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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).

Composition Submission Tracking

As it turns out, there are quite a few composition contests, calls for scores, conferences, and other opportunities available to composers each year. And, following the advice of Eric Whitacre, I try to submit things as often as I can. But I kept falling into this pattern:

  1. Find a contest.
  2. Prepare everything for the contest.
  3. Let the paperwork sit on my desk until deadline has passed.
  4. Repeat.

This obviously didn’t work that well for me. So at the beginning of this academic year, I decided to try something new. I thought, if I can somehow automate (or nearly automate) the contest submission process, then I’ll be spending less time sending off compositions (or rather, less time not sending off compositions) and more time composing. Or watching police procedurals. Or both! So I built HOE.

HOE 

The Hammer Opportunity Engine or HOE is essentially a composer’s to-do list on steroids. It tracks composition opportunities, which pieces to send, whether the deadlines are postmark or receipt, and it prints the mailing and return address labels, all coded with QR codes. It plugs into Hammer’s composition database (which drives kylevanderburg.com) so new compositions are added automatically. And it basically reminds me incessantly when submissions are coming due.

While I’m sure I could go on about how HOE works, it’s probably more interesting to talk about what I’ve learned by using it. Here’s a list of things in no particular order:

  1. The system actually works. Since using HOE, I’ve won the Belvedere Chamber Music Festival Student Composers Competition (BCMFSCC?) and was selected to have Creatures from the Black Bassoon performed at ICMC2012. (which means travel to Memphis and Slovenia, both of which are famous for their barbecue. Or I might have made part of that up.)
  2. Anything looks more legit with a well-placed QR code and a logo.
  3. I’ve sent out ~40 submissions this year, rather than the 2-4 I usually send.
  4. A good chunk of contests don’t respond when they’ve picked winners, which means they sit in a “submitted” state until you search for them.
  5. Contest fees range from the free to the astronomical. The reasonable amount I pay is somewhere between the two.
  6. EasyChair is kind of a ridiculous service, though it seems to work.

So there it is. My programming geekiness meets my composerlyness.

The digital distribution of an analog medium

I ran into a problem on January 12. I was in Stillwater, Oklahoma (no, that wasn't the problem) at a reading session by the Michigan-based Brave New Works ensemble. They were getting ready to perform a reading of my Salvation, for piano trio, but the cellist had forgotten (lost, left elsewhere, etc) the cello part, which is quite important if one is interested in performing the work on cello. I hadn't thought to bring extra parts, so all I had was a score. Luckily, we quickly remembered that I had originally sent the parts via email, so it was just a matter of finding a computer with internet and a printer. The day was saved by Gmail. But still, I wondered how I could prevent such a problem in the future. For example, what if the aforementioned cellist had deleted the email? What if we couldn't find a computer with internet access and a printer? (Which could be a significant problem, seeing as most institutions like OSU require logins and have print quotas and such.) I worry about these things.

A separate conversation that seems to be recently ongoing is the relevancy of present art music. Or, put in question form, how do we keep attracting audiences? Is art music still relevant? I think part of that answer lies with technology, specifically the digital promotion of our analog art form. While the rest of the world is tweeting and facebooking, sheet music still largely exists in the physical world. While physical goods are great (As Zappa said, people like to own stuff), digital goods move quicker. I'm immediately reminded of the way Nonesuch handles their releases. For example, I have John Adams's Son of Chamber Symphony album preordered, which consists of an immediate digital download paired with a physical CD. Does anyone do this with sheet music? (serious question, I really don't know).

So back to my problem with parts. I suppose the easiest solution could be to carry all parts (either digital or physical) with me all the time, but that only works if I'm at the performance. What about dumping everything to a directory at kylevanderburg.net? Well, the unfortunate downside to that is access control, or how to prevent the links from going public and allowing everyone access to all of your music. You know, it would be easier to just make a list. Here's what I needed:

  1. Some way of getting scores/parts to customers.
  2. Some way of answering calls for scores with a simple link, rather than emailing large PDFs and audio files.
  3. Some way of making permissions expire after X number of days (or, not expire, either way).
  4. Some way of making links expire after 1 click.
  5. Some way of protecting the original source files.
  6. Some way of allowing for part distribution to large ensembles (separate “part” and “score” download pages)
  7. And, I needed to build this system so it could handle MP3 downloads eventually (if it came down to it).

I'm sure there are several great, established systems out there for doing this. But of course, I had to build this one myself. And here's how.

The NoteForge Hammer Music Management System is almost entirely composition-driven, meaning that (nearly) every piece of data within the system is tied to a composition. The first step in creating this download/permission/distribution system (which is temporarily called the partslinger until I come up with a better name) was to create a file storage database. This component allows me to upload a file (which is stored in a directory that doesn't allow direct downloads), specify which composition to which it belongs, and whether it is a score, part, or audio file.

The permissions database becomes more difficult due to the security of the system. It essentially asks for an email address, what composition is allowed, and how many days the permission is allowed. The system then calculates a variety of secure hashes which are used in the following steps.

The last two parts, the download management pages and the download delivery system are where all the fun happens. The download management page (which is dynamically generated for each user that has a permission in the system) runs through a series of loops that determines what permissions the user has, and therefore what files are allowed. Then ,by using data from the file storage and permissions database, the page creates dynamically generated download links. The main page looks remarkably like http://noteforge.com/downloads/ed705a791e1d426edb8c4fa1acf3cba2/.

In addition, knowing that such a system may be useful at some point for distributing parts for a large ensemble (who could download the parts, but shouldn't need access to the score), a second, “public” download link is generated, like http://parts.noteforge.com/3acf6e80686b9065bf4a61903895defa/.

All of these pages provide wonderful links like this one:

http://download.noteforge.com/ed705a791e1d426edb8c4fa1acf3cba2/7a5efd8f5be322722d849ba1357f2b02/35/1c383cd30b7c298ab50293adfecb7b18/

No, that link doesn't really work, because of this next part:

Finally, the download delivery script takes that download.noteforge.com link, parses all of the information, checks against the databases, finds the file in secure storage, invalidates the old link, creates a new link for future use, and delivers the file.

Useful? Very. Interesting? For about two of you, yes. But hopefully this will spark conversation about the use of technology in the promotion of art music.

And besides, now I get to save money on stamps.