Category Archives: philosophy

The Sound of Light

I was recently a guest in a classroom (not at APU) and listened to a fantastic composer and beloved professor tell a room full of eager students that the reason florescent lights buzz when they start to go bad is because some of the light is slowing down, and the frequency of the light is getting so slow that it becomes a sound wave instead of a light wave, which is why the buzz is at 60 Hz.

Nobody in the room contradicted him. Nobody. After about 30-second of dumb disbelief, I protested, and the whole class turned on me as if I were an idiot, daring to argue with this obviously brilliant man.

This brought to mind 3 things:

1. An expert in one area is not an expert in all areas. If you are a teacher, be sure you communicate to your students when you are speaking from your area of expertise, and when you are speaking out of your nether regions. If you are a student, become critically aware  of the difference. 
2. Intellectual authority comes from being right, not from being in a position of authority. Don’t be afraid to challenge professors when they are wrong.
3. In a room full of 20 people, I can’t believe nobody knew enough about light, or sound, or electricity to contradict an obviously absurd assertion. I’m worried that we’ve come to just accept general ignorance about how the world works.

So here’s today’s extra credit question. Help me restore my faith in the world. Without heading to wikipedia or google, with just your general knowledge of physics, what would you have said to the man to demonstrate his error?

The End of Men

The Atlantic has an article out on the decline of men in society. The premise is that, in the new economy, traditionally male traits like competitiveness, linear thinking, and being violent brutes are no longer coveted or profitable. Traditional female traits like getting along with others, sitting still and paying attention, and being pretty make women the bestest.

I mean, they use fancier language than that, but I think I captured the gist of it. From the article:

Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?

As I’ve said before, I am deeply concerned by how society treats young boys. I am concerned that the values and logistics of social learning environments make young boys into early failures, and young girls in early successes. Time after time we see how critical the first few years of education are in determining how children think about themselves and their ability to achieve academically. Students who see themselves as failures in 1st grade may occasionally learn to shine later on, but it is the exception rather than the rule.

Now, according to The Atlantic, the idea that boys are only good boys if they act like girls has percolated up through the educational system into the larger society. The old stereotype that women had to act like men to succeed in business has been turned upside down.

Musical Authenticity

Billie Holiday vs. Bing Crosby

Hank Williams vs. Garth Brooks

James Brown vs. Prince

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last few months thinking about musical authenticity (mostly in order to pass one of the classes in my master’s program). This topic has come up here at the Roadhouse before (1|2|3), but this is the first time I’ve done any real heavy lifting on the topic. So here, in very un-academicy format, are some of my thoughts on musical authenticity.

1 – Romanticism
Most people use the “Authentic” as a stand-in for the romantic notion that art should be unfiltered and un-crafted. Sophistication is the antithesis of authenticity. Niel Young is authentic because he gets falling-down drunk and then records songs on the first take without rehearsing the band. Never mind that the result sucks, it’s authentic. The idea of muse, inspiration, artist-as-bystander, these are the notions that get bound up in the term “authentic”.

2 – Historicity
Authentic is also a function of historical proximity to the musical nexus, when something changed into something new. When field songs became the blues, the first generation of artists were “authentic” by virtue of being close to the source. The Sex Pistols are more authentic than Green Day because they were part of the pivot. In some sense, anyone who tries to stand in an existing stream of music suffers comparison to how it was done by the first ones who did it, and even the flaws and cracks in how the first generation did it become codified as essential to the “authentic” sound.

3 – Pills and Powders
If you have liver damage, you are more authentic.

