Achieving Faculty Buy-In for Visionary Change in Music Higher Education

I have had great teachers. They are an extraordinary combination of world-class performers, scholars, and educators. Each shared pieces of their brilliance and knowledge with me as I worked my way through school, and I still learn from many of them today. Like other music faculty members, I find myself constantly echoing the stories and anecdotes of my teachers in my own classroom. So much of my teaching is deeply rooted in instruction I received from my own teachers. While I have certainly developed varied delivery styles, pedagogical techniques, and stories of my own, they all rest on a foundation provided by teachers who I continue to revere.

I do not imagine I am alone either. Academics of all disciplines and teaching levels are quick to cite their professors and mentors as inspiration. Our teachers are the connection that links our own work to the great masters of the past. This process provides us with an academic lineage and pedigree to celebrate. In many ways, it also provides some degree of legitimacy in the fight against academic imposter syndrome.

But this reverence for past teachers and their practices also poses a problem. The arts landscape for which we are preparing students is different than it was for our teachers, and certainly different from the great masters to whom we all like to link ourselves. Today’s career landscape for music graduates increasingly lacks tenure-track university jobs and full-time seats in symphonies. Those were the types of jobs for which students were being prepared in previous generations. Now, as those jobs continue to disappear, music graduates must look elsewhere for gainful music work. As a result, music careers have become combinations of things like performing, teaching, and arts administration. These combinations require skills in technology, business management, and self-promotion in ways our forebears may have never envisioned.

Thus, students need more from us as teachers. For many music faculty members, the reverence for the past and links to great historical masters obscure the reality of the situation. It is not that our teachers were wrong; they were simply preparing us for a different arts economy. How do we honor the teachings of our mentors while also acknowledging that we may have to do things differently than they did? And how can we convince our faculty colleagues to buy in and join us in preparing students for this new economic reality?

First, we must acknowledge that faculty not buying in is a big problem. Failure to embrace change devalues the colleges, universities, and conservatories where we teach. And students making their decisions about where to continue their higher education music study use a broad brush. One faculty member ignoring economic realities can cast an entire department or institution in an outdated, negative light. An institution or department not offering training in the skills so obviously needed as a part of the new music economy will render themselves obsolete. As we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians need adaptable skills for success in today’s arts marketplace. Musicians presented virtual concerts, created video content, and engaged with audiences on social media like never before.

Leadership and vision must come first. This is a big idea that requires visionary leadership to implement. However, top-down mandates in higher education often land like a lead balloon. Tenured or otherwise well-established faculty members have the security to simply look the other way and ignore efforts to change. A well-articulated vision along with a strategic plan and success metrics that clearly lay out a path forward will have a greater chance of gaining supporters. A process of leading in such a way that faculty choose to join will be much more effective than the heavy-handed approach of mandates and directives.

Faculty are experts in their field. That is why they are hired in the first place. And most of the time, faculty maintain a professional career in the arts industry beyond the walls of the university or conservatory. Leaders must lean on this industry experience and include faculty at all stages of the process. This will ensure that the vision and strategy for change is rooted in industry realities, but it will also be an important part of coalition building. When faculty feel their voices have been heard, respected, and actualized in the plan, they will be more invested in the changes that result. This can start a snowball of support rolling through the department. Faculty champions of the larger vision will often be more successful than leaders in encouraging universal buy-in among their colleagues.

If the premise of this larger vision is that music students require a broader set of skills in order to succeed in the new arts economy, then it stands to reason that faculty will be called upon to teach these new skills, or at least teach established concepts in a new way. Such an ask of faculty must be met with appropriate resources. Nothing guarantees failure in higher education more than an unfunded or under-resourced vision. For instance, the vision or strategic plan developed jointly by administration and faculty might call for applied instrument faculty to incorporate elements of private studio development and business skills into weekly lessons. This might include topics like financial management, social media marketing, and website maintenance. Some faculty already engaged in this type of work will no doubt be able to seamlessly incorporate these topics into their applied lessons, but many others may not. To ask a faculty member who has no experience with or background in these topics to teach them is unfair both to the faculty member and their students. But, if the administration and faculty have agreed that business skills and private lesson studio management would be valuable skills to teach students before they enter a rapidly-changing arts economy, then leaders should provide the necessary resources for faculty professional development. Maybe it means hosting guest speakers on campus. Maybe it means paying for seminars or workshops. It could even mean providing course releases for faculty to work towards other graduate degrees or certifications. The strategy will vary depending upon the background of the faculty, available resources, and articulated vision and strategic plan. But it is not a luxury—it is an essential cost of implementing a realistic and actionable vision for the future. Moving forward, departments and schools of music might target faculty who already possess these skills in job searches and the creation of new teaching positions. However, our relevance problem exists now, and in order to address it, leaders must provide appropriate resources for current faculty to best prepare the next generation of musicians.

Finally, leaders should provide space for experimentation and mistakes. This most certainly does not infer ignoring important department chair oversight or personnel committee evaluation. It is also not an excuse for incomplete or ineffective teaching strategies or evaluation measures. But, within those necessary checks on faculty teaching, leaders should encourage faculty to experiment with new pedagogies, content, and strategies. The music world and arts economy are changing with lightning speed. It is imperative that faculty feel empowered to adjust to these changes. Sometimes, new strategies and adjustments will not work or will need to be further developed or practiced. If faculty feel that they will be punished in some way for these pedagogical growing pains, then leadership is having a chilling effect on the classroom content, teaching, and creativity our students need. Instead of stymying these efforts, leaders should focus more on supportive measures. Providing resources for improvement and space for creativity will encourage faculty to join in the vision, which will ultimately better prepare students for successful and sustainable music careers.

In order to change and adapt to the modern arts landscape, music faculty and leadership must be unified and pulling in the same direction. Our students need it. Our responsibility as music educators requires it. Consensus building in higher education is difficult work. Even with a myriad of backgrounds and ideas, faculty can come together in support of student learning. With a clear vision for the future, faculty involved throughout the process, proper resources and professional development, and space to learn and grow, higher education music departments will be poised to continue to prepare students for career success in today’s music economy.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 15/11/2022

Eric Lapin

Eric J. Lapin, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer of Music at Clemson University. He is an active clarinetist, guest speaker, and writer, and is the co-author of the book The Artist Entrepreneur: Finding Success in a New Arts Economy.

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