The music instructors say they couldn’t have orchestrated it better if they’d planned it themselves.

As legislators weighing funding for a music-building renovation toured the old music classrooms at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, an electrical box fell from the wall. The room, a former art studio that had been jury-rigged to house musicians, went silent.

After years of lobbying and the fortuitous malfunction, Anoka-Ramsey’s music department received $3.8 million to gut and completely remodel its building.

The college threw open the doors to its new music facility in January. The building includes state-of-the-art classrooms, new performance spaces and private practice suites with views of the Mississippi River.

But it isn’t just the building that’s been fine-tuned. The program received accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music in November 2011, becoming only the second community college in Minnesota to do so. That makes transferring to a four-year university more seamless and gives the program more credibility, said Nicki Toliver, one of 24 music faculty members.

Accreditation is bestowed mostly to four-year universities. Anoka-Ramsey is one of about 24 community colleges in the nation to receive it.

“The energy and passion has really surged,” Toliver said.

Broader changes

The music program on Anoka-Ramsey’s Coon Rapids campus is part of a broader, long-term commitment to promote and expand arts education at the community college, which also has a campus in Cambridge.

In 2011, Anoka-Ramsey cut the ribbon on a new visual arts building.

“Music and art often get relegated to the back of a liberal arts education as a hobby,” said Deidra Peaslee, vice president of academic and student affairs. “There is a strong connection between math and music and math and art. It’s another way of learning.”

About 100 students have declared themselves fine-arts-in-music majors, with about three dozen actively pursuing the associate’s degree offered by Anoka-Ramsey.

It’s a small degree program at the community college, but interest in music education is on the rise among the school’s 12,000-student body. About 1,200 non-music majors take a music course each year, including jazz history, introduction to world music, piano and guitar classes, according to the music department chairman. Any Anoka-Ramsey student can also join the choir or other musical ensembles.

“We wanted to show people that students are participating in music and the arts even though they are looking into going into other majors. Music can help them develop many skills in the professional world no matter what field they go into,” said Sam Bergstrom, Anoka-Ramsey music department chairman.

Options and opportunities

Instructor Joyce Jenson, who teaches courses in piano, said the program provides students an affordable option to pursue a music degree. It also allows them a chance to acclimate to the rigors of a collegiate music program, which can involve a steep learning curve with music theory and comprehension courses.

Jenson said the caliber of the music program belies old stereotypes of the community college experience.

“[Community college] used to be perceived as an extension of high school,” Jenson said. “Now I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.”

Matthew Ferrell, director of concert choir and chamber singers at St. Cloud State, has had a handful of Anoka-Ramsey music students transfer into the university’s four-year music program.

“Overwhelmingly, they seem quite well-prepared to come into a four-year program,” Ferrell said. “It’s good for us. We hope if they make it through a good music program at a community college level, they will be well-prepared to finish a degree at St. Cloud State.”

But all students don’t come to the Anoka-Ramsey program with years of musical training and a clear career path. Many use the opportunity to figure out if they even want to pursue a career in music.

“They know they love music, but they are not sure how to incorporate music into their lives,” Toliver said.

At $166 per credit hour versus $260 at St. Cloud State for off-campus students or $464 at the University of Minnesota, students have some room to explore.

Inside the building

Toliver gives a tour of the remodeled two-story building. Every classroom and space is multifunctional with an eye toward student use.

The seven practice studios are spacious, and each has a computer loaded with specialized music programs. A new lab is equipped with more than two dozen computers, full-sized keyboards and software that allows students to compose and record on site. With the addition of the lab, the music department has started offering a music technology course this winter, Bergstrom said.

Another classroom doubles as a lecture hall and recital space.

There are several lounges and a music library where students can gather. The old building had no informal meeting space.

“Before, they left campus. Now, many of them stay and interact with peers, creating that undergraduate atmosphere,” Toliver said.

Jesse Bradley plays percussion. He is finishing his associate in fine arts degree in music this year and plans to transfer to St. Cloud State.

“The teachers are great musicians and great people,” he said.

Bradley came into the program with some misconceptions about community college, but said those were quickly erased. He likes the small classes and the attentive teaching staff. He has formed a trio with two other students, including Nick Mordal.

Mordal plays classical guitar. The Elk River High grad had heard about the high-quality music program from friends. The new digs have made a good thing even better.

“It’s a good program,” Mordal said. “This place is sweet.”