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News, Thoughts, Soapboxes, and/or Essays

American Higher Ed

“The question arises how our own intellectual traditions, both scientific and humanistic, will be affected by the current transformation of the American university along the lines of a business enterprise. We are told that there are exciting efficiencies to be realized by replacing face-to-face instruction with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). However appropriate-even ideal-they may be for instruction in some narrow technical matters (I am a big user of YouTube instructional ideas on topics like computer-aided design, and how to build electronic fuel injection systems), in the arts and sciences we should take notice that MOOCs divorce the articulate content of a field from personal interaction with a teacher who has made it his vocation to live with the field's questions. There is, then, a certain harmony between these institutional developments and our deep supposition that the ideal of perfect “clarity”-of precise formalization-is both possible and desirable and that, if realized, it would make any field transmissible by impersonal means. But let us heed Polanyi's warning that “the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge.”

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, pp. 138-39.
 

Norton Lecture: Inspiration/Perspiration: Tracking the Creative Process

I've finally managed to get the files uploaded from last month's Norton Lecture on the creative process. They're now online here in PDF and PPTX form.

Oklahoma Student Composers Workshop Keynote Speech

My keynote speech from the 2017 Oklahoma Student Composers Workshop, where I talk about composing being like Amazon and issue suggestions on how not to run a kickstarter or do your taxes, is now online here in PDF form here and in text format here.

A hypothetical outline of an artist-corporation

I've been thinking about a lot of things recently. Some of these things involve higher ed in these United States, especially the rise of “quit lit” (including this article on Vox that you've probably read that still keeps me thinking), alt-ac careers, the value of the liberal arts and humanities, and my own alma mater cutting 12 full time faculty contracts. I've also thought a lot about the situation with tenure at Wisconsin, and how that relates to the magazine that I put together this past summer (but that's another blog post entirely). Also rattling around my brain is the future of NoteForge, and just where Liszt (my school of music management software) is going.

Combined with these thoughts is the fact that I find myself surrounded by brilliant people. Many of them are in music, but all of them have talents outside their major field. And all of that led me to this thought experiment, which very well may be a bad idea.

Let's create a hypothetical company. We'll give it a fancy name, say, Atelier LLC. Atelier, like NoteForge, is primarily a software and technology company, with a flagship product that, I don't know, runs nonprofits or something of that nature. We have to staff this company somehow, and how do we do that?

Let's take a diversion for a moment. The US doesn't do a great job of supporting artists. Part of this is cultural, in that we haven't agreed on what the value of art is and we don't have a history of patronage like most of Europe does, another part is political in that the government have a priority of funding the arts. (Other parts, as well as whether this should or should not be the case is beyond the scope of this exercise). This is the world we find ourselves in for better or worse. Meanwhile, in academia, professors are afforded a certain percentage of their workload for teaching and a certain percentage for research or creative activity. Let's also throw in there the fact that (I would guess) the majority of artists that are serious about their art and are able to pursue it are working part-time jobs, either because they have to, or because they want to keep part of their time open to creating.

So back to Atelier. The powers that be there assume that all of the above is true. And so they decide to try a radical change to the standard work division. Even though all of the employment opportunities at Atelier are full time, 40-hour jobs with benefits, an full half of those 40 hours are reserved for creative activity. It's similar to Google's 20% rule that allows employees to explore other projects 20% of the time, but with the goal being the creation of art and the development of the artist rather than the creation of new technologies. In this case, Atelier's mission is shifted toward the goal of enriching artists that can hone their craft and eventually become self-sustaining artists rather than the goal of “make lots o' money”.

There are immediate theoretical issues with Atelier's theoretical employment plan. The first is that with a workforce that is only devoting 50% of their time and energy to the company, the workforce will need to be twice as large as competing companies to make the same impact. Atelier, as a software company, solves part of this problem by systematizing many functions in their own corporate software application, maintaining a flat organization, and keeping a close eye on the bureaucracy. Additionally, it is likely that a company that actively works to promote its employees creative success will produce happier, creative employees.

Secondly, there is an obvious issue with the possibility that employees would be hired and would proceed to not develop (as expected) as an artist. This would unfortunately require the use of annual or semiannual reviews where the employee's progress as an artist would be evaluated, primarily in the terms of the amount of artistic output, which I'm not crazy about. Requirements governing artistic output would need to be created and integrated, and although the management at Atelier isn't interested in saying what is and isn't art, the company is interested in saying which sort of art they will or will not fund the creation of.

