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Professor of Music James Holleman directs George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” while Artist and Teacher of Music Debbi Wyse plays organ. Philip H. DeVoe | Collegian
Professor of Music James Holleman directs George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” while Artist and Teacher of Music Debbi Wyse plays organ. Philip H. DeVoe | Collegian

This weekend, 170 members of the Hillsdale College music department’s symphony orchestra and two choirs will participate in three performances of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” One-third of the school — roughly 500 students — regularly participate in the music department and one-quarter are members of ensembles.

In 1997, however, only 50 students were in the music department. Today, there are 50 violinists alone in the department. Though the school has grown by about 300 students since 1997, it is the efforts of music department staff such as Professors of Music James Holleman and Melissa Knecht, who are midway through their 20th year with the department and college, that have resulted in the massive change from a struggling program to a thriving one.

When Holleman interviewed for the position of orchestra director in 1997, he said he was surprised when then-Provost Robert Blackstock asked him what makes a good department chair. He said his answer was confusing and unclear, because it took him off guard. Blackstock allowed him to return the following Monday to re-answer.

“When I came back, I said to him: ‘Vision. Having a vision of what’s possible, and then figuring out what it takes to make it happen,’” Holleman said.

His appointment was a conscious and directed effort by the administration to improve the struggling music program. When Holleman was hired, the department had 14 full-time and adjunct professors and put on 20-25 shows per year. Now, there are nearly 40 faculty, and more than 100 performances each year.

Holleman clarified that the plight of the department was not due to a lack of care on the part of the administration. In fact, he said  his employment showed that the college hoped to change the program for the better.

“Furthermore, anyone who knows anything about the liberal arts knows the importance of music,” Holleman said. “Really, it was just a lack of all sorts of elements, such as the timing or the type of students we were recruiting.”

Holleman said his vision for the department was to recognize that Hillsdale was a liberal arts school and rebrand the department around that idea. Students in the music program at Hillsdale do not have to be music majors, and can still participate in other activities outside of the music department.

Most music schools, like the ones the music faculty attended, require their students to dedicate all of their time to music, and this was, to a degree, how the pre-1997 Hillsdale music department was. Holleman said he realized this was preventing those who were musically talented but not interested in a music degree from joining the ensembles.

“One of the keys to our success was opening our doors to every student on campus,” Holleman said. “There are students who are not music majors but perform at high levels, and we need to be able to tap into that without them having to throw up their hands and say they don’t have time.”

Knecht has seen this struggle to balance school life and music firsthand. Many of her violin students enter Hillsdale planning to continue on to graduate school, making it difficult for them to manage time.

In fact, she said this is one of the challenges facing the music department going forward: the question of how to deal with classes of students who are getting smarter and more focused on postgraduate education.

“As the core is getting larger, we are trying to figure out what to do to make sure music students have room to participate in music,” Knecht said. “They need that element in their life, and it’s a balancing force that we need to figure out.”

The other aspect of Holleman’s vision of building the program’s size was recruitment. The establishment of Stacy Jones’ position as the music department’s liaison with the admissions office helped prevent prospective students from “slipping through the cracks.”

Instead of actively searching for new students, the music department — through Jones — is contacted by admissions when a prospective student expresses an interest in music. Holleman explained this is because of the school’s unique mission.

“If the student doesn’t share the philosophy of Hillsdale, they probably will not be a good fit no matter how much effort we put into recruiting them,” Holleman said.

Knecht said the music staff is committed to producing a good program, which in turn encourages students to join.

“If we don’t work hard to produce a good program and a good department, we won’t have a job, because nobody will sign up,” Knecht said. “As better players joined our program, the program has looked better, and ultimately, it’s become easier for us to recruit students.”

The completion of Howard Music Hall in 2003 and other improvement of facilities has helped in a similar way, showing prospective students that the college and the department treat musical studies seriously.

“Without this building, we would not be doing what we are doing,” Artist and Teacher of Music Debbi Wyse, who was hired in 1981, said. “We have some of the best pianos and practice rooms in the whole nation.”

Wyse said she noticed this in a specific way when a visiting artist who had performed at colleges across the U.S. remarked that Howard’s facilities were some of the best she had ever seen. Furthermore, Wyse added that the completion of the Christ Chapel will launch the department into a new level, as it will free the department from the limitations of Markel Auditorium.

Today, Knecht said the music department dedicates itself to retaining music students and keeping them happy, fitting with Holleman’s vision of the music department as not being mutually exclusive of the rest of Hillsdale.

“We really do treat every student seriously and do what we can to make sure these individual students or groups thrive,” Knecht said. “We never take for granted the dedication needed to keep the program alive.”