The Manifesto in Motion: Change Comes to Undergraduate Music Studies

November 29, 2016

Over two years have passed since submission of the Manifesto by the CMS Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major to colleagues who educate music majors in colleges, conservatories, and universities. It was an earnest and sometimes all-consuming effort, probably the main mark of my 2013-14 presidential term (along with our establishment of the HUP Travel Award and the Latin American Music and Musicians Initiative). In following through the Society’s mission statement as an “agent of change”, I was the “instigator” of the Task Force and its Manifesto. Beyond the word balloons of reform that we “talking heads” typically share at professional meetings (many of which may dissipate at the close of these gatherings, so much so that we often reconvene the very next year to revive the very same ideas for further discussion, ad infinitum, without action), I thought that a small task force could have the capacity to work through and put into print a call for a radical re-thinking of the content and approach to teaching and learning in undergraduate music studies. It seemed that a systematic analysis of programs with an eye toward reform was long overdue, and that a hard-working committee was both timely and necessary. The group’s journey over eighteen months encompassed an initial open hearing of the Society’s membership on needed curricular change, regular updates in the CMS newsletter, a set of CMS webinars, a pre-conference symposium, and a president’s panel at the annual fall meeting that featured a redefinition of music studies through what we established as three pillar-points for change in the ways of creativity, diversity, and integration.

Task Force members understood that we would recommend pathways for change that could be fine-tuned and re-shaped by colleagues in various contexts for greater relevance to the musical world beyond the degree. We brought together our considerable experience as seasoned educators at the tertiary level, with specializations in music history, music theory, performance (solo, chamber, and large ensembles), ethnomusicology, composition, jazz studies, and music education. We were only eight—we could’ve been an unwieldy and conceivably ill-functioning group of 20-plus members were we to have established that the task force should be representative of every specialized music field. Instead, the eight committed to the cause of change by studying selected programs in the U.S. and internationally for their content and approach, talking with colleagues across music specializations as to the challenges and successes of the reform process, reviewing published reports on tertiary-level music teaching and learning, and considering just what student musicians require in order to “go-pro” in these contemporary times and as a result of their undergraduate education. We eight members exchanged regularly, and our conversations were dynamic, evolving, and very rapid-pace. We agreed as we also disagreed on various topics, and there was both heat and light on matters we individually held dear or were some distance from, depending upon our experience and training. There was even a moment of possible dissolution of the group, but at the 11th hour we pulled back together for what we believed to be the greater good impact of turning up the volume on reform dialogue. We listened and learned from one another, and we were able to come to numerous understandings through continuing dialogue—this, despite some vexing points, most of them predictably arising from the various lineages and specializations among us, and the contexts in which we worked.

The Task Force put collective ideas to print in a documentary report, in hopes that it would catalyze thinking, dialogue and action on change to music studies in 21st century music units (it has). We called it a “Manifesto” to align with its purpose to publicly declare past programmatic concerns and announce forthcoming intentions of curricular reform (it does). As the task force was only a temporary ad hoc committee, the group’s report needed no vote of the membership and, according to the organization’s bylaws, no approval of the board. Of course, all the Society’s members were invited to have a thoughtful read of the document as a response by a group of members to the stated CMS mission to serve as an agent of change, and the Board was kept posted of the development of the report in progress. On presentation of the Manifesto to the full membership, I offered due thanks to members for their time and energy and then disbanded the group to go the way of all good ad hoc committees whose task is accomplished.

The Manifesto has been read widely over the last two years, and it quite surely has functioned as a disruptive force that has aroused the interests nationally and internationally of deans and directors, professors of all ranks, affiliated professional staff, and graduate students aiming for university teaching careers. It has been enthusiastically received by many who are intrigued with the plausibility of deep cross-curricular change, and who are dissatisfied by the uneven pastiche of just a few new elective options that pop up over time into continuing conventional programs. Reception of the Manifesto has been particularly positive among faculty in Composition, Ethnomusicology, Jazz, Music Education, Popular Music Studies, and Technology, and individuals in Applied Performance and Musicology/Music History are finding resonance with aspects of its core pillars of creativity, diversity, and integration. So too has intrigue been expressed in other areas of specialization, including Music Business and Music Therapy. The document has also been subject to criticism by some faculty who are drawn to defining the three pillar-themes differently, and who claim that the recommended changes are not feasible or that they’ve already been implemented (although these changes may be more superficial “tinkering” than comprehensive implementation). The bottom-line consequence of having crafted the Manifesto is that it has offered an opportunity from faculty of various specializations a place at the table, each with voice in the process of review and reflection on the possibilities for paradigmatic change within university-level music study.

