Nearly ten years ago now I began a certificate program in systematic theology that consisted of five courses plus a substantial final project. I completed that program in 2011 and still consider it to have been a great blessing to me, one about which I have written here in a previous post. At the same time, the process made me aware of a major flaw in distance education that, while not entirely negating the value of online instruction, represents a marked lack in that model compared to on-campus instruction. That flaw is the lack of mutual support and camaraderie among fellow students and even between students and faculty. In traditional face-to-face courses students often study together, share ideas, and even socialize outside of class. Occasionally professors are involved in such informal gatherings, and “unplanned teaching moments” can end up being as vital to the student’s development as the lectures and activities during class. While online instructors sometimes try to replicate this via discussion forums and even scheduled “virtual gatherings” in chatrooms, the spontaneity of these interactions and even the “ministry of presence” among one’s peers is difficult to replicate in a virtual setting.
In the course of my online theological instruction I became aware of how men studying together for vocational ministry formed support groups which continued throughout and even beyond their time in seminary. The pastorate can be a lonely calling, and I can’t help but think that those in that profession who either lack a seminary education or who were educated online or via correspondence keenly feel the lack of this support group. In a similar way, albeit with much less eternal significance, music educators form similar support groups. The band directors whose former students I teach and then send back into that profession operate in a largely friendly professional milieu that builds upon relationships built during their time as college music majors. Over time one’s peer group within the profession expands to include mutual friends and acquaintances of others within the group until a very healthy and effective support network exists. Something similar exists among my colleagues and acquaintances within the university low brass teaching community. Being a band director or other type of music teacher can be, like the pastorate, very lonely, so having a support group in which one can confide and from which one can receive counsel is vital to success. And like I said, this begins in college.
In a healthy college or university music department students are hanging out at the music building all the time. Sometimes they are practicing, sometimes they are studying for theory exams, sometimes writing drill or arranging music, and sometimes they are just “hanging out.” The point is that they are together, learning together, performing together, and simply being together, helping one another through what might not be the most difficult degree program on campus, but it is certainly one of the more labor-intensive ones. This group that helps one overcome the challenges of the music degree program—especially the music education program—forms the nucleus of that support group which will last throughout a student’s career. Without it, succeeding in the degree program is difficult, to say nothing about the rigors of the music profession itself.
While I don’t have hard data to share in this little essay, over twenty years’ casual observation tells me that a significant percentage of students who begin their university careers as music or music education majors do not complete the program. Most simply decide that the “music life” is not for them and choose some other major in which they can be more successful. Others drop out of college altogether and pursue some other path, and some simply seem to “wash out.” Regardless of their reasons for leaving, a common factor that exists among many of these folks is that they are rarely in the music building more often than they absolutely have to be. They don’t participate in study groups, they don’t practice at the same times as others or engage in mutual critique, and they don’t spend time just “hanging out” with their fellow musicians. I am never surprised to see such students end up pursuing some other profession or way of life. The support of fellow students is too vital to success, and even continuation.
Now, please do not take me as somehow judging those students who leave the music program for some other pursuit. I’m glad whenever students build careers that enable them to have happy, fulfilled, productive lives, whether inside or outside of the music field. Students leave music for any number of reasons, but a common thread is the lack of engagement with and building support groups among their peers. Students looking to become musicians or music educators should find friends among their fellow music majors, and do it quickly. Trust me, you’ll need them!