easy to say, but limiting enrollment in programs is a Catch-22, since small programs provoke attention and can appear easier to cut when budgets dry up. We can ensure that the students in our programs belong there. Where students enrolled in a program reflect a high quality of achievement, there is usually no problem with accountability. What are the implications when seventy-five percent of the students in Juilliard's piano department are reported to be students from outside the United States, although they may plan to make their artistic contributions within the United States? What about the variety in competencies that are developed in collegiate education? Could that be extended to benefit our students' capability to perform effectively in a variety of ensembles? Cross-style or genre performance competence is demonstrated by more and more music students as they enter higher education. Building on these competencies is possible through a variety of means, including adjunct faculty, courses that are set up to make use of community resources, and cooperative programs with professional musical institutions.
Another way to meet challenges of this era is to ensure that students have the best instruction possible. This is a national preoccupation now, as the quality of instruction, especially in undergraduate programs, is under inspection. We all need great teachers at every level of our life. Great teachers have profound beliefs about what they do. They consistently analyze what they are doing, reexamine their assumptions regularly, and reevaluate their instructional interaction on a continuing basis. Great teachers have a metacognitive perspective on the world of music allowing them to provide vision and inspiration to their students and colleagues. Great teachers take time for reflection and ask difficult questions of themselves and others. It may be difficult to try to be a great teacher, but why not? It doesn't matter if we don't always make it. I certainly had a seminar in Spring Quarter, 1993 that didn't benefit from my instructional tinkering. Now that I am retired, and teaching only 1-1/2 quarters, I decided to be sure that my classes did not calcify. But my seminar in Music and Socialization was the pits. I tried an experiment—to see if we could write an article reviewing the research literature relative to a problem I had observed and a theory that I had developed regarding teacher socialization. It was my idea that the process of bibliographical research, contributing to the article, submitting the article to an editor and senior researcher for review, interviewing interns and first-year teachers to double-check conclusions, even though it was compacted within a ten-week period, would give the students valuable experience and a running start on expectations of them as scholars. The article is done, and it is a good, solid first draft. But the process was not at all effective in meeting the educational goals I had set. Somehow the students felt that they didn't have the instructional support they needed from me and were disenfranchised in terms of the final product. Candidly, their response to the seminar came as a complete shock to me. On the other hand, during the same quarter, I also totally reorganized my Sociology of Music class on both undergraduate and graduate levels—making music and music-making more clearly the center of study, supported by relevant theories and literature from musicology and social sciences. In this class, there was a burst of vitality that was fun and productive for me—and, as reported in student evaluations, for the students. I would not trade anything for the range of revelations I got in the course of the student evaluations of both classes, nor for the instructional experiences. Efforts to improve instruction can be a lot of work and, sometimes, bruise the ego, but the alternative can be formulaic teaching that becomes too slick and practised to provide a vivid, lived experience of musical study and development.
Creating an environment in which the atmosphere is collegial and the necessary social support systems for faculty and students are in place so that music-making, teaching, and learning are undertaken in an environment conducive to it is another necessary dimension in these uncertain times. The quality of life in an institution is critical to instruction and learning. This includes freedom from harassment of any kind. Competition can be a resource and a positive motivational and evaluative ingredient in the training ground for musicians. However, there is increasing evidence that negative feedback, criticism without accompanying suggestions of solutions or options, and demeaning arrogance are extremely deleterious to learning.
The politics of music in higher education is not always a pleasant component of our profession, yet its negative aspects flourish in times of crisis. Of course, we are sophisticated enough to know that there are political dimensions in any human transactions. However, I have been struck by the statement that I overheard about the degree of viciousness of politics in higher education being directly related to how little there is to gain. If we fall for political expedience in making decisions, we have abrogated our educational responsibilities. We are watching economics drive educational decisions. Hard-core, open study and discussion of curricular and structural reprioritization in the face of economic realities is reportedly happening in some institutions. But in many others, important elements of musical study, and, sadly, innovative programs in music in higher education, are falling victim to entrenched power relations without comment. A magisterial vision of music in higher education in the twenty-first century is too rare.
Rigid boundaries between music disciplines contribute to our malaise, creating insularity, defensiveness, and lack of awareness of possibilities in the development of knowledge in music. These institutional structures seem to me to be fossils in a period when there is increasing awareness of the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue throughout higher education. Cognitive scientists suggest that larger, more comprehensive categories can allow new connections to be made—provide open-ended opportunities for reflection to yield more substantive thought on how we do our work.
It seems to me that musicology could, for example, provide a welcome general and safe categorical umbrella under which the rigid divisions that exist in some institutions between music history, music theory, ethnomusicology, psychology of music, sociology of music, physics of music, music and medicine, including music therapy, music technology, and music pedagogy can be reexamined. It is possible that a broader rubric will allow some regrouping and reorganization along lines that represent areas of mutual focus, interests, theories, literature, methodologies, and technology. Such considerations need not upset curricular applecarts. These processes need time, thought, and proactive—instead of reactive—decisions.
In many communities, the colleges and universities have been bastions of concert music education, and the taxpayers are not clear about what their return on their investment is in such institutions. Truly, a 1992 Harris poll undertaken for the American Council for the Arts indicates that taxpayers believe in the arts, in government support of the arts, and in arts education. This is hard to square with many of the phenomena we are observing. A proactive stance is one that we need to adopt in order to be sure that we have done what we can to contribute to the maintenance of a cultural environment in which the arts flourish.
This brings us to legislative treatment of the arts at the federal level and higher education at the state level. We must do our homework and react to those who are determining and reprioritizing educational spending. We must also encourage our students to perceive themselves as members of a society who are articulate about their art and its role in the cultural life of the United States.