Goldrich: Bienen dual degree overworks students, needs structural changes

Nathan Goldrich, Op-Ed Contributor

Each year, students from all around the world apply to Northwestern’s unique five-year, dual-degree program, which enables students in the Bienen School of Music to simultaneously obtain another degree from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the McCormick School of Engineering, the School of Communication, the School of Education and Social Policy or the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Students in the program are granted the same privileges and opportunities as those who exclusively pursue music and therefore, with a few exceptions, must adhere to the same distribution requirements as students in the other schools. Consequently, they may often find themselves taking anywhere from six to eight classes each quarter to satisfy their credit requirements, when taking into account the other two to three academic classes outside of Bienen. These requirements include, but are not limited to, music theory, aural skills, ensemble and keyboard skills. Many of these function as sequences, requiring students to take a certain number of consecutive classes, such as the music theory sequence, which comprises six consecutive courses. Considering the average NU student takes three to five credits per quarter, there’s no questioning the program’s intensity.

While some students flourish under the dual-degree program’s extensive rigor, many find it to be detrimental to their college experiences and drop out. For instance, I spoke with my friend Hugo Belisario, an NU freshman who has played violin and viola for almost 11 years and has received numerous honors for his playing throughout high school. Looking to take his passion for music to the next level, he was accepted to NU as a dual-degree student for viola performance and economics. Yet, after a whole quarter of experiencing the full force of dual-degree expectations, he said he realized continuing would be unsustainable. As someone who wanted to get involved with Greek life, club baseball and still have time to relax, work out and socialize, it became clear to him that staying in the program would greatly limit his college experience. Half a quarter later, he dropped out of Bienen.

Although no two students are alike, Belisario’s mindset toward achieving a balanced college experience is applicable to a vast number of students both within and outside the dual degree program. From what I’ve observed, dual-degree students’ success is often determined by their willingness to accept both the massive time commitments the program demands and the limitations it places on non-academic aspects of college life. Furthermore, because of the strong emphasis on core classes such as music theory and aural skills, dual-degree students seem to lack the power and flexibility to tailor their education to their unique, yet valuable perspectives of music.

While this system works for students who exclusively study music performance — since they are primarily focused on learning about music in an academic sense — dual-degree students don’t seem to have the same freedom. It is as if Bienen’s efforts to diversify music education for dual-degree students have ironically served to undermine the students’ musical growth. Indeed, many students find the dual-degree program to be inspiring and enjoyable, and I do not suggest making any major changes to its style or execution. Rather, the best course of action to encourage and personalize one’s education in music performance would be to create two new majors: solo performance and group performance.

There would be various benefits in establishing separate majors. Since the majors would be specialized by performance type, distribution requirements would be specific to each student’s passion. A student choosing to major in solo performance, for example, would be exempt from taking orchestra, a course that would otherwise be time-consuming and impractical. Additionally, introducing the two new majors — which would require fewer, but more specialized, distribution requirements — would allow for greater flexibility in time and scheduling, granting students more freedom in meeting their individual needs. Finally, it is important to recognize that music performance majors are not music theory majors and therefore should not be treated as such. While it is useful to promote an understanding of the theoretical and historical aspects of a given repertoire, it is by no means necessary to bombard students with mandatory classes concerning just music theory and aural skills.

Bienen is home to some of the most dedicated and accomplished young musicians in the world, and it’s truly a shame to see such talent go to waste just because some aspects of the curriculum are forced down their throats.

Nathan Goldrich is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.