Undergraduate Preparation for Graduate Education—University of Oregon

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373271

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.

My undergraduate education in music was probably better than a "typical" college music education, but my training was deficient because I was not provided with a solid framework from which to continue learning. This framework did not develop because the courses supposedly providing this basic foundation, the so-called music history courses, were poorly organized and taught. Given current traditions and practices, this unfortunate but common situation is unlikely to improve. In spite of this problem I still could have received a solid foundation if a well-planned coordination had existed among all of my music classes, including the ensembles and private lessons as well as the theory and history classes.

Since this was the principal deficiency of my undergraduate education, I wish to explain some of my thoughts on this topic before commenting on other aspects of my undergraduate curriculum.

The first term of every music student's college education should provide an understanding of the basic vocabulary of music, including the essential dates and composers of each musical era. In addition, a student must learn how to listen to music, which would include the ability to use a system of style analysis. (It is interesting that non-music majors are frequently provided with this type of course, but that music majors who usually possess only a slightly better background than the non-major are assumed to have this ability to listen and analyze.)

After the student has begun to learn to listen, most other music classes should contribute to this skill, rather than to ignore it. In practical terms, this means that conductors of large ensembles should provide an historical perspective and analytical understanding of the compositions which they are rehearsing, in addition to the customary duties such as striving for technical perfection, providing a balanced repertoire over a 4- or 5-year period, etc. The studio teacher should require each student to do research on at least some of the music assigned for his lessons. (I still shudder when I remember that I was working on a master's degree before I used some of the most basic reference works of music.) The intent would be to give the student as much exposure and experience as possible, while he is in the supervised learning situation.

There are several potential obstacles to implementing these proposals, most of which center around the teaching faculty. This is not to imply that all faculties are incompetent, or even that most of them are. The central problem is that most faculty members do not understand how their classes fit into the curriculum: the faculty does not know what is happening in the other classes taken by their students.

I foresee two methods to correct this situation. Every faculty member should list the objectives of each course in which he participates, and all of these lists should be collected in a notebook which would be available in the music department office for perusal by every faculty member and student. A few duplicate notebooks could be on file in the music library, the faculty lounge, and the chairman's office. For academic music courses, it would be desirable to include, in addition to the list of objectives, a list of the assignments and copies of major examinations. These assignments and examinations would serve to amplify the stated objectives. These notebooks should be updated annually.

The second method is a sensitive one: Teachers should invite colleagues to visit their classes to observe and learn firsthand. This is, of course, a delicate situation in which the current state of affairs seems to be in direct opposition to the position that would be derived by logic.

It is a curious set of circumstances. Faculty performers solicit the advice of their colleagues when a recital is being prepared. How is the balance? Does this phrasing sound better? Which reed sounds better to you? But a classroom teacher, even the one who requests advice before he gives a recital, seldom seeks the suggestions of his colleagues or students as he prepares for a class. Whether the result of time, desire, insecurity, or conceit, it seems to be a classic example of unnecessary inefficiency, since the resources that are readily available are not being fully utilized.

These procedures would increase the coordination among the various classes, and this might decrease some of the frustrations experienced by the students, at least the frustrations stemming from the academic side of their world.

The lack of coordination among the various elements of a curriculum is probably the outcome, to some extent, of philosophical disagreements among the faculty. Legitimate as these disagreements may be, it would seem that the faculty teaching these courses should be able to accept a common goal for a degree program and the courses comprising that program. Of course, there are some institutions in which the lack of coordination results, not from disagreement of philosophy, but simply from a lack of philosophy. This is a problem in which the administrator may have to lead the search for a solution.

There were other factors in my undergraduate education that could have been altered in order to prepare me more adequately for graduate study. Occasionally, these factors were in the realm of requirements obligating me to spend time in a specific area, when this time could have been spent more profitably in other endeavors.

