Monday, August 28, 2006

Qualifying exams

A combination of Chad Orzel's post and my own colleague who is studying for her oral exams has brought me down memory lane. It is also an interesting tie-in to the musical autobiographies my FYS students wrote this weekend.

At Eastman, music theorists take two sets of exams. First, we take the qualifying exam for DMA candidates as a pre-qualifying exam. In fact, we sit with the DMA candidates, in my case all crammmed together in the lounge of the Residence Center. This is a two-day affair, divided into four sections. First, some theory questions, usually very easy for a theory major. Next, music history questions and an essay on music history (mine was on nationalism in the 19th century). That is the first day. On the second day, the morning is spent on score identification. We are given scores with the titles and composers' names removed. We then have to identify the composer, genre, etc; justifying our guesses. Last is an analysis of some piece, written as an essay. This exam is usually taken during the last year of coursework. Note that this is a general test, with no assumptions of specific classes preparing us for the exam.

Assuming this exam is passed, the real qualifying test is taken some time later, no sooner than six months later. I took my pre-qualifying exams in March, spent the summer studying, and took my qualifying exams in October. The theory qualifying exams are three days long, spread over a week. On Monday, any question about the history of music theory is fair game. It could be something about Aristoxenus, Boethius, Mersenne, or Hauptmann. It could also be questions about contemporary music theory, from neo-Riemannian transformations to Schenkerian theory to derivatives of set theory. The morning was devoted to terms that had to be defined. They were often in German, Italian, French, or Latin, with some ancient Greek for fun (topoi stands out in my memory). The afternoon gave us a series of essays to write. This was the weeding exam, the one that most people failed. On Wednesday, a tonal piece of music was delivered, to be analyzed as thoroughly as possible. At the end of the day I turned in a ten-page analysis of a Chopin etude (one of his posthumous ones), with accompanying Schenker graphs and a form diagram.

Starting the year that I entered Eastman's program, the music theory department created three tracks for the graduate students to pursue. The hopes were that this would streamline the process towards graduation. There were students there who were in their 10th or 13th year of graduate school, still writing their dissertations or even still studying for qualifying exams! The most popular track was Analysis. The second track was History of Theory, and the third was Cognition. (One additional track was Self-designed.) The recommended coursework was slightly different for these tracks, but most important was the third day of qualifying exams. Analysis track students tackled an atonal piece, writing an essay much like the second day of exams. But for my track, Cognition, the third day was devoted to a new set of essay questions specific to the field of music cognition. I wrote an annotated bibliography of the major books on the subject, defined some terms, and wrote two essays detailing current research (at the time) in absolute pitch and timbre.

I speak of the tracks in past tense, as they are now extinct. Almost all students went in the Analysis track, except for a very few Cognition people like me and a very few self-designed tracks.

Assuming one passed these exams, the oral exam was scheduled for a month later. I took mine at the end of November. The oral exam committee was a different committee than that which wrote and graded the qualifying exams. It was designed specifically for each student, with three theorists and one musicologist on each committee. (Maybe it was an outside member, not specifically musicology. I can't remember.) My committee asked me some questions related to the written exams, but mostly stuck with new material. It was still a free-for-all, with questions flying from all subjects within music. I was asked to sketch a computer program in C++ that would create a serial matrix. I answered more cognition questions, analysis questions, and history questions. This lasted for 1.5 hours, with almost immediate feedback that I had passed. The previous exams took two weeks for notification.

I was fortunate to pass all of my exams on the first try. Ironically, it was the pre-qualifying exam that I came closest to failing. Many of my friends failed at least part of the qualifying exams, or the foreign language exam (taken in the first year). Failure requires retaking the exam (with different questions) before the next stage can be attempted. I studied very hard for the written exams, studying as a group with the three other students who were scheduled to sit at the same time. One ended up dropping the program, and the other two postponed their exams to the spring. I do not suffer from test anxiety. In fact, I usually get a performance rush from tests. Sick, I know. Besides my three colleagues, I also benefited from a huge stack of notes that older students had compiled over the years. Previous exam questions, huge glossaries, and summaries of a wide variety of fields, articles, and books. I passed these notes, made larger by my additions, on to my colleague as she studied for her exams. And I understand that copies are floating around the halls of Indiana Unversity's Simon School of Music, aiding future exam survivors. May your will be strong, and your questions easy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate to get my graduate degrees in a much smaller institution, in which the faculty had the luxury to design exams individually. At my school, the PhD qualifying exam, at the end of the course work, consisted of a question from each of the three committee members. We were given ten days to answer the questions, all research materials were available, and the form of the answer was, in general, free. At the end of the week, the committee had several days to review the answers, and then an oral examination, in essence a defense of the exam, was held with the entire committee. In my case, the committee consisted of a theorist, a composer, and an ethmomusicologist, but predicting the nature of the question would have been impossible. Rather than write three entirely separate essays, I set myself the challenge of trying to connect the three topics; I don't know how convincingly I was able to do that, but the committee seemed to have appreciated the extra creative effort.