When Jim Holleman came to Hillsdale in 1997, there were only around 50 students involved in the music department. Now there more than 30% of campus is involved — and the music department chairman and director of Hillsdale orchestra and choirs is earning national recognition for his work.
In February, Holleman was elected vice president of the College Orchestra Directors Association (CODA), a national organization that connects orchestra directors to collaborate and advance music in higher education. After his term as vice president, he will serve one year as president-elect and will then assume presidency the following year.
“I’m looking forward to having our program have more exposure nationally,” Holleman said. “I’m looking forward to the ability to encourage other conductors from smaller schools to think outside the box and figure out creative ways to get their students on campus to participate, and have retention within their programs.”
Holleman said his approach relies on the liberal arts understanding of music as an end within itself, rather than a stepping stone toward a career. Additionally, he worked to develop a mutually beneficial relationship between the college and the music department.
“I made a decision when I started this job in this program that we were going to be a music department that stood in service to the college,” Holleman said. “A lot of music departments are self-contained, but we step forward and perform at just about every major event on campus. In turn, the administration and different departments support the music program.”
Instead of requiring his students to “eat, sleep, and breathe orchestra,” which is often the case at large universities, Holleman developed a system that makes it possible for non-music majors to be easily involved in choir and orchestra.
The Hillsdale orchestra practices twice a week, which most students supplement with private lessons, and is accessible to students of any academic discipline. Holleman said helping conductors at small schools understand this dynamic is one of his goals as vice president.
“Primarily, the conductors went to larger schools, so they tried to apply that model to a smaller liberal arts college. And then [the approach] fails,” he said. “To base your program solely on majors, you’re not being honest with your students on what’s out there once they graduate.”
Founded in 2003, CODA provides a network for college orchestra directors to connect professionally.
“Quite often when a college university orchestra director takes a position, they’re really the only person at the university or the college who does what they do,” Holleman said. “CODA connects us nationally — anybody can throw out any question or voice any difficulties they’re having with their program, and then they’re able to tap immediately into a network of college orchestra directors who do what they do.”
For the past 10 years, Holleman has served in various leadership positions with CODA, including the roles as the development and membership chairs. He also led various presentations at their conferences on the topic of music engagement at small, liberal arts schools.
Missy Osmond, former vocal teacher, has known Holleman since he began his career and has seen him transform the program.
“When he first came in he was handed the orchestra, chair, and chamber choir,” she said. “He had to wear many hats, but was able to create an extremely wonderful department that consists of people who love music and aren’t majors or minors.”
To increase program involvement, Hillsdale provides music scholarships for students who aren’t music majors, and the music department and admissions work together to recruit students who can contribute to many aspects of campus life. This differs from other schools where only music students are expected to participate in music-related activities.
First chair violinist senior Ellie Fishlock has benefitted from this arrangement. She studies exercise science and biology, but was able to fully participate in orchestra and receive a music scholarship.
“I’ve been involved in music from a very young age, so coming to Hilldale was such a blessing because I could continue pursuing my passion without it being my career,” she said.
“It’s so nice how accessible music is here, both as a participant in choir and in the number of concerts and events there are to go to,” added Teresa McNeely, a senior who has been involved in choir for her entire college career.
This approach was proven to be just as successful as many standard methods of orchestra engagement. Through a blind audition process against much larger universities, Hillsdale became one of only two orchestras selected as one of the best in the nation, performed at CODA’s 2017 conference at George Mason University.
“We are the smallest college orchestra ever invited, and it was very well received,” said Stacey Jones-Garrison, percussion instructor and the recruiter for Hillsdale’s music program. “Everyone there was blown away by what a small college orchestra was able to do. Holleman is doing things that turn the heads of larger colleges.”