4 – Africa
This is a particularly American phenomenon, but authenticity in American music is often used as a way of quantifying the amount of “Africanism” in the music. American music emerged out of European and African streams – it’s not African, it’s not European, it’s American, something uniquely new emerging out of the tension and crossing influences of the two. In spite of this historical reality,  the controlling narrative of musical criticism is that White music stole and corrupted Black music. Against this backdrop, “authenticity” is a code phrase for music that is less “corrupted” by white influence, something that is “true to it’s African roots”. This narrative was already in full effect by the time John Lomax made his famous field recordings of the early blues, seeking out music he believed to be “untainted” by white influence (ignoring the fact that anything with a dominant 7th chord is already hopelessly entwined with European harmony). The commercial success of Lead Belly and other earth blues artists with white audiences was specifically because of this perceived authentic preservation of Africanism in their music. This controlling narrative emerged again and again, in the social commentary on Jazz, Be Bop, Motown, Funk, Hip-Hop …

It’s impossible to escape the blatant racism in this assumption, especially in light of point 1. The subtext of Africanism-as-authenticity is the appeal to lack of sophistication, the romantic notion that music emerges unfiltered and un-crafted. Clearly James Brown couldn’t have thought through the complex intricacies of how to form a funk groove – “those people” just have natural rhythm!

So, I’m interested in what you fine folk have to say. Here are a few questions:

  1. Is it possible to be authentic as a 2nd generation artist in a genre?
  2. How important is impact (who it influences, how long it endures) on authenticity?
  3. Does authenticity matter? I know we all get skittish about words like “better” or “important” when we talk about music, but let’s acknowledge for a minute that our experience grants us some expertise, and make a judgment call. When it comes time to load up humanity’s cultural artifacts in the space-ark, will authenticity be part of the criteria for preservation?
  4. Race. Not really a question, but go for it anyway.

I promise, you are not being drafted into my thesis paper homework. I just think this is a discussion worth having.

Music….food for our souls

The first record I remember hearing was James Taylors “Sweet Baby James”.  The vinyl sounded course and dirty.  The lyrics confused my 12-year old brain; I had no idea what love was, or how it felt to lose it.  But the melodies spoke to me. James Taylor had this way of writing about pain and longing, without sounding whiny or….to use the parlance of my particular time: “Lame”.  My parents liked his music, so I was almost forced to listen. I’ve always been glad they were James Taylor fans.

The first album I bought with my own money was the “Days Of Thunder” soundtrack. David Coverdale, Chicago, Guns N’ Roses. I grew up in a sort of racing family, so the film moved me. The soundtrack was silly, and I kind of knew it at the time.  But still, I would crank that sh*t to eleven, and imagine myself behind the wheel of a speeding race car.

Grunge came along in the early 90′s, and my interest in actually making music started to take shape. Filthy guitar tones, front-men shrouded in mystery. Why were they so angry? Where did these vicious sounds and words come from? I wasn’t a particularly angry or disgruntled kid at 14. In fact, I had it pretty easy. (It wasn’t until about 15-16 that I started to get in trouble with the local police and disrupt an already dysfunctional family) But records like Pearl Jam’s “Ten”, and the soundtrack to “Singles” made me listen beyond the melody, and forced me to focus on the lyrics. At that point, I realized that pop music mattered, and that lyrics were so important; a time-stamp of an emotion; of a generation.

In 1993, I heard Counting Crows,”Mr Jones” on the radio, cutting through the static of generic “grunge/Seattle” programming. On the record “August And Everything After”, Adam Duritz poured his heart out with reckless abandon. He sang of longing and insomnia. Of love and love lost. Of finding ones true self. He washed his words in americana, and metaphor of vast panoramas and endless highways. I longed to explore the American landscape, free of parents who didn’t understand me, teachers who couldn’t teach me – and myself, whom I didn’t really know.  The album, “August And Everything After” made me a guitar player, and a songwriter. It made me an artist, and it changed my heart forever. It made me a romantic. It made me truly care about music, and the effect it had on my life. To this day, I regard that record as one of the most important catalysts in my life – not just it’s musical influence, but it’s affect on the way I viewed the world, and how I interacted with it.  Last year, I had the opening chorus of “Rain King” tattooed on my body:  ”I belong in the service of the Queen. I belong anywhere but in between.”  I see these words everyday, and yet their meaning continues to evolve.

This post is about the music that first affected you….the music that you truly adopted as your own. The music that defined you.  What first moved you? What upset your heart and challenged your mind? What defined/shaped your taste for art?  What made you dance and sing and shout and cry – madly and unabashedly?

