When the National Association of Schools of Music visited the University of Montana in 2010, it found that facilities housing the School of Music failed to meet the expectations of a national program.
The association also issued UM a dire warning: If the School of Music didn’t resolve the problem and address the health and safety of its students, it risked losing national accreditation.
“They said the faculty and students were performing at a high level, but they also said our building was something that would endanger our accreditation,” said Maxine Ramey, director of the School of Music. “We would be so far behind health and safety standards and the expectations of the NASM that we wouldn’t be accredited if we didn’t have new facilities for our major programs.”
Earlier this month, UM President Royce Engstrom made the school’s request for an expanded facility official when he asked the state Board of Regents for $10 million in public funding.
The request was submitted in a package that included UM and Montana State University’s long-range building needs. Regents are expected to consider the request in May. If approved, it would then require legislative approval.
At least, Ramey said, the wheels are beginning to turn, setting a timetable that could see construction completed before NASM returns to UM in 2020 for its next accreditation visit.
“A plan got pushed to a priority level,” said a hopeful Ramey. “The building expansion is a reality for a future date that will be close to our next accreditation. NASM kept us in good standing for now, but they need reports that we’re really going to do it.”
On Tuesday, Ramey’s office was inundated by the sounds of a saxophone ringing through the walls. One student sang opera in a practice room the size of a closet, competing with the tempo of a drummer rehearsing in another room.
The rooms are far from soundproof, but that’s the least of Ramey’s concerns. The music program has grown to more 350 students over the years, yet it remains housed in a 1950s building erected for 100 students.
The upper and lower levels of the facility are accessible only by a freight elevator. At times, students commandeer the elevator to rehearse. There is, they say, nowhere else in the building to practice.
“We have 14 practice rooms, but we should have 40,” said Ramey. “Our band room was built for a small instrumental group, but when you’ve got the entire Missoula Symphony in there, it’s jammed.”
Teachers have been relegated to closets, and storage needs have consumed precious practice space. While the building’s hours have been expanded to 6 a.m. to midnight, slots open for rehearsal remain limited, mostly only after 9 p.m.
What’s more, fire codes have been brought into question and egress has become a concern. Hearing loss resulting from rehearsals in poorly suited spaces has also raised health concerns.
“This space is smaller than most high school band rooms,” said Bob Ledbetter, director of percussion studies. “On our wish list is to have a large enough room just for percussion. And we have nowhere to store anything.”
The current building offers 30,000 square feet. A review by Music Facility Planners – a national firm specializing in such projects based in Oklahoma – recommended an additional 30,000 to 50,000 square feet be added to the Music Building on the north and west sides of the existing structure.
While funding for the project may depend in part on the Legislature, Ramey said the School of Music has already embarked a campaign to raise an additional $8 million to $10 million.
“For us to be accredited this cycle, we had to have our building expansion plans developed, and it had to be a priority of the university,” Ramey said. “We have an enrollment that’s now three to four times the capacity of the building when it was built in 1953, plus all the community and festival things we didn’t do back then.”
Though the Music Building has been a candidate for expansion since 1963, it has yet to occur, and enrollment in the program continues to climb each year.
Despite the conditions and challenges, the program has maintained a reputation of excellence, serving as the premier music institution in Montana. It remains one of only a few schools in a multistate region offering a full range of programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
Standing in the hallway amid the many students waiting for space to open, Ramey also noted the facility’s use by the community – a list that includes the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, the String Orchestra of the Rockies, the Montana Lyric Opera Company and the Montana Teachers Association, among others.
The possibility of losing accreditation concerns her.
“Accreditation actually says we’re functioning at the level of every other reputable school of music in the nation,” she said. “It says we’re providing the education that warrants the professional degrees we offer. Accreditation is a basic expectation that parents have.”