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We’re starting a composition program at NDSU

I had some writer’s block earlier this year. After completing Shindig for horn choir, I flailed a lot from about March to August. I think part of it was the workload from taking classes and teaching a full load across two campuses. But another part of it was that I spent mid-to-late part of the semester designing, proposing, and planning a composition program at NDSU.

Our composition degree has been approved and accredited, and we started our first students this fall. And as an extension of that, I’ve joined NDSU full time.

Does the world really need another composition program? Probably not. I attended a paper this summer about the overcrowding in the composition world, and especially in the time of COVID, the opportunities seem to be dwindling.

Does the region need a composition program? Yes. Looking at professional undergraduate (Bachelor of Music) degrees, ours is the first in the Dakotas. There are four in Minnesota, one in Montana, and one in Manitoba. It gets better the further south and east one goes. But new music opportunities are, well, not numerous up here.

Of course, at many schools, students interested in composition can take composition lessons within the context of the BA or BS in Music. My intention is that having a collection of degree-seeking composers will give us the ability to do several things we wouldn’t be able to do within the context of a BA or BS, such as produce more composer opportunities and resources for the region. Things such as a new music concert series, Dakota composer residencies, a student-run music press to experiment with self-publishing, and assembling materials for high school students interested in composition.

NDSU is an interesting place to do all this. We have a named and endowed School of Music within a comprehensive STEM-focused Land Grant university, which puts us in an ideal place for both collaboration and outreach. We already have a full range of academic music programs from the BM to the DMA. Our undergraduate music curriculum already requires Music Entrepreneurship which intersects with the university’s entrepreneurship initiatives. And NDSU is already quite new music friendly, with the annual Fissinger Composition Contest, the new Pilafian Composition Contest, and regular performances of works by living composers.

So looking at the reality of the new music scene in North Dakota and what the future of music composition might be like, we’ve tried to make the degree as flexible as possible. Composers have to know a little bit of everything, so we’re having them do the same instrumental or vocal performance requirements as our BA/BS students do. Proficiency on piano, conducting, counterpoint, advanced theory, and instrumental arranging, of course. But then we’re also opening up a chunk of electives for the degree, giving students the opportunity to gain some additional specialization or marketable skills. This might include taking some of the music methods classes to learn how to play all the instruments. Or taking on a certificate or minor through the college of business, such as Entrepreneurship, Accounting, Business Administration, Management Information Systems, or Community Development. Or pursuing minors in Creative Writing, English, or Theatre Arts. Or there’s the certificate in Publishing.

The hope is to twofold: To create resources and opportunities for composers in the Dakotas, and to create a composer incubator which gives students the tools they need to be successful musicians in the region and the world.

Oh and that writer’s block finally lifted. I have a new song cycle of hilarious poems by Mark Vinz that are getting the finishing touches soon, to be premiered in February.

The teacher becomes the student.

The more I’ve composed, and the more I’ve taught music, the more I realize that there’s just so much interesting stuff out there to learn, a lot of which intersects with music composition. Psychology of creativity, business administration, critical theory, aesthetics, higher education administration–these are all things that sound terribly interesting.

Cassie’s work at NDSU affords me a half-tuition waiver, so this spring I decided to become a bison. An entire degree seemed like a bit much given the rest of my workload, but some of our graduate certificate offerings seemed like a good place to start. The most logical, I reasoned, was the graduate certificate in Publishing, which is offered through the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Science working through the North Dakota State University Press. Even though NDSU’s press is a literary press, the business side of things and the publishing process would be the same as it is in music publishing. After all, everything I know about publishing music is from 1) trial and error or 2) things I read on the internet.

I had to check my transcript, but even though I defended my dissertation in May of 2014, the last seated class I took was Dr. Ken Stephenson’s Bartok, Prokofiev, Chicago in the summer of 2013. So, seven years after being a student, here I am again, this time with experience from the other side of the classroom.

So we’re over halfway through: here’s how it’s going. For starters, it’s the first time I’ve been in a class in a while where I haven’t been in charge. This is great, in some ways it’s like a mini-vacation in the middle of the day. Make no mistake, it’s real work. But it’s nice to follow instead of leading for a bit.

There’s a ton of reading:

It looks like a lot, but it doesn’t seem like a lot. Maybe part of it is because it’s real, actual work. These are live projects. The poetry acquisitions project will result in us picking one of those books of poetry to publish. The novel will be printed with my edits. The advance review copy needs someone to proofread it. Everything we do in class matters.

My graduate project for this class involves creating an online music publishing boot camp.

This has made me think of quite a few things, to come later.

New Login system for Liszt

When I first built Liszt, it required (logically) that users have a username and password. Well, more correctly, it required that I have a username and password, since I was the only one using it. As it grew and I got better at programming, I kept slightly upgrading the credential process and permissions system–the last iteration used a salted password based on a proprietary hashing algorithm.

