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.
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.
I spent the beginning of the year planning to write a small blog post every day. Well, at least every weekday. I had a backlog of blog ideas, and I posted one every day. Trying to channel my inner Seth Godin. And then I got to January 29.
What happened on January 29 was that I had a grant application due on February 1, and I desperately needed to finish it, having never written a grant application before. So the 29th of January came and went with no post.
And then January 30.
And January 31
And the weekend of February 1st and 2nd.
And so on.
I did post on February 5 about booking travel, written more for my music entrepreneurship than for anyone else, but since then: crickets.
I attribute all of this to inertia: we do the things we’ve been doing. Despite a month of writing short posts, it took one day to derail, because I’ve not been writing a blog for far longer than I have been.
I could connect this to my students, and how they practice.
Or I could look at my own composing.
I took a break during spring break to make sure I could get all my classes online. And that break, combined with several of the projects I mentioned earlier being put on the back burner, my output the past couple of weeks has been slim, and the only thing that has kept me from transitioning from “composer” to “guy who checks his email” has been that the first three hours of my day, every day, are cordoned off as Dedicated Creative Time. Scheduling inertia.
Thinking about my own inertia, paired with teaching fully online for the rest of the semester, has led me to think about the inertia in our music curriculum: What sorts of things are we doing because we’ve always done them that way? Music doesn’t change quickly, but the technology with which we can teach does.
There’s a semi-rant in here about the number of schools wanting to something Eric-Whitacre’s-virtual-choir based, despite the fact that the idea itself is a decade old. A more useful question is “what can I do to escape inertia in how I teach composition in North Dakota and promote new music.”
That’s a separate blog post, which by this rate, I’ll post around July.
As the semester
started, I hoped that things would be calmer than the fall, and thankfully in
most ways they are. In some ways, however, there’s more work. Here’s a list of
some of the things on my radar this spring, some moving into next fall and
At NDSU: I’m part of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Course Curation Committee, which is looking at how to update/streamline some college requirements.
At NDSU: I’m continuing as a member of the NICE Faculty Fellows, which promotes and explores Entrepreneurship.
At NDSU: As part of the NICE center, I’m also helping out with the Civic Innovation Force, which will pair students with the City of Fargo to solve problems.
Through NICE I’ve happened to get involved with a project to promote nanotechnology by writing music about nanotechnology. It’s supported by an NSF grant.
Perhaps all of this
talk about our students knowing how to do something is moot–after all, I’ve
heard the argument that “our students learn what they need to despite what
we teach them,” and this is largely true. Most musicians I know (myself included)
haven’t had much in terms of entrepreneurship training, and yet we figure out
how to get our music performed or how to find performances.
An assignment I’ve
put into my music entrepreneurship class is a travel funding assignment. It’s
pretty open ended–Assume that you’re going to a professional conference and
you’d like to ask for funding. How do you construct a budget, and how do you
present a case for how much funding you need?
It’s a fairly
straightforward assignment: Look up airfare or mileage, look up hotels, list
your fixed costs like registration, and figure out a way to ask for per diem.
These are all very obvious things–if you already know how to do them.
Some assumptions we
operate under, and some mistakes my students have made on this assignment:
Flights are usually listed round-trip, as a total. Hotels are usually listed per-night. I’ve had students not realize that they have a 5-day conference and they have a one-night hotel stay.
There is a federal mileage reimbursement rate that many organizations use. If you claim mileage, or if you estimate your gas costs, make sure you calculate mileage there AND back.
If your hotel doesn’t offer a shuttle, then you have to get from the airport to the hotel somehow.
If you have oversize luggage (say, an instrument) then that’s another cost.
Trivial mistakes to
make on a class assignment. Disastrous if you’re on an actual trip. Compounded
even more so if the trip is international.
I’m writing a piece
for the NDSU Clarinet Choir, which they’ll perform at ClarinetFest 2020 in
Reno, Nevada. Well, I mean, I’m not actually writing it this very minute, I’m
writing this blog post. But I have been writing it. Except when I haven’t been.
Which has been a lot.
This post isn’t so
much a list of excuses so much as it is an exploration into the creative
procrastination that goes into writing.
I didn’t want to
start the piece until January–I finished the percussion quartet in
mid-December, and wanted to take a break. By the time I ended up getting back
to Fargo and got settled in, it was already the 10th, with classes starting the
I had no idea what
the clarinet choir piece was going to look like, so the first several days of
writing were just bouncing ideas around. I ended up with this weird musical
line in my head, which reminded me of some song I heard in college, and I
wanted to make sure I wasn’t ripping it off. That resulted in several days of
trying to remember what that song was.
It ended up being
Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men. And the line stuck in my head ended up
resembling this not at all. Score one for me.
So that line I
heard, I still haven’t worked into the piece, because every time I start
thinking about where it could fit in, it merges with MacArthur Park. I had
never actually listened to the lyrics of MacArthur park until I listened
through trying to figure out where it fit in.
Part of this time
has been spent looking for other clarinet choir pieces.
There’s a lot of
transcriptions, but not a lot of pieces originally for clarinet choir. So
inspiration is scarce. The NDSU Clarinet Choir will be playing Schickele’s
Monochrome III and Curtis’s Klezmer Triptych, so I know what else is on the
And I almost know
how this piece is going to go too.
All throughout my college career and the beginning of my teaching career, I never had a good system for keeping track of research–after all, my experience was in composing instead of research.
Within the past couple of years, I’ve finally figured out a system that works for me: Index cards.
As I read through books, I mark particularly interesting passages by earmarking pages and margin notes. Getting over the idea of writing in books took a while. When finished, I copy the passages onto index cards, note the author/title/page number, and give the card a sequential number.
