Sam Musser gave up a spot at Lee University’s music con­ser­vatory to study at Hillsdale. Sam Musser | Courtesy

There was a period of time during my high school years that I con­tem­plated pur­suing a music major with an emphasis in piano per­for­mance. When I told my piano instructor that I was applying to Hillsdale College, however, he quickly informed me that no pro­fessor worth his salt would teach at an unknown liberal arts school not even listed among the top music schools in America. I’d be wasting my time.

And typ­i­cally, he’d be right. The music depart­ments at tiny liberal arts schools often are a joke, more or less.

But almost as soon as I set foot on campus, I realized Hillsdale was dif­ferent. With 25 percent of non-music majors involved in music on campus, Hillsdale abounds with tal­ented musi­cians, many of whom could have gone to top music schools but chose not to. I dis­covered that these stu­dents are at Hillsdale not because they weren’t good enough to get into con­ser­va­tories but rather because they wanted to grow as humans, not just as musi­cians.

Such is the case for Sam Musser, a junior double majoring in music and religion. Musser gave up a spot at Lee University’s music con­ser­vatory, ranked in the top 30 percent nationally,  to study at Hillsdale because he wanted more to his edu­cation than just the piano.

“When I chose Hillsdale, my parents wanted me to double major, not because they were afraid I wouldn’t get a job with only a music major but because I have so many interests to pursue,” Musser explained. “In a way, just going to a con­ser­vatory would have been so narrow it would’ve felt like a waste, whereas going to a place focused on pro­ducing well-rounded indi­viduals allows you to exercise and grow in all areas.”

Senior Joshua Brown is a bio­chem­istry major, but as a high school student, he seri­ously con­sidered pur­suing music pro­fes­sionally. He said he had the oppor­tunity to attend the Uni­versity of Notre Dame’s con­ser­vatory and a full-ride schol­arship to Butler University’s school of music.

As much as he enjoyed the violin, however, Brown realized he wanted some­thing more in life — to settle down and have a family, for instance. He’s getting married this summer, right after grad­u­ation and right before he starts medical school at the Uni­versity of Indiana.  

“Hillsdale gave me the chance to pursue the sci­ences and music while still getting to explore some other areas,” he said. “It’s not that I got less at Hillsdale but that I chose to have more.”

Zsanna Bodor, a sophomore, has a similar story. Bodor was admitted to several schools known for their music pro­grams. She received an excellent music schol­arship from the Uni­versity of Illinois, con­sis­tently ranked among the top 10 schools of music by U.S. College Rankings, but turned it down.

“I would’ve been tied to com­pleting a Bach­elors of Music in violin per­for­mance,” Bodor recalled. “That’s the only way I could’ve main­tained my schol­arship. I love violin, but it felt scary to go into that kind of sit­u­ation — lim­iting, really.”

Hillsdale, on the other hand, offered a much more well-rounded edu­cation, which Bodor said has been perfect for her.

She’s double majoring in music and German.

The freedom to play music while also inves­ti­gating other fields is pre­cisely the goal, according to James Holleman, chairman of Hillsdale’s music department.

“Music is part of who these stu­dents are,” Holleman explained. “It’s part of the balance they have to have. They stick with it through high school because it’s important to them, and at Hillsdale, it still gets to be important to them.”

That hasn’t always been the case. When Holleman arrived at Hillsdale 22 years ago, the music program fit the small-liberal-arts-school stereotype neatly. Holleman had noticed that things went awry when models that worked for music depart­ments at big state schools were slapped onto small col­leges. He was deter­mined to avoid that mistake.

“I needed to create a program that fit Hillsdale and the liberal arts,” Holleman said.

As he undertook the project of reshaping the college’s music department, Holleman found himself looking back to his time with the Jackson Youth Orchestra.

“I had all these kids who thought they were dis­ap­pointing me when they said they loved music but wanted to pursue other interests, like science and English,” Holleman remembers. “I thought, ‘Can we be the school for those stu­dents?’”

From this came the idea of opening the music program to all musi­cians on campus regardless of major — and of dealing with the sched­uling mess it made.

“We have to under­stand the aca­demic pressure stu­dents are under, not only the pressure the college puts on them but also the pressure stu­dents put on them­selves by par­tic­i­pating,” Holleman said.

It’s a tradeoff, but it works. In 2017, Hillsdale was chosen as one of only two orchestras to perform at the College Orchestra Directors Asso­ci­ation (CODA) national con­ference in Wash­ington, D.C. The orga­ni­zation was so impressed with the quality of Hillsdale’s per­for­mance that they changed the way they select orchestras for the con­ference to always include one orchestra from a smaller program and one from a larger program.  

Bodor said she thinks the democ­ra­ti­zation of Hillsdale’s music program is a big part of its success.

“Here, we do music because we love it,” she observed. “I think some­times at a big con­ser­vatory there’s a danger of losing the joy because it’s so ultra-com­pet­itive. I think that atmos­phere would have stifled me. Music gives me so much delight and it’s so special to be part of an envi­ronment like this. Some of the richest and most beau­tiful friend­ships I’ve formed are with people I’ve met through music.”  

Hillsdale may be small, but there’s no shortage of musical oppor­tu­nities: con­certo con­tests, opera work­shops, orchestra, master classes, chamber music, national com­pe­ti­tions, accom­pa­nying, even playing gigs at Broadlawn.

“I’ve had all the oppor­tu­nities I’ve ever wanted,” Brown said. “Often­times at bigger schools there’s a hundred people doing the same thing as you and there’s a lot more com­pe­tition for a lot fewer spots.”  

Musser said Hillsdale’s rather uncon­ven­tional approach to music reflects its com­mitment to cul­ti­vating self-gov­ernment. Hillsdale pro­vides all the tools and resources needed for success, but it’s up to the stu­dents to take own­ership of their pur­suits. Because of that, Musser said his musical abil­ities have grown more in the last two years of college than all of high school.

“Hillsdale doesn’t ‘produce’ any­thing,” he pointed out. “Other uni­ver­sities will make you some­thing, but at Hillsdale, you make yourself. You become what you’re going to become because you’re in charge of your edu­cation. Hillsdale is just a support and ref­erence for you and your edu­ca­tional journey. When you approach it like that, it changes every­thing.”

As I look back to my high school days, I realize that my piano instructor was, to an extent, correct. Hillsdale isn’t a con­ser­vatory. But it’s not trying to be one. Hillsdale is a place where musi­cians can con­tinue their music studies at a high level while pur­suing other interests and other majors. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As Tova Foreman, a senior classics major and the winner of this year’s violin con­certo com­pe­tition, put it: “At Hillsdale, I’m a vio­linist, but that’s not the only thing I get to be.”