Today, I started the first day of my Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In a very real sense, it's my last "first day of school" starting a new degree program and knowing next to nothing about the way the school works—but it's also the last time I'll be able to experience that learning process about the school and its courses as a student. The next time I'll be a stranger to a school will almost certainly be coming in as a prospective instructor—and that is certainly weird to think about.
During my undergraduate time at Augustana College, my main focus was piano. I didn't really think about what other options I could pursue as a musician. I was in composition lessons to be sure, but it never crossed my mind that I could be a professional composer. I wasn't even thinking about any kind of doctorate, and only tangentially thinking about any kind of graduate degree. I only started thinking about that kind of path from a rather strange source: a theory assignment on a short Bartók piano piece.
The assignment was our first foray into set classes: basically, the concept that pitches can be grouped into small collections that had distinct features and relationships, and composers can then build entire pieces using one or two set classes. Our task was to analyze the piece and distill the pitches into set classes, and then describe what set classes were present where. As you can see, my assignment ended up with a huge table of data, which, while highly detailed, may not be the best way to describe music!
I had put in quite a bit of work to get every pitch described in my table (some of the relationships can be hard to find), so I expected to do well on the assignment. What I definitely did NOT expect was a note from my instructor, Dr. Randall Hall, commenting that since I seemed to enjoy the work, maybe I should consider pursuing a PhD in Music Theory (and a DMA in Performance...I miss performing, but not as much as I enjoy having a life outside the practice room!).
I honestly don't remember what my reaction to that was, besides being surprised and stunned. That possibility of getting a doctorate just wasn't a thought in my head, and to have a professor recommend that it very well might be something to seriously consider was truly inspiring. Now I'm here, working on what one might call "applied theory," and I'm just so excited to learn, write, and perform at Illinois over the next few years! Thank you Dr. Hall for the inspiration all these years later!