You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

“Every artist is an advocate”

Music students fight for building renovations

  • Updated
  • 8 min to read
“Every artist is an advocate”

Walking into the basement of the UM School of Music is walking into a cacophony of tones, with pianos, clarinets and trumpets reverberating throughout the hallway. 

The magic created by the music, though, fades with tales of students forced to practice in the freight elevator due to a lack of practice space, and images of holes in the floors and walls of practice rooms. The music, audible between one practice room and the next, suggests a need for improved soundproofing.

The music building at UM has not received any major renovations since it was built nearly 70 years ago. Built in 1953 to accommodate 100 students, the School of Music now serves nearly 200. And with capacity issues joining a longer list of renovation needs, the School of Music faces a new problem: The risk of losing its national accreditation.

The last time UM’s School of Music passed accreditation, it was on the condition that significant issues facing the facilities be addressed. Nearly 10 years later, these problems remain unfixed. With a clock ticking on reaccreditation in 2022, and legislation enabling the school to raise money having stalled, students have stepped in to fight for their school.


Posters from past UM Jazz Festivals hosted at the School of Music hang in the entryway of the building.

Enter Noah Durnell: A senior music performance student, an ASUM senator and the president of the Student Music Union. 

Durnell, a lifelong Griz fan, chose to come to the UM School of Music after auditioning with the oboe and earning a full tuition waiver for his musical potential. However, despite his longtime allegiance to UM, Durnell’s first impression of the music building was that it was “dismal.” 

“That was one of the first times I questioned whether or not I would actually study here,” Durnell said, recalling a high school-age visit for a music camp. “Because I wasn’t sure if I could study in a building like this for four years. I’m still unsure of it as a senior.”

His doubts were stoked by the building’s poor condition at the time, which is even worse in 2021. The elevator doors don’t open on their own, many lockers, even with locks, can be opened by yanking hard enough, and the main rehearsal space doubles as storage. Durnell also described problems with theft and disability access during his time at UM.

Now, after four years of studying that boosted his confidence in the program with his peers and faculty, Durnell has become an advocate for the music school.

Music note

At the center of Durnell’s attention are the physical problems that need to be addressed for the building to be safe and useful for the students, and necessary for the school to maintain its accreditation.

Accreditation comes from the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), which, according to its website, views accreditation as a pledge to “seek optimal learning conditions for music students and develop the strength and quality of music in higher education by assisting institutional members and their faculties to do their best work.” 

The importance of accreditation, according to the director of the School of Music James Randall, communicates that a school is preparing students for a professional future. Durnell added that UM’s school of music is well-known in the Northwest, and offers a competitive price. But without accreditation, he fears the school may lose its competitive standing. 

The last time UM’s school of music was reaccredited, in 2012, NASM’s evaluators listed major concerns. Among these were disability access, building capacity and safety. Safety concerns included spaces not meeting fire codes and rehearsal spaces placing ensemble members at risk due to loud noise, which requires hearing protection. They agreed to extend the music school’s accreditation only after assurances that their concerns would be a priority for the University. The music school’s next accreditation is set for 2022. 

But NASM’s renovations list has yet to be completed, and the 2022 deadline is fast approaching. 

The current state legislative session has been a last resort to secure the funding necessary for the renovations to take place. Despite the University’s claims that music building renovations would be a legislative priority for the University, concerned students felt compelled to take action to improve the odds that the funding for renovations was obtained. 

Durnell focused his attention on House Bill 5, legislation that would allow the School of Music to raise $6 million from donors for building renovations. The state is responsible for the operation of buildings at the University, according to Dave Kuntz, UM’s director of strategic communications, so the money has to come through the Montana Legislature. Because of this, UM is required to seek approval from the state before improvements to the music building can be made.

But donors need to specify where their money goes, so money raised may not be directed to the concerns listed by NASM for the School of Music’s accreditation.  

