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date: 24 April 2019

Understanding Undergraduate Music Learners

Abstract and Keywords

This article synthesizes existing theoretical and empirical evidence to provide a context for understanding undergraduate music learners. Demographic data are presented, and the population of undergraduate music majors is compared to the overall undergraduate population of the United States. These statistics are then connected to Arnett’s theory of emerging adulthood, offering a context for understanding human development. It is impossible to understand undergraduate music learners without examining the learning itself and the ends it seeks to accomplish, so the article provides an explanation of music learning as consisting of specialized knowledge and skills while at the same time supporting the broad values of a liberal education. Finally, although access to economic stability remains an overriding concern of undergraduate education, this article concludes that music learning should be envisioned as engagement in meaningful music practice.

Keywords: artistic training, college costs, college enrollment, economic stability, engagement, emerging adulthood, identity consolidation, identity exploration, liberal education, recentering

The goal of this article is to synthesize existing theoretical and empirical evidence to provide a context for understanding undergraduate music learners. The first evidence comes from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and it helps establish trends in undergraduate enrollment over the past several decades as well as the increasing costs of attending college. A context for human development is presented next, focusing on a theory of emerging adulthood first proposed by Jeffrey Arnett to describe adults from age eighteen to age twenty-five. Critics of Arnett argue that the theory does not account for the experiences of working-class and poor young adults; however, it aptly explains the experiences of most undergraduates enrolled in four-year institutions, which include a majority of music majors. The Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS) Music Data Summaries help form a profile of music majors for comparison with broader trends in university enrollment, and the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) provides data showing how alumni reflect on their degree preparation, which can be used to compare undergraduate music learners with other emerging adults.

It is impossible to understand undergraduate music learners without examining the learning itself and its ends. Over the past four decades, neoliberal ideology has dominated higher education, with its focus on economic efficiency. Manifestations of this ideology include universities’ increasing reliance on private funding, dependence on part-time and adjunct faculty, and redefinition of students as customers. The latter manifestation is most important to the present article, because most undergraduate learners perceive that their college education should lead toward economic stability. This perspective is consistent with a theory of emerging adulthood and also with data about music majors’ paths to professional careers. Still, as this article shows, there is ample evidence that some students who study music as undergraduates pivot to careers outside the field. In addition, music departments and schools serve a considerable number of students who do not major in music, yet these students engage deeply in musical activities throughout their undergraduate education. Such nonmusic majors indicate that they value their learning and put aspects of that learning to use in their work. Thus, it becomes apparent that music learning consists of realizing the broad values of a liberal education at the same time that specialized professional knowledge and skills are acquired.

A Context for Understanding Undergraduates

Understanding undergraduate music learners must begin with an orientation to postsecondary education in the United States, and the NCES Digest of Education Statistics 2013 presents data that help establish such a context. Although undergraduate enrollment remained stable in the 1990s, it rose steadily from 2000 until 2010, so more students than ever were attending college, at both two- and four-year institutions, in 2010. The highest enrollment was 18.1 million, but during the 2011–2012 academic year enrollment leveled off at 17.7 million undergraduate students. Although some research accounts only for an increase in traditional students, aged eighteen to twenty-four, NCES data show that the number of nontraditional students, over age twenty-five, also increased during the 2002–2012 period. According to NCES, while numbers of traditional students should level off, numbers of nontraditional students enrolling in college should continue to increase during the next decade.1

Since 1982 women have outnumbered men in undergraduate education, and in fall 2012 approximately 57 percent of undergraduates identified as female. About 60 percent of undergraduates identified as white, 15 percent as black, 15 percent as Hispanic, 6.3 percent as Asian-Pacific Islander, 0.9 percent as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 2.5 percent as multiracial.2 Table 1 shows that the US undergraduate population was comparable with the US population overall, according to figures from the 2010 US Census.

Table 1. Comparison of US Undergraduate Population to US Population

Male (%)

Female (%)

White (%)

Black (%)

Hispanic (%)

Asian-Pacific Rim (%)

American Indian-Alaska Native (%)

More Than One Race (%)

US Undergraduates

43.0

57.0

60.0

15.0

16.0

6.2

0.9

2.6

US Population

49.0

51.0

62.1

13.2

17.4

5.6

1.2

2.5

Not surprisingly, an increasing number of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees have been conferred. Between 2000 and 2012 the number of associate’s degrees awarded nearly doubled, and the number of bachelor’s degrees increased by more than 30 percent during that period.3 In 2012 the largest number of bachelor’s degrees was conferred in business, followed by the social sciences and education. Approximately twenty thousand bachelor’s degrees were awarded in various areas of music, including composition, conducting, music education, music management, music performance, music technology, music theater, music therapy, music theory, musicology, and ethnomusicology.4

In the decade between 2002 and 2012, the price of undergraduate education increased by 27 percent at private institutions and 39% at public institutions, and although more than 80 percent of undergraduates received some kind of financial aid, paying for an undergraduate degree became an increasing concern.5 In 2011 the American Community Survey presented data on employment of students aged sixteen to twenty-four, noting that 72 percent of all undergraduates were employed; 20 percent were employed full time (more than thirty-five hours per week) year-round, and 52 percent were employed less than full time. In contrast to the traditional notion of working ten to fifteen hours per week on campus, many undergraduates were employed off-campus and for more than the optimal number of hours per week.6 In a study of nontraditional undergraduate students, who were most likely to be employed full time, researchers were concerned with older students who had to support a family while they attended school. Such students claimed that finances were not just their highest priority issue and the reason they decided to enroll in college, but also their greatest source of stress.7

