Undergraduate Preparation for Graduate Education—City University of New York

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373272

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.

The question of "being prepared" had frankly never occurred to me as I entered the Ph.D. program in music at the City University of New York Graduate Center. I looked forward to a difficult and provocative period of study, fully expecting an educational experience quite different from the one I had pursued the previous five years. While I admitted deficiencies in my background, my knowledge of music literature and my grasp of musical concepts were good. The transition from conservatory to university was indeed a radical one, but proved mostly a change in ambience and area of concentration.

Composing is my main interest; as regards this all-important facet of my musical life, the Juilliard School of Music provided splendid training. Weekly lessons with my private teacher Hugo Weisgall, hard work composing, writing volumes of counterpoint exercises, and studying scores, formed the core of my basic musical education. The smattering of theory, history, orchestration, conducting, and solfège, (the actual curriculum), amounted to little.

This thin and narrow conservatory education could not, obviously, provide sufficient background for Ph.D. work in historical musicology. The more informal, extracurricular aspects of this undergraduate schooling, however, should be credited for my arrival at doctoral seminars prepared for formulating and articulating ideas.

I believe preoccupation with ideas and clear thinking are the main concerns of a graduate student's career. At Juilliard, the long, circuitous discussions with Roger Sessions gave me a better understanding of tonality and sonata-form. He never gave answers; he made, us figure out what the problem was, then listened to our struggles with possible answers. The Socratic pedagogy of Hugo Weisgall introduced us to a greater grasp of Romanticism's real nature and the essence and historical context of opera. Both men have significant ideas about music, and they inspire in their students a similar search for understanding.

Teaching was a great "preparer". As a master's degree student at Juilliard I was fortunate enough to have classroom experience under a teaching fellowship. In retrospect, I am convinced that my own preparation for classes was of far greater value than all my undergraduate and master's classes combined. Given the great leeway in curriculum at Juilliard, I had the opportunity to teach a wide range of topics, many of which I could choose according to my own interests. It was a wonderful experience to give a series of five lectures on Lulu, a class on Frescobaldi's Fiori musicali, the passacaglia through four centuries, or Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Presenting a work, technique, or trend to others requires not only the fullest knowledge of the subject matter, but especially clarity and organization of thought, and fluent articulation as well. To put an idea across in a meaningful way, one needs a point of view. It is here that my actual courses failed me.

At Queens College of the City University of New York where I presently teach basic undergraduate courses, students seem to find it difficult to understand that learning does not come from a few hours of sitting in the classroom. I can remember my same expectation and disappointment as they lament the university's insensitivity to the importance of acquiring basic skills which require huge amounts of outside preparation (i.e.: sight singing, ear training, piano). Further, they say that their schedule of classes is so time-consuming that little is left for practicing their instruments. The rigid academic system adds to this discouragement, implying attainment of competence within a particular time period. Standardization is a notion foreign to such a subjective and personal field: a real musician is not necessarily turned out after a four-year program. Perhaps a more lenient undergraduate course of study, time-wise, in which a great deal of individual think-work is required, plus maximum exposure to faculty on an informal, individual basis, is the key to a successful graduate career.

Why should a composer with two degrees in composition enter a doctoral program in musicology? The purely practical reasons of obtaining a satisfactory teaching position need not be gone into. Recognizing the great gaps in my general education made me seek a solid academic degree. Naturally I find myself having to make up deficiencies in bibliography and historical research techniques, and in reading skills. But one gains experience and proficiency through actually doing these things. Being in a position where a great deal is expected of you makes you "produce".

The four years of undergraduate "literature and materials", ear training, orchestration, music history, conducting, and the handful of academic courses were a hodge-podge of peripheral benefit. Self-education, on the other hand, attained through close contact with a few extraordinary individuals, preparation for teaching, and exposure to substantial amounts of live music were the best musical education I could have received.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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