Jury Duty: Fine arts majors face end-of-semester skill test

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A stressed sigh escapes from junior music education major Jesus Quiroga as his finger taps through the schedule on his phone.

He’s looking for two days—two days that will determine his fate. Soon, his eyes fall upon the beginning of December, and he finds what he is looking for: Dec. 11-12.

For most TCU students, Dec. 11-12 will be “dead days”—two full weekdays without class, supposedly meant for studying but clandestinely meant for last-second socializing before finals week.

But Quiroga won’t have time to fool around on those days. He’ll be focusing on his sophomore barrier, a comprehensive test that a percussionist must take in order to move up as a music major.

He already knows what it’s like not to pass. The previous semester, Quiroga attempted to cram everything he needed to know the night before his sophomore barrier.

After the test, Quiroga said he didn’t need to be told that he didn’t pass. He knew he wasn’t prepared.

But now he has another chance, and this time will be different, he said.

There’s a lot on the line—if he doesn’t pass, he will have to drop out of TCU. He wants to study music, and if he can’t do it at TCU, he’ll have to do it at another school.

“I’ve never thought of doing anything else in my life,” Quiroga said.

It’s a challenge not exclusive to Quiroga. Many fine arts majors face make-or-break moments at the end of the semester. Known as “juries,” “barriers” or in the case for art majors, “portfolio reviews,” these proficiency tests determine whether or not the student can move on within his or her major. While the likelihood of failing is generally low, students must prove that they have reached a certain level of knowledge or skill.

Piano professor Gloria Lin, who’s had experience being on the other side as a juror, said the tests are necessary to train students who plan to have a career in the highly competitive field of fine arts.

“They really should view the juries as audience,” she said. “And we just want to hear a good concert, a good performance. And it’s important because for this field, that’s what they will be doing when they graduate.”

Juries also allow faculty to collectively assess a student’s performance and, in the end, produce a better performer, said Harry Parker, Chair of the Department of Theatre.

“We hope, in productive ways, ‘gang up’ on students,” he said. “The focus of having all of us there in the same room at the same time can sometimes make a real impact on a student’s progress because they hear repeated from several people the same thing, and somehow it just clicks.”

While a jury, barrier or portfolio review typically consists of performing or demonstrating work in front of faculty who give a critique, the jury process varies between programs and concentrations.

Dance students like sophomore modern dance major Beth Bowen face a different set of challenges, having to deal with the physical aspects of dance.

“Your body is different every day that you wake up, and the fact that you can have more range of motion one day than you can the next,” Bowen said.

And it’s not easy, as the process can be “very physically and emotionally draining,” she said.

The same thing goes for art majors, who often stay up the entire night before a portfolio critique, wrote Adam Fung, assistant professor of art, in an email.

Junior graphic design major Susy Salcedo, wrote in an email that she is feeling the pressure, as an unsuccessful portfolio review could mean she must change her major and not graduate on time.

While there is no cap to the amount of graphic arts majors who can pass, Salcedo wrote that between 25 and 30 students typically make it through. At the moment, there are about 40 students preparing for their reviews, she wrote.

“Graduating on time is very important to me and my family,” she wrote, “and if the worst does occur, and I don’t get accepted, then I have to undergo a major change and start over as a junior which is extremely stressful. All I can do is do the best work that I can and hope that my portfolio is able to show my talent and potential in continuing to study graphic design.”

But for some students, like senior theatre major Kyle Montgomery, jury can be a welcome thing.

“Oh, it’s great, especially in college,” he said. “I wish we could do this in the professional world.”

Montgomery, whose degree has a musical theatre emphasis, is somewhat of a jury veteran. Musical theatre juries are held in similar fashion to auditions, a staple activity for every aspiring theatrical performer.

But what separates a theatre jury from an audition is the conversation that happens afterward. Following the student’s performance of a song or monologue, the faculty explains to the student the highs and lows of his or her performance, as well as how the student has improved throughout the year.

“It’s really nice to have immediate feedback, especially in a closed room, so no other student hears about what you’re saying,” Montgomery said. “It’s confidentiality between you and the professors.”

While every jury is different, most fine arts majors acquaint jury with stress, but it’s a stress that makes them better, said junior music education major Neil Hoang.

