Friday, February 13, 2009

Spelling and other misdemeanours

Warning: large ranting post ahead.

I have been marking written tests taken by prospective students who want to study music at university, and as always I am appalled, horrified and furious at the complete and utter lack of basic musical knowledge that some people have, considering they want to make a career out of it. Last night one of these written tests really took the cake for me. I have never in my life read such appalling spelling in an essay, which is part of the test in addition to the basic music questions like, "Name this note." Here's a sample - see if you can work them out:
Carmon (yes, Bizet's opera)
provecetiv
feamal
larstly

And so on. Gaaah!

What is wrong with the following scenario? Young Person fluffs around and leaves school after year 10. Has some casual and part-time employment in "retail and hospitality" for a few years, learns how to do web design or similar, all the while being really interested in music, particularly alternative, electronica and similar, and attempts to write pieces by playing them from an electronic keyboard into your computer, tweaking notes that sound "wrong", pressing a button and, voilá! Notation appears! "Hey! I think I'll be a composer, and apply for a composition degree at uni!"

Why, why, why would you decide to be a musician at the age of 18 (or older) and apply to a tertiary music course without even being able to read music? Correct me if I'm wrong, but do students turn up to first-year mathematics having never done mathematics in high school and being unable to read numbers? It really IS the equivalent of that.

I was at work today and I ran into a woman who I had taught in 2007 in the foundation unit, which starts with topics like key signatures, scale construction, how rhythm is organised, and so on. I asked her what she was doing now and she informed me that she was auditioning for postgraduate study. I am not sure if my gaping jaw was obvious to her but I smiled politely, wished her good luck and continued on my merry way, incredulous that this person could go from being unable to construct correct rhythmic patterns in 2007 to attempting a postgraduate qualification in music in 2009.

If you can't read a note as big as a barn, GO AWAY AND LEARN HOW AND THEN COME BACK TO A UNIVERSITY MUSIC COURSE!!! Can I emphasise that strongly enough?

I am deadly serious. No matter what line of music you are hoping to make a career in, do NOT expect to learn everything from scratch in first-year university. It is simply a waste of everyone's time, especially your own. This career is simply too competitive to succeed in if you don't know anything about it by the time you reach your late teens or early twenties. And those who think they know about music because they have all the recordings of Miles Davis, can play licks by Joe Pass, can sing a few songs from Sondheim musicals, or similar, just need a reality check. And private tutoring before they apply to a university.

However, this leads me to a much deeper philosophical issue: why are music institutions taking in students like this? Why are music institutions designing courses around what the students think they need, as opposed to what the experts in the field know they need? What are the career options for students who exit tertiary music courses being unable to play standard repertoire and get on the casual list of a professional orchestra, or make a living doing jazz gigs? What about the students who can do those things, where are the jobs for them? Why are schools producing musically illiterate students who in turn go into teaching and so the awful cycle continues?

No matter whether it's jazz or classical, I will go to my grave upholding the belief that people who want tertiary music study need to be able to read music, take basic theory and aural training, learn the fundamentals of music history, and need to be literate and able to write coherently.

Sorry if this rant started to seem a little incoherent or disconnected. It's been a long week!

12 comments:

zebrabites.com said...

Great post Maria!

I like this bit especially;

"Why are music institutions designing courses around what the students think they need, as opposed to what the experts in the field *know* they need?"

Sigh. So true.

docwitch said...

Oh Maria, I do feel your pain, I really do.

But, it's not so much about giving students an education, as keeping the 'clients' happy.

It's like the Lit students I have had who turn up thinking they can watch the film instead of reading the book, because "the book's too long and boring". Ok, then bugger off and don't do a Lit/English degree you lazy oaf!

There - let us rant together.

Dani said...

Rant away Maria! I don't know how you bear it. Reminiscent of a conversation I had at work recently about the young 'uns of today and their sense of entitlement. Conversation at the time based on the fact that this makes them really cruddy workmates and indeed workers. There is some sense of believing that the little things in life like an education or a career are some bob-given right that must be handed to them on a gilt platter. Bah indeed!

