Well, ladies and gentlemen, I've passed my comps!

Hello, horizon! (John Bauer) Not sure if the Comps are the geese flying into the distance, the horse I'm riding, or the body-sized sword slung to my side!

Hello, horizon! (John Bauer) Not sure if the Comps are the geese flying into the distance, the horse I'm riding, or the body-sized sword slung to my side!

For those of you who don't know what this means, let me elaborate. "Comps" or "comprehensive examinations" (alternatively known as "compies", "the Thirteenth Labor", "cromps", or "the Grinding Ice of Helcaraxë") are a series of capstone tests in which the doctoral candidate demonstrates a level of mastery over their academic subject. I had been studying for this event for almost a year, refreshing my general music history knowledge, paying particular attention to five specialty topics for which I would need to have deep historical and scholarly knowledge: Counter-Reformation, French Opera (Lully to Revolution), Nineteenth-Century Character Pieces, Soviet Music (Revolution to Death of Stalin), and Genre. My comps were administered over the course of four days: I spent two days writing lengthy and detailed essays on my specialty topics (A Questions) and on general music history (B Questions); a third day was devoted to score identification where I had to use sheet music excerpts to make inferences on mystery pieces' style and history; and the last day, scheduled for the week after, consisted of an oral examination with my committee of three musicologists. All in all, about 19 hours worth of comptastic excitement!

Of course, every discipline and every institution has different methods for measuring and assessing said mastery, but once passed, the candidate is declared ABD, that is, a PhD in "All But Dissertation". It's a big deal. Having emerged victorious from this ordeal here are some thoughts on the process. Hopefully they may prove helpful, not just for those of us whose comps are yet on the horizon, but for anyone considering doing something intimidating, complicated, and absolutely worthwhile.

  • Seek Out Guidance and Support

The challenge I faced in comps not only concerned needing to establish the scope of my project early on, but to continually assess the project as it threatened to overflow its boundaries. Any progress I made inevitably expanded my horizons, a sensation simultaneously thrilling as it showed me exciting new paths yet to take, and mortifying as it emphasized how much further I had yet to go. The only way for me not to be derailed by the details or overwhelmed by the big picture was to seek out people who could guide and support me. Doing so requires admitting your confusion, fears, and limitations, a difficult exercise that turns an academic requirement into a stretching opportunity to mature on a variety of levels.


  • Be Careful Who You Talk To

Just as important as opening oneself up to others for help is the need to guard against negativity. With my mental constitution pushed to its absolute limit there were enough negative voices in my own head without adding outside influences. Whether they come from well-meaning but frightened people or from outright jerks (aka mean spirited and frightened people) these sorts of comments end up being nothing but distractions from doing your best.

  • Get Organized and Know Yourself

With all the moving parts that make up comps, a big part of my process involved figuring out how to organize myself and discovering how I work best. In these endeavors I found that it worked best to pick a method and roll with it. Some particulars included taking hand-written notes on lined paper, organizing my A Question notes in color-coded binders, writing out my reading assignments on a wall-sized calendar, and distilling authors onto notecards for quick reference. At the same time I would regularly assess the effectiveness of my workflow and make adjustments if I had gotten into a rut. My wife Jessica (an organizational goddess) and my colleague Luke (an insatiable optimist and pragmatist who was studying for his own comps at the same time) were essential in this regard.

  • Love It

In order to pass your comps you have to work very hard. It is difficult to conceptualize or evaluate the many hours that I've devoted to this monumental project over the past ten months; the strains that it has put on various aspects of my mental, personal, and social life; and the extent to which it pushed me further than I had ever been pushed before. While I definitely can't say that I enjoyed every minute of the process (my tailbone particularly disliked prolonged hours in uncomfortable chairs) comps have more than ever solidified my personal conviction that this is what I was made to do. Many of us have passions that seem crazy to others and it is in times of extreme testing that you might realize just how deep that passion goes.

  • Embrace Real-World Distraction

Doing something amazing and difficult naturally involves stress. It reminds you that you are growing. Yet throughout my comps process my wife occasionally marveled at my lack of completemental breakdown beneath the strain. I attribute this overall, foundational-level calm to a variety of factors, but I'd like to particularly mention the value of cultivating a perspective that sees beyond the present moment. Occasional reality checks grounded me and made me more excited and able to devote myself to studying. Just some of the most helpful distractions include:

  1. Pregnancy: It's hard to freak out about comps when my wife is due to deliver my first child a month after they're done! Birthing classes, breathing exercises, rearranging the house, setting up the crib, beach walks, driving my pregnant wife everywhere, attending baby showers... nothing gets you out of your own head as much as stepping up to fatherhood!
  2. Birthday: My wife planned a veritable extravaganza at our home for my thirtieth birthday which happened to fall on the weekend between the written and oral portions of my comps. Friends, family, food, twinkle-lights, a Costco cake bigger than my head... so fun!
  3. Multiple Illnesses: The week before comps I came down with a nasty cold. Then I broke out in partial body poison oak rashes due to a hiking incident from the week before that required the administering of mood altering steroids... Not fun! However, and I'm serious, it ended up helping my nerves, forcing me to relax, drink liquids, and take it easy.


