It’s the “Juilliard of the South,” as Jessica Haddock said her voice teacher calls it.
JMU’s School of Music (SOM) is nationally recognized for its prestige as part of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). The program also provides state-of-the-art music facilities such as the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts and Steinway pianos across campus, according to the JMU Music Facilities website.
The school, however, is said to be ultra-competitive among students and requires abundant credits for graduation. It all starts with the audition process.
The process of admittance into the School of Music is as to be expected for a program of its caliber, Haddock, a junior music education major, said. All applicants, including students studying music industry, must audition with an instrument and musical portfolio.
“Yeah, [it] takes a lot of hard work,” Haddock said. “Pretty high reputation, it’s not for everybody.”
Haddock’s in the music education concentration, the largest in the School of Music. Since changing her major freshman year, Haddock’s also picked up a minor in music industry.
“I was actually a nursing major when I came into college … just because that’s what I thought I wanted to do with my life,” Haddock said. “When I got here, I was like, ‘I cannot live without doing [music].’”
For Haddock, the influence of JMU music education graduates has always been present.
“Both my choir directors from high school are JMU alums,” Haddock said, who had a multitude of other high school music teachers as alumni. “I may have students go to JMU myself.”
Also adamant on maintaining a musical academic career is Jocelyn Moyer, a freshman music education major. Moyer said her first experience with the School of Music was during JMU’s summer band camps.
Moyer also said she quickly recognized the credential standards of the music education concentration, which pairs both music and education courses needed to obtain a degree in the field.
“In the eyes of other School of Music people, probably they see me — music ed majors — like, ‘Why are you doing that?’” Moyer said.
The music education concentration has the highest credit requirements in the program, John Allemeier, director of the School of Music, wrote in an email to The Breeze. According to the JMU 2022-2023 Undergraduate Catalog the concentration requires 39 to 42 depending on the specialty. Additionally, a portion of the Bachelor of Music degree courses are also professional education classes.
The requirements of this degree are common across most high-level music programs in the country because the degree has to “satisfy NASM accreditation requirements and state licensure requirements,” Allemeier further wrote. The National Association School of Music provides guidelines for music instruction that schools within the association must abide by for membership.
‘A push and pull’
Fulfilling these requirements can be challenging, especially for first-year students who are unaccustomed to the university-level workload. For this reason, freshmen, such as Moyer, are discouraged from taking more than 19 credits in a semester.
“The practice in the School of Music is that we discourage first-year students from taking overloads because they are not accustomed to the workload at the college level,” Allemeier wrote. “The School of Music exercises caution when advising first-year students while they acclimate to the college experience.”
In a follow-up interview with The Breeze, Allemeier elaborated on the School of Music’s curriculum.
“With our program, there’s no room for elective study,” Allemeier said. “But, students come to college because they want to experiment and explore different areas of interest … so those students have to apply for credit hour overloads in order to have that exploration.”
Allemeier said the Bachelor of Arts in Music degree, which started last semester, is part of the School of Music’s effort to allow students interested in the field to study it without having to give up electives and additional courses in other areas of interest. Students have only begun enrolling in the program this semester, Allemeier said. The degree isn’t a professional one like a Bachelor of Music degree, so it allows for less strict course requirements.
To better ensure an on-time graduation, however, special permission forms can be used throughout the school so students can take more than 21 credits in a semester and meet requirements.
In addition to students with GPAs above 3.25, the form can grant access to students with a GPA below that to take more than 19 credits in a semester.
At the top of the School of Music Handbooks, Forms, and Templates online page is the Overload Request Form. Aside from SOM curriculum, students are also taking general education courses often between semesters and building their music portfolio during this time.
Allemeier said JMU would not allow the school to have a program that required students to take on overloaded schedules and that instead, overloads usually come from students who wish to take classes outside of the School of Music’s regular courses. He also added that it’s very rare for students to have to take an extra semester or more to graduate, something he has to approve personally.
Liliya Petrosyan, a senior music composition major, said "the grind never stops," even on breaks.
“Like, you can’t really relax for too long, because then it’s like, ‘Well you could have done this while you were relaxing over spring [or] summer break.’” Petrosyan said.
Competitions, compositions, student teaching for education majors and the aforementioned summer marching band camps are also completed during breaks. Approximately 25-30% of music majors participate in the Marching Royal Dukes, Allemeier wrote.