A Theory of Emerging Adulthood

Jeffrey Arnett noted these increases in college enrollment, especially for women and nontraditional students, and he associated them with broader societal trends, including increases in the median ages of marriage and parenthood. In response, he proposed a theory of emerging adulthood to recognize a period between the end of adolescence and the beginning of “stable adult roles in love and work.”8 Arnett described five distinctive features of emerging adulthood, beginning with identity exploration. He acknowledged that Erik Erikson had considered identity formation the central feature of adolescence, but he countered, “identity achievement has rarely been reached by the end of high school.”9 Arnett explained that an emerging adult deepened the identity explorations of adolescence by discovering abilities and interests that might lead to a career, recognizing preferences for close peer and intimate relationships, and developing a worldview or set of beliefs and values. He asserted that identity explorations in love, friendship, and work frequently failed, yet he maintained that such disappointing experiences led an emerging adult to greater self-awareness. In his theory, Arnett closely associated identity explorations with instability, by which he meant that emerging adulthood was a time of multiple changes. Typically, residence and roommates changed most frequently, but the period also was characterized by periods of enrollment in, then dropping out of, college. An emerging adult was naturally self-focused, a term Arnett did not use disparagingly. Emerging adults were obligated neither to their family of origin nor to a spouse and an employer. According to Arnett, self-focus was natural because its goal was learning “to stand alone as a self-sufficient person.”10 A consequence of identity exploration, instability, and self-focus was that emerging adults felt in-between, on the way to becoming adult. In Arnett’s research, participants consistently referred to three criteria that they used to mark the beginning of adulthood:

  1. 1. Accept responsibility for yourself.

  2. 2. Make independent decisions.

  3. 3. Become financially independent.11

Research participants between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five reported that they had not yet achieved these goals, although the goals were in sight. These emerging adults felt in-between: neither like adolescents nor like adults. Finally, despite descriptions of transition, failure, and instability, Arnett characterized emerging adulthood as “the age of possibilities, when many different futures remain open … an age of high hopes and great expectations.”12 Arnett admitted that psychologically, every human being was subject to family and cultural influences, so possibilities for change were not unlimited, yet the period of emerging adulthood, more than any other time of life, presented opportunities for self-transformation.

Support for Arnett’s Theory

From a sociological perspective, Fussell and Furstenberg affirmed that in the Western world, leaving one’s natal home, finishing some education in order to gain employment, becoming economically independent, marrying, and having children all were markers of adulthood. Until the 1950s these markers occurred in a similar sequence and time frame in every young person’s life course; consequently, the path into adulthood was relatively uniform. After 1950 there was more access to college, and young adults’ living arrangements began to change; after 1970 women as well as men began delaying marriage. Thus Fussell and Furstenberg confirmed the varied paths into adulthood that laid the groundwork for Arnett’s theory.13

Osgood and colleagues studied twenty-four-year-olds to give greater definition to such paths. They examined five primary domains—romantic relationships, residence, parenthood, employment, and education—and they subsequently identified six paths into adulthood. Fast starters were most established in the adult world by age twenty-four; they were economically independent, married, owned homes, and often had children. Fast starters worked more hours and had greater weekly earnings than did other twenty-four-year-olds; however, few had completed the postsecondary education necessary to become employed in a professional position. Parents without careers typically were married and had children earlier than other twenty-four-year-olds. If they were employed, they were not invested in their positions, but many of the females in this category were not employed outside the home. In contrast, educated partners were more likely to be cohabitating than married at age twenty-four, and they were childless. They had higher levels of education than those on other paths to adulthood; thus, they were more likely to be employed in professional positions. Although they may have earned less than the fast starters at the age of twenty-four, their prospects for lifetime earnings were greater. Educated singles were similar to educated partners, but they were residing alone or in a parent’s home. Even those who lived in natal households reported economic self-sufficiency. More than half of educated singles reported wanting a steady romantic relationship and being unhappy with dating. Working singles were similar to educated singles in their living arrangements and romantic relationships and similar to fast starters in their employment. Finally, slow starters were likely to be unemployed or to work in low-paying service industry jobs. They reported being single and without romantic relationships, although some had become parents. Slow starters were most likely be living in the natal household.14

After defining the six paths into adulthood, the researchers looked for significant precursors and found that “the social class of [the] natal family” strongly correlated with the path taken into adulthood.15 In other words, educated singles and educated partners were likely to have been born to more affluent families who devoted resources to education.

Critique of Arnett

Findings such as these about social class have caused several researchers to criticize Arnett’s research on emerging adulthood because they have questioned its applicability to working-class and poor young people.16 Beginning in 2012, Arnett attempted to address critics by addressing social class directly in the Clark University Poll, a survey administered annually to more than one thousand emerging adults representative of the population of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in the United States. For this survey, the mother’s educational level was used as a proxy for socioeconomic status, a common strategy in social science research. Results of the 2012 poll suggested that all emerging adults found their lives exciting as well as stressful, but those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were significantly more likely to report that their lives were not going well or that they felt depressed about their lives.17 In contrast, those same young adults from poor and working-class backgrounds were significantly more likely to believe that their lives would be better than their parents’ lives had been.18 Pertinent to the present article and its focus on the undergraduate experience, there were no significant differences among emerging adults in their pursuit of postsecondary education; approximately 80% of all respondents to the Clark poll reported attending at least some college or taking vocational courses. Similarly, the respondents agreed that a college education was important; however, many lacked the resources to obtain a college education. In fact, nearly half of low socioeconomic status respondents lacked such resources, a significantly greater percentage than middle-class or affluent respondents.19

College for Emerging Adults

According to Arnett, emerging adults no longer follow a direct path through undergraduate studies. Many enter college, but they find themselves lacking self-discipline and consequently drop out. Others drop out because of the high costs of college, which have placed many college students in debt. Arnett elaborates:

Imagine a student attending college while working 20 or more hours a week, under constant pressure from juggling school and work, and sliding more deeply into debt with each semester. In this light, it is understandable that many of them decide to give up school before obtaining their degree. Especially for emerging adults who are undecided about a career path, staying in college may come to seem pointless.20

Although a high percentage of high school graduates immediately enter college, they no longer expect college to be a continuous experience from age eighteen to age twenty-two. They intersperse periods of higher education with periods of work throughout the decade of their twenties and even into their thirties. Some continue on to graduate education in order to improve income and status, or because they see themselves as lifelong learners and enjoy the experience of college classes.21 Whatever the case, indirect paths to a college degree often prolong the period of emerging adulthood, postponing the consolidation of adult identity.

