Music and the Community College Student

October 1, 1974

For a person accustomed to following the dictates of the musical score, it comes as somewhat of a shock to run into a new breed of music student, one who has little respect for notes (if he reads at all), and who regards his own desires as the ultimate source of creative expression.

Traditionally, the music major came to college prepared to undertake the arduous disciplines of intensive practice sessions, theory, ear training, score reading, music history, conducting, etc. He had already spent a number of years learning to play a standard instrument—piano, violin, trumpet—and could read at sight and participate in several performing ensembles.

That has changed somewhat. Today's children and their parents are not always concerned with the mastery of a highly refined skill which requires postponement of immediate gratification for the sake of accomplishment at some vague future time. And music lessons, in all honesty, may fall into that category of expensive luxury that is the very first to be abandoned when prices rise, children balk at practicing regularly, and orthodontia for reasons of health or appearance needs to be done.

Yet the sound of music retains its enchantment, and despite the shortcomings created by the failure to gain acquaintanceship with the language of music in early childhood, young persons are irresistibly drawn to this magic art which speaks directly to the heart and erases all barriers of communication. What is more, it looks so easy anyone can do it and everybody is doing it! Look at all those happy, smiling young people in outlandish costumes making millions of dollars playing to thousands of enthusiastic listeners at festivals, on television, and in the movies. Why, their record albums alone are sold to millions of people all over the world. "And when I think about it, they're no better than I am," chant a million teenagers in unison. And so, the music department becomes the pied piper of the campus scene, attracting to its courses a number of ambitious youngsters who are, to a large degree, neither prepared musically, nor aware of the economic problems of the music profession.

Having decided to major in music, however, these same students are now required to cope with the realities of the program. That is the fundamentals of music, theory, ear training, analysis, music history, score reading, conducting, etc. They must perform well in one or more performing mediums, and be able to read at sight. In addition, they will have had experience in solo and group performance. In other words, upon completion of a rigorous training program, one which serves the intellect to a far greater degree than the average layman anticipates in a course of study replete with romantic allusions, our erstwhile amateurs have become professionals. They are prepared for advanced study in some area of specialization, for graduate degree programs in music and music education, and for careers in music ranging from composer, conductor, performer and arranger, to music instructor in schools and colleges, specialist in music publishing, or the recording industry, etc. Those who drop out of the program do so because they realize that they do not have the talent or the drive needed to reach their objectives, or because they have come to understand that dentistry, accounting and fashion design are more rewarding financially. Yet they too will continue to love music and will find ways of making and enjoying music. For in the long run, music is an emotion-laden thing, and not just another college course which is quietly laid to rest in the wastebasket of time. Thus the music program will have served its goals and provided satisfaction for many persons.

At Kingsborough, one of nine community colleges of the City University of New York, the Music Department offers a two-year major music program leading to the A.S. degree. The degree requirements are 64 credits, of which 24-38 are in the music area. The degree is transferable to any senior college in CUNY, enabling the holder to complete the junior and senior years of study at the senior college, and thus to qualify for the B.A. degree.

The college student in the nation's largest megalopolis bears little resemblance to Eric Segal's classic portrait of the contemporary college boy and girl in his famous Love Story. The colleges of CUNY are located in the heart of the city; the halls of ivy are paved with concrete. The students range in age from sixteen to eighty, and their backgrounds form a kaleidoscope of diversity. Under the experimental open admissions plan begun in 1970, anyone holding a high school, or high school equivalency, diploma is eligible for admission to one of the 24 senior or community colleges in CUNY. Students whose high school averages range in the upper percentiles of their senior class may choose the senior college of their choice; the remainder enroll in transfer and career programs at the community college.

The policy of open admissions has sparked considerable controversy both inside and outside City University because it has brought a large number of students with serious deficiencies in academic preparation into the once hallowed halls of academe. Extensive tutoring and remedial programs have been initiated, but it is still too early to evaluate the results.

