Arts Initiative, SMTD expanding student arts opportunities


A collaboration between the University of Michigan’s Arts Initiative and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance is expanding opportunities for students who want to learn to play the guitar, and points the way to more arts participation by non-arts students.

The effort fits into an important goal of the Arts Initiative — strengthening the student experience by integrating the arts in teaching and learning, and expanding the breadth of offerings and access to these experiences.

“There are students who want to engage in the arts while at U-M. However, there are obstacles to participation,” said Christopher Audain, managing director of the Arts Initiative. “Helping units meet demand is one way to eliminate barriers to arts learning, which significantly improves the college experience.

“We are excited about expanding this type of support for other classes across disciplines and seeing the impact it has.”

Vera Flaig, lecturer I in music at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, leads her guitar class in a Study Days Concert at the U-M Museum of Art during the fall 2022 final exam period. The class is part of SMTD’s collaboration with the Arts Initiative. (Photo by Mark Clague)

The guitar-instruction program grew out of a recognition that for many years U-M students have been requesting to study guitar, but due to a lack of faculty and capacity, SMTD was unable to meet the demand.

Mark Clague, professor of music and associate dean for collaborations and partnerships in SMTD, hired Jonathan Edwards, lecturer of guitar and songwriting, to teach guitar in fall 2020, offering two classes with 30 spaces. Interest continued to grow, and by fall 2022, there were close to 100 students on the waitlist.

Clague reached out to the Arts Initiative to bridge the gap.

The funding SMTD received from the Arts Initiative was imperative in expanding the student experience for those on the waitlist. The school hired a second instructor for fall 2022, and after just one semester of Arts Initiative funding, SMTD was able to confirm increasing interest and hired a third instructor.

While working on a campuswide arts census with Maryrose Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, a multi-institution arts alliance founded at U-M, the Arts Initiative identified several additional areas where supplemental instructors could help meet student demand for arts participation.  

“We found that there were barriers to enrolling in arts classes for non-majors, including lack of space in classes, the location of arts classes, and required major coursework either not including arts classes or having too few credits to use to engage with arts coursework,” Flanigan said.

Along with Edwards, SMTD lecturers Bret Hoag and Vera Flaig are creating more opportunities for students to engage with and take guitar classes.

“We’ve gone from two sections to now 15 classes of guitar, as well as a new guitar ensemble for fall 2023,” Clague said.

“It’s been super exciting to see students, even absolute beginners, discover their talent for making music. There is so much incredible talent on this campus. Our students are great thinkers and scholars, but there is nothing so exciting as watching students realize that they are creative artists, too.”

A guitar class performs a Study Days Concert at the U-M Museum of Art during the fall 2022 final exam period. The class is part of SMTD’s collaboration with the Arts Initiative. (Photo by Mark Clague)

Few, if any, of the U-M students taking the guitar classes are music majors, and almost all are students studying outside of SMTD majors.

Savannah Halpern, a freshman studying biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience, said the experience motivated her to continue learning the guitar and she plans to take more classes.

“Thanks to this class, I believe that learning guitar will become a lifelong passion.” Halpern said. “The students in the class are also great, and the overall guitar class has an incredibly positive environment.”

Students have even created their own “Guitar Club,” an official campus organization named the Classical Guitar Society. It already has more than 50 members and is growing.

“Guitar is always something I’ve wanted to learn, and this experience has, quite literally, changed my life in many positive ways,” said Rohan Barad, a senior studying user experience design in the School of Information.

“I would 100% recommend this class to other students. It’s the perfect balance of learning a fun hobby and practicing something new without feeling too stressed or overwhelmed. In fact, as I peruse the entire course guide for classes under the Arts Initiative, I wish I had more semesters myself to take some more classes.”


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