Exams, Expectations and Achievement in Higher Music Education

When I started undergrad, all freshmen were required to take two placement exams. These exams determined what courses you were placed in for Music Theory and Ear Training. You had to do well on these exams to prove your worth as a musician. Looking back, I cannot honestly speak to where this need came. I do not know if it was the nature of our freshman class or the atmosphere of the school itself. It was just in the air. To gain the respect of my peers, and some of my professors, I felt as though I needed to place well on these exams.

I truly believe this process sets students up for failure. In public elementary schools with gifted and advanced programs in elementary schools, educators have found that when you hold a subset of students to higher expectations they are more likely to succeed. When you hold the other group to lower expectations because they are not “gifted” or “advanced” they under perform.

My mother taught me piano starting at age 5. I picked up flute at age 13 (I like to jokingly say I played catch up on the flute until my masters). I have a very good ear, which is not as good now as it was then – use it or you lose it – thus I was placed in an advanced sight singing course. I thought my music theory knowledge was pretty solid (or was solid enough). I would find during my freshman year, however, I would not pass the Theory exam, and I would be placed into a remedial class theory class.

Imagine my surprise, and slight shame. There was a lot shaming amongst my freshman class. Maybe we were more competitive than other classes. By the middle of the semester, I found myself saying to myself “I know this!” a lot. Looking back, I’ve concluded a few things:

Terminology is determined by academia.

Theorists took a look at how classical greats such as Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and others invented terms and words for the compositional techniques they employed in their work. They then expect high schoolers with a propensity and gift for recognizing these patterns to magically know these terms. I found that music in academia doesn’t take into account what the student can bring to the table, such as student’s natural inclination to harmony or perfect pitch as a teaching tool. Instead of celebrating the knowledge that freshman already have, academia focuses on what students don’t know and thus devalues their prior knowledge.

The need to know terminology is completely fair.

Through the years, I’ve been able to process the high running emotions from these experiences, I found that I agree that terminology is important. When I was studying abroad, I spent 48 hours in Milan and found myself at an extreme disadvantage because I didn’t know Italian. It was only due to the kindness of strangers taking the time to figure out what I needed, or where I was trying to go when I asked for directions (thank you random strangers I never saw again!) that I survived. It is important that we musicians speak the same language. It’s important we know what a mode is, what harmonic analysis is, when we are playing in what key, and, when possible, what the composer intended.

My frustration, now that I think back to my freshman year, is what is the best way to get every student on the same page?

Unfortunately, my alma mater handled music theory and ear training the way a lot of schools do for freshmen. The “remedial” course should not feel remedial. And it should not consist mainly of lectures. Freshman year at a music school and I’m spending most of my time in a classroom? Assignments should be at a piano to reinforce the relationships being made between the language being learned and the terminology for those concepts. A student should be using a piano to hear how what they are learning mirrors what they already know. Professors should be teaching to the knowledge students bring to the table.

I was lucky in that I was not doomed to struggle, because while I was in the remedial Theory course, I was in the advanced Ear Training course. But I saw too many students switch majors, transfer, or accept low marks because the concept of singing notes with do, re, and mi attached to them was foreign. The idea of going a class twice a week just to sing melodies was foreign. I saw my peers asking themselves “how is this supposed to help me understand harmony? How does this make me a better performer?”

Now that I have taught in a K-12 classroom, and I work in academia, some of the same reforms and solutions being proposed could stand to be given a look for music education at the Collegiate level. It’s simply not enough to say that if you are failing in your pursuit of a music degree that perhaps you are not meant to be a musician. We do not accept that answer any longer when public school teachers give it to our students. Music teachers should not give it either.