Traditional undergraduate students attending four-year colleges ironically are in the midst of replacing dependence on parents with self-sufficiency, a process that Jennifer Tanner calls recentering. Although all emerging adults engage in the process, enrolling in college appears to provide a context in which adult commitments, namely marriage and parenthood, can be delayed. Although such a delay indirectly delays development, the college environment is assumed to provide direct benefits to development as well: “The college environment has the potential to buttress emerging adult development by simultaneously providing support and challenge, which results in more advanced identity and ego development.”22 Tanner cautions that the college context, and therefore the opportunity to delay adult commitments, is available only to those who have the means to enter. Furthermore, she suggests that researchers often conflate the developmental process with the context for development, assuming that college leads toward “commitments characterized as better fit than … commitments made during the early 20s.”23 Tanner argues that more research is necessary to explore the potential disadvantages of delayed adult commitments, especially “difficulties compromising and prioritizing others over self.”24

Music Majors

Turning toward an examination of music in the undergraduate experience, surprisingly little has been documented regarding music enrollment. One source of information is the Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS) annual data summaries, which are compilations of reports from member institutions of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). Although not every higher education institution in the United States has a music unit accredited by NASM, it is possible to view HEADS data as a complement to NCES data, offering a fuller picture of undergraduate music education.

In the fall of 2012 there were more than thirty-one thousand students enrolled in professional bachelor of music degree programs and almost thirty-nine thousand enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in music education, music therapy, and music combined with an outside field. In addition, twenty-one hundred students were enrolled in associate of fine arts degree programs with a major in music, and about six hundred were enrolled in associate degree programs in music education and music business. At four-year institutions, in which the majority of undergraduate music majors were enrolled, 54 percent of music majors identified as male and 46 percent identified as female. Racially and ethnically, 69 percent of music majors identified as white, 9 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent as black, 4 percent as Asian-Pacific Islander, and .06 percent as American Indian/Native Alaskan. Approximately 10 percent of students did not report a racial or ethnic identification.25 As shown in Table 2, compared to the overall undergraduate population, males were overrepresented among music students, and black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students were substantially underrepresented.

Table 2. Comparison of Music Majors to US Undergraduate Population and US Population

Male (%)

Female (%)

White (%)

Black (%)

Hispanic (%)

Asian-Pacific Rim (%)

American Indian-Alaska Native (%)

Music Majors

54.0

46.0

69.0

7.0

9.0

4.0

0.06

US Undergraduates

43.0

57.0

60.0

15.0

16.0

6.2

0.90

  • US

  • Population

49.0

51.0

62.1

13.20

17.40

5.6

1.20

Another informative data source is SNAAP, which administers an annual survey to alumni of arts training programs. Three aspects of the SNAAP survey offer more insight into undergraduate music learners: job satisfaction, likelihood of continuing to graduate school, and inequities of college outcomes. Results of surveys administered since 2009 indicate that a majority those who earned an undergraduate degree reported being employed in positions that were good matches to the work they were seeking.26 Peter Miksza and Lauren Hime examined data from the 2010 SNAAP survey, looking specifically at a sample of respondents who had obtained undergraduate degrees in music performance and music education. They found that music education degree recipients were likely to be very satisfied with their first jobs, although they found more variability in satisfaction among music performance degree recipients.27 Regardless of the specific major, job satisfaction statistics imply coherence with Arnett’s theory of emerging adulthood; undergraduate music majors appear to use their undergraduate experience to prepare for work that is meaningful and well suited to their interests and skills.

A related finding from SNAAP surveys was a significant correlation between a graduate degree and the likelihood of working as a professional artist. As Lindemann, Tepper, and their colleagues cautioned:

This finding does not provide evidence of a causal link between advanced degree attainment and working as a professional artist, [but] it does provide some evidence that these advanced degrees may be “worth” the investment for some graduates in the sense that those who earn them are more likely to work in occupations creating or performing art.28

Miksza and Hime found that about one-third of music performance majors reported continuing immediately to graduate school, whereas few music education majors were likely to take that path immediately.29 Again, Arnett’s theory helps to contextualize these findings. Arts majors, including music majors, may remain in college beyond the attainment of an undergraduate degree with the goal of obtaining professional work. As Tanner theorizes, however, staying in college may extend the task of recentering; music majors’ financial independence from the family of origin may not be achieved until after the graduate degree is earned.

The 2013 SNAAP annual report explored inequities in arts graduates’ college outcomes by race and ethnicity, and one predominant finding was that black and Hispanic respondents were significantly more likely to accumulate student loan debt than their white counterparts. Greater loan debt, in turn, was associated with the amount of time that respondents took to complete their degrees; consequently, black and Hispanic students with student loans took longer than four years to complete their undergraduate degrees. Similarly, among those who reported that they intended to work as artists, white students were more likely than their black and Hispanic counterparts to be working in their chosen field at the time of the survey administration. When only those with no loan debt were compared, differences in employment were eliminated. Although black and white alumni reported comparable earnings in arts fields, black respondents were more likely than white respondents to report working in multiple jobs.30 Underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students in undergraduate music degree programs suggests that inequity of resources and access to music education exists prior to enrollment, yet the 2013 SNAAP report offers evidence that the undergraduate education amplifies existing inequities. In relationship to theories of emerging adulthood, such differences by race and ethnicity demonstrate how multiple pathways are established through the undergraduate college experience. Furthermore, these differences suggest that even for some whose knowledge and skills are well suited to a music career, stable employment in music may eventually be out of reach.

