06. March 2008 · 10 comments · Categories: Ramble

This is for university instructors who do the private teaching thing. I’m just curious …

At the university level do you think instructors should audition students and only take those who are at a certain level? Should the instructor have the right to turn away some students?

I’m asking because I’ve pondered this for a while. Some university classes have prerequisites. For some, students just know better (I hope!) to enroll, knowing they don’t have the knowledge and they they’d certainly fail. But what about what I do? What if I turn away someone who has so much potential that, perhaps in only a year, a formerly beginning student is quite advanced? (It can happen.)

I’d ask about how you grade too, but I have to run off to teach at the university! :-)

(Please know I’m not complaining. I really AM curious. I think it was spurred on after hearing about William Schuman’s late entry into composition. What if he’d been turned away?)


  1. While not a university instructor (or any sort of instructor, for that matter), this is sort of opening up a whole ginormous can of worms, isn’t it? I mean, I figger there’s sort of general-musical-talent, and then there’s specific talent for a particular instrument/family (i. e. “born with the horn in her/his face”), either of which can apply to potential. Plus work ethic – are they willing to make the effort to bridge any gaps in their talent? I do think that without a certain minimum of talent it’s a waste of time, at least on the more challenging instruments (in which I include oboe).

    And I guess another issue is how you can determine potential – it seems like the kind of thing that might take a little time.

    Then there’s the ultimate goal of the student, oboe-wise – professional gigs? Teaching? Playing for fun? Simply gaining as high a level of mastery as possible? Acquiring insight into the instrument for later compositional efforts? Some combination of the above? This seems to me like the most important factor, after the student-to-resource ratio.

  2. So I would think then, Tim, you look at music differently than you look at other subjects at a university level? Are all the arts, then, not subject to qualifications? And does that imply that “anyone can do this … it’s not like other subjects”?

    Or maybe you are suggesting that other subjects, too, should give all students the benefit of the doubt?

    I really am pondering. On both what I asked, as well as other issues I’ve encountered. (Being told I should give an A to a student who “tried really hard” … well … what if the student had told his/her math professor that sort of thing?)

    Perhaps, too, it depends upon the particular university. I honestly don’t know!

    And yes, I AM opening a huge can of worms! Heck, why not?

  3. It is an unfortunate truth that in our society’s pursuit of equal opportunity we have instead often tried to create equality of outcome.

    (Ok, now I’d better dismount before I fall off my high horse and break something I might need later…)

    While I am often frustrated by the concept that software development is merely something that any chimpanzee with a keyboard can be trained to do, at the same time I believe there are areas of endeavor where a person might succeed based purely on hard work and attitude. Management, for example, doesn’t seem to require any special abilities whatsoever; in fact, having any sort of particular talent (for example, critical thinking) might actually be a hindrance :).

    I suppose I believe (having not actually articulated this before) that it’s even worse outside of music, since people with no musical ability tend not to progress as far or consider it as a career, while people with no discernible abilities in other fields (medicine or software, just to name two) seemingly have no compunction about attempting them, particularly if they’re well-paid gigs.

    I mean, I hate to spit on the whole Horatio Alger thing, but (my opinion only here) I believe that hard work just won’t trump a lack of ability (other than maybe in a management career, as noted above – better use extra smilies here :) :)). I also believe that a lack of effort can trump almost any level of talent. I’ll leave motivation out of it, for now.

    In so far as grading someone based on how hard they work – it should certainly be a factor, but if they haven’t achieved the requirements should they get an A? I think not, myself. Of course, that means that the requirements have to be defined, and they need to be achievable by most people with some level of talent within the time frame, and…I suppose it’s something you have to decide based on your experience as a teacher, since you’ve encountered various levels of talent and effort.

    Gee, all that writing and I didn’t really answer your question – I believe it’s market-driven, how’s that? If there were greater demand for professional musicians on what are traditionally orchestra instruments (say, horn or oboe), people with what is currently a, say, semi-pro level of talent could major in music performance and have successful musical careers. Since there isn’t such a demand, I think it’s better not to encourage someone in a performance career if they don’t have the chops for the gig.

  4. [Having said all that, I should admit to getting A’s in horn performance at Cal State, but then I was neither a horn nor music major, so Dave might’ve taken it easy on me – you’d have to ask him (although it’s unlikely he’d remember me). Had there been more than two or three horn majors there at the time I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity.]