Sound off…  Because it this little blog has taught me anything, it’s taught me to listen. And I like to listen…

Music is Vast

(NOTE: Some of you already saw this on Facebook. I really wanted to post this here instead, but the server was just going nuts the last few days, so I couldn’t. These kind of thinky thoughts totally belong at the Roadhouse, not on that trashy whore Facebook.)

If you took Intro to Music Tech from me in a previous semester, the class probably started out with my patented “You all suck at music, and will likely end up working at Walmart” speech. While I stand by that speech, and think that it is largely true (especially for you, Brandon), I feel as though it may have set the wrong tone for my class.

Instead, this year, I gave a different speech. Addison Road-ites will notice several recurring themes from my posts here, wrapped up in a tidy 5 minutes diatribe on Music and Technology.

So here it is: my opening speech to the incoming freshmen.

Music is vast. It is so much bigger than you think it is. It covers more things, runs deeper, any grasp you have on it is always too small. It will always be bigger than your experience in it.

Music is vast. I call myself a musician, and in the last 4 months that has meant playing keyboards for a national commercial, writing a modern composition for trumpet, piano, and laptop, conducting a choral recording session for another piece I wrote, playing keyboards live for 100 awesome fans at Hotel Cafe, teaching a younger player how to set a tap-delay for a guitar tone, leading worship, singing backing vocals on a demo, writing two songs for a musical, and playing piano for a bad j-pop album. All of those things are music. That’s just one summer, for one person, and you should all know that I am nowhere near the top of the heap when it comes to this industry. Other people are doing far more work than I am. But all of that is music.

Music is vast. It runs deep. It reaches out and strikes the soul, and the whole body resonates on that pitch. It reminds us, like nothing else can, that we are more than meat and bone, more than dust. We are the breath of God, created in His image, and just as he sang the world into being, we create in imitation of Him. We are the immortal echo of the eternal, living for just a little while in these clay jars, and music reminds us who we are. If you haven’t ever felt that, then I honestly have no idea why you’re here.

Music is vast, and it is shared. Music is the exchange of ideas. Melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, vibe, tone, tension, resolution – music is about the trading back and forth of ideas. And language is, frankly, a very bad tool for exchanging ideas about music. There’s a quote, attributed to Frank Zappa but probably not his, that says, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Technology is the ink and paper of music. It is our best tool for exchanging ideas. If you have ideas worth sharing, and again I don’t know why you’re here unless you do, then technology is you best tool for capturing and sharing those ideas.

My goal is not to turn you into geeks and nerds; that will happen on its own. My goal is to turn you into musicians. That means being fluent in the language of music, which is, increasingly, the language of music technology. My goal is to help you learn to use technology so well that it lets you do what you really want to do, which is music. The technology should be transparent, it has to get out of the way, and let you be a musician.

Music is vast. It is broad and it is deep, and it’s way to early in your musical lives to start defining yourself in narrow ways. Don’t say, “I am this, not this” or “I do this, not this”. You have no idea yet who or what you can and will be. Be big! Be curious, be broad, be deep, be soul-ish and magnificent. Everything else in this world will conspire to make you small – don’t be complicit! Resist the urge to define yourself in small ways.

Be a musician. Be vast.

Part of the Problem

Zack gave me a wonderful little “Escrow Survival” gift a few weeks ago, a copy of Gavin DeGraw’s new album Free. I’m diggin on it.

If you own a copy, check something out with me. Roll to the song “Stay”, track 3 on the album. Hit play. Hear that? 3 seconds in, “have to be part of the problem.” Hear that? Yeah.

That’s what a vocal sounds like when you track it in your bedroom at 3 am, engineering it yourself, and you blow a big phat “P” right into the mic with no popper stopper. That’s not the only example on the album, but it’s the easiest one to find.

