Ilan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
With the proposal from Ithaca College to remove the Master of Music Performance from their curriculum (https://theithacan.org/news/ic-releases-draft-proposal-for-faculty-and-program-cuts/?fbclid=IwAR18ltuf8rtTgRhA6dxQasYLVunGtLnjPkkMex0QWxOsidPE6a9qtD1_85I), and last year’s decision by Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a small college near Vancouver, to no longer admit students into its music program (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/kwantlen-polytechnic-university-music-program-cuts-new-students-1.5043635), I wanted to share a couple of thoughts about my educational experiences on both sides of the perceived fence of Higher Ed.
I think it’s clear to anybody who reads this blog that I have some skepticism towards much of what higher education has to offer at times. While I often think we can do much better than we collectively do, and I certainly think it’s important to examine openly our priorities and approach, I also do not, in any way, think the solution is to eliminate programs altogether. Far from it.
In my mind there’s a reason for music programs to exist at a variety of institutions and settings. Urban, rural, big, small, conservatories, universities, liberal arts colleges, religious institutions: They all have a place and a student that is the right fit for them and will have the ability to thrive in those environments.
When I use the word thrive I mean not only a happy or content student, but also one that is growing in their educational path and is an active participant in it.
We all learn differently and therefore might thrive in different environments. I say this because in my experience as a teacher, it is not always easy to predict how a student might perform at a given institution. From the institution’s perspective, the tools we have: high school transcripts, recommendation letters, essays, the live audition, are extremely incomplete. I certainly remember instances where I recommended a student who was taking a trial lesson with me attend one University or another that I was teaching at, often based on how much personal attention I thought they might need or be able to get. Some students don’t need to be surrounded by lots of great players to find motivation, some students don’t need the grade to find a reason to practice, and some aren’t yet sure if music is their future. Students of course have even fewer tools with which to evaluate the institution.
As an integral part of the learning experience, I think it is very important that institutions provide students with peers of a variety of backgrounds, both personally and educationally. Just as we all learn differently and are motivated differently, having a plurality of perspectives is key to a complete education.
Without getting into the politics of affirmative action and the complicated feelings around that issue, an issue that I am hardly an expert on, it is not lost on me that in a country as economically and geographically divergent as the US, in my mind it’s really important for students to interact with students they might not otherwise even meet. I sincerely believe that our world is made richer because of the people in it, and as artists and educators it is vital to our collective future we interact with as many people, of as many backgrounds as possible. In other words, as performers we can’t afford to choose our audience, thereby excluding those who might not have sufficient background to fully appreciate what we do. As educators, how can we be expected to relate to people who’s background or opportunities differ from our own?
Aside from economic and other social divides, I think it’s important to also recognize educational differences. I often feel the most effective studios I’ve had had a good mix of younger and older students. I say this because, in all reality and whether I sometimes like it or not, students teach each other just as much as I teach them. Especially as a part time teacher who’s often not available on campus, I really feel that part of fostering a healthy, collaborative, learning process starts with the humans involved.
And it is those students we should discuss. The strong players, with a grounded background, financial support, access to great information, and a clean bill of physical and mental health, those are students that will do well in many environments. Students who have a background that is less well-off in some way, those are the students who challenge us, those are the students who I think it is most vital to accommodate, and from whom I learn the most. If pluralism and growth aren’t part of higher-ed, what are we all really doing anyway?
It is in this context that I am most concerned with the decision to potentially eliminate the Master of Music Performance degree from the curriculum at Ithaca College. Taking away younger students’ role models will by definition make their educational offerings leaner. To me, this is as important to future music educators as it is to future performers. After all, who wants a music educator who hasn’t had a chance to develop good taste and musicianship? Who can’t appreciate the work that goes into making a pretty sound? Who hasn’t had an opportunity to collaborate with an older peer or hasn’t watched others learn how to learn?
All students are important building blocks in each other's journeys: music education majors, performance majors, administration majors, undergrads, and graduate students alike, from all social backgrounds and levels of ability: they all learn from each other, teach each other, and grow together, and I really feel that is how our music schools work best.