After two and a half years, I’m finally giving my first faculty recital at NDSU, featuring all music written in North Dakota.
The planned program is:
The Notes Between The Notes – My song cycle featuring poems by Jamie Parsley. Michelle Gelinske (who premiered the cycle nearly a year ago) wasn’t able to perform in February, so Dr. Kelly Burns, our new voice faculty member, will be performing the cycle with Dr. Amy Mercer.
Next up is the world premiere of Tape Piece, a tape piece featuring…tape sounds.
We’ll round out the evening with the world premiere of Calibrating the Moon, commissioned and premiered by Connor Challey, and featuring Dr. Tyler Wottrich on piano.
The recital poster also features North Dakota:
I hope to see you at Beckwith Recital Hall at NDSU, on February 10 at 7:30 PM!
Over the past month or so, three new pieces have shown up on the website. Together, they represent 40 minutes of new music.
So working backwards, Calibrating the Moon is a tuba sonata written for Connor Challey. No media or score (partially because it’s a commission, and partially because issuu has decided to start charging for embedded documents), but there’s a program note. This work will be premiered nearly next month at NDSU.
Also receiving its premiere next month is Tape Piece, which is a tape piece (like stereo fixed media) about and using tape (like scotch and duct). Unlike Calibrating the Moon it does have media. It’ll also receive its premiere next month, but given that it’s tape, you can hear it in all its glory right now if you’d like.
Finally comes Four Views of the Butterfly Effect, which is a commission from the MinusOne Quartet, and which was a pain to write. I’ll dive into an explanation of it a little later. No program note, score, OR media at the moment, because all I have are mock-ups.
I realized in
February or March of this year that I hadn’t been to any conferences during the
18-19 academic year. This bugged me. It’s hard to maintain a dialogue with
other composers when you’re sitting in your office all the time. Of course, the
Spring semester was filled with creating a composition lecture series for a
class, so at least I wasn’t just watching Netflix.
NYCEMF/ICMC was a blast, as always. I spent a bunch of time with Josh and Ioannis, and worked several concerts as technical staff. OU had a good showing this year, I think five of us had works through the conference. We spent more time in Greenwich Village this year (the conference moved from the lower east side to NYU), so I got my bakery fix at Mille-Feuille and spent way too little time at Strand Bookstore (I bought a volume of Ginsberg poetry).
I spent part of July in the mountains of Utah. The VU 3 Symposium for experimental, electronic, and improvised music was hosted in Park City, and it was an incredible experience I might write more about later. It was chock full of weird technical stuff, presented in a non-judgmental and non-hierarchical way. Not that normal conferences are necessarily judgy, I think that’s just my insecurity coming out.
Anyway, it was a validating and supportive group (reminding me a lot of the last CFAMC conference I attended), and nearly immediately after I returned home, I dove into revising a paper on creativity that I presented the next month at the Aspen Composers’ Conference (which was well-received). Because of all that, this summer was a season of creativity, spending a bunch of time around creative people, thinking about the creative process, how we teach creativity, and so on.
And then I have
airport downtime and I check Facebook. Jeez! Facebook! How little original
content there is on Facebook. Aside from the Ads. Or from pages I like. So much
of it is shared content. So little of it is thought-provoking.
I originally had a
listing of the top thirty or so posts, categorized by original vs. shared
content, if there was any commentary, things like that, but it just got to be
tedious. The simple point is that there was/is a vivid discrepancy between the
creativity at the conferences and the creativity (or lack thereof) in my
This has caused me
to look closer at the creative research I’m doing, and how I can better focus
on 1) presenting it to a wider audience, and 2) integrating more of it in my
It’s already July!?
It’s already halfway through the summer semester!
The spring semester
has been my busiest semester as a professor. Let’s recap:
I had a studio of 6
composers, 4 undergrads and 2 grads.
I mentored the Freshman
Theory II Composition Projects.
I oversaw the Sophomore
Theory IV Composition Projects.
I taught the bassoon part of
Woodwind Methods II.
I taught Music
Entrepreneurship (and wrote a course pack)
I oversaw Grad Theory
We took the wind symphony to
Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague.
And I was asked to join the
NDSU Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship (NICE) Faculty
I had a studio of 3 students
in Comp II and 2 students in Comp III.
I had one capstone advisee.
I taught Advanced Scoring and
I turned Comp I into a
lecture-based class, with 15 students.
I organized the 18th annual
VCSU Composers Concert.
At NoteForge/As a
I recorded and produced an
I wrote one and a half
I did some massive upgrades
I solved a lot of issues with
Some of these things
were successful due to my hard work. Some of these things were successful due
to my dumb luck. Some of these things could be greatly improved.
Turning Comp I at
VCSU into a lecture class was a ton of work. It was fun, and I learned a great
deal about video editing, but it took up way more time than I was expecting.
Luckily, with those videos in “maintenance mode” now, I’ll have some
tweaks but most of it can stand.
I built that class
around my ideas about the creative process, which I’m beginning to codify into
something tangible. I’m presenting a poster about the process at this year’s
I didn’t do a bunch
of conferences/festivals this year, mostly due to a focus on teaching since
VCSU was a new thing. I’m ramping up those things this summer, with a piece at
NYCEMF/ICMC last week and a presentation at the VU 3 Symposium in Park City, UT
I wrote a piece for
bass clarinet duet + piano, and I started on a tuba sonata that I’m really
enjoying, though it’s taking a while trying to find time to write. Which
reminds me–This semester I started booking dedicated creative time, so that
I’m in the studio working on composition-related things every morning until 10.
This worked…most of the time.
I picked up a
faculty fellowship in Entrepreneurship, and as a part of that I’ve spent a
bunch of time thinking about how to update NDSU’s Music Entrepreneurship class.
That’ll be it’s own separate post I’m sure.