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Post defense celebration at Otto!

My committee: Ron Sadoff, Cathy Benedict, Christina Marin

One of my dear cellist friends gave someone my email because she (my cellist friend) thought I would have some interesting words of wisdom re. her friend’s interest in doing a doctorate in music performance (specifically violin performance).  Since I officially passed my dissertation defense 2 days ago (YAY!!!), I figured now was probably a good time to do a blog post on what I actually think about getting a PhD in music performance (versus a DMA, for example, which oddly seems to have turned into the world’s most sought-after music performance degree).  Now, this begs a serious disclaimer: I am just now finishing my degree, so the question of “how does this degree work for you, how does this degree create work opportunities that allow you to gain back the thousands of dollars, not to mention blood, sweat, & tears you’ve expended in pursuance of the infamous PhD” is unfortunately unanswered at this point.  Give me a year or 2 & I’ll (hopefully!) be able to begin to answer those questions.

In the meantime, this is how I responded when I got an email from this violinist:

Thanks for your email!  I’m always happy to talk with people who are interested in the PhD program AND you happened to write me the day after I passed my dissertation defense.  So I’m in good spirits!!!

A PhD program in music performance is just like a PhD program in other academic areas EXCEPT that you have performance requirements.  So the academic load can be heavy, candidacy exams are intense & stressful, and the dissertation is heavily research-based.  If you’re not interested in research or contributing to knowledge in music at the scholarly level, then I would say go with a DMA.  With that said, the PhD is the gold standard of education across the board…but in terms of actually playing your instrument, it may give you more opportunities for private study & recitals, but a PhD really is an academically research-based degree.  You’re up there with PhD-ers in psychology, art history, computer science, sociology, etc.  It was years of blood, sweat, & tears…in a nutshell, a monstrous amount of work and ate my life away at times.  But I would never take it back for anything.

Many, many, many people have DMAs these days.  VERY few have PhDs in music performance.  But I’ve always been a bit on the fringes with my interests and it’s not something I would recommend to many people.  My dissertation was on classically-trained cellist-improvisers and how they have resisted the hegemony of classical music indoctrinated in their conservatory training.  So it was very sociological, very psychological, and involved a HUGE amount of heavy academic theory.  Not everyone goes that route, of course.  You could just as easily study some little-explored aspect of 18th century violin performance practice if you wanted!  NYU is a very progressive, very open-minded place to be, so I’ve seen dissertations from all sorts of areas.

But I feel one has to have a commitment to contributing to greater knowledge in academia and beyond.  If you’re only interested in becoming a better violinist or to teach violin and only violin (which is noble, don’t get me wrong!), then I would say go the DMA route.  A PhD can be an arduous journey and some people take forever to do it.  I took 6 years.

I hope this doesn’t sound dark!  Like I said, I wouldn’t take my experience with this back for anything.  It’s something you carry with you forever, and not a lot of people have this degree.  NYU doesn’t have much scholarship funding, at least they didn’t for me.  Huge downer, but I made it work somehow.  And I’m glad I did!

So that concludes my email to this person.  Now, I censored a few things.  1) the topic about 18th century violin performance sounds BORING AS HELL, but people do indeed suffer through that kind of research.  Not to mention, that just doesn’t seem like important research to me, but who am I to say.  2) This degree is stresssssssfulllll.  I have talked to a small handful of people who kind of swim through it without much drama, but that was not the case with me.  3) I’ve heard many a story about DMA programs & they sound ACADEMICALLY IDIOTIC to me and totally unimpressive on every level (except that I have no doubt they attract very strong players, which is the point, I guess).  Sorry.  I hate to brandish such apparent snobbery, but it just sounds sooooo easy.  Those programs basically sound like an extension of your Master’s degree, and I’ve known some total morons with DMAs.  Wow, did I just say that?

A PhD is a RESEARCH-BASED DEGREE.  Yes, you do 2-3 semesters of chamber music; yes, you do private lessons; yes, you do 2 recitals.  And all that is great!  But just get ready for major, major reading, writing, research.  That’s what it’s about in the end.  And working your ass off for a loooonnnng time & forking over probably way too much money to a school that should really be helping YOU out.  I mean, that’s how it is in music.  These programs don’t seem to have much money sitting around.

A dear friend of mine in the PhD program in anthropology (also at NYU) has a totally different scenario with grants & what-not.  Lucky devil.

I think the bottom line to all of this is: you have to have a burning passion for creating & sharing new & hopefully meaningful research, new ideas in the academy & beyond.  If this commitment isn’t there, go get a DMA & stay in the cave of a practice room for another 6 years.

