Success Is More Than a Theory

April 23, 2021 - MSU Music Communications Office

MSU Music Theory students have ample opportunities to attend and present at conferences. This group, from 2019, includes the five students graduating in 2021 and heading to top music theory Ph.D. programs, continuing MSU's 100% placement rate.

Spartans know that banding together is often how success is achieved. This semester in the Michigan State University Music Theory Area, five College of Music graduate students completing their master’s degree proved using that approach gets results.

Michael Ebie, Hanisha Kulothparan, Zachary Lookenbill, Gerry Lopez, and Samantha Waddell arrived at MSU at roughly the same time and bonded immediately, in part because of the supportive environment in the Music Theory Area. All five with a desire to become university professors and create a deeper understanding of music for generations to come, they pinned their hopes on MSU providing that critical launching pad.

MSU did not disappoint. All five are accepted into some of the top music theory doctorate programs in the country.

“During their time in our program, these five students have been finding their footing in this discipline, going from newbies knocking on the door to expert practitioners who present at conferences and take part in workshops,” said Michael Callahan, chair of the MSU Music Theory Area. “Now, all five are moving on to pursue terminal degrees, and we are quite proud of them as individuals and as a cohort.”

For Toronto native Hanisha Kulothparan, hard work earned her this year's Irna Priore Prize for Student Research, awarded to a student who delivers an outstanding presentation at the annual Music Theory Southeast conference. Her paper, “Flow in the Alter Egos of Nicki Minaj,” was considered exceptionally well-presented.

“I had been working on this project during the fall semester with Dr. James Sullivan as part of an independent study. After taking his rhythm and meter seminar last year, I wanted to expand my knowledge on that topic within music that I enjoy, which is rap,” said Kulothparan, who will attend the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in the fall. “I spent the semester exploring a lot of music and recognized a connection between my analysis and gendered stereotypes which prompted a large final paper.”

Kulothparan was able to present her paper at graduate conferences at Florida State University and McGill University in January and February, which proved excellent practice before the larger, regional conference where she won her award. She was also invited to be a guest lecturer at Northeastern University and turned her conference paper into a workshop for undergraduate students.  

“MSU provided me with so many classes, tools, and support to explore all of my interests and help me find my niche within the field,” Kulothparan said. “When I started my masters, I did not have sights on a big school like Eastman. I especially did not feel that I had the confidence and skills to apply to such prestigious schools. I am really grateful for the extra support that MSU gave me to do so.” 

Michael Ebie is from a small town in Ohio and received his bachelor’s in music from the University of Akron. He began pursuing a master’s degree in tuba performance at MSU and later added the master’s in music theory. Admittedly, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting into. 

“I didn’t have the faintest idea of how broad the discipline was,” said Ebie, who will attend the University of Cincinnati in the fall. “Now, I would like to use my research to encourage students to change their preconceptions about music theory, and use it as a tool to improve their understanding and performance of music.” Ebie will attend the University of Cincinatti in the fall.  



Samantha Waddell is a first-generation college student from Evansville, Indiana. She will attend Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music in the fall and received offers to attend the University of Cincinnati and other schools. Her hope is to broaden the repertoire used in classes so that every student can see themselves in the music they study.

“I definitely would not be in the position I am – with many more offers than when I applied for my master's – without the guidance I have received academically, professionally, and personally from MSU's theory faculty,” she said. “MSU's program is definitely attractive in that it sets up students well to go on for a PhD. We have a 100% PhD program placement rate, and MSU's program is known for producing great scholars and teachers at the MM level. During each of my interviews, the professors from other programs stated that they thought MSU had a great MM program.”  

Zachary Lookenbill completed his bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition at West Chester University of Pennsylvania in 2017. He and Gerry Lopez will attend The Ohio State University in the fall. Lookenbill said MSU’s joint emphasis on research and teaching in music theory was a positive experience.

“I cannot speak highly enough of the teaching experiences as a teaching assistant at MSU,” he said. “The faculty push us to become better pedagogues while providing us with the support we need, and I thoroughly enjoy teaching such creative and hardworking undergraduate students every day.”

In fact, time and again, these students sing the praises of the MSU Music Theory faculty. Dr. Callahan is regarded as having a unique and effective teaching style, providing valuable lessons not only as a mentor but also as a collaborator. Dr. Sullivan is said to offer great feedback, insight, and encouragement. Dr. Bruce Taggart and Dr. Patrick Johnson are described as terrific role models as compassionate and understanding instructors. And Dr. Gordon Sly and Dr. Cara Stroud are thanked for pushing students to explore new and challenging music theory topics. 

Faculty excellence is a recurring topic, along with the camaraderie and support of their cohort. For Waddell, the strength of MSU’s Music Theory program was evident from the start.

“When I went to interview, it felt like home. I camped out in a hallway outside of Dr. Sly's office, waiting for my different interviews. That same spot became where I would hangout between classes and do work before MSU went virtual,” Waddell said. “I cried when I got the MSU offer of a fully-funded master's degree. I still feel so incredibly thankful that the faculty decided to take a chance on me.”

To Waddell and others, the cultivation of a community that not only challenges students but helps them find their place and gain valuable experience is the key to success. MSU is a place that has helped them to discover, deepen, and publicly share their interests and passions as scholars. They have also thought about what’s important to them as teachers, and they have already done impactful teaching here at MSU.

“I always knew that I could count on my peers and faculty for advice, help, and support in and out of the classroom,” Kulothparan said. “I have made lifelong friends in the music theory program, and that has only added to my wonderful two years at MSU.”