My Research: PhD in Film Musicals

PhD student at desk working
Elsa Marshall
PhD Student
Audiovisual Form: 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'.
Elsa is researching the 1954 MGM film musical 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'.

Elsa is from Ottawa, Canada and started her PhD in September 2017. She is supervised by Prof. Nicola Dibben and Prof. Jonathan Rayner.

What were you doing before you came to Sheffield?

I completed both my BMus (2011-2015) and MA Music (2015-2017) at the University of Ottawa. For my MA thesis, I wrote on the performance practices and networks of musicians who played alongside silent films in Ottawa. Duringmy two degrees, I also held summer jobs at archives, and I played viola in university ensembles and community orchestras.

Tell us about your PhD.

I am researching the 1954 MGM film musical;Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I am interested in looking at ideas of audiovisual form and trying to build theories based on archival materials. The cool thing about film musicals is all the different media and artistic disciplines involved. By understanding how the filmmakers understood their own craft in the studio system, we can maybe learn more about how these media were put together.

Why did you choose to study at the University of Sheffield?

I came for the strong musical theatre research being done in the department, the numerous academic conferences and study days, and the University’s support in creating public engagement events. Additionally, there are quite a few scholarships in comparison to other UK institutions.

How did the Department of Music help support you through the whole process from application to settling in?

Whenever I had a question, staff members responded quickly with care and attention. It's been important, with the multitude of different forms and procedures you have to figure out when doing postgraduate applications, to have people that treat you with respect and are willing to take some time to help you sort through the process. It made my decision to come to Sheffield feel like a responsible one.

What are your top tips for any Canadian students thinking about studying Music in Sheffield?

The program here is heavily research focused in comparison to Canadian programs and requires a lot of independent work. Having taken six years of university courses, I felt ready to dive straight into my dissertation and I have appreciated the challenge. However, there are aspects of North American PhDs that are not inherently included in UK programmes, so make sure you have an understanding of how the degree differs from the Canadian one and what you are wanting to gain from it.

Can you tell us about being a postgraduate student in the department?

Postgraduate researchers get their own room with a few desks and computers. It's a nice quiet area to work in, and it has been very useful place to bounce ideas back and forth and to meet others in the program. There are regular talks from visiting researchers in the Research Seminar series. I like that the speakers are varied. For example, I got to see sound artist Scott Wilson discuss his recording method and inspirations for his work ';Kelp Road,’ and I attended a lecture on romantic form by Julian Horton. There are also Graduate Study Days every two months or so where we learn of and discuss research techniques, a variety of concerts ranging from premiers of cut musical theatre songs from the University’s Broadway Orchestra to new electroacoustic compositions at Sound Junction, and plenty of workshops to help with developing academic and professional skills.

I came for the strong musical theatre research being done in the department, the numerous academic conferences and study days, and the University’s support in creating public engagement events.

Elsa Marshall

What do you enjoy most about living in Sheffield?

Living in student accommodation in the city centre, I like that most everything I need is in walking distance: the train, shops, libraries, cafés, etc. I often go to the Peace Gardens and the Winter Gardens to read, and I thoroughly enjoy the view of the duck pond from Western Bank Library. I like that there are a lot of public lectures from locals and from national figures, sporting events such as the World Snooker Championships at the crucible, and inexpensive theatre tickets for youth. Also, I really like that I can go to many places, including London, Liverpool, and Manchester, and back by train within a day. I’ve had many nice day trips.Recently I’ve explored places closer to Sheffield, trying Bakewell pudding, visiting Chatsworth House, and going into the depths of the Blue John cave in the Peak District.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done, seen or got involved with while at Sheffield?

I’ve had quite a few interesting experiences so far in my PhD. I’ve enjoyed playing viola in the University’s Broadway Orchestra in concerts lead by Joshua Goodman, a fellow PhD researcher, and Dr. Dominic McHugh. These showcased the department’s research on musicals, including a bit of my own work, and they were a great way to meet instrumentalists from across the university.

I also had the opportunity to organise the Recording Broadway festival. Thefestival brought together UK and international academics, and involved Film Unit (the University’s student cinema) and the Showroom (a leading independent cinema). It also allowed me to work with Arts Enterprise and Think Ahead, as well as with students, academics, and administrators in the Department of Music, to create two days of academic and public events. I’ve been fortunate to receive funding to do archival research in Los Angeles, looking at film production documents, oral history interviews, and more. I also had the chance to glance at the archives of the Great American Songbook Foundation and to meet Michael Feinstein at the Reading Musicals conference in Carmel, IN last year, organised by Dr. Hannah Robbins and Dr. McHugh.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your experience of living and studying at the University of Sheffield?

I have had very good experiences with the University’s health services and have appreciated the support of staff members and administrative services during the course of my studies. Their quick responses, consideration, and advice have been a great help.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking of doing a research degree in Sheffield?

Contact a professor or staff member in the department you are interested in studying in, and do it early in the application process. It might be intimidating to send the first email, but even if you contact the wrong person with your question, the staff are happy to direct you to the right person.