Friday, October 30, 2015

NO to Cutting Piano Major at Westminster Choir College

If you do not have time to read this  article – please at least sign and share the petition that was started by Westminster Piano Major student Michael Roper:

Please also sign the unity petition launched at Rider that supports the Piano major as well as the other disciplines being cut:

This topic is admittedly tangential to the issue of mass incarceration which this blog is dedicated to but it is relevant in that it affects my Decarcerator activist son who is enrolled as a piano major at Westminster Choir College.  Son Robert has played the role of trusted assistant in some of the decarceration events  and performed – on piano and voice no less – at one such event.

Westminster Choir College, an esteemed choir college that offers majors also in education, piano, organ, conducting, theory and other music disciplines  where Robert attends on a partial scholarship, has just announced that it is eliminating the Piano Major from its curriculum.  Since Robert is a senior the impact is less damaging than it would be to those who are under class students.  However it impacts him as well of course.

Westminster Choir College (WCC) with its small college campus in Princeton is associated with the larger Rider University based in Lawrenceville, NJ.

How The Cuts Hurt WCC

Any choir college worth its salt would have piano major as part of the curriculum.  Rider is saying - well we are still teaching the piano primary course and still providing accompanists for the voice students.  However, pianists play a major role in the choral art - as does the voice conductor.  The pianist is an integral part of the chorus – in training – in accompaniment.  Choral accompaniment is also a special art for pianists and for the chorus to survive, choral accompanists must also flourish.   They are not separated.

It is also true that a piano degree is a solid asset in seeking employment at
elementary, middle and high schools where WCC likes to see itself as sending its graduates to teach chorus,  The schools want pianists that can competently accompany – not just that have had a primary piano class during their 4-year stint.  A voice college that does not provide piano major is not teaching the entire discipline.  The Rider Administration does not get that as they probably just look at how profitable the piano department is in making this decisions instead of viewing the piano major as an integral part of the whole of WCC.  

The piano major curriculum provides students with courses (Pedagogy, Piano Literature, Accompanying, Keyboard Skills, Ensemble),  the skills to earn a living as a successful musician.  WCC piano majors not only become good accompanists, they become strong pianists that have a desire to perform and be able to teach students of all ages and levels.  Currently the department has students that are teaching adult students under the leadership of professors that are recognized leaders nationally in the field of Piano Pedagogy.  That is an  asset that Rider is wantonly lopping from the WCC curriculum.

In a letter sent to this writer, a professor of piano at WCC offered this comment:

Piano majors inspire; they keep the academic, cultural and musical environment in touch with the great repertoire that must be passed on to the next generation. Piano majors, through their  experiences with the great repertoire, with learning to project infinite varieties in tone, articulation, style, acquiring a virtuoso technique, they lead, not only follow.  They help a generation of parents too often lacking in opportunities for lessons to see and hear their children grow their facility at the piano, give performances that move audiences, learn to pass this art on through ways of teaching children and adults privately and in groups.   

We have twice and four times the number of students in some music programs that have not been cut. We have a booklet full of piano alumni who hold leadership positions throughout our country: professors, heads of departments, performers getting D.M.A.'s, Directors of community music schools, presidents of state and local music organizations, concert managers not to mention private teachers with large studios, bringing knowledge of music, music technology, and skills as well as the pure pleasure of being involve in making music alone at the piano and with other pianists and other musicians."

The Beginning of the End of WCC?

In all likelihood, this cut is writing on the wall for WCC.  It shows that Rider has no commitment to teach the full discipline of voice which includes piano  majors – who can competently accompany  top notch choirs.  It is a shot across the bow from an administration that apparently wants to get out of arts and music education all together and would prefer to gear toward business endeavors.  The defense of the piano major at WCC is equivalent to the defense of the college itself and the defense of the voice discipline.  Ridding of the piano major begins to move WCC toward second rate and once that disintegration begins the administration will point to it to further undermine the WCC mission and the voice discipline.  If this goes through – it will likely lead to a chipping away – at the organists, the conductors, the theorists . . . it is the beginning of the end of the Westminster Choir College.  It is THAT significant.

Future Recruitment – You Mean They Don’t Even Have a Full Piano Department and Piano Major?

The administration apparently did the math and they think the piano major does not add up for them.  However in their efforts to recruit the best students, the word will get out that “WCC Don’t Even Have a Piano Major!”  There will be a slipping and sliding in the evaluation process.  The university will still try to market itself and possibly use half truths to get the students in the door – like it did to those who it is abandoning with this decision.  However this will certainly hurt the reputation of WCC as an esteemed choir college.

How The Cuts Hurt Students

The cuts are announced to immediately impact Freshman and Sophomores – and it is said that Juniors and Seniors will be able to finish their degreed program at WCC.  1st and 2nd year piano students now are expected to transfer out of WCC.  That is quite the outrage.  In some cases that means that Rider is refusing to honor 4 year scholarships that it has rewarded.  That is a financial deception by the Rider Administration!

