Music in Higher Education: Evolution Now and Ahead of Us

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It is through historically strong programs of music in higher education that many fine performers, composers, scholars, and teachers of music are educated and then “released” every year to the world. Our music majors (and music minors, and all sorts of majors who gravitate to our courses) are—in the best of circumstances—engaged across a spectrum of musical experiences. They sing, they play, they invent, they dissect, analyze, and interpret, and they offer others similar musical opportunities by passing it on through the teaching they do. It is due to their four or more years of education and training in colleges, conservatories, and universities that our music majors are equipped and enabled to contribute musically to the world. Their gifts to the musical life of our schools and communities are undeniable, and our society has benefited greatly from the efforts of our educated cadre of young musicians who stream annually from their tertiary-level musical training.

Still, what worked well in 1970 (or 1990) is not necessarily resonant with now. Our society has undergone tremendous transformation, including its myriad more multicultural populations now than was evident forty-some years ago, its socioeconomic and political conditions, its mediated modes of transmission and technological surrounds, and most certainly its expressive practices. The music of Miles Davis, Terry Riley, Henryk Gorecki, and Frank Zappa in the 1970s gave way to the expressions of 1990s artists Myra Melford, George Walker, Wynton Marsalis, and the Kronos Quartet. This music still stands, of course—or is at least accessible to us, as does the music of centuries past, even as our students find themselves in a soundscape that encompasses the expressions of just about any music they wish to hear from anywhere on the planet. Today’s music is plugged and unplugged, purposefully simple and variously complex, minimalist and maximally layered. The music of our time is breaking through to new sonic realities even as it nostalgically flashes back through the decades, generations, and centuries, and the multiple ways of person-to-person and mediated transmission.

As the world turns, so should our programs of music in higher education dynamically evolve. Naturally, we have good reason to cherish our musical, pedagogical and programmatic traditions, as we also are finding it necessary to assess their relevance and efficacy in preparing students for sustainable careers in music. We need not hold too tightly to the way things were, either, as our institutions have the potential to be effective at both innovating and preserving. The education and training of tertiary-level students demands the continuous attention of their professors, and as such we find ourselves regularly responsible for reviews and recommendations that can lead to the active re-shaping of our curricular offerings. Music in higher education must evolve or be rendered an anachronism, illogical and incongruous with the ways and means of our contemporary world.

In one of my initial actions as president of The College Music Society, I appointed in early 2013 a group of colleagues –all active college and university faculty—whose goal it would be to study the essential program content of the undergraduate music majors. This Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major (David Myers, chair, Juan Chattah, Lee Higgins, Victoria Levine, Timothy Rice, David Rudge, Ed Sarath, and myself)1 is at work now through 2014 in crafting recommendations for a curricular reformation in music that is resonant with today’s realities. The group of eight, who include teaching faculty within the realms of performance, composition and improvisation, and academic courses, is charged with seeking the relevance of an education in music as it fits the social circumstances of our contemporary (American) society. They are indeed “charged”, that is to say, enthusiastic in their commitment to puzzling through the complex nature of our responsibilities for honoring musical and curricular traditions even while embracing possibilities for change within our educational institutions. They are working in recognition of the globalization within our midst, too, and with full awareness of the tremendous riches the world offers us in the content and process of our ways of thinking musically, of making music, and of facilitating the learning of music. With the mission of CMS as “an agent of change” very much in mind, this task force is grappling with the principal avenues and approaches by which those in the professorial rank may adjust and modify program content so that undergraduate music majors can know rich experiences as performers, inventors (composers and improvisers), and analytical (and holistic) thinkers. A document is forthcoming late in this (2014) calendar year that reflects the work of the task force in tandem with the expressed positions of CMS members who have responded to the calls for their views at the Cambridge 2013 “open hearing on music major programs” and in the monthly newsletter. The CMS Task Force will advance an analysis and a set of working principles for music faculty in various contexts that can pave the way for context-specific curricular transformation.

Should we value and support a moderate rate of evolutionary change for music in higher education, we will then do well to open ourselves up to musically expressive practices that are alive and well outside the academy. These may include a wide spectrum of popular music and long-standing traditional expressions, and the variety of musical forms with which local communities may identify. It stands to reason, too, that we would be receptive to the possibilities for music that students might bring to the table, including their experiences in musical idioms that may be better known to them than to us. The individual perspectives and actions of students within the musical (and music learning) context, their “voices”, values, and views, are important to us who work in the educational enterprise. As we continue to evolve our music major programs within departments and schools of music, our sensitivity to the potential roles our students will play beyond their degrees is in question. With an understanding of their desires, interests, and needs, we can shape our programs such that our students can become fully equipped with the toolkits they require for applying the knowledge and skills they amass in their undergraduate music major programs in thoughtful and inventive ways.