So, now I’m torn. I’m not a big fan of the perfect pop experience, where everything is ironed out and tuned up and comped together into an indistinguishable amorphous wash of frequency. But … yeah. But. There are technical flaws on this record that really bug me. I can’t enjoy that tune. Everytime I hear it, I hear the pppppop. It keeps me from enjoying some very good songwriting and damn fine singing, some of DeGraw’s best I think (the previous song “Free” hangs together so well, check it out). I find myself wishing there had been a little more attention paid to the basics of good engineering.

So, I guess I’m part of the problem.

On Unions

On Unions

I am a member of two labor unions: The Association of Pleasanton Teachers and the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 (I play trombone).  In the last few months, I have been synthesizing some of my experiences where I have observed the importance of unions, and also their potential negative side effects.  I would love to hear what my friends and colleagues have to say about some of my jumbled thoughts.

Musicians’ Union

It seems that every time I do a non-union gig, something weird or unusual happens.  Something as little as making announcements during my warm-up time, being asked to show up and hour early (without overtime) before a concert for some last-minute rehearsal (I said no), or being told the wrong start time, and consequently staying at a church service for an hour after the stated end time.  (I stayed, and received no extra compensation for my time.)

All of these stories come to mind when I agreed to play for free at the church I attend with  my family this Easter.  When I said yes to my church, I felt like  tried to check my “union” attitude at the door and wanted to serve Christ’s church however I was needed.  Then I received the first e-mail about rehearsal times.  4 hour rehearsal on Tuesday, 2 1/2 hour rehearsal on Saturday, call time an hour before the 8:00 first service.  My part in all of this consisted of playing five 3-4 minute long tunes, about 20 minutes of music total.  My union sensibilities crept back into my mind.  Much of the rehearsal time was spent with the vocalists working out parts around the piano.  My thoughts were 3 fold:

1) If I were being paid and hourly rate, they would have had me come 2 hours later during the 4 hour rehearsal, and rehearsed the vocal stuff without me.

2) There are many people in the church who donate much more of their time and expertise than I do, and that humbles me.  We are currently without a music pastor, and many lay musicians are maintaining the high quality of our program.

3) I am glad I brought a good book to read.  (I am an orchestral bass trombone player, I know how to come prepared!)

On Sunday, I am embarrassed to say, I arrived a couple of minutes after the 7 AM call time.  No need to worry, as rehearsal as far from commencing.  the first thing that was rehearsed, at 7:20 once all forty musicians were in place, was a vocal solo accompanied by a single keyboard.  This went on for about 10 minutes or so.  After 7:30, the whole ensemble did a sound check for a couple of minutes.

In contrast, when I arrive at a union gig, it almost always starts and ends on time.  Announcements are made after the clock has begun.  They are brief.  On the rare occasion that service goes overtime, I (and everyone else) get compensated.  Our time is given a great deal of respect.

Teachers’ Union

This brings me to my membership in the teachers’ union.  In the 1980s the teachers in Pleasanton went on strike to demand more respect of their time, their professionalism and of course, to demand more money.  Teachers are constantly being asked to do things that are not in their contracts.  Much like the requests made of me at a non-union gig, teachers are asked sometimes to go on overnight field trips, spend non-paid hours filling out detailed report cards, bring home essays to correct, etc.  In this context, I bring up that Pleasanton teachers were recently asked to work 2 fewer days and take an equivalent pay cut for the upcoming school year.  For teachers who had gone on strike to gain the pay, benefits and respect that we current teachers enjoy, this was  a tough pill to swallow.  The pay cut would preserve programs for students, and jobs for our fellow union members.  How responsible for providing programs to students are teachers?  Are we entirely responsible, and should we carry a burden for a large chunk of the budget cuts through a cut in salary?  (We would be providing a tremendous benefit to the community at no additional cost to the community.)  Are we somewhat responsible or not at all?  I found myself solidly on the side of “take the small pay cut for the good of our students and the teachers that were given lay-off notices (pink slips) for next year”.  I had trouble understanding why any teacher would be again saving programs within our district.

The Connection

I had a better understanding as to how some of my teaching colleagues could vote against taking a pay cut to preserve programs after this recent Easter.  Since I was not being compensated for my time, it was easy for those in charge not to use it efficiently.  If I don’t say to my church, “You can’t do that again next year, or I am not playing,” then they have no incentive to be more time efficient.

