The Confusing Process of Obtaining My Masters Degree

As this is an essay (the essay posts I work on usually involve several months to half a year of work), prepare thyself for a long post.

This post was started in the fall of 2019, set for a spring 2020 premiere date. Well, as you can imagine, spring 2020 got a bit convoluted, so I pulled it from the queue. While we are getting back into the swing of things as the spring hopefully starts to return and the weather isn’t so awful that we can only be outside for 15 minutes at a time, I thought I’d go ahead and give this one a publish date. So, surprise! I usually only post one essay a year, but this year, it’s double the fun. 😂

This spring marks eleven years since I finished school. I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a Masters of Music in Jazz Pedagogy. But there were many times I did not know if I was going to walk out of the university with any degree at all. Including the final week of exams and several months after Tyler and I had married and moved to the Iowa Great Lakes.

I was thinking about my experience recently [fall 2019], as I do on anniversaries; and reflecting on how much different my life was eleven years ago. I am a firm believer that my life has improved with each year I’ve been fortunate enough to be alive. There are no rose-colored glasses with which I review my past. And reviewing some of those confusing moments of the process of working towards my graduate degree left me even more baffled about the experience now than while I was living it.

So in true Jenna style, I will now lay out the oddities of my ending up with my advanced degree. A degree that influenced my decision to not pursue a doctorate and abandon my plans to work at a college or university and to reconsider whether I wanted to be involved in jazz music at all.

Help with my English

I would be the first to admit that there are scholarly pursuits that I struggle with (ear training for one, math for another). But I continue to be baffled about the response I received to one of my first papers in a music class at UNI. English and grammar have always been my strong-suit (notwithstanding my terrible thumb typing skills on these blog posts). I had a perfect score on my reading comprehension and English on the ACT. I worked as an English as a Second Language Tutor in Boston during my undergrad (where my very kind supervisor asked me to consider getting an English degree equivalency and returning to work for him at Berklee with ESL students).

While this doesn’t mean I am always perfect with my writing (my typing has certainly gone downhill-as noted by how often this stupid blog autocorrects my words incorrectly), I was shocked to see that I received a grade of a D- on my paper about Jazz Pianist and Composer Mary Williams. There was so much red on that paper, that a note had been added to the back suggesting I go to the University Writing Center to work with a tutor or see if I could audit a remedial college writing class for undergrads.

I believe there are two main kinds of people in the world. The type who immediately dismiss any critiques they receive of themselves, and those who try to be open-minded about the possibility of making mistakes.

While I was suspicious about the suggestion that I needed remedial English, I decided to go work with a tutor at the writing center to find out if my writing style was different than what was expected at the music college. Maybe graduate students needed to follow a more strict format? I had just been at a very contemporary college in Boston, perhaps I needed more formality in my writing?

At my writing center meeting, an undergraduate English major met with me and then called in a professor from the English Department. They could not find anything wrong with my grammar, writing style or organization skills in my paper. The professor herself was bewildered at all of the red marks that littered my paper. The moving of sentence structure, the suggested changes to my vocabulary, the correcting of my thesis statement. She said she saw nothing wrong with my paper at all. Then she dismissed the undergrad tutor and leaned in. “I don’t know the professor of this class, but I would anticipate you are going to struggle working with him. Nothing written here makes any sense. Just tell him you’ve met with me and see if that gets him off your back.”

I followed her lead and while I never received an “A” on any paper in that particular class (or anything above a “B-“), I did pass.

Rhythm Section Comps

In a music graduate program, you have cumulative tests called comprehensive exams (besides your thesis) to pass your degree. In the Jazz Pedagogy program, one of the coolest aspects of the degree was that grad students were given private lessons in jazz bass, drumset and piano and had to pass a basic skills test in each instrument during the program in order to be eligible for the degree. After you’ve passed the playing tests, you then must transfer your skills and perform each of the instruments, as well as your primary instrument, at your final recital.

As a percussionist, I felt pretty confident about passing the drumset exam. I asked if I could test out without spending the money on the credit for lessons (the drumset instructor taught via video conference and was in high demand so scheduling was tricky). I was told my department would prefer if I took the private drumset lessons despite me being a percussionist (and having performed drumset in musicals and at other gigs during my high school and undergraduate career).

The instructor was fantastic. We blew through the comp exam material in about a month and then began working on more complex coordination, snare comping and other aspects of my drumset playing I wanted to improve.

In December of that same semester, I sat for the drumset comp exam. My drumset instructor was suppose to attend via video conference, but there was a snowstorm that knocked out the video feed (this was 2009, online conferences weren’t what they are nowadays). So I did the exam without him and instead had it proctored by just the jazz department.

After the professors had a brief conference, I was told I didn’t pass the exam and would need to take another semester of lessons before I could sit for the exam again.

