Forecasting the Future of Professional Associations in Music Education

Janet R. Barrett, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 

The curriculum scholar Patrick Slattery advises that “university professors and K-12 teachers must write and teach with a critical prophetic voice” (Slattery, 2013, p. xxi). Slattery ascribes to a postmodern view of time in which the past, present, and future are dynamically intertwined, creating possibilities that are simultaneously grounded in past practice and oriented toward imaginative action. In a complementary passage, Jorgensen refers to the ancient Roman god of doorways as she counsels music educators: “Each generation needs to renew education and culture for its particular time and place—its Janus faces to the past and future—and this renewal constitutes the seeds of musical, cultural, or societal transformation” (Jorgensen, 2003, p. 8). When thinking about renewal, terms such as catalyst, transformation, and change agent must be used judiciously, and I find myself becoming increasingly circumspect whenever making claims about organizational change in particular. How does one speak responsibly about future horizons when referring to professional associations in a field like ours? To do so could be seen as an act of hubris, idle prognostication, or worse. “Tomorrow obeys a futurist the way lightning obeys a weatherman,” quips Sterling (2013). I hold stock, though, in the power of professional associations to catalyze collective intelligence toward vital shared aims. Like Janus, I look backwards at 40 years of personal participation in state, regional, and national associations; the honor of service in several leadership roles; and hours spent in meetings, conferences, and key projects for the good of the cause. It has been a long and mostly satisfying path from the time I joined my first CMENC chapter at the insistence of my charismatic college professor to my various involvements today. In this essay, I examine this experience reflectively before looking ahead as sagely as I can to forecast future directions. First, I turn attention to the roles of professional associations.


Professional associations are the backbone of our field. They provide structural support for the realization of common aims and values. Consider their vital functions. They inform the field through events, conferences, projects, and publications. Members expect an organization to address key issues of the day and to offer timely information and insights. Associations offer leadership for addressing the pressing challenges that arise in the complex milieu of policy and societal expectations. Members want fast answers and access to resources, which poses difficulties for many volunteer-driven groups, which operate in fits and starts of activity. We aim for responsiveness tempered with wisdom. Professional associations sharpen critical judgment by providing regular forums for discussion and debate. The structure of conferences and board meetings, for example, enables multiple points of view to emerge, options to be weighed, and choices to be justified. Socialization and affiliation with like-minded peers through professional induction and recognition is central. Reflect on the familiar path from poster session to conference talk to committee membership to some appointed or elected position (and then finally, “past president” status for a brief period until some new invitation comes along). New colleagues often follow this pathway to take their place within the community of scholars, lending their invigorating voices to the discourse. Professional associations offer a useful “middle ground” to weigh the particularities of local context against the global concerns of the field at large. Associations serve as a repository of expertise for those outside the profession, the first stop whenever authorities need to be consulted. I have been surprised that this is much less common that I would imagine (especially in the age of the expert interview in the media). These vital roles and functions situate professional associations in crucial symbiotic interplay with individuals and institutions, accrediting agencies, policy-making bodies, stakeholders, and practitioners.


Looking back


For some time, I have been searching for scholarship on the impact of professional associations on educational fields. In music education, few scholars have addressed organizational influence in disciplined and discriminating ways. Content analyses of journals and conference sessions, for instance, are useful in tracing trends and salient themes over time. Historical accounts, although not plentiful, strive to substantiate the lasting influence of persons and projects. Not surprisingly, many of these accounts focus on MENC/NAfME as the prominent “big tent” for music educators, mostly covering the time period before the association’s redefinition in 1998 as the broad advocacy group for the field at large, or the recent rebranding in 2011. In 1994, for example, Manny Brand edited a special issue of the Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning inviting an impressive roll call of past presidents and luminaries to address MENC’s accomplishments. These essays (by Allen Britton, Charles Leonhard, Dorothy Straub, Charles Hoffer, Mary Hoffman, and Richard Colwell) [1] offer anecdotal and mostly laudatory reminiscences of various MENC presidents, staff members, and projects of the association. Critical perspectives are rare. A notable exception is Leonhard’s exhortation for an independent commission to “evaluate the function and structure of MENC and recommend changes that will enable the organization to better provide essential leadership” (Leonhard, 1994, p. 27). Hoffer warns that without a system of checks and balances, the association could fall into the trap of mechanistically perpetuating its own habits and traditions while losing sight of more crucial aims (Hoffer, 1994). Both insights are valuable suggestions for today’s leaders.