When storing usernames and passwords, the worst way to go about it is to store passwords in plain text. If your password is “password”, then you just put “password” in the database. Hashed passwords are a little better. It involves taking a one-way Hash, which is a way to take a variable length string like “password” or “pwd” and maps it to data of a fixed size, like 36 characters. The problem here is that if multiple people have the same password, if a bad actor were to steal the User database in Liszt, they could cross reference hashed passwords with password hints.

Liszt never had password hints though, so…but whatever.

Encrypted passwords are alright, but since encryption has a sibling named decryption, it’s safe only as long as the encryption key is safe.

The safest way to store passwords oneself is to combine the user’s password with what’s called a salt. In the case of Liszt, I took a hashed combination of the users ID number, combined with a hashed combination of the user’s password, hashed the result for good measure, and saved that in the database. That way, even if everyone had the same password, it wouldn’t show up in the database as the same password. Everyone gets their own gibberish.

Much of my philosophy on how to properly authenticate users comes from YouTuber Tom Scott–most specifically, his “How Not to Store Passwords (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZtInClXe1Q, which I’ve just explained in brief) and “The Fictional Day Google Forgot to Check Passwords” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4GB_NDU43Q). And as I onboarded more and more students, it made more sense to start using alternative providers–Since most clients used Microsoft Office 365, having Microsoft handle the authentication made the most sense. That way, I never have to deal with the passwords.

I wrote much of the code to handle the OAUTH login myself, based on snippets I found online and bolting them to Liszt’s Single Sign On system. Liszt doesn’t use external frameworks for the simple reasons that 1) They either didn’t exist and I wasn’t smart enough to use them when I get started, and 2) It would be a massive undertaking now, and Liszt is kind of its own platform. Because of this, I didn’t use a lot of third-party libraries.

In late 2020, I finally integrated the PHP package manager Composer because I needed it for some storage work I was doing (maybe a blog post in there too), which opened up the possibility of using some existing packages and modules I previously either didn’t use, or integrated manually. One of these things is the League of Extraordinary Packages’ OAUTH Client.

At the beginning of 2021, Liszt contained four login systems. The first was the original Liszt username/password combo, the second was Microsoft 365 for registered users, the third was Microsoft 365 for students and clients, and the last was

A hacked-together beta version of the Google OAUTH code, which worked fine on the Google end, but I never really properly wrote the Liszt end. My work in January has been to reduce Liszt to one login system that can handle multiple providers. Which is…really what I should have done at the beginning.

This sounds reasonably simple, but here are some of the challenges:

  • The Liszt Login code is one of those things that I play with every couple of years, and as long as it works, I don’t question it. So the code–which does a lot of things including allowing for cross-domain logins (logging into Liszt automatically logs you into Liszt Swipe, Liszt Studio (defunct), Liszt Account Management, ScoreShare, AudioAtlas, and anything else that uses the Liszt login system). This is…pretty hairy.
  • Liszt accounts and Liszt student/client accounts are totally separate entities, and it’s possible to have access to both. And what’s more, it’s possible to have access to multiple client accounts. Undoubtedly what would happen is that a student would try to log into Liszt instead of the Liszt Portal, and then that ends up being an email.
  • There’s no onboarding process for Liszt, and only a rudimentary one for Liszt Portal.
  • There’s also no account sign-up.

Also, I wanted the following:

  • I wanted the ability to add service providers (Google, Apple, etc.) later.
  • I wanted the ability to have a third class of authentication–There are registered users, there are registered clients, but I also wanted a basic identity provider–unregistered visitors. People who might need to be authenticated in some way, but I don’t need a full account for. I call this “fingerprinting.”

So there’s just a ton of access control flow going on. Here’s what that looks like now.

For starters, when I coded the original Liszt Office 365 login setup, I used my personal email account. Since we’re upgrading, I moved it to NoteForge. Sound easy? Yes. Is easy? Microsoft now requires that commercial or business accounts be verified, which is a reasonably straightforward, though undocumented process. What that ultimately means is that instead of this:

Microsoft 
kylevanderburg@outlook.com 
Let this app access your 
liszt.me 
Liszt needs your permission to: 
Read your profile 
Liszt will be able to read your profile. 
Accepting these permissions means that you allow this app to use 
your data as specified in their terms of sen•ice and privacy 
statement. You can change these permissions at 
https://microsoft.com/consent. Show details 
No 
Yes

Liszt now asks for permissions like this:

Microsoft 
kylevanderburg@outlook.com 
Let this app access your 
NoteForge 
NoteForge Liszt needs your permission to: 
Maintain access to data you have given 
NoteForge Liszt access to 
Allows NoteForge Liszt to see and update 
the data you gave it access to, even when 
you are not currently using the app. This 
does not give NoteForge Liszt any 
additional permissions. 
Read your profile 
NoteForge Liszt will be able to read your 
profile. 
Accepting these permissions means that you allow this app to use 
your data as specified in their terms of sen•ice and privacy 
statement. You can change these permissions at 
https://microsoft.com/consent. Show details 
No

Even though it’s the same app, in the view of Microsoft it’s different, so all users will have to re-authorize Liszt. Only this time, it comes with a nice blue checkmark.

