Thursday, October 03, 2013

Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

In about two week's time I'll be taking the most intense tests of my adult life, hopefully never to be repeated again. (Though I must say, I remember taking the GRE's and they weren't fun either). These are the doctoral comprehensive exams in music, which at CU Boulder happen over the course of five days (with a weekend in between for rest).

I really shouldn't complain. I got myself into this program and I think I'm going to be fine! It is also a piece of cake compared to other schools, which have different comprehensive exam rules. Sometimes, you sit in a room for hours, and your advisors grill you about basically any and every facet of music, oh, you know, from the dawn of civilization until the present. Who composed 'Viderunt Omnes' in the 12th century? Name all the instruments in the chamber music of Brahms! What does 'gesamtkunstverk' mean? What is a sawtooth wave? Provide a sample pedagogical approach to teaching augmented sixth chords! You won't know what they'll be asking you until you get there, so you basically study everything and everything. And then you feel awful about yourself at the expense of your superiors feeling really great about themselves. And then you can either pass, or fail. No grey area.

Thankfully here it is not like that. That prevents me from having a heart attack, and mostly the stress just causes some random anxiety (in which case I have a dance party in my room), or some random indigestion (in which case I go eat a TUMS and take deep breaths).

For me, I get to tailor a lot of my comprehensives to my own interests, which will hopefully help me later in my career. It's like a chance to further research topics of interest, and then write about them. I would have wanted to know about a lot of this information, so now I'm just forced to know it! Still, sometimes you don't have a choice of what your question will be. Sometimes you can get the questions in advance, and sometimes not. Sometimes it's open notes, sometimes all from memory; it's all up to your advisors.

I have five advisors, and each of them comes up with a question (or questions), and I choose one advisor's question(s) per day. I'm supposed to begin working in the library at 8am each morning, and then spew out information onto a computer for hours. I finish at 4pm (or before, if I'm out of thoughts), go home, and repeat four more times. 

Sometimes I hope that a higher power might be waiting to come to my aid and help me with technical questions to which I forget the answers. It feels a little like when I took the preliminary exams two years ago:


Some of my questions I'm researching are topics I already knew a little about: sound art, music and entrepreneurship, music and science/nature/architecture. Those topics I just need to research further, and feel confident I can make a lengthy statement about them in an intelligent way. And other questions are ones where I'm taking a little time each day to carve away at, 'cause I'm a little more clueless: music and dance forms, music in the middle ages and renaissance, oral and written traditions of music. The historical topics are the hardest for me; I'm hoping that my brain can remember timelines, names, facts, long enough to get them out on the computer and organize them into coherent thoughts.

Wish me luck. I've got a few more days to do a whole lot more note-taking. 

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