Heading the list is the "large ensemble" requirement that, in my case, stated that I must enroll in one specific ensemble—band—during every semester in residence. This particular ensemble rehearsed ten hours each week (which is more than is necessary, regardless of the number of credits), and thereby prevented me from doing many other things. While gaining a great deal from this particular ensemble and conductor, virtually all of my learning was achieved during the first two years. The fourth year was a total waste of time.

One can accept the "standard" ensemble requirement specifying that each undergraduate must be enrolled in an ensemble during each semester in residence. One can also accept the concept that large ensembles must be maintained and rehearsed throughout the school year, and that each ensemble should include persons with previous experience in that ensemble. (I also deem it desirable for each student to enroll in at least one chamber ensemble during his college career, and for each student to experience the rehearsal techniques of at least two different directors.) However, I cannot accept the stipulation that a student must spend four years in one ensemble.

The lack of a chamber ensemble program was an unfortunate omission in my undergraduate training, as it relates to my graduate training as well as to my current teaching position. I am amazed that some large ensemble conductors seem to regard chamber ensembles as a negative influence on their own pride and joy.

The required non-music credits (30 hours) were not specified in my curriculum. Most of the courses I selected were beneficial, but I wish someone had suggested that I acquire a background in art history. I have discovered that my understanding of the language of music is greatly enhanced as I become more acquainted with the language of the visual arts. Surely I would benefit from a more thorough understanding of the other arts.

I also could have profited from a Practicum course in my senior year, in which I would have led a discussion session of the material presented in one of the basic history courses. Ideally, a number of seniors could enroll in a practicum and become involved in the teaching of the fundamental history or music appreciation courses. Each senior could lead four to six students in a Socratic discussion of the material presented in lectures during the week. If this were done for an hour each week, it might provide a useful review for everyone concerned, and it might also stimulate some original thinking among the students, who would be required to use the vocabulary they must learn. (Although I believe the lecture system can be an excellent method of teaching, I also believe it should be supplemented by intelligent reviews—especially if the lecture class is so large that recitation is impractical. In addition, there are many lecturers who fail to present their material effectively. While supplemental discussion sessions might not correct a poor situation, they could do much to improve it.)

The lack of experience in fundamental research is another oversight of my undergraduate training. Graduate schools usually include a bibliography course; could not at least some of the assignments and experience of this course be included in the basic history sequence? Perhaps the papers could even be graded by the seniors who are enrolled in a practicum.

The topic of this series of papers, Undergraduate Curriculum in Music as Preparation for Graduate Study, implies that a difference exists between undergraduate and graduate courses. I wish this were the case. At least at the music schools I have attended, it was not. Other disciplines in the academic multiversity believe that a graduate program should be designed for specialization (after demonstrating that a solid background has been acquired). Do music departments believe that a graduate program exists primarily to fill in some of the gaping holes of the "well-rounded" undergraduate curriculum?

Certainly, there may be legitimate philosophical disagreement between different music schools concerning the objectives of an undergraduate or graduate curriculum, but it would seem desirable for each particular music degree (e.g., B.M., M.M.E., D.M.A., Ph.D., etc.) to mean approximately the same thing. I realize that certain groups are dealing with this problem, and I wish them success.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

Robert C. Probasco

Robert Probasco is Professor Emeritus of Music & Computer Science from the University of Idaho in Moscow. He taught music (oboe, music theory & history) from 1968-1983, then crossed over to the polar opposite side of campus to teach computer science (1983-1999). From Democrats to Republicans and from emotional to intellectual, is was a welcome shift. He received a B Music from the U of Michigan, an MM from the U of Nebraska, but not the DMA from the U of Oregon -- too many toes stepped on and too little reward to complete the paper chase. He is currently living in Paradise, aka Sun Valley, Idaho where he hikes and geocaches, as well as playing & directing duplicate bridge. He reads & writes, travels (50 states and six continents) and carouses. Life is beautiful!

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