Since May of 2011 I have been preparing for the last week of my life, and I still did not feel ready. With all course work complete at Kent State University, the next major hurdle in front of me towards a doctoral degree in music education were candidacy exams. On Wednesday & Thursday (10/26 & 27) I wrote for a combined total of 12 hours answering questions related to music education, music and special education, music theory, and musicology related to American music. After completing on site writing at Kent, I completed two research papers at home: one a dissertation review, the other a review and critique of “educational” band literature (A surprising question to be offered for sure given my background, and that I have already written a little on the subject here and here).

The writing was the easy part. The preparation was the most challenging mental activity that I have ever put myself through (besides trying to understand band fronts…jk, lol, move along). I will say this that pursuing this degree has disciplined my mind and has made me budget my time. If my mother reads this post, she would be the first to tell you – those are two things her second son was not good at growing up.

The following is some advice in preparation for anyone taking on a doctoral degree in any education discipline. If you are reading this, I hope you find it helpful, and I certainly wish you well along your journey.

1) You will not do this without the support of your family, friends, and faith. There will be times when your relationship with all three of them will be strained. Do not break your connection with any of them, because like Rocky’s trainer they will be the only ones in your corner at times saying “C’mon Champ, get back up!”

2) Don’t let your coursework sit abstractly by in the forms of papers, projects and presentations. The encouragement of one person in particular helped me to generate several articles published internationally, and a number of presentations at conferences and workshops. Removing that information from the academic context and putting into the context of your teaching allows for a number of interesting self-discoveries that enrich the process.

3) Critically reflect upon yourself, your teaching area, and how this process may change your perspective in the classroom. Again, the self-reflection process has led me through a number of questions about the very foundations of music education. I see some people writing and tweeting about music education, and I am concerned as they seem to have a pretty limited perspective that is full of absolutes. There are always at least two sides to every story, and I teach music with a much larger perspective in a much larger world with an even wider perspective. I don’t presume that the area which I can make better will fix the whole world, but my self-reflection tells me I can make the areas that I am concerned about better for students with whom I interact, teach, and lead.

4) Stay up on research in your field. It’s not always a very cost effective endeavor – we tend to gouge people to pay for research findings – but if we are going to bridge research to practice, somebody has to take the initiative. It might as well be the practitioner who has the most opportunities to make a difference in education. Related to that, pay attention to veins of research and the names that go with them. In preparation for my comprehensive exams an article in 2001 by Donald Hodges clarified a whole semester of course work for me in Music Psychology. The article connected three more names to related areas in Music Psychology, and each of those names connected to a research area which led me to 2 articles per area and suddenly neurons started firing at incredible rate (at least that’s what I think was happening, I have to go back and read to get you the specifics…).

5) Give yourself a good 6 months to prepare for your qualifying/candidacy exams. Even with a self-made weekly reading list of major topics in all my coursework and reading of related areas to my coursework in the 2nd Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning, I still didn’t feel ready. I had to put a lot of things on the back burner to prepare myself adequately. With two weeks to go, I finally started to experience a “spinning” sensation as if all the information that lived in separate realms began to be dumped into a blender and the soft edges of those topics became blended together.

As I write on a Friday night after a football game, I am sure of several things:
1) My family still loves me and my kids remember my name.
2) I am probably going to reread this Saturday morning and change something (the title: original was called “Reflections on Candidacy Exams).
3) I will never be smarter in my time on this earth. But I always hope I keep a wide perspective, and keep on learning.

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