- September 15, 2016 at 5:01 pm #521891
This is a little long, but please read. We need your help!
I have been the department chair, not choral director, of a small Christian Liberal Arts college for the past three years. The school is my alma mater and so I am very committed to it and its success. However, when I returned in this teaching and administrative role, I had no idea the shape that the program was in. It was dying and almost dead. A little background…
We used to have a small but very active and high quality program. We had a community chorus that performed Messiah and other major works with a hired orchestra every year. The choir performed regularly at Carnegie Hall festivals, did yearly performances at a very prestigious local venue, and maintained a very active schedule of touring and performing of the highest quality choral literature. The Chamber Choir has toured to over 26 countries and was touring internationally every other year and toured domestically with the larger choir every semester. Our instrumental program has never been incredibly strong but at one point we had a concert band of about 35 and and jazz band of about 12-15. We had around 70 majors at the height of the department and nearly 100 in choir. The student government started a Gospel Choir a few years back and it also was around 75 members. It is now part of the music department. There are several more contemporary worship groups on campus that are not under the auspices of the music department.
We are down to about 12 music majors (many of them shouldn’t be majors because of their lack of background and/or performance abilities), the choir has struggled to stay at about 35 members over the past few years, the Gospel Choir is down to about 20 members, and it looks like we may not even have a chamber choir this year. We still tour a couple of long weekends a year on a regional basis. Several years ago, decisions, some made by the department and many made by the administration killed off the concerts at the prestigious local venue, no more performances at Carnegie, and the international touring died. The community choir is gone, and the band (while decent quality) is made of 95% community members and are about 40 strong (only about 5 of our students involved).
The college itself has become a largely urban and multicultural environment. Almost 40% of our students are minority and a large majority of the entire student body, regardless of their identified race, are coming from urban backgrounds. I don’t know whether this is a contributing factor or not, but there is a severe lack of appreciation for the fine arts on the campus both from students and faculty/staff/administration.
Since, I came 3 years ago, we have fixed some major deficiencies in our curriculum, drastically increased our technology (added piano/midi lab). We have a small outdated, but decent recording studio, have fixed many policy and procedural issues and have tried recruiting heavily based on our institution’s region and demographic. But none of it has shown any significant results. We still get a large majority of entering students that want to be music majors that don’t even read music, some have never played an instrument of any kind. We have tried to institute an audition, but the administration pushes back, saying that we need the numbers. We are teaching major classes with between 2-5 / class. If something doesn’t change, I believe that the administration will pull the plug on our department.
Anyone ever been in similar situations and found ways out? Any thoughts, ideas, advice, would be helpful. New majors, new courses, new programs, ways of recruiting, etc. Can this be saved? I just don’t know whether it is possible anymore.
Thanks in advance,
K. Doyle SmithSeptember 16, 2016 at 8:49 am #521904
I have been exactly where you are. In fact, at my school ( a smallish, essentially non-selective four-year state university) the music degree was terminated. My advice, which is based on experience and reality (not wishful thinking and the type of baseless optimism that comes only from never having been “in the trenches”) is this:
1) Unless you can somehow convince the administration that they must yield to your wisdom and experience, all is lost in terms of keeping a music degree (really). The admins forced us to continually lower our standards, which then became its own death spiral, as increasingly less students wanted to attend. If you cannot get them to defer to you and your faculty colleagues, then you have other options:
2) Give serious consideration to establishing your department as one of “service” rather than one whose primary purpose is to grant degrees. I have had many satisfying experiences working exclusively with non-majors. Yes, many are deficient in basic musical literacy skills (and accept the reality that most will not want to take extra classes to rectify that). But they are there solely because they love music, and they can do a very respectable job and sometimes far more than that. I had a number of non-major students over the years who first attended a school with a large music program. Because they were non-majors, they were essentially shut out of most groups. After transferring to my school, they had the opportunity to shine and often did so! Yes, in ensembles you will have to work harder than if there were many majors, but accept that reality and the results can be quite rewarding. Also, really press for greater community involvement in terms of ensemble participation. Some admins love the “town & gown” concept of strong ties to the community, and music is by far the VERY best option to promote that. Lastly, give thought to your music minor – if you don’t have one, try to start one. And really push it to the non-majors. That will allow at least for a few more sophisticated music classes to be offered.
3) I also taught at a school where the main music degree was in sound recording and some other unusual music program ( I can’t remember what it was – too long ago). We had a lot of majors, so courses were not in danger of being low enrolled, but be aware that degrees such as that largely bring in musically untalented people (a lot of garage-band rejects for the sound recording degree). In such a scenario, music is more of an ACADEMIC study – artistic rewards become rare, almost non-existent. The only exception to that that I have seen is at larger music schools where such degrees are just one of many offered, and music standards can be kept high.