Summary

Thus far, a context has been established for understanding undergraduate music learners through presentation of statistics about postsecondary enrollment in college. An undergraduate in the United States is likely to be between eighteen and twenty-five years of age; however, there is some evidence that nontraditional students, those over the age of twenty-five, are increasing in numbers in the undergraduate population. In terms of race and ethnicity, overall college enrollment tends to reflect the US population, and women have outnumbered men in the undergraduate population since 1982. A majority of music majors are enrolled full time in baccalaureate degree programs, so it might be assumed that they are between eighteen and twenty-five years of age; however, HEADS does not report age statistics. Compared to the undergraduate population overall, males are overrepresented among music majors, and blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Native Alaskans are underrepresented, an indication of inequitable resources and access to precollegiate music education.

Context for understanding undergraduate music learners also has been established through an overview of Arnett’s theory of emerging adulthood, a psychological theory that attempts to explain human development between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. Most undergraduates can be characterized as emerging adults in the midst of identity explorations. This means that they are in search of close relationships that will be satisfying and sustainable in adulthood, such as a relationship with an intimate partner. Emerging adults also are searching and preparing for the kind of employment that will be fulfilling. College enrollment and college major are means through which identity explorations take place, and undergraduate music majors appear to use their lessons, classes, and ensembles as means to explore their personal capacities and the suitability of a professional career in music.

Although most emerging adults agree that an undergraduate degree is a necessity for employment in a professional position and increased earnings over time, they no longer expect undergraduate education to be a continuous experience. Increased costs of higher education and worsening economic circumstances for young adults mean that paid work occupies an increasing amount of undergraduates’ time. Emerging adults may choose to intersperse periods of college enrollment with periods of work. Some black and Hispanic music majors, particularly those who rely on loans to support their undergraduate education, may take the most indirect pathways to obtaining a degree. Once the degree is obtained, however, those same students may pursue employment outside the arts in order to pay off their loan debt.

Psychologically, most undergraduates are engaged in a process of recentering, separating themselves from their family of origin, yet a majority of undergraduates come from families who value education, so they receive both financial and emotional support from their parents. Such support may be essential to undergraduates’ success in college, but until they achieve financial independence, the process of recentering continues, and adult commitments are delayed. The concept of recentering seems particularly applicable to music majors, because many immediately pursue graduate education. Their financial and emotional dependence on family may continue; thus, music majors’ identity explorations in love and work, their instability in residence and employment, and their self-focus may be prolonged.

Music Learning in the Undergraduate Experience

Having established general information about the undergraduate population in the United States, as well as more specific information about music majors, and having explored the characterizations of emerging adulthood, it is now possible to turn to questions about music learning in the undergraduate experience. What are undergraduates supposed to learn? How is undergraduate music learning utilized following graduation? How do music alumni reflect on their undergraduate learning? Acts of learning cannot be separated from the ends they seek to achieve, and it is important in this context to explicitly acknowledge the strength of neoliberalism and the commodification of learning in higher education. Henry Giroux explains succinctly: “Within the neoliberal era of deregulation and the triumph of the market, many students and their families no longer believe that higher education is about higher learning, but about gaining a better foothold in the job market.”31 Such a view of higher education is coherent with theories of emerging adulthood, because one of the principal areas for identity exploration is the area of work and finding stable employment. This view also is supported with data about music majors, including the significant correlation between attending graduate school and finding work as an artist. The reality appears uncomplicated: undergraduate musicians desire an education that prepares them for sustained employment in the field.

Nevertheless, as Danielle Lindemann argues, the body of scholarship on artists’ employment suggests there is an oversupply of labor, “income is strongly skewed to the lower end of the range,” and “the risk of unemployment is pervasive.”32 The improbability of full-time employment as a musician may cause some undergraduates to question their choice of career path. Other undergraduates, who are in the midst of identity explorations, may find their interests well served by learning music, yet they may never intend to be employed in the field. Because instability also marks emerging adulthood, still others may begin with a major in music, yet they may later discover that their abilities and interests are better suited to another field of study. It is from this intersection of economics and emerging adulthood that music learning must be viewed.

To examine professional preparation, a reasonable place to begin is with NASM, whose purpose is “to establish and maintain threshold standards for the education of musicians.”33 For baccalaureate professional degrees in music, NASM recommends that an institution’s curricular structure enable all students to acquire the following knowledge and skills:

  1. 1. Technical skills requisite for artistic self-expression

  2. 2. An overview understanding of the repertory in their major performance area and the ability to perform from a cross-section of that repertory

  3. 3. The ability to read at sight with fluency

  4. 4. Knowledge and skills sufficient to work as a leader and in collaboration on matters of musical interpretation

  5. 5. Keyboard competency

  6. 6. Growth in artistry, technical skills, collaborative competence, and knowledge of repertory through regular ensemble experiences

To those performance-related knowledge and skills, NASM adds the following musicianship and analysis skills:

  1. 1. An understanding of the common elements and organized patterns of music and their interaction

  2. 2. Sufficient understanding of and capability with musical forms, processes, and structures

  3. 3. The ability to place music in historical, cultural, and stylistic contexts

Furthermore, students should acquire basic improvisation and composition skills and an overview of music history and repertoire to the present day. Although NASM acknowledges that synthesis of the aforementioned knowledge and skills is a lifelong process, the association recommends that opportunities for synthesis should occur in the context of undergraduate studies.34

To what extent is this range of knowledge and skills relevant to emerging adults in a contemporary marketplace? In 2009 Margaret Merrion tried to address that question by gathering fourteen North American deans and directors of higher education arts programs and asking them to comment on the future of the arts in higher education. Among the trends they forecasted were the following. First, postsecondary arts education would need to prepare artists to play creative roles in society outside the arts. Second, the arts would become more interdisciplinary in order to appeal to and involve students whose academic majors were outside the arts. Still, the deans forecasted that “focus on intense professional training in the arts” would be “unrelenting.”35 Two tensions became apparent with the deans’ forecasts. First, although the deans appeared to uphold NASM recommendations for traditionally conceived knowledge and skills, they implied that intense professional training alone might be insufficient for employment after college. Second, they suggested that while deep and focused engagement in the arts was essential for arts majors, other students would also benefit from studying the arts during their undergraduate preparation. It was unclear whether the deans were more interested in sustaining arts programs in contexts where resources primarily supported science, technology, engineering, and math, or in promoting a liberal education in which studying the arts served important purposes.

