Undergraduate Preparation for Graduate Study in Music—Princeton University

October 1, 1971

In the belief that we can learn a great deal from our students, the Editor of SYMPOSIUM asked a number of graduate students in music to tell us what they feel was both good and bad about their undergraduate education in music. The Editor approached a number of directors of graduate study in music in universities, and asked each to recommend a graduate student who might be able to articulate his or her thoughts about how previous undergraduate work had or had not been adequate for current graduate study. The response was most heartening, and the students wrote with considerable enthusiasm. It is only to be regretted that space did not permit all who took the time to write to have their essays printed in this issue of SYMPOSIUM. To each graduate director who cooperated and to each student who wrote, the Editor would like to express his thanks and appreciation for contributing such an enlightening series of documents on the recent successes and failures of undergraduate education in music.

At the AMS/CMS meeting last year in Toronto, a joint session was entitled "Music in Higher Education in the 1970's". We heard the ideas of the panel members on the general subject of music teaching, and the opinions were diverse and colorful. The participants seemed in agreement on a number of issues: undergraduate music training is usually corrective; it is often too compartmented; philosophies of graduate education differ widely among institutions, and, on the whole, we teach music in spite of many unsound concepts and curricula. There was, however, obvious and widespread disagreement as to what actually might constitute a good undergraduate or graduate program in music. It merely confirmed one's suspicions to learn that a large number of graduate students are dissatisfied with their college training and that a reasonably efficient match between undergraduate and graduate work seems to occur infrequently.

Thus it was with some relief that this writer realized he had emerged from the provinces via Duke University and had managed to survive two years as a graduate student at Princeton. The Ph.D. program in music history at Princeton includes at the first level two years of courses and independent study concluded by a general examination. An average of two graduate courses a semester is offered; they are seminars on topics such as "Musica ficta in the Masses of Josquin des Prez" or "Compositional Process of J.S. Bach". At the second level, the student chooses a dissertation topic and the appropriate research and writing follow. Often the Ph.D. candidate finishes the thesis while employed elsewhere.

Princeton does not really care whether an entering student already knows the date of Toscanello in musica or how many volumes of RISM catalogues have appeared. Nor are such facts systematically covered in class; it is assumed that the student will discover these things in his individual research and through private consultation. The demands of the program are rigorous, but the intellectual freedom is exceptional. There is time to think and to work, and it is particularly meaningful to be closely involved with exciting projects and people. Nevertheless, the lack of structure is sometimes frightening, particularly in the initial exposure, and students suffer some adverse psychological reactions. Like graduate students everywhere, students here occasionally see the whole experience as little more than a frustrating professional puberty ritual. But Princeton's system usually works; most students master their psyches and proceed to do hard work along with a touch of resigned sitting it out.

My own experience as an undergraduate was, on the whole, a successful preparation for this professional training in musicology. The implication is that the music department at Duke University operates tolerably well, and that it therefore warrants a closer look.

The curriculum at Duke is traditional; one declares a major in music early in his collegiate career and then proceeds through a prescribed set of courses in harmony and theory, history, and performance. Sooner or later, the major chooses an area of emphasis among the three, and his courses will vary accordingly. Most students complete an independent project in the senior year. In addition, a stiff distributive course load, now slightly eased, was required of every B.A. candidate, including a few courses in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Many things are wrong with this approach. The program smacks of being accepted for its venerability or possibly because changing it would be just too complicated. Terms like "history" and "harmony and theory" are clichés instead of concepts; a student can believe that musical grammar and "theory of music" are the same study. And the "area of emphasis" clause is misleading, since it implies that a historian never bothers with performance and theory. On the contrary, the more successful students were usually the ones who managed to be active in all the areas. In short, the curriculum was hardly virtuous; it was merely typical.

Some very special opportunities did exist. The first and most important was the chance to participate in serious performing groups and thus to become familiar with music and musicians through firsthand experience. One learned in orchestras, early music groups, and chamber ensembles about musical instruments, genres, styles, composers, and the technique of preparing a live public performance. An attentive student emerged with a considerable and well-learned repertoire.

The small number of majors and the favorable ratio of students to teachers facilitated close personal and professional relationships with faculty members. In fact, most third and fourth year classes in music were either small seminars or private meetings with professors. One could probe into the minds of the people he admired, and the independent adviser could pay the close personal attention required to improve verbal expression and methods of thinking. These relationships were inspiring and especially important in the formulation of a fundamentally sound attitude toward music study.