A more recent set of historical analyses was prompted by the association’s centennial in 2007, in which scholars published account for each quarter century of MENC in the Journal of Historical Research in Music Education. Of these, I took particular note of Marie’s McCarthy’s review from 1982-2007, particularly since she avoided insularity by situating MENC’s projects in wider spheres of societal developments. McCarthy analyzed how shifts in the political landscape, demographic changes, increasing involvement of the federal government in education, status of the US as a world superpower, partnerships with music industry and popular media and culture, and trends in the lives of children and youth shaped the policies and discourse of the period. In her conclusion, McCarthy turns toward a prophetic voice, calling for synthesis, collaboration, and keener attention to national and global developments:


What we can hope for is further collaboration among the various constituencies within music education, bringing the best of all worlds together: the values of popular culture in conversation with the academy and conservatory; broadening the academic music curriculum to reflect global technological and socio-political developments; and integrating the benefits of a market economy and global communication networks with a contemporary philosophy of music that approaches music education in its most comprehensive meanings and contexts. (McCarthy, 2007, pp. 153-154)


McCarthy’s inspiring vision of many constituencies joining forces for the benefit of contemporary music education rings true at the present moment as well. Historical analyses remind us of the unavoidable gaps between the ambitions and altruistic intentions of leaders, and the partial realization of projects and initiatives due to the complexities of group efforts and the magnitude of the tasks. No association works in isolation; the contemporary problems faced by the field depend upon savvy leadership across the field from complementary coalitions. We need critical analysis of professional associations, their forms and structures, aims and initiatives, leadership and membership, and particularly their lasting influence on the field at large.


Wicked problems and good work as frameworks for critical analysis


In searching for literature that would shed light on the complexities of association work, I recently juxtaposed two streams of thought to inform the renaissance of the Society of Music Teacher Education—the concept of wicked problems and a project called GoodWork (Barrett, 2012).  The first stream stems from work in urban planning by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, who investigated the sticky attributes of wicked social problems that are characteristically ill defined, stakeholder dependent, dynamic, and complex. They further note that such problems are often “associated with strong moral, political, and professional issues . . . [that] won’t keep still” (as cited in Ritchey, 2011, p. 20). Professional associations are both notoriously steeped in wicked problems and singularly well positioned to address their kaleidoscopic, kinetic dimensions.


Some wicked problems are endemic to the very mission of organizations, and some crest and ebb (easily traceable through conference themes). For example, NAfME has long engaged with the robust and persistently ongoing need for advocacy while at the same time working to influence pending legislative action on Capitol Hill. SMTE’s long history of debating the content and character of preservice music teacher education continues in light of the recent urgent focus on music teacher evaluation. The College Music Society has long sought to integrate various specializations within music in higher education, periodically focusing these factions toward common aims, such as a greater awareness of the concept of the artist-citizen and the way social consciousness is reflected in schools of music. Resilient wicked problems define us; more cyclical wicked problems stir us into action.

