A Doctorate in Music: Interview with Elisa Alfonso

In this series, I interview musicians currently pursuing doctoral degrees. I hope their stories will give readers insights into the joys and challenges of pursuing this degree.

Elisa Alfonso, Ethnomusicologist

I recently interviewed ethnomusicologist Elisa Alfonso. Elisa is pursuing her PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Texas, Austin). She previously earn an MM in Musicology at Florida State University and BM in Flute Performance and BA in Hispanic Studies from East Carolina University.

ASN: It’s great to catch up with you! To start, can you tell me what led you to your current doctoral program?

EA: Depending on how far back you want to go, I decided I wanted to go to grad school for Ethnomusicology my senior year of undergrad at ECU. I was getting a dual degree in flute performance and Hispanic studies, but didn’t see a future for myself in either of those fields exclusively. I was also very drawn to research—I did an undergraduate honors thesis in Geography too, and completed half the credits for a biology minor before abandoning that pursuit.

I was in Dr. Mario Rey’s office one day, talking about how I had no idea what I was doing with my life but that I wanted to be in the arts and I wanted to research and I had this weird background in Geography now that I didn’t know what to do with. He looked at me and said something like “you know what combines Hispanic Studies, music, and geography? Ethnomusicology.” At first I rejected the idea, but the more I looked into it the more interested I was. 

I took an extra semester to basically buy myself some time with university resources to get grad school applications together. I was really burned out at that point, ended up dropping out of half the courses I had signed up for, and putting together the applications honestly felt almost impossible. Thankfully I had done a musical analysis of an animated film based in Cuba called Chico y Rita (2010) that Dr. Jennifer Valko from the Hispanic Studies department helped me edit and present at a conference, and we even published it in the undergraduate journal at ECU. All that to say I had something for the writing sample that I felt OK about.

I applied to three schools—UCLA, Florida State, and University of Texas at Austin. UT turned me down, but Dr. Robin Moore personally wrote to me to say he was interested in me as a potential doctoral student and to keep in touch. Florida State was very interested, and UCLA put me on a waitlist that they moved me off of a week before final decisions were due. I went to Florida State because it seemed like they were really invested in me as a person and a scholar, and I completed my Master’s there. At the end of that program, I applied to several schools for the PhD because I wanted to keep my options outside of FSU open, and I applied to UT again—this time successfully! Dr. Moore seemed very interested, and even found money to fly me out to see the campus and observe some classes. Dr. Moore was a scholar I had admired for a while, I loved UT when I visited, so that’s how I ended up in UT Austin’s Ethnomusicology PhD program!

ASN: Can you give us an overview of your program? For example, how many years of coursework and dissertation, expected scope of the dissertation, GA/TA duties, that kind of thing. 

EA: So most Musicology/Ethnomusicology PhD programs will have three years of coursework, at the end of which you complete your doctoral comprehensive exams, 2 language exams, and defend a prospectus for your dissertation. With Ethno, the idea is one year is for fieldwork and the next year is for writing and defending, but that isn’t a strict guideline at all. After that it is expected that you spend two years writing and researching the dissertation, but many people end up taking more time, which is perfectly normal! Once you finish, you defend the dissertation, submit it to the school, and bam! You got yourself a PhD.

At UT Austin the expectations for the comprehensive exams and the dissertation vary between advisers. I am not aware of a maximum or minimum length, though dissertation documents are usually at least close to 200 pages long, broken up over several chapters. The exams are very intensive—you basically write essays on a variety of topics for 6-8 hours a day for 2-3 days. And you write these essays from memory. The exams are based on your areas of interest and graduate seminars you’ve taken that you want to write on, so you ideally have been exposed to the large volume of material over the course of three years, but it is still very intense.

So at UT Austin, the grad students all get half-time appointments, and you start out as a TA (unless you have a graduate school fellowship for first years, at which point you don’t have to work at all your first year of study). In order to become an AI (Assistant Instructor, Instructor of Record) you have to take a course on collegiate pedagogy in ethno/musicology. In that course you draft syllabi for standard courses (e.g. world music) and for a novel course of your own design. You read a lot on collegiate pedagogy, practice doing mini-lessons on your peers in the class, conduct teaching observations and read lots of other syllabi—it’s a great experience. I really love that about Austin’s program, not every school mandates a course like that before asking you to teach. The AI positions are more limited, so it is very common for someone to be an AI one semester and be a TA the next, as the faculty want to ensure everyone runs their own class at least once before they graduate. 