So Microsoft (or Google or whoever I end up using as providers) verifies the login–Liszt never sees the password or login information, it just gets Profile information, who you are, what your email address is, etc. Then Liszt has to figure out what to do with you. And that flow is, simply, complicated.

The most straightforward cases are either registered users or identified clients/students logging in–It just passes the info on to the appropriate part of Liszt. Next are users or clients who haven’t logged in before and need their Microsoft username applied to their Liszt profile. Reasonably simple.

What about Clients who are trying to log in as Users? Or vice versa? Now Liszt tries to nudge you in the right direction:

ACCOUNT ERROR 
Liszt couldn't find a client account with your credentials. but did find a Liszt user account with your information. Are you perhaps 
looking to log into Liszt? 
Liszt

Alright, we have those. Next up are people who are clients in multiple Liszt sites–which are arguably few, but better to take care of this now while I know what the code does. If you’re logging in at the wrong place, Liszt will now try to nudge you towards the right client site.

At NDSU, we tried allowing students to self-enroll in 2019, and that worked really well. But, it was a completely manual solution. As in, I wrote some code that said “enroll at this website, get attached to the Marching Band.” With this system, I’ve built in hooks to allow students to self-enroll by inputting a code, which will grant them the appropriate access and assign them to the appropriate groups. That’s not hooked up yet, but it’s ready to be written.

People who are logging in who just need to be fingerprinted? That’s easy–since we’re not checking them against a database, we just package their data and send it to the appropriate Liszt-built system.

Finally, there’s the user onboarding flow, which is designed for creating new registered user accounts. That group will either want to get access to an existing site, or to create a whole new site. That last group, I’m not ready to automate yet, so Liszt collects their information and creates a workorder. Those new users to an existing site, however, now get the option to type in a secret code (provided by the administrator) which creates a permissionless user for that site. Admins can go in and assign the required permissions afterward.

Complicated? Sure. Better in the long term? Way better. In fact, I coded the Google login code for the system in about ten minutes this morning.

Progress? Very yes.

The new version of the Liszt login system goes live later this week.

Nonsense Teaching: Due Dates

I did a lot of nonsense teaching things last semester. Or rather, things that seem like nonsense, but that are grounded in my composition/creative and programmer/system-building tendencies. Some of these things worked. Probably the last part of a 3-part series that I thought I’d forget about but somehow didn’t.
Part 1: Late Work Passes
Part 2: Choose-your-own-adventure Projects

I read somewhere (if I had to guess, it was in A Perfect Mess) about how the most efficient use of crosswalks is when about half of pedestrians waited for the lights to change, and about half of pedestrians dart across the street to dodge traffic. If everyone were to wait, it would be terribly congested. If everyone were to ignore the signals, it would be chaos.

This semester I let my students pick their own due dates. Which sounds like madness. Here’s why it wasn’t.

I got this idea originally from Sanna Pederson at OU, who used to let us turn in our graduate musicology term papers whenever we wanted to. This worked fine for grad students, or at least it worked fine for me. Presumably if it didn’t work, she wouldn’t have done it.

For Entrepreneurship and Skills for Academic Success, students picked their own due dates, with some restrictions. In Entrepreneurship, required projects had set due dates, while optional projects were left to student discretion. For Skills for Academic Success, students could choose their own due dates, but one project had to be completed each week. (More information on the curriculum in Part 2).

In both classes, the first project is a “semester plan” where students plot their assignments for the semester. They get credit for schedule management, which is exactly what I want them to do as part of these classes. If they need to update their semester plan, they can do so via letter.

I kept track of all this in Excel, because Blackboard was no help.

As I mentioned in part 1 when talking about Late Work Passes, my late work policy is that all work is accepted in the week that it’s due. So if students pick a due date of Monday, I’ll accept that work through Saturday.

In Excel, I had a column for student name, class, and project. Next, I had the student’s due date, followed by a column showing the weekday of the due date (=WEEKDAY(D2)). This allowed me to calculate the late-work deadline with the formula (=D3+(7-E3)), or (=Due_date+(7-(Weekday of Due Date))).

When a student submitted an assignment, I just cross-referenced my spreadsheet to see if the assignment was valid. Like with the Late Work Passes, students basically took care of this and I could have ignored my spreadsheet. But I didn’t. And I won’t.

Grading

I figured that this would take up a lot of time, and to offset that I changed up my grading policy. I don’t necessarily need 100 points of gradation to give feedback for creative work, so I moved to check-grading, which looks like this:

Check-Plus: Acceptable; Needs no further work
The submitted assignment is polished, professional, and indicative of the level of work expected from a professional musician. Any improvements to the project would only add to the level of professionalism of the assignment. Receives: 100% of points.

