One peculiar aspect of teaching music at a university in Mississippi is that a large number of our students transfer here after spending one or two years (or more) at a community college. While the presence of community colleges and of transfer students is not unique to Mississippi, not every state has community colleges with large and active music departments, complete with highly qualified faculty, private lessons, ensembles (including marching band), theory courses, etc. While the transition from community college to university is relatively seamless for students in some majors, music students can find themselves repeating many or even all of their sophomore year music courses based upon the results of entrance auditions and exams. Here are four thoughts which might be of help to students hoping to make the transition as smooth and as free of repeated coursework as possible. The first two have to do with how university music faculty approach transfer students and the possible necessity of repeated work, while the second two contain suggestions regarding how students can get the most out of their time at community college and hopefully avoid repeating coursework. High school seniors deciding whether to go directly to the university or take advantage of the cost savings from starting at a two-year school might also find these ideas useful.
1. University music faculty want you to be great…for them. Speaking as a university faculty member whose teaching load is calculated by the individual student, I am in some ways happier to have a new freshman come into my studio than a new transfer student. I say this not because I do not gladly welcome transfer students (I do), but because when a student enters my studio as a freshman I will have that student filling a space in my assigned teaching load for a longer period of time. Beyond the “numbers game,” working with a student from the freshman year onward also gives me the greatest length of time to work with that student and help him or her to become a fine musician. Remember, when you receive a music degree from us you are entering the professional world bearing our imprimatur, as it were. The continued good name and reputation of our university, department, and faculty depends on the quality of our graduates, and we are not interested in sending students out into the world that are not the best musicians, teachers, etc. that they can possibly be. For the transfer student, if we think this goal will be best served by having you repeat a few courses, we will readily make this recommendation. Please, though, don’t think our motives are altogether selfish, because…
2. University music faculty want you to be great…for you. As a teacher, I often say that the truest measure of my success is not my playing ability, my knowledge of advanced pedagogical techniques, or my published writing or recording projects. Rather, the truest measure of my success is the success of my students in the professional world. The vast majority of students who pass through my studio are aspiring school band directors, and nothing is more professionally fulfilling for me than seeing students with whom I have worked for two, three, four, or more years go out into the world and use the tools with which I and my colleagues have provided them to build great band programs of their own. While not denying the selfish motivation I mentioned above, the goal of having students become successful for their own sakes is of much greater importance, and if we believe that the review and development of concepts and skills that comes from repeating some coursework will give a student the greatest chance of success, we will recommend that the student repeat those courses.
Students that are told to repeat some coursework should not be insulted by that requirement. Instead, if you are told to repeat something, take this apparent setback in the spirit in which it is intended: as a means of preparing you for the greatest possible success. Still, no student relishes the idea of repeating courses, so allow me to offer suggestions in the two areas that offer the greatest stumbling blocks for transfer students: music theory and applied music (lessons).
3. In music theory, take great notes, study hard, and find out what the university courses cover. Music theory is perhaps the area in which the greatest number of music transfer students find themselves repeating material. In some cases this has to do simply with poor preparation or study habits on the part of the student. If you are “barely getting by” in theory at the community college and studying very little, chances are that you are not truly mastering the material and will find your recall to be severely wanting when you take your theory placement exam at the university. Sometimes, though, even bright, diligent, well-prepared students show a deficiency in some area or another which leads to a recommendation that one or two semesters of theory be repeated. This might be due to some incongruity between the theory curricula at the two schools. Perhaps the courses at the university cover certain concepts that the comparable courses at the community college do not, or perhaps there is simply a difference in terminology used at the two institutions that might cause confusion. Reach out to students at the university that you know and ask them if you can see a syllabus or even some assignments to see what you need to be learning. You could even email the university theory faculty with your questions. Finally, check the music department website; there may be a study guide that can provide guidance. I have seen students avoid an entire year of repeated work simply by asking questions, finding information, and diligently reviewing their theory class notes for a few weeks before the placement exam is given.
4. In applied music, practice diligently, learn standard repertoire, and master your scales. As an applied music faculty member I have much more direct experience in this area, and I will say frankly that I rarely allow a transfer student to enroll in junior-level lessons the first semester. Most transfer students repeat the entire sophomore year of the lesson sequence; some repeat only one semester. Rarely is anyone set back farther than that. This is not to say that I would not gladly admit an adequately-prepared student at the junior level, and I have done so once or twice in the past. Most transfer auditions, though, display at least one of the following three deficiencies, and sometimes two or all three are present. The first is simply a lack of overall practice and preparation. A student who plays with an uncharacteristic sound, poor technique, poor sight reading ability, etc. will not be allowed to enter my studio as a junior. For trombone players I would add lack of skill reading tenor and alto clefs, and for euphonium players reading both treble and bass clefs. While in some cases the deficiency is due to some physical issue that needs to be addressed, most often the culprit is lack of diligent practice. Go to the woodshed and get to work!
The second deficiency in applied music is a lack of knowledge of standard repertoire. In some (though not all) cases, the applied teachers at community colleges are also the band directors or otherwise employed primarily in areas other than applied music, and might teach lessons on instruments that are only distantly related to their primary instruments in addition to ensemble conducting and/or other courses. No matter how good a musician this teacher is (and we have some very fine musicians teaching at our area community colleges), a single teacher with so many diverse teaching responsibilities can have gaps in his knowledge of each instrument’s performance and instructional repertoire, leading to similar deficiencies on the part of students. Check the websites of universities you are considering for completing your studies. Most will have suggested repertoire lists that will help you to familiarize yourself with appropriate materials.
(To the community college directors/teachers that might be reading this, again, please understand that I mean no disrespect. I have had some outstanding transfer students come through my studio, owing largely to great teaching at the community college level. I only mean that one only has so many hours in the day to keep up with current trends, repertoire, etc. in multiple areas of instruction. Drawing from my own experience, once upon a time I taught some theory courses in addition to low brass, and while I like to think I taught those courses competently I knew that I was not up to date on the latest scholarship, etc. in that field the way that I was with low brass. Some gaps are nearly unavoidable, even with diligent effort, because there simply isn’t enough time in the day to keep up with absolutely everything. I have trouble keeping up with new repertoire, pedagogical ideas, etc. with just the low brass instruments!)
Finally—and this is the most common reason that I hold students back—lack of mastery of major and minor scales and arpeggios. Nearly all of the university music departments with which I have been associated as a teacher or student have required that students demonstrate mastery of all major and minor (all forms) scales and arpeggios before beginning junior-level lessons, yet most of the transfer students that audition looking to be admitted as juniors are unfamiliar with minor scales. If you want to enter a university applied studio as a junior, be able to play, at minimum, any major or minor scale or arpeggio, from memory, on demand.
These thoughts are by no means a comprehensive list of considerations relevant to community college music students looking to transfer to a four-year institution, but hopefully they will provide helpful “food for thought” as you prepare for auditions and entrance exams. Also, please don’t think that starting at the university as a freshman is a surefire way of avoiding these potential problems. We just as readily demand repeated courses from current university students who don’t meet certain standards as we do transfers, and have often done so–there are no double standards. Whether you choose to start at a community college or go to a university immediately after high school, good, old-fashioned hard work will be required if you want to be successful. Good luck!