Monday, November 09, 2015

Deciding on a doctorate in Musicology or Ethnomusicology

Deciding on a doctorate in Musicology or Ethnomusicology

Disclaimer: the following represents one senior professor’s perspectives and ideas, which are inevitably based in my own individual and subjective observation and experience. Your experience will be different from mine. But here are things that I say to candidates and my own supervisees, so perhaps they will be useful.

Studying music, and specifically music history and music culture, is one of the great intellectual pleasures I know. To understand what sounds other people in other times and places have believed to be beautiful, powerful, and personal is endlessly fascinating, enriching, and enlivening: it forges connections, enhances insight, and helps give meaning to human consciousness. The opportunity to participate in these practices—sharing what sounds and practices we find powerful and engaging—with  like-minded mentors and colleagues is likewise a fantastic experience of community. There are a lot of ways to do this, but one particularly intensive way is to study or teach musicology or ethnomusicology (or both!) in a university setting.

Most typically, these are disciplines which most college music students discover during their undergraduate days: this is why there comparatively few programs offering an undergraduate degree in musicology or ethnomusicology—because it would be a rare high school that would put these disciplines on your radar before high school graduation.

Instead, along about the end of the sophomore or beginning of the junior—seldom before then, not infrequently afterward—you the undergraduate run across a professor whose job appears to be reading, writing, speaking, and thinking about the particular details of musical moments, and their meaning to the people participating, and that is attractive to you. You realize that you particularly like the idea of a life, and maybe a graduate degree, that emphasizes these same activities.

This is an appropriate and positive motivation: if learning, reading, writing, speaking, and thinking about musical behavior in specific contexts—across distances of time, geography, and experience—is attractive to you as a life-long activity, then you absolutely should consider the possibility of graduate work in ethnomusicology or musicology.

For such persons, these are endlessly rewarding, engaging, and energizing realms of activity. They don’t pay terribly well, the job market is very challenging, and professors are not particularly respected in certain segments of our public culture—but a life revolving around studying music, the mind, and the fascinating diversity of human contexts and behaviors is nevertheless a very rich one.

On the other hand, there is that pesky necessity to make a living. One way to do that is with an academic teaching job. Yet it’s a costly path (in hours and dollars) and its job market is contracting.

To “flip” the question: it’s important to remember that you can have an entire life revolving around music, the mind, and human behavior without ever taking a graduate music degree: you can play, sing, dance, teach, engage, share, study, practice, learn, write, and perform without ever earning a music degree at all. Neither scholarship, insight, nor virtuosity exists only within music university programs.

So perhaps the question should be, rather, “why would you seek a graduate degree—especially a doctorate—in musicology or ethnomusicology?” What unique doors does such a degree open to you?

The classic answer to this—the one that professors of ethno-/musicology typically provide undergrad students inquiring about graduate work—is “so that you can teach in a university setting.” And that is a good and truthful answer: at this point in the 21st century, in order to have decent odds of winning a university gig teaching ethno-/musicology, you are pretty much required to hold a “terminal degree” (apt name!) in the discipline[s].

This is not because “only PhD’s” have anything of value to offer—especially in the worlds of music, where we recognize the value of life experience, career, physical and technical virtuosity, and so forth, in addition to formal advanced degrees. Rather, the PhD is a standard expectation because the job-search/-hiring process is so competitive, because there are so many on-paper-qualified candidates for each tenure-track post, that search committees charged with finding the “best” candidate tend to employ certain rather crude rules of thumb to winnow down the stack of applications.

And one of the very first divisions is between the stack marked (A) “PhD in hand” versus (B) “ABD (“All But Dissertation” completed) or “PhD anticipated on X [future] date.” There may be fantastic, brilliant, qualified folks in the (B) stack, but the unique and valuable nature of their potential to contribute may never be known simply because the search committee, pressed for time, may consign their applications, virtually unread, to the (B) stack.

Of course there are fantastic advantages to a tenure-track university gig.  You can read, write, think, speak, and teach about music that you love and believe in. Sure, there are challenges: committee-work, paperwork, and long hours for example: not just the classroom time and the office hours, but all that grading, and the additional pressure to produce your own scholarship on nights, weekends, and holidays.

