Category Archives: university

Textbooks Suck

One other thing, while we’re on the subject of quotations and sources.

Your textbooks suck. Seriously. Your music history textbook, your church music textbook, the forward to your string pedagogy book, they all suck. Please don’t copy and paste Chapter 4 from your Baroque Music History textbook into your thesis paper and call it “research”. That’s just lazy. And also, they’re wrong.

Well, Dr. Jimbo Says …

When you use a quote in an academic paper, all you’ve done is prove that some person said something.

If you’re using that quote to give background on a debate, or to highlight one perspective in a debate, then proving someone said something is sufficient. But, if you’re actually using the quote as evidence in your argument, then that’s not nearly enough. You have to prove that they’re actually right. That means presenting their justification for the point.

As Dr. Jim McJimerson writes in his thesis, “On Writing Papers and Such”,

When you use a quote in an academic paper, all you’ve done is prove that some person said something.

I think that proves my point.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “Academic” as …

So, I’m grading 2,600 pages of thesis papers right now, and I keep running across things I wish I had said earlier in their writing, things I assumed the student’s knew, but they clearly didn’t. I’m going to keep a running list of posts, all tagged “academic-writing“, that I can then reference for them in the future. Feel free to comment along.

First up, citing the dictionary. In almost every paper, I get a paragraph that starts like this, “Webster’s Dictionary defines (term) as …”

It’s a cop out. It’s a way of adding an extra reference source to your bibliography. You are writing a senior level thesis paper, and you can assume an academic audience. The dictionary definition of any word should be considered general knowledge. The only time you should cite the dictionary is if you intend to give a word a technical definition, something more precise than, or a deviation from, the standard definition. In that case, you may cite the dictionary ONLY if your definition, or your general argument, relies on the difference in definitions between your usage, and general understanding.

You can cite the dictionary definition for the word “deception” if your argument is that the standard usage of the word isn’t precise enough to cover deception in classical performance practice. You may not cite it if you simply intend to argue that such practice IS deception, and the standard usage of the word is sufficient for what you mean by the word.

Bearing Witness

Being a faculty member at graduation is a strange experience. You feel a little bit like a prop in someone else’s play. We line up, don our caps and gowns, march onto the field, and then, we do nothing. We watch. We lend whatever meager gravity we have to the occasion. Some faculty members skip, but I go every year, to sit and bear witness.

It’s strange because, for the graduates, it’s their graduation, their one walk across the stage, their one handshake with the President of the University, their one capstone to a 4 year sojourner. For us, though, it happens every May. There are usually one or two students that you have special connection with, a handful that you recognize but can’t quite remember because they switched majors after taking your class, but the day passes, and then you take a breath and start thinking about the fall semester.

This year was different for me. This year, I watched a dozen students walk across the platform that I feel especially connected to. I had them as freshman, they toured in my small group, we played together in concerts, and I had them again in my Senior Seminar course. I watched them grow and change. I saw them in the act of becoming.

I wish you could meet these students. They are thoughtful and curious, and already carry inside of them that indefatigable burden of identity, of being musicians. They are dissatisfied with their own limitations, and moreover, they are disciplined and relentless in overcoming them. When they pick up their instruments, their considerable technical ability is placed in service to their musicianship. They are artists, and scholars, and they embrace the particular obligations of both.

Phil Shackleton sat next to me during the ceremony, and I think he sensed what I was thinking – he must have been thinking something similar. He said, “You see a group of students like this leave the school, and you think you’ll never see students like this again. But you will, they are coming up, we just don’t know them yet. It moves in waves.” I have no doubt that he’s right; he has seen this same cycle enough times to know.

But I haven’t. I started teaching at APU in as an adjunct in 2002, and became a professor in 2005. That was 4 years ago. These are my students. The first group that all came through my freshman course when I was the only one teaching it. They are the first-fruits of my idealized hope for what this school could become in the lives of young musicians.

In my more morose moments, I think that the best thing we’ve done as a school is manage not to ruin these students. We’ve allowed whatever they already had inside of them to survive, even to flourish. Maybe we’ve done more than that, but I’m sure that I am not the impartial witness to say what.

I know this; these students, these particular students, have made me a better teacher. They have pushed me to think more deeply about the subjects I’m teaching, to be more engaged with them in their learning. They have allowed me to open up my life to them in ways that might help them see their own path with greater clarity. They have helped me form a better understanding of my own place in this place.

