To D(ma) or Not To D(ma)…? That is the Question.

By  | June 1, 2011 | 9 Comments | Filed under: A Day in the Life of...

Quite recently I made the decision to remain in academia for a few more years – in pursuit of my Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A., the terminal performance degree).  Although some singers agonize over this decision, it came quite easily for me – albeit after about a year of shoving it to the back of my brain!  I thought this would be a good topic for this month’s issue. Many singers are afraid that working on a D.M.A. means losing three years of networking and ladder climbing as a performer, while not doing one means being shut out of most University teaching jobs.  Although this may be true for some, I do not believe it to be the case for myself – let me tell you why.

As some readers may recall from my very first post, I had been planning to stay at my university for an additional year in the Professional Studies Certificate program (some institutions more commonly refer to this sort of program as an Artist Diploma).  My reasons were quite simple – although I often found myself justifying them to confused friends and family – I felt as though I was not done. Of course, musicians will (and should) never feel that they have reached a pinnacle of understanding and skill. However, I didn’t think that I had a sufficiently polished product to present to conductors, casting directors, and management companies.  I had hoped that an additional year of lessons, coachings, and stage experience in an operatic production or two would not only hone my skills, but also boost my confidence a bit before I came out as a full-time, honest-to-god, working musician.  This is not to say that I haven’t already been making regular treks to Manhattan for auditions.  Still, doing so on a full-time basis is quite another thing.

I thought that the Professional Studies program offered precisely what I needed without the long-term commitment of a Doctoral program, and I kept telling myself that I needed to get out and establish myself as a performer before cloistering myself for my doctoral work.  The one-year program would provide me with the opportunity to tailor my curriculum to work on the specific skills I wished to polish.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want a doctorate; I just thought it was something I’d pursue when I was older, or even close to retiring as a performer. After all, isn’t this what we all tell ourselves?

Problems arose when I sought out financial aid for the Professional Studies program, as it is not recognized as a ‘degree.’  In conversations with my advisor (and the university financial aid office) the question arose, “Why not pursue your doctorate?”   When I came home at the end of the day, fraught with worry over how to make this next year possible, my partner Brett would say, “I still think you’d be a great candidate for a doctoral program.”  On some level I knew this myself.  Despite the occasional last-minute term paper meltdown, I have always enjoyed the process of research and the feeling of accomplishment after turning in a well-written paper.  My time in England this spring further cultivated my growing love of research and its direct application to performance.  Still, I would roll my eyes at him and ask, “Do you really think YOU can handle another three years of divo-fits and meltdowns?”  His reply was something to the effect of, “I’ll be dealing with that whether or not you’re in school!”

Now, I don’t want you to think that I chose according to the convenience and availability of financial aid, however the financial problems I ran into were a catalyst for my decision.  I began to ask myself why I was banging my head against a wall over a program that really wouldn’t count for anything tangible.  Although an Artist Diploma program can be quite valuable in terms of experience, someday I hope to teach at the university level, and the longer I wait the more difficult it will be to re-enter a life of study.

The real clincher – what a certain, recently retired television icon might call my Aha! Moment – came on the day of my Master’s Degree graduation.  Despite my fretting over the uncertainty of the next year of my life, I made the conscious decision to let it all go and enjoy what my classmates and I had accomplished.  It’s been a funny year for me, with lots of ups and downs, and I had started to think of my Master’s Degree as something I was doing on the side.  Somewhere along the way I forgot the importance of such an accomplishment. However, it all came rushing back as the familiar processional music began to play.  I really felt as though I had done something good and admirable over the past two years.  As I watched the presentation of the doctoral degrees – the lovely rite of the “hooding”, and the reading of the monograph or dissertation title followed by the presentation of “Doctor So-and-So” – I was overcome by the achievement of those women and men, most of whom were no older than I.

Immediately after the ceremony I greeted Brett and my family and said excitedly, “I want that!  I could do that!”  Of course, I realize that it is not all about the pomp and circumstance of being hooded and referred to as Doctor DeSilva.  I also realize that I am signing up for at least three more years of grueling work and research.  But I also know that I can do it.