Technically speaking, all of the works created through the Atelier 50% plan could be considered “works for hire” with copyright assigned to the company, but the employment contracts go to great pains to lay out that this is not the case, that intellectual property rights for the art remains with the employee, while the intellectual property rights for the software remain with Atelier.

The eventual goal of a job at Atelier is that an employee/artist is given the opportunity to sharpen their skill through the 50% plan, becoming an artist in their own right, and leaves the company. But what if it doesn't work out that way? What if, after a span of five, seven, ten years, an artist shows no signs of being self-sufficient. Do they continue working at Atelier, or are they released from service? This is a point that Atelier hasn't yet figured out. On one hand, the point is to create self-sufficient artists, but this will be problematic if the company is too successful at creating those artists and there is no linearity to the workforce, that is, no one with years of experience is around to keep the workflow and work ethic consistent and evaluate the process from a historical standpoint.

I have no idea if it would work. I like to think that it would, that if you started a company and got a group of like-minded, creative, brilliant people together, took care of them, and asked them to create stuff for you and stuff for them, that you'd be amazed with the results.

Letter to Drury about decreasing humanities positions

A few days ago, this story broke at Inside Higher Ed. In the days that followed there was a lot of outrage toward and confusion about the idea that Drury will not be renewing some faculty contracts at the end of this year. My letter to the administration follows.

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Dear Dean Combs,

I'm afraid we haven't had the chance to meet, although I did recently receive a letter from the office of development bearing your signature (cf. http://kylev.net/combs). My name is Kyle Vanderburg, class of 2009. After graduating from Drury, I went on to pursue MM and DMA degrees in music composition at the University of Oklahoma, where I am currently on faculty. I owe so very much of my academic and professional success to the educational and musical opportunities I had while at Drury, and I have found that what I learned at Drury comes in more useful with each passing day.

Like many alumni, current students, and faculty, I have been dismayed at the recent news that Drury is not renewing the contracts of several full-time faculty members. Having been on both sides of the classroom, I understand that the decision to continue without these faculty members has been difficult and data-driven. However, one of the values of the Drury education involves making connections and the interrelatedness of different fields. With that in mind, I'd like to tell you a story.

As you may have noticed, Springfield, Missouri is surrounded by rural communities of varying size, including my hometown of Poplar Bluff. As a young musician, I looked up to the only professional musicians to which I had access: My high school band directors. The idea that someone like me could be a performer or composer was beyond my immediate experience. So I decided to get into Music the only way I knew was possible, by becoming a music education major. Although I did not continue on as a music education major, if the opportunity had not been there, and had Drury not employed Duane Harris (a predecessor to Dr. James Davidson) and the rest of the excellent music faculty, I likely would never have gone to Drury and some other school would be listed on the bio that I submit regularly for national and international performances.

I realize that my story is anecdotal, but part of the value of the music education program is that it recruits talented musicians that may (like many of us) change their major to music and later go on to become performers, conductors, and composers, which is a scenario that is not clearly outlined by any metric. What makes the Drury experience great is the ability to try out new classes, new majors, and make new connections. It is impossible to gauge the effect that removing these faculty positions will have on the undergraduate experience, and to release faculty contracts based solely on numbers is, at best, folly.

I of course realize that this decision comes from a financial necessity, and it is here that I do have some confusion. In your aforementioned letter, you mention that Drury is looking to expand with new majors and minors centered in media production, such as animation, digital media production, film and television production, digital design, and computer science and gaming. While these do sound exciting and contemporarily valid, I have concerns regarding the cost of starting these programs. As someone in the field of music production, I am (painfully) aware of the cost of starting and maintaining a production-capable studio. This seems like an unusual move for an institution that is losing 12 faculty members due to budgetary concerns.

Another point of concern is the recent division of Drury into multiple colleges at the undergraduate level. In my experience the creation of new colleges translates into new staff, and promoting professors to deans indicate higher salaries. While not inherently bad, it is, again, an unusual move for an institution that is losing 12 faculty members due to budgetary concerns. Additionally, sectioning Drury seems antithetical to the liberal arts mission. We should be building bridges, not walls.