Hoang, who studies percussion like Quiroga, passed his sophomore barrier.

“It’s hard, but it’s okay,” he said. “I have fun. I try to have fun, because in the end, it’s just music.”

 

Surviving the furnace

When Hoang entered the room to take his sophomore barrier, he had never been more stressed over school in his life. His barrier included two written tests, a research paper and an oral exam over music history, percussion instruments and other music-related topics. There was no class to teach him what he needed to know. He had to teach himself.

“I usually never stress out about school,” Hoang said, “but that was the first semester that I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. I am freaking out.’”

He remembers what it was like to be in front of a group of faculty for his oral exam.

“Tell me about classical music history,” one faculty member said.

“Where do you want to start?” Hoang asked.

“Let’s start from the beginning.”

And Hoang did, or at least, he tried to. He shot out everything he knew about classical music history, hoping it would be enough for his interviewers to accept.

“It was okay,” Hoang said. “But although it was super stressful and super crazy, when I got in there, I realized something after the exam that was just like, the purpose for the oral exam was basically to show you how much you don’t know.”

In the end, he survived. And as it turned out, Hoang realized that it was okay to not know everything.

“But they don’t tell you that or else you won’t study as hard,” he said.

Montgomery survived, too, though his first-year musical theatre jury seemed like a fog.

He sat in the waiting room, head shots and resumes in hand, while the lines of his monologue and song raced through his mind.

Finally, his moment arrived.

“You go in and you’re like, ‘I’m going to get cut, I’m going to get cut…’” he said.

He handed each of his jurors a headshot and resume, then handed the accompanist the sheet music of his song. After introducing himself to the jurors and announcing what he would be performing for the day, Montgomery said he doesn’t remember much of what happened next.

“I blacked out,” he said. “I did my thing. I think it went well.”

Following the performance, the faculty gave him some advice, and it was over. He passed.

“That’s nerve wracking because you’re like, ‘I hope they like me,’” Montgomery said. “And then you leave and it’s done. And you’re like, ‘Where do I go from here? Cool.’ And we move on with our day.”

After his first experience, Montgomery said his worries over jury have diminished over time.

Students’ anxiety during jury season is perfectly understandable, and even essential for a fine arts major to experience, Parker said.

“There ought to be nerves or butterflies before every audition, before every performance,” he said. “If not, you probably don’t care enough.”

Parker said adrenaline works to keep the performer focused and drives the performer to produce the best work.

“If it eats you up, and the anxiety is overwhelming to you,” he said, “despite good preparation, you have to think about if you want to do this for a career.”

 

One step backward, one step forward

Not everyone’s jury or barrier plays out the same way. When Bowen took her ballet jury in her first year, it didn’t go the way she hoped it would.

Dance majors take their jury together. Each dancer is given a number and must stand in a certain order. They’re not allowed to speak to one another nor ask questions, unless it is related to the jury. The faculty, seated in risers, watches the students perform combinations as a group, yet judge each dancer individually.

Following Bowen’s ballet performance, the faculty informed her that she could not move forward to the next ballet class.

That’s why, despite being a sophomore, Bowen is still taking the first-year ballet class.

Bowen said she has improved, however, and appreciates being held back for a bit.

But it’s not failing a jury that Bowen worries about—it’s the possibility of injury, which can be “life changing” in a field as physical as dance, she said.

“If you can’t move, like if you’ve broken your leg or your foot, then they take that into consideration, and they will give you an incomplete grade,” she said. “They have asked one of our students to start looking at other majors because she’s been injured, and she’s been sick so many times.”

Not many dance majors have a backup plan either, Bowen said.

“For some of those people, dance is the only thing that we feel like we’re good at,” she said.

The same thing goes for Quiroga, in terms of music.

If he doesn’t pass his percussion sophomore barrier, he said he doesn’t plan on staying at TCU and finding a different major.

He will take a break for a bit and prepare for auditions to get into the University of North Texas or any other school that will take him, he said.

But that’s still up in the air. He’s waiting for Dec. 11 to come.

Sleep has been a long lost friend, and passing his sophomore barrier will also mean passing out in bed for a week after, Quiroga said.

For now, Quiroga said he’s been working harder to make the most of this chance.

“I will pass my sophomore barrier,” he says softly, the fear in his voice tainted with determination.