Colette Simonot-Maiello, Assistant Professor

Dr. Colette Simonot-Maiello completed her PhD in Musicology in 2011, focusing on the theme of hysteria in an opera by Francis Poulenc. After beginning her career at Brandon University, she is now an Associate Professor of Musicology in the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba where she combines ethnomusicological
and musicological approaches in teaching and researching Canadian music and decolonization.

Q: I would like to start by asking you, what motivated you to pursue a PhD? 

After I finished my Master’s degree, I didn’t go directly into my PhD. I spent the next
seven years doing all kinds of different jobs. I had a clarinet studio, I performed with the
Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra on occasion, I had a lot of administrative arts admin
gigs, I was a communications person at an art gallery in Saskatoon, I ran a music
festival for a while, and I also worked a little bit in administration at the university. I had
a number of different jobs but most of them were contract work.

Then, I started getting requests to do sessional teaching at the University of Saskatchewan in music history and, as it turned out, I really, really enjoyed teaching. So I decided that, instead of trying to get a permanent higher-level arts administration job, I would do a PhD in musicology and see if I could actually become a professor. If not, I would just go back to the kind of work that I was doing before in arts admin. I had hoped that I could get a professorship, but I didn’t really expect it. The PhD is something I really wanted to do for myself.

Q: You have a Master’s from York University in ethnomusicology and a PhD from McGill in musicology. What is the difference between these two fields?

This is simplifying things a lot, but musicology typically concerns Western European art music while ethnomusicology addresses most other types of music. In addition, ethnomusicology tends to be like anthropology, in that it involves field research, such as interviewing people and writing ethnographies, kind of like looking at music cultures in action. Historical musicology, on the other hand, tends to use methods more like history and literature, and typically involves looking at scores, archives, books, and that sort of thing. Since I had been teaching historical musicology at the University of Saskatchewan, I realized I was interested in both musicology and ethnomusicology.

Q: How did your PhD help you learn to combine the different methodologies?

York University had a cutting-edge ethnomusicology program when I was there. They were doing pretty much everything other than Beethoven and using the latest methodologies. When I started at McGill 20 years ago, their historical musicology program was a really solid traditional program. As a result, by the time I graduated, I had a pretty thorough idea of the breadth of the entire field. I could understand people who had radically different types of training and I felt like I could participate in both ethnomusicology and musicology.

For example, for my dissertation I wanted to look at the theme of hysteria in an opera by Francis Poulenc. Researching an opera by Francis Poulenc was not unusual at all, but using hysteria as a lens through which to view the opera was probably a little unorthodox.

Q: How do you combine these two frameworks in your work today?

Just as an example, I recently finished writing an article on music history pedagogy and responding to the call to decolonize and Indigenize as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I use a Music in Canada course as my case study. Usually when I teach this class, I employ musicological and ethnomusicological approaches and I demonstrate for the students how many different ways we can tell the story of music in Canada, depending on the approach we take. This strategy makes it easier for students to understand how colonial policies have affected music in this country, but it can also show how we might be continuing colonial practices, or decolonizing, depending on how we make decisions about what music to study and how to study that music.

When music academics are told to decolonize and Indigenize, most of us ask ourselves, “how can I incorporate some kind of Indigenous music example in my class and what can I say about it?” It may not occur to us that the structure and methodologies of what we do could be just as problematic as the content. Even just that we separate classical music and popular musics and traditional musics into their own courses is structurally problematic. 

Q: What do you think is problematic in this separation? 

It’s not just the different music that you’re looking at, but it’s the different methodologies that you’re using. An example of a structural problem with Western European art music is that researchers were initially concerned with creating chronologies that end up suggesting an evolution. In that framework, the music that we’re now creating would be viewed as “progressive” and “higher”, rather than “folksy” and “primitive”. That separation alone and the way that we look at these musics differently is pretty problematic—even racist, but we tend not to emphasize that. If you can find a way to create a structure of studying music that puts all of these musics into one course, that would be a more effective way of decolonizing than anything we’ve been doing so far.

Q: How has your PhD affected your ability to teach and to advise students? 

Before I had a PhD, I found that I just didn’t know the field well enough. I had the skills to connect with students and explain things, and I could continue to develop that, but I felt like as long as I didn’t have a PhD, I didn’t have a broad scope of the entire field. I mostly taught the textbook. Now, I can look at those materials critically, figure out how I want to present that to the students, and find things I might want to point out that are problematic. 

Q: What was the most challenging part of finishing your dissertation and actually completing the last stage of your degree? 

The biggest challenge is that your funding runs out just when you need it to not run out. The idea is that you’re going to be somehow inspired to finish because you have no money left. But it’s actually quite the opposite because you have to find a job while you’re stressed because you can’t pay your rent. That was a big problem for me. 

Q: What was it like looking for jobs? 

When I first started applying for jobs, just after my comprehensive exam, it was difficult to find helpful information about how to get a job as a music professor, so it took a lot of my own research to put together all the materials that I needed.

One of my strengths was that I had taken that time off after my Master’s and worked all those different jobs. I had a lot of skills that some young academics who have never worked extensively outside of academia might not have. I credit a lot of my success to that. For example, since I had worked in a few universities before going to do my PhD, I understood different music programs and different music schools in Canada. By contrast, many of my professors at McGill only had experiences with big American schools, maybe just the Ivy League schools, so they weren’t necessarily in a position to advise students on how to market themselves to a range of different types of schools.

Q: What was the key to getting a tenure track position?

I think it was all the teaching experience I had that got me the job. Some things that helped were knowing what I was getting into before I started, having work experience, having taught before and understanding what that was all about before I even went to grad school. I was probably not one of the superstar researchers among the PhD students while I was at McGill, but I did get a tenure track job right after I graduated, which was fairly unusual.

Q: Is there any one detail or nuance or fact about getting a PhD that you wish you knew before you started or that you tell your students before they start?

Don’t think about getting a piece of paper at the end. Think about all the skills you gather along the way. There are so many skills involved in becoming a good teacher, a good researcher, or a good administrator, and all of those different skills can help you get a job, even if it’s not as a professor.

Many thanks to Colette for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her here.

This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.