Thursday, April 2, 2015

Final Oral Exam Study Tips for Music Students

The final requirement of my graduate music degree was to pass a final oral examination, which I did one year ago yesterday! In honor of the occasion, I thought that I would share my experience and some advice for students who will be taking their final oral exams over the next few weeks.

At my university, the final oral examination consists of a two hour session with a committee consisting of your applied faculty member (in my case, my oboe professor) and two other professors of your choosing. During these two hours, the committee asks you a variety of questions about your instrument and its development, orchestral repertoire, solo and chamber repertoire, music history, music theory, and more.

I passed my final oral exam on April Fools' Day 2014, and my experience was actually really positive. The exam covers a lot of information, and it was a little intimidating to even think about at first. However, preparing for the exam showed me how much I had learned and grown during my graduate study. I knew more than I thought I did, and it gave me a heightened sense of confidence in the value of my degree as I graduated and moved on to the next big thing.

I plan to write posts about some of the questions in the future -- for instance, my approach to recital programming. For now, I thought I would offer suggestions about how to prepare.
  1. Schedule your exam EARLY. I knew it would be difficult to get all four of us in the same room at the same time, but I didn't realize just how difficult. Allow yourself plenty of time to confirm committee members, compare schedules, confirm a date and time, and then confirm a place.
  2. Speak to your committee members about their expectations for the exam. All of my faculty members had outlines of material that they expect students, as soon-to-be recipients of a graduate degree, to know. While these outlines won't always go into enormous detail, they can point you in the right direction of topics to study.
  3. Practice with a friend. I don't usually study with a partner, but I cannot recommend it enough when preparing for the final oral exam. You need to know the information, but you also have to be able to verbalize it in an articulate manner. Have a friend ask you open-ended questions from your study guides, and practice speaking your answers out loud and interacting with your questioner. If you don't know the answer, practice redirecting the conversation to something that you do know!
Suggested topics to study for a graduate performance degree:
  • Repertoire. You should know solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire. The most helpful piece of advice that I received was to study repertoire in a couple different ways: by period (classical, romantic, etc.), by type (concerto, sonata, etc.), by composer (Mozart's symphonies, operas, concertos, etc.), and so on. As an oboist, I was also expected to know the oboe instrumentation for the major Bach compositions (St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion, Christmas Oratorio, etc.).
  • Your recital repertoire. At the very least, you should know when all of your pieces were composed, each composer's dates, and a few interesting tidbits of information about each piece (the circumstances surrounding its composition, who it was dedicated to, etc.).
  • Orchestral excerpts. Know the ten or so excerpts that are most commonly asked for on auditions, as well as what each excerpt is meant to evaluate (musicality, technique, etc.). Know which excerpts will lose you a job, and which excerpts will win you a job.
  • The history and development of your instrument. Know the early history of your instrument, the order in which keys were added, and when the modern instrument came to be. As an oboist, knowing the history of the Loree company was also very important.
  • Pedagogy. Be prepared to explain how you would teach different concepts, such as embouchure, vibrato, and double tonguing. You should have a suggested sequence of method books to take students from beginner to master's level, and you should also know a few solo pieces appropriate for each level.
  • Music history. You should know the major musical eras and their dates, characteristics of each era's music, major composers, and historical events of influence.
  • Score identification. You may be shown a page or two from several different scores and asked to identify the musical era and composer of each. You have to be able to "think out loud" and explain to the committee why you believe it's from a particular period, in a specific form, written by a certain composer, and so on. This was a bit of a challenge for me because I recognized a lot of the pieces instantly from my library work, but even if you can name the piece on sight you still need to be able to go through this "thinking out loud" process and justify your response.
Again, these suggestions are based on my own experience. Have anything to add? Tell me in the comments!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

As a musician, I'm prone to wondering why some people succeed and others don't. Malcolm Gladwell does a wonderful job of explaining that it's not purely a matter of talent, or even of hard work.

For instance, the first chapter discusses the fact that most Canadian hockey stars are born in the first three months of the year. Coincidence? Nope! Canada's hockey leagues run according to the calendar year, which means that a boy born on January 1st will play in the same league as a boy born on December 31st. The boy born on January 1st will be bigger, and his size will give him an advantage early on. This advantage will in turn give him the chance to get more time on the ice, get into better hockey leagues, play against better opponents, play more games, practice more, and ultimately have a greater chance of success, while the younger, smaller boy gets left behind.

Gladwell stands by the "10,000-hour rule," which states that 10,000 hours of focused practice is required in order to become an expert. Achieving expertise is not reliant on natural talent, but on putting in the required 10,000 hours. In this book, he aims to prove that certain conditions and circumstances (such as birth date) make completing these 10,000 hours of practice more accessible early on to those who succeed. Each chapter discusses a different success story, including The Beatles and Bill Gates.

While some may criticize Gladwell's ideas regarding the relationship between chance and success, I find them comforting. Yes, chance provides some of us with the opportunity to achieve those 10,000 hours of practice earlier than others, but the key word in that statement is earlier. Ultimately, it's putting in those 10,000 hours that really counts. If we're motivated and willing to put in the time and do the work, despite any obstacles that we encounter along the way, it is still possible for any of us to become experts -- it just may take us a little longer.