Not Music to my Ears

Private music lessons should be offered at Amherst even to those who lack proficiency and/or formal training. I’m feeling pretty decisively about this issue so I’m going to drop this beat hot and quick. I can just hear you now: “Oh notsocommon, I love how you relate your metaphors (albeit tangentially) to your subject. You’re a wonder of literary ingenuity!” I know.

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the policy, take a quick look here. Basically, it says that students must have “sufficient proficiency” in the playing of an instrument to take lessons.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that Amherst offers them at all. This is not meant to be a whiny post about how I feel entitled to music instruction even though I’ve done really nothing to deserve it. Frankly, the Amherst administration can (and will) do whatever they want, and I know this. What I’m trying to do is simply to explain how this policy goes against what Amherst stands for, at least in my mind.

To begin, I’ll acknowledge that I can totally see why they wouldn’t want to open up lessons to everyone. Only admitting students who already know how to play an instrument ensures that only those who are dedicated to their musical education (for the most part) will be taking the lessons. They use this policy to avoid cost in the way of hiring new instructors and assume that an instructor’s time will be spent more usefully with a student of sufficient proficiency.

If you’re not tattooing your instrument on various parts of your body, you’re not dedicated enough.

My argument to this would be that while it is true that those students who already know how to play said instrument will be dedicated, those who have never learned to play could be equally dedicated, or even more so, especially if they have to buy their own instrument. With a few exceptions (namely piano, conducting, and voice lessons), students would have to invest in the instrument itself, as well as spare parts and upkeep equipment, so it would not be a choice they would make lightly.

This leads me to the real point of the post, which is that this policy (perhaps unintentionally) tends to leave out more low-income students than any program on the campus of Amherst College should. Sure, the Music Department tries to rectify this problem by paying the lesson fee for those receiving need-based financial aid from the college. However, it is my experience that students coming from a low-income background are much less likely to have had any previous musical education of any kind. Many high schools across the country have poor or non-existent music programs, and the cost of private lessons is not a luxury that many low-income families can afford. So, in effect, the college is punishing those who could not afford lessons before by denying them entry into lessons that they would finally be able to afford because their financial aid would cover the costs. Ironic, no?

It’s been pointed out to me (by my boyfriend, to whom I rant) that acceptance into the lessons is by instructor, so students who have never been trained can potentially teach themselves a little and might still be accepted into the lesson by a sympathetic instructor. However, this would not have to be the case if the college were actually standing by its need-blind philosophy.