I was proud to stand witness today, to be a passing figure in their pageant. I look forward, with great anticipation, to whatever these fine men and women set their minds to next.


Our Father Session Clips

Not yet mixed, not even really edited, but here are the long-demanded rough clips from the recording session on Friday. And by long-demanded, I mean I casually mentioned that I would post them, and nobody has really said “No no, please don’t.” I take that to be a consensus for demand.

Here are 3 clips from the song. When the final mix is completed, I’ll post the whole thing in sequence, including videos of my laughably bad conducting. Joy!

our_father_vindicate_clip1.mp3 our_father_vindicate_clip2.mp3 our_father_vindicate_clip3.mp3

Our Father, Vindicate This!

Well, it’s finally happening.

About a year ago, I started working on a choral piece based on the text of The Lord’s Prayer. I posted some early examples here and here. In November, I thought it was finished. Then, I did a composer workshop where actual people sang through it, and ended up throwing out the entire ending, rewriting it from middle section on out.

In January, with the help of Aly and Phil, I wrote a grant proposal to do a demo of the piece, and to use that same recording session to record a tutorial video on how to record this particular kind of composer demo. It got pushed back, and further back, but finally, at last, the day has come.

On Friday, I get to go into a huge studio with a world-class group of singers, the kind who can sight-sing awkard and atonal lines with the same fluidity and accuracy that you’d expect of a real musician (instrumentalists), and we get to record the demo for this thing.

I am more than a little nervous. The singers on the session are guys from the LA Master Chorale, LA Opera, heavy hitters. I am not a conductor, not in anyone’s imagination, but there it is, I’m the only one there to do it.

In large part my anxiety stems from the fact that I care about this piece so much. I’ve invested a year into it, countless hours writing and re-writing, more time than I’ve spent on any piece of music. I think it’s the best work I’ve done as a musician, and for me it represents a way forward from being a gigging keyboard guy to being a legit composer, with commissions and everything. I am deeply invested in the piece, personally and professionally.

The night before the session, I have a 3 hour rehearsal until the wee hours of the morning for yet another LA singer songwriter doing yet another hollywood scenester gig, and the sheer exhausting will probably prevent me from being anywhere close to competent for the actual session. The irony is not lost on me.

For those of you who are into such things, here is the final version of the score.

Our Father, Vindicate

Wiki Wiki Waaa?

So, I’m in a quandary.

For the past 6 years, I’ve used this book as the textbook for my Intro to Music Tech. It’s over 10 years old, which is an eternity in music technology, but nobody has really written anything that’s as clear and usable since.

loudspeakersThis morning, I stumbled across the Wikipedia article on loudspeakers. It’s … fantastic. Clear, concise, well organized, contains everything it should. It is, in fact, much better than the chapter on speakers from the textbook I’ve been using. That led me to the entries on microphones, MIDI, digital recording. Some are great, others are written by engineers using inscrutable symbols and mostly made up vocabulary.

But even the one’s that aren’t great are still pretty good. Which really has me considering why I make my students buy a $25 book every semester.

So, I’m considering a switch for the fall. Instead of having a required textbook, I think I might just have a page of assigned links instead, some from Wikipedia, some from other sites that cover the material well. The content is there, I think I can organize it in a way that has some continuity and logical progression. Maybe I’ll put together a few pages of my own on my academic site to cover the gaps.

Anybody think that’s an awful idea? Phil?


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.

APU School of Music, 1999 vs 2009

Today was a mid-year faculty retreat for the APU School of Music. A major part of the retreat was developing concrete goals for the next 5 years, how we wanted to see our program grow and change as we move forward. To prepare us for that, we looked at a similar list of goals that was set by the faculty in Spring of 2000, and how those goals had been met. The goals for 2000 were based on data from the 1999 school year, which gave us a great perspective on how the School of Music has changed in these last 10 years.