What is feamal? I worked the others out but it's late and I'm tired and I actually completed high school before my degrees.

Maria said...

Huzzah! So true about keeping the "clients" happy.

We are about to restructure our BMus and other courses, because we have a new HoS who sees that we're buried under the most useless students in the most cumbersome course ever designed. But it will be interesting to see how this restructure progresses, and just how much credence is given to those people who really think that we can do away with the canon of musical knowledge, ie. based on the classical tradition, simply because the students want to do jazz. I just don't believe it.

Maria said...

Feamal = female. *grrr*

Penni said...

Oh Maria that's disgraceful.

You know where this starts? Parents who get their kids music lessons and clap them at every performance without actually ever making them practice, and also clapping regardless of whether they play well or not because they're 'cute'. As far as I'm concerned if your child is going to learn an instrument then the parents and the child should take it seriously or it's a waste of everyone's time and disrespectful to the teacher.

Em said...

Oh Maria.

The whole concept that universities must be self-funded makes my head turn inside out. Of course we end up with "clients" whose demands need to be considered. And privately-funded research projects that find BPA is safe for babies...

Maybe it's something to do with the cultural cringe our society seems to have with ranking different abilities; I still can't get my head around TAFE colleges being called "universities", it just seems weird. Why pretend that one thing is another, when they serve different purposes...

genevieve said...

That sounds pretty evil to me...once upon a time it was only singers who didn't read, wasn't it? grrr.

Regarding the future - looks like the Oz Council at least want to know, here,
http://www.creative.org.au/linkboard/results.chtml?filename_num=262662
I haven't read it - hope it is of interest.

sharyn said...

I've been following your entertaining and thought provoking blog for a few months in between new born feeds, my own music rehearsing/teaching etc and am sorry to have to say I found this one elitist & offensive, Maria.

I can spell. I can also sing. I have a good ear. I can also play the violin and piano adequately enough to sound confident enough in a semi professioanl arena, and am, by the by, mostly self taught. I have no ambition to become a professional performer, but simply to be the best person & musician I am able to become.

I love to go to and perform in concerts, of all types, for both aesthetic and self education purposes. I was lucky enough to have an art teacher mother who , although completely tone deaf, encouraged us to learn and grow our skills in art and music, not to shy away from it simply because we came from poor housing department stock and couldnt afford to pay professionals to teach us.

My brother went to a graphic design course at tafe (gasp!) and now sells his artwork for thousands of dollars overseas and gets written about in journals. He never went to art school, oh, and he cant spell to save himself. Neither can my doctor, now I think of it, but no one would dare to call him undereducated or uncultured, now would they?

Talent is not neccessarily a blanket thing, and nor, unfortunately is an education. (which IS, according to the internation bill of human rights, a RIGHT, not a privelege)

The things I have learnt from my on again off again relationship with both the classical and jazz elements at the Conservatorium in Hobart may be the things that lecturers give scant recognition to. It must be terribly taxing to have to make concessions.

Not sure what the primary and highschool education system is like in New Zealand, but here in Tassie we're lucky to scrape through to the hsc with basic numeracy and literacy intact, let alone the basic musical knowledge you refer to . Yes, it is sad. Yes it is frustrating, but is that a reason to exclude people from a course when they have a desire to acquire said knowledge, skills that are, as far as I'm aware, are not available to them anywhere else? Perhaps there needs to be a bridging course to cover the fundamentals. I'm sure that would have helped me and many of my contemporaries who slipped through the cracks after our first year in the B.Mus, and who will forever regret it.


What is wrong with the following READING of this scenario?