  • Be Thankful

The night before comps I was struck by the propitiousness of my situation: I was on the brink of doing something extremely difficult, I had worked diligently towards mastery, and I felt confident in my abilities to succeed. And I knew that I had not gotten to this point alone. My present moment was due in large part to the long line of supportive, patient, and enthusiastic teachers who had encouraged and guided me along the way: family members, piano teachers, choir directors, conducting coaches, band leaders, theory professors, composers, musicologists. In their own way they helped to guide me along my way and I count myself greatly blessed at having been their student. I find that the things worth saying are rarely said often enough. Now as a teacher myself I cherish those rare moments when students articulate the difference that your teaching efforts have made on their lives.

C.S. Lewis' Dufflepuds know how to party! (Pauline Baynes)

C.S. Lewis' Dufflepuds know how to party! (Pauline Baynes)

  • What has been a monumental capstone moment in your life or an important project you see as a turning point?
  • What got you through your trial?
  • How do you take time to savor victory before plunging into your next adventure? :)

"The Merest Set of Blocks"

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:

  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:

  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
Retro LEGO add from  Fat Brain Toys

Retro LEGO add from Fat Brain Toys

Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!

Operation: Trilingual

A few weeks ago I had my second language learning coaching session with The Everyday Language Learner's Aaron Myers, a birthday present generously given to me by my family. During our first session we talked about directed and motivated ways of breaking through with German, but now I am at the point where I must say "bon jour" to an old friend: français. This will be the fourth time that I've set out to learn French, a language with which I've had an on-again-off-again relationship since elementary school. Back then, I was intrigued by the luxuriant sounds of the language and inspired by my ancestry to francophone Canada. Today I continue to delight in the sounds and the heritage, with the addition of UCSB requiring it for Musicology, the possibility of my PhD work focusing on the 1800s, and close familial co-learning: my brother lives in Europe and speaks it, my sister will eventually move to Ottawa and should speak it, and my wife wants to speak it.

So my question for Aaron was how to resurrect French while maintaining German. It can be done. One must be organized, inspired, and willing to repeatedly assess whether or not they are working in the direction they want. With help from Aaron, my ESL trained sister, and LucidChart here's what I came up with to help me make this work (click on it to make it bigger):

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

Here's how it works:

     Input: Language comes at you, flies like a ninja into your ears or eyes! I see two different types of input.

          The first (A) I call Narrative/Music. This is when you immerse or inundate yourself in listening or reading, not really stopping to look up words or checking grammar, just getting with the flow of the story and noticing the cadence of the sounds. (It's what babies do for a good three years.) Because you're not stopping, you develop contextual skills (that intonation sounded like a question, these people must be angry with each other, etc.) to help piece together what you don't get the first time. I'm not at the stage where I can just listen to German radio or watch a French documentary. That would be drowning, not inundating. For me, that means using materials I know pretty well in my mother tongue, using my prior knowledge to fill in the blanks and enjoying the story which I can anticipate and enjoy from a different perspective. At this point, my German listening consists of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series in audiobook form (I'm just starting book 2, Prinz Kaspian von Narnia) and reading consists of short articles on composers. I have not figured out yet what I want to do in French, though the audiobook Harry Potter et l'école des sorciers and Perrault's Contes de la mère l'Oye are definite possibilities. I've written a bit about contextual reading in this post on parallel texts.

          The second type of Input (B) I call Word Culling. The Narnia books are a very good level for me; I'm getting about 80% of the words and can fill in the rest with prior knowledge. The 20% I'm not totally sure about becomes an extremely manageable stockpile of words that I can focus on: isolate them, look them up, put them on a flashcard system (I use Anki) and be sure to catch them when I review a chapter or reread an article. I love the bite-sized-ness of this system because it has a high level of exposure, high level of story/enjoyment, and a low level of flipping through a dictionary. But the best way to review these words I've found is...