The other stream of inspiration stems from Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon, 2001) who set out to study quality in nine different professional domains through the GoodWork project sponsored by Project Zero [2]. They define good work as involving a triple helix of excellence, ethics, and engagement. This helix gives us a way to evaluate how well an association conducts its business and meets the demands of the time. To judge an association as excellent involves applying rigorous standards of quality to the group’s leadership, mission, events, and initiatives. To judge an association as ethical involves examining its orientation to socially just and democratic principles. Engagement, the third strand of the helix, is particularly telling for societies made up of volunteers, for the contributions members make and the tasks they tackle must be seen as meaningful, worthwhile, and fulfilling or they will go elsewhere. The ever-pressing satisfaction of making a difference is crucial. When these elements are in balance and in play, contributing one’s time and expertise to the good work of a professional association is worth it and feels like a good fit. As Gardner et al. (2001) claim:


Harmonious professional realms exist when individual practitioners are attracted to the domains that most suit their interests and abilities, when they are allowed to develop and grow within the parameters of the practice, and when these rewards are commensurate with their skills and contributions. (p. 30)


Forecasting future directions for professional associations


After looking back and poking around, I provide commentary and a few conjectures. Over the past forty years, the number of specialized professional associations, publications, conferences and projects has grown, and I assume this trend will continue. The era of an “umbrella organization” that serves the needs of all its members is waning, and even within NAfME, the organization has responded to the trend toward specialization by creating new councils and societies. In the face of competing demands, associations will have to recruit and retain their volunteer base by being known for good work; thus, the general public image of the association must be tended and cultivated. Potential members will gravitate toward groups that offer a range of opportunities to contribute while also offering multiple avenues to establish connections, and there may be a “sweet spot” in the size of the group that allows for this balance. It will be increasingly important for organizations to extend their influence to non-members through publications and online means of dissemination as well. Given the move toward creative commons and widespread access to resources, a “members only” approach seems too narrow.


Organizations will thrive by attending to matters of excellent quality, tied integrally to the quality of leadership. Leaders will need to inspire, organize, delegate, and persist to move towards important aims. Large groups move slowly and inefficiently, making a commitment to democratic ideals for widespread participation even more urgent. Boards oriented toward problem-finding, not just problem solving, will be on the lookout for catalytic opportunities for growth. Facile organizations will make it possible for individuals to utilize varied expertise to oversee multiple simultaneous projects and events. Especially with volunteer groups, the wise use of limited resources will be essential (we are already noticing this with the proliferation of online meetings, conference calls, cloud storage, and other tools). Every organization wants to be thought of as “nimble,” quickly responding to needs and challenges, but we can’t be naïve in taking on new projects and causes without wise deliberation first.  I keep coming back to the need for critical analysis, such as Leonhard’s idea of an advisory commission. In the two-year turnover of most appointed or elected offices, a longitudinal view is often lacking. We need more attention to the influence of professional associations, applying systematic methods to analyze, understand, and evaluate their scope and reach. I’m curious about the status of professional associations in other fields and how they are managing the panoramic array of tasks, issues, and opportunities.


Ethical dimensions of the work are paramount. Professional associations can be viewed as collective bodies of professional judgment. The wicked problems we face have deeply moral, ethical, and political roots. We provide the stage for our best minds to debate multiple perspectives. Too often, we see debate as contentious when instead it is a hallmark of a vibrant intellectual community. Consider the way that policy issues have come from the periphery to the center in many of our key initiatives; framing our response to policy prompts difficult ethical questions. Another expression of ethics will be reflected in the way associations position their precious resources of human expertise toward tangible goals for social action, particularly forwarding humane and altruistic educational ends. Gardner speaks about the difficulties of promoting civic ideals in the polyvocal discourse of modern life, calling for professionals to hold fast to the concept of disinterestedness, in which individuals move beyond narrow self-interest toward the common good (Gardner, 2013).

Engagement, the most participatory strand in the helix of good work, is really the cornerstone of the volunteer organization. For the most part (good natured peer pressure notwithstanding), we are not conscripted into service. We enter into this work willingly. In SMTE, we have encouraged special interest groups to create and pursue manageable and meaningful projects. Specialized foci allow for the “good fit” of project, person, and group. Professional associations in music education will thrive if they continue to serve as a vital means of professional socialization. New colleagues are often told that membership is key to building a network of potential employers in the field. Beyond this gateway, every association relies on new members for the sense of renewal that Jorgensen described.


