A few weeks ago, I traveled back up to Bloomington, Indiana to take my final Doctoral oral exam. This is the next-to-last step in completing my DM, in which I can use to teach music in a University, or become fry manager at Burger King (or, do a multitude of other things that I don’t need a DM to do).

Anyway, for those of you that still have oral exams to take, I thought I would recount my exam as best I could, so you might have some idea of what to expect.

The most distressing thing about this exam is simply the unknown factor. In short, you have no idea what you’re going to be asked. This is stressful. lol

The procedure for the exam is this:

1) You choose your committee – this is a panel of three professors of composition, and one, possible two of your minor field advisors. In my case, I had my music history minor field advisor as well as three composition profs – also the director of graduate studies sits in on every oral exam to observe.

2) You make your “repertoire list”. This is a list of 12 pieces of music that you come up with, but that has to adhere to certain guidelines, and ultimately has to be approved by everyone on your committee. Some of the guidelines include: 6 pieces are pre-20th century, 3 are 1900-1949, 3 are 1950-present. Also, the 6 pre-20th century pieces have to be in separate genres, and the 6 post-19th century also have to be in separate genres. Those are the big ones – then there are other factors, which any prof. may object to at any time, in which case you have to go back and revise your list (which I had to do like 4 times), until they all can agree and approve it. If you missed my earlier blog, my list came out to be :


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) – Missa Papae Marcelli (1555)
genre: choral

John Dowland (1563-1626) – Lachrimae Pavanes (1604)
genre: chamber music

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) – L’Orfeo (1607)
genre: opera

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050 (1721)
genre: concerto

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Symphony No. 7 in A Major (1813)
genre: symphony

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) – Piano Sonata in B Minor (1853)
genre: solo


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – Les Noces (1917)
genre: ballet

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) – String Quartet No. 4 (1928)
genre: chamber music

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999)- Concierto de Aranjuez (1939)
genre: concerto


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) – Death in Venice (1973)
genre: opera

Frederick Rzewski (b. 1938) – The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975)
genre: solo

Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) – La Pasión según San Marcos (2000)
genre: oratorio/choral
The purpose of creating this list is that you have something to actually study. However, you may or may not be asked anything about these pieces. During my exam, one professor didn’t ask me anything about any of these pieces, so, you just never know – hence, the unknown factor. But, all you can do is study these pieces, and anything that could be tangentially related, and hope for the best. I can say that I was asked nothing about the Palestrina, the Dowland, Bach, Beethoven, or Liszt.

4) You set a date to take the exam.

My date was April 27th at 3:30 in the afternoon. After study in March, and intensive study in April, the day finally came – I’ll try to generally recount the exam as best I can, but I’ll probably forget a few questions.

The exam was held in this conference room in the Graduate office. There was a long conference table in the middle of the room, and I was seated at the head of the table, with the various profs. seated on the sides. A very intimidating position to be in for sure. We all gathered in the room, and they told me to wait outside before we got started. They talked to each other (I’m guessing coordinating their questions) for about 5 minutes, then invited me back in.

As soon as I sat down, Comp. prof. #1 fired away. His first question was, “As if you were teaching a beginning composition student who was having trouble setting text – show examples using the Monteverdi, the Stravinsky, the Britten, and the Golijov of how these composers make music from words – show different techniques from each piece.”

After the main question is asked, it then kind of turns into a discussion of sorts – I start talking about examples from the pieces, and as I’m talking, my explanations could spark smaller questions from prof. #1, or even from any of the other profs sitting there. So, we actually talk about this question for about 15 minutes (they each get about 15-20 min each). Then, #1 pulled out the score to the Bartok and pointed to one natural harmonic in the cello, and asked, “What is the actual sounding pitch of this harmonic, and at what other location on the same string could it be fingered to produce the same pitch?” Sorry to all of you non-musicians out there that may be reading this – some of these questions are quite technical.

Prof. #2 started out with questions about the Rzewski. These were smaller, more direct questions than #1 asked – like, “Talk about the structure of the Rzewski – why are there 36 variations – does he use any extended piano techniques that also appear in any of the “Makrokosmos” of George Crumb, and what and where are they” – stuff like that. Then, he asked similar questions about the Rodrigo – short, pointed, very specific questions. He then asked a somewhat tangentially related question, which was “Name 5 American guitar concertos written in the last 25 years”.

Prof. #3 asked nothing about any of the pieces on the list. The first thing he did was to put a sheet of blank staff paper in front of me, and said “please notate a nota cambiata”. Now, it’s been 7 years since I took 16th century counterpoint – I sort of remembered how a cambiata worked, but I was taking too long to figure it out, so he drew four ancient symbols (14th century) that indicated time (like a time signature) and asked me to indicate the modern time signature equivalents for them. Luckily, I knew this one and answered it no problem. Then he asked “Name three compositional techniques strongly associated with three LIVING composers that live outside of the United States”. This one is pretty tough – I named lots of composers, but most of them either weren’t original proponents of that technique, or they did that technique, but also did other things. I ended up getting two that were “acceptable” answers, and I guess that was good enough.

Now it was my Music History minor field adviser’s turn. He is not a composer, but a musicologist (a music historian) with a special focus in early baroque music – especially the music of Monteverdi. He pulled out about 5 pages of score from Orfeo (which was the central aria sung by Orfeo “Possente Spirito”) and asked me LOTS of detailed questions about the score excerpt, what was going on at this time in the opera, about the instrumentation, performance practices, etc. He was very nice about it – a couple of times I got obviously stuck, and whenever this happened he would very kindly start to guide me toward the answer he wanted. After that, he pulled a page from the libretto of the Britten opera, and asked me more detailed questions about the section of libretto I was looking at, and about the opera at that point.

All this questioning took about an hour and 20 minutes. After, they told me to wait outside while they deliberated. There is no grade for this test, you simply pass it, or fail it. I waited outside for about 10 minutes – it was about the longest 10 minutes of my life.

They invited me back in, and congratulated me for passing. That was it – no talk about how I did or anything like that – just a handshake and a congratulations from each of them.

Now, I have one more thing left to do – to write my dissertation piece. I’m sure I’ll blog about that soon. I’m just glad the orals are over – the diss will be cake compared.