To combat credit requirements, School of Music students can refer to undergraduate catalogs and suggested timelines provided online for each concentration. Some students, such as Haddock, keep track of their credits using Google Docs or Excel spreadsheets.
“The Bachelor of Music is a strictly structured degree because of accreditation requirements,” Allemeier wrote. “The average B.M. in the JMU School of Music is 126 credits, which means that at least 82 of those credits are required to be in music.” The other credits can be attributed to general education courses and electives.
Upon closer inspection of the 4-year plans, the credentials differ greatly from those of majors outside of the School of Music. Most concentrations feature courses that range from 1-3 credits with some courses valued as zero credits.
Allemeier said there are a number of reasons for why the courses vary so much in credit value, the main reason being that Virginia only allows degrees to require so many credits but their accreditation and licensures for music education also require a lot of courses and at times will add more, meaning the faculty have to adapt to stay below the credit limit.
“It’s kind of a push and pull between our accreditation and the state of Virginia,” Allemeier said. “The state will come in and say ‘Every one of your students has to do X,’ but then at the same time they’ll say ‘You can’t raise the credits in that degree.’ So if [the state requires] a three-credit class we’re not going to just jam a new three-credit class in or we’d have to take something else away, which is either a state or accreditation requirement. So what happens is when we get a new three-credit class we take one credit away from three other three-credit classes.”
Music education, in both the instrumental and vocal specialties, features the most prominent number of low-credit-hour courses, according to the suggested timelines.
“I’m only taking like 17 or 18 credits right now, but the thing is, [that’s] 12 classes, you know?” Haddock said. “We have zero-credit classes. Most of my classes are one-credit classes that meet three times a week.”
‘A frickin’ beast’
These one-credit classes include musical skill and ensemble classes, according to the Music Education (Vocal) 4-year plan.
On top of homework, instrument practice, vocal lessons and required recital attendance, coursework can be burdensome to students. Required classes across concentrations, such as Keyboard Skills and Aural Skills, that are recommended to be completed the first two years, can be especially tedious.
“It is just so ridiculously stressful,” Haddock said. “I made a TikTok of me literally sobbing because of [the] last few piano classes.”
As for other students, the keyboard courses, specifically, can be frustrating. In their fourth semester of Keyboard Skills, students must pass the Keyboard Proficiency Exam (KPE) which can be both “rigorous and very difficult,” Haddock said. The content of this exam is determined by instructors, Allemeier wrote.
“It’s a frickin’ beast,” Haddock said. “I disagree with the way that the piano program is run from the top down.”
Allemeier said that while students can agree or disagree with how the school does certain things, when it comes to accreditation, there’s little room for change.
Allemeier said students pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree have to take the KPE because it’s required by the school’s accreditor. He added that since the new B.A. doesn’t require the KPE, it’ll allow students who find the exam restrictive to bypass it and still study music.
Students are able to test out of the Keyboarding Skill courses with their completion of the KPE. This can be done to clear room in schedules for other program-based courses and electives. Petrosyan took advantage of this option.
“I tested out as soon as I could,” Petrosyan said. “It was pushing my schedule around in a way that I couldn’t take a class that I needed to take.”
Cooperation to take on the KPE is key throughout the School of Music. In many cases, graduate piano students are teaching the keyboard skill courses individually to prepare underclassmen for the final test, Haddock said.
‘Mutual bond of respect’
Collaboration among School of Music students is encouraged not only in the classroom but also in music-based fraternities and clubs. Dylan Gonzales, an undeclared freshman, is taking courses to become a music industry major and is a brother of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a music fraternity.
There are 35 music student organizations listed on the 2022-23 Undergraduate Music Student Handbook alongside Pi Kappa Lambda, the National Music Honor Society. In these groups, there’s a certain connection between musically inclined members, Gonzales said.
“We all have the sort of mutual bond of respect for each other and that we feel the struggles of playing our instrument and having to learn it and the challenges of constantly trying to improve,” Gonzales said. “I think that also helps bond us as fraternity brothers.”
Haddock’s a member of Sigma Alpha Iota, another professional music fraternity. Aside from music-centered organizations are service organizations within the School of Music.
Allemeier said in his position, he doesn’t have many interactions with these organizations, though he thought music fraternities and clubs were “a critical and valuable aspect” of the School of Music because of the social experiences they offer.
“Ask a parent or adult who went to college what they most remember about college,” Allemeier said. “It’s unlikely to be the curriculum. It will be the experiences they had at that college. To me, that’s the value that those organizations bring, like I’m not in touch with any of my professors, but I’m in touch with the friends I had in college.”
