Thursday, March 18, 2010

Terminal Degree

The first day of my doctoral program consisted of an orientation session in the music department.  I arrived on time, but the music students' lounge was already so crowded that I had to sit on the floor.  It was the end of the summer of 2002, and I was wearing an outfit that I don't think I ever wore again after that day, a hippie-ish ensemble held over from my days with Stoner Carpenter, consisting of a purple brocade dirndl skirt and a loose artist's blouse.  There was bad pizza, and the department chair, a composer, held forth to the incoming doctoral students on how, if you had to put up with what he called "the bullshit of living in New York," you might as well take advantage of New York's cultural opportunities.  I felt dismayed, even crestfallen, at his cynicism.  I will never make it here, I thought; I will fail out.  This department lounge, all of whose chairs seemed to be occupied by hipster composers, etiolated musicologists, and ethnomusicology dudes in sandals and funky hats, was not the place for my diffident post-hippie, post-opera-singer self.

Like most other endeavors in my life, I had auditioned for the doctoral program, passed the draconian music-theory-and-history entrance exam (it was so hard that I cried in the middle of it, and I knew some gifted singers, including one who was covering roles at the Met, who were denied admission after foundering on the rocks of that test), and enrolled at the university without having much of a plan.  In fact, it had all started shortly after 9/11, when I happened to run into G., my undergraduate piano professor (who had written the memorable line on my end-of-year evaluation, "Pentimento spends too much emotion away from the keyboard") at a friend's student recital at Juilliard.  We caught up, and, when I told her about the performing I was doing based on my own archival research, she urged me to get my doctorate.  "In what?" I asked, rather thickly.  "Get your D.M.A.!" she laughed.  I had never seriously considered getting my D.M.A. -- Doctor of Musical Arts degree -- in voice performance, but all of a sudden it seemed to me that it was indeed the next thing to do.

Influenced by G's suggestion (I have never seen her again since that fateful night), I briefly considered applying to Indiana University.  As soon as I worked out in my head that that would mean leaving my home and everything I knew to go and live in the Midwest, where I knew no one, had no idea how I'd support myself (there are few fellowships for D.M.A.'s in voice, unless the candidates are tenors), and would have to learn to drive, I abandoned that idle thought, and instead sent in only one application, to the urban university that would become my beloved haven for six years.  I passed the audition and then, rather amazingly, the wicked entrance exam.  Coincidentally, I gave a performance of my specialized repertoire in the spring of 2002, before acceptance notifications went out, as part of a scholarly conference at the same university -- it had been scheduled months earlier, before I'd even considered attending there -- and the conference organizer, a music professor who had been at my audition, said "See you next fall."

So there I was next fall (or, technically, late summer), sitting on the floor, feeling pretty scared.  What was I getting myself into? I wondered.  If I dropped out before classes started, could I get a refund?  I met my colleagues entering the D.M.A. program in voice -- all four of them -- and walked to the subway with one, who would become a cherished friend.  We told each other about our research interests, and, when she heard about my work, she excitedly suggested various grants and fellowships I could apply for.  "Um, I'm just trying to get through this day," I admitted sheepishly.

The next day there was a second orientation, but this one was for the entire incoming doctoral student body, hundreds of students across disciplines.  We met in the largest auditorium in the building.  The president of the doctoral students' council, a candidate for the Ph.D. in English, spoke.  She assured the audience that you could have a life while getting your doctorate.  You could get married while getting your doctorate, she said; you could have a baby while getting your doctorate (I would go on to do both of those things).  Suddenly I thought that maybe I could do this, after all.  And indeed, I could.  I didn't fail out, as it happened.  I earned a 4.0 grade point average during my coursework years, before I got married and had a baby while getting my doctorate.  During coursework years I also taught voice as a graduate teaching assistant in the university system, and after coursework, when my son was one year old, I was hired as an adjunct lecturer to teach voice, music history, and a special writing class for music majors.

Soon after my marriage, a traditionalist acquaintance of mine, the mother of a large family, urged me to lay aside my academic and performance pursuits.  She held up the example of a friend of hers who'd completed her medical residency and then gave it up happily when she started having children and never looked back.  "You can still sing," she told me.  "You can sing lullabies to your children.  Anyway, weren't you only doing all of those things because you weren't married?" 

