Event 1- Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

all doctoral students in every discipline dread their comprehensive exam. It's a major point in your degree, a make it or break it test. If you pass, you're "home free" to work on research and finish your dissertation (and any random courses you've got left). If you fail, well...you get multiple chances.

My DMA Comps was made up of 4 parts- a take home repertory essay, a drop the needle listening test, a "drop the score" theory exam, and major area questions. The test took my two weeks to complete. In those two weeks, I spent about 52 hours just taking the test. This doesn't include the 2 hours a night i spent "studying" for the listening exam.

the take home essay is, really, a full blown research paper. You're given a choice of topics Friday morning, and then have till Monday morning to turn in a 2500 word paper with bibliography, footnotes,  and title page. The 5 topics given were varied, and I think just about anyone taking the exam could find something they wouldn't mind spending time with. For me, I chose a question about the influence of 3 librettists of composers. Each pair had to be active collaborators and be from different time periods. If you know anything about me, then you know that this is right up my alley. As soon as I saw the question, I knew the pairings, though my brain totally died on the name of the librettist that did late Verdi. D'uh, Arrigo Boito, composer of one of my favourite operas, Mephistofele. So, I pumped that puppy out with time to spare. The other pairings were equally obvious- Da Ponte and Mozart, and Weill and Brecht. Turned it in Sunday night around 8, after a third revision. To do better, I would have needed a couple days off to get "fresh eyes."

The listening and theory were on the same day. For  the listening, everyone taking the test crowds into a large computer lab, plugs in headphones, and at the drop of 9am, the listening appear on blackboard. You then have three hours to identify nine examples- time period, genre, possible composer, and a couple paragraphs of style characteristics. The examples were drop the needle (meaning it starts anywhere in the piece), could be from any time period, by any composer...And judging from their choices, don't really have to be "representative" of a time period. You're given roughly 1-2 minutes of each excerpt.

A random test that includes all Western art music ever composed. There's no real way to study for it, just practice listening in general. I went to a couple sessions on that and felt more than comfortable with it. Then I read my Grout...namely the beginning through Renaissance. Once we hit common practice I'm fairly confident.

And boy, I thought I bombed that test. damn...completely insane. Nothing really prepares you for this...well...

Unless you had music history with Matthew Balensuela. Then you're fine. Luckily, I did...

After the listening, the proctor gives you a choice of scores to analyze, compare, and contrast. the range was again bountiful. I think there were 6 pairings to choose from? man, it's hazy. I chose a "new music" pairing, Xenakis Mists and Crumb Processional.

There were some particular bits we were told to look at, namely the use of time in the piece, as well as pitch content. Three hours to do the analysis and compare and contrast isn't much time at all. Both pieces were 10 pages long, so I went for a quick overview, tried to find some sort of major pitch structure, and then how they used the structures to define different time scalings. If i hadn't known basic background theory of each composer to begin with, I would have been screwed. Luckily, both were semi-straight forward pieces representative of Xenakis and Crumbs general style. I was definitely hurried like crazy, but I was able to pump out around the 5 pages they asked for and give some decent discussion.

The area-questions are what most people are used to- you have a panel, they submit up to 6 hours of questions, and you answer them. I decided on a varied group, Dr. Jim Mobberley for Composition, Dr. Reynold Simpson for Comp/Theory, and Dr. William Everett for musicology. Hell, if i have to answer questions, i might as well be entertained.

I tackled Dr. Everett first, since I felt like he'd be the wild-card. A few short questions were great: "describe your music in 20 seconds to a non-musician," and "describe your music in 20 seconds to a musician." I took him at his word, and each answer was about a third to a half of a page (general reading time is 1-1.5 minutes per page). Heck, i even timed myself, just to be sure.

The other two questions revolved around music, politics, and nationalism. I did a small amount of research for each. mainly, if i had to look up a bit, i cited it. I can never remember the furiant rhythm. heh. All in all, not a bad set of questions.

Dr. Simpson's questions were a series of "you should know this verbatim OR know exactly where to find it." I tried each question without looking it up then found the resource and listed things off if I felt behind. The only one that was a bit of challenge for "off the top of my head" was "find all the trichord subsets and pentachord supersets of this tetrachord." I missed a subset and superset from my own work. Thankfully i knew exactly where to look this up.

As for Dr. Mobberley, two questions, deep thinking about my future. Wouldn't expect anything less from the guru himself.

Area questions are "cake," in as much as they tend to cover what you've actually STUDIED in school. Yeah, i said it. I've got bones with the system, and generally think we should limit a comprehensive exam to just area questions. Just stipulate that you must have one faculty from theory, one from history/musicology, and one from your major area (so, theory has to have 2 theory, performance would have their private instructor). Then make the questions open ended- no time limit, etc, just have to coordinate with the comp head (that you choose). So, if a history professor demands that you right a rep essay in a weekend, no problem. With technology, I don't see this as a problem, as timing "tests" is cake. 

This all took my 52 hours (18 for area, roughly 28 for the take home, and 6 hours for the listening/theory). Do i feel smart because of it? that I somehow proved I learned all my lessons?

Nope, not at all.

Did I pass? Yep, even "High Pass" on the repertory essay.

Do I care? only that I now can just work on a dissertation and be test free.

All this, while finishing a Fulbright app (which i turned in between take home and listening/theory) and spending what seemed like endless hours organizing a concert (which included judging pieces the weekend i did the take home essay), and, ya know, taking classes and teaching. Life.

But that's another story...

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