A Doctorate in Music: Interview with Olivia Kieffer

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.

Olivia Kieffer, recording drums for her new EP

I recently interviewed Olivia Kieffer, a composer and DMA candidate at the University of Miami. She studied percussion at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Georgia State University, and she studied music composition at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

ASN: What led you to your current doctoral program?

OK: I applied to 5 schools, and University of Miami was the only school that accepted me. I really wanted to go there anyway, so it worked out for the best! I decided to get a Doctorate because despite loving my adjunct position teaching Percussion and World Music, the pay was total garbage, and I wanted to teach full time at a University. Having that DMA is a requirement!

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

OK: The program is 3 years, start to finish – which is an unreasonably short amount of time, and is stressful. If a student is going to complete the degree in 3 years, they will be in classes while writing their dissertation. I took a 4th year (which I am in the middle of right now) to write my dissertation, paying the tuition and fees myself for that year, because there are no TA jobs available after 3 years. 

There are 3 semesters of coursework, for a total of 60 credits. 8 credits of Composition Seminar (lessons), 4 credits of Composition Workshop, 15 credits of Theory/Composition, 9 credits of Musicology, 12 credits of Cognate/Electives, and 12 credits of Creative Activities (Doctoral Essay work). It usually ends up that students take 5 semesters of 10 credit hours of coursework, and then another credit hour or 2 of coursework in the 6th semester (still filling out the required 10 credit hours per semester). The Creative Activities are usually spread out over the 5th and 6th semesters. 

Outside of coursework, there are other requirements: pass 2 music theory entrance exams (you can take them as often as you like, but they’re not offered very often), pass Qualifying Exams, pass a Dissertation Proposal Defense, and pass a Dissertation Defense. And of course, turn in your fully approved Dissertation.

The dissertation is to write a significant piece of music, and write a significant paper either about that document, or about something else entirely. Whatever you choose to write about, the paper portion is a serious academic document. 

Some MM and DMA students get full Teaching Assistantships, some get half assistantships, and some don’t get anything. It’s possible to get nothing one year and then get an Assistantship the next year. It’s pretty competitive as there aren’t many available. The most typical Teaching Assistantship is to teach for the EMC (music theory) program. This is usually freshman and sophomore music theory or aural skills. My Assistantship was atypical over the 3 years…I taught several classes, and was the TA (grading, attendance, etc.) for several classes. My first year I got a half assistantship with the Theory/Composition department, and half assistantship with the Musicology department. The 2nd two years, my assistantship was fully with the Theory/Composition department. Over the years I was a TA for a Pop Music course and a 20th/21st Century Music course, and I also taught Music Theory Fundamentals, and several courses for the EMC program. Regardless of how the Teaching Assistantship work is spread out, it equals 6 credit hours of teaching per semester (two 3-credit-hour classes), which comes out to 20 hours a week. The Teaching Assistantship fully covers tuition, pays 80% of health insurance, but does not cover fees. The stipend is modest: it will basically cover rent for an apartment in Miami. Most people have to take out additional student loans or get a 2nd job if they don’t have the extra money already. The health insurance and health care at UM is excellent!!

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

OK: Music Theory course(s): Advanced Counterpoint, and Advanced Orchestration

Musicology course: Approaches to Black Sacred Music

Electives (these were my favorite courses): Intro to Film Scoring, Virtual Orchestration, Composer-Performer Ensemble, Frost Electronic Music Ensemble, and Ensemble Ibis. 

And I enjoyed my lessons very much, with Lansing McLoskey and Charles Mason!

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

OK: The Qualifying Exams were brutal for me. The Quals aren’t exams at all; it’s a series of projects. Choose 4 pieces from different genres/time periods, and do a full analysis of each one, using a different modern analytical approach of your choice for each one. For 3 of those pieces, create 20-minute videos. For the 4th piece, write a 5,000-7,000 word paper. Additionally, choose one of your own compositions, and give a 50-minute presentation on that piece for Composition Forum. Finally, following the presentation, meet with the entire composition faculty as they grill you about all 5 pieces for an hour or 2. I passed 3 of the 5 pieces, and had to do Addendums for 2 of them. Those addendums were basically complete re-dos, so it took significant additional work. During my time working on the Quals, I had a series of painful/unpleasant health issues that really knocked me out. So it was a lot! But finally, I passed the Quals. I learned a TON from the entire process, and at times it was fun.

The DMA program at University of Miami is very high quality. The coursework is challenging and engaging, the teaching is fun/hard work, and the requirements outside of coursework/teaching are extremely rigorous. I’ve gotten an outstanding education!

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

OK: My piece is Double Concerto for Toy Pianos and Chamber Orchestra. I’m writing a paper about the piece and about toy pianos, and I created a database of chamber music that has toy piano in it. 

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

OK: I like card and board games, especially Cribbage! I enjoy paddleboarding and other water-based outdoor activities, doing paint-by-numbers of famous artwork, having drinks with friends, visiting family, and listening to podcasts and watching TV. I have done very little of those things during this degree. Except the TV part. That’s partially because of COVID, and partially because the degree work has taken up most of my time and mental abilities. Honestly my favorite things in the world are music things!

ASN: Thanks for sharing your experiences, Olivia!

Hear some of Olivia’s music! This new EP features works for piano, toy piano, saxophone, and more:

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