Here are some of the highlights:

  1. In 1999, we had 142 undergraduates, and 7 graduate students. In 2009, we have 250 undergraduates, 70 graduates, and 15 artist certificate students.
  2. In 1999, we had 43 total faculty, 16 full-time, 19 adjunct, and 8 private professionals (those are professional musicians who run on-campus teaching studios). In 2009, we have 96 total faculty, 27 full-time, 39 adjunct, and 20 private professionals.
  3. In 1999, four full-time faculty had terminal degrees (PhD or similar). In 2009, 14 full-time faculty have terminal degrees, and 5 are in process.
  4. In 1999, the MIDI lab was crammed into an unused storeroom under the back staircase. In 2009, we have a 12-seat teaching lab, with fully integrated media (projection, speakers, screen sharing, Logic, Sibelius, Finale, Pro Tools, etc.)
  5. In 1999, we had 4 choirs: UCO, Bel Canto, Male Choral, and Oratorio. In 2009, we’ve added to that a Gospel Choir, Chamber Singers, and Vocal Jazz ensembles.
  6. In 1999, we did not have a Symphony Orchestra (we had a chamber orchestra that hired outside professionals to cover vacant instruments). In 2009, we have a thriving Symphony Orchestra that recently gave the North American debut of a symphony by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Yup, we did it before the LA Phil did it.
  7. In 1999, we had one jazz band that was not fully instrumented. In 2009, we have 2 jazz bands with full instrumentation, and multiple jazz lab ensembles teaching improvisation.
  8. In 1999, we had no ongoing service activity for our local community. In 2009, the Azusa Conservatory offers free and subsidized lessons to 60 local children, taught by APU students. I think this is one of the most outstanding things we do. A few years ago, I heard a 9-year-old boy whose single-mother speaks only Spanish, who goes to an elementary school that is failing on every level, and he played excerpts from a Bach violin concerto. This boy’s life had been fundamentally altered by the conservatory program. It brought tears to my eyes.
  9. In 1999, we only offered a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 2009, we offer a Bachelor of Music degree in Performance, and in the next year we’ll be adding them in Church Music and Commercial Music (the BA is a liberal arts degree, the BMus is a professional degree with a higher concentration of courses in music, and more credibility in the professional world).
  10. In 1999, we offered nothing for commercial music. In 2009, we have 75 students studying in the Commercial Music degree program, making it the fastest growing degree in our school.
  11. In 1999, we were not sending ensembles internationally to perform and record. The last time a large ensemble had toured outside of North America was 1992. In 2009, we’ve sent every ensemble on an international tour in the past 7 years, including tours to Armenia, Romania, Germany, Thailand, Australia, Korea, and Italy.
  12. In 1999, we offered no senior thesis course. In 2009, we have a dedicated Senior Seminar in Music Ethics.
  13. In 1999, we offered no artist certificate program. In 2009, we have 15 students in that program, where they study technique and literature in their instrument intensively and exclusively for a year. Students studying piano and strings in this program place and win at international competitions regularly.
  14. In 1999, we offered no graduate scholarships. In 2009, we award almost a quarter of a million dollars a year in graduate scholarships.
  15. In 1999, we didn’t offered a graduate degree in composition. In 2009, we have our first class of students working toward a Master of Music in Composition.
  16. In 1999, our program was accredited only as part of our university, not independently. In 2009, we have full accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Music. In a very rare move for the NASM, they bypassed the normal provisional membership stage, and inducted us as full members at our first application.
  17. In 1999, we offered no international study for music students. In 2009, we just welcomed back our first group of students from Heidelberg, Germany, where they studied for a semester. We are one of the only Schools of Music in North America to offer this kind of opportunity, where students go internationally for a semester in a program designed specifically for music, study with local instructors, perform in local ensembles, and learn about the history and culture of the place from resident scholars. We heard the report back from those students this morning, and they uniformly agreed that it was a life-changing experience.

I hope that I never take for granted the blessing I’ve been given, to teach at a place like this. It’s wonderful to look at this list, and to think, “I was part of this, I got to help build this into what it has become.” I can look at this list and see specific things that I had a hand in. It’s humbling to think that I have a part in this, and more than a little overwhelming to realize the awesome responsibility that comes from shaping the future of the program.

God is at work in our little corner of the world. Today was a great reminder of that.

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?


More Things I Said To My Students In Class Today

part 2 in a 586 part series

Very few people are allowed to define their music careers narrowly. People who make a living in this field have to be good at a lot of things, and you don’t know yet what those things are. We rarely get to define ourselves, we rarely get to say, “I am a violinist, and I’m only interested in playing Stravinsky.” You get defined by opportunity and necessity – what becomes available for you to do, and what other people need you to do.