Returning to SNAAP survey data, arts graduates were asked to compare their training with the skills and knowledge that were important in their occupations. Among the skills and knowledge that graduates ranked as essential were working collaboratively with others (91%), thinking creatively (88%), thinking critically about information (86%), and writing and speaking persuasively (83%). Alumni generally were satisfied with their undergraduate experiences in learning to think creatively and assess information critically; however, greater numbers reported that they did not learn to work collaboratively with others or to write and speak persuasively. In light of NASM recommendations for the undergraduate music curriculum, as well as Merrion’s interviews with arts deans, it was reasonable to expect most alumni to report that intense artistic training was valuable to their occupational identity. While survey results suggested that most alumni were pleased with the artistic training they received, only 62% of respondents reported that their artistic training was essential to their daily work.36 These SNAAP results again implied that for meaningful career preparation, an undergraduate education should consist of more than artistic knowledge and technique. Although alumni found artistic technique valuable, other aspects of the undergraduate experience, such as working collaboratively, thinking creatively, and communicating persuasively, were more important.

But as Lindemann submits, this report about the value of artistic technique should not be surprising. According to SNAAP survey data, 26% of arts majors never worked as professional artists, and 47% were not working in their artistic field at the time the survey was administered. Comparing these statistics about arts graduates to statistics about alumni from other majors, Lindemann found that about half of all business, math, economics, and history graduates were employed outside their chosen fields.37 So, given that explorations of interests and abilities characterize emerging adulthood, music majors are not alone when they pivot from the occupational identity with which they begin their studies, even when they decide to complete the requirements for their intended major. Thus, music alumni may appreciate the broad-based competencies they have acquired, such as collaboration, creative thinking, and communication, because these are useful for music careers, but they also are advantageous for work outside the arts.

Looking Beyond Music Majors

If learning music in college can be beneficial in careers outside the arts, then it is prudent to inquire about undergraduates who participate in campus musical experiences but do not intend to have a professional career in music. In addition to the previously enumerated students pursuing the baccalaureate, the HEADS summary listed more than eighteen thousand bachelor’s degree students and three hundred fifty associate’s degree students enrolled in liberal arts degree programs in which 30 to 45 percent of required courses are music focused. Further, the HEADS summary indicated that across all music units, an average 46 percent of all credit hours were generated by nonmajor students in courses such as applied lessons, ensembles, or music appreciation.38 What do these students find memorable and useful about their music learning?

Beverly Kaye Lapp set out to discover the nature and value of non-music-major participation in music courses by surveying music department chairpersons at liberal arts institutions. According to those interviewed, undergraduates wanted to continue the music achievement they had begun at the precollegiate level, and in the spirit of a liberal education, they wanted to explore knowledge outside their major area of study. Lapp reported the chairpersons’ beliefs that non-music majors who studied music experienced positive social and emotional benefits during their undergraduate years, including the abilities to work collaboratively, express themselves imaginatively, practice self-discipline, and understand cultural differences.39

Other researchers have examined non-music majors’ self-reports on involvement in music classes, lessons, and ensembles during their undergraduate years, and several findings from their studies serve as a complement to Lapp’s research. Considered collectively, these researchers found that non-music majors wanted to continue the musical study that they had begun in elementary and secondary schools. Some study participants even indicated that their college choice was predicated on opportunities for music ensemble performance. Research participants also mentioned critical listening and exposure to a broad range of knowledge as essential components of their continued participation in college music classes. Increased self-esteem reportedly accrued from music participation. A major finding of these studies was non-music majors’ appreciation for opportunities to work collaboratively with peers and socialize with like-minded people in a low-stress environment. For many, music participation was a welcome change from the demands of working in science labs or the isolation of writing college papers.40

Taking into account all of the research on non-music-major participation in formally organized music classes and ensembles, there exists a small body of research focused specifically on a cappella ensembles, small groups of singers that typically are student run and comprise mainly non-music majors on most college campuses. In contrast to some other music organizations, a cappella ensembles have rigorous audition procedures, and the ensembles require members not only to perform, but also to arrange, teach, and record music. Ensembles rehearse six to ten hours per week, and they are engaged for multiple public performances each semester. Researchers emphasize that members of a cappella groups are aware of the time commitment required, and they frequently admit to prioritizing the ensemble ahead of their academic studies. Furthermore, researchers suggest that, like those who engage in other campus music learning experiences, a cappella members’ participation is motivated primarily by a love of music, but none of the members describe a cappella ensembles as a low-stress environment. Socializing with like-minded individuals appears to be the most central facet of participation, and researchers conclude unanimously that a cappella ensembles promote strong and long-lasting bonds among members.41 Stephen Paparo calls these bonds “fraternal,” and he notes that the bonds often extend to an alumni network.42 Echoing Arnett’s theory of emerging adulthood, Joshua Duchan asserts that a cappella groups provide “their members with social support precisely at the time in their lives” when they are “distancing themselves from the support systems offered by their families.”43

In sum, whether it takes place in the environment of a curricular band, chorus, or orchestra, or in a co-curricular a cappella ensemble, participation in music fosters well-being, social connection, and overall engagement in undergraduate education. In various studies, non-music majors acknowledge the importance of advancing their artistic technique; however, they most frequently attest to other benefits of music learning. Namely, they appreciate opportunities for creative collaboration with like-minded others and exposure to a broad range of knowledge. In fact, non-music majors are like music majors in reflecting on their undergraduate music learning with a positive outlook toward working collaboratively, thinking creatively, and thinking critically. Such similarity between non-music majors and music majors lends credibility to an argument that undergraduate music learning has the potential to be useful in preparation for multiple careers.