Similarly, if teachers simply say, “Don’t cut programs!  Take some of my money!” this will automatically become the first choice for fixing budget problems.  Other solutions will be skipped and avoided.  It was remarkable to me when a young pink-slipped teacher voted NO to this pay cut, when he of all people had something to gain (the likelihood of his job).

I have been bouncing back and forth on these ideas.  If you carry the “no cuts for teachers ever” idea too far, you can end up hurting students by allowing programs to be cut and newer teachers to be laid off.  If you offer and inch in pay cuts today, you might be asked for a mile tomorrow.  I am trying to find a balance between these opposing concepts.

Where We Are Now

The teachers in Pleasanton agreed to forego 2 days worth of salary and we will have a 2 day longer Summer… IF the communty matches our efforts.  We traded less money for more time (furlough).  The caveat is that the community has to come through as well, and a parcel (land) tax that will be put to the voters in Pleasanton on June 2 has to pass for the teacher 2-day furlough to occur.  I like this approach because it ensures that everyone in the community will sacrifice, not just the homeowners and not just the educators.

re:write

The goal of my music and ethics class is to have the students write a thesis paper, 25-30 pages of well-developed argument. I set milestones along the way: by this date, you need to have a thesis selected, by this date you need to show me ten pages of writing, by this date your draft needs to be ready for peer review, that sort of thing. This week is one of those deadlines, when I meet with the students to review the first 10 pages of their paper and a fully developed outline of their argument.

thesis-papersI ran across one of the students in passing, and he mentioned that he didn’t have anything to show me (I wish he were the only one). He then mentioned, rather flippantly, that he wasn’t all that worried, because he knew that he could knock out a “great paper” in no time once he had finished his research.

I left the encounter feeling very frustrated, for two reasons.

First, nobody can knock out a great paper in no time. The best anyone can do is knock out a great draft of a paper, a first writing. This is a recurring theme from my students; I keep getting first drafts handed in as final papers, because they’ve waited until the last possible moment to write them. When there are obvious errors, errors that any decent editor would have caught just by sniffing the ink, I know that nobody has read this paper but you. Nobody has edited for you. Nobody has done a critical review for you. Which means you’re handing in a paper expecting me to do it. Well, I will, but I do my editing with a red pen in one hand and a gradebook in the other.

Flip open any great book, any well-crafted work, and you will find the author thanking a whole list of people who graciously interposed their critical eye between the author and you, the reader. They are friends and colleagues, loved ones, and professional editors, all of whom serve the monumental and laudable goal of making sure the author doesn’t look like an ass. As a student, you have access to all of those same tools – peers, friends, family, a writing center staffed with editors. Their goal is make sure that your ideas connect to your reader with minimum hindrance by the medium. Writing is not a solo endeavor, not really, not at its best, but when a paper rolls off the printer 10 minutes before it is due it must be. And as a result, I end up grading your first draft.

My second frustration goes much deeper. In 16 years of schooling nobody, including me apparently, has managed to communicate to this student the actual value of writing a long format paper.

I don’t care about the paper. Really. The ink is pointless. I care very deeply about the process of writing a paper, because I believe that it is still one of the best ways to organize sustained, focused, rational thinking about complex topics. I care very deeply that you learn how to do that kind of thinking. The reason I was so frustrated by the student’s response is that the most important part of that process happens after you finish writing the paper.

Writing the paper is a prolonged period of pressure, cramming ideas into your brain, fighting to make logical connections between disparate bits of data. The intensity of pushing all of these ideas into a coherent, organized stream of thought requires reduction, and is mentally exhausting. You finish, hit print, the paper is done, run to class, hand it in, head home, take a nap, and then something magical happens. All of those ideas that you have been pressing down on begin to float freely. They start to shake loose from your organized stream of thought, loose from their moorings, and they rise. They bump into each other in new and interesting ways. They reorganize, like water molecules crystalizing together in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. You begin to understand things in new ways, ways that you were prevented from seeing before because your brain got in the way.

