Teach First, Ask Questions Later

Along the theme of my post yesterday about good ideas, I wanted to point out some interesting ideas about higher education for arts majors suggested by David Cutler on The Savvy Musician blog.

I won’t say all the ideas are completely viable, Cutler doesn’t make that claim either, but some implementation of the basic intent might be practical enough to break up the status quo a little.

One of the common themes of Cutler’s suggestions is predicated on the fact students looking for a career in the arts need to be more than just talented artists. They need to be good collaborators and have some basic entrepreneurial ambitions. He proposes evaluating those factors right from the time of auditions.

He also suggests multidisciplinary approaches including more allowances for electives, having at least two areas of specialty and working with different specialists.

“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.


“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.”

This idea appealed to me because one of my former employers ran a residential arts and music camp where students had one major (an area they were already good at) and two minors (areas the want to explore.) The focus there was more about letting kids explore disciplines they had no experience in but were curious about. They might learn they were really awful at it or might gain a new interest.

A more rigorous approach in higher education could give students cross-training they may need in their careers but also provide the basis of increased avenues for creative expression.

What really interested me were some of Cutler’s ideas about what the educational experience might look like:


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.

If this alternative model sounds like wishful thinking, let me assure you what he suggests is very close to how some math classes are being taught on my campus right now. The approach has been very successful in terms of improved grades and student persistence.


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 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).

Cutler also proposes flipping the timing on education students’ teaching semesters and doctoral candidates’ orals from the last semester to the first.

The benefit for student teachers is, “This shows them what needs to be learned early on, and frames their entire college experience.”

For graduate students, “Begin the degree with some version of orals. Get people excited about researching and learning on their own before choosing classes.”

Now granted, I wonder how valuable having a completely inexperienced student teacher would be to the school in which they were placed. That whole experience would probably have to be redesigned.

I do think he is spot on saying that it would show arts ed. students what needed to be learned. I think I have mentioned before that when I was pursuing certification in secondary ed, everyone in my cohort agreed that it would have been helpful to have had a refresher course in grammar rules before we had done our student teaching. We would have paid more attention to that throughout our college careers had we known just how terrifying it would be being uncertain.

In terms of career preparation, he suggests students having a career mentor rather than (or in addition to) an artistic mentor for at least one semester. Instead of doing a summer or semester long internship, “Partner students with an external organization throughout their studies, so they are constantly challenged by real-world, practical concerns and trends.”

I have only covered some of his proposals and I quoted some of his ideas out of their original context (though I feel I accurately represent his overall argument) so you should check out his blog if any of this sounds intriguing.

If you are like me, when you read it you will wonder where in a student’s studies would there be time to implement many of these ideas. But I think his whole point is that the entire approach and prioritization of art student learning needs to be examined and revamped in order to make the experience and the degree granted more relevant.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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