I was perplexed and disappointed. I had felt very prepared and confident about my playing. What happened?

The drumset professor emailed me and we set up a video call. He asked how I felt it had gone. “I nailed it.” I said. “I have no idea what I messed up on.” He said he hadn’t ever had a student not pass the comp exam on the first try, let alone a percussionist. So he advocated for me. My Jazz professors agreed to let me retake the exam after the winter break instead of taking another semester of private lessons. With the video feed successfully functioning so my drumset instructor could observe the exam, I passed the second time around without comment from my Jazz professors.

However, I suffered the same fate when taking my Jazz bass and Jazz piano exams. I was required to sit for those exams multiple times and had to pay extra tuition for extended lessons. If I couldn’t pass jazz drumset, despite percussion being my primary instrument, how the hell was I suppose to pass the other instruments? Defeated doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions. I felt like a poser who never should’ve gotten into the college in the first place. I felt my confidence in my musical abilities and what I thought was a strong work ethic slowly crumbling.

Canceling My Thesis Recital-The Week Before the Recital

By the time my spring semester of my final year rolled around, I had become weary of my whole degree and my competency as a musician. There were two other students who had begun or were completing the same degree as I was and neither had had to repeat comp exams or private lessons or receive remedial English tutoring.

My Thesis recital was the one event I was looking forward to. I had spent a year selecting music within a theme, arranging the music, rehearsing with other musicians at the University, analyzing and contextualizing the music in my written thesis and putting together the logistics of the recital.

I had themed the recital to follow the timeline of jazz history, hitting different styles of music and how jazz evolved to the present by focusing on how improvisation defines the genre. I focused on female composers and instrumentalists. And when I couldn’t feature a female composer from a particular era in jazz history, I recruited as many female musicians from the college to perform as possible and gave them featured soloist roles. A big part of my thesis was on the erasure of women from the jazz history books. Each song selection was written about extensively in my thesis-that my thesis committee had been reviewing and approving sections of since the start of my final term in January 2010.

Six days before my April 2010 recital, my committee advisor called me into his office to tell me he wasn’t going to sign off on my recital and he’d like me to consider canceling it. This was the same professor who sent me to the English department for my poor writing skills and the same professor who had me sit multiple times for my rhythm section comp exams. After reviewing my song selections, he said my use of early jazz compositions (which were primarily written by female composers) didn’t fit the standard procedure for a Jazz Pedagogy Thesis and I’d need to start over. He apologized for not realizing sooner that I had made such unusual selections. I would need to delay, re-write my thesis and plan a new recital and submit it for review the following year.

Dear reader, I don’t know if there is a way to explain in words the feelings I had at that moment. I had family driving to town from hundreds of miles away, who had taken off work, reserved hotels for a weekday recital. I had over twenty musicians who had been attending rehearsals and practicing the music for months. I had catered food I had already paid for scheduled for a recital day delivery.

My stomach felt so sick at the thought of letting everyone down that I don’t even recall the rest of my classes that afternoon.

The next day I went to the university library and requested all the Jazz Pedagogy Thesis Papers and Recordings. I sat there going over each paper-starting with the very first thesis from the 1980s. I needed to figure out what I was doing wrong. As I went faster scanning through the papers and listening to the recordings I became irritated. They were all so similar. They used the same five or six songs. This isn’t completely odd for jazz music. Jazz is formed around a set of standard songs that all musicians should learn and understand. Hence the term, jazz standards. But the analysis of each song was the same. The examples pulled from each song were so similar. It felt formulaic.

And then, I read through all the names. Not one woman. As a percussionist and a jazz musician, I had surprisingly rarely considered the fact of my cis-feminine identity relating to any experiences I had in higher education. And, perhaps naively, I tend to fault my personality and not my gender in how others relate to me. I’m direct. I’m argumentative. I’m obsessively organized and forthright. I’m decidedly masculine in personality and I wear that masculinity as a badge of honor.

But for the first time, I felt there was a little more at stake. Not seeing any female names who had authored those papers, not even any female musicians or composer’s works cited in any of those papers, meant my graduating and my thesis was a bigger deal than I realized.

If I made it through this degree, I would be the first woman to do so at UNI. My thesis would be the first one, in a stack going back decades, that discussed women in Jazz, and it would become a permanent part of the university library. I’d never been the first woman to do anything. I’d been the only woman, many times. But the first?

It felt heavy. Very heavy. To be the first felt like something my mother or grandmother would have experienced. But a woman of my generation? We weren’t ever the first. The first had come before us. And I started to underhand what the weight of that feeling must have been for all the women who came before me.

So many professors and faculty had been advocating for me, had stood behind my work while my department tried to convince me I was unqualified and underachieving. It was time I advocated for myself, in person, to repay all of those wonderful people who spoke up for me to my department. I realized also that maybe earning this degree was out of my control. But I thought I had a shot if I found just one more ally.