Check: Acceptable; Could improve
The submitted assignment is acceptable and meets the purpose as requested, however, it still leaves some things to be desired such as additional information, formatting, word usage, etc. Receives: 80% of points.

X: Try Again
The submitted assignment is rejected for one or more of the following reasons:

  • It is not formatted in a conventional, useful, or ergonomic way.
  • The information it contains is lacking or false.
  • It is not presented in a manner that represents your work as a professional musician.

Receives: 60% of points

X-Minus: No apparent effort
The assignment was either not submitted, or the material submitted was so lacking that detailed feedback would be a monologue rather than a dialogue. Receives: 0% of points

Basically, for every assignment you submit, you can get an F, D, B, or A. But because I’m interested in feedback and iterative change, any check-graded assignment can be corrected and resubmitted for a newer grade, as long as it’s resubmitted by the end of the week it’s returned. Which is nice because it forces me to return work on Monday or Tuesday.

It also works recursively. Turn in an assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. It’s not only choose-your-own-due-date, but choose-your-own-grade, since you can keep submitting a project until your grade is where you want it.

How’d it all work?

In short, like it was supposed to, mostly. Let’s break it down into the due dates and the grading.

For the due dates, there was some legwork to get everything set up in Excel. But students who would normally follow due dates followed their own due dates, and students who have trouble with due dates had trouble with due dates. I think that fewer students had trouble following the due dates this semester, but I’m not quite sure. Students who totally missed due dates who came to me during the last weeks of the semester were given (or rather, just had) the opportunity to edit their semester plan, so nothing was technically late.

Some of the Skills for Academic Success students were pretty lackadaisical about due dates–they were close, -ish. I’m chalking that up to COVID.

My intention this semester was to have sample due dates available as part of the assignment slates in Entrepreneurship (for those students not wanting to pick their projects a la carte). I didn’t get to that for the fall, but I’ve updated that for the spring.

The big thing that comes up when I tell people I let students pick their own due dates is that everyone will just pick the end of the semester. They really don’t. Maybe they’ll pick the end of the semester for a major project, but otherwise they’ll pick reasonable due dates.

Due dates didn’t surprise me too much. I’d do it again.

Grading, on the other hand, that kind of surprised me.

What surprised me in one sense is that it removed the middle from my classes. There were students who did nothing, and there were students with full credit, and almost nobody in the middle. Then I realized that with the resubmission process, this is how it should look. Then it corrected itself as the semester went on, which was even more surprising. The occasional student took advantage of grade re-submission, but not as many as should have. The class probably should have generated a bunch of As and Fs. There was a bit of a middle.

Students generally turn in acceptable work or none at all. This is probably due in part to the fact that I only used this grading scheme for creative classes, i.e., there are no wrong answers. But if asked to write a bio for the first time, or write up a travel budget, they do satisfactory work. Or none.

The idea of doing no work baffles me, and I have no correction for it.

I’ll probably keep the grading scheme for this spring too, but I’m not totally convinced of it yet.

Nonsense Teaching: Autonomy Curriculum

I did a lot of nonsense teaching things last semester. Or rather, things that seem like nonsense, but that are grounded in my composition/creative and programmer/system-building tendencies. Some of these things worked. This is part 2 in a multi-part series I have thus far not forgotten about. (part 1: Late Work Passes)

MUSC 385: Music Entrepreneurship

When I started teaching at NDSU, I inherited a class entitled Music Entrepreneurship. It’s always one of my favorites, and each class is its own unique collection of weirdness. But I’ve never quite been content with the curriculum.

The class started as an upper-division elective for our performance and general music students (excluding music education majors, since their schedule doesn’t normally allow for electives). However, at some point before I got here, it became a required class in the music curriculum. As in, all of the music majors.

I should stop here for a moment and point out how great this is–when I go to conferences and we talk about our teaching loads, everyone wants a required music entrepreneurship course. (They also want a required freshman “how to be a music major” class, but we’ll get to that in a second). But the projects, initially designed for final-year or last-semester enrichment, eventually became a part of a mandatory course that students take as early as their third semester. Building a website is a terrific skill for a motivated young performer about to enter grad school or the job market, but the battle with younger students (especially of the music ed variety) is that they don’t see the immediate relevance or utility of the project. Which is too bad, because *looks around* I have strong opinions on web design.

That’s one example–several other projects resulted the same way. Some I inherited with the course, and some I invented. A feature of the original class was a substantial (~40%) final project of the student’s choosing, which again worked great for motivated students, but less so for our less experienced ones.

For fall 2020, I decided to change up the class. I’d keep the successful projects that were immediately relevant, and I’d make the other projects optional. Out of 10,000 points, half would be required, and the other half would be up to the student, picking from a smorgasbord of options.