I thought about it.  In a sense, it could indeed have been said that I was doing all of those things because I wasn't married.  If I had been married, I would presumably have been doing other things.  Or maybe not.  The truth was, I was doing all of those things because they were what I'd always done, and when you start doing something and get good at it, you're usually encouraged and even asked to do it more.  Gigs tend to beget more gigs, which is, if you're an artist, only what you want.  And beyond the pedestrian day-to-day work of any profession, making music with colleagues is one of the most incredible experiences that there is, especially when you know that what you're giving to the audience is being received and understood.  After each gig there was always someone who would come up and say, "I won't forget this night for a long time," sometimes with tears in their eyes.  And I was always particularly delighted when it happened to be an older Italian-American man or woman.  My peeps got it, I would think, they got the beauty I wanted them to have.

As a Catholic wife and potentially a mother, then, did my vocation imply the laying down of my craft?  The thought terrified me.  I made the mistake of attempting to justify myself by sending the traditionalist mom an offprint of my first article in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, which was published the month after I was married.  I thought she'd like it -- it dealt with certain musical tropes in patristic theology -- and I thought it would lead her to recognize that, among Catholic wives and potential mothers, I was one who didn't have to give up my profession, because I was special.

Well, the desire to be special, alternating with the belief that I was special, has permeated my life since childhood and led me to do many rash things that I now lie awake at night regretting.    Saint Paul said that woman would be saved through childbearing, and I wonder if that is particularly true for someone like me, for whom humility is bitterly hard-won.  My husband said recently that I act sometimes as if I still live alone, and it's true.  My ego, my sense of specialness, are painfully squashed every single day that I live in the community of my family, and being the wife and mother I feel I should be -- cheerful, helpful, present in all my senses, permeable, poured out like water for my loved ones -- is a constant struggle.

But still I wonder if I have to give up my profession.  Certainly it's true that I've performed a lot less since becoming a mother, though I have some fairly high-profile gigs coming up.  These gigs have no glamor for me anymore, though they might have if they'd come a few years earlier.  They are just hard work now, with the added stress and annoyance of having to travel for them and to rehearse on site; and the travel time and expenses, rehearsal time, and the practicing I'm able to squeeze in at home end up subdividing my fee from an amount that seems impressive to something hovering below minimum wage.  I wonder if I love my craft or my audiences the way that I used to.  Do I have anything more to give?  Does it matter?

And then, I'm also turning my dissertation into a book. A publisher has expressed an interest, and I've been working on the book proposal off and on for months, my progress slowed by the same question:  does it matter?

I don't know why I do these things anymore, except for the fact that, like graduate school, like marriage, like childbearing, like everything else in my life, they're right there in front of me and therefore seem like the things I'm supposed to do.  And also I think I'd miss them and become completely unmoored if I stopped..  I have asked God many times to show me if He wants me to stop singing and writing, but I haven't gotten an answer that I can decipher, and so I just keep doing the next thing that's in front of me.  I suppose, however, that if something else were in front of me, I'd do that thing too.


Charity said...

I agree that the decisions about career and family are so hard. I often have that same exact feeling, wondering if I am on the right path, or just doing what I'm doing because it is in front of me.
I chose to leave my profession, but I still think about it often, dream about it, and feel like it is a lost part of me. I only have one child so far, but even only one child seems like a vocation that could never coexist in the same universe with my previous work.
By the way, I love to read about your memories and experiences about music and performing. I pursued music as only a side endeavor to my career path, but it was a very intense and involved side path. My emotions and memories about my past life involving music are almost forgotten until I read your posts that evoke so much within me. The moments I relive are so vivid. On one occasion, I was having a difficult time focusing and making progress in the practice room. I was so frustrated I was ready to slam the stand across the cube. Instead I turned off the light, took my shoes off, and stood on the piano bench so I could feel the cool wood on my toes while I played. It seemed to help but someone noticed almost immediately what I had done and opened my door to ask me what on earth I was doing! I was so taken aback at being caught, that the only thing I could think to say was "It sounds better this way." Needless to say, word spread and I became the standing-in-the-dark-on-the-piano-bench-girl. It's a fun memory. I miss it.

Pentimento said...

There could be an entire blog about practicing, I think, and the obsessive concentration it requires. The only thing that would goad me on sometimes was the knowledge that, after all the hours, days, and years of frustration and tedium, I would get to make music with other people at the other end.

