Undergraduate Preparation for Graduate Education—New York University

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373270

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.

As a college student who sought a "well-rounded" curriculum in higher education and who did not plan to pursue graduate studies in music until late in my college years, I believe nevertheless that I have been extremely well prepared for my current work in musicology. To be sure, most of my feelings toward undergraduate instruction have been influenced by the particular college I attended (Wellesley). However, I am certain that the strengths and weaknesses of this one educational program may be found in other curricula as well.

Strange though it may seem, the greatest contributing factor of my academic background to my current graduate studies lies in the diverse nature of the courses I pursued. Learning to put trends and characteristics into historical perspective, developing the ability to write and speak articulately, and gaining insight into the demands of accurate and thorough research—these are the skills that have aided my present work the most, yet which might have been acquired in the study of almost any academic field. By electing to take courses in art history, philosophy, literature, and even political science, I was able to develop skills that would be needed later while simultaneously acquiring a broad background into which I could incorporate my musical education. Such unspecialized instruction gave me a greater rather than weaker comprehension of "what music is all about".

A second important strength of this undergraduate curriculum lay in an emphasis upon performance. Although a minimal performing standard was not required of all graduating departmental majors, a high level of ability was promoted. Private instrumental instruction was encouraged, faculty-coaching was available for organized chamber music, the college had a large choir, and small, independent singing groups received enthusiastic support. I personally spent many hours playing and performing in solo work, chamber music, and in the excellent M.I.T. Symphony Orchestra. In this way one developed a deeper sensitivity to music that sharpened analytical abilities as well as perceptions of performance practice and of editorial problems. These too are skills necessary for any graduate student in music. High standards of performance were further encouraged through the visits of guest artists who were invited to perform on the campus. During my senior year I particularly remember the Guarneri Quartet's performance of the entire cycle of Beethoven quartets in a series of programs free of charge to all students. Thus, the emphasis on musical performance became a great strength in my preparation for graduate study.

A third aspect of undergraduate work that I am now finding indispensable in the study of musicology is a command of foreign languages. A substantial knowledge of German is absolutely essential, and familiarity with French or Italian also seems important. I was not aware of just how vital language skills would be, and I am extremely grateful now for having studied French, German, and Latin. It is true that knowledge of a foreign language is an aspect of education that can easily be picked up anywhere or at any time. I know I balked at the suggestion of studying a beginning language (German) during my college years, when there were so many other, more "relevant" and stimulating courses I would rather have taken. I still think that mastery of a foreign language can be obtained anywhere (during summers, or between college and graduate school). Yet I now believe that any student who enters musicology with a knowledge of only one language other than English will find himself wasting an inordinate amount of time thumbing through dictionaries. A good background in foreign languages thus proved to be of inestimable value to me in pursuing my current work.

A fourth factor that contributed heavily to the good preparation I obtained for graduate work lay in the nature and degree of my training in musical theory. The emphasis upon sight singing and keyboard harmony is undoubtedly less mandatory in musicology than in other branches of graduate work in the field, yet must ultimately be essential to the work of any musician or scholar of music. Good instruction in counterpoint, harmonic analysis, and in orchestration and composition guided my own creative development (in composition), but more important in terms of my current work, helped develop critical and analytical abilities used in discussing the works of others. It would undoubtedly be difficult to speak intelligently of music without a basic foundation in this aspect of musical training.

Similarly, I received a substantial (though somewhat narrow) background in music history. Indeed, this aspect of the study of music seems to be as necessary as theory in the development of one's ability for analytical thinking, for it is impossible to study and criticize a work without considering it in its proper historical context. My preparation in this area might have been broader, and I admit that my academic contact with 20th century music has been extremely limited. However, while music history represents an important segment of any musical curriculum, this is a part of one's education that can be more easily acquired on one's own or in later (graduate) study. And choosing to elect many courses in disciplines other than music during my undergraduate studies, I might not have been able to include such courses in music history in my curriculum, had they been offered.

As a final note in this discussion of the strong points of my undergraduate studies, a less tangible but important ingredient of the strength of my background lay in the excellence of facilities available. The well-supplied, well-lighted, and open-stacked music library with circulating books, records, scores, and parts; the numerous and sound-proof practice and listening rooms; and the well-equipped classrooms were easily taken for granted. Yet all were in part responsible for the enjoyment and incentive so conducive to studying.

These six features of my undergraduate studies, then, were probably most responsible for the high degree of preparedness I had achieved upon entrance into a graduate program in music. In addition to these, two more considerations might contribute toward an "ideal" undergraduate preparation.

First, I believe that independent study should be a part of such an "ideal" curriculum, where a student may choose a topic of interest to him and pursue it in a depth greater than that which time normally allows for work in a more highly-structured course. This procedure belongs to every graduate program, and one might argue that it should thus be considered dispensable at the undergraduate level. However, even the student who considers a bachelor's degree as terminal should be allowed to pursue his curiosity and develop contact with important sources (not always readily available) at some time during his course of higher education. Such work, guided by a faculty member, and the duration of which might depend upon the student involved, would serve all students, including the pre-graduate student who would get a taste of the nature of his future academic endeavors.

Similarly, I see in retrospect that there can be a difference between the undergraduate education obtained at a college and that undertaken at a university. At the time I was hardly aware of such a distinction, yet I can now see how a matriculation of graduate students would serve, just as the pursuit of independent study, to help the undergraduate "see" what kind of work he would be getting into during the next stage of academic life. This previous understanding could not but help to be of value to the student.

Further, the often small, highly-specialized faculty of a college might be countered by a larger number of faculty members in the university department, and the number of areas of musical specialization represented might thus be greater. This could lead to a broader curriculum offered at the undergraduate level, and would seem especially helpful to the student who chose to do independent work in an area different from those to which the few, specialized members of a smaller (college) department were devoted. However, this feature of the undergraduate training would naturally affect the education of some students more than others.

These, then, are the important aspects of undergraduate curricula that might best prepare a student for graduate work. My conclusions have been based upon educational experiences encountered while attending a liberal arts college, and upon a curriculum that left me well prepared for my current graduate work in Musicology.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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