For required projects, I had the following:

1. Semester Plan–Map out your optional projects, and pick your due dates. That’s right–you get to pick when you’re submitting your optional projects.
2. Job Search–Find three job postings that you’d apply for.
3. Job Interview–Create your job materials (CV, Cover Letter, and Bio) and participate in a mock job interview.
4. Taxes (Schedule C)–Calculate your self-employed musician income and expenses
5. Travel Funding–Plan a trip to a conference or performance, make a budget, and fill out a funding request form.
6. Recording–Record an excerpt three times in different ways.

These were the most successful required projects from earlier semesters, paired with a Semester Plan project. Then, I gave them some options for optional projects:

A. Written Review of Chapter, Guest Speaker, or Podcast episode (repeatable) 100pts

B. Cold Call (repeatable) 100pts

C. Return an unused Late Work Pass (repeatable) 250pts

D. Apply to a Competition or Contest (repeatable) 500pts

E. Start or Invest in an IRA 500pts

F. Apply for a grant (repeatable) 750pts

G. Create a Website 750pts

H. Volunteer with a nonprofit (repeatable) 1,000pts

I. Be a freshman mentor (Fall terms, Juniors and below) 1,000pts

J. Find a professional mentor 1,500pts

K. Create a comprehensive recruitment plan (band, choir, studio) 2,000pts

L. Create a Teaching Portfolio w/video 2,000pts

M. Create a Composition Portfolio w/performances 2,000pts

N. Record a CD or Album (repeatable) 3,500pts

O. Crowdfunding/Patreon 3,500pts

P. Execute an Outreach Performance (repeatable) 4,000pts

Q. Start a teaching studio with >2 students 4,000pts

R. Create Video/Audio/Print resources for future students (proposal req.) 1,000-4,000pts

S. Student-directed Project (proposal req.) Variable pts

Some notes:

Required projects across my classes are given numbers, while optional projects are given letters. We’ll see this again for 189 shortly.

Some projects are repeatable, meaning you can do them as many times as you like. For example, C-Return a LWP worked great this semester since I instituted “Covid Tests for LWPs” halfway through the semester. Or if they found them in the trash.

I totally messed up Project F (never writing the actual “apply for a grant” instructions, and instead just copying the Project A instructions). This gave some students a point boost, since I felt I needed to conform to the published version.

It feels like I’ve been writing a while. Here’s a cat picture:

If students found themselves to be completely overwhelmed or uncreative, they could also choose from a number of pre-formed Assignment Slates:

Custom
Choose 5,000 points from the above projects.

Classroom Education:
Teaching Portfolio (2,000)
Comprehensive Recruitment Plan (2,000)
Seven Written Reviews (100 x 7)
Three Cold Calls (100 x 3)

Studio Education:
Start a teaching studio (4,000)
Create a website (750)
Three Cold Calls (100 x 3)

Composition:
Composition Portfolio (2,000)
Create a Website (750)
Two Competition Submissions (500 x 2)
Volunteer with a Nonprofit (1,000)
Three Written Reviews (100 x 3)

Arts Administration:
Three Volunteer Nonprofits (1,000 x 3)
Find a Professional Mentor (1,500)
Five Written Reviews (100 x 5)

Performance:
Website (750)
Outreach (4,000)
Three Written Reviews (100 x 3)

They still needed to pick their due dates, though, since time management is such an important skill as a musician.

Some of these projects are all-or-nothing projects: Plan an outreach performance (P) and bomb it, that’s 40% of your grade right there. Some projects are small, like cold calls (B) and chapter reviews (A). And if students are particularly creative, they can propose their own projects.

I played around with the idea of having points gain interest, so that projects done at the beginning of the semester would be worth more. I still like the idea (it’ll help with my end-of-semester grading) but I can barely get Blackboard to work with this grading scheme as it is, much less if I were to try to use Grade Center to compound interest. I’d have to build my own Learning Management System for that.

And I still might.

Oh, and I should mention that while optional projects can enrich things going on in other classes, I avoid things counting double. For example, you can’t count your recital as an outreach performance. You can record your recital repertoire in album form and release it online, because that’s not a requirement of the recital experience.

So how’d this thing work? Overall, really well.

The majority of students picked their projects, executed them, and turned them in with the due dates they created. Their projects and experiences were relevant to their career goals and experiences.

Some students got to the end of the semester and realized that they had done nothing, and it was here that I had to tell them about a rather brilliant loophole built into the system: Once you file your semester plan (1), it can be changed at any time in writing, no LWP required. So if you were planning on doing an outreach performance, and it falls through at the last minute, you can file a new semester plan with new projects. This changed the conversation at the end of the semester to “Well, you gotta have 9000 points for an A, 8000 for a B, and so on…You have the list of optional projects, make a plan and file it and I’ll grade what you submit.”