It also is devastating as these students were recruited to a school with a 4 year program.  They no doubt passed up many opportunities of comparable worth based upon the implied promise of a degreed piano major program.  They were deceived and lied to by the Rider administration which now is reneging on its promise to these students.  They no doubt passed up scholarship opportunities from other schools *that now are no longer available* - especially as transfers.  The slots themselves are likely not available as well.  The recruitment of these students occurred under false pretenses now that the administration has unveiled this cut to the Piano degree.

However this is a problem for the Juniors and Seniors as well in many ways.  One of the attractions of a university especially in the music field is for opportunities in the graduate department.  So as the major is cut, graduate lines of study in the major are also impacted as well as career path opportunities within the department in support of the undergraduate programs.  Furthermore the savaging of the piano staff eliminates the post graduate support the university is capable of providing to its recent graduates. 

Further those that graduate from WCC as piano majors this year and next, when they go afield professionally, they will be up against other graduates from conservatories with esteemed intact piano departments and the question will be in the minds of the interviewers  as  to the worthiness of the program that has now been eliminated.  Was it in decline?  It is an across the board besmirching of the WCC piano major and a blemish even for the seniors and 3rd year students.

3rd and 4th year students were also harmed, along with the first and 2nd year students, in having been sold a bill of goods by the university in the decision to come to WCC for their piano major study.  They were sold the full package and nobody in their right mind would select a university program if they are told by the university – “oh and by the way – we will be eliminating this offering when you are some part way through your study here so make sure you make alternate plans as to where to finish up and also do not count on any graduate opportunities in your field or on any career support post graduation.”

In effect though that is the predicament that this administration has now placed these students – it is a classic bait and shift operation – unworthy for an esteemed music college.

One intention apparently of the administration in announcing this cut (as well as cuts to several other majors) is to attempt to focus attention – blame – on the Rider University faculty that fought strong last year against attempts by administration to force a strike and severely downgrade the value of a Rider University degree by degrading the faculty.  This intention is made clear in the news reporting on the cuts where the administration references “instructional costs” as a scapegoat for its ill-advised action.

This action by administration is retaliatory to the faculty for holding the line last year when the administration tried to strong arm it to accept changes that would have severely degraded the quality of education at Rider.  The faculty and union united to save the university from the predatory number crunchers in administration – and now the administration wants to put the squeeze on.  It is also likely leveraging these cuts as a means to force what will likely be significant tuition hikes in the future and it wants to mute opposition by creating a climate of fear of even more cuts.

As the faculty representative is quoted:

"Our first take on it was this is not necessary," said Jeff Halpern, contract administrator and chief grievance officer for the faculty union. "A major restructuring without any conversations with the faculty is simply formula for disaster."

"Institutions like Rider really live and die on the relationship between faculty and students," Halpern said. "I can only say that our faculty is dispirited, morale is completely destroyed, and I don't see how that can be a positive thing."

Coincidentally, the student that happened to be one of the most outspoken in support of faculty, to the point of actually being rewarded by the faculty union last year at their ratification meeting, happens to be a piano major, none other than son Robert.   Robert organized a meeting on the WCC campus, led a petition of parents and students in support of faculty, leafleted both campuses calling for university wide student strike should Rider force faculty to strike, organized picketing training on the Lawrenceville campus and recorded Which Side Are You On Rzewski variations, a performance that appeared at the faculty union’s website for months and helped inspire unity of the faculty. 


The targeting of the piano major for termination by the Rider Administration after it was challenged effectively last year by a student in that major is coincidental .   However, it is clear that administration wants to drive a wedge between faculty and the students with these cuts – as it places the blame for its mismanagement on faculty and “instructional costs.”

In any event, WCC students, faculty, parents, and allies at the Rider Lawrenceville campus need to UNIFY.  The Faculty organizations including AAUP need to get behind the efforts to PUT A STOP TO THIS ADMINISTRATION’S SCAPEGOATING of faculty for its own mismanagement and TO SAVE THE PIANO MAJOR at WCC.
Suggested actions:

Sign and circulate the petition including going door to door with a lap top or your phone to in your dorms and faculty conference rooms and get your colleagues to sign.

Write letters to administration and in the Rider paper and in other media outlets, blog articles and other communiques in support of the piano program.

Piano majors, post your performance youtube videos with the HT #WCCEndangeredSpecies .

Hold meetings on campus and even consider protest actions on the campuses – at events.  Leaflet the Christmas concert.  

Join the Facebook group to unify students, faculty, staff, parents and community to oppose the cuts:

Do whatever you can to let the campus and the world know that SOMETHING IS WRONG at WCC – it is not time for business as usual!