Organizations can be especially helpful during the time of juries, the School of Music assessment period, Petrosyan said. As part of the piano collective, Petrosyan receives emails with news and any information related to her instrument.
The extent of collaboration and helpfulness in the School of Music environment vastly combats the overly competitive image of the school, students say.
“There is no competitiveness really, because the fraternity strives to just help out each other,” Gonzales said. “A lot of times … since I’m a freshman, I’ve gotten lessons from easily, like, five different brothers on, like, helping me improve my instrument [skills] and that’s been wonderful.”
This lessened sense of competitiveness exists not only in musical fraternities but throughout concentrations as well.
“A lot of things that music majors will say is like, ‘These are our coworkers, like our future coworkers,’” Haddock said. “We just want to see each other succeed and help each other.”
Though there may be an angst of winning a chair over another student and a continuous joking about the overall workload of music education majors, Petrosyan said, there’s a “fairly positive culture between students” in the bubble of the Music Building and Forbes Center.
As students continue to assist each other through coursework stress, the School of Music has made substantial changes to provide opportunities to those who are interested in music academics but are hesitant to complete a Bachelor of Music degree, Allemeier wrote.
After a two-year development, the Bachelor of Arts in Music debuted in the fall 2022 semester. The degree has a liberal arts foundation and music credits are limited to 45% of the overall credits, with the remaining allocated to general education and electives. The degree also offers the option to take keyboard courses, unlike the requirement of the courses for the Bachelor of Music.
“In contrast to the strictly structured B.M., the B.A. has a lot of freedom with electives and makes double majoring in music much easier for our students,” Allemeier wrote.
He said the school was inspired to add the Bachelor of Arts in Music because it didn’t want to scare away students who may be intimidated by the large credit requirements that come with a Bachelor of Music.
Also offered to students interested in the alternative is the aforementioned music industry concentration. This program covers a wide array of information on the current industry. The concentration also does not require an application and students submit a portfolio instead of a performance assessment.
“It’s a very broad major, which is what I like about it,” Gonzales said. “I can go into anything from songwriting, producing, into concert promoting venues — stuff like that.”
‘Getting the message’
Despite solutions being constructed for courseload, one class in particular, MUS 195: Recital Attendance, continues to cause difficulty for students. The class is required for each of a student’s six semesters of Bachelor of Music majors and the first four semesters for Bachelor of Arts of Music majors. This zero-credit course requires all students to attend 10 approved performances in a semester.
“It’s usually manageable. It’s just really annoying to have to pay,” Petrosyan said. “If you don’t go to any free things, you could be spending upwards of $50 a semester. I’ve heard of people having to do an extra semester because they didn’t [go].”
While efforts to lessen costs of performances have been attempted since a 2019 petition reached over 800 signatures, the average required attendance fee has not changed from $5-25.
The School of Music is, however, “piloting an arrangement where we’re encouraged to volunteer to usher concerts and in exchange, we get to attend it for free and get credit,” Moyer said. Though a small fix to a larger issue, students said they’re beginning to feel recognized for their critiques.
“I think the school is getting the message that people are frustrated about the cost of recital attendance,” Petrosyan said.
As for the 2019 petition, Allemeier had no comment because he wasn’t the school’s director until fall 2021. In an from The Breeze at the time of the petition, the interim director of the School of Music, Eric Ruple, said that lowering the prices of the tickets would hurt the quality of the productions the tickets were for because ticket revenue goes to producing the shows and paying those who work them.
“When I became director there was an informal agreement made in the School of Music, and I made a commitment that there would be at least 15 [free performances that were eligible for MUS 195] because the class requires 10,” Allemeier said. “That way, if a student schedules it right, they can go to 10 of those 15 concerts.”
In a meeting with two representatives of the Student Government Association during the fall 2021 semester, Allemeier said, he acknowledged and agreed that 15 concerts probably weren’t enough due to many students’ already busy schedules and committed to raising the number to 20 per semester. However, Allemeier said it’s been difficult to put on 20 free performances in certain semesters, especially during the pandemic when there wasn’t a full performance calendar anyway.
JMU’s School of Music has shown consistent efforts to better the student experience and dismiss the competitive, overworking image. Still, musically inclined students are provided a state-of-the-art experience to further their academic careers.
“I would say that, you know, the School of Music is a great place,” Gonzales said. “If you can, I would take the opportunity to take a music class because they’re always really fun.”