  5. You couldn’t train me, Tim. Not smart enough!

    I’m not necessarily talking about a career. A student may take a math course at his or her university with no intention of a career in the subject. Heck, I HAD to take science in one form or another (I’ve blocked it out) and I had no intention of a career. So I guess that answers the “should anyone be able to take this” in a sense. The prerequisites for that were nil. Of course I wouldn’t have been allowed to take more advanced courses.

    But the teacher didn’t grade on my effort. But many students assume that a music instructor will and, in fact, absolutely must grade on effort. And I’ve puzzled over this a lot.

    I think, though, I’m veering off course.

    Mostly I was wondering if other university instructors took anyone who walked in the door and said, “I wanna play oboe!” I am curious how different schools operate.

    (FYI: I am allowed a certain load at one of my campuses, so I audition oboists if I have more than I’m allowed, or I see if my load can be increased. The other one … well … I’ve not quite figured out how they let students in. Seems like it might be music majors first, music minors second and other third, with a “but our whim might change that” rule in there somewhere!)

  6. Back in my (brief!) academic career, I faced that question too. I believe college-level studio instruction in an instrument should more or less follow the grading standards of other college courses. It’s up to the instructor to publish pre-requisites as precisely as possible (admittedly, not so easy in this area). And it’s up to the student to make his/her best effort.

    I consider it a unreasonable for a teacher to calibrate his grading scale according to whether the student is majoring in the subject, or what specific career goals the student might have. When you enroll in a calculus course, the teacher cannot — should not! — make presumptions about whether you’ll become a “professional” in math. He should simply teach the syllabus as best he can and grade according to observed results. And it is far out of scope for any teacher to see into the future and predict what a student will do with his knowledge.

    I can remember some experiences where students thought I should not insist that they improve their tone quality, or try to play in tune — because “I’m NOT a music major”. If it’s a course given for academic credit, then the student must be able to demonstrate that at least some of the course goals have been met!

    If an institution really intends to support such a distinction, it should define different courses of instruction — a “required for music majors” course, and an “elective” course. Otherwise, it’s a case of product substitution!

    In fact, one of the things that really turned me away from an academic career was seeing such chicanery practiced in classroom lecture subjects — music theory! The part that astonished and dismayed me was that many students actually desired the “easy section” of the single music theory course.

  7. I’ll tell you, no matter what it’s NOT easy! I actually would love it if private instruction was merely pass/no pass because grading is so darn difficult.

    Ah well. It’s a challenge, this biz!

  8. I don’t know a ton a bout the actual grading at my school (my first jury is in April…) but I do know this much:
    1) General studies students get 1 hour instead of 1.5 h lessons
    2) the requirements for a performance major jury are more extensive than for general studies

    I think if the person if taking the course for credit then they should be marked for things beyond effort. a student shouldn’t take a science/ psychology/ english elective and expect to be graded on effort because they aren’t planning to have it as a career.

    it does get a bit murky though; a general studies major also probably shouldn’t have to have their GPA suffer because they aren’t performing as well as performance majors in the same year.

    blargh marking is unfortunate.

  9. It IS unfortunate, isn’t it, Emily? At one of the universities there used to be pass/no pass only, with more emphasis on written evaluations. The year I came to the campus they changed it to grades! Rats! (And yet we still have to write the evals as well.)

    It’s just not like some classes, where answers are either right or wrong. Oh to have it that easy!

  10. “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it…” :)

    I suppose I have to agree with Bill’s comments about calibrating based on the student’s goals, but wouldn’t it (i. e. knowing the student’s motivation/plans) still have some kind of impact, even if not consciously?

    Final thought from me (and I hope it doesn’t come across as too harsh, and acknowledging that no one’s perfect, still): Who gets away with looking at the conductor* and saying “Gee, sorry I played out of tune and/or wrong notes and/or wrong rhythms and/or at the wrong tempo and/or with poor tone and/or totally outside of the ensemble, but golly I sure tried really really hard!”?

    Similarly, substitute “I’m really really talented” for “I sure tried really really hard”.

    Oh, right, the viola** section, never mind.


    *Or one’s fellow musicians, or the audience, or the reviewers, or the composer, or…

    **Substitute section of choice here; not picking on any specific viola section; this post does not express the opinions of the blog host etc. etc.