Undergraduate Preparation for Graduate Education—Case Western Reserve University

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373269

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.

In responding to this opportunity, may I first acknowledge my loyalty and respect for my alma mater. Those initial years of schooling were stimulating and happy times, and if there were weaknesses in the program, they were more than compensated for by the wonderful experiences I had there and the fine teachers who touched my life.

It seems important to recognize that the quality of the education one receives at any institution depends as much on the maturity, interest, and dedication of the student as it does on the strength of the academic community in which he works. If my undergraduate training did not wholly prepare me for the kind of work I am now expected to do, I must concede that a good part of the fault lies with me.

Currently a doctoral candidate at Case Western Reserve University in historical musicology, my fields of interest are the music of antiquity, the 14th, 17th, and 20th centuries. I am also very much concerned with music education. I hold the B.A. and M.A. degrees in music education and music theory from Brigham Young University. Because the emphasis there has traditionally been on the liberal arts, I spent a fair amount of time outside the music department. Since I believe that a college education fails in a most important respect if it serves only as job training, I do not regret that outside time. I do regret that I did not fully recognize the value of such extra-musical studies; otherwise my choices would have been more discriminating.

At BYU we were expected to take two credit hours of religion each semester. That requirement might have been a gold mine with respect to my musicological studies if I had elected classes in liturgy, historical Christianity, or philosophy of religion. Yet my attitude (and, unfortunately, that of several of my advisors) was to take classes in music that could also double as religion credit so that I could get through faster.

Looking back, I wonder why the necessity to hurry so fast? Though it is now becoming fashionable for economic reasons to advocate shorter rather than longer periods of education, it is difficult to see why there is such a need to cut short the preparation time of professional people. I do not think that students today complain because they have to be in school so long but rather because they are annoyed with systems that waste time and prohibit them from pursuing their own legitimate goals.

An undergraduate education should open up many avenues for exploration in the graduate years. In the case of music, I should prefer to see professional training postponed until graduate school. During the regular college years, the music major would be just that—a music major. He would develop a general competence in the fields of theory, composition, performance, and history. In graduate school he would expand his knowledge into one of the specialized fields. My impression is that a good many students in graduate school spend much of their time making up deficiencies.

My own undergraduate years were subject to so much fragmentation and diffusion that I felt as though I were beginning a second time when I started graduate school. There were a number of contributing factors, but the general pattern of my experience may not be too atypical.

For my first year, I went to a small college near home. The school had a good local reputation in music, and there were numerous opportunities for performance and several good private instructors. Academically, however, the school left several things to be desired. First year theory involved learning to write and play chorale-style harmony based on a then-popular textbook which utilized the figured-bass approach. Little attention was given to sight singing, somewhat more to ear training, and none at all, as I remember, to any kind of independent composition or analysis.

As for music history, only one course might have belonged in that category. I was allowed to enter this course, entitled "Piano and Organ Seminar." I did a paper on Palestrina, a composer barely known to me, whose relation to the topics at issue in the seminar might be optimistically described as tenuous. It was not that the teacher had failed to try to guide us away from irrelevant topics. But I labored under the impression that Palestrina was a church musician and could thus quite logically be connected with the organ. Needless to say, I was not quite ready for music history at the seminar level.

At the end of my freshman year, I decided to transfer to Brigham Young where I enrolled in "Second-Year Harmony," a two-quarter course meeting daily—regular work on MWF; "skills" on T-Th. It was my only academic music class. The harmony text for the class used an altogether different system of chord classification from the figured bass system I had learned in my first year. The result was that, although I understood the musical processes well enough, I finished the year with a confused and inconsistent nomenclature. Again, the written assignments were completed in chorale style, and I remember only one large independent composition assignment that we were to do as a final project. Thus, experience in composing in a variety of small forms was neglected.

For an introduction to the problems of formal analysis, we examined Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik and the Symphony No. 40 in G minor. I do not recall that I finished with a clear idea of the classical forms, although I remember that I was very taken with the sound of the second movement of Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Listening facilities must have existed somewhere on the campus, but I never felt any compulsion to discover them. At concerts, I simply allowed the music to flow about my ears, innocent of any pretense of more than a surface understanding, since nothing in my study up to that point had trained me to be a skillful listener.

Outside of performance groups and private study, there were no further opportunities for course work in music until the two years of basic theory were completed. There was no class that aimed to build the student's knowledge of the basic repertoire or to make him aware of periods and styles. Thus, I completed my second year as a college music major with only a casual acquaintance with works that everyone else on campus probably knew as well as I.

At this point I left school for two years on a church assignment in Hawaii. While there, on several occasions, I used my training to bring music to a small public school on an isolated island. Encouraged by the success of that experience, I came back to school with much enthusiasm to get a teaching certificate. (I had always wanted to work towards a Ph.D., but I knew that my studies would inevitably be interrupted several times before the work could be completed. A teaching certificate seemed to be a worthwhile intermediate goal.)

The last two years of college were filled with technical courses, such as instrumental workshops and practicums, professional education classes, and student teaching. I was also eligible on returning to take the music history sequence consisting of two quarters of the history of secular music and one quarter of the history of sacred music. The courses in secular music consisted of class listening, lectures, and outside reading. We wrote no papers and did little analysis. Only the briefest survey was possible. The course in sacred music was even less effective, attempting to cover everything from Pope Gregory to Beethoven in one short quarter. In neither course did we come even remotely close to the 20th century. And that was all there was of music history in undergraduate school.

During my senior year there was one more chance at theory; the school changed from the quarter to the semester system. The music department also decided that a full second year of theory should be required instead of the previous two quarters. I was obliged to take only the second half of the spring semester which was to be devoted to analysis and orchestration. Since there was hardly time to pursue both effectively, orchestration came out the better. Analysis always seemed to receive short shrift. I hesitate to say how long it was before the structure and intent of a sonata form became clear to me.

Undoubtedly, everyone concerned would have been mortified had they known, but since there was no comprehensive examination, it was entirely possible to graduate from college without having ever listened critically to, or analyzed more than a handful of major works, nor could I have done so had I been asked.

There was no lack of fine teachers at BYU. Of course, I did not encounter all of them, nor did I have time to take all of the available courses. In addition to the limitations of time, the problem lay partly in an underdeveloped program, partly in now-discarded teaching methods, partly in inadequate facilities, and partly within myself. There were, to be sure, many other conscientious students who would view their experiences in quite a different light. But what made my undergraduate experience interesting and challenging was performance. There were many fine groups, and through them, and through the extensive concert life on campus one could feel that he was musically right on target.

It was not until graduate school, however, that I began to realize how much had been lacking. In teaching theory as a graduate assistant, I gained a consistent overview of that subject. As a teaching assistant in a music history course, I acquired something of a comprehensive view of the historical periods. I finally took the courses in form and analysis, counterpoint, keyboard harmony, and music literature that might better have been provided in undergraduate school.

It is important to know that I began my college career in 1955. Since then, there has been tremendous growth and change in universities everywhere. Students at BYU now choose from a wide variety of carefully planned and innovative programs. The best prepared and most talented students are able to take advantage of honors seminars and independent study courses. Facilities are now first-rate. The university library, in addition to an excellent collection of books and recordings, has hundreds of listening posts and dial-access stations. If I could choose again, I would not hesitate to go there.

As for my present needs, I wish that my training could have included at least one more foreign language, a much deeper penetration into the literature, fewer one and two hour courses, much more analytical and critical work, fewer and more carefully conceived professional education courses, and some attempts at integrating music into a larger philosophical, historical, and sociological framework.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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