There’s the frustration of dealing with large and slow-moving bureaucracy—even the challenge of working with students some of whom aren’t quite mature or responsible yet. But, if (and this is important) you love to teach, then being a tenure-track professor of ethno-/musicology is a fantastically rewarding life.

But it’s a difficult gig to get. There are far more qualified candidates than there are posts—simply because there are many more people who love studying ethno-/musicology in graduate school than there are jobs for professors of ethno-/musicology.

It’s at this point that the distinction between graduate degrees—between a Master’s in Ethno-/Musicology, on one hand, and a PhD, on the other—becomes very, very important. A Master’s degree, in most programs, is a relatively modest investment of time, effort, and cost: two years, or possibly 5 long semesters, or (in very extreme cases) three years; required and elective coursework, a modest Master’s thesis of perhaps 100-120 pages; a research language; an exit exam.

These are goals and a scope which are sustainable and achievable within, say 24-30 months of your life. And, for that brand-new Master’s candidate who’s just “discovered” ethno-/musicology in the sophomore or junior year of undergrad, the Master’s program is an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the discipline’s topics, requirements, life-style, obligations, ways of thinking and writing, and thereby sussing-out if they’re right for you—if it’s a way you might like to spend your career.

Most important among all of these familiarizations is teaching: the experience of being in the class and leading the intellectual process for a roomful of undergraduates. It is very, very important that you seek that experience every way you can get it: by serving as a Student, Graduate, or Teaching Assistant; by paying attention and working hard in whatever Pedagogy seminars are available; by consciously and critically observing your own professors’ teaching methods and thinking about which might be valuable additions to your own repertoire; by seeking out opportunities to observe other professors, even outside your discipline, in their own teaching situations.

The job of a college professor is to teach. Yes, there are “research,” “creative activity,” and (ugh!) “service” duties you must meet—but teaching is the bread-and-butter. It’s why you have the job. It’s why you must seek every opportunity to grow toward mastery in the art form. And—very importantly—it’s why you must ask yourself whether a lifetime (it can seem) in the classroom feels as if it would be a good life: a life well spent. If you love to teach, if you love taking the thinking, reading, writing, listening, and speaking you do about music and sharing it with others, then a university ethno-/musicology post can be a wonderful life.

But it’s a hard gig to get, and the competition is fierce. If you don’t like those odds, and especially if you are less-than-certain that you would love to spend your life teaching, then you should definitely think twice before committing to a PhD program. A doctorate in ethno-/musicology is essential in order to be a tenure-track professor in a university setting. But that is not the only way to have a life engaging in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, learning, and teaching about music; it’s one way. And if you think you might not want to take on an additional three or more years of effort and financial debt, if you think you might not be drawn to the long hours and fairly heavy responsibilities of classroom teaching and bureaucratic busy work, you might not want the pressure of “publish or perish,” then a university tenure-track gig is not right for you. There is no dishonor in recognizing such things—to the contrary, it is wise and mature to assess what you want out of your life in music, and how badly you want it.

If you conclude that perhaps the life/life-style of a university music professor, or the cost and effort it takes to get there, then you really don’t “need” to earn a PhD in music academics. Of course you can do that anyway even so—being a student of music, especially at the high levels of discourse and engagement in Master’s and doctoral program, is a wonderful and rewarding way to spend your time. And a Master’s program is an excellent investment (24 months, 30 credit hours) in finding out if the life is right for you.

Yet a Master’s program is also an excellent foundation for a host of other career/degree paths. Many Master’s musicology students continue in PhD programs in the discipline. But others continue in PhD programs in parallel or related fields: Arts Administration, for example, or library science or museum specializations. Others proceed to certificate or professional-training programs.

Still other folks use the Master’s degree experience as a jump-start to a related career in the arts. There are Master’s musicology degree holders in public radio and television, journalism, arts advocacy, concert production, artist management, community arts entrepreneurship, and so on. Still other Master’s degree holders continue as educators, but in public schools or community colleges. All of these and related fields are available to you as a Master’s degree holder.

Effectively speaking: you should pursue a PhD in Ethno-/Musicology if you want a tenure-track university teaching gig. There are fewer and fewer gigs that fit this bill, but if it’s right for you, and you’re OK with the jobs-versus-candidates ratio, the job placement rate, and the cost (in time and dollars)-versus-benefits ratio, you should absolutely consider continuing to the doctorate. Those are the very best reasons.

