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
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the things that I like about my job (and I mentioned this earlier) is that I get to have ideas that other people don’t, by virtue of being a composer in a music department. Since most of my job is creating things, I get to think about things in a different way. Often I refer to this as throwing “smoke bombs.”
You think you know how things work, and then someone makes a
suggestion and it reframes your idea of how things work. That’s a smoke bomb.
I got to try this out recently in a committee meeting. We
were discussing general education requirements and how we could rework an undergraduate
certificate. The idea came up of how we structure the program, and how to get
faculty buy-in for keeping track of another list of classes, and different
hoops to jump through.
After sitting for a while, I suggested the idea that we make
the certificate student directed. What if the students put together their
curriculum and we approved it on an individual basis, rather than doing all of
the work to create a unified standardized curriculum. This was not a terrific idea,
but the conversation that happened after I made the suggestion was
substantially different. The smoke bomb that I threw changed the nature of how
we thought about the problem and how we might find a solution.
This isn’t all that different from the work that I do in
composition. Students bring in different ideas, and by and large it is my job
to give them other ideas that might interact with the ideas they have. Often
the ideas that I suggest are painfully obvious to the student once I say them.
It’s not that they would not would not have come up with the
idea on their own, but they needed a second set of eyes, a second pair of ears,
or a second brain to make that obviousness known to them.
As I’ve been teaching composition and refining my own creative process, I’ve found that I think of composition gigs as projects: Write a tape piece, compose a tuba sonata, record an album, plan a recital, and so on.
This works pretty well for my own process, but some of my other students don’t have such a process. Instead, they have multiple works going on at the same time, and while there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, it’s often paired with a lack of focus. To make matters worse, the works don’t often get played. Their composing is for the sake of composing.
This is related to three other issues with composition and with how we teach music in general. The first issue deals with delusions of grandeur and transformative change: The idea that “this is the best piece ever and it will make me famous”. Honestly, being delusional is an important part of my creative process, it goes along with the maniacal laughter part of my process. But the idea that one piece will change everything is a bit of a pipe dream.
Unfortunately, starting out as composers, our plan to become famous is by hope: The hope that someone will notice how brilliant we are.
The second point this touches on is project-based music making, which is something our music major curriculum doesn’t always address. I think composers have it better off than most musicians, since compositions are more project-formatted than education or performing, but we don’t really frame our curriculum around projects. There’s a lot more to say on that subject and how it interfaces with entrepreneurship at a later time.
Finally, there’s the idea of compositional intent. Intent is another big topic that will receive attention soon. For now, we’ll leave the discussion as “we need to know where we’re going if we’re going to get there.”
How do we do this with composition? And also, how do I get my students to do it?
In my process, I’ve introduced a form. a Music Creative Brief.
The Music Creative Brief forces me to address some of the big questions that come up at the beginning of a new music project. First and foremost, the deadline. It asks for which performance forces, what the piece should be about, how long it should be, what it can or can’t do, other similar pieces, and what inspires it. There’s also a section for marketing, which addresses the competition, how to sell it, and who might be interested.
For example, for my next piece, a clarinet choir piece, I have a physical copy of the form that lists what the scoring is, the other pieces on the program (so I know what to do/what not to do), who some of the major clarinet choir groups are, and so on. It’s been incredibly helpful since I started using it about a year and a half ago, and my plan is to start having my students do the same this spring.
I spend a lot of
time in my teaching trying to find the happy medium between mercy and justice.
manifested itself this past semester in terms of late work. With an expanded
number of classes and students, I instituted a new late work policy, which is
basically that everything turned in by the end of the week (11:59 Saturday
night) would be graded without penalty. Everything turned in after that would
not be graded. In my immediate experience, students who needed some extra time
to complete an assignment only needed an extra day or two.
This worked well for
my freshman intro to college class. For my entrepreneurship and arranging
classes, less so, probably because I’d make an exception once early in the
beginning of the semester, and after that it was unfair to enforce it.
Also, the work we do
in my non-freshman class is largely project-based, and when working creatively,
sometimes writer’s block happens.
So, what I need is
an easy-to-administer, easy to understand late work policy that gives students
the flexibility to navigate their busy schedule (and promote
self-time-management) and affords students the ability to spend some extra time
on a project to bring it to its full potential.
This semester, I’m instituting the Late Work Pass.
The Late Work Pass
(LWP) is a physical business card-sized piece of card stock which each student
gets at the beginning of the semester. If they have an assignment to turn in
after the grace period, they can turn it in with their LWP.
Even though each
student gets one LWP per class, there’s nothing governing whether they keep it,
barter it, sell it, or stockpile it for future classes. It can only be used for
one assignment (no turning everything in during the last week of classes, unless
you have enough LWPs to cover it), and you can’t use it outside of a semester
(no turning in things after grades are due).
As an added benefit,
it opens the discussion for supply and demand in Music Entrepreneurship.
And it lets me spend
less mental energy on late work. And probably less on grading, too.
I have almost
exactly the sort of teaching position I want to have. Of course there are
always things that could improve, the role I get to play right now is my
Julius Bahle in a
1930s paper divided composers into work-type composers and inspiration-type
composers. Though I’m not sure if I follow that specific dichotomy, I think
that there are two styles of composition instruction: the inspired and the
have some baggage that I don’t intend: I don’t mean that technical composers
aren’t inspired or vice versa. Rather, it’s about how each type approaches
Whatever that is.
In my case, I
approach composition from inspiration, and I’ve had students who have clearly
had technical instructors previously. They talk about their chord progression,
their form, how their 21st-century piece conforms to an 18th-century norm. And
then I ask them about energy-line analysis or how their piece evades
Do I think theory
and analysis is important? Very. Do I find it the most interesting part of the
creative process? Hardly.
This is the creative
side of my truth vs quality talk.
At NDSU, I don’t
teach theory—aside from Instrumental Arranging, I don’t do much typical theory
teaching. But I try to be active in our theory pedagogy conversations. I get to
play devil’s advocate for the curriculum. I get to have a bunch of random ideas
and challenge the status quo.
When students come
and ask about cadences and say that this chord meets their checklist of what a
cadence is, I counter with “does the music breathe here? No? Then it’s not a
Maybe not. But the technical isn’t all we teach in music schools.
VCSU: MUS 220: Comp
2: 10 students. (Masterclass format, new this semester.)
VCSU: MUS 320: Comp
3: 3 students (including one doing a composition capstone project.)
VCSU: MUS 302:
Advanced Scoring and Arranging: 5 students, for a total comp studio at VCSU of
Again, no new preps,
but just A LOT of moving parts. And that’s not including my composition or
A couple of things
became very clear through this process: the first is that there are some things
I need to tighten up in my syllabus if I have any hope of giving timely
feedback, and the second is that my teaching philosophy and my assignments
don’t always match up.
Luckily Spring 2020
is going to be lighter, which is great because next fall likely won’t.