I can do it and I can also pursue opportunities as a performer.  After all, the D.M.A. is a performance degree, and I have known a few people who have completed their doctoral work while maintaining an active performance schedule.  Most schools are quite accommodating of this as it reflects well on them.  This is not to say that juggling academics and a performing career is not challenging, but I believe the cliché that life is what you make it.  I’ve already faced some criticism because I chose to remain at the same institution that gave me my Master of Music Degree.  I understand the professional “risk,” but I do have my reasons. And, life is not so cut and dry.  Indeed, the path of a classical singer is not at all set in stone, nor are there universal rules or set answers to every career question.  What I hope to give you readers is a glimpse of what is possible.  I don’t subscribe to the belief that what works for one will inevitably work for another, and there are certain unorthodox risks I’ve taken in pursuit of my career.  A very wise lady once told me that sometimes we just have to make a decision, pick a direction, and take a step, because if we don’t we’ll just be standing in the same place forever mulling over our uncertainties.  Whatever the outcome, I am thrilled to bring you along for the journey.

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Bryan DeSilva is an up-and-coming operatic countertenor whose voice has been hailed as "otherworldly," possessing "a warm and honeyed tone." He holds a Master's Degree in Vocal Performance from Temple University's Boyer College of Music and currently lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Elise Christina Jenkins

    Hi Bryan,

    Thank you so much for sharing this article. I recently just came back from Italy singing in a young artists program for 5 weeks. It was quite intensive, but enjoyed my journey there to the fullest. I am definitely thinking about enrolling in a DMA-Voice/Opera program next year (2017-2018).

  • Allison

    Hi Bryan,

    I really enjoy reading your blog and I really enjoyed reading your blog tonight. I have been wrestling with making a similar decision too, even though it is not a DMA. I only have my BM so far and want to go back and get my master’s, but it is impossible right now because of my financial situation and the economy, so I have been thinking about doing coursework to obtain a teaching certificate and studying voice privately, but not wanting to miss out on what insight graduate studies might offer. Reading this blog helps me remember that there is no clear-cut way to creating a career for myself and no way is the wrong way.

    • Bryan DeSilva


      Thank you for reading! I think that there ARE plenty of paths we can take on our journey to a “performance career” (whatever that is!). This is a really difficult time for many to think about the cost of higher education. I know that we always say that you should look for a teacher rather than a school, however I urge you to take a look at your State Universities. I am not sure where you are, but many of these schools will give you a top-notch education, often at half the cost of privately funded schools and conservatories. I’m not sure where you are located, but it can’t hurt to check these programs out. There are pros and cons to every music program, but in many ways your education is what you put into it and I myself am a proud graduate of a state university. :-)

      Best wishes,

  • Tai

    This is wonderful. I have also been pondering whether I should pursue a DMA…I feel strongly that I should continue to stay in school for many of the same reasons that you’ve stated. Thanks for sharing!

    • Bryan DeSilva

      Tai, thank you for your kind words. I think that a decision like this should not be taken lightly, nor is it one that has to be made under some deadline. Take some time, even take a year off, if need be, but make sure it is right for YOU. I cannot stress that enough!
      Best wishes,

  • Johann van Niekerk

    Bryan, thank you so much for sharing this. A lot of thought goes into a decision of this magnitude and I believe that you will be able to balance academia and the starting phase of your professional career. Best of luck in your endeavours! I like Marcellina’s suggestion as well, although I assume that financial aid will only be given if you are enrolled full-time with a certain amount of credits each semester.

  • Marcellina

    Here’s my suggestion, and it may or may not be right for everyone but —

    Yes, stay in school, and use the time, as this is what you need. Take the courses you really want to take, the ones you think you need for your career, even if it means putting aside some requirements at first. If in a few years you start your career and are missing credits for the DMA, then you can easily do that later when you really need the degree (when you actually apply for a teaching position.)
    And of course continue to use all the benefits of academia to network and study and travel, and you will not have passed up any of those things. On the contrary, you will have a lot more opportunities, being connected with an institution. Keep in mind always how to make this *work for you*.

    • Ian Howell

      Marcellina – what great advice! I love how this keeps all your options open.

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