In sum: the Master’s degree is (can be) when you find out if the job expectations & the life-style of the university ethno-/musicology professor might be right for you. If you find out they are, go for that PhD program. If you find out—or even just suspect—that they are not, then remember and feel empowered by the awareness that there are other, parallel career paths that are of great value and allow great personal satisfaction and validation.

Do what is right for you.

Good luck!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Monday, December 15, 2014

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Why we lose our minds in April

Thought this might be an interesting "from the Trenches" post, especially in light of the fact that, at music conservatories, everyone loses their minds in April (deadlines, recitals, defenses, etc). I post analogous "Further to today's class" after EVERY meeting of every class.

This is *why* we all lose our minds:


Mostly good work today.

Note "The Gap" [e.g., between those doing excellent work, and those not]. And if you're on the wrong side of it, what do you need to do to address that problem?

Background paper is due on April 7. DO NOT FAIL to follow the templates; if you do, you will lose points.

Final paper will be due April 25 (Friday). NOTE that this is a full 4 days later than the syllabus calls for--so make best use of that time!

We will attempt (but cannot guarantee) to have them graded and ready to return to you by April 28. If your paper is on-time, complete, and receives a passing grade, you will have the option of either accepting that grade, or revising for CONSIDERATION OF re-grading. Late, incomplete, or non-passing papers do not receive this option.

I propose Exam #2 for April 16--two weeks from today. Will distribute Review Sheet 1 week in advance.

Slideshow is up. Contains added slides, and links. Pay particular attention to the linked videos--remember that they are fair game for testing.

Ms X [TA] will release LQ#3 grades this afternoon. Likelihood is that LQ#4 will occur Wed Apr 23. Playlists for Chap 32ff being populated now.

Hang in there. Do good work.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

Holding back the tide in a late-stage Empire

As a middle-aged, middle-class, relatively privileged (white, educated, male, heterosexual, tenured) college professor, engaged in teaching music, cultural history, and critical thinking, in a late-stage Empire whose particular addictions--specifically to leisure, material possessions, and the cheap energy which fossil fuels make possible--is rapidly destroying both subaltern societies and the planet's own ecosystem, I sometimes imagine I know what it must have felt like to be a lector or ludus literatus in one of the frontier provinces of late-stage Rome: Valentia (Wales and NW England), say, or Brittaniae (Cornwall). In such a biography, you're a very long way from the centers of power, you can feel and observe (as someone trained and teaching historical consciousness and a degree of cultural analysis) the way in which the larger society, the vast superstructure of privilege, is creaking, groaning, and breaking down. And you can observe, and experience considerable frustration regarding, the psychotic short-term greed and lust for power which leads those at the top of the economic ladder to enact ever more radical, repressive, and short-sighted activities to try to maintain control and keep the addiction fed: clear-cutting Britain to build ships, hiring barbarian mercenaries to protect the homeland, steadily hollowing-out the middle class in order to enrich the oligarchs behind the politicians, creating Praetorian guards of private contractors to guard them, squirreling away their wealth in private troves or in vast estates remote from the centers of conflict.

In a late-stage Empire, there is no middle class, there is no democracy, there is no historical vision, there is no investment in future generations or future resources--human, natural, financial. There is only the ever-accelerating drive to maintain the status quo of the wealthy, and to hold at bay, just under the surface of consciousness, the panic they feel in the very clear, but repressed realization that all the wealth, power, privilege, impunity are going to go away even so.

In such a world, what would you, as a humble teacher, civil servant, carpenter, farmer, do, knowing that the powerful have no ears and no interest for any understandings except their own? What would you tell your kids, as you look at the disintegrating world you are bequeathing to them? What would you tell your students, as you try to impart the modest skills and insight you've spent a lifetime developing to hold back the tide of collapse? It's an enterprise doomed to failure, after all: the oligarchs will behave more and more flagrantly, greedily, and destructively; the subaltern communities will more and more be goaded to attack one another; the middle class will continue to disappear; the poor servant class will expand geometrically even as their standard of living plunges; the planet will continue to degrade. And there is nothing, nothing, (or almost) nothing you can do about it.

