The purpose of the Comprehensive Oral Examination for doctoral candidates in composition programs is to demonstrate an ability to engage with questions that are significant to composers and the making of new music. Normally, the examination committee consists of faculty representatives from the departments of Musicology and Music Theory and two Composition faculty representatives. The committee will frame questions and initiate discussions within the general guideline stated above.
There is some additional information that may be helpful concerning the expectations of the Composition faculty.
While there is no prescribed repertory or required list of compositions that should be considered in preparing for the oral examination, it is expected that the candidate have a comprehensive knowledge of important composition trends in new music of the past 100 years or so. Having passed the written part of the comprehensive examination validates an appropriate degree of knowledge concerning traditional repertory. A proviso – if there is weakness with an area of repertory within the context of a passing written exam, expect that these areas may be revisited as part of the oral examination.
However, since responses to questions are judged by the candidate’s ability to do so from an informed position, expect that one should be able to convincingly support general statements and opinion with specific reference to repertory, composers, techniques, and ideas. The candidate should be ready to structure responses based upon what they know well. Leading the discussion by introducing areas in which one‘s knowledge is less than secure is dangerous.
On the other hand, escaping from dicey areas of discussion is nearly always successful by using a response that admits a less sure grasp of information of the particular question and offers an answer that addresses an issue from the position of the candidate’s secure knowledge. A phrase like: “although I don’t know the answer to your specific question, I can respond to your remarks in this way …” is very useful.
In summary, the expectations held by the Composition faculty for the oral examination are that the candidate should be able to demonstrate an ability to respond to questions with agility and focus, to choose responses that direct the conversation to areas of greatest relevance and expertise, and to think “on their feet” in a way that is clear, associative, and organized.