Liberal Arts, Arts Sold Separately: A Call to Action on F&M’s Recent Decision to Charge Students For Music Lessons Starting in Fall of 2021

By Dylan Brandt || Contributing Writer

Photo Courtesy of fandm.edu.

The views stated herein are mine and mine alone. I do not speak for the music department, nor was I instructed or prompted by anyone, professor or staff, to write this article. As of its publication, no professors are aware of this article’s existence. I speak only as a student, a musician, and a member of the F&M community.

From the moment that you are accepted into F&M, until the moment you commit to it, the admissions office transforms into the marketing department. A sell that only gets harder after one glance at the price tag…

And yet, here we all are… at least in the communal sense since our physical presence is no longer assured. I can only speak for myself, but what drew me to F&M was the fact that it was a liberal arts college. I could study chemistry, psychology, or sociology, and still participate in music, theatre, or art. In my case, I could still participate in music, through lessons and ensembles even though I was not going to pursue it as a major. 

Or at least that’s what I was told.

Starting next year, F&M will begin to charge students for participating in music lessons in addition to the tuition they already pay.

Now, this is where the administration will want to jump in and say that we are in the middle of an unprecedented budget crisis and an unprecedented global pandemic, concerns which I am certainly not indifferent to. Although I admit, I have reservations regarding these statements. On May 11th, 2020, amidst what seemed like the height of the pandemic and its economic collapse, the college announced they were raising tuition for students, remote and on campus, by only a generous 3.48%. Which in real person terms is $2,549.16, or 319 hours put in as a student worker. 

But if charging students for music lessons is really about the financial crisis we face, what about an endpoint to this policy, some sort of stop-date, or a goal for the endowment to meet when we can return to normal? Surely, that is reasonable if that’s what this is about. But requests for such an assurance have gone unanswered, which in my experience with the F&M administration, tends to really mean no. 

So yes, on one hand, I understand the college’s predicament. On the other hand, I feel like I am entitled to at least 319 hours of outrage at their hypocrisy and willingness to exploit the crises we face as a means to bully changes upon the school that negatively impact students for the college’s financial gain.

I would be remiss here not to bring up President Altmann’s February 8th, 2019 letter stating the first priority of rectifying the budget imbalance was “to maintain the quality of our students’ experiences, both in and outside class.” Now, I could be wrong, but I’m of the opinion that starting to charge students for something that was included within their tuition rather drastically changes their experience.

Saddled with this new reality, the Music Department has proposed a new system with a $760 fee per semester for a standard hour–long credit lessons, meeting once a week. A student worker with one job, working the maximum number of hours the school allows can make $1280 during a standard 16–week semester, leaving around $500 for all their textbooks, as well as four months of other pesky necessities like laundry detergent, cell service, etc… plus whatever portion of that $75,000 price tag financial aid didn’t cover.  And that is if we are also pretending taxes don’t exist. Make no mistake, my grievance is not with the music department. My grievance is with the college administration who made this decision for them. The Music Department’s position was unequivocally stated by the chair: “The Music Department is opposed to the change.” But the department has been overruled by the college administration despite consistently voicing their objections.  

But enough about the bullshit and broken promises, let’s talk about why all of this is bad.

The obvious place to start is the music department itself. To be a music major, one must complete an independent project, or for the non-composers, a senior recital. To put on a senior recital, one must be a member of a lesson studio, which presuming standard participation throughout one’s college career, increases the cost of an F&M music degree by $6,080. Even to complete a Music Performance minor, you are strongly encouraged to participate in music lessons. This of course also affects many of the faculty who teach music lessons, many of whom are adjunct faculty. Adjunct professors do not have tenure and are therefore guaranteed no sort of salary or anything from the college. Many of these faculty members are working musicians, a market that has also been devastated by the pandemic. The college is more than willing to shine a spotlight on them when they are nominated for awards, but here we are, the college, leaving them out to dry. It brings a whole new meaning to liberal arts colleges. Taxing artists for practicing and learning their art.

“But Dylan, shouldn’t music majors have to pay for their lessons, it is extra instruction after all?”

Well, I’m glad you asked because now we can talk about why that isn’t the case. Learning and growing as a musician is integral to a music major in the same way that lab work is integral to a chemistry or biology major. The fact is, we are paying tuition, which should include the essential components of our education. Music majors shouldn’t have to pay for music lessons in the same right that chemistry majors shouldn’t have to pay for every chemical used in their research. Come to think of it, I’m fairly certain the sports teams don’t have to pay out of pocket for their coaches…. or the referees… or the personalized watches.

If you still think that this is a trivial issue or an insignificant amount of money, I’d like to tell you a story.

I’m a senior. I don’t have anything at risk if this policy is still implemented, but I would have. I’ve played an instrument since I was in 4th grade, but my parents couldn’t afford lessons. In high school, I got lessons because the school had a scholarship fund to subsidize the cost. I am lucky enough to have financial aid here at F&M, but I was also awarded a scholarship for graduates from my high school, to study music in college. This scholarship enabled me to come to F&M, but if I was required to pay for music lessons out of my pocket, it would have thrown a wrench in all of that. I am going to graduate this spring with a Music Performance minor, in part, because I wasn’t charged for lessons. 

There already exist plenty of systemic barriers to underprivileged peoples being involved in music. I, a cis-white man, was “lucky” enough to get scholarships and aid to help me overcome the barriers that faced me, but many others are not so lucky. The last thing that F&M needs to do is construct additional barriers or hoops to jump through like begging for fee waivers or even more student loans.