It is obvious that some departments are more adversely affected by a liberalized admissions policy than others. For example, the percentage of majors in the physical sciences is likely to decline. On the other hand, the number of students taking courses in the arts—art, music, speech and theater—is likely to increase, since students reflect the rather naive public belief that the arts are a cinch to learn.

At Kingsborough there has been a sharp rise in the number of candidates electing major music. This may reflect a general trend or be indicative of a particular situation. The practice in the Music Department is to administer pre-entrance examinations in performance, sight-reading and theory, which will serve as guidelines for admission to the program and will place the student in the appropriate courses. Those applicants who are exceptionally gifted and fluent in vocal or instrumental performance (approximately 20 percent) are given individual instruction in their specialty by outstanding teachers who are also performers, in a variety of fields. The student is given three credit hours for each 15-week semester of private lessons and performing group, for a total of 12 credits over a two-year period.

Kingsborough music major candidates must also complete two years of theory and ear training courses, and may choose from electives in music literature, contemporary music, and independent study (offered in theory, history and performance). In addition, they must participate in one or more performing ensembles, including orchestra, symphonic band, stage band, and chorus. In academic subjects they are required to meet established standards in English and mathematics, and to select basic courses from a broad spectrum of offerings in performing and visual arts, language and literature, social sciences, mathematics and science, behavioral science, physical and health education, and corrective speech (where appropriate).

In general, Kingsborough students, like most urban community college students, have had little access to a cultural milieu in their home backgrounds and life-styles and tend to require intensive work in academic skills. In academic subjects their level of achievement has caused difficulty in curriculum planning and challenged instructors to seek innovative techniques in teaching and learning. But in music and the sister arts, the outlook is mostly positive, since no one has ever made the claim that artistic ability and scholarship are in any way dependent on one another. Genius, so the saying goes, is guided by divine inspiration; it does not wallow in the mud of dull textbooks. Therefore to the music person, it is not literacy that matters most of all, but musical talent.

Of more serious concern to the music instructor is the lack of seriousness of purpose among some community college students. Music is an affair of the heart, and rare indeed is the music major who has not vociferously defended his dedication to the art. Yet often missing in practice among students is the loving finesse of instrumental technique formerly encountered among conservatory students; the careful observation of conductors' directions in orchestra and band rehearsals; solid, sincere preparation for auditions, real interest in knowledge of rhythms and notation; the search for mastery in ensemble work, and keen attentiveness to the subtle intricacies of theory and ear training. In other words, in music at the community college level, as in academic work, the drive for perfection is too often absent.

At this time it might be appropriate to ask why the percentage of failure at City University is so high, and what can be done to lessen the rate of student dropout. There is no obvious solution, since there are as many reasons for leaving college as there are students. One reason is the community college itself. For some students the community college is second choice. Having been denied access to the senior college, some students believe that they are second-class citizens and will behave accordingly. Others regard the community college as a transient camp where the stay is temporary and nothing is to be taken very seriously. One thing is certain, it appears: music is one of the few areas of study which attracts a student body motivated in the course-work. To maintain high standards for the highest achieving students is still the stated aim of the Department. To lessen the goals would be a disservice to the College and to the community which it serves.

The community itself is of equal consideration in planning for the successful functioning of the community college. Unlike the ivory-towered universities of the past, the colleges of CUNY are intimately bound up with the lives of the people in the community. At Kingsborough, as at Brooklyn College, Queens College and Hunter College (to name just a few), a wide range of activities is planned each season to which local citizens are invited. These include college courses, musical and theatrical performances, lectures and activities. The Kingsborough Music Department offers a festival of the performing arts featuring famous artists and personalities; a series of free concerts given by music faculty and students; Saturday morning classes in dance, as well as in instrumental and vocal performance, and an invitation to all persons to join the performing groups on campus: orchestra, band and chorus.

The faculty and administration of City University are aware of the many still unresolved problems in the matter of bringing higher education to the public-at-large. But they are proud, too, of the contributions already made on behalf of the public welfare, and of those contributions which are proposed for future time.

2105 Last modified on November 13, 2018