I have spent time as an adjunct faculty member, and I see the validity of the possibility that adjunct faculty have had interesting jobs and careers, but given the current culture in higher education I'm afraid you may very well find the opposite to be true. With institutions granting so many doctorates, Drury may find itself filling positions with adjunct professors that have spent their lives obtaining a PhD and have less real-world experience than your hypothetical adjunct workforce. Drury deserves better. Our students deserve instruction from faculty that have a vested interest in the university, and our faculty deserves colleagues that are adequately compensated for their expertise and time.

The value of a Drury education has less to do with individual majors and more to do with the manner in which the program of study is philosophically based. When I moved from Drury to the University of Oklahoma, I suffered degree envy in that all of my newfound friends had Bachelor of Music degrees, and here I was with my BA from Drury. That lasted precisely until I realized that the students without a liberal arts degree hadn't had the opportunities that I had, and didn't possess the knowledge that I possessed. As more Drury alums have followed me to OU, I've heard the same thing. One put it succinctly, that “nobody here knows how to do anything outside of music.”

In short, the music curriculum at Drury is as top-notch now as it was when I was a student, but it will not continue this heritage of excellence if positions are removed. The current faculty are stretched to their capacities. The removal of an entire position will cause the program to suffer and will have the opposite effect of your goal of “making a degree from Drury University even more valuable over time”. I can only speak to my personal experiences with music, but I am sure that other departments facing faculty cuts will suffer the same fate.

In a world that is becoming increasingly specialized and vocation-driven, the power of a liberal arts education–to make the connections between fields that specialists cannot–is not immediately obvious. One of the major selling points for Drury when I was being recruited was the Global Studies minor and the GP21 curriculum. Getting a guaranteed minor? Yes please. I'm afraid that I don't know much about Drury CORE, and in perusing the website with the mindset of a perspective student I'm afraid I still don’t know much. The recruitment materials at http://choose.drury.edu doesn't focus much on academics. Even from the admissions site, the list of majors seems quite disjunct from Drury CORE. There are great things happening on the 88 acres in Springfield, and from my vantage point, we're keeping that secret to ourselves.

With all of this in mind, I urge you to look at alternatives to releasing faculty to alleviate the budget shortfall. Perhaps a change in recruitment strategy. An increase in tuition would not be inappropriate. Adding new majors–especially those that do not require large startup budgets for equipment–is an additional option. Increasing graduate degree options, especially in strong programs, may be possible. Increasing student residency in campus housing is a possibility.

Perhaps these have all been tried and have been found wanting, but the lack of transparency and information through this process has been troubling. I first heard about Drury's faculty cuts through Inside Higher Ed and emailed a former professor to confirm. As you move forward, I would implore you to keep alumni and students in the loop. Whether or not malice was intended, the fact that so many of us found out through news organizations instead of through Drury comes across as a slight, especially given that the university has access to many of our email addresses. A university that does not do an adequate job of keeping its alumni and student base informed of massive changes via email is ill equipped to increase communication and technology-heavy media production programs. I leave you with some words from Drury's first president, Rev. Nathan J. Morrison: “Not scholars, not surveyors, not discoverers, not lawyers and clergymen, but complete men and women. Drury's first care, therefore, of the youth committed to its guardianship, will be the culture of the intellect.” Rev. Morrison knew what generations of Druryites know: Academic specialization is no substitute for academic breadth. We sacrifice this idea at our peril.

Sincerely yours,

Kyle Vanderburg '09, DMA
Composer and Sound Artist, NoteForge
Director and Programmer, Liszt Systems
Instructor of Music, The University of Oklahoma

Advice that mattered to a student composer, a retrospective

Over the course of my composition instruction I was given an abundance of good advice. If I were to list all of it I'd have to dig into my nine years of course notes, but some of them have stuck with me more than others. To ring in the new year, I've listed my ten favorite pieces of advice below. Some are an exact quote, some are paraphrased. All are worth remembering.

10. Start Over
Carlyle Sharpe

For the most part, Carlyle was happy with the music I brought to lessons every week. However, on occasion I would bring in something terrible, and he would call me on it. Knowing that I had to start over was always awful, but I'm at a loss to remember a time he was wrong. Marvin later told me the same thing once or twice, but I eventually figured out how to judge when to start over by myself.

