Thursday, October 29, 2009

J'ai arrivais, eh?

I'm in Montreal for the annual meeting of the Society for Music
Theory. Tonight was spent in committee meetings and bar chat, the
papers begin tomorrow afternoon. In the morning I hope to run (my
marathon is in 10 days) and do some sightseeing, before learning about
composers who use triple sharps and the psychology of sadness in
music. I'll keep you apprised of memorable moments.

Scott Spiegelberg
Associate Professor of Music
DePauw University

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Teaching as Manipulation, Manipulation as Teaching

Last night my daughter was asking me to explain how reverse psychology works, because she noticed that when her friends try to use it on her, it doesn't work. I explained that it was a form of manipulation, and really only works when the person doesn't know that they are being manipulated. We have an innate resistance to manipulation, though the line between that and education is a slim one. When designing my classes, I first determine the optimal outcomes: what a good student should know or be able to do at the end of this class. Then I try to figure out how best to get the student to that outcome, and finally how to evaluate for that outcome. The evaluation is fairly basic, and the thing I hate most about teaching. The process to the outcome is fascinating, though, particularly when talking about skills.

In my musicianship classes I am working with the students on how to understand what they hear, and how to translate music notation to musical sound as efficiently and creatively as possible. And what I find is that I need to manipulate my students to get them to develop these skills. I could just say, "1) Practice singing every bit of notated music you come across, using a system that forces you to think about pitch and rhythm relationships. 2) Practice transcribing every bit of performed music you come across. 3) Practice manipulating musical sounds, both in notation (composing) and in performance (improvising)." And then I could evaluate their progress at the end of each semester or month, and find that they weren't practicing enough, if at all. Because it is hard to motivate oneself to practice something difficult, unless there is a clear payoff.

So first I increase the motivation by explaining why I have designed these outcomes, and why all professional music programs include aural skills training. That helps somewhat, but isn't enough. So I assign particular bits of music to practice singing, particular bits of music to practice composing, and particular bits of music to practice improvising. I play particular bits of music for them to transcribe. This requires less self-motivation on the part of the student, some of the work has already been done for them. Then I manipulate them into practicing these assignments through the threat of regularly occurring grades. Each grade is a small percentage of the final class grade, but the good students cannot stand getting a low grade of any sort. Thus they are manipulated into regular practice, which is the best way to develop these skills. Cramming doesn't work, just as it doesn't when learning how to speak a new language.

These grades may be thought of as evaluation, but they really aren't. For me, evaluation comes at the end of the semester, when I see how the students perform on the final exams. That is why I weight the final exam grades much more heavily than any other grade. For me, these regularly occurring grades are manipulation tools, forcing the students to practice what I want them to practice.

The point of this post is to ask if there is a better way. I hate grading, and the students hate grading too. Is there some way to create an environment of encouraging students to do the activities that will lead them to the outcomes of the class, without using grades as a threat? Is subtle manipulation the answer? I don't use reverse psychology on my children, both because they are too smart for it, and because I don't like the inherent dishonesty. Rather than manipulating by lying, I'd much rather go for the brute approach of saying "Do this, or get punished." I suppose that is the equivalent of "Do this, or get a bad grade" in a teaching environment. But just as I rarely have to punish my kids with timeouts, and only have to threaten punishment occasionally, I'd really like to reduce grading to a minimum, left mostly for true evaluation rather than brute manipulation.

Friday, October 23, 2009

FriPod: Dr. Atomic

Right when I took my blogging hiatus, I received a review copy of John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony, performed by the Saint Louis SO, conducted by David Robertson. It only seems fair that I actually review it, even if 2 months after every other classical blog. My impressions are unsullied by any experience with the source opera, so take that as you will. First of all, the performance of the orchestra is phenomenal. Every sound is clear, nuanced, and directed. The opening movement, "The Laboratory" is the shortest, at only 2.5 minutes. It opens with proper foreboding about the creation of a military monster. The immensity of the bomb, both in physical size and in global effect, is portrayed with wide ranges, extreme dynamics, and densely dissonant chords. This movement does calm down, perhaps with the introspection that often begins a research project. "Panic" is indeed frenzied, lots of fast strings with intense brass and woodwind lines over them. This is great running music, much like Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The background pulse stays the same, but foreground rhythms change up the feeling of meter significantly. At one point the strings sound like a geiger counter. Over the 14+ minutes of this movement the style does change, losing the frenzy for isolated moments before panic sets back in. There is a nice trumpet solo in the middle, played very well by Susan Slaughter. The third movement, "Trinity" plays with layered rhythmic ostinati in a very minimalist way for the opening. The trumpet solo is almost heart-breaking, but something keeps it at a remove for me, I think there is some kind of disconnect between the trumpet and the accompaniment. In fact, it is somewhat reminiscent of Ives' The Unanswered Question, which Adams mimicked in his On the Transmigration of Souls. But something about this solo makes me want to have it connect with the orchestra, unlike the other two works.

I watched Gustavo Dudamel conduct the premiere of Adams' City Noir on PBS the other night, and had similar reactions as to this symphony. There are plenty of moments that make me want to turn to something else, but just as my hand reaches for the TV controls or the iPod, Adams throws in a sound that intrigues me and keeps me listening.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Coloratura Tenors?

One of my former student's posted this on Facebook. (Listen to 4:00 onwards to understand the title.)

I haven't heard Anna Russell's humor for many years, so some nice nostalgia. More famous to me are her analysis of The Ring cycle, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Since I love you all so much, here they are.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

E = mF B D# G#

A scientist (or mathematician?) pseudonymed Thoreau describes how attending musical performances helps him solve research problems. may be thinking “So, you spent 5 hours not paying attention to the show?” but somehow a good music performance just gets me in that zone. One of the most important things that I worked out during my thesis research was done during Phantom of the Opera. And I loved Phantom.

I don't see a problem with this at all. I do the same thing, at musical performances, at plays, watching movies, reading books, etc. I don't tend to solve entire problems as much as get inspired to consider new problems or new approaches to a problem that I will complete later. This is because I get pulled back into whatever art I'm consuming at the moment, unless it really sucks. And then I will flit from problem to problem, including working on my grocery shopping list.

Bonus points to the first person who figures out the title of the post.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Walk with the Instruments, Talk with the Instruments

There is plenty of debate on whether music is a language. But there is no debate that this friggin' piano is talking!

Actually, there was debate about this on the Auditory e-list, which prompted this article on sine-wave speech and this raw demo. Want to try it yourself? Here is a program that will convert any WAV file to a MIDI file, so go ahead and record yourself saying something, then convert it to a MIDI file to be played back with the sampled instrument of your choice.