Re-Imagining Arts Higher Education

With classes out of session, hopefully the middle of summer provides some time for those of us involved with arts higher education to reflect on our curriculum, requirements, and goals.

The educational model for the vast majority arts programs today is virtually identical (within each discipline) from university to university. Though each school certainly has unique strengths and weaknesses, most are designed around the same basic framework. In a world where all of the rules seem to be changing at a breakneck pace, is there not room for a few brave programs to adopt unconventional, innovative approaches? If some were bold enough to re-imagine parts of their structure, might there be benefits to both students and the institution?

Of course, just because something is common doesn’t inherently make it ineffective. Conversely, different doesn’t automatically mean superior. And solving one problem typically creates a host of others.

That said, it is hardly controversial to suggest that the arts world can benefit from new thinking and fresh solutions. Why not mirror that reality by offering an assortment of archetypes across arts higher education?

Imagine, for example, how the following reforms would impact the educational experience. Please understand, I am not necessarily recommending that programs adopt all of the changes below, or even any of them. The point here is that there are many ways to approach arts and education, and society benefits from a greater menu of perspectives.

Paradigm 1: AUDITIONS

  • Traditional model. Acceptance process is based on artistic ability, grades, and college entrance exams (like the SAT).
  • An alternative. Acceptance also weighs other issues such as creativity, leadership, collaborative skills, or entrepreneurial inclinations.


  • Traditional model. Students are expected to choose a major in a singular artistic field.  (Some programs allow “double majoring,” but this options typically requires more time in school.)
  • An alternative. Encourage or require students to select at least two areas of specialty throughout their single degree program. This priority reflects the real world, where artists must possess multiple skill sets to survive and thrive.

Paradigm 3: CURRICULUM

  • Traditional model. Most curricula are chock full of requirements, with very little room for electives.
  • An alternative. Create programs with a high percentage of electives (combined with outstanding advising), allowing students to create a unique education specifically relevant to them.


  • Traditional model. Classes are typically built around a lecture. Students are assigned homework or projects to complete on their own time.
  • An alternative. On their own time, students watch lectures online. During class, the teacher works interactively with them on homework, projects, and other experiential endeavors.


  • Traditional model. Music students typically take a one hour lesson with a specialist in their area each week (i.e. violinist study with violin professors).
  • Alternative A. For at least one semester, each student studies with someone from another artistic specialty. Imagine the lessons a violinist might learn from a cellist, trombonist, dancer, or painter.
  • Alternative B. For at least one semester, each student studies with a career mentor rather than an artistic one (or does both).
  • Alternative C. Teachers are in their office for certain hours each week. Students are free to show up as often as they want, and stay as long as they desire. If unprepared one week, perhaps they shouldn’t waste the teacher’s time with a meeting. On the other hand, maybe someone could benefit from 3 lessons a week leading to an audition. This open structure also allows students to observe their teacher interacting with others who face similar/different challenges, teaching valuable lessons in pedagogy and beyond. (This is the model I experienced when studying composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, Austria).

Paradigm 6: ARTS HISTORY

  • Traditional model. History classes are taught chronologically, focusing on masterworks and masterminds.
  • Alternative A. Approach this class in reverse chronology, starting with what is relevant today. (Incidentally, this is how history really works. Everyone lives in the present, and is informed by what came before.)
  • Alternative B. Additional focus placed on the business models of artists throughout history, successful and not, since that is a challenge that will surely face our students.

Paradigm 7: THEORY CLASS

  • Traditional model. Most energy focused on developing technique. Secondary emphasis on learning literature. Smallest emphasis on creative projects (improv, composition, etc.).
  • An alternative. Flip the equation.


  • Traditional model. Student teaching takes place during the last year of study, after students have “learned” many tricks of the trade.
  • An alternative. Student teaching also occurs during the first year of study. This shows them what needs to be learned early on, and frames their entire college experience.


  • Traditional model. After coursework is complete, doctoral candidates take oral exams covering a huge body of information, some of which was learned during the degree. (I studied for eight months prior to my orals, 12 hours per day. Though I hate to brag, if you had met me the day of orals, I was really smart!  That day…)
  • An alternative. Begin the degree with some version of orals. Get people excited about researching and learning on their own before choosing classes.


  • Traditional model. For musicians, this solo recitals features a pre-determined assortment of styles performed in a school hall very well.
  • Alternative A. See the article here.
  • Alternative B. Require chamber recitals instead of solo events, emphasizing the importance of collaboration.

Paradigm 11: INTERNSHIPS

  • Traditional model. Students in some majors are required to complete a summer or semester-long internship as part of their degree program.
  • An alternative. Partner students with an external organization throughout their studies, so they are constantly challenged by real-world, practical concerns and trends.


  • Traditional model. Tenure-track/tenured faculty members are required to publish or produce other scholarship in an area of expertise. Institutions tend to value: 1) peer-reviewed, 2) national/international profile, 3) non-teaching, and non-service related (writing a textbook or helping out a local community are nice, but they usually counts as “teaching” or “service” respectively, not “scholarship”).
  • Alternative A. Give the option of weighing scholarship by other metrics. If your provocative blog post is read by 100,000 people, its impact may be as great or greater than an article written for an academic journal read only by a handful of like-minded specialists.
  • Alternative B. Reward people for making a difference locally, rather than placing highest value on out of town initiatives.
  • Alternative C. Emphasize the importance of research related to teaching and doing meaningful work within the community by carving a path for some of these activities to count as “scholarship.”

What do you think?  Let’s start a dialogue.


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