Some project observations:

  • Grant Applications didn’t really happen this year, partially due to COVID–that project may also need some revision.
  • Nonprofit volunteering–ditto.
  • Several students picked professional mentors, and some of them had some rude awakenings about being a professional musician–things we tell them, but it finally hits them when a professional they seek out tells them. Things about practice and networking, etc.
  • I insist on proper copyright clearances for the album creation project, which in my mind indicates that students should record works in the public domain. Students this semester misunderstood, and just created all their own music. Which is way more work.

For next semester, I think the only thing I’m going to tweak is going back to making part of the book required–possibly having an extra 1000 mandatory points through 10 book chapters from Beeching’s Beyond Talent.

Meanwhile, this sort of structure wouldn’t work well for 189.

MUSC 189: Skills for Academic Success.

Another class I inherited at NDSU is our “welcome to being a music major” class. Sometime before I came north, the class was required of all NDSU freshman as UNIV 189, and when it was discontinued university-wide we decided to keep it in music. The first two years I used Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, a great book but not quite well-formatted for our purposes. And the assignments were generally chapter reviews, which aren’t necessarily the most interesting.

I’d already thought of the Entrepreneurship curriculum, and I knew I definitely didn’t want students picking their own projects, that would be madness. But I did want them to have some form of autonomy. So I picked the following projects:

1. Create a Semester Plan (required first project)

B. Submit the Musician Personality Inventory

C. Create a Weekly Plan/Schedule

D. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 1: Getting Organized

E. Assemble Your Personal Cabinet

F. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 2: Practicing Deeply 1

G. Create a Practice Plan/Log

H. Interview an Upperclassman/Mentorship

I. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 7: Unmasking Performance Anxiety

J. Music Website Scavenger Hunt

K. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 12: Injury Prevention 1

L. Visit Resources across Campus

M. Have an Advising Meeting for the Spring Semester

N. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 14: Succeeding as a Student

15. Submit an end-of-semester review

Each project is worth 100 points, and the class is made up of 2000 points total. The remaining 500 points are attendance-based.

All projects are mandatory, but the lettered projects are optional in their order. Students will (or should) complete all 15 projects, but weeks 2-14 are up to them. Like Entrepreneurship, the first project is writing a semester plan to pick due dates. Students are gently reminded that they should look at their other class schedules, and maybe do some of the easier projects during weeks where they have other assignments due.

Oh, and one project is due per week. This was obvious in the course materials. It will need to be obviouser.

What I like about this project is that it combines things they should already be doing (creating a schedule, a practice plan, talking with upperclassmen) with things they might not do on their own (Creating a personal cabinet [their “academic success team”], visiting resources on campus, finding stuff on the music website). It also ties in with several chapters from The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein.

I forward this curriculum to the music faculty, so they can be involved in this process if they’d like. Since we only get to five chapters in The Musician’s Way, there are plenty more to cover in lessons, studio classes, or future semesters (including in Music Entrepreneurship).

Some reflections on this setup:

Student choice either led to drastically improved investment in the class, or the usual inaction. Most students who would be kind of “meh” about the class ended up being more invested.

There’s enough to say about “choose your own deadlines” that I’ll write an entire other post about that.

Given that everyone is doing their own thing, lecture planning is, simply, hard. Entrepreneurship works alright, since there’s enough required projects to keep structure. For 189 though, everyone was doing their own thing, so much of what we discussed in class was centered around what was going on at NDSU or in the Challey School of Music, and answering questions that came up.

Overall, I plan to keep it in the Spring for Entrepreneurship, and maybe tweaking it for 189.

Some supplementary materials:

Entrepreneurship Syllabus: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/4312F1C1-3EE3-4A5F-B0DD-3C6AB6C8463D/

Entrepreneurship Course Pack: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/24A65DB2-333C-403F-A214-6E1543FAFFAC/

189 Syllabus: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/78D666B7-93D6-4A9A-8932-A41823A2C167/

189 Course Pack: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/E7C9FF51-8423-4110-8F6D-6B2B8907D139/

Nonsense Teaching: Late Work Passes

I did a lot of nonsense teaching things this semester. Or rather, things that seem like nonsense, but that are grounded in my composition/creative and programmer/system-building tendencies. Some of these things worked. Part 1 in a multi-part series I will probably forget to update in about January.

I hate late work, but I’m no good at being mean. So I decided I needed to figure out some sort of system to get around both those things.

While I was in Oklahoma, I heard of a class–I think it was a gen-ed class, and I think it was economics, or poly sci, or some such thing–where you had to have something outrageous like 10,000 points worth of participation. Rather than keep track of this, the instructor would come to class every day with a fat stack of printed-off participation points in 100-point notes. He’d ask who had insights on the chapter, students would crawl over each other to answer the question, and he’d make it rain. Students then just had to turn in enough points they had gained through the semester.

As it turns out, people like stuff.