“So fine, music majors can take lessons without an extra charge, but what about everyone else, they should pay right?”

Let’s set aside for just a moment the value of arts education for education’s sake, and just talk about F&M. President Altmann and the rest of the school administration love to talk about how F&M is “an outstanding school, richly deserving of our high ranking and excellent reputation.” It is things like that which convinced me and so many future students to come here. But that only works if we actually have that “excellent reputation.” By undermining the music program in this manner, not next year or the year after, but year by year, music at F&M will dwindle, as talented musicians choose schools that truly support the arts. And the ensembles and performances that the marketing department so loves to feature on brochures and Instagram, will no longer be so photogenic.

But I also don’t just mean the music ensembles.

Those same musicians are responsible for producing so much more art on campus. Acapella groups, F&M Players, theater students, Pep Band, all hallmarks of F&M and its marketing, have students I know personally to have taken music lessons at F&M, and they are better musicians for it. Over time, these programs will also suffer. The number of photo-ops continues to shrink. The culture on campus suffers.

But it isn’t just advertising material that F&M student musicians provide.

In my time at F&M, I have been asked to perform music free–of–charge or for compensation so low a “real” musician would laugh. And I have done so. Happily. Be it a CEC event in Ben’s underground, F&M Idol, an event at the Phillips Museum, or even graduation (Too soon admin?), I have gladly helped to make these events possible, at the standard F&M students and alumni expect. But that’s just me. Off the top of my head, I know student musicians who have performed at Spring Arts, department graduation celebrations, Convocation, college-house events, and, oh yeah, also, Homecoming. I ask you how long F&M can maintain this esteemed reputation as the administration continues to hollow out the things that create the environment they boast about? How moved will alumni be to donate when they return for homecoming only to find the activities they loved withering?

But now let’s return from the cold cost–benefit analysis and talk more broadly. This decision is simply antithetical to what F&M claims to stand for as an institution. The central pillar of the liberal arts philosophy is that, when promising students are free to explore intellectual topics  and broaden their horizons, they will become “confident, adaptable problem solvers.” This philosophy cannot function if that exploration is gate–kept by a paywall. And while we are on the topic, I must point out that this is not a new phenomenon. This is just the instance I decided to write an article about. The F&M administration’s dereliction of arts and arts education has been going on for some time. All too often, when money gets tight, it is the arts that disproportionately suffer, as if its value is inherently less than sports programs or other academic departments. At a liberal arts college of all places, the arts should not have to fight for a seat at the table. 

The administration will try to justify their choice by saying that our peer institutions are doing it, and so given our situation, we should. I think that this was addressed rather succinctly by my mother about 15 years ago when she asked me, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” But as I have also already said, if we are going to spend so much time talking about how “unique” we are compared to our peers, why can’t we find a solution that our peer institutions haven’t thought of? Why are we blindly following their example if we are so much more “unique”? Surely there is a more complex answer than just deleting music lessons from the budget. If F&M wishes to maintain its ability to attract students with its “unique sterling reputation” as a liberal arts institution, it must reverse course. 

If the inequity isn’t reason enough, if the marketability of the school isn’t reason enough, if free music isn’t enough, then I offer you this: Music lessons make students happy. During a normal semester, and even amid the turmoil of the pandemic, music lessons offer students a moment of happiness amid the stress of life at F&M. Do we need to start charging students for an activity where they can be happy and learn at the same time?

I recognize that there is simply not enough money and that cuts have to be made, making the ideal world where the music program is unaffected, unlikely to say the least. But where will the line be drawn when more and more things get monetized in an attempt to cover the deficit? Surely, the laundry machines will be next. Then a gym membership. Then charging an additional fee for anything over four credits a semester (I hope nobody might ever need to drop a class at any point). But where do we draw the line? The Heinz Biology Department? The McDonalds Convocation? Or the most ironic, the Wells Fargo Financial Aid Office? I make jokes, but ask yourself: What will get cut next? 

When it comes to the issue of music lessons, we are faced with two possibilities. Either the administration did not understand the negative consequences of this decision, or they understood the negative impact it would have, and simply didn’t care. But they no longer have the refuge of ignorance, whether it is this article, a petition, or any other elaboration of why this is wrong, they can no longer claim they didn’t know.

And so reader, I ask you to remove the second refuge from the options available to the administration. Call up the Office of College Advancement, sign a petition, and email the people who are ultimately responsible for this decision (Provost Cameron Wesson can be reached at cwesson@fandm.edu and President Barbara Altmann can be reached at baltmann@fandm.edu) and tell them. Tell them how music lessons impacted your education and experience. Tell them how it affected your decision to attend F&M. Tell them how much music makes you happy. Students, parents, alumni, professors, staff – tell them that they can’t get away with it this time – use your checkbook, use your voice, or whatever option you choose, to tell them no.

 Senior Dylan Brand is a contributing writer. His email is dbrandt@fandm.edu.

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One comment to “Liberal Arts, Arts Sold Separately: A Call to Action on F&M’s Recent Decision to Charge Students For Music Lessons Starting in Fall of 2021”
  1. Pingback: Op-Ed: How Recent Budget Cuts to the F&M Music Program Will Perpetuate Racism in Classical Music – The College Reporter

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