Music Department: Goals and Objectives
The discipline of music at Vassar comprises five related subdivisions. First is the study of music history and theory, which historically constitute the central qualitative and quantitative components of a liberal arts degree. The second subdivision is Music and Culture, a series of courses that do not require extensive background in music theory or experience with playing a musical instrument, but rather focus on learning to understand music’s role in a variety of cultural contexts. The third subdivision is the creative work of musical composition. Solo performance with voice or instrument forms the fourth subdivision. The fifth involves participation in ensemble performance, for which the department maintains several excellent musical ensembles that are open to all qualified students in the Vassar community. These include orchestra, mixed choir, women’s chorus, wind ensemble, madrigal ensemble (chamber singers), jazz ensemble and jazz combos, and chamber music.Each year the department offers several Music and Culture courses that are open to all students. These courses develop listening and analytical skills based on perception and interpretation of musical details, such as use of voice, instruments, performing venue, recording techniques, text and lyrics, and social context. Each semester the department offers Fundamentals of Music, a course that teaches basics of theory and notation to students who wish to achieve musical literacy. A course such as this supplements many other curricula, for example Education, as musical knowledge remains an essential component for teaching in primary and secondary schools. Further, non-majors with previous background in music often take Harmony because they wish to learn more about musical structure and the interplay of musical elements in standard repertory. Finally, our long-standing course Music as a Literature introduces students to great works of the Western art repertoire. This course aims to give students tools to understand and appreciate music within a more general framework of cultural literacy. Often non-majors take more advanced courses in theory and history; these students may have considerable background in music but wish to devote the bulk of their college education to other disciplines. Our ensembles, notably, are populated primarily by non-major musicians.What we strive to achieve for our majors is a functioning integration between the five departmental subdivisions outlined above. Assessment of this integration for majors and correlates varies. For correlates, it is based largely on a final project, which is guided and evaluated by an advising professor, along with the examinations, writing, and discussion required in course work generally. For majors, the department uses a multifaceted assessment, with the performance faculty judging one aspect of a student's progress, and with history, theory, and composition faculty evaluating other aspects of a student's growth through written and analytical skills.
Nearly all majors engage in some kind of performance. The department has structured a curriculum that balances history, theory, and performance and is supplemented by a required three-semester sequence of courses in Musicianship Skills. These skills courses involve practical training in musicianship, for example, the ability to sight-sing and to identify intervals. These are watershed courses from which majors gain the basic skills upon which the practice, performance, and critical examination of music are based. Some majors choose the path of a culminating recital that demonstrates their proficiency on an instrument or in voice. This is not a requirement, however, and majors who wish to undertake a recital must secure approval from their instructor and the department. A few majors embark on a senior research project or thesis, although, again, we do not require this and it is rather rare.
We measure the full scope of majors' achievement by some combination of their performance and analytical skills. Students demonstrate the latter through ongoing examinations and essays throughout the curriculum, and in research papers for 300-level seminars. To assess students' development in performance, a core group of tenured faculty and lecturers regularly attends concerts and charts the growth of students' abilities. We discuss their progress in regular department meetings and we all meet privately with students to offer feedback on their performance. Another form of assessment emerges in the acceptance of students by graduate programs in performance, music history and theory, and composition; of late, the increasing number of our majors accepted for graduate work demonstrates a high level of musical achievement at Vassar.
Yet another level of assessment is perhaps unique to the music department. Nearly all of our majors participate in student-run ensembles, including the Mahagonny Ensemble (contemporary music) and the Vassar Camerata (Baroque music). While we offer advice and feedback when asked, these ensembles are most effective when members are left to direct, monitor, and inspire each other's progress. As a result, students involved in these groups are highly motivated, and many develop considerable devotion to high standards.
The creation of a fine musician requires an artful balance between mind, body, and spirit. Regarded in the broadest sense, the attributes that we wish to foster in our students – intellectual and physical discipline, accurate memory, analytical strength, emotional engagement – are worth cultivating in any vigorous citizen of a liberal arts college, or of humanity generally.