Another strength was the career counseling that reflected a growing awareness of the actual professional opportunities in the field. Graduate school was not automatically recommended to students, and when it was, the recommendation was accompanied by a reasonably accurate definition of terms such as "musicology" and "theory". The hard facts of how many glamor jobs would exist were kept in mind. To some, this attitude seemed harsh, but it was at least realistic. At the same time, students were encouraged to enter fields that so far have not attracted many university graduates: private studio teaching, music therapy, and teaching at junior and community colleges. A project to teach violin to large classes of children, for example, received as much favorable attention from the faculty as the performance of a new work or the publication of an article. The department recognized that career offerings existed other than university posts and orchestra positions, and that it was unfair to encourage students to enter a profession for which their capabilities were limited.

Looking back on the whole experience, I see more problems with my undergraduate education than I imagined at the time, but I see many and more important strengths. No one would call the curriculum imaginative or exciting. Courses were repetitive and wasteful of time. Infrequently did we deal with context or idea or issue, and we were aware that personal and professional animosities sometimes prevented a balanced view of the field. Yet Duke had an exceptional quality that can only be called a good attitude. The faculty was serious, competent, and intent on finding better ways to acquaint would-be musicians with music. There were thoughtful men with good ideas, and students had a chance to learn a quantity of music. There was, finally, that important quality which is so difficult and hazardous to discuss: an excitement and joy in learning about music.

I have come to believe from this experience that the college undergraduate music curriculum should take advantage of the four years available to instill skills and ideas first and then perhaps some facts. Certain skills should be mastered by all musicians. Nobody could claim that they were great fun to learn, and in the constant effort for "relevance" and "synthesis", we frequently settle for marginal capabilities in these areas. But score reading, piano facility, and a general technical knowledge of music are absolute essentials. Although every musician needs these skills, and although requirements for them are usually listed in the catalogue, too few of us are firmly in command of them when we begin graduate study. Equally basic to graduate work are the ability to write clearly, a general historical outlook, and, increasingly, such tools as computer techniques.

Since practically all the professions in music deal in some way with performance and performer, an experience in college as a performing musician is prerequisite for a knowledgeable endeavor in the other areas. Graduate students and professors pursuing limited areas of music study quite often find they can no longer devote the time required to maintain competence as a performer. Nevertheless, to encourage undergraduate students not to bother with live music merely because someday they may enter a graduate school is a serious error.

There is also the critical problem of languages. It is hopelessly unrealistic to require entering students to know more than a single foreign language, but research in at least four languages has to be done from the start. The required proficiency tests in languages often allow the degree candidate to escape with minimal abilities that serve more as a hindrance to his work than an aid. The increasing de-emphasis of language study by colleges at the undergraduate level only compounds our problem. Again, the responsibility falls more and more upon the departmental adviser to encourage language skills.

Most of us have degrees in the liberal arts, and as music historians we are expected to deal with the history of an art. Yet how many of us as undergraduates heard of Botticelli or Ariosto? When do we expect graduate students to learn these things? Too many aspiring teachers profess to know the history of a single art and are unaware of even the elementary principles of the other arts. Every indication is that music-historical studies will become increasingly involved with the other disciplines, but all too few students take advantage of the opportunities offered by other departments at the college level.

Finally, I believe an adequate preparation for graduate study should include an awareness of differing theoretical views of music. For example, all musicians should by now know some of the prevailing concepts of structural analysis and structural hearing. The time has passed, for example, for us to be divided into silly and unyielding pro-Schenker and anti-Schenker camps. It is unfair to students not to acquaint them with ideas about foreground and background at the same time we talk about I's and V's and tonal answers. The opposite is equally true: knowledge of traditional analytical methods is still important.

We shall never, in fact, agree as to what specifically is a good undergraduate preparation for graduate study. It is unrealistic, anyway, to expect that college curricula can or should be geared especially to the needs of the prospective graduate student. We must, however, try to train all students to think, to write, to hear, and to have an adventurous and questioning attitude about their art. The student with the best chance for a successful graduate tenure is the one who has tried what all too few ever really try: to think about music.

11404 Last modified on November 13, 2018