Instrumental music struggles to find students while vocal music thrives

by Keaton Pregozen 641 views0

I accompany Ms. Lori Marie Rios back to her choir class after a brief intercession. While I quietly slink to the back of the room, Rios shoves her way through a horde of gossiping students to her conductor’s stand, where she raises her arm high in the air, points down to her head, and shouts, “Who is the boss right now?”

Within 15 seconds she has her students singing. The risers are full with close to 25 students, some music majors and some not, singing a gospel-like song titled “Helplessly Hoping.” Rios dances with barely restrained energy to the music, her face animated, and constantly looks around the room smiling. After one particularly out-of-tune note, she turns to the culprit, contorts her face, and sticks out her tongue in mock disgust.

I can see the passion that Rios exudes, and her students seem to also.

“She’s really supportive, which is really super helpful, because not all of the music faculty is as nurturing as she is,” says music education major Emma Benatar.  “I’ve been here since Lori Marie got here. The climate has changed; it’s a totally different program.”

Seven years ago, before COC hired Rios and fellow choral teacher Julie Lawson as full-time faculty, COC had a vocal performance major but had transferred hardly any students to four-year colleges. Now, COC alumni have graduated from Cal State Long Beach, one of the most prestigious state schools in the country for vocal performance and education, Cal State Fullerton, and Northern Arizona State University.

Rios estimates that “maybe one” student transferred to a four-year college from the COC vocal department before she was hired, where 10 students have transferred in the seven years she has been on faculty.

Clearly, the COC vocal department is thriving, but why are there so few instrumental music majors? According to Music Department Chair Dr. Bernardo Feldman, the COC administration is partially blocking the intstrumental music department from growing.

Like any department at COC, the music department attempts to transfer as many students to four-year colleges as it can, but unlike students in other departments, instrumental music students require applied performance classes—classes in which students play their instruments and receive criticism—to hone their craft.

“They want to remind us that we’re a transfer institution,” says Feldman of the COC administration. “If the Cal State system makes it a requirement for students to have a class, it’s much easier for the [COC music department] to defend it.”

Unfortunately for instrumental music students, Cal State schools prefer their students to take applied performance classes at the Cal State schools and not at community colleges. As a result, COC offers only one basic applied performance class, with the bulk of its remaining courses being music theory.

Transfer requirements are not the only reason, however, that COC has cut many of its applied performance classes.

“We had [electric] bass classes canceled last semester, yes, because we didn’t have enough students,” says Feldman. “We had symphonic band canceled last semester because you do not have a band with two students.”

Considering that more than 300 Santa Clarita high school graduates play instruments in bands, it seems incongruous that COC so severely lacks student interest.

Which brings us back to the vocal department. What are Lori Marie Rios and Julie Lawson doing that no instrumental music faculty are?

First of all, Rios has worked tirelessly to recruit high school graduates into the COC vocal department.

“I devote time probably every other week, and have the whole time I’ve been [at COC] that’s not a part of my load—that’s part of my own time—to go into the high schools and recruit,” says Rios. Her experience winning vocal compeitions as choir director at La Cañada High School gave her connections to many local high schools as well as high schools all over the San Fernando Valley, such as Crescenta Valley High School, Granada Hills High School, and Moorpark High School.

COC instrumental music has nothing close to the dedication that Rios has. “I think we need a person right now in the department that will do a good job at recruiting [instrumental music students], and we don’t have that person right now,” says Feldman. According to Feldman, the COC administration has denied the instrumental music department’s requests for a full-time teacher who will recruit graduating high school students.

According to Assistant to the President Eric Harnish, faculty must submit any staffing request to the Academic Staffing Committee, a group comprising both members of administration and faculty members. The Committee discusses these requests and democratically determines whether or not to even submit the proposal to Chancellor Dianne Van Hook. According to Feldman, the Committee has never passed his request for another instrumental music faculty member.

Additionally, COC has never had a strong music department at all.

“We can’t compare ourselves to Riverside Community College or Mount Sac because they have 170 music majors,” says Rios. “I think it wasn’t a priority for many years, but now we’re building, you know? We’re a baby. We’re a baby music program.”

But students can’t be interested in a program that doesn’t offer them what they want and need. In the past, the COC music department has not offered classes necessary for transfer during some semesters, forcing students to potentially delay graduation. The COC administration also often cuts more unique and higher level courses with too few students.

“If there are too many offerings, sometimes the administration—and I don’t necessarily agree with them—think that we have a menu that’s too broad,” says Feldman.

According to Feldman, the COC music department’s number of classes and class sizes resemble a pyramid, with more classes and more students at lower levels and fewer classes and fewer students at higher levels. Even so, 24 percent of all COC music classes this semester are either completely full or above capacity.

It appears that COC administration is leaving the instrumental music department in disarray with no intentions of help. Harnish seemed offended when I asked him if administration was invested in the instrumental music department.

“Have you seen the Performing Arts Center?” said Harnish. “There’s your answer.”

According to Feldman, the Performing Arts Center, an $18.3 million-facility, has no significant impact on the instrumental music department, mainly because so many different groups—some not even associated with the music department—share its facilities.

KC Manji, Director of Instrumental Music, has her own, different concerns. Where Rios’s recruiting efforts have resulted in a thriving vocal department, Manji has attempted to recruit but been stonewalled by high school band directors. Manji speculates that high school directors fear losing their band members to college ensembles. Out of fear of upsetting the high school programs, Manji is actually not as aggressive in her recruiting as Rios is.

“I don’t approach those kids and say ‘Hey! Want to come play here?’ or anything like that,” says Manji.

Manji has a further issue with administration in that students who take classes like Jazz Ensemble and now-defunct Symphonic Band have struggled with a lack of repeatability, or the ability to take one class multiple times. After 3 semesters, the department must either rename the class, or the student can no longer take the class.

Even then, administration has cracked down on the practice of renaming a class by grouping similar classes and preventing students from repeating those groups. Some students have even registered under another person’s name just so they can continue playing in an ensemble, even without credit.

Surprisingly, however, the instrumental music program has improved over the last 10 years, and not only because of Rios’ and Lawson’s efforts. Three years ago, the COC music department began offering applied performance classes again after a hiatus caused by lack of money and student interest. Currently these classes have a total of 30 students: 15 vocal students and 15 instrumental music students.

“As students have seen good classes, word of mouth has gone around, and now I have 20-30 students in a harmony class, where before maybe it was eight,” says Feldman.

And, while the COC administration might cut higher-level courses, the effort has resulted in a more streamlined experience for students who are focusing on transferring.

“We are fully compliant—this is brand new—with transfer requirements for the Cal State programs,” says Feldman. COC music department course CID numbers and content now exactly match those of courses in the Cal State system, where before, the length, names, and content of the courses were similar but not identical. According to Feldman, however, no COC student has ever been denied transfer admission to a Cal State school because that student could not fulfill basic requirements at COC.

But it’s obviously not enough. Back to the vocal department: other than Rios’ recruiting efforts, how else did they do it?

“I believe that one of the reasons [the music department] hired me is because I tend to be a builder. That’s what I do,” says Rios. “My pedagogy, the way I believe in building programs, is that we have to build passion, and we have to build self-esteem, because artists live in a land of insecurity. Once students believe in themselves, they will recruit one another, because they feel good about themselves.”

As a former COC instrumental music student, I did not see any teacher exhibit that love for students and learning. I can only hope that something changes soon, because it seems like otherwise, the instrumental music department will stagnate.

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