Music Learning as Liberal Education or Career Preparation?

This argument is consonant with a report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), College Learning for the New Global Century. LEAP defines a liberal education “not as a discrete set of disciplines—the ‘liberal arts and sciences’ alone—but rather as a comprehensive set of aims and outcomes that are essential both for a globally engaged democracy and for a dynamic, innovation-fueled economy.”44 The report emphasizes engagement with big questions in the sciences, mathematics, social sciences, humanities, and the arts. It also promotes competencies in inquiry, problem solving, teamwork, and creative thinking. Within the curriculum or co-curriculum, skills are meant to be applied to complex problems through field work in diverse communities. LEAP contends that “employers are calling with new urgency for graduates who are broadly prepared and who possess the analytical and practical skills that are necessary for innovation.”45 Therefore, any kind of learning narrowly conceived as career preparation is no longer adequate for employment in the contemporary marketplace. According to LEAP, competencies arising from a liberal education are important for every field of human endeavor, and thus for students pursuing undergraduate degrees in professional schools as well as students pursuing traditional arts and sciences degrees.

Although Elizabeth L. Lingo and Steven J. Tepper begin with claims about the narrow preparation of artists, they turn away from making a case for liberal education and instead offer evidence that artists’ work has changed:

Arts training institutions, hoping their graduates will be competitive in high-stakes auditions and for prestigious fellowships continue to emphasize disciplinary-based skill development, requiring students to specialize and invest countless hours mastering a very narrow skill set.46

In the twenty-first century, artists’ work is moving away from an emphasis on specialization toward more generalized capacities for work. Lingo and Tepper suggest that “artistic aspirants themselves seem to be eager to work across occupational roles and develop more diverse skill sets.”47 Furthermore, traditional boundaries between high art and commercial art are becoming blurred, which gives artists the freedom to act entrepreneurially—they craft portfolio careers and work across sectors. Finally, artists no longer see themselves as working autonomously, but instead they are highly engaged in their communities, collaborating with others outside the arts such as educators and health providers. If music alumni value collaboration, creative thinking, and persuasive communication, then these should be viewed as essential capacities for meaningful and sustainable work in the field.

Summary

The question of what undergraduates learn must be addressed in light of the ends for which the learning occurs, and contemporary universities aim for the economic stability of their graduates. Because economic models for the arts consistently show an oversupply of labor, most departments and schools of music define learning as a set of technical skills and knowledge, and they emphasize how much time students must invest in practicing these skills to become successfully employed. Such narrowly focused learning is not limited to music units, but is common in professional programs throughout the university.

Although music alumni appreciate intense artistic training, they rank other skills and knowledge, including collaboration, creative and critical thinking, and persuasive communication, as more important to their careers. This ranking might be explained in two ways. First, not all undergraduate music majors intend to seek a career in music. Therefore, these may be the competencies that are useful not only for artistic employment, but also for careers outside the arts. Alternately, the professional field of music may be changing to one in which flexible, generalist skills are sought to a greater degree than specialist skills, and in which collaboration and community engagement are valued over autonomous work.

Perhaps a third explanation is that emerging adults’ identity explorations that lead to changes in major, as well as the changing nature of the music field, are linked to a far-reaching rethinking of liberal education. Assuredly, access to economic stability is still the overriding goal of an undergraduate education, but employers are focused on teamwork, problem solving, and innovation—even as they acknowledge that some specialized skills are required. Similarly, although higher education faculty and administrators continue to advocate for in-depth, focused study, they promote pathways of integration that link professional education with broader knowledge and skills.

Implications and Conclusions

Issues have arisen in this article that can be productively addressed in further inquiry to expand understanding of the undergraduate music learner. First, HEADS data do not include a report of undergraduate students’ ages, and with this limitation, it may be tempting to view undergraduate learners solely as traditional students. Because NCES predicts continuing increases in the student population over age twenty-five, it would be helpful to understand whether similar increases are becoming apparent among undergraduate music majors. What categories of race, ethnicity, and gender are applicable to older undergraduate music learners? Do they attend school full time? Do they receive academic credit for their life experience? How do they imagine using their music learning in higher education in a career?

Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Native Alaskan students are substantially underrepresented among undergraduate music learners when compared to the overall undergraduate population. Many higher education faculty and administrators assume that this disproportional enrollment begins with uneven access to music education in public schools. Some existing evidence suggests that in the aggregate, about 34 percent of all high school students enroll in at least one music course, and Hispanic students are significantly underrepresented in high school music courses.48 Still, there is currently no state-by-state data scan that shows which students receive comprehensive music education from kindergarten through grade twelve, how many minutes of music education per week are required, and the extent to which music is taught by licensed teachers. Because relevant data have not been generated, there is also little understanding of whether community organizations, such as youth orchestras and children’s choruses, have substituted adequately for school-based music education. A lack of information on precollegiate music education in turn affects higher education administrators’ assumptions about recruiting and retaining traditionally underrepresented students. Where does the pipeline into a professional career begin? Where is the pipeline interrupted? Administrators have little to guide their decisions. Furthermore, the insidious effects of market culture in the university are hidden from view in most descriptions of inequality in the arts. A belief in market efficiency—that is, that markets inherently create maximum wealth—is coupled with a belief that inequalities of wealth are attributable solely to natural talent and effort. So, when a black or Hispanic undergraduate decides to change from a music major to a different major, or when a black or Hispanic music graduate pursues a higher-paying career outside of music, seldom is the situation characterized as a matter of structural inequality; instead, the situation is treated as a matter of individual talent and effort. Because injustices are held in place systematically, research on equity and inclusion must focus on systems. Music educators and administrators, across elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels, together must address the question of how to foster the development of a more inclusive and equitable artistic workforce.