Two days after you finish writing a paper, the ideas you spent so long collating will have reorganized into something that really makes sense. Brilliant connections emerge. Small threads that barely emerged in the initial reading take on new significance as your brains chases them down in the noise beneath conscience thought, using the mental energy recently made available by the lifting pressure. That’s when you sit down and rewrite.

The way to make a writing project really useful is to research, write, release, rewrite, research, rewrite, release, rewrite, continuing the cycle until you arrive at conclusions that have the inevitability of all great ideas. That’s the way to arrive at mastery of a topic. When the topic at hand is your own value structure in an ethically complex situation, that kind of clarity is essential.

It matters to me. What you think about these topics matters to me. How you arrive at your thinking matters to me.

You will stand in front of a school administrator and have to argue that the purpose of education is the development of persons, not the development of merely useful skills, to argue that cutting music education is a dereliction of duty, and it is vitally important to me that you do it from a place of deep knowledge and the passionate conviction of rightness.

You will hold the phone in a long pauses, knowing that you cannot possibly agree to play under the circumstances being presented, also knowing that it is real money you are turning down, and it is important to me that you know why you are saying “no”, or that you know what it will cost you to say “yes”, and that the knowledge be more than merely notional, that it be the result of sustained and careful thinking.

You will run down your list of players to contract for Easter services, and you will skip the names of better players to hire those share your faith (or you won’t), and it is important to me that you have grasped with full rigor the tension between art-as-art and art-as-function when you make that choice, that the conversation between theology and aesthetics has taken place in your mind before you make your calls.

It matters to me how you have arrived at your thinking on these, and the dozens of other topics that emerge as thesis papers.

There are other ways to do this thinking, but this is the way that has been placed in front of us, for now. If it matters to you like it matters to me, embrace this process of read/think/write/rethink/rewrite. Don’t cheat it by counting words and chasing ink. Give it the time it deserves.

Reading List

In one week of meeting with senior music majors about their thesis papers, I’ve recommended all of the following books:

The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

I wish I had the budget to just buy a dozen copies of every book that’s ever changed my life, and give them away to students who walk into my office.

Virtue – Oh So! (get it? Like a pun)

I was introduced  last week to the musical work L’Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky. It’s a theatrical setting of a soldier’s story, there’s a narrator, the soldier is making deals with the devil, there’s a fiddle involved, and several un-marchable-to marches. I guess I probably should have encountered it sooner, but let’s be honest, I spent most of my time in music history class drawing dirty pictures of buxom ladies in superhero costumes (this was before wifi, and WAY before facebook).

I loved it. I loved it even more when I realized, about mid-way through the second piece in the work, that I was not listening to two violins, but to one almost unplayable violin part. The work is written for a small chamber ensemble, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, percussion, violin, and bass (acoustic bass, not awesome bass). Every part in the ensemble calls for a virtuoso; it’s some of the most difficult writing you’re likely to every see for those instruments. You can watch a full version of it online, conducted by Esa-Pekka and played by an amazing collection of musicians.


(the work begins at 10:40. Direct link here)

It’s technically challenging, it’s also hauntingly beautiful and musically thrilling. I’ve been talking to different players about it, and the reaction is almost always the same; a wistful look of longing, some combination of words that boils down to, “I’d love to be able to play it. I’d love to be able to play it.”

It was the perfect time for me to encounter the piece. Earlier in the week, I did a reading workshop for my own piece, Our Father, Vindicate. The reading workshop is where a bunch of musicians get together, perform the work, let me stop and start them at whim, let me make changes to the score, basically they become a huge sequencer for me to work through some final decisions in the piece before committing to final ink. It was a wonderful experience (that’s a whole other post), with a group of our best students and a few professional singers reading down the parts. As good as they were, the piece was still almost unsingable at times.

I am not Stravinsky. Clearly.

But the combination of hearing great singers struggle through my piece, and then hearing world-class players grapple with the fist-full of notes in Stravinsky’s piece made be think about the obligations of the composer to their players.