     Output: You have to dish it out! This is the hard part for me, especially with the horrible dance that some languages produce: is that noun feminine? what sort of preposition is that? is the verb a verb of motion? what's the adjective ending? Here's what I'm working on: I take the words that I've culled from Input B (notice the arrow) and I use them as my wordlist to write or speak. If I just learned the word for "accompaniment" I write a short paragraph about what it's like being an accompanist who accompanies with an accompaniment... Perhaps I send it in to Lang-8 and get some feedback on how that's going. Or I have what I like to call Free Speaking in which I improvise sentences out loud, usually about what I'm doing or have done or will do: Numi, we are walking on the street; I ride my motorcycle to work and the clouds are cold and wet, etc. It feels pretty silly, but it is the only way I will improve in output. You've got to babystep before you can laufen. When you use these culled words this way they morph from flashcard words you didn't know to speech acts that are linked to specific places, situations, and contexts. I'll never forget that in German you pretty much always need to use an adjective when you say the word "wind" (cold, chilly, humid, scorching, etc); according to an editor at Lang-8, it's just funny without it. Then I use this knowledge to better understand my Input (notice the other arrow), catching it when I review sections that I've culled, and catching it faster when I encounter it during other narrative/musical moments.

So that's my method. I'm pretty happy about the diagram and how it reinforces itself. It's like a perpetual motion machine of glorious language learning awesomeness! Let me know if this idea is helpful, what materials you see yourself using in Input, or ways it could be better!



Two Observations on Plato, Aristotle, and Harry Potter

I'm taking a Dramatic Theory seminar through the Theater Department this quarter. In addition to the outrageously comfortable conference room chairs and meeting a new group of colleagues, Dr. David King has us wandering through an etymology-strewn, philosophy-riddled history/mind/soul-scape including the Caves of Lascaux, Nietzsche, Horace, Ruth Padel, Benjamin, and so many others. We have one session a week, almost three hours long, after which my sluggish mind, waterlogged with knowledge and hopefully a little wisdom, wants nothing more than to go home and read Harry Potter out loud (lautlesen) as my wife makes dinner. Yet, you can't really halt rumination, and here are two small connections that cropped up:

Aristotle and Plato from Raphael's  School of Athens  probably deep in conversation about why Harry decided to wear the horcrux around his neck rather than put it in the mokeskin pouch  around his neck . 

Aristotle and Plato from Raphael's School of Athens probably deep in conversation about why Harry decided to wear the horcrux around his neck rather than put it in the mokeskin pouch around his neck

  1. The word mimesis is outrageously difficult to define. It can imply imitation, or representation, but also ideas like copytranslationinventionillusion, or lie. It's often used in dramatic theory to talk about the theater as a crossroads of reality and fantasy, not only in terms of whether or not the plot is historically accurate or realistically feasible, but whether or not one thinks of the actor as actor or as character, the prop or the object. At one point Plato, who has an extremely complicated view of theater, uses mimetic in conjunction with the word diagetic to talk about ways of delivering a text. A diagetic delivery involves simple reading of the text, word for word, in your own natural voice; to read in a mimetic manner means giving different characters different voices. Essentially the former is Madeline L'Engle in her audiobook for A Wrinkle in Time (quite monotone), and the latter is Jim Dale reading the Rowling's Harry Potter series or Phillip Schulmann reciting C.S. Lewis' Narnia books (inflected, character-full voices galore). While one is not necessarily better than the other, I am definitely of the mimetic cast, a trait I inherited from my father's inspired readings of Verne, Lewis, and Twain when I was a child. In my mind, it's simply a lot more fun! However, Plato adds an aspect to mimesis that has some of that ancient world magic to it: the mimetic reader, as they invoke the voice of the character they are portraying, will actually, in a way, become that character and even feel what that character feels. A powerful idea! What do you give of yourself when you enter into a part? What might you receive? I caught myself thinking of this as I spoke Voldemort's "high, cold voice" and in a way count myself thankful that I got through it alright.
  2. A smaller observation stems from the intensely etymological exegesis of Dr. King. Two words: splanchnon and peripateia. The first, dealt with extensively in a reading we did by Padel, is regularly translated as stomach or guts. For the ancient Greeks this is the place of emotions, of black fear, of the touching point between mortality and the divine. (Next time you get stressed and feel your stomach clench, that's your splanchnon ringing with the sound of eternity!) The second word, peripateia, is dealt with by Aristotle when he's laying out the proper disposition of a theatrical plot. It involves the moment of a plot's change of direction or reversal or twist, and constitutes an extremely important, catharsis-rich moment in a performance. After reading the Poetics and basking in the import of these two ideas, my eye was quick to pick up on a passing, but perhaps pivotal moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: literally, Harry's "stomach turned over!" There it is! His splanchnon peripateia-ed! Blammo! ... (This is when Jessica shrugs her shoulders and allows me a moment of intellectual nerding-out, before we continue the thrilling saga and and she resumes crafting our dinner (which will soon end up right in my splanchnon!!!!))

Here's to the beginning of Week 6. Cheers!