As this article has made evident, in the context of an undergraduate education, the term “music learner” should not only be applied to music majors. There are many undergraduates on every campus who have engaged in music learning prior to college enrollment and who wish to continue their participation in lessons, classes, and ensembles. A small body of research contains undergraduates’ self-reports attesting to the benefits of continued music study, and HEADS data suggest that serving non-music majors is essential to the sustainability of some music units. Nonetheless, there is no research available to recommend best practices for supporting music learners who are not music majors. What are the most effective practices for identifying college applicants who wish to continue participating in music? On what basis should full-time or part-time faculty be hired to teach musicians who are not music majors? What are best practices for uniting undergraduate musicians across majors? What opportunities should be made available outside traditional bands, orchestras, and choruses? Most important, on those campuses where core liberal education requirements have been adopted, how does music making figure into the competencies that every undergraduate should develop?

Such research on best practices would be made more compelling with case studies following those who study music during their undergraduate years into professional careers. Self-reports exist, which suggest that studying music might enhance characteristics of self-discipline, persistence, ability to respond effectively to critique, and flexibility.49 However, such reports do not provide information about the careers outside music toward which musicians gravitate, nor do they detail which musical skills or experiences are drawn upon in those careers. By pursuing robust case studies, researchers could include additional information about how professionals in careers outside of music continue to pursue music as avocation, as well as the extent to which these individuals support the arts in their communities.

Likewise, limited information exists on how musicians formulate careers in the twenty-first century. Again, musicians’ self-reports can be useful in understanding whether they are employed, and if they are employed in more than one position simultaneously. Case study research, however, could illuminate musicians’ decision points: With which other professionals do musicians collaborate? Where and when do these collaborations take place? To what extent does a local, creative community facilitate or sustain such collaborations? At what points does a musician decide to acquire additional formal education, such as business or management courses, technology and music production courses, or a teaching credential? Presuming that musicians are willing to work across sectors, how much of their work is commercial? How do musicians promote their own work, and which platforms do they prefer? How and where do musicians find funding for their creative projects? In a historical sense, musicians have been portrayed as gifted virtuosos laboring in isolation, and consequently, their work has been perceived as idiosyncratic. Romanticizing musicians’ careers thus may prevent understanding of more consistent patterns in employment over time. Here again, robust case studies that follow musicians from postsecondary education into their careers could help to inform how curricular and co-curricular activities are constructed for undergraduate music majors.

Finally, consideration must be given specifically to SNAAP survey data. Although alumni were satisfied that their undergraduate learning had helped them think creatively and assess information critically, many reported that they had inadequate opportunities to learn to work collaboratively. The SNAAP data reflect a central paradox of traditional postsecondary music learning: it is focused on individual development, yet music, as an activity, is inherently communal. Large ensembles and chamber music form a significant part of the undergraduate music curriculum, composers write music for performers, and students interact with audiences in dozens of concerts each year. This paradox of music learning is related to a paradox of emerging adulthood: “Becoming an adult means learning to stand alone, but it also means becoming less self-oriented and more considerate of others.”50 It is not surprising, then, that Catherina Christophersen contends there are differences between students’ self-initiated collaborations and their instructed collaborations. Self-initiated collaborations, she argues, have potential to help students learn to seek consensus, forgoing “some individual choice and freedom for the sake of the community.”51 By this definition, self-initiated collaborations serve not only musical aims, but also the aims of identity exploration. But to what extent do undergraduates initiate collaborations? If they do, what are the conditions that foster such initiation? In instructed collaborations, professors have disproportionate power and control in comparison to students, but they could use that control to design spaces of engagement in meaningful music practice. Etienne Wenger offers three criteria for such spaces:

  1. 1. Activities requiring mutual engagement, both among students and with other people involved

  2. 2. Challenges and responsibilities that call upon the knowledgeability of students yet encourage them to explore new territories

  3. 3. Enough continuity for participants to develop shared practices and a long-term commitment to their enterprise and to each other52

Wenger emphasizes that such spaces should sufficiently link to tradition—in the case of music learning, to what music making has meant in other times and places—yet they should allow students to imagine new paths. Such spaces must be designed with interaction between students and more mature practitioners in mind, lest the students’ explorations become imaginative yet ineffective. In schools of music, not only applied lessons, but also chamber music and larger ensembles might engage faculty and students together. When learning spaces are designed in this way, students are prepared not only with specific knowledge and skills, but also to imagine what kinds of people they want to become with such capabilities. Thus, spaces for engagement in meaningful music practices, similar to students’ self-initiated collaborations, are important for working out adult identity. It remains unknown whether music professors are prepared to design such learning spaces and to what extent they would be willing to depart from conventional learning formats; therefore, systematic inquiry into professors’ conceptions of music learning and their capacity to reimagine learning spaces appears essential for advancing the interests of undergraduate music learners.

