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Is Anyone Listening?

I’ve been posting my music on SoundCloud for the past couple of years.  It’s been an interesting experience, to say the least.  I began by posting a bunch of old compositions that had been languishing on a hard drive for a very long time.  Before long, I began to post new compositions at the precise moment that they were completed.  These new pieces were the result of a new year’s resolution a few years back; I decided to join a pair of composition “clubs” that encouraged members to post new work every week.  I even wrote a blog post about it way back at the beginning.  You can check it out here.

Anyway, I’ve heard some rumors recently that SoundCloud isn’t doing very well financially, which got me thinking about the good and bad aspects of freely sharing music online.  On the plus side, the ease with which new music can be published is pretty incredible.  Sure, there’s no money at stake for most of us, so it should come as no big surprise that the process is easier than posting music with commercial services like iTunes.  Regardless, the fact that I can finish a piece and post it within seconds is pretty cool.  And the number of users is so massive that it isn’t difficult to find a community of like-minded individuals that enjoy listening to each other’s music.  This is especially important for those of us who write in more obscure genres like electroacoustic and experimental music.

But I think there are some minuses as well.  First, there’s a tendency to “like” things just out of obligation, which means that “likes” can be something of a popularity contest.  If I want someone to “like” something of mine, the best tactic would appear to be to head over to their channel and “like” a bunch of their stuff.  I don’t actually do this, but I get the sense that many people do.  The other downside of SoundCloud is that the ease of sharing can result in a sort of “over sharing.”  Traditionally, composers were reluctant to release unfinished music into the world because of the amount of work required to publish something, and also out of a fear of negative criticism.  Now we have a situation where the work required to publish is reduced to almost nothing, and the culture of “like”-ing everything has removed any fear of negative criticism.  As a realist, composers will post just about anything, no matter how simplistic or unfinished it may be.  The thing is, I don’t actually care that people post rough work in principal, but I do have an issue with the fact that SO MUCH stuff is published every day.  This is true just amongst the 100 or so people I follow.  And when you add the stuff that those individuals are re-posting the signal-to-noise ratio can get pretty bad very quickly.

I frequently ask my colleagues and students how they feel about this kind of service.  It’s no surprise to me that the more established composers in my social circle don’t find SoundCloud particularly appealing; perhaps they believe there is still some commercial value in retaining their work as a paid commodity?  On the other hand, my students embrace these services whole-heartedly, which is almost certainly a result of their view of the music industry; they don’t believe that a music recording has inherent value, so in their minds it is best to just give it away as a type of publicity.  I guess I’m in the latter camp as well, but primarily because I compose in a genre that is so removed from any form of commerce.  As least it makes my decision to share my music an easy one.

I hope SoundCloud survives and continues to provide a valuable service to composers, regardless of their personal reasons for using the service.  I’d hate to have to post my work to YouTube and have the experience of listening to my music bookended by cats flushing toilets.  Although I do like cats.

Does Attendance Matter?

I find it ironic that, while every K-12 school in the country emphasizes attendance as one key to academic success, we in the higher ed community pretend like it doesn’t matter.  Or at least that’s how it seems to me when I’m told that I can’t count attendance as a graded component of my classes.  Now I understand that this is a complex issue that can’t be fully addressed in a blog post (or based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the subject).  And I know that the cynical view of the K-12 attendance emphasis is that those schools are only concerned about apportionment funding which is reduced when students are absent.  But I’m still going to try to convey my thoughts on the matter with regard to my tiny little corner of academia.

As you would most certainly know if you’ve read any of my prior blog posts, I teach both online and on-campus classes.  And in most cases I offer an online-only section for every class that I teach on campus.  (I also have classes that I only teach online, but they aren’t really relevant to this discussion.)  As a result, I have a scientifically weak but anecdotally strong (hah!) scenario for comparing online and on-campus performance.  Without a doubt, the on-campus students perform better when compared to their online counterparts.  I personally believe that there are several reasons why on-campus students tend to do better:  they are more likely to be full-time students, they are making a bigger commitment right from the outset because they travel to campus every week, they have the opportunity to develop a peer group that is more meaningful than just chatting with other students in online forums, they (sometimes) experience positive peer pressure to perform well academically for fear of public embarrassment, etc.  Another aspect that matters to me is my ability to connect with students in the classroom, and on a personal level because I see them around campus over the course of several months or even years.

