Why Have We Failed?
Published online: 31 December 1970
Despite the gloomy predictions of a vanishing job market for teachers in all fields including music, enrollments of new students in graduate departments of music do not seem to have declined, and in fact, in many instances, have increased dramatically. As these students begin graduate work, whether to study for a master's or doctor's degree, they cross the threshold, leaving behind the college years of preparation in music, and enter curricula of various types of specialization in performance, theory, composition, music literature, and music history. As they come forward, an unique opportunity occurs for their own self-evaluation and also for our own reflection on what we have accomplished as educators.
Elsewhere in this issue of SYMPOSIUM a group of graduate students examine their own undergraduate preparation for graduate study in music. This group of graduate students tends to speak somewhat gently of the shortcomings of their college preparation, and this is undoubtedly the result of the Editor's request for an article being sent to only a small number of graduate schools in the United States and because each director of graduate studies contacted chose an outstanding representative as a voice for that department. But there is disappointment expressed in these essays, and clearly not all is well with college music programs as experienced by these students. This Editor knows from his own experience as a director of a graduate program in music at a state university, as well as from many confirming conversations with colleagues in other universities, that the student applying for graduate study in music is all too frequently badly prepared for graduate work and lacks an adequate knowledge of the most fundamental aspects of music. Yet these students invariably hold a Bachelor's degree in music from accredited schools, and they come to graduate study with a confidence and blind faith that they are indeed well-prepared and expect to begin work without lost time in making up deficiencies.
How disheartening to tell these students, in their fifth year of higher education, that their college has failed them, which means that their chosen profession has failed them. It is not surprising that many of these students turn away from graduate study with the attitude that unrealistic demands have been placed on them.
The fact remains, however, that too many, perhaps a majority of music graduates of four-year colleges and universities are not receiving adequate preparation for graduate work in music. It is not infrequent for a student to apply for entrance to the M.A. or Ph.D. degree program without an in-depth background in music history, without having studied counterpoint, with no ability to perform at the keyboard, unable to read a simple score at the keyboard, unable even to explain the printed page of a score written in the late 19th or 20th centuries. Increasingly more common are students hoping to study music history at the graduate level who have never studied a foreign language, including German. One frequently wonders just what students are doing with those four precious years in a "music" curriculum in college.
There can no longer be any excuse for the failure of so many music departments to educate effectively students hoping to major in music. We are failing our students, our profession and, above all, our art of music. Students come to college with enormous trust in their teachers; can we be surprised if they turn bitter and reject so much of the college experience when after three or four years they discover that they have not been prepared for deeper study of their chosen art?
One must raise the question: How can any college, large or small, allow a music major to graduate without the essential skills and knowledge of: music theory; a survey of music history with extensive experiences in listening to and discussing the styles of music in history; at least one year of counterpoint; training in score reading; a command of the keyboard; knowledge of at least one foreign language, which for prospective graduate students should usually be German. Another question needs raising: when will the official organizational representatives of the profession such as the College Music Society and the American Musicological Society take the initiative to insist that the art of music requires a practical command of foreign languages and to make a foreign language study part of the criteria of those various associations responsible for accreditation? It is truly fraudulent to give any music major a Bachelor's degree in music if he is ignorant of the vastness and excitement of his art as this can only be experienced through contacts with literature written in languages other than English.
The College Music Society could become the focusing lens to bring true innovation to music instruction in higher education if its members would honestly admit that on the whole they are not training students in music to a level of proficiency that can be called college preparation, which makes graduate education for these students a hopeless hurdle until valuable time is lost in making up course work that should have been completed at the undergraduate level. Once this fact is admitted, the CMS could bring together a massive task force to establish once and for all real standards of music instruction for all music majors and without regard for various specializations. It is the responsibility of representatives of those special areas, the composers, music educators, theorists, musicologists, performers, etc., to make clear what they expect of students hoping to pursue a graduate education in their specialty, a responsibility none of these groups has as yet discharged.
Many will say that it can't be done, that too much is needed to train a musician to fit everything into four college years. The old complaint is still heard that there is not enough time to train a musician in the college milieu of general education, college requirements, etc. But we all realize that today very little remains sacred about a college education. Standards, requirements, degree programs have been abandoned right and left by universities. At no time in American higher education has there been as great an opportunity to effect true educational innovation. We are kidding ourselves, however, if we think changes will come about without enormous effort on the part of dedicated and responsible individuals and organizations. The laissez-faire tradition of American society may have worked in education in the past, but it is not working today. The traditional organizational controls of accrediting have produced no more than a general level of mediocrity across this country. It is clearly too late to ask the question posed at the heading of this editorial, for it is not "why we have failed" that matters now, but how we will succeed. The answer lies to a great extent with the members of the College Music Society and in their honest re-evaluation of their contributions to educating our college students in music. Without their determination to make major changes to raise the quality of music education in our colleges, the ever-deteriorating educational system threatens to handicap irrevocably an ever-growing number of students planning to make his or her career music and planning to enter a graduate program in music.
Last modified on Tuesday, 17/04/2018