Taking the Bull by the Horns

I told my thesis committee chair that it was too late to cancel my recital. There were too many people involved and too much work and money went into the production of the event. And so, even if it didn’t count towards my major, I was going to perform the recital. This seemed to shock my committee chair. He said that if I went ahead with the recital, he would be forced to grade it. I couldn’t disconnect the recital from my major or turn it into a simple performance. He strongly advised I consider canceling instead of receiving a low grade that could affect my GPA and my assistantship position. But I wouldn’t relent.

I then set up a meeting with the Dean of Graduate Studies for the College of Music. Someone I met once or twice, but had never actually spoken to in my two years at the university. I explained to her that my committee chair didn’t feel I was ready to graduate and had asked me to cancel my thesis recital that was scheduled to happen in just four days. I explained that I planned on giving the recital regardless of my standing in the college. Did I have any other options that would allow me to still graduate on time? I was not emotional and I did not throw my committee chair under the bus or mention any of the other issues I had been having. I stated the facts and impressed upon her my desire to graduate in May, even if it mean abandoning my major.

She, like the English Professor before her from the writing center and my drumset instructor, was surprised about my chair asking me to cancel my recital and restart my thesis. But also, very practical. We went through my transcripts carefully and she helped me devise a plan. A plan that would remain secret unless absolutely necessary, so as not to jeopardize or influence how my recital was graded or impact the rest of my classes and comp exams.

Should my committee chair decide, after my Thesis Recital, that I did not, we would put through paperwork immediately for a switch in major from my Masters of Music in Jazz Pedagogy to a general Masters of Arts, no specialization degree. I had more than enough credits to earn an MA and my recital thesis paper would be accepted as my thesis for the new major. No graded recital iperformance needed. We filled out the paperwork that day in her office and she signed a stack of copies. She gave them to me in an envelope. On Friday morning (the day after my thesis recital), I would have to meet with my thesis committee to hear the verdict on my recital. If they declined to pass me, I needed to have them sign the change of majors paper right there and run it to the graduate studies office across campus before noon to get my major switched before the deadline for graduation.

That week I also decided to decline to register to walk during the graduation ceremony to receive my diploma. I was told there was a non-refundable deposit of $250 to be at graduation. If I didn’t pass my major, I would not be allowed to walk the stage. I didn’t even care about the ceremony anymore, or so I convinced myself.

Whatever happened, I promised myself I was done with questions and doubt. And I promised myself I was walking out of Cedar Falls in May and never coming back to UNI, regardless of the outcome.

The Recital and the Revocation

Probably since I no longer felt pressure about my thesis recital performance, it went extremely well. The students I had recruited to be featured soloists blew it out of the park. While I didn’t feel I had many close friends at UNI, the time and effort the musicians put into making my recital sound killer was extremely heartening.

My parents drove me to my committee meeting the next morning at 10am as my whole body shook. I had the envelope with the transfer of major papers and a pen ready to go. They were going to drive me from my meeting across campus to turn in the change of major papers after I got them signed, so I didn’t miss my noon deadline in case the dean took an early lunch and decided to leave his office before noon.

But I passed. My committee chair said he was very surprised at the recital. He said it was extremely well-organized, he enjoyed my composition and he liked that I featured so many other students from the college of music.

I passed. I could graduate with a Masters of Music in Jazz Pedagogy. I was going to be The First. The relief I felt was monumental, but short-lived.

The next week, after I spent a weekend trying to forget the horror of everything that led up to my recital, my committee chair called me to his office.

He had a change of heart. I needed to re-perform one of my pieces for him and the other jazz faculty before he would officially sign off on my recital. I could hardly believe it. What was happening?

But I steadied myself and called my trio to schedule a time for a private performance for the jazz faculty. They graciously agreed to meet right before finals so we could have another performance. And, before the trio left the room and in full-ear shot of the other students, I asked for my committee chair’s signature on my recital thesis form.

He signed off.

Music graduate students sit for a final comprehensive exam day. We have to identify excerpts from music by ear, analyze music, identify terms and composers and musical styles, complete musical phrases and write a couple of essays from some prompts. It’s a long day. I had been studying for months and I passed the general grad student music major comps.

But as a Jazz Major, I had to sit for a whole second set of comp exams that covered jazz music. Listening, analysis, terms, essays, arranging. I was the only student in the university sitting for the jazz comps. And I didn’t pass.

I had to rewrite my essay, twice. I had to come in and defend my music analysis to my committee chair. I was asked to bring in backup sources to explain my thinking on parts of the text. I spent four days defending or rewriting my exam while I was packing up the apartment that the college was going to kick me out of in less than a week. After hours and hours and several all-nighters in a row, my committee chair finally agreed to pass me on my Jazz comps.