I used to lie on my back on the piano bench sometimes to vocalize.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you're coming from. A few years ago when I was writing my dissertation with three little kids underfoot, I joked to my husband that this was my vanity Ph.D., meaning it was only for my own sense of completion. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has pushed me to use it in all sorts of ways I never imagined (I could talk your ear off sharing my journey!) Something my late mentor told me--and she was a very serious scholar and Catholic--helped so much: Why do you think women have any less an obligation than men not to hide their light under a basket?

We figure it out. We don't neglect what really matters. We share the fruits of our intellectual vocations with the Church, which *desperately* needs such fruit, and with the world. And we give pleasure to God who gave us these gifts, the same way anyone who uses God's gifts as He intended gives Him pleasure. (And in my own heart I lean on St. Therese to keep me going when I feel especially blindfolded in my vocation.)

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your inspiring words, Anonymous.

I wish I knew how to share my gifts with the Church and with more than a select audience (for instance, I'm giving a recital next week for an audience of major donors to the Metropolitan Museum, not exactly casting a wide net there). The music at Mass is often a prickly trial for me, but thus far I've been unwilling to sing without pay, and in my new town that's the deal for cantors in the R.C. Church. Perhaps I should be less rigid, but it angers me that music is so undervalued in liturgy that bad music for free is deemed more excellent than good music that costs money; all the years I spent practicing and working toward being able to play music at a high level were hardly free.

So how *does* one use these gifts for the glory of God? I'm not sure. I believe I need to finish writing my book, because it seeks to reveal and explain certain forgotten aspects of music iconography in western theology. But it's practically impossible for me to get a job where we are now, and I also fear that, though I'd like to be able to pay down my own pre-marriage debts with my own money, it would be disruptive to my family.

And I've been praying to Bl. Zélie Martin each day, St. Thérèse's mother - who was herself a work-at-home mom!

BettyDuffy said...

Just think, had you gone to IU, we could have been neighbors. Alas, Pentimento might never have been born and I wouldn't know you anyway. Which I think is the point. If you make decisions with pleasing God in mind, and you're choosing between two good things, you can't make a wrong choice. God uses everything for the good. We are rarely in a position to make far-reaching decisions about how our lives should go. It is as you say: you are presented with options, you pray about them, you take a step, pray some more, take another step, and your life is revealed over time. Is it worth it to keep writing and keep singing whilst having a family? God seems to think so, having given you the option (particular options no one else has been given) and the time, and then using it all for his Glory.

Every artist, every writer, every theologian, every mother struggles with vanity, pride, and sensuality--because we're human, and there is no vocation that exempts us from original sin.

Pentimento said...

My IU fantasy lasted about five minutes, Betty. But I like your point about no vocation being free of pride etc.

BettyDuffy said...

To clarify: I meant "Pentimento" the blog, not "Pentimento" the person might not have been born had you gone to IU. So apparently, I've already given more thought to having you as a neighbor than you gave to coming to IU.

Pentimento said...

No worries, Betty, I got your meaning in the first comment. After all, Pentimento the person doesn't *really* exist. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


"You can still sing," she told me. "You can sing lullabies to your children . . ."

I wonder if she knew how condescending that was.

Pentimento said...

If she knew, she didn't care. It's no more condescending, after all, than saying, "I thought you were just doing all those things because youo weren't married." :)

Augustine said...

Wow! A blog written by a Catholic musicologist: we exist, but we don't seem to blog. Many thanks for your wise and entertaining words.

Pentimento said...

Welcome, Augustine! Yes, I suppose we're a small-ish niche group. I've heard that a fair number of musicologists working in medieval studies end up converting to Catholicism, but I don't know if it's true.

dreshny said...

OR you could have a child who doesn't like lullabies.

Pentimento said...

Dreshny, I think you're referring to your own eldest child, aren't you?

The problem for me, up until maybe the past year or two, when I wasn't been that busy professionally, was that I didn't WANT to sing lullabies. Singing had been my profession for so long that I didn't WANT to sing at home. It was work, not pleasure. Practicing was one thing -- I had to do it for my gigs, but I felt like I had no energy or desire left over to sing lullabies or anything else in my own home. The shoemaker's children go barefoot, as they say.