The Special Burden for Contingent Music Faculty

By Jane Harty

The special burden

teaching musicMusic faculty form a large group of contingent faculty in higher education. Most liberal arts colleges and universities have music departments that employ specialists to teach applied instrumental music and voice. In general, an oboist cannot teach viola; a tenor cannot teach piano. However, these specialists are often employed to also teach courses in music history, theory, pedagogy, large and small ensembles, and introductory courses in music. In addition, music faculty, whether contingent or tenure-line, must keep up their “non-print” versions of research and publishing: giving concerts, making recordings, teaching master classes, learning new repertoire, writing new music and pedagogical materials, adjudicating young performers and emerging artists, and more.

The special burden that contingent music faculty face in the ongoing struggle for “equal pay for equal work” is the universal practice of paying hourly fees for applied music, taught as private lessons. This is the international standard for teaching instruments and voice—that is, one-on-one. The reasons for that are numerous, but chief among them is that it is a very complicated and long-term process to become a performer in music. It includes the integration of detailed physical abilities (technique) with intellectual training (reading and understanding musical form), emotional development (expressiveness and drive), and psychological preparation (performing under pressure). The integration of all of these components cannot be taught in a large lecture-room setting, nor can it be taught well online.

The hourly fees paid for this kind of instruction do not include preparation time. If a music professor teaches 10-20 lessons per week, that means choosing and preparing repertoire and technical studies for each lesson at the right level for each student. The curriculum is individually tailored and under constant revision. The hourly fees do not include communications with students, emails and phone calls to manage a myriad of issues including scheduling, finding music, recital programs, and general advising. The hourly fees do not include “extra hours” which are required for students’ training, like master classes, juries, dress rehearsals and recitals.   The list goes on and on for those faculty who are serious about training the students who study with them. Paying only for the lesson time itself (usually 30-60 minutes a week) is paying for only a small part of what is required to teach this discipline. The actual pay is closer to just above minimum wage.

teaching-guitarUniversities can justify this low rate of pay because of the one-on-one teaching. But then, how can they justify paying tenure-track faculty so much more for teaching the same kinds of lessons? “Equal pay for equal work” is not honored, especially for music faculty. Universities can also add private-lesson fees to help pay faculty—and indeed they have in many cases—but the pay still remains grossly inconsistent between tenure-line and contingent faculty. If faculty have the same training and experience as their tenure-track colleagues, as many contingent faculty do, they should be paid the same for applied lessons. The idea that higher ed appointments are based on a meritocracy has long since been given up. Even tenure-line faculty say that they have “won the lottery” if they manage to get a tenure-track position.[i]

In addition to this special burden for music faculty, we also share the heavy burdens of other contingent faculty: low pay for courses; denial of benefits by limiting our credits; removal of courses from our contracts without consultation; no role or vote in faculty governance; unequal sharing of resources like office space; no job security; and lack of respect within our units. These burdens make one wonder why young academics would continue to want to teach in higher education, and indeed, threaten the future of our profession.

Instructional budgets for Music (as well as other departments) should ensure equitable pay for all faculty for the instruction and service that they provide. That is not to say that contingent faculty should be paid the same annual salaries as tenure-line faculty, but that they should be paid the same for the responsibilities that they share in common, like coursework, private lessons, and faculty ensembles. This means that tenure-line salaries have to be broken down and transparent, even though that may be a complicated process to separate and give a dollar value to the various elements of the posts for which faculty were hired. The alternative is to continue to fuel the long-term resentment of the large majority of faculty who have not received equal pay for equal work.

Arts education in America

Budget cuts in arts education are part of a wider trend in America to see education primarily as vocational training. Even liberal arts colleges are often judged by how much money their graduates earn, rather than how much they learned. This is an example of “corporatism”—that institutions of higher education exist to serve corporations by training students primarily for corporate life, and those institutions are in turn subject to the destructive effects of corporatization.[ii]

In one particularly egregious example of unfair treatment, George Washington University (GW) in Washington DC announced small cuts this spring of about 5% to most of its divisions, but its Music Department saw drastic cuts, up to 50% by some estimates. The cuts included reducing the number of choirs and wind ensembles, cancelling several popular music survey courses, reducing the number of chamber ensembles, and restricting private instrument study to music majors and minors only. At least four long-term music adjuncts, who had taught at GW for over 25 years, were laid off entirely, and private instructors saw their instruction time reduced to 5 hours a week or less. [iii]

In some sense, what happened at GW and what is happening to music faculty in America in general is symptomatic of the decline in funding and support for arts education, and indeed, the shift in our culture away from studying and honoring the great intellectual achievements in human history. Music faculty may be “the canary in the coal mine”—among the first to be down-sized in an educational system that does not value education in the arts. Are we in danger of raising a generation of young tech or business workers who are ready for employment upon graduation, but have nothing close to a liberal arts education, and did not have a chance to develop critical thinking or creative imagination skills? Students well-trained in the arts are simply better employees—they have learned to think “outside the box,” they have learned a rigorous self-discipline, they have learned how to collaborate in a group working towards a common goal, and they have learned how to solve short-term problems, at the same time understanding the patience needed to reach long-term goals. Why would corporate culture not want this kind of employee?

arts-education-wordleThe history of music can be seen as a long line of efforts by individual composers in every time and every place to give form and beauty through sound to the chaotic nature of the human soul. Some composers, like Bach, connected their efforts to religious faith; others, like Brahms or Beethoven, had more humanistic goals, and focused on the triumph of the human spirit. Non-European examples could surely be added, like the meditative intentions of Indian ragas, or the comfort and catharsis experienced in African-American blues music. The goals were similar—to add meaning and depth to human existence, to give voice to human passions, and to encourage the exercise of human reason in the creation of beauty. The point of studying music may sound overly idealistic or quaint to some, especially to those who only value a vocational degree. But to those who want to think about the big questions, like “what is a good life?” or “what will make me happy?” it is a liberal education, including the study of music, that will help to think about those questions, not an MBA degree.

Curriculum in music, including both applied music and coursework, should be offered to all students in higher education as components of arts and humanities requirements, whether they are experts or beginners. These courses and lessons should not be available to only a select few. In our highly diverse culture, experiencing and understanding music that is new to us is a way to bridge cultural gaps. Singing in a gospel choir, learning a Bach Minuet, listening to an Indonesian gamelan or horse-head fiddle music from Mongolia—all of these experiences help us to understand those who are different from us. It is a way of trying to overcome racial divisions in a highly diverse society. The same should be said for other arts disciplines, including visual arts, theater, and creative writing.

Equal pay for equal work

Music faculty have been particularly burdened with pay inequity. It is the responsibility of university administrators to look at their budgets and balance the need for more and more highly-paid administrative staff with equity in faculty salaries. It is time for music and arts faculty to be treated fairly, to be paid commensurate with tenure-line faculty for the work that they share in common. It is time for university administrators to either recognize the value of contingent music and arts faculty or move on to other employment that is less destructive of the vision of American higher education.


[i] Contra Kelly J. Baker, “The Myth of the Academic Lottery,” Vitae, 6/30/15, which argues that it is not luck, but “gender, race, age, and class,” that determines academic hires.

[ii]See Rob Jenkins, “Of Corporations, Corporatization, and Corporatism,” Vitae, July, 2014.

[iii] See Jessica Krash, “Adjunct Professor: GW’s Cuts will Crush Music Education Here,” Washington Post, April 16, 2015.


Jane Harty, D.M.A. is a Senior Lecturer in Music at Pacific Lutheran University, 1978-present.






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