Finally, let me say, I LOVED my dissertation committee.  They were totally amazing all around.  And I love, love, love Marion Feldman, my cello teacher.  Surrounding yourself with these sorts of awesome people is key.  But getting a PhD can be a lonely road.  I spent many, many, many hours alone in my apartment, slaving away in front of the computer.  But now I can look back with nostalgia.  Isn’t that always how it is?

Happy summer!

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Taking my dissertation to the graduate office!

Having officially made my dissertation deadline, I want desperately to write & publish on this blog a “PhD Survival Guide” for doctoral students…I’m slightly reluctant to compose said guide until I officially pass my orals, subsequently get the FINAL dissertation to the graduate office, and see my work published on proquest.  But in the meantime, I’ll impart some thoughts that might be useful to people thinking about doing a PhD or those who are indeed in the trenches as we speak.

First, for my own tendency towards profound nostalgia, I have to pay homage to April 8.  I’ve had two very, very significant April 8ths in my life.  April 8, 2005 when my sister and I went to see Tori Amos at the Hammerstein Ballroom for the Original Sinsuality (pardon the lame-o name) tour, and I was in the throes of being completely & madly in love with Jason.  This was also the first evening anyone in my immediate family met him.  Very, very special.  We had only been together a month.  🙂   And secondly, April 8 – yesterday!  Making my dissertation deadline, after almost 6 years of doctoral study at NYU.

Okay, so tip number 1 and the most important thing I could tell ANY doctoral student or anyone thinking about doing a PhD program: you may love your committee, but at the end of the day — YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.  In other words, don’t lean on them, expect them to promptly return emails, or show marveled enthusiasm re. your work.  These moments of light & positivity do indeed happen, but keep expectations low.  By the time you get to this point in your higher education career, they expect you to figure things out for yourself.

With that said, PICK A COMMITTEE THAT YOU REALLY BELIEVE IN.  Pick people you feel very, very confident will help you out, give you useful feedback.  This seems obvious, but it’s so, so important.

DON’T EXPECT ANYTHING TO BE EASY.  I know everyone’s situations are different, but I’ve had a particularly rough time at NYU.  My candidacy exams and the work that followed for said “pass with conditions” exam represented one of the worst periods of my entire life.  And unfortunately, it was right around the time Jason & I were planning our wedding – a time that is supposed to be really joyous, and I swear, those candidacy exams did me in.  In any event, I got through it…and so can you!  And seriously, some people get lucky with the people on their exam panel & have a pretty smooth time.  So it really depends a lot on luck.

BE A FANTASTIC PLANNER; MANAGE TIME WELL; PLAN AHEAD; MAKE THE TIME FOR SERIOUS WORK; KEEP PRIORITIES IN ORDER — If you’re not much a planner, become one.  If you don’t manage time well, figure out how to.  If you get distracted easily, do everything in your power to combat distractions.  There’s really no choice here.  You do it or perish.

READ THE DOCTORAL HANDBOOK VERY CAREFULLY; it seems overwhelming, but there’s no way around it.  Universities love rules, red tape, guidelines…you get the idea.

If you’re thinking about doing a PhD program, you HAVE to have a love of school, a love of knowledge, a love of research, a love of reading, a love of writing, a love of sharing new ideas, and an incredible drive to make & meet deadlines.  These things have to be really burning.  Otherwise, you’ll join the ranks of people who started doctoral programs & petered out.  Granted, a lot of people get big career breaks & realize they don’t need/want a PhD, so…well, lucky them.

DON’T EXPECT IT TO BE CHEAP.  Some programs (ahem, music) just don’t have the resources to give scholarships.  Sorry, it’s a fact of life.  Huge bummer.

TRY NOT TO TAKE YOUR STRESS & FRUSTRATION OUT ON YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER…need I say more?

Am keeping my fingers crossed that all goes well with my oral defense on June 24.  Am nervous, but thrilled I actually made yesterday’s deadline.  I’m very proud of my dissertation and have learned an ENORMOUS amount through this whole process.  However corny this may sound, this is a very real example of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

As time goes on, I would like to write more specifics on how a PhD makes sense (or doesn’t!) for MUSICIANS.  I think for most musicians, it does NOT make sense, but I’ve always been sort of on the fringes with my interests, my hopes for my career, etc.  More to follow on that, because I think it’s very important.

In any event, happy April!  And to all you PhD candidates out there, am sending good vibes, because man, I have no doubt you need them.  😉

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