Decade in review: Music department goes through radical changes

Categories:  Music    News    The Arts
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019 at 9:25 AM
Decade in review: Music department goes through radical changes by Ben McCullough
Sigma Alpha Iota will end due to Edinboro not offering music bachelor programs. | Contributed photo

Edinboro University’s $5 million Dr. William P. Alexander Music Center, built in 2007, marked the first time a building at Edinboro University was “created specifically to meet the needs of the music program.” But while EU music students finally had a home, the department housed there would go through radical changes in the following 13 years.

Moving away from degrees

It’s been roughly two and a half years since EU announced sweeping changes to its music programming. They would no longer offer a major of any kind — cutting the Bachelor of Arts in Music Education and the Bachelor of Arts in Music degrees, while also halting development of the Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy idea — and would trim down offerings and retain a minor. The 36 student majors at the time were notified that they would be the last to graduate from Edinboro with a music degree. And today, five seniors and two juniors are finishing up their studies (if you were in the middle of your degree pursuit, you could complete it). 

The Edinboro music program, as its been known for 40-plus years, is coming to an end. 

The number of students enrolled in music courses and the various university ensembles (jazz ensemble, string ensemble and chorale, among others) has seen a drop since the dissolution of the degrees. Dr. Gary Grant, chair of the music department, explained that “with part of the music majors’ curriculum being that they had to participate (in ensembles), it was part of their academic requirements. So, when we had 60-70 majors, they would just fill up the ensembles.” 

Grant has been with the department for 26 years and has been the chair, on and off, for about 18 years. During this time, he has been the director of the marching band, jazz ensemble and concert band, while teaching many of the music education courses and supervising student teachers.

The process of moving away from these degrees wasn’t without warning. Edinboro announced a projected budget deficit of $5.5 million in September 2013, according to WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station. In that same piece, it states that earlier that year, “the state system of higher education had said it might cut the music programs because there were only 70 students enrolled in them.” EU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Michael Hannan said at the time that the music department would instead be “restructured” and would undergo a “reduction in faculty members.”

In the following spring semester, the department faced retrenchment. Four music professors were let go and courses were restructured to fit the needs of the new budget proposal. Faculty worked hand-in-hand with administration to develop and execute a restructured plan. 

“The faculty showed a great deal of creativity in redesigning some of their courses so that they could remain robust and impactful, yet could also be more cost effective,” said Steven Combs in a Spectator article from October 2013, then dean of the college of arts, humanities, and social sciences.

From there, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that enrollment in the music education and music programs decreased by 40% “between 2012 and 2016.”

“I would like to have a music major, but it doesn’t seem like, short-term, it’s in the cards for it to be re-established, just with the state of all academic programs in our fiscal situation,” said Grant. “I think many people in the administration see the value of music and music education, but at this point, we’re at a spot where we just have to make the best of what we have.”

Keeping the music alive

Despite the changes, there remains an active music community on campus. One example stands in the three Edinboro music fraternities, led by student musicians.

At over 20 members is Phi Mu Alpha, a national music fraternity whose goal is “to spread and advance music in America,” according to Louis Murphy, the public relations chair, scholarship chair, secretary, and chair of service for the organization. The fraternity sings on campus and around the community, performing at locations such as the town’s volunteer fire department and Edinboro Manor, the nursing home located on State Route 6N.

“We raise money for charities, one of the main charities being the Sinfonia Education Foundation,” said Murphy. “The money that goes to it helps out local schools and music organizations, so we end up raising funds for music departments in high schools that might be lacking funding. On campus, we do a bunch of service events. We also go off campus and sing a lot and perform with our instruments. Yesterday, we sang in front of Angus, the giant statue of Edinboro’s mascot, and in the cyber cafe.”

Phi Mu Alpha hosts joint events with Edinboro’s two other music fraternities, Sigma Alpha Iota and Kappa Kappa Psi, “all of the time,” Murphy explained. 

“We had ‘Greeksgiving’ in the music building where we all got together and performed with one another.” 

The fraternities host joint recruitment events and help assist all of the bands with different needs. 