The irony is that the better musician you are at one specific thing, the more people will ask you to do things that are outside of your expertise and training. If you’re good, you’ll be successful at it, and get asked to do it again, or something kind of like it, and then you’ll start drifting from the musical definition you imposed on yourself early on. That’s a good thing.

Your 30-year-old self shouldn’t be held hostage to the predilections of your 18-year-old self. Don’t define yourself narrowly. Grab every tool you can, because none of us knows what we we might need on the journey ahead.

Universal Grade Change Petition

Well, it’s that time of year again, when I grade thesis papers and final projects, and students begin the equally arduous task of protesting their final grade. To make the whole process flow a bit more smoothly, this year I will be using a universal grade change petition. Students may fill in the appropriate blanks and submit the petition to the Dean, Provost, or University President, saving everyone a lot of time and hassle.

—————— copy and paste from below —————–

To: (professor/teacher/instructor)________________________


I think my grade in your course,_________________, should be changed from___to___for the following reasons:

  1. ___ The person whose paper I copied got a higher grade than I did.
  2. ___ The person who copied my paper got a higher grade than I did.
  3. ___ This grade will lower my GPA, and I won’t get into (__) Medical School, (__) Dental School, (__) Chiropractic School, (__) Graduate Program, (__) Starbucks Managerial Training.
  4. ___ I need an “A” in this class to balance out my “F” in ___________ .
  5. ___ I’ll lose my scholarship.
  6. ___ I’m on a varsity sports team, and my coach couldn’t find a copy of your exam.
  7. ___ I didn’t come to class, and the person whose notes I copied did not cover the material asked for on the final exam.
  8. ___ I studied the basic principles, but the exam wanted every little fact and vocabulary term.
  9. ___ I studied every little fact and vocabulary term, but the exam asked for general principles.
  10. ___ I understood the material, I just couldn’t do the problems on the exam.
  11. ___ I can do all the problems, but the exam expected us to understand the material.
  12. ___ You are just prejudiced against (__) Males, (__) Females, (__) Jews, (__) Catholics, (__) Muslims, (__) Atheists, (__) Blacks, (__) Whites, (__) Asians, (__) Jocks, (__) Adult Learners, (__) Young People, (__) Progressive Thinkers, (__) Libertarians, (__) People.
  13. ___ If I don’t pass, my father will stop sending me beer money.
  14. ___ I have a learning disability that prevents me from (__) understanding new ideas, (__) writing, (__) following directions, (__) applying concepts, (__) doing research, (__) critical thinking.
  15. ___ You told us to be creative, but you didn’t tell us exactly how you wanted that done.
  16. ___ I tried to finish the paper but my computer doesn’t like me.
  17. ___ Your former students all said the class was easy; it was totally unfair for you to suddenly give a hard exam.
  18. ___ The lectures (__) were too detailed to pick out the important points, (__) did not give sufficient detail, (__) too boring, (__) all jokes and no substance.
  19. ___ All my other profs have agreed to raise my grades.
  20. ___ This course was (__) too early, I wasn’t awake, (__) too late, I was always tired, (__) at lunchtime, I was too hungry to think.
  21. ___ You never said we couldn’t do our thesis paper in groups.
  22. ___ My (boyfriend / girlfriend / sibling / grandmother / roommate) was (ill / dead / sleeping around / going through a hard time) and I (needed to be there / was very emotionally involved / had to confront them) so I didn’t finish the final project.
  23. ___ The one time I went to work on my paper the library was closed.
  24. ___ There was no Wikipedia entry on this subject.

plagiarized from here

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.

Graphicly Explained

I’ve been on a slow quest to make my lecture slides fit my presentation style better. Moving from content and text heavy slides, where every important definition is typed out, to a style where the slides serve almost as a visual soundtrack to the lecture, emphasizing important ideas with single words, or just a picture.

So, I’m pretty pleased with this slide I built last night, for today’s lecture on transducers. Transducers are a class of objects that convert energy from one format to another. Microphones and speakers are both transducers. To illustrate the idea, I hacked together different images to get this:

My dream is to sometime have a full-on budget where I can hire Corey to build all of my lecture presentations for me (and, of course, dress me), but until then, I’ll muddle through with only my own unerring sense of design and a hefty amount of copyright violation.

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?

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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.”