We will do well, in my view, to consider the potential in our departments and schools for an expanded and integrated four-year musical experience that (a) no longer separates mind from body but that engages ear-mind-body in a holistic manner, (b) is at least as much about innovation as preservation, (c) considers an integrated approach to the core courses in which performance and composition (and improvisation) run parallel while also supporting the growth of conceptual understanding of the content of our core theory/history/culture courses, (d) elevates the ear to at least as prominent a position as the eye as a channel of experience, (e) enfolds in the great works of our art, folk/traditional, and popular repertoires, and (f) considers the manifold ways in which a program of musical study may be resonant with the musical and cultural realities outside our institutionalized centers of learning. As we weave a more diverse repertoire into our programs, we could be ensuring that our students are dancing, singing, and playing more music, and inventing new expressive musical forms, all of which will prepare them for their work ahead in the musical world. Again to the point of student voice, we could be constructing channels that meet the preferred learning modes of individual students, too—some who enjoy narrative learning (acquisition), discursive learning (discussion), or interactive learning (discovery)—even as we may feature some modicum of these channels for all students. A re-purposing of material originally developed for top-down teacher-to-student dispersal of knowledge seems essential, so that students may receive a fair shake.

I am personally keen to see that ngoma, that pro-Bantu word of great wonder to me (that expresses music as sonic, embodied, personal-social-communal, and an integration of music with dance, poetry, and drama), may be an avenue for raising up strong musicians for the world. The undergraduate music major can be guided to explore a grand variety of musically meaningful expressions that live in our world, and that were important over time. Buoyed by our knowledge of music in world societies (including the global reach of popular music), and encouraged by the writings of folks like John Blacking (How Musical Is Man?), Steve Feld and Charlie Keil (Music Grooves), Christopher Small (Musicking), Tom Turino (Music as Social Life)2, we are primed to re-think our programs for the undergraduate music major. Our work to evolve a new program is central to our very survival in the academy. This is no up-start idea, of course, to reform our undergraduate programs in music, as we have been building to this time, and we can be grateful to the historic and recent work of colleagues who have laid out some foundational thinking.
The time is now for a serious commitment to the reform of music in higher education. We’re poised to take the next necessary steps in probing ways in which the core education of the undergraduate music major may be both relevant and resonant with the world, with the outcome of concrete recommendations for the future of our students—and of our profession. If we take seriously our responsibilities to music, our students, and the work they will do in the world, then we cannot help but to work for the evolution of musical study in our colleges, conservatories, and universities.

1Affiliations of members of Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major are as follows: David Myers, University of Minnesota; Juan Chattah, University of Miami; Lee Higgins, Boston University; Victoria Levine, Colorado College; Timothy Rice, University of California-Los Angeles; David Rudge, State University of New York-Fredonia; Ed Sarath, University of Michigan; Patricia Shehan Campbell, University of Washington.

2These books comprise an intriguing reading list for colleagues and students: Blacking, John, 1973. How Musical Is Man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Feld, Steven and Charles Keil, 1994. Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Small, Christopher, 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. Turino, Thomas, 2008. Music as Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

Patricia Shehan Campbell

Patricia Shehan Campbell is Donald E. Peterson Professor of Music at the University of Washington, where she teaches courses at the interface of education and ethnomusicology. She is the author of Songs in Their Heads (1998; 2010, 2nd edition), Musician and Teacher: Orientation to Music Education (2008), Tunes and Grooves in Music Education (2008), Teaching Music Globally (2004) (and co-editor with Bonnie Wade) of Oxford’s Global Music Series, Lessons from the World (1991/2001) Music in Cultural Context (1996), co-author of Music in Childhood (2013, 4th edition) and Free to Be Musical: Group Improvisation in Music (2010), and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook on Children’s Musical Cultures . She has lectured on the pedagogy of world music and children’s musical culture throughout the United States, in much of Europe and Asia, in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and South Africa. Her training includes Dalcroze Eurhythmics, piano and vocal performance, and specialized study in Bulgarian choral song, Indian (Karnatic) vocal repertoire, and Thai mahori. She serves on the editorial boards for Psychology of Music (U.K.), the Journal of Research in Music Education (U.S.), and Research Studies in Music Education (Australia). Campbell is a member of the board of Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways and is of the nationally syndicated weekly radio program, American Routes. She has coordinated university-community music partnership projects for children, families, and the locally community, including Music Alive! in the Yakima Valley; First Band at First Place School, the Laurelhurst Music Program (with its accent on the development of children’s global consciousness and cross-cultural literacies through music, and musical exchanges at the Yakama Nation Tribal School. She began her term as president of The College Music Society in 2013.

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