Not surprisingly, the Manifesto has inspired a flood of activity, including departmental examinations, full-faculty retreats, pilot courses, and wholesale change from the ground-level up. It has become a framework for discussion within professional societies of musicians, scholars, and educators, in presentations, panels, and study groups. It is now required reading in some graduate seminars, and for faculty-student colloquia at various universities. Reports from across the U.S. and internationally indicate that colleagues are taking the Manifesto to task, figuring components that work for them, and puzzling out how the pillars may guide the reconstruction of undergraduate studies. Through various on-site campus visits and collegial exchanges, I’ve observed a number of phenomena: (a) Upper-structure courses and experiences are reflecting the pillars, but core courses at the freshman-foundational level are holding to an earlier model in which creativity, diversity, and integration are yet minimally featured, (b) Diversity ranks highest of the pillars in motion, as new courses and new strands within continuing courses are being developed and piloted to teach a broader repertoire, (c) Creativity is still minimally reflected in programs, and continues to appear most frequently in specific courses in composition, jazz studies, and music education methods (this last at an often lower level of skill proficiency or expectation), (d) Integration, conceivably most evident through a teaming effort of dedicated faculty to teach together or at least to design courses that reflect a blend of academic and applied ideas and events, is yet rarely present, (e) Faculty in smaller college/university music units are more likely than larger music units to be actively converting Manifesto recommendations to active-change opportunities, often with expressed purposes of recruitment and enrollment, (f) Prospects for change through new hiring opportunities are a topic of faculty conversation, with thoughts of whether searches could draw faculty with expertise in areas such as improvisation, ethnomusicology, and applied music of jazz, popular, and various world music practices. Rather than to name particular programs for which the Manifesto is serving as a guide to change, I can say with assurance that they are found in locations along the eastern seaboard, in the Midwest, across the south, and in the West. Programs seeking relevance in Australia are working through the pillars, too, a number of European programs have noted their interest in featuring the pillars in their program, and a brand new program emerging in Yangon, Myanmar, is taking the Manifesto to heart in its studies aimed at the development of artist-musicians and teachers.

A slim volume was recently released by Routledge to encapsulate essential notions of the Manifesto, and to take the discourse into the current “post-Manifesto” time. Redefining Music Studies in an Age of Change: Creativity, Diversity and Integration, co-authored by Ed Sarath, David Myers, and myself (2017), conveniently contains the Manifesto while also working through the backdrop of its development, expanding upon issues of creativity, diversity, and integration, examining models of change, and offering some (but not many) practical steps towards realizing the Manifesto’s vision. As members of the Task Force, we’ve been close to the ideals and have continued to be in dialogue with colleagues about the fit (and adjustment) of the recommendations to various undergraduate programs. We have individually authored our chapters in the Routledge volume because of our varied expertise, and we allowed that we would each interpret the Manifesto and develop particular components of it in ways that reflected our personal experience and passion for change. We have continued our desire in this volume to awaken thought and action on points of relevance, tradition, transition, and full-on transformation of music studies. Certainly, much work remains ahead of us all in honing relevant undergraduate music studies, but it appears that an effort is widespread and on the increase to commit to thoughtful change in ways that can refresh our programs, hone the skills of our students, and connect what we do on our campuses with the communities to which our students will return. The CMS Task Force is now long disbanded, having completed their deliberations in what now seems to have been but a fleeting moment in the long history of the Society. They worked together as a temporary ad hoc group, they offered ideas for consideration by their colleagues, and they understood that no vote needed to be taken on their Manifesto of ideals. They succeeded at their task, to raise an awareness of the relevance of undergraduate music studies to the world outside the academy.

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