A call to professional service via doctoral programs was part of an initiative sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation’s Initiative on the Doctorate, which promulgated the notion that Ph.D. preparation should encompass generation, conservation, and transformation of disciplinary knowledge as the crux of professional action (Golde, 2006).  An idea that is especially germane from this project is the call to be “stewards of the discipline,” accepting responsibility to the larger whole.  Such an individual “thinks broadly about the entire span of the discipline and understand how its constituent parts fit together” (p. 12). Doctoral students, then, should be encouraged to view participation in professional associations as integral to their understanding of the field, how it works, what it values, how it preserves, adapts, and generates programs and ideas.


Along with this encouragement to take one’s place in the field through active participation comes understandable caution as well. Recognition and rewards are too often and too unfortunately stacked against association work. Professional service has always been the poor relation of research and teaching for key decisions in reappointment, tenure, and promotion, relegated to the end of the CV when attention falters. Part of the problem is that although many reward structures include categories of service, little attention is given to the quality of that service when making key decisions. Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation attempted to recalibrate the roles of the professoriate to elevate service by recasting it as the scholarship of application among the other elements of discovery, integration, and teaching (Boyer, 1990). Many aspects of work in professional associations align with the scholarship of application if and when they challenge professors to put their intellectual work to good use. Surely more inclusive models of recognition and rewards could aim toward judging the quality of association-related contributions, acknowledging the necessity of the professoriate to employ critical perspectives, visionary thinking, and creative solutions for this essential work.


Ultimately, the forecast is for continuing periods of involvement in complex, pressing, vital, and wicked problems on behalf of music teaching and learning, followed by occasional patches of satisfaction when possible solutions appear on the horizon. Association participants will take their own barometric readings, tracking the excellence of the association’s work, the depth of ethical issues it addresses, and the degree of vital engagement it engenders amongst its leaders and members. On the basis of overall atmospheric patterns, they will decide how and when they will contribute. Casting the meteorological metaphor aside, professional associations will thrive if they align the aims and activities toward wise ends that are well suited to the deliberative and synergistic nature of group work. The value these organizations have provided to the field is incalculable. The benefits they offer for individuals are noteworthy, also. It just feels good to sit around a conference table with smart, socially aware, energetic, and generous people who are willing to invest their expertise toward a common good. We take on this service and adopt a critical prophetic voice in the hope that the accomplishments of our professional associations will yield significant influence and impact.




Barrett, J. R. (2012). Wicked problems and good work in music teacher education. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 21(2), 3-9. doi: 10.1177/1057083711434403

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Gardner, H. (2013). Reestablishing the commons for the common good. Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 142(2), 199-208.

Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Damon, W. (2001). Good work: Where excellence and ethics meet. New York: Basic Books.

Golde, C. M. (2006). Preparing stewards of the discipline. In C. M. Golde & G. E. Walker (Eds.), Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline — Carnegie essays on the doctorate. (pp. 3-20). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hoffer, C. R. (1994). MENC: Advancing music education. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, V(2), 36-43.

Jorgensen, E. R. (2003). Transforming music education. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Leonhard, C. (1994). Leadership in music education. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, V(2), 16-27.

McCarthy, M. (2007). Widening horizons with a global lens: MENC responds to the new world order, 1982-2007. Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, 28(2), 140-154.

Ritchey, T. (2011). Wicked problems and genuine uncertainty. In V. T. Covello, J. Mumpower, S. F. Spicker & P. M. Stallen (Eds.), Wicked problems–-social messes (pp. 19-29). Berlin: Springer.

Slattery, P. (2013). Curriculum development in the postmodern era: Teaching and learning in an age of accountability (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sterling, B. (2012). The origins of futurism. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from


[1] Two essays by Patricia Shehan Campbell and Michael Mark are focused on multiculturalism and youth music.

[2] Since the publication of Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon’s book (2001), the overall project has expanded to include Good Play, Good Citizenship, and Good Life, all under the synoptic breadth of “The Good Project” (

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