OK, so we’ve established that I believe on-campus students have a greater chance for success and probably have a better instructional experience overall.  (Although I do believe some classes like software training can actually be better online, but I digress.)  So what does this have to do with attendance?  If you go back and look at the reasons I listed above for on-campus student success, you’ll see that almost all of them require regular attendance.  And, once again anecdotally, I have witnessed a direct connection between success in on-campus classes and regular attendance.  Now I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing that I used to think–the students who attend regularly were going to do well regardless, so I’m making a correlation that is completely unscientific.  Yes, that may be true.  And it may be true that applying arbitrary attendance pressure to “truant” students will not increase their chance of success.  But my gut tells me that getting these students to attend more regularly does make a difference.

When I first started teaching at community college, the attrition in my classes was pretty bad at time.  I can remember more than one class that began with fifteen students attending lectures, and ended with two or three.  I was briefly puzzled by this, but after a while it became clear what was happening; students would realize at some point during the term that they could just stay home, do the reading, and submit assignments without penalty.   But it was clear to me that students who performed this calculus and decided to stop going to class did worse as the term progressed.  There was a definite drop-off in their performance after they stopped attending regularly, and they were more likely to stop participating altogether before the end of the term.  So after thinking about this for a little while, I decided to change my class policies and award a significant number of points for class participation.  (Which is something we ARE permitted to do.)  The transformation was pretty miraculous.  I’d say attrition rates in my on-campus classes are now less than 10%, which appears to be very very good for community college.  And, as an added bonus, it has made the classes more rewarding for me to teach, and has absolutely fostered greater camaraderie amongst my students.

So, if I’ve solved the attendance problem with my classes, why am I writing this post?  It’s primarily just to share my approach, which did require a fair amount of work to institute:  I had to rewrite every syllabus for every on-campus class, weight the various assignments differently to find a balance, and restructure my lectures to allow for increased student participation.  None of these are bad things, and in fact they have been completely beneficial, but they required a lot of work.  And I know that many of my colleagues are hesitant to go down that road and increase their already heavy workloads.  in summary, I feel that many more instructors could move to solve their own attendance issues, which I believe will absolutely have a positive impact on student success, if we could just grade on attendance.  The other steps to actually increase classroom participation could then be optional, but at least there would be more butts in the seats which I think is good for everyone.

Mentor

Last night I attended a memorial concert for Mark Trayle at Mills College in Oakland.  Mark was my mentor while I was in graduate school at CalArts many years ago.  He passed away from pancreatic cancer just before he was scheduled to play on the Electroacoustica festival that I produced at Foothill in April 2015.  The memorial concert was exactly what I expected knowing Mark’s work and the quality and sensitivity of the performers gathered from both CalArts and Mills.  (For those who don’t know, those two institutions share a very close relationship between their music departments…)  The five compositions on the concert were all typical of Mark’s work:  smart, challenging, and wildly creative.  The whole experience got me thinking about my time with Mark and what made him such a valuable mentor.

Mills College Concert Hall

An orchestra worth of laptops await performers at the Mark Trayle memorial concert at Mills College.

You see, I spent my undergraduate years in a (much) more traditional musical environment at Oberlin.  I was studying electronic and computer music, so you have to understand that “traditional” is a relative term here, but the program was focused on classical electronic music of the mid-20th century.  On the other hand, the graduate electronic composition program at CalArts was completely open, aside from the fact the graduate composers were expected to do something unique and forward-thinking.  It was the perfect move for me because I did have a solid foundation from Oberlin, but was looking for a way to define my own style.  CalArts also emphasized solo and small ensemble performance which was very practical for composers about to set off on their own.

Anyway, Mark was one of the reasons I was attracted to the program when I interviewed at CalArts.  He just seemed so smart and relaxed and friendly.  Subsequently, my private composition lessons with him were the highlight of my two years there.  Unlike my undergrad composition lessons, which felt more like receiving a stern lecture from a grumpy grandfather, Mark was very down-to-earth and supportive.  We would rarely meet in his office; we typically went down to the campus coffee house to get espresso which we would sip while walking around the campus.  Pretty funny when you consider that we were talking about computers and software and building unusual control interfaces that often required soldering.  But it was exactly what I needed at the time.  He was open to anything, never laughed at my crazy ideas, and pushed me to collaborate with everyone and create as much music as possible.  Above all, he taught my by his example that creative success required hard work and that the creative process should be taken very seriously.  Oh and that it was OK to walk around and drink coffee and stare at trees while you thought about your next project.