Takeaway: Know when to give up, know when to press on.

9. You're writing too fast/You're writing too slow
Marvin Lamb/Konstantinos Karathanasis

When I first started studying with Marvin, for the first month or so he kept telling me that I was writing too fast, and I should slow down. When I started studying with Kostas, he kept telling me that I was writing too slow, at least for the first few months. The fact that in both cases Marvin and I and Kostas and I figured out how each other worked taught me a valuable lesson in terms of how to teach composition.

Takeaway: Composers have different processes. Respect them.

8. “It doesn't have to be hard”
Tristan Kasten-Krauss via Steven Eiler

When Steven was writing an acousmatic piece for his master's recital, I think his challenge was to create something that sounded difficult but wasn't actually (at least for him, the guy's like a Pro Tools wizard). Tristan's advice to Steven was that difficulty in creating a work was not a requisite for quality.

Takeaway: Have fun.

7. “The subtle gesture is the lost gesture”
Marvin Lamb

This excellent quote from Marvin must be good, because I've been thinking about it since 2010. I believe the original context implies that ideas which are subtly obvious to the composer are rarely noticeable by the audience. I've expanded the meaning to include a multitude of actions. For example, the act of creating implies that the creator will release the creation into the world, and that takes a certain amount of confidence in which subtlety will not do.

Takeaway: Mean it.

6. “We both have baccalaureate degrees in music.”
Marvin Lamb

Marvin's quotes show up here multiple times because my first year at OU was my first real time outside of the Drury bubble, and I had yet to discover if I was as good as I thought I was, or as I hoped I was. I've been blessed with fantastic composition teachers who have known the right thing to say, and this quote was one of the things I needed to hear. At a time when I was unsure of my talent, Marvin's reminder that we both held baccalaureate degrees in music and that we were academically both qualified in the same way–we had both convinced someone to give us a bachelor's degree.

Takeaway: Don't be afraid of your own power and knowledge.

5. “There is a thin, bright line between being eclectic and being a whore”
Marvin Lamb

This is another Marvinism that I am still trying to wrap my head around. As best as I've unpacked it, it talks to personal style. It is one thing to learn techniques and integrate them into works or my personal style, it is another thing entirely to have no real style, being an amorphous composer with no interest in originality or individuality. Despite my nebulous understanding of it, I get the distinct impression that one is not supposed to cross that line.

Takeaway: Be yourself.

4. “A Composer without a deadline is a …janitor”
Carlyle Sharpe

I think “Janitor” is the first thing that popped into Carlyle's mind while he delivered this gem to a group of us after the premiere of his An American Postcard. He had just finished a large orchestral work, due in large part to the fact that it was recently due to the commissioners. I like to think that part of his point is that unchecked (and unscheduled) ambition doesn't produce good music, or maybe more accurately, doesn't produce finished music.

Takeaway: Finish the job and move to the next.

3. “You don't want to be an Education major”
Jayne White

I was a music education major for one year, and at the end of that year I was nearly a nervous wreck (long story). Up until my first day of class at Drury the only real music professionals I knew were all band or choir directors, and so I thought that was what you did. And then after a year of studying with Drury faculty, my interest in education waned. I wasn't quite aware of this until Dr. White, one of my education professors, let me know. “Maybe someday you will return to education” she mused, “But for right now, your heart's in music. Follow that.” She wasn't wrong.

Takeaway: The best advice can come from unexpected places.

2. “Yeah, that's going to be pretty hard.”
Roland Barrett

In 2013 I was working on a saxophone piece that eventually became Caffeination. I had a great groove, I had this fantastic melody at the climax, and I couldn't figure out how to get from A to B. I brought it to a composition lesson thinking that Roland would give me some advice on how to write that transition. I thought wrong. Instead he left me with “I'll be interested to see what you come up with.” The next week I brought in a transition, one that neither of us expected. The fact that he had the confidence that I would come up with the answer on my own motivated me to find the answer.

Takeaway: Trust yourself 1.