I think there are three obligations that a composer has to their instrumentalists, when they decide to write technically challenging material.

First, it should be only as difficult as it must be to achieve the desired musical effect. This is the obligation not to write difficult music for the sake of the difficulty. There is no virtue in awkwardness, only in the musical effect.

Second, and this is where most young composers fall short, the composer has an obligation to understand the instruments they are writing for. If I am writing for violin, I should understand the instrument well enough that I can physically mimic how the player will approach the part, and can identify technical hurdles before the player ever sees the piece. This allows the composer to make informed decisions about the first obligation, to only write difficult passages when they are required. If moving the piece up a whole step places my violin double-stops on open strings, I should know that, and should be able to give a musical justification for why I decided to leave it in the more difficult key. Technical difficulty should never be the result of the composer’s arrogance, ignorance or apathy.

Finally, and most importantly, it is the obligation of the composer to ensure that the work justifies the challenge. This is the obligation to write well. If I’m going to give musicians a piece that requires substantial rehearsal, mental and emotional effort on their part, I better make sure that the end result justifies the work they are investing. Performing virtuosic passages requires the musician to internalize the music, to prepare it so well that it no longer comes from the page, but from the player. A musician who agrees to perform a work at that level is giving me access to their musicianship, allowing me to weave my musical ideas into them. That is a deep level of trust, and it obligates the composer to write up to a level that deserves such trust.

Toward the end of the week, I sat in and listened to a composition jury, where student composers preset the works they have written over the semester. It reminded me of how badly I’ve broke all three of these obligations in the course of my writing career. These thoughts have been rolling around in my head for a while, but the combination of these three experiences, Stravinsky, the reading workshop, and the juries, crystallized them into something usable.

I’m writing more difficult music today than I have before, but I hope I’m doing it for the right reasons. I hope I’m meeting these expectations myself.

I’m interested in hearing from those of you who are composers and performers. How does this fit with your experiences performing technically difficult works, or with writing challenging pieces?

335149139_21240cc7a3_b

Happy World Philosophy Day!

How is everyone celebrating World Philosophy Day? How about celebrating by pondering these four philosophical dilemmas, posed by the BBC?

  1. Should we kill healthy people to harvest their organs?
  2. Are you the same person who started reading this article?
  3. Is that really a computer screen in front of you?
  4. Did you really choose to read this article?

I’m off to plan a worship set, but when I’m done, I’ll drop some thinky thoughts in the comment section. Read the article, it’s cool.

100, 101, 101, 100, 99, 98, 99, 100

Well, the results are in. I’m never going back to the old way of teaching.

I’ve just finished grading Intro to Music Tech mid-term exams from the inaugural class of the new “Joy First, Theory Second” teaching method. The results were … staggering.

First, a little orientation. In this exam, the students walk into the room, I hand them a piece of music that looks like this:

They have 60 minutes to reproduce everything on the page, exactly as it appears, using Logic Pro notation software. Any of you who have tried to get Logic to spit out a basic worship chart can appreciate just how difficult some of the things on this page are. After 60 minutes, they email me a PDF file of their work.

In previous semesters, the average grade on this exam is about a 76%. This semester, the average grade was a 95%. I had one entire section (the best section, you guys know who you are) that averaged 100% – AVERAGED!! The lowest grade in the class was like a 94, and everyone else nailed it, including the extra credit.

Alex Wen, my impossibly awesome TA, deserves a huge chunk of the credit. He grades most of the projects leading up to the exam, and his corrections are very pointed, and help the students figure out how to correct their errors.

We also made a pretty substantial shift in the level of training for the lab techs, and made them more readily accountible and accessible in the lab, to help students with their projects.

Finally, this is a pretty unique group of students coming through the class. They are almost all freshmen, and they are very much on the ball. The next few years in the School of Music are going to be fun, if this crew is any indication.

When you add all of those factors up, whatever remainder there is between that and the outstanding test scores, I’m chalking up to the shift in teaching method. I love how effective it is in getting students deep into the content, and meeting them with instruction at their point of interest.