What would you do? Well, in your small distant corner of the world, very far from the centers of power, with nearly no voice and absolutely no influence in the public discourse of the day, you might just keep doing what you do: trying to directly impact those around you in positive ways; imparting the skills of critical reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking that help young people learn how to cope with changing, unknown, fluid, challenging problems requiring new and unique solutions; laying down in safekeeping, like bottles of wine in a cellar, the stocks of wisdom, history, literature, art, music, science, healing, that might otherwise be destroyed like the Library of Alexandria, and you might try to look forward, past peak oil or wealth, past societal breakdown and the fall of the oligarchs, past the destruction of the imperial Cities and their way of life, past the ensuing Dark Ages... a time when, possibly from the far distant provinces which were least touched by the Empire and soonest abandoned, a few peregrini, a few wandering travelers and scholars, might return toward the center, and begin to rebuild. The new society upon the ruins of the old. 

Because what else is there to do? Despair may be inevitable--but it is also irrelevant.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Dem Boyz (on the 50th anniversary of the Sullivan shows)

-Can you give me a little background on the performance itself?

Sullivan had seen the reception to the Beatles' by local London fans while at Heathrow airport in 1963 and, with the remarkable instincts of a veteran vaudevillian and talent booker, had recognized that such an intense fan reaction might actually translate from the very different English to American audiences. In the event, he was proved right.

-Why was this appearance so important?

The timing was extraordinarily good: John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas in Nov '63, an event which was both massively traumatic and also massively publicized (including the notorious on-camera murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby). At the same time, after a remarkable apotheosis of American-born rock & roll acts between about 1954 and 1959--Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and many "crossover" black artists--American pop music had to an extent entered a fallow period: Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard had (temporarily) gone back to work, Buddy & Richie Valens had been killed, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had legal or tax problems (or both). At the same time, while this "media space" was opening up, remarkable things were happening in England with overseas transformations of American blues and R&B.

-How did this performance, or the Beatles in general, change American culture?

That's a huge question, and really impossible to answer. The Beatles represented a response to the "Baby Boom"--the post WWII boom in births and, by the early '60s, an entirely new social and marketing class called "teenagers." At the same time, they were a remarkably talented group of individuals--3 incredibly strong songwriters (John, Paul, George), 3 incredibly talented instrumentalists (Ringo, George, and Paul)--and they were remarkably self-contained. They had both the musical talent and imagination and the social/media skills--much of it innate, or learned on the tough stages of the English provinces and the north German nightclubs--to be able to respond to a worldwide media meltdown, with themselves at the eye of the storm, and still be able to respond quickly, comedically, and very, very cannily. They were a remarkable unit.

-How did the Beatles change music?

Well, they took the lessons of many American roots musics, from country, R&B, and blues; to '50s rock 'n' roll; to various Latin pop styles (cha-cha-cha, tango, beguine); elements of big-band music; the choral singing tradition of English Anglicanism, and English folk's modal scales. They wrote all their own music (and John, Paul, and George were all flat-out genius songwriters). They had worked out a way to be remarkably self-contained, both creatively (as songwriters, singers, and instrumentalists) and also financially (Brian Jones, before his accidental death, had charted the course of their success, and its careful, sequential steps) with masterful precision. They managed an oppositional stance to social norms and political conservatism with the same sardonic, parodic, and cocky sense of humor that comedy groups like the Goons and later Monty Python used to such devastating effect. They were remarkably courageous as artists--they constantly tried new things. All of these tendencies drastically "upped the bar" for what a pop group could seek and could accomplish.

-Have you seen the performance, either the first viewing, or a recording? What are your thoughts about it?

I didn't see the performance on first viewing--I was a toddler, but my family weren't particularly television watchers--but as a scholar of American music, of course I've watched recordings. I have very complex reactions, as I suspect do many who loved the group. First of all, they all seem so *young* (younger every time I watch it, as I age). The screaming teens seem like a time capsule--we would never be that charmingly naive or "over the top" in our adulation of pop stars again. But what I take away every time I watch *any* live performance recording of the Beatles--or for that matter, studio footage as well--from the 1964 Ed Sullivan appearances to the last performances on the rooftop of Apple Records in January of 1969--was what astonishing, unique, mutually compatible musicians they were. From the clubs of Hamburg or Liverpool, playing marathon 4- and 5-hour gigs with dancers tumbling into the bandstand, to live performances on Sullivan, to Shea Stadium with a tiny little Shure Vocalmaster PA in the face of 50,000 fans, to that last, elegiac performance on the rooftop at Apple, they were four of the 20th century's greatest pop musicians. And surely, surely, one of the century's greatest, most brilliant, most courageous, most influential musical ensembles.