“You just don't get to not know anymore”
Christopher Koch

The original context for this quote was regarding conducting. What Christopher meant was that if one were conducting, and a performer asked about a certain note or passage, the conductor could not say “I don't know.” What's beautiful about this quote is that it's vague enough to work in almost any situation. I thought about it a great deal when I applied for masters and doctoral programs. I think about it often when reading new works with ensembles. It's a call against inaction.

Takeaway: Decide.

There is, of course, a lot more out there, including other non-compositional inspirational quotes (the perfect is the enemy of the good, done is the engine of more), but these make up the major life-altering phrases that stuck with me through the many good times and the occasional bad ones.

Thoughts on Productivity, Part III

Alright, here’s the concluding installment of “I should be writing music but I’m not.”

7. A general rule: No Brute Forcing

There is a prevailing idea, (perhaps due in part to Malcom Gladwell's pointing out the 10,000 hour rule) that the way to get something done is to just try to do it/beat your head against it until it sticks. Which, following rule 1, maybe that does work for you. Am I saying that there’s no need for hard work? That’s not what I’m saying at all. Directed hard work is important for the development of any art or craft. Brute force is hard work that has its heart in the right place, but its plan for how to achieve the final goal is misdirected, and possibly harmful.

Music students are often told that they should practice X hours a day. Maybe this works, and maybe it doesn't (though daily practice is expected, should it be for a specific number of hours?). We're not building Model T's here. We're not putting in 8-hour workdays assembling widgets (Fun fact, the 8-hour work day in America was popularized by Henry Ford, who found that shortening the 9-hour work day (and raising salaries) actually INCREASED production from the 45-hour work week). Sometimes, things don't work and it’s better to move on.

This raises a question: Is bad productivity (a stretch of time that you scheduled to do something, and then accomplished nothing) better or worse than no productivity (a span of time you didn't schedule to do something, and then didn't)? Or, possibly more accurately, is bad productivity (a stretch of time that you scheduled to do something, and then accomplished nothing) better or worse than alternate productivity/structured procrastination (doing what your brain wants to work on during a stretch of time you scheduled for something else)? By applying a brute-force method to creating art, are we working toward producing good art? An example: For my last piece, I was working on a number of motives and melodies, with a halfway-decent idea (a work titled Sibling Rivalry). After fighting with the material for a few days, I came home one night, started a new Sibelius document, and started fresh from the beginning using the same materials. The piece was completed several days later. Sometimes success is knowing when to give up and start over.

8. Systematize Processes

There is a part of making art that doesn't involve making art. I suppose it's a sort of Arts Administration, though not exactly in the same sense that people who work in Arts Administration use it. As a composer, and a self-published one at that, there's a few things I have to do. Here's a short list:

Write music
Register music with ASCAP
Get music print-ready
Submit music to distributers
Write program notes
Publicize music
Get performances
Get good recordings
Submit to calls for scores and festivals
Submit performance programs for royalty collection

And that's all composery things, it doesn't take into consideration my university duties, or the design, programming, and engraving work that my publishing company does.

Now, what if we could systematize some of these things? You can't really systematize “write music” (OK, yeah you can, I just refuse to). But things like getting the program notes on the website? Totally systemizable. One of my best examples is dealing with calls for scores. There are hundreds of organizations and ensembles looking for new music every year. They send out public announcements to several different places. Years ago, my approach was to find one I liked, get everything ready, and then realize after the deadline that I should have sent it in. It didn't take many of those screwups to change how I did things. I ended up building a system where I could enter information for calls for scores including which pieces to submit, and the system would remind me a month before it was due and would even go so far as to generate the mailing labels (with QR code capabilities) My yearly submissions went from 3 to 50 in the first year. AND I spent less time on them. One of my recent projects has been a rehearsal scheduler, that takes the schedule from a number of participants and outputs the time that everyone can meet. Which streamlines rehearsal scheduling (and, as it turns out, email) substantially. If you can master the flow of information, everything else is easy (-er).

9. A lot of custom software (and other things).

Building on the themes from “be a generalist” and “systematize processes”, a lot of what I do involves building custom software for my purposes. The “calls for scores” system I set up? Basically a highly specialized to-do list with custom fields for composing. This blog you're reading? Runs on the same system. My to-do list and daily calendar? You betcha.

It also organizes my travel funding (for reimbursement purposes), and I already mentioned the home product inventory system. Learning to program was probably one of the best things I ever did.