Durnell’s goal was for HB 5 to include a $1.5 million supplement, supplied by the state, to address safety and accreditation concerns. So, he created a political action committee within the Student Music Union — advocacy he never expected he would find himself doing when he started studying at UM. 

“I knew a lot more was going to need to be done to get the money on the bill,” Durnell said. 


Noah Durnell, senior music performance student, ASUM senator and president of the Student Music Union, pulls on the broken frame of a row of lockers in the University of Montana music building. Durnell said that some lockers open even if there is a lock attached, and students have had their instruments stolen because of this. Along with 45 other students, Durnell lobbied the Montana state legislature to include $1.5 million in funding in House Bill 5 to fund necessary renovations, but the language was not included in the bill. “I think what will make us shine as a program across the nation is if we get a building that reflects the quality of our program,” Durnell said.  

The political action committee Durnell formed included around 50 students. He said the goal was to include student voices in the legislative process. In the end, 45 students sent in written testimony advocating for the inclusion of the $1.5 million from the state. Durnell also testified at the state legislature on Feb. 3. 

Randall, the director of the music program, said he appreciated the leadership role Durnell and other students took. 

“A lot of our students are music education majors,” Randall said. “This is the same type of arts advocacy that they will be practicing in their careers, and it’s something we try to model in the music department.” 

Laurie Baefsky, the new dean of the College of Arts and Media at UM, echoed Randall’s sentiments. She said one of her first experiences as the dean was attending one of Durnell’s group meetings, and that the professionalism of the students was impressive. 

“In one word, it’s stunning,” Baefsky said of the student advocacy Durnell’s team led.

Despite their efforts, the $1.5 million Durnell and other music students lobbied for was not included in HB 5, nor was it included more recently in the amended language of the bill.

Durnell said that since the funds were not included in the bill’s amended language, it is unlikely that the School of Music will receive that money to specifically address the accreditors’ concerns. The legislation still allows the music school to fundraise $6 million, but even if successful, those efforts may not come in time to address the concerns that threaten the school’s accreditation.  

Music note
Music Building Timeline

Kuntz, the director of strategic communications at UM, said the University is prioritizing the renovations necessary for the music school to be reaccredited, including soundproofing the practice rooms and increasing accessibility to ensure student safety. 

But Durnell and some of his fellow students at the School of Music are not confident in senior administration giving sufficient priority to the renovations necessary for the music school to be reaccredited next year. 

Allison High, a third-year double major in music education and flute performance, said that it was concerning to her that students needed to take action to get funding. 

“The bottom line is that they didn’t even put us on the bill and we had to fight to be included, which is odd considering that we were supposed to be UM’s top funding priority,” High said. 

Durnell said he thinks this issue — the urgent need for renovation — has been downplayed by the University for a long time. 

“It’s really clear that, even when it was a priority this year — even when it’s literally written as a priority — it’s not a priority for this University or the state, and they showed that through their actions,” Durnell said. “I really hope that our president and our administration can prove me wrong, that they actually do really care about the arts and that they think this is as dire of an issue as students do.”

Durnell said he has personally reached out to UM President Seth Bodnar, but has not received a response to his concerns. 

He said students are relying on the University even more now that the prospect of money coming from the Legislature has disintegrated. 

In an emailed statement to the Kaimin, President Bodnar said that he has been pushing to secure funds for renovations to the music building. 

“While we would have liked to receive more funding from the state this session, campus leadership is committed to finding a path to the full funding needed to renovate the music building,” Bodnar stated. 

He added that he understands the importance of upgrading and soundproofing practice rooms in the music building, as well as improving accessibility.

“Music education at UM is not only a hallmark feature of the University, but also a service to the state of Montana,” Bodnar stated. He said that the renovations will ensure that the music building remains “a hub for creativity in western Montana.”


