It turns out, sometimes you can tilt at a windmill and win — or at least gain a temporary reprieve.
I just heard yesterday that Western Not State’s board of trustees has decided to continue music as a major at the college, I mean university. This is a text from the friend of a friend, but it sounds like a copy of a press release: “The board took into account feedback from the faculty, students, community, alumni and other constituents of Western.”
So thank you, those of you who took a tilt at the windmill with me and signed the online petition that I was sure would have no effect on the outcome, even though as I signed it, nearly 3,000 others had done the same.
This phrase, tilting at windmills, comes from a novel I have never read, one that I have been given to believe is overly long and perhaps a bit tedious. However, Wikipedia informs me that Don Quixote may be the greatest novel ever written. It was published in two parts, way back in 1605 and 1615, and is considered “a founding work of Western literature.”
All I know about it is that writer Miguel de Cervantes’ protagonist, the chevalier of the title, from whom we get the notion of “quixotic” quests, is rather near-sighted as he goes about his knightly duties, including at least one futile attempt to joust with a windmill. He tilted his lance, and forward he went. I’m not really sure how it went for him in the book, other than we use this phrase today to refer to folly at its finest.
And then some centuries later Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion came along and set this all to music, calling their 1965 show Man of La Mancha.
Which may mean more to us today than you might think, because the decision to leave the music major in place came with conditions and a timeline: “In order to cultivate a program that is sustainable into the future, the board appeals to everyone to support the music department and assist in increasing enrollment, provide donations and support.”
Then the press release adds, a touch ominously, “The board will assess progress over the next 24 months.”
In essence, then, the music department bought itself two years at the outside, and it needs donors to cough up and students to show up.
I think it could do a third thing to help itself, and that thing is: collaboration.
I am not the most creative thinker out there, so it may be beyond me to stretch the bounds of interdepartmental activity. I mean, you could try something like “Music Theory for Math Majors,” or something, because the structure of music, with its eight notes every octave, is somehow very mathematical. And since the musicians I hired for our wedding came not from the music department but the math department, it seems like you could find people from both departments to perhaps team-teach a class like this.
But the most obvious point of collaboration, to me, is with the theatre department, in the form of the musicals that used to sell out Taylor Auditorium and involve people from all over: the choir director, the orchestra director, the acting director, the choreographer, the technical people and the cast, which came not only from the music and theatre departments but also the community.
Now, there is a massive impediment to this humble solution, and I believe it’s the choir director. I have had numerous people from assorted roles on and off campus tell me she is completely uninterested in putting in evening hours, or extra hours, to do something like a musical.
My response would be: if you want a job for longer than the next two years, maybe you start finding it within yourself to give a little more, even as you ask the same of students and donors.
Perhaps she is not the only roadblock; as I noted before, this is a broadly collaborative effort that requires effort from many people. And maybe no one from any of these areas is interested in a big, splashy musical that takes a ton of time and effort. But it seems like an easy place to gain more visibility for at least two departments, and perhaps even find some new fans for both of them. Maybe it would even attract more students to give music, or theatre, or both, a try.
While they may seem like frivolous skills at the outset, particularly in a STEM-focused world, I thought about this the other day. No one suggested eliminating sports teams, and everyone likes to tout all the life skills people — few of whom go on to professional careers in sports — learn from being part of a team: leadership, give and take, the beauty of an assist . . . and you can learn all of these skills, plus public presentation, from music and theatre, maybe even without getting sweaty.
I suppose a musical like Man of La Mancha, also on my never seen list, is probably too dated for today’s hip audiences, and you’d have to go all Lin Manuel Miranda, only on a budget, to attract today’s students. But it feels like a great place to revive an old tradition at a school that used to understand the value of the liberal arts and now only sort of gets it when a legion of supporters gets riled up.
It’s probably an impossible dream on my part, but I think starting with an easy, obvious collaboration like a large (or even a small, but go big or go home when you’ve only got two years) musical theatre production might just be the ticket to reviving the music department, newly arisen from its death bed.