to dma or not to dma? (#3)

Source: PHD Comics

To DMA or not to DMA? In response to my own uncertainties about the future after I finish up my master’s, I wanted to start a series where I ask my older, wiser, cooler friends about their experiences with and opinions on the DMA. And then publish these responses in hopes that they will help others asking the same question. To read previous installments, click here!

This week’s installment is contributed by my good friend Tom Lee:

Thomas Lee, piano, fourth-year doctoral candidate:

What do you like about being in a DMA program?

A lot of student musicians considering a DMA are concerned about being in school for so long.  After all, 4 yrs of BM + 2 years of MM + 3-4 years of DMA = almost 10 years of music school!  That’s a lot.  I get it.   But I firmly believe that we are all life-long students of our instruments — we can and always should aim to continually refine our craft — and while a DMA is not the only way to do it, it certainly is a good way to keep pushing and bettering yourself as a musician with the benefit of a teacher’s guidance. I have four more programs of music in my repertoire than I did before I started, and I’m a better pianist and musician for it.  These are four programs that I’m not sure I would have pushed myself to learn and refine to a high level had I stopped my education at a Master’s.

What don’t you like about being in a DMA program?

A major drawback is the financial one:  while getting full or near full-funding for a DMA is much more common than for an MM or BM, not everyone is fortunate enough to get it.   Piling on 3-4 years more of higher-ed tuition on top of what it took to fund your previous degrees is a large financial burden, of course –especially when the degree does not necessarily translate to a higher future earning potential in an obvious manner.  And even for students who are fortunate and receive good funding,  your delayed entrance into the workforce becomes more and more pronounced.  Just look through all your high school and college friends on Facebook, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Remember your peers in high school and college who were were as capable and intelligent as you — they are now out in the workforce as doctors and lawyers, techies, consultants, and financial analysts.  Meanwhile you’re still spending all your time practicing piano instead of making a living.  Even as we are grateful to be musicians and embarked on this journey knowing that earning a high salary is not primarily what we are after, the stark contrast between a musician’s path and everybody else’s becomes that much greater when you are still in school and have yet to embark on your professional life in your late 20’s.

Would you recommend a gap year between the master’s degree and DMA?

It depends.  If you did not have a gap year between your BM and MM, then I would highly encourage you to consider a gap year.  Having that one year off from music school can really place things in perspective.

I myself took a year between my BM and MM, so when it came time for me to decide about a DMA,  I did not feel that I could take another year off.  In hindsight, though, that was probably an unnecessary restriction I put on myself.  Since this is your final degree, the whole process deserves a lot of consideration and preparation.  For one, the top schools really expect near perfect auditions,  and the most competitive schools reject a majority of even their current MM students applying “internally” for DMA entrance.  My undergrad teacher once told me that at an undergrad audition, the faculty are generally looking for potential, while at a DMA level, they are looking for “realized potential” (presumably, the MM level would be somewhere in between).  This is a generalization of course, but there is a lot of truth in that expectation — that by the time you are a studying for your DMA, you really have your act together and that you are maturing into an independent artist.  So my advice is to avoid rushing into a DMA audition unless you really know what you want.  A significant number of people audition for DMA programs twice, (and sometimes  even three years in a row) to get into a competitive program.  Remember that the MM is a short, 2-year degree.  You probably learned a lot as a player during that time, and some of those new concepts might need more time to settle into your playing than the year and half or so that you have between the start of your MM and DMA audition season, should you choose to head right into one.

For others who clearly know what they want and are well prepared, heading straight into a DMA program can be a good way to keep your momentum going and your focus intense.  In either case, research carefully about the differences in each program.  BM programs are pretty standardized throughout the country,  and while MM programs can vary they are generally two-year degrees.  DMA programs, however, differ DRASTICALLY.  See if you can find a degree-requirement sheet posted on the school’s website, or request it from the admissions department. Some programs require only 2-3 recitals.  The average is probably 4-5 recitals.  At the upper end of that spectrum, Indiana University requires 7-8 recitals in the piano department.    What is the dissertation requirement?  Is a full-length dissertation required?  or a doctoral “document” or “essay” (if the word “dissertation” is not used, it usually entails a paper that is not as long as full-fledged dissertation).   Or perhaps, no paper is required at all?  What about the doctoral exams?  Are they “comprehensive”? Some schools require their “Doctors” to know EVERYTHING about EVERY TOPIC in Western music.  Remember when you had trouble answering that multiple choice question about the Franconian Motet in your MM history diagnostic or entrance exam?  Well, you might now have to be prepared to discuss it in detail on your “COMPS” as well as Steve Reich’s compositional output in the 1960s.  Almost all schools will require some kind of general exam to qualify you to be “doctoral candidate,” but if a schools’ exams aren’t comprehensive, then you are likely to have a greater control over the subject matter of your exams so they are narrower in  scope and pertain more to your specific field.

Do you feel that people who only want to teach piano don’t need to invest the time and money that a DMA requires?

I’m assuming that this question refers to private teaching (since a DMA is required for most college-level teaching jobs nowadays).  This depends on what kind of private teacher you want to be.  Sure, teaching beginners is more about having a lot of experience and pedagogical knowledge, especially about dealing with children.   If you don’t want to be competition-type teacher, then perhaps further refining your interpretive insights on the Beethoven sonatas under the guidance of a great artist-teacher will not do much for your teaching career.  Your DMA degree will probably not help you coax your 6-year old into counting those rhythms, reading the right notes, or playing with some sort of recognizable dynamic shape. However, if you want to be a high-level, competition teacher in the long term — one who is able to teach a child from a young age until the graduate from high school, and even prepare students for conservatory auditions when necessary, then I think you will surely appreciate the insight you gained from learning and performing Beethoven Op. 111 and the Brahms 2nd Concerto during your DMA years.  The more repertoire you have studied and performed, and the more insight you have acquired from your various teachers from various vantage points, the greater pool of “musical wisdom” you will be able to draw upon when you are teaching advanced repertoire.  I feel I have much more to offer when I teach advanced repertoire today then I did 4 years ago when I first began my DMA.  Again, we can all become more “musically wise” with or without a DMA — if you don’t get one, just remember to keep yourself as artistically engaged as possibly and constantly strive to improve.  Like I said in the beginning — we are all lifelong students of our instruments, so always keep learning!


Tom is not only a great solo performer but an experienced and generous teacher, and his firsthand familiarity with a diverse range of schools around the country has made him one of my go-to unofficial advisers when making choices about schools and degrees. Thanks, Tom!

What are your thoughts on the DMA? Are there any other questions you would like to see answered as the series continues?

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