For the spring, I made two changes to my late work policy. The first was that most of my due dates were early in the week–Monday or Tuesday. But my late work policy was that I would accept all work through the end of the calendar week. If students wanted to think of the assignment as being due on Monday/Tuesday, that was fine, and that’s what Blackboard showed as the due date. If students wanted to think of the due date as being Saturday at 11:59, that’s fine too. Blackboard would show it as being late, but whatever; Blackboard has a tendency to do whatever it wants anyway.

The idea was and is that there’s a built-in cushion in case things come up. Because as music majors, things always come up.

The other thing I did was create physical late work passes (LWPs). Here’s what they look like.

I designed the front and back in Paint.net and had them printed up by Moo, using their Luxe business card template–32pt weight with a forest green color seam on the edge and rounded corners.

I designed the LWPs to be bearer instruments–I don’t track them, there are no serial numbers. If you physically have one, you can use it. The rules are pretty simple.

  • I can only say they’re usable in my classes.
  • It’s only good for one assignment.
  • You can’t use it outside of an academic term*
  • And some other stuff that might be on the syllabus (but currently isn’t).

I starred the academic term requirement. What I wanted to avoid is having students try to turn in late work after the end of the semester, so they go invalid at the end of finals week. But they reactivate at the beginning of the next term. Technically speaking, there’s no reason you couldn’t stockpile them.

I give one out to each student at the beginning of each course I teach. What I found myself doing in the Fall of 2020 was making the announcement that for every four COVID tests that students take, I would award them one LWP.

For Music Entrepreneurship in the Fall, I also included an optional project (more on the curriculum for that class later, it’s more nonsense) that was essentially an LWP buy-back. Turn in an LWP, get 250 points (repeatable).

What I expected to happen was that it would make my conversation with students easier–“Oh, you don’t have a late work pass? You can’t turn that in late.” What happened instead is far more interesting.

By and large, students just took ownership of keeping track of late work. Although I keep detailed records, it doesn’t really matter. Students didn’t even consider asking for an extension or if I’d accept late work. Although, this fell apart late in the Fall 2020 semester due to COVID and being online (especially with the freshmen), but in person, it has worked great.

If I were to do it again, I might go with wooden nickels–I think they’d be more durable, and in some cases, they’d also be cheaper.

New Program Notes for Thaw, and Joyride (Finally)

Thaw was set to receive its premiere this summer at Clarinetfest(r) in Reno, but that’s been postponed for obvious reasons. Which has given me the opportunity to finally write its program note:

I wrote Thaw during my third winter in Fargo, and it was an act of optimism, because spring hadn’t hinted its arrival when I completed the piece. My intent was to provide a meditation on the nature of melting snow and the slow, steady revealing of things last seen in November. I thought of the piece as figurative as well, hinting at the defrosting of our preconceptions, our assumptions, and our expectations. In hindsight, it seems appropriate that this piece was written in 2020, a year in which has seen a thaw in a number of ways.

Also, I’ve finally–FINALLY–written a program note for Joyride, which I wrote four years ago. I’m pretty happy with it.

Joyride is a duet that oscillates from being loud and raucous when it thinks you’re not looking to well-behaved and almost polite when it catches you watching. The back-and-forth motive suggests either a lack of control by either player or a complete abdication of any responsibility. Sure, there are some nice chorale-sounding moments, but even those get a little out of hand when in the hands of these two. Seriously, don’t trust them. Years later, they’ll look back on this and say “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

New Program Notes for One Sows, Creatures

Program note for One Sows for the Benefit of Another Age, which is new this summer:

I started writing what would become One Sows for the Benefit of Another Age in 2013, as I was sketching ideas for what became a piano trio. I liked what I had created, but two things became evident: The piece was destined to be for orchestra, and I was not good enough as a composer to finish it. Over the next seven years, I kept returning to this piece in my spare time, adding some sections, tweaking some others, and at some point I gained the experience to finish it. But the trade-off was that I no longer had the time. At least until Spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic put most of my projects on hold, and I was able to return to–and finish–the work.

The title came last. My ideas while I was writing centered around Americana (I was listening to a lot of Copland, Barber, and Ives) and infusing my history and experience in the Ozarks and on the plains. I knew I wanted to make use of the idea of illumination, of dawn. I wanted to start in the shadows and end aglow. The darkness was such a defining feature that my working title was Aegri Somnia, loosely translated from Latin as “troubled dreams”. As I continued working, I realized that the focus wasn’t the darkness–the focus was the change.

I discuss change a lot in my teaching. Students often see change as transformative change–massive, radical, sweeping change, like winning the lottery, or winning an audition. Transformative change is easy–it usually involves hoping for a situation or a Deus ex Machina, and if it happens, it benefits us immediately. Iterative change, however–small, repeated, incremental change that builds up over time–is hard. An extra half-hour of work every day, a little extra contributed to savings every month, these changes add up over time and become significant. But it requires intention and action, and it doesn’t reap immediate benefits. It may not end up benefitting us at all.