As a side note, our TA/AI ships pay for our tuition in full, provide healthcare, and a stipend. In ethno/musicology, I always tell people that if a school isn’t offering them that, go somewhere else. Especially if that school offers those packages to other people in the program. 

ASN: What were some of your favorite courses in your program?

EA: I really loved our world music pedagogy class—I learned so much from that course. I also really loved the reading for a seminar on the cultural industries of the global south. Oh, and the course in the U.S. Music History, the Music, Labor, and Affect course—there were so many. I also took a course outside our department at UT that I adored—it was a Queer Latin American and Spanish film class. I learned most of my queer theory in that class and was introduced to so many really impactful films. One day I’ll get into film music and audio editing studies again!

ASN: What has been the biggest challenge during your studies?

EA: Well, COVID hit halfway through my second semester of my first year at Austin, that was rather difficult. I’d say for both my Master’s and my doctoral studies, the biggest struggle I faced was dealing with my mental health while not falling behind. Within the mental health arena we have the stress that comes with being in intensive environments like grad school (reading 200 pages per course per week was not uncommon), interpersonal issues surrounding various identity markers, and my own trauma I had both brought with me and had experienced during graduate studies. I remember there was one point in my Master’s that I was using a couple of really self-destructive coping mechanisms, and I wanted help but I didn’t want anyone to think I was crazy or that I should be given up on. I was writing my thesis and someone told me I was keeping on schedule much better than the others in my cohort. I felt guilty, and explained that the way I was keeping myself going was really not healthy, but before I could explain what I was doing, this person interrupted and said “whatever it is, it’s working—keep it up.” They were trying to help and be encouraging, but I remember feeling really isolated after that. Thankfully I have abandoned those coping mechanisms, but that feeling of isolation and the fear of not being good enough or falling behind is ironically crippling sometimes. 

The thing I struggle with the most now that I am in dissertation land is structure and boundaries with myself and others related to time. It’s such a huge amount of work to write a dissertation, to research one, to plan out 2 years for that. Especially if you are a chronic procrastinator, like myself. I find that I have to  utilize writing groups or set up my own in order to make sure I get the writing time in. Make lots of little deadlines, but also don’t have a heart attack if you have to miss one or two. I am still getting good at these things, but that has been the biggest challenge recently—it’s a different type of isolation, I suppose. 

One more thing—because the nature of my research is so personal for me (as I think the work of many ethnomusicologists is because we form ties with the communities we learn from), the work can be emotionally exhausting. My project is particularly emotionally exhausting because of the familial connections I have to the group in question. It looks at a childhood migration event that was traumatic for many, and my dad was one of the unaccompanied children that came to the U.S. through this event. I grew up hearing and seeing how this affected him, and the longing and pain here as well as my estrangement from my father really make my project emotionally overwhelming for me at times. That has been difficult but rewarding.  

ASN: Can you give me an elevator-pitch for your dissertation?

EA: Sure! Some context: the dissertation focuses on Operation Pedro Pan, the largest unaccompanied children’s exodus in the history of the Western hemisphere. It transported 14,048 Cuban children out of the island to the U.S. between December 1960 and October of 1962, after Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959. 

I am studying the way in which music and sound factor into and actively construct and represent the memory of Operation Pedro Pan and the former unaccompanied child migrants it transported to the U.S. I examine this through analysis of the musicking of the Pedro Pans, analyses of historical and remembered soundscapes and mediascapes of the Pedro Pans, and the musical representations of Operation Pedro Pan and its former children by those who did not personally experience it. The project deals with childhood migration and its impacts on memory and cultural/ national identity, and how music and sound play a role in this with both cultural and individual memory and acts of remembrance.  

ASN What do you like to do outside of being a student/musician? How do you unwind?

EA: I watch a lot of YouTube. After I wrap up my current research, and the research idea I have for after that, I want to talk about ASMR and YouTube audio editing. I also enjoy playing board games or getting coffee/food with friends, video chatting with my family, things like that. I also have been trying to get back into painting and I write poetry, but I’m not amazing at that. I have been enjoying gym time as well recently, surprisingly enough!

ASN: Thanks for sharing your experiences, Elisa!

Elisa was recently an intern with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Read her blog post “Caught My Ear: The Lullaby That Came to Symbolize the Exodus of Cuba’s Children on the LOC website.

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