After playing piano for 16 years, trombone for four years, and the organ for one year; after singing in choirs for 11 years, competitively-auditioned choirs for four years, and private voice lessons for three years, I can humbly say that I understand music. At the very least, I understand music more than can be learned in an entry-level, three-credit, one-semester course. If a student brings a wealth of musical experience to college and furthers it via membership in an auditioned musical ensemble at Hillsdale, he understands music enough to be exempted t from the core’s fine-arts requirement.
That course is Understanding Music, and irrespective of a Hillsdale College student’s musical proficiency, it’s one of the required courses for students to take to complete the fine-arts section of the core curriculum. It’s understandable that fine arts is a core requirement for a liberal-arts education. Music is one of the seven liberal arts and the fine arts cultivate some of the highest forms of beauty. Alternative courses for the fine-arts requirement are Understanding Theatre and Art History, but for students who enjoy and understand music enough to want to be in a musical ensemble, they shouldn’t have to take a redundant music course.
Hillsdale College’s core curriculum is extensive no matter what students study. There are some differences in the core depending on what an individual student plans to major in. Students pursuing a bachelor of arts degree are not required to major or minor in a science, whereas students pursuing a bachelor of science are. Students pursuing a bachelor of science degree are not required to take any language courses on campus. Allowing members of auditioned musical ensembles to be exempt from the core curriculum’s fine-arts requirement is another reasonable adjustment. A science student doesn’t need to overload on language courses, a humanities student doesn’t need to overload on science courses — and an active musician shouldn’t have to take an entry-level music course.
For students who enjoy music enough to participate in an ensemble on campus, and especially for those with the talent to audition successfully for an elite ensemble, the Understanding Music course may at first appeal as the best selection to fulfill the fine-arts requirement. But with pages of writing assignments, ultra-specific listening quizzes, menial introductory music theory, and dull music history, musically literate students will find that they come to understand music more by way of participating in their auditioned ensemble rather than sitting through a lecture-heavy core class.
Understanding Music is a three-credit course. Students receive one credit for performing in a musical ensemble, and members of auditioned ensembles often take private lessons for their primary instrument in addition to being in the general ensemble. The in-class time commitment of two choirs and private voice study is greater than meeting for Understanding Music lecture each week. Chamber choir rehearses two hours each week, and college choir rehearses three hours each week. Private voice study lasts either 30 minutes or one hour each week. That means a member of the chamber choir spends five-and-a-half to six hours each week for three credits of upper-level music practice and study, while Understanding Music spends less than three hours in class each week studying theory and history for the same three credits.
If students in auditioned ensembles were exempted from the fine-arts core requirement, they could choose to take more focused music classes, whether they’re receiving a music degree or not. If nothing else, they could use the three spare credit hours to save money or choose a different course that more closely aligns with their interests. Ultimately, a seasoned musician studying entry-level fine arts undermines the principle of liberal education. A perfectly capable musician should not be required to re-study aspects of music he learned before he attended college. By participating in an elite auditioned ensemble, he takes the subject matter taught in Understanding Music and elevates it in practice rather than pure theory. The best way to understand music is to make music.
Nathan Grime is a junior studying Rhetoric and Public Address.