Young Person fluffs around (has not decided what they may want to be /do by the time they are 8 and is therefore, of course, an idiot)

and leaves school after year 10. Has some casual and part-time employment in "retail and hospitality"

(you would prefer? Not much other work in tassie, maria....both of these professions have fed, clothed and housed many a struggling artist for centuries)

for a few years, learns how to do web design or similar (if they've even got time to do that after retail and hospitality they're doing pretty well, and....oh my goodness....is this a BLOG??? oh , fancy, some one must have designed a WEBPAGE for it to even EXIST!!)

all the while being really interested in music, particularly alternative, electronica and similar,

(quite obviously the music of the devil...wonder what phillip glass would say.)

and attempts to write pieces by playing them from an electronic keyboard into your computer,

(which we are still paying off, having only badly paid and unstable work)

Why, why, why would you decide to be a musician at the age of 18?

Why the bejesus NOT!! Is age a barrier to anything these days?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but do students turn up to first-year mathematics having never done mathematics in high school and being unable to read numbers?

Um, yes. And the mathematics dept have a BRIDGING COURSE.

If you can't read a note as big as a barn, GO AWAY AND LEARN HOW AND THEN COME BACK TO A UNIVERSITY MUSIC COURSE!!!

Ok. Point taken. But maybe if you cant appreciate the diversity of the applicants to an establishment which should be encouraging the unwashed masses to learn, maybe you should GO AWAY AND LEARN some humility and respect for others circumstances and if not applicable at least enjoy the salary that your audience/listeners/lecturees spend their whole badly paid, undertalented lives paying their hecs debts to fund your lifestyle.

Can I emphasise that strongly enough?

cheers,
Sharyn

Maria said...

*deep breath*

OK Sharyn. I understand the points you make here and I am fully aware of all of these issues and I am sorry you found my post elitist and offensive. Truly sorry, because I certainly didn't intend to offend anyone.

The main point I was trying to make (possibly unsuccessfully) is that people seem to have lost sight of the fact that conservatoria are training professionals, not hobby musicians. I completely agree that education is a right, not a privilege. But obtaining a professional qualification in order to become a working professional musician is something that requires at least some background, and in a field such as this it is VERY RARE for anyone to make that decision at the age of 18 with no background or training. From a composer's point of view, if you decide you want to be a composer but can't even read notation at the end of your teens, you are starting on the back foot and probably have a close-to-zero chance of making a career out of it. That's what I was trying to say.

I do not sneer at retail and hospitality. I have worked hard, and in retail and hospitality.

And why should anyone be prepared to settle for only basic literacy and numeracy at the end of HSC? That's not good enough. We all know that the school system is doing Tasmanians a disservice if that's all we can hope for. But the problem is a vicious cycle. If conservatoria put mediocre musicians back into the education system as teachers, we are simply perpetuating it. We must raise the bar. (Forgive the pun.)

We do have bridging courses at the Conservatorium. I am fully aware of the deficiencies of the institution - heaven knows there are many - but why should the institution be to blame when failing students can't go from point B to C when they were only at point A when they enrolled, even though they were advised to start from point B?

You are a very smart, talented and determined woman and I respect everything you have done. I remember you in my class. I would hope that you remembered that I'm not out to offend people, nor am I disrespectful to people as you have accused me here. I don't appreciate personal jabs about my "lifestyle" - I too have small children and heaven knows all forms of lifestyle are out the window when you're on one and a tiny-bit incomes for a family of four.

sharyn said...

Thanks for responding & clarifying. I cant say that I actually disagree with any of the points you have made, & apologise if I got a bit personal. I guess my own frustration must then come from the fact that I was unknowingly woefully underprepared for the theory elements when I was 18 and applying for the B.Mus in violin (apparently ill advised after only having studied it with a TSO member from grade 8 to grade 11) for the first time, and advised by the subdean that I would "catch up". It never happened.
Note to self: Dont respond to blogs after a long & frustrating mummying day, particularly to people you respect & admire. It is so great of you to be (a) female (b) a world class composer, (c) alive, & (d) let people have a glimpse of your personal and artistic life. It is a real privelege. It is also great that you care about the quality of musicians in our arts community.
Looking forward to more passion (whether I agree or disagree with the sentiment or not!) and more fantastic composition.

jabra said...

Hey Maria,

Nice. Very nice.

I got bawked at by a performance class this week when I asked for an indication of who had done 20 hours practice this week. What is going on?!

Jabra