It is sometimes extremely difficult being a freshman music major in a huge university like Penn State. New expectations and experiences assail incoming students at every turn, and the sense of isolation from hometown friends and former teachers can be depressing and overwhelming. One can also become completely intimidated by new classmates and more accomplished upperclass performers and scholars.
Acknowledging the difficulties that freshmen face, the School of Music created a course called the “Freshman Experience” in fall 2014 to help its youngest students acclimate more easily to collegiate life and life as a music major. Part of the school’s official strategic plan, this partial replacement for Common Hour in the freshman year was designed to “build excitement for music study and expose students to a broader range of music repertory, while also developing community across the school.” The freshmen receive Common Credit for their attendance.
The loose curriculum for the Freshman Experience was designed by lead teacher Christopher Kiver and other faculty members, including Anthony J. Costa, Naomi Seidman, and Dennis Glocke. Kiver said, “The main goal of the experience is to excite students about being music majors, and to open them up to what being a full-time musician entails. Other than applied lessons and ensembles, freshmen really don’t have many music classes, so the Freshman Experience helps not only to broaden students' knowledge of music but also allows them to get to know the faculty and each other.”
During their freshman year, the students are separated from the rest of the Common Hour attendees for approximately half a semester and treated to experiences designed to help them acclimate to life as a music major, including “what I wish I knew then” panel discussions by members of the sophomore class, interactive “meet the faculty” presentations, and performance/talk-back sessions by upperclass students in all performance areas. They also participate in clinics on how to listen to all types of music (pop, bluegrass, blues, etc., as well as classical), and a “Messiah” sing-along the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving break.
Perhaps the most popular activity of the Freshman Experience is the “aha moment” class in which faculty members from all areas of the school share the experiences/repertoire—the “aha moments”—that made them decide to pursue a career in music. These informal sessions allow the freshmen to meet all the faculty members and learn that they went through similar trials and tribulations when considering music as a major.
Based on reports from both students and faculty, the Freshman Experience has made a positive difference in the Penn State freshman collegiate transition. One student remarked, “It was a great introduction to the School of Music and a great way to meet professors early. I think there is a lot we wouldn’t have found out about our professors if it weren't for something like this.” Another student stated, “We learned valuable information about all types of music that we probably wouldn't otherwise learn. And there was a real sense of community created in the class.”
Marica Tacconi, who teaches the final semester of the undergraduate music history sequence, has noted a marked difference in the sophomore classroom atmosphere as an outcome of the new freshman course. She reports that the students are much more open to contributing to class discussions and that they exude a heightened sense of community. "The students in the class seemed more open to share, ask questions, and exchange viewpoints," said Tacconi. "I sensed a wonderful sense of camaraderie and a genuine desire to engage with each other."
Looking back at the success of the freshman initiative, Christopher Kiver remarked, “There are a couple of significant threads in the experience—to become more assured performers, to observe faculty perform and see how they speak to an audience. But the main thread is to help them learn how to listen to classical music as well as other diverse musics, and to be able to articulate their thoughts on music in a concise, articulate, and engaging manner.”
The Freshman Experience is currently coordinated by professors Naomi Seidman and Taylor Greer.