Murphy also expressed his admiration for the level of talent that Edinboro musicians and ensembles have. “Our jazz band is incredible, our pipe band is doing super well, and our symphonic band is awesome.” 

However, he acknowledged that they’re struck by the low participation numbers resulting from the cut programs. 

“All of those bands (Edinboro had) used to travel to competitions and parades. Our pipe band used to participate in the New York City parade, our marching band performed for the Pittsburgh Steelers a few times, [and] so without larger numbers and the majors, we kind of dwindled to the point where we are not necessarily as noticed by larger organizations,” said Murphy.

Grant shared a similar thought, explaining that even with highly skilled current members, there will be some missed opportunities due to lack of music programs.

He added: “When you have students who are not studying music as their primary discipline, they may not have the skillset or the expertise to play more challenging music, music that you might want to have a music major singing or playing. So I’d say they’ve (musical groups on campus) had to adjust somewhat.” Grant finished with a hopeful reminder that “some of the best musicians we’ve had have been non-majors over the years, though.”

While those fraternities are not under direct threat from university closure, Sigma Alpha Iota, an international professional women’s fraternity, is coming to an end because of the EU actions.

“Anywhere there is not a music major offered, there cannot be a chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota,” said Ashley Matse, president of the fraternity and a senior music major. “After 2021, I think everyone that’s a music major will be graduated. Our fraternity is getting closed because we don’t offer a music major anymore; it’s really rough. We went through a whole battle last semester.” 

Matse led a peaceful letter writing campaign in attempts to save the chapter, sending them off to national fraternity leaders. She also contacted organization sisters all across the country and had them write letters about the fraternity, as well. “It was amazing, but it just didn’t pan out.”

An impending end hasn’t stopped them from carrying out this semester’s activities and planning for spring. “We’re going Christmas caroling on Friday around the community, and we are collecting donations for Music For All, which is a foundation that helps underprivileged band programs,” said Matse. “Our philanthropy is Sigma Alpha Iota Philanthropies Incorporated, which do scholarships for students. We worked with them to do the Bold Notes program last year, which is where we take music and put it in software to make it bigger for people with visual impairments.”

They’re also pushing toward a spring campus event with local Girl Scouts, which will help them get their music badge. They are also looking to do “pop up” concerts across campus next semester. 

“Our theme has been ‘leaving our legacy’ since this is like one of our last big years to do stuff. So we are trying to bring people into the music department so that when we are gone, we’ve at least been able to build something that helps the department.”

Sigma Alpha Iota can even recruit new members during the Spring 2020 semester, however, come the following year, everyone in the chapter will become an alumni member. Matse believes that “the reason they want us to have a music major to keep a chapter open is to get more numbers. However, at the end of last semester, we had 17 members and only two of them were music majors.”

Through this adversity, Matse has surprisingly seen a bright side. “I’ve definitely been able to do more here than I feel like I’d be able to do in other places,” she said. 

“Our classes are smaller now and it’s easier for there to be more one-on-one…No one is trying to push us through the program; it is very much that the professors want us to understand everything and make sure we are ready to go out and have our careers.”

Aside from the music fraternities on campus, one of the most visible components of Edinboro’s music department is the marching band. The band performs at every home football game and in the homecoming parade every year, while now working toward a “pep band” that would play at home basketball games.

Freshman Hazel Modlin was involved in her high school’s marching band all four years before coming to Edinboro and joining the Scots. Although she never wanted to study music, and thus wasn’t deterred by the elimination of the major programs, marching band was important. In fact, she turned down some schools on her radar for that reason. 

“Marching band is probably one of the easiest ways to make friends that I know of, so I knew I wanted to do it as a freshman coming in.”

A less visible yet major music organization that is hosted on campus is Edinboro’s Community Music School.

“Lessons are taught here and at the Porreco college,” said Grant. “Some of the lessons are taught by professors, by community members who are excellent in their discipline, or even by university students. We’ve generally had over 100 people participating every semester, plus the summer semester is pretty active, as well.”

The music keeps playing at Edinboro. It might just be a little quieter.

Disclaimer: Hazel Modlin, interviewed in this story, has written for The Spectator this semester.

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