4) If the above options are not palatable or feasible, then move on if you’re young enough where it’s not a major life disruption and you won’t have to deal with age discrimination. Being chair of ANY music department is a feather in one’s cap, and will help to open up some doors elsewhere.
Jim MaroneySeptember 16, 2016 at 8:49 am #521907
You might consider creative ways to engage and solicit contributions from alumni from the years when the program was was more successful. More resources could inspire your leadership to continue investing in the program, whether it be customizing (modernizing) the academic offerings, making capital improvements, updating equipment, hiring new faculty (who would bring innovation), meaningful student recruitment, or even hiring professional consultants to help sort out the issues involved. It all starts with the money. Best of luck!September 16, 2016 at 10:24 pm #521945
I loved Jim Maroney’s thoughts on this. I haven’t been where you are, but I’ve been in a dicey situation or two and have built a choral program with similar rules: no auditions, no international tours, and (currently) no performances at fancy venues. I teach elementary, but I think some things are similar in premise.
I’m going to start with the assumption that you have good faculty. If you don’t, you might have to figure out clever administrative ways to get rid of a few people or deprive them of power and voice. They need to be the miserly complainer everyone ignores, not the one with social power in your department.
Get your people into a room and ask them what they think they can do to broaden the appeal of your department internally on campus. The fact is, if I’m a potential music major, I don’t want to go to your school right now. You have small ensembles that don’t do anything I haven’t done in high school and it’s possible that my high school choir may have been better than your university choir. If so, why should I go to your school? Your participation growth initially probably will come from people already at your school who like what the music department is doing. If you can build up good ensemble programs, it will be easier to get those ensemble members to minor or major in music and it will be more likely that a potential music major will choose your school.
If I were a choir director at your school, this is what I would do.
First, I would find several events on campus that are “cool” and I would insert my choir into them. I would make sure my members got to attend the event for free. My fifth grade choir sings the national anthem at a sporting event at the high school every year. We also (more importantly) perform at the building’s talent show. I choose to let them sing a pop song. However, I insist on excellence and make sure that it is still a choir. Since I’ve done this, my choir has increased from 16 members up to 56, and currently it outnumbers the band. By inserting my choir in events that students want to be a part of, I insure that students see the choir,, view it in a positive light, and have a nudge to join.
In my university, the choirs put up candidates for homecoming king and queen. Some amount of class time was given over to making sure we were all on board behind our candidate. We came up with funny, creative campaigns and won every year I was in school. Even if we hadn’t won, our collaboration would have turned heads and made people think “who are these people?” We definitely established that choir is cool. We sang at football games, important fundraisers, and made ourselves a noticed presence on campus. I bet if you got your faculty together, they could come up with ways to get students to notice the music department.
Once kids are in the door to your ensembles, those directors should go out of their way to find students with a strong passion for music and a solid work ethic and invite them to minor in it. Even if they don’t go all the way and major in it, it may provide the bodies necessary to support a music major until you can get established.
Some of your faculty will probably accuse you of “pandering to the masses” or dumbing down the art. I don’t think it has to be the case. If your directors don’t want to do pop music for a halftime show at the football game, that’s fine. However, they should still perform something showstopping at the football game.
Above all else, it must be communicated to faculty, staff, and students who are already involved that this is NOT the time to bash the music department in public places. Teachers should be emphasizing the department’s desire to grow and improve. Participants should emphasize the joy of participating. If you can squelch the negativity and get your program out there, it is possible that over time you could return to the glory days. It will be hard work, though.June 8, 2017 at 11:27 am #537670
This is an old post, but just a few short thoughts:
1. Your #1 job tile for the near future is Recruiter. You will not build your program unless you focus on this. You want your name to just fly off the lips of every high school choral teacher in the state.
2. Your #2 job title for the near future is Fundraiser. You are going to be going to high schools to recruit and you need money to offer the students. I could write a book on this.
3. The history of the school no longer matters. If it did, your school would be strong today as a result of such a great history. You went on and on about past accomplishments as if that should be a reason for a strong school. Obviously something has happened to negate those experiences. No one cares about the history, so let it go. When your program is strong again, you can then bring back “the good ole days” but until then it will just distract you, drain you emotionally and waste your time. You will sound more attractive and appealing by not “raising a program from the dead” but rather creating a brand new, fresh and vibrant program right now. People can into be a part of something new but will not find much motivation in the resurrecting of what once was. Your ties to the school will hinder you here, as it naturally would anyone.
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