But it doesn't necessarily end with software. When I was writing my master's thesis, I ran into the problem that my desk wasn't big enough for the ledger-size sheet music I was orchestrating with. For several months my dining room table (the square one that I didn't buy from the OU surplus store, as opposed to the round one that I did, that lives in my office right now) moved into my office and became a second desk. Since I usually eat in the office, it kind of made sense. Within a year, I had designed and built a desk for composing (with plenty of help from dad). A couple years later, when I should have been studying for my general exams for my doctorate, Cassie and I built a couple of bookcases of my own design that doubled as speaker stands. Since I don't have any significant power tools in Norman, and because the entire project took place in my living room, they were not built as well as they could have been. Not even close. They have a few rough edges around them. But man, it sure does feel good to make things. It feels really good to make things that help you make things. It also instills a great deal of respect for people who make things and make them well.

Try writing a fugue without realizing the genius of Bach. Try building a calendar program without having an immense amount of awe for the team that does it at Google (Time zones are an ABSOLUTE PAIN.) Building furniture and building music aren't all that different, when you think about them.

10. Do what you love.

“Do what you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life” is totally cheesy (and according to the internet, first said by Confucius) but it's also totally true. I’ve been told over the past n years that I need to relax more. That I need to take time for me, and that I need to slow down and enjoy life. What perplexes me is that, I already do. Life is AWESOME, and I (more or less) get to do exactly what I want. I get to make cool things. How do you relax when you know that there's so many more cool things that you can do!? That said, there's an inordinate amount of code that runs Liszt that was written while watching Law and Order: SVU on Netflix. Sure, down time is important, but if you're doing a job that requires a lot of down time and recharging, are you in the right field? Maybe the answer to the “relax” equation isn't to take more time to relax. Maybe it's to do things in such a way where you don't need to relax. Things don't have to be hard. And at long last we find ourselves at the end of my productivity adventures, which in itself was an exercise in structured procrastination. I hope that at least some of this has been helpful, and if it hasn’t been helpful then hopefully it has been thought-provoking, and if it hasn’t been that hopefully it has been entertaining. I’m off to do some work.

Thoughts on Productivity, Part II

I meant to post this several days ago, but I was hanging out with a whole bunch of fun people at the national CMS conference in St. Louis. Here's part II of “it's easier to write things about productivity than to be productive.”

4. Be a generalist.

The world is becoming so specialized that the generalist is starting to become a novelty. In higher education this seems especially true. Working in IT I often came across professors who were amazing at their craft, but had no idea how to do anything more than the absolute basic on the computer (the phrase “I'm not good at computers” came up a lot, a later rant will be “when did 'I'm not good at X' become an acceptable excuse for not knowing things?”).

Put simply, things inform other things.

Within the field of music we try to exercise that idea, requiring composers to perform and requiring performers to attend classes in theory and history. But outside the field of music there isn't much required past undergrad. What about the impact of visual art on music? Or the impact of music on literature? More practically, what about the effects of marketing on music? What's the best way to brand an ensemble? What's the best height to build speaker stands? How can one apply the idea of Lean production to practicing music? (Is this even possible?) If you don't look for the answers, you won't know. (Preachy bit) What appears to be happening in the arts, especially in the US with a decline in funding, is that being a great musician soon won't be enough if organizations that hire great musicians keep closing. In Aaron Sorkin's commencement speech at Syracuse he said that “to get where you’re going, you have to be good, and to be good where you’re going, you have to be damned good.” “Damned Good” will soon mean not only acuity of craft but also innovation in application of craft.

Emerson once said that “The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss.”

American universities have become quite good (damned good?) at producing Why-knowers, but less so at producing How-knowers. I wonder if perhaps Emerson is about to be proven wrong.

(I thought this was supposed to be a blog post about productivity)

5. Free your schedule.

This idea comes from Marc Andreessen, who got it from Eric Abrahamson (from his book A Perfect Mess), who took it from Arnold Schwarzenegger. And it basically states that, if possible, you should forgo the schedule and just spend each day doing what you want.

It sounds totally crazy. If I need to spend all day working on writing music, I do. If I need to write a paper, I'll write it. If I need to lesson plan, I'll plan lessons.