One Sows changes iteratively. It starts from a dark place, but is sprinkled with seeds of hope. A descending motive introduced in the violins brings us out of the darkness, albeit slowly. The idea spreads, develops, and eventually becomes part of a new idea, a new paradigm, that takes over.

In searching for a title, I came across “Serit ut alteri saeclo prosit,” North Dakota’s Latin state motto, whose English translation is the title of this work. It’s a recent addition to the North Dakota statutes, but a timeless message. Our work isn’t finished yet.

Listen here:


An upgraded program note for Creatures from the Black Bassoon:

Creatures from the Black Bassoon is, as the title suggests, a virtual menagerie of beasts and environments fashioned entirely from processed and unprocessed sounds of the bassoon. Key clicks, reed squeaks and squawks, multiphonics, notes played through various stages of assembly and disassembly, and other traditional and extended techniques are organized by similar properties into species. Some of our creatures appear to be cute, chirpy, fuzzy critters, while others are vicious predators. These beings are placed in a number of tableaus of length devised by the golden ratio, with certain sections designated as “windows” with substantial contrast to the surrounding sections.

Some assorted thoughts about working from home the last half of the semester

In no particular order

We had like a thousand high school students in the music building at NDSU right before spring break. I had just flown in from Nashville at the beginning of March. Knowing what we know now, that’s kind of terrifying.

We had a pretty good warning that classes would move online, and I spent one evening writing a disaster plan for what I’d do if my teaching went online. Within ten minutes of NDSU announcing that we’d continue with online classes, my students had a copy of that plan in their inbox. I’m kind of proud of that.

The fact that the plan changed multiple times after I sent it is less impressive.

I planned on teaching from school, until over spring break I watched the cases in ND jump from 1 to 6 to 15 within a day. I quickly discovered where my comfort zone is.

I spent part of spring break shopping for new components for my studio computer. I did not spend spring break measuring my studio computer to see if those components would fit. I spent the next week shopping for a new computer case.

For spring break and the next couple of weeks, I had the worst sort of writer’s block. Most of my projects had evaporated or were delayed, and I didn’t have any real deadline. Some of my attempts to get rid of writer’s block involved trying to write bluegrass clarinet music (I failed) and setting government proclamations about COVID-19 to music (I didn’t fail, and that’s somehow worse).

I read a lot of words about how if you weren’t taking advantage of this opportunity to stay distraction free and work on your own projects then you weren’t doing it right. I also read a lot of words saying that if you weren’t actively grieving then you weren’t doing it right. I read a lot more words where people argued with each other about it.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how we metabolize and process events like this. Some of us need projects and distractions. Some of us need comfort and connection. There is no single right answer.

I spent some time thinking about how the above applies to education and teaching, and about how I can make my courses more customized, especially if we’re still online in the fall. I also thought about how in developing a career in music, there is no single right answer.

I think we’ll be online in the fall, despite our best efforts, and I’m planning my courses as such. An online class can be transitioned to classroom learning much easier than a face-to-face class can be transitioned online in no time. Worst case scenario, I spent this summer making resources that supplement my classroom teaching.

After all, never let a crisis go to waste (thanks Scott Meyer for that).

I have no idea how 189 (Skills for Academic Success) is going to become an online class.

I’ve been trying to create distractions for myself and my students. At NDSU, we’ve been having composition contests and an online creativity book club. At VCSU, we’re planning for our annual composer’s concert–all online.

I started an orchestra piece in 2015, but wasn’t good enough to finish it, and was fortunate to realize it at the time. By the time I got good enough to finish it, I didn’t have the time. This semester, I’ve had both for the first time, and I’ve written about eight minutes of orchestra music. Some of it is really good. The rest of it will be.

I remembered, for the umpteenth time, that my creativity is all-or-nothing: Either I have multiple projects, or I have zero. Picking up some coding projects kickstarted my reading and composing. I reinvented AudioAtlas and uploaded the code via Bitbucket.

I finished Ray Dalio’s Principles, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, and Scott Kaufman’s and Lindsey Gregoire’s Wired to Create. I’m working my way through Robert Greene’s Mastery and re-reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.

I’ve ordered from Amazon less in the past two months than at any other time in my life since getting a prime membership. And I don’t miss it. I’ve ordered from SheetMusicPlus like three times already. I also discovered that you can buy online from Ace Hardware, and that changes everything.

I bought stamps. I didn’t need stamps, but I needed to buy stamps.

I remembered podcasts are a thing.

I set up our home media server, my new computer, and the NoteForge Backup Server to contribute to Folding At Home, which is a distributed computing platform for protein folding. One of their projects right now is COVID-19.

It’s been nice not being in the music building until 9 every night.

Like most of the world, I’m very much in need of a haircut.

My seasonal allergies are awful this year.

Earmarks named finalist in The American Prize

Earmarks has moved from the semifinalist stage of the Chamber Music division of The American Prize to the finalist stage: Read more here: http://theamericanprize.blogspot.com/2020/04/finalist-composers-instrumental-chamber.html