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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

DSU Axes Concert and Jazz Band, Replaces with Pay-for-Play Pep Band

The arts suffer another blow in Madison. I noticed Monday that DSU is canceling five sections of music classes. The same day, citing declining enrollment in the band program, DSU president Douglas Knowlton announced that DSU is eliminating its concert and jazz band programs. Students will still get to play their horns and drums... in the pep band. President Knowlton says focusing on the pep band will give musicians a chance to play before larger audiences—i.e., the assembled crowds at football and basketball games. The university even plans to shake some money loose for students who play at games. (Curious: will we start paying athletes who play at games, too?)

Band member Kris Back finds the plan, well, ludicrous:

Perfect way to kill a program that has up to 35 active members. Students want to play in a concert setting, not pep band. Believe me, we have tried to get more involved in athletic events such as homecoming but honestly I would rather watch a game (football, basketball, vollyball) then have a horn stuck to my face. Why should we become cheerleaders for the athletic department? [Kris Beck, "DSU Changes Focus of Instrumental Band Program," Kris' Blog, 2009.06.16]

Beck posts open letters to both Dr. Knowlton and DSU music leaders Barb and Dennis Hegg. Whoops—better make that former leader for Dennis: he tells MDL that he is "no longer affiliated with the program" and declines to offer any comment to support his former students.

I recognize the practical realities DSU faces in offering any kind of music program. With our narrow focus on information systems and education, we have no music major and few spare resources to direct toward such activities. The choir students (who haven't been axed down to a pep choir yet) don't even have a dedicated rehearsal space; too often they end up practicing in the lobby of the Dakota Prairie Playhouse, with lots of cross-traffic distractions.

But the promises of "larger audiences" and pay-for-play seem misguided. Playing your horn at a basketball game doesn't give you a bigger audience; it makes you subservient to another organization. People come to see the game, not to hear your music. A pep band's performance has only instrumental value; a concert or jazz band performing its own show has intrinsic value. Students who play for that intrinsic value are the real music lovers, the devotés who form the heart of a good music program. Music lovers don't need pay (though if the university offers money and they take it, I can't blame them); they would benefit more from the university diverting any stipend to normal funding of the music program to pay, as Beck suggests, for instrument repair, sheet music, and other operating expenses.

Alas, the liberal arts have faced hard times at DSU since the mission change to computers back in the 1980s. It's not enough to just play good music or think big thoughts: any humanities program here must prove its instrumental value to other institutional priorities.

Cutting the concert and jazz bands may be a practical reality. Offering musicians a pep band may be the best DSU can do. But this move also reduces the opportunities DSU students have to make themselves well-rounded university graduates.


  1. Ban carrol.

    On topic, to play the devil's advocate, DSU needs to focus very precisely or it will be gobbled up by the USDSUwharbalgarble center in SF. The director of that institution is turning out to be quite politically adept. Any programs at DSU that aren't money makers are going to be cut to stay competitive.

  2. It's too bad Denny won't be at DSU anymore. He's a helluva band teacher. Perhaps his skills could be best used up the road and help out the SDSU "Pride of the Dakotas"


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