College Music Society conference 2017 #cms2017 #sanantonio


2560px-alamo_panoThis week I’m at the annual College Music Society conference , with Conservatory colleague Michael Shinn. We are in San Antonio, TX – my first time in the city, and in fact my first visit to Texas (I can actually see the Alamo from the hotel room!).

Our first session today is a panel, chaired by David E Myers, entitled “Inclusion, Access, Relevance: Addressing 21st Century Higher Education Challenges through Shared Governance”. This is perhaps the biggest strategic conversation in US Music Higher Ed right now – the institutions know there is a problem, but many seem unable to improve student or faculty diversity in any significant way.

[JB comment – I have my own theories about this, and take the view that repertoire is the primary culprit; classical music is a European tradition, and it has not absorbed non-white cultures easily. Institutions still build much of their curricula around the Common Practice period, and then express surprise that the programs are less appealing to those from other musical/cultural traditions. The question is – which lever of change is the most moveable – faculty, repertoire, curriculum or recruitment…?].

David opens the presentation some poignant and thought-provoking stories about the experience of students of diverse ethnicities in music schools. He reflects on the way that some music schools come into communities and say “you need classical music… and we’re here to provide it for you”. He describes this as a top-down classically-oriented approach to diversity, asking “how do we get persons of color to play classical music?”.

So if we all embrace diversity as a goal, how do we reconcile this with the cultural legacy of the way our institutions were founded? He alludes to a reference in alludes to Robert Freeman’s book, which makes similar points.

He asks how many of our (non-Education) graduates learn to teach? How many learn to work with diverse constituencies? How many learn to work with music ‘writ large’? How can a curriculum that privileges music from an historical European classical tradition become engaging to people of a more diverse, pluralistic society? How can we lead cultural change rather than simply follow it, 10 years behind?


Our next speaker is Robert Walzel (University of Kansas).

Robert opens by comparing the recent enrolment and leadership histories of the university music depts of Missouri and Kansas, and he contrasts the former’s devastating 15% admissions decline with a more stable position at Kansas, reflecting on Kansas’s more flexible approach to leadership.

He now comes to the main point of the presentation – a summary of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) survey undertaken across 40 US music schools via NASM membership.

The summary of the survey is detailed (and I hope it is published soon) but here is one interesting highlight:

The ethnicity distribution of faculty and graduating PhD students in music institutions (3-5% African-American) correlates – that is, there is a chicken-and-egg problem with recruiting diverse faculty, because institutions are not graduating diverse alumni. And yet, there are music  schools in cities where the population (and the institutional non-faculty staff) are 50% African-American.

[this commentary did not do justice to Robert’s excellent and detailed presentation, and I do need to mention that his survey covered DEI issues from several angles – gender, LGBTQ+, and ethnicity.]


Our next presenter, Jeffrey Magee, looks at barriers to diversity in US music schools. He cites two tropes: ‘Excellence” and “Tradition”, and gives examples of expressions that we hear often in institutions, such as “I support diversity, but I can’t add women or non-white composers to my syllabus without missing out important repertoire”, or “we want more students of color, but we just don’t get the high-quality applicants in significant numbers”.

He suggests that the application of these words can hold back our DEI agendas. Defining “excellence” too narrowly (around traditional acoustic instrumental facility in the orchestral tradition) means that we will already be recruiting students from groups where a lack of diversity may already be a demographic issue. Defining “tradition” too ‘classically’ means that we risk implicitly advocating for a white, European, male version of cultural/musical history.

Reflecting on the previous presentation, Jeffrey notes that US music faculties are 84% white and 66% male; our schools are dangerously out of touch with demographic realities, he says.

So what to do? Jeffrey calls this approach ’empower the change’, and gives specific examples (events, discussion points, curricular change, musical genre diversity, technology) that can serve to improve diversity in the student and faculty bodies.


[I’m session-hopping at this point, so although I miss part of Ayden Adler’s inspiring contribution to the debate in order to catch the end of Simpson University’s Dan Pinkston’s doing a fascinating presentation about musical form in Metallica’s Ride The Lightning. Which I include below, as a small contribution to diversifying the repertoire in this post.

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