Last semester 10 music students at John Brown University reported extraordinarily high scores on their Major Field Test, ranking in the 97th percentile nationally.
The Major Field Test is required of all music students who have finished “pre-performance” coursework at the university. This is essentially musical core, which focuses on theory, history and analysis of music. Students take the test in two-year groups, corresponding to the completion of this coursework.
Graduate schools use the Major Field Test to rank individual students similar to the way the Graduate Record Examination is used, but it can mark the quality of a music program.
John Brown University has averaged over the 93rd percentile for the last 15 years and in the 96th in the last five years.
“It’s a sustained record of excellence,” said Jan Wubbena, professor of music. “It’s not promoted heavily as a recruitment tool, but it does contribute to the overall academic standing at JBU. We have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Wubbena attributes the students’ musical excellence to their strong foundation in the context of music as a beginning, rather than refining performance skills.
“Students are drawn to music for performance,” he said. “I think of my own experience as an undergrad. I wasn’t too much interested in anything other than my performance. I ought to have had someone issuing a wake-up call. There’s more out there.”
In 1996 he and his wife, Terri Wubbena, professor of music and head of the division of communication and fine arts, revamped the music program to include Liberal Arts Foundations for the Musician, a philosophical and historical survey of music literature.
Since then they have tweaked the music curriculum several times. In 2008 students scored at the uncharacteristic 86th percentile. The next year the music program was changed to incorporate more listening comprehension and analysis.
Music students are well aware of the rigor of the music program.
“I didn’t have much of a life,” said Rachel Palm, one of the 10 students who took the test last year before graduating in the spring. “I was always practicing, always studying.”
Palm is only one of the students who spent hours studying in the bottom floor of the Cathedral, called the “dungeon” or the “catacombs” by some. Several students questioned whether all the work was worth it.
“That’s a question I had to ask myself every year,” Palm said.
“Sometimes we look at each other and say, ‘what are we doing?’ ” said Steven Hamilton, a music education major who will take the test next year.
Despite the difficulty of the program, Hamilton reports feeling confident about his chances for success on the test.
“It’s comforting knowing so many students have gone through the program before and done so well,” he said. “It tells me the possibility of success is the same for me, if I apply myself.”
The community aspect of the music program also seems important to many students.
“I came into JBU content to be an individual,” said senior Jewel Gilbert, who also took the test last year. “But the music program really forced me to rely on other people. You can’t pass Music Theory by yourself.”
Gilbert was accepted to go to Oxford for a semester abroad, due in no small part to her excellence in music. She is eager to continue learning in new contexts.
“We’ve worked so hard and we’ve done so much, but there’s so much more,” she said.
Gilbert and Palm agreed that the hard work and long hours of practice were worth the effort.
“Being able to know music, to study music, is a good life,” Palm said.
Hamilton already sees the value of his work and the work of others like him.
“The teaching and learning of music at a post-high school level is what keeps quality music alive in our nation,” he said. “The people I teach are going to benefit from the rigorous education I got.”
Wubbena is confident that the music department’s legacy of success will continue with future students.
“Why be average at anything if you can be excellent?” he asked.