The day after the graduation ceremony that I didn’t attend, and when finals were officially finished, I was asked to come back into the music building to look over my Jazz Pedagogy portfolio project (a thirty-page study on resources for teaching improv to middle school jazz band students that I had turned in weeks earlier). I was asked to re-write several pages of my project.

I thought my nerves might give out entirely. But it was too late to change majors now. I either got all of my projects approved, or I would forfeit my Masters degree.

Two days after I had re-returned my portfolio project after two more all-nighters, I moved out of student housing and rode with my parents to my new apartment in Spirit Lake.

Diploma and Degree

By the end of the summer, I still hadn’t received my diploma in the mail. I was setting up my life to be a substitute teacher and had taken on a part-time job as a Music Minister at a local church. One afternoon, while borrowing the WiFi in a coffee shop, I got an email from UNI saying I was two credits short of fulfilling my requirements to graduate. My Jazz portfolio project had never made it on my transcript.

I emailed my committee chair. No response.

A week later, I called the Dean of Music for Graduate Students at the music school. The wonderful woman who helped me make a secret plan to switch majors during the recital fiasco. From her, I learned that my Jazz committee chair was out of town and classes didn’t start for the fall for another few weeks so he wouldn’t be able to approve my degree. She, quite kindly, went and found my portfolio project, graded but never entered into the system, and assigned me the completed credits.

My diploma arrived in the mail during the winter months, almost ten months after the last class I had attended during grad school.

The First

The journey to my graduate degree was an experience like nothing I have had before or since. While at Berklee, my professors encouraged me to let go of formulaically completing assignments. They encouraged me to find how music connected to my soul and that putting that unique part of myself to paper or practice was what made a musician great.

There were fantastic professors at UNI who felt this same way about music and learning. Between all the insanity of my last months at the university, it’s hard to look back fondly at any of those positive experiences as the sum of my graduate education.

It’s a horrible and indescribable feeling. This feeling where you respect and admire someone in your field, only to discover that they think so little of you. To watch and hear your peers speak with admiration about someone who is repeatedly failing you on every paper, every project, every exam with increasing frequency as you near graduation.

You start to question your place so quickly in an environment like that. It’s so easy to start to isolate yourself from your classmates and peers. Because if the person these people all revere thinks you are worthless, won’t they all come to the same conclusion eventually too? And should you want to unburden yourself to someone of the torment of the constant chaos of being asked to resubmit work time and time again, wouldn’t you alienate yourself even more? Out yourself as an incompetent fool? Nobody wants to hear that their favorite professor and one of the most popular musicians in the state is acting strangely antagonistic to one outsider, female student. It’s so illogical. So what he says must be true, you must actually be a hack. Because you are the only person being treated this way by this beloved teacher; ergo, he is right about you. You are a person who submits sub-par work and shouldn’t be a jazz major.

Once I had been so broken down by this experience, I was only able to find myself again by building a wall around me so thick that almost nobody (even to this day) is allowed to break through. I stopped believing any compliments or positive grades I received from other professors. Because I value the concept of bluntness, everyone else appeared to be blowing smoke, in contrary opinion to my committee chair.

But there is one silver lining I cling to as the legacy I left behind.

My recital thesis and the recital itself features amazing women composers and arrangers throughout history. And also phenomenal performances from women who attended UNI during my tenure there. It highlights the compositional and improvisational style of Lil’ Hardin, a black female pianist whose music was prominently featured in the hot jazz scene of the 1920s, but who appears in almost no jazz history textbooks. There are pieces by a female Japanese jazz trio, by Diana Krall, a composition I wrote while at Berklee and a piece by rock star Elton John; besides the traditional pieces by male jazz legends. All highlighting how improvisation is the defining characteristic of what jazz music is as a genre.

In the rather modern year of 2010, I became the first woman to receive a Masters in Jazz Pedagogy from UNI. I’m not proud of my work while I studied at the university. And I’m not sure I will ever consider myself a Master of Music, or a person who belongs in the field of jazz. There are too many doubts and wounds festering still. But I got one thing right. My original thesis is the approved version that sits in perpetuity in the university library, for any student to check out among all of Iowa’s public universities.

One day, there will be a woman in that library, just as I was, reading through Jazz Pedagogy theses to get inspiration for her own thesis. She will see all the names of those who received degrees before her. She will scan their papers and see no mention of female composers or performers. And then, she’ll come to my paper. And she’ll see, she’s not the first. That she can do this. That it’s been done before. And even though we’ll never meet, she will know history has her back. I’ve got her back. History has proven that she can do this and make it through this very male-dominated major. And she’ll graduate with honors and walk across the graduation stage; and never have to question her role or authority in the field of jazz music.

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