University of Montana junior Kennedy Payne plays her clarinet in the UM music school freight elevator February 16, 2021. "When there's nowhere else to practice in the building, I know a lot of people who practice in here," Payne said. Over 200 students are enrolled in the school of music, which was originally built to house only 100. The building has not received any major renovations since it was built in 1953 and risks losing accreditation. 

Kuntz said he understands student concerns, and that renovations to the music building are a top priority for UM. He said the University only pushed for a few things infrastructure-wise at the legislature this year, and the funding for the music building was near the top of the list. Other projects the University advocated for in the same category — under which the projects will have the authority to raise money from donors with the passage of HB 5 — are renovations and repairs to Rankin Hall and construction of the UM Museum for Art and Culture.

And with the hiring of Baefsky — who has a Doctorate of Musical Arts in flute performance — as the new Dean of the College of Arts and Media, Kuntz said music students should be assured of their priority to UM. 

Kuntz credited the efforts of the music students to ensure funding, saying that otherwise the $6 million may not have been put on HB 5 by the state Legislature. 

“UM is a launch point for leaders in our state, and I have no doubt that Noah [Durnell] is part of the next generation of Montana’s leaders, along with the rest of the students who spoke up,” Kuntz said. 

Music note

Despite the state Legislature’s lack of response to advocacy efforts, Durnell, High, Baefsky and Randall all expressed optimism for the future of UM’s music school.

“The future is bright, but it’d be even brighter with renovations,” High said. 

Randall said, despite the concerns, he thinks it is likely that the School of Music will be reaccredited in 2022. Despite concerns with the facility, Randall said, the faculty and program itself are strong.

Randall pointed to a first phase of music building renovations breaking ground this summer as another reason for hope. These renovations will come from private donations, according to Baefsky. According to an email from President Bodnar, the money invested in this first phase of renovations totals $2.3 million. This first phase will cover two rehearsal spaces and upgrade ventilation in the music building, which Randall said is even more of a priority with COVID-19. 

UM’s School of Music has also continued outreach to prospective students, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. High and Durnell, too, said prospective students are in the music building frequently for camps and outreach programs.

“I feel that the value added to the University of Montana by music and arts education is significant,” Randall said. 

He added that he feels that the School of Music is supported at UM, and said it has maintained a good standard of student retention, despite a decrease in enrollment last semester with COVID-19. 

A bright spot, in Baefsky’s estimation, is what she said is a 100% job-placement rate for music education students at UM. She added that her vision for the future of UM’s School of Music is to expand and embed music education in Montana.

“We are the arm creating music education across the state,” Baefsky said.

Durnell said the program has strengths in recruitment and renowned faculty like Dr. Johan Eriksson and Dr. Christopher Kirkpatrick, who form a group called “Duo Nyans” and recently toured Sweden and Taiwan. Eriksson is also a Yamaha Performing Artist, along with fellow faculty member Dr. Jennifer Gookin Cavanaugh, which is a worldwide recognition of talent. 


Playing over the cacophony of sounds made by other instruments in practice rooms next door, University of Montana freshman Katie Thompson practices her trumpet in the basement of UM's music school. According to Noah Durnell, senior music performance student, ASUM senator and president of the Student Music Union, these practice rooms need to be soundproofed as the sounds reverberating through neighboring practice rooms have been deemed unsafe by fire marshals. Durnell also said that there is asbestos in the building, which is made more concerning considering the holes in the walls and floors.

Durnell said as long as the School of Music doesn’t experience large budget cuts and is able to address accreditation concerns, he sees the future of UM’s music program as promising.

“I think what will make us shine as a program across the nation is if we get a building that reflects the quality of our program,” Durnell said. 

As for his advocacy, Durnell said he hopes to leave a legacy that others will carry on.

“I really hope that in my time at UM, I have inspired other music students to go above and beyond their music career and also participate in these higher advocacy fields,” Durnell said. He said it is student advocacy that will push University administration to make the changes necessary to the music building. 

“Every artist is an advocate,” Durnell said.