That's what I've got.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Quick hit: the Irish Triads, and, what it takes to be an "---ologist"

Just less than no time to comment upon this here--second-last week of the semester, and when we return from Thanksgiving break we have literally THREE days of classes only, and on the Tues-Thurs schedule only ONE meeting, but here's one I've previously been struggling to articulate yet which I need to capture:

In pre-Christian Irish oral poetry, an incredibly rich and virtuosic tradition which expected the filidh to memorize hundreds of poems and literally dozens of secret/esoteric languages and poetic schema, a classic formulation was to remember like metaphors or mnemonics in groups of three: e.g., "the three villains of Ireland," or "the three symbols of dischord", etc. My current fave is: "The three folk in horrid hell of great blasts: folk who practise poetry, folk who violate their orders, mercenaries."*

Have been struggling recently to capture in words element(s) which I can articulate as essential in the development of a music scholar. One of the more challenging and fraught situations we face as professors in the Fine Arts & Humanities is figuring out how to advise students who may, or may not, have the particular combination of attributes and aptitudes to "succeed", by whatever metric, in this family of professions: "folklorist," "archivist," "ethnomusicologist," "musicologist," et al.

Not to say that there is only a single path: I have had the great fortune to have, as friends and as mentees, folks who've found a lot of different ways to thread the needle, and to parlay an interest in culture, research, critical thinking, and teaching into a survivable profession and a happy life. I continue to learn, from these colleagues, friends, and former students, all the different ways it is possible to survive and thrive in this thing of ours ("cosa nostra").

But one thing I think I have finally captured, and it separates the research scholars, or the potential research scholars, from those who could be equally successful as teachers, museum designers, radio programmers, journalists, and so on. And it gets back to what I've come to perceive as a "Professors' Triad": the "three things that make a scholar".

Nota bene: the presence of 1 or 2 of these attributes, rather than the full complement of three, should in no way be seen as perjorative: if anything, having 1 or 2 of them, and a range of other life-skills perhaps less directly related to research scholarship, may very well make for a happier, better remunerated, or mentally easier life!

But I think I believe that someone who is to survive and thrive as a research scholar needs all three of these attributes--or to develop a reasonable facsimile of them:

(1) A zest for the actual factual record and the stamina and stick-to-it-ivity to find out that record, whether obtained readily or reluctantly, and whether it manifests a clear & straightforward or a convoluted and sticky narrative. This is the craft of the researcher;

(2) The ability, or the desire to develop the ability, to articulate the narratives and factual chronologies that emerge from the record, in engaging, intriguing, and relatively undistorted fashion. You need to know the facts, and then you need the ability and the desire to be able to articulate those facts in language others can grok. This is the craft of the teacher;

(3) The ability to derive insights from the facts and their narrative. It is not enough, for a research scholar, to know what happened and have engaging ways of conveying what happened. To be an actual research scholar, to be an "ethnomusic-ologist" or a "music-ologist" or something of their ilk, you must be able to perceive patterns others have not. This is how you make an "original contribution to the scholarship": you have to be able to see things, and reasons and causes for things, that others have missed. One metric for this is that, in true and truly effective research scholarship, either you or your audience (readers)--or both, will say "My god, that's so obvious; how come no one ever saw that before?" The effective scholar will have these "eureka" moments, and will then be able to deploy (1) facts and (2) language to convey those new, potentially paradigm-shifting insights, in a fashion that is persuasive.

This is the craft of the scholar.

You can be the most meticulous investigator in the world, or the the most facile and articulate writer, or both, but in the absence of #3--the ability to see new patterns and then to articulate them in a fashion that accords with the factual evidence--you are, actually, probably not cut out to be a research scholar. A teacher, archivist, journalist, arts advocate, radio producer, etc may be a better, more viable--and probably better-rewarded!--path.

Still thinking about this. But the above (entirely unedited) rings true.

*Interestingly, the great 20th century satirist (and satiric poet) Flann O'Brien parodied the Triads in his masterpiece At Swim-Two Birds, a comic version of the po-faced and earnest mock-myths of the "Celtic Twilight/Irish Literary Renaissance".