This article now has come full circle, from establishing a context for understanding undergraduate music learners to examining music learning itself. It has raised questions about which undergraduates seek a major in music, and whether some students may be excluded systematically from music study. Further, it has suggested that although self-report is useful, rigorous case studies that follow undergraduates into their careers would offer more compelling evidence about how music learning is put to use, both in the field of music and in other fields. Most important, although access to economic stability remains an overriding concern of undergraduate education, this article suggests that a conception of music learning as acquisition of specialized skills and knowledge, should be replaced with a vision of music learning as engagement in meaningful music practice. Anna Sfard observes that in the acquisition paradigm, knowledge is conceived as a commodity, and “it is only natural that attitudes toward learning reflect the way the given society thinks about material wealth…. Learners and scientists are likely to put forward competition and solitary achievement.” The engagement or participation paradigm, on the other hand, “implies that the identity of an individual, like an identity of a living organ, is a function of his or her being (or becoming) a part of a greater entity.”53 Interest in undergraduates’ learning as engagement in meaningful musical practice, then, shows concern not only for the skills and knowledge they acquire, but more important, for who undergraduates are becoming, their adult commitments, and their well-being in the world.

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Notes:

(1) Thomas D. Snyder and Sally A. Dillow, Digest of Education Statistics 2013, NCES 2015-011 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, 2015), 377–674.

(6) Jessica Davis, “School Enrollment and Work Status: 2011,” American Community Survey Briefs (October 2012): 11–14.

(7) Heather T. Rowan-Kenyon, Amy K. Swann, Nancy L. Deutsch, and Bruce Gansneder, “Academic Success for Working Adult Students,” in Understanding the Working College Student: New Research and Its Implications for Policy and Practice, ed. by Laura W. Perna (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2012), 96.

(8) Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 8.

(13) Elizabeth Fussell and Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., “The Transition to Adulthood during the Twentieth Century: Race, Nativity, and Gender,” in On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory Research and Public Policy, ed. Richard A. Settersten Jr., Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., and Ruben G. Rumbaut (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 29–75.

(14) D. Wayne Osgood, Gretchen Ruth, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, Janis E. Jacobs, and Bonnie L. Barber, “Six Paths to Adulthood,” in On the Frontier of Adulthood, ed. Settersten, Furstenberg, and Rumbaut, 330–38.

(16) See, for example, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Marion Kloep, Leo B. Hendry, and Jennifer L. Tanner, Debating Emerging Adulthood: Stage or Process? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(17) Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Joseph Schwab, The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults: Thriving, Struggling, and Hopeful (Worcester, MA: Clark University, 2012), 5.

(22) Jennifer Lynn Tanner, “Recentering During Emerging Adulthood: A Critical Turning Point in Life-Span Human Development,” in Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century, ed. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Jennifer Lynn Tanner (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2006), 48.

(25) Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS) Music Data Summaries 2012—2013 (Reston, VA: National Association of Schools of Music, 2013). This year was selected to correspond with the data from NCES; however, demographic statistics have changed little since 2012.

(26) Danielle J. Lindemann, Stephen J. Tepper, et al. Painting with Broader Strokes, Reassessing the Value of an Arts Education (Bloomington: Indiana University; Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, 2012), 7–8.

(27) Peter Miksza and Lauren Hime, “Undergraduate Music Program Alumni’s Career Path, Retrospective Institutional Satisfaction, and Financial Status,” Arts Education Policy Review 116 no. 4 (2015): 176–188.

(30) An Uneven Canvas: Inequalities in Artistic Training and Careers (Bloomington: Indiana University; Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, 2013).

(31) Henry A. Giroux, “Neolibralism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere,” Harvard Educational Review 72, no. 4 (2002): 435.

(32) Danielle J. Lindemann, “What Happens to Artistic Aspirants Who Do Not ‘Succeed’? A Research Note from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project,” Work and Occupations 40, no. 4 (2013): 468.

(33) National Association of Schools of Music, Handbook 2014–2015 (Reston, VA: National Association of Schools of Music, 2015), 3.

(35) Margaret Merrion, “A Prophecy for the Arts in Higher Education” Change 41, no. 5 (2009): 18.

(38) Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS) Music Data Summaries 2012–2013.

(39) Beverly Kay Lapp, “Something to Think about the Rest of One’s Days: Music in a Liberal Arts Education” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2012), 62–88.

(40) See Dan Isbell and Ann Marie Stanley, “Keeping Instruments Out of the Attic: The Concert Band Experiences of the Non-music Major,” Music Education Research International 5 (2011): 22–32; Dimitra Kokotsaki and Susan Hallam, “Higher Education Music Students’ Perceptions of the Benefits of Participative Music Making,” Music Education Research 9, no. 1 (2007): 93–109; and Roger Allan Mantie, “Structure and Agency in University-level Recreational Music Making,” Music Education Research 15, no.1 (2013): 39–58.

(41) See Joshua S. Duchan, “Powerful Voices: Performance and Interaction in Contemporary Collegiate, A Cappella” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2007); Mantie, “Structure and Agency in University-level Recreational Music Making,” 39–58; and Stephen A. Paparo, “The Accafellows: Exploring the Music Making and Culture of a Collegiate A Cappella Ensemble,” Music Education Research 15, no. 1 (2013): 19–38.

(44) National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, College Learning for the New Global Century (Washington, DC, Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007), 11.

(46) Elizabeth L. Lingo and Steven J. Tepper, “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Arts-Based Careers and Creative Work,” Work and Occupations 40, no. 4 (2013): 341.

(48) See, for example, Kenneth Elpus, “Evaluating the Effect of No Child Left Behind on US Music Course Enrollments,” Journal of Research in Music Education 62, no. 3 (2014): 215–33, and Kenneth Elpus and Carlos R. Abril, “High School Music Ensemble Students in the United States: A Demographic Profile,” Journal of Research in Music Education 59, no. 2 (2011): 128–45.

(51) Catherina Christophersen, “Perspectives on the Dynamics of Power within Collaborative Learning in Higher Music Education,” in Collaborative Learning in Higher Music Education, ed. Helena Gaunt and Heidi Westerlund (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013), 85.

(52) Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 272.

(53) Anna Sfard, “On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Danger of Choosing Just One,” Educational Researcher 20, no. 2 (1998): 6–8.