Next semester, I’m going to find a way to adapt this philosophy to my other courses, and better integrate it into the second half of my Intro to Music Tech course. I’m hopeful.

Joy first, theory second.

“Sir, Your Pain is Scheduled for 10:30am.”

“Thanks Maggie. Please hold all calls until lunch, ok?”

I had impromptu coffee with Ash yesterday. He was in town, called me, asked if I wanted to hang, and when Ash wants to hang, you just hang. That’s how it is.

Of course, things went deep. How’s the wife? How are the kids? How’s work? How’s not working? What is the meaning of time and space? Who is God? Does She have a personal assistant?

Like that.

At some point, the conversation turned to the nature of pain, physical and emotional. What is it? How does it affect us? I said something in the course of the conversation that made some sense, and Ash looked at me and said… “You need to write that down!”

Here I am, doing that. Here’s what I said, in a nutshell.

Life is pain. The very act of living is painful. We’re born into pain, and we die in pain. If you’re in pain, you know you’re alive. The question is this: do you want your pain working for you, or do you want to be its slave?

See… I was fat. Really fat. Like 320 pounds fat. Now, I am fit. I’ve lost nearly 100 pounds. I have muscles, and I can run 7 miles without stopping, and I can touch my toes. I do pilates and yoga and eat salad and have become a regular hippie. This process has been ongoing for 2.8 years thus far, and will never stop.

I got fit through a process of deliberately causing pain to my body. The body doesn’t like pain, doesn’t like the feeling of aching muscles. So, it gets all bent out of shape, goes in, and rebuilds the tissue… stronger, leaner, more equipped. This process burns calories, and fat. Then, of course, you have to do it again, and again. You literally incinerate your fat from the inside out.

It hurts. It hurts like hell. At first, when you start walk / jogging, your lungs feel like they’re gonna fall out of your chest. Your feet hurt. Your back hurts. Your knees hurt. Heck, your butt hurts. Most people stop because it hurts. Oh, also, you have to starve your body of calories, which also hurts. You have to purposefully and, of course, healthily, deny your body external food, so that it has to go to the resources it can get to, namely the resources that jiggle on your tummy. Being hungry doesn’t “Hurt” in the same way, but it is uncomfortable, and you get grumpy, and it all sucks.

So… why do it? Well, here’s something to consider: life is pain, and pain is life. Do you want your pain working for you, or do you want to be its slave? When I weighed 320+ pounds, my back hurt all the time. My knees were sore, all the time. My spine was crooked near the top, and slouched forward, causing chronic pain in my shoulders. I would sweat while sitting still. Airplane rides and shopping for pants were exercises in humiliation and discomfort. I couldn’t tie my shoes standing up. I was not likely to drop to the floor and play with my young daughter. I didn’t like going to the beach, or the pool. I had a chip on my shoulder, because I thought everyone was judging me because of my weight. I was a slave to my pain.

But now, (and this is, I think, what Ash reacted to) my pain is scheduled. I manage it. I make it work for me. I do not have back pain. I do not have a curved back. I do not sweat until I say so. I love shopping for pants. I can do a pull up. I am confident. I enjoy being on stage when we’re singing. I don’t fear people’s judgement… well, at least in the area of physical appearance.

Being fit has not solved all my problems, but having been both morbidly obese and a model for healthy living, I am prepared to make a value discernment and tell you that I experience less personal pain when it’s scheduled and maintained.

Schedule your pain. Make it work for you, instead of against you.

Girl you know it’s, Girl you know it’s, Girl you …

Anybody wanna guess what tomorrow’s lecture will be on in my Music and Ethics class?

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/B4MD.flv /]

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/milli_vanilli.flv /]

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/ashlee-simpson.flv /]

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/billy_joel_superbowl_autotune.flv /]

My favorite quote of the day comes from Ray Lott, head of Arista, when the Milli Vanilli scandal broke. “Embarrassing?” he said. “I don’t mean the end justifies the means. But we sold seven million albums.”