Stanford has taken their school of Engineering to the world. They join MIT, and a host of other universities in giving away their content for free.

Of everything that the internet has brought us, I’m the most thrilled with this revolutionary new mindset, that knowledge is the province of all of humanity, not a scarce resources to be hoarded and doled out in strict hierarchies of authority.

I’m excited for what this means for the role of the teacher in the coming generation. In addition to being experts in our field, we will need to become more adept curators of knowledge, organizing and presenting it in a compelling way. We also need to become more adept at modifying and evolving our teaching in improvisatory way, as student curiosity and awareness changes. The experience of being in the room should be different, based on who is in the room.

My authority to teach no longer comes from my ability to take money and dispense knowledge – anything I can teach my students, they have ready access to for free online. My authority to teach (if I have any!) comes from my ability to create a compelling environment in which to learn, and to bring to my students attention new ideas in a way that meets their development in a timely manner.

I’m often puzzled by profs here at APU who don’t record lectures, don’t publish their notes, don’t push content out in ways that students can access on demand. They are trapped in a protectionist mindset, concerned that if they give away their content, they will make themselves obsolete. Students won’t attend classes if they can get the content off-line.

If the only reason my students attend my class is because I am holding information hostage, I’m violating one of my fundamental obligations as a teacher. If I can’t give them some other compelling reason to be present in that room, then why shouldn’t I be replaced by a bikini-clad supermodel reading straight from wikipedia?

Do It First, Then We’ll Talk

This semester marks a pretty radical shift in my teaching. I’m adopting two new philosophies for each of my courses, rearranging lecture content and schedules, changing project parameters, all around two new principles.

The first is simple. I’ve made it a goal to never “lecture” for more than 20 minutes at a time. At the 20 minute mark, I stop, and we do something else. Either a class discussion, or a small project, or a break, something else. I’ve been on a steady diet of TED talks for the past 12 months, and I’ve been trying to capture the power of that strict time limit, the intensity of a well-crafted 20 minutes. I think it represents the upper limit of my students’ attention span, and rather than fighting it, I’ve decided to embrace it and use it to my advantage.

The second principle is more fundamental, and for me much more difficult. Most of the time, my thinking moves from principle to extrapolation. Once I learn the structure of MIDI messages, I can then move on to figure out how you might use them to deliver different kinds of musical information, how you might edit or filter them, a whole host of ideas can follow out of understanding that underlying principle. I organized my classes along similar lines, first teaching all of the core principles of a field of study, and then putting them into practice in the back half of the semester with projects. The result was that I bored my students to death in the first 6 weeks of the semester, bombarding with stuff that I knew was important, but that they really didn’t care much about.

I’m flipping that around this semester. I’m following a “do first, understand later” plan. In music technology, that means getting students to record and mix something the very first week, before they have any clue what they’re doing, and waiting until November before we even start getting into vocabulary, graphing, any of the more technical parts of the course. In Music & Ethics, it means pushing case studies to the front, and systematic moral philosophy to the back end.

I’m hoping that two things happen. First, I’m hoping to make some students more comfortable with unstructured progress, the ability to learn how to function with uncertainty. I’m coming to believe more and more that this is a critical skill to success in life, and something that they have not learned well to this point in their schooling. The skill used to figure out how to record a song with a piece of software without knowing “how it works” is the same skill set that they will later use to plan a semester of music classes, or produce a recording, the same skill set that will let them survive their first year of professional life, when they don’t know how anything works. The ability to jump into something with only a vague sense of how it works, and to emerge successful, is on the top tier of necessary skills for the professional musician.

My second hope is that it will spark a series of questions, that it will ignite curiosity in the students, and that the back half of the course, the systematic, academic, vocabulary and principles part of the course will become a series of answers to questions that they actually want to know the answer to. Instead of saying “this is a continuous controller message, here’s how it’s structured, memorize this, it’ll be on the test,” it will become “on those projects you’ve been working on, you kept using the mod wheel to change the sounds in interesting ways, here’s what you did, this is why it worked, here’s how you can use it to do other cool things, because it’s structured in this way.”

Basically, I’m trying to trick my students into being curious about the things that I think they should know.

I’m interested to hear from those of you who are teachers, in any capacity. What do you think about these ideas? Any of you go through big upheavals in how you view learning, based on your own experiences? Am I being hopelessly optimistic that these changes will make a difference in how my students learn?