What happened to the music minor at St. Edward’s?

It was Dec. 6, 2019. I was a member of the St. Edward’s Jazz Improv Combo Band and was about to play in a concert for the “Festival of Lights,” an annual holiday celebration on campus. Leading us was our director and professor Joseph Colarusso, otherwise known as Joey. There was excitement in the air: People were hanging out and chatting or having impromptu jam sessions. When it was time to go onstage, me and my bandmates stood there going over our setlist over and over to make sure we had the order right. We eventually headed out, ready to meet the crowd. Onstage, just playing with my bandmates, smiling at each other when we did something cool, was enough for me. When we finished our final song, I looked for my mom in the audience and saw her in the front row, beaming. We took our bows, and Joey told the crowd to be on the lookout for what the Jazz Improv Band would be doing next. We left, making room for the next band, happy with our performance and excited for our future as a band. What we didn’t know was that this would be the last time we would perform together.

Shortly after this concert, we began preparing for another – our biggest one yet. Joey had been working for months to get all the St. Edward’s bands in one of the largest jazz venues in Austin – the Elephant Room. After he finally secured it for us, COVID-19 hit. We continued practicing the concert music, just in case Joey was able to get us a venue on campus, but that never happened. A one-week break turned into two, then three. The school eventually shifted to fully online classes.

This was, surprisingly, not the end. Joey persevered and found new ways to teach us music in an online setting. He had us all record our parts separately to a metronome and edit them together, so we would have proof of our work. Joey was still learning the software, but he left me and my bandmates with a promise that he would figure it out over the break. On May 13, 2020, not even a full week after the semester ended, we were told that the music minor had been discontinued. Joey contacted us and said he and Morris — one of the other band directors — had been fired and to reach out to him, as he had some suggestions for juniors and seniors on how to finish the minor. 

But that was it for me. I had just started my minor, so I had no such option to finish.

Luckily, Joey has been doing well since all this. When I interviewed him, he was on a tour bus, traveling the country. We discussed the music minor budget, and he told me he had taught the jazz improv class for free – he felt it was needed. Budget issues, like professor salary, were a constant theme when it came to the music minor. Carriage House, where all the music classes were taught, is made up of floors not much larger than an average living room and is accompanied by broken air conditioning. In Joey’s own words, “every public high school in Texas has better music facilities than St. Edward’s.”

I understand why the school struggled with the music budget. Teaching music is not cheap. But I’m also hopeful – what if the music minor came back, but as a major? Yes, it would be more expensive to have more music classes, but it would also attract more students within Austin — the “Live Music Capital of the World” — for a music education. Joey had a dream for the St. Edward’s music department that he was never able to achieve. He wanted it to be the “Berkeley or Vermont of the South.” Instead of just teaching students about music, he wanted to teach them how to make money with music and how to get themselves out into the industry. He wanted to focus more on the performance than the classroom. While I do feel he reached his goal in some ways, I know neither of us are happy with how it ended. Music has always been a big part of my life, and I would love nothing more than to be able to play music as a part of my degree. I believe there are benefits in a musical, lively campus. 

It has now been a little over two years since the music department was dismantled and a little over a year since I began writing this article. I am now a senior and the president of Jam Central, a club dedicated to creating a space for students to make music on campus. I’m still hopeful that one day the music department will be revived here at St. Edward’s University, and I am striving to do my part keeping student music alive here until then.