The brain is an amazing thing, if we let it work. Because what I've found in my schedule-freeing-ness is that while I'm working on whatever I want to (like refinishing a coffee table. Or some dining room chairs. Or building a desk) my brain will work out the tough problems on what I need to do (like that tricky passage in the sax quartet, or create a melody for the piano trio).

There's a lot of background thought that goes on if you let the brain do its thing. And most of the time it self-regulates too, so if something NEEDS to get done, it'll get done before the deadline.

I'll stop there, because others have written on the subject with much better clarity than I could. But the schedule thing is amazing.

6. Inbox Zero

I have this idea that the more stuff you have in your inbox, the more stressed you are when you look at it. I haven't had my inbox number in the thousands for at least the last five years, and probably longer. Email takes a lot of time.

Several years ago I ran across Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero. It sounded like an interesting idea, so I tried it. Wow. I use my inbox as a list of things I need to take care of. Either I need to keep them in mind (like whenever I order something from Amazon, the correspondence stays in my inbox until it's delivered) or I need to take action (meeting requests and the like). Sometimes these things go into one of my to-do lists (I have two personally, a normal 'daily' to-do list and a long-term to-eventually-do list), sometimes I read them and delete them. The grand total of my inbox at this moment: 19. Eight of those are for the CMS national conference I'm attending this week. Three are calls-for-scores that I need to look at and enter into Liszt.

I still get a fair chunk of email a day (all my accounts filter into one main account), but a lot of it gets skimmed and deleted quickly. It also takes less time to sync my email. Some other thoughts on email: Five Sentences and Matt Might's article about How to Send and Reply to Email.

Thoughts on Productivity, Part I

Steven and I have been discussing productivity lately (which is always a fun pastime, it's easier to discuss productivity than to actually BE productive). I'm supposedly a productive person (at least that's what I keep being told, especially from my musician-or-otherwise-creative friends), and so I asked myself: Why? What makes me different than my (much more artistically gifted) colleagues? And so I came up with a list, which kept growing as I pondered artistic productivity. I started out with five ideas, I ended up with five more. What started out as a short project took much longer and eventually became a 3000+ word monstrosity, which I'm posting here in sections for everyone's sanity. Here we go!

1. Know thyself.

It's been around since the ancient Greeks (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), it's one of the Delphic Maxims, it was a minor plot point in the Matrix movies, and it's inordinately powerful. Jon Acuff, in his book Start, referred to this as “be a student of you”. For example, I learned near the beginning of my graduate career that I wrote music best if I have large, unbroken slabs of time. Like, 10 hours. If I know I have something scheduled later in the day, or worse, if I have something scheduled in the middle of the day, I'm lost. Two five-hour chunks don't add up to the same amount of (producing) time as one 10-hour chunk. Some of my colleagues work better if they're in the studio for three hours a day, every day. I would drive myself nuts that way.

Another idea that I've tossed around involves a question I've asked several friends, and that question is “do you think in words?” Or perhaps “When you think 'I need to remember to take that book with me tomorrow' do you actually think the words 'I need to remember to take that book with me tomorrow'?” There are two possible answers to this question: “Yes, of course, what else would I think in?” and “What?” People who think in words (about half, it seems) immediately know they think in words, and can articulate that thought, because it's never occurred to them that people DON'T think in words. People who don't think in words (like yours truly) have to translate that question into whatever they do think in, which takes a second.

For example, I think in concepts rather than in words. Gestalts, maybe. Cassie thinks in actions (and has to mentally envision herself doing things in order to process them). Walter thinks in terms of emotional states. (oh no I'm starting to ramble, let's wrap this up.)

What does that mean for each of us non-words people? Well, for Walter it means that he excels at his field (linguistics) when he knows the proper emotional context for certain words in certain languages (for example, using we vs. wij in Dutch, which depends on subject or verb emphasis). Cassie's action-based processes means that she benefits greatly from mental practice on the clarinet. I'm better at things than with words, which may explain my programming and furniture-building obsessions.

All of that to say this: figuring out how you think and how you work is tremendously useful. It's also the reason why the massive amount of productivity tips and tricks and schemes may or may not work for you.

2. The best way to have a lot of good ideas is to have a lot of ideas.

I come up with some really stupid things. Some of my questionable music ideas were a lot of fun. Like “Nocturne for Prepared Piano (and unprepared pianist)”, which only works if the audience believes that the pianist doesn't know the piano is prepared. Or maybe “Some Assembly Required” which is a work for orchestra that has twice as many parts as needed, so the performers, conductor, or audience can pick what parts they want to play/hear.

I keep an Idea Book. It's a book listing all the random ideas I have. Some are brilliant and have come to fruition (No. 221: AudioAtlas, No: 181: ScoreShare). Some are terrible (No. 12: Toast loaf (it's like a loaf of bread, but it's toast!). No. 144: Ceiling computer. No. 156: Build dental software. No. 177: Use gum flavors to encode memories for studying for general exams). I don't try all of these bad ideas. (I'll say it again. Toast Loaf). But often, looking through this book gives me other ideas to write down.

Fun fact: My current questionable idea is a home product inventory system, powered by Liszt, that runs an interface on an Android tablet mounted to the wall in the hallway. Theoretically, it'll act as our shopping list, cutting down the time to actually write the list. Is it a stupid idea? Very maybe. It depends on whether or not Walter will stop adding multiple copies of things to our grocery list (like 47 paper towels) or entire new products (DEATH LASER, Generic).

3. Use platforms wisely

Steven is all-Apple right now. He has an iPhone, iMac, MacBook, and AppleTV, and before we were roommates he ran an Apple AirPort Router as well. His systems work very well together, since they're all from the same manufacturer. On the other hand, I'm a Windows guy, with a laptop and Surface running 8.1, a desktop running 10, and a phone running 7. There's another 3 windows laptops around the apartment (one a server, one for parts, and one for extra MaxMSP projects), an HP touchpad running Android for the home product inventory system, a Polaroid android tablet, a MacBook, and two PogoPlugs running Arch Linux ARM for backup purposes. (I clearly have a problem). My computing runs on my three core windows machines, together with my Windows Phone, my Microsoft Office setup (As a professor I use PowerPoint A LOT, as someone looking for an academic job, I use Word a lot, this blog post was written in OneNote, which I've been using for class notes since 2008), and my Outlook.com account. While not quite as slick as the Apple “everything just works” thing, Windows is catching up, to the point that my Win8 and Win10 settings sync across devices. (And if OneDrive would work half as well as Dropbox, I'd be happy).

All of that to say that everything is easier when everything works together. While I do have a fair selection of non-Windowsy things (mostly for testing code on multiple platforms), my focus is on my core computers. I've met people who have a Windows laptop, an iMac, an android phone, and a Kindle Fire as a tablet (you know who you are). It just seems that moving from one thing to another, and making sure that everything is up to date and everything keeps talking to each other would be a huge pain. I spend most of the time that I would have spent keeping everything in sync marveling at the fact that my start menu syncs between computers. Of course, sometimes different platforms are better at different things. For example, if I need to program on the go, my HP laptop works far better than my MacBook (Mostly because of Notepad++), but if I'm audio editing while moving, Pro Tools works better (generally) on the Mac than on the HP. Of course, email and Dropbox make device-switching an incredibly easy process. My scores and session files live in Dropbox, so every computer has an up-to-date copy.

Ridiculous Titles

I have a lot of weird conversations with people. The conversations aren't universally weird (though a lot of them are), but as the dialog progresses, someone will put together a beautifully absurd string of words.

I write a lot of them down as future piece titles. Some of my favorites:
Fulfill your Existential Paradigm
A Seizure in Reverse
Retroactive Favoritism
Transcendence into Condensation

And of course, The Juice of Lesser Berries

About a year ago, I blurted out one such ludicrous title that I've been thinking about ever since, inspired by Joseph Schwantner's preposition-titles (like…and the Mountains Rising Nowhere and From a Dark Millenium and In Evening's Stillness…) and steeped in the juice of lesser berries its own pretension. It is

and the Leaves of Falling Darkness

…and so of course I had to use that on a title for something. And the something happens to be a work for Clarinet-Violin-Piano trio. It's a departure from the happy melody-driven things I always usually write. Here's how Sibelius plays it back:

If you're interested in hearing it live (and seeing part of the compositional process), I'll be hosting an open rehearsal on Saturday, October 11 at 2:30 PM in the Pitman Recital Hall at OU (sorry non-Normanites).