And there’s another reason I’ve been thinking about Mark since his death.  When I arrived at CalArts, Mark was beginning his second year there.  But the interesting part is that it was his second year in academia after about 20 years in the corporate world.  At that time, Mark was in his early 40s, with a wife and a young son, and he had just left a (potentially) more lucrative career in the Bay Area to take a position at CalArts.  My current situation is oddly similar; I spent about 15 years in the corporate world, alternating between creative and technical work, before I had the incredible fortune of finding a full-time faculty position.  And, I’m about the same age that Mark was back then.  It gets you thinking about cycles and mortality and all that deep stuff.

I don’t have private composition students at Foothill, although I hope that some day I will.  But I do mentor students on a regular basis.  I just hope that I can inspire and encourage my students the way that Mark did for me and many others.

Textbook Boogie

I was looking forward to a (relatively) relaxed winter term this year.  For the past couple of years, I been busy taking classes for professional growth and writing curriculum for my own new classes.  (And composing music, and producing an electronic music festival, and raising two kids, and trying not to get divorced, and…)  My plan this quarter was to take just one class, and I don’t have any new classes on my teaching schedule.  But, being a glutton for punishment, I decided this was the perfect time to rewrite a pop music history class that I’ve taught many times.  It was a solid class, but the previous materials were inherited from another faculty member and didn’t really reflect my personal take on the subject matter.  So, I decided a rewrite was in order.

So, the first important fact here is that this is exclusively an online class.  Now you may be thinking that updating the course materials for an online class must be easier than preparing a dozen new lectures for a brick & mortar class.  You’d be wrong (for the most part).  The online class material preparation is quite different from the usual routine of reading, digesting, and presenting information in a classroom setting.  The primary difference from my perspective is that I often end up doing my “digesting” of the information while actually writing the online content;  despite my best intentions there is never enough time to fully digest everything and then switch over to the “writing code” mentality that is required to get the learning management system (LMS) ready for Monday morning.  You see, in an online class, the changes most be “set in stone” early enough to be posted to the LMS at the beginning of each week.  And then I can’t really change anything until the next term(!), because there’s a chance that someone will read the material and take that week’s quiz on Monday morning.  (How often do you find yourself cursing the proactive students when teaching a brick & mortar class!?!?)

Fortunately, I found an excellent textbook for this particular class: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by Bob Stanley.  It strikes just the right balance between breath, depth, and readability.  And the years covered in the book align almost perfectly with my class (although his book starts about a decade earlier than my course).  So the bulk of the work is in organizing the course structure, coming up with meaningful discussion forum topics, building a listening guide (the biggest task), and writing new exams and quizzes.  Fortunately, it’s a labor of love with this type of class, although not as near and dear to my heart as my electronic music history class.

One problem that arises with online courses is something that might not occur to teachers who only teach in the classroom; the blowback from requiring ANY textbook, even one that costs $10 as an e-book, is pretty intense.  I think the reason for this is that my classes are very inexpensive (for CA residents), which in turn makes the slightest additional cost more meaningful.  I went to college in the era of the $100-200 book expense for almost every college class, so it’s a little hard for me to relate.  But the downward pricing pressure on ALL media is obviously a huge thing these days, and you can see it in the open source book movement.  Anyway, there’s quite a bit of pressure for online instructors to write proprietary course content.  I do it for several of my classe, but it is a MASSIVE undertaking that requires a summer break (or similar amount of time).  The rewards can be worth it:  you end up with content that reflects your own personal take on the subject, and there seems to be small connection between courses with no book fees and enrollment numbers.  But I’ve never really investigated to see if the enrollment connection is true.  Perhaps I’ll poll my fine arts colleagues and see if there’s some merit to that hypothesis.

Regardless, I’m using a book for this class and it seems to be working.  I guess we’ll see.

 

Showtime

I just returned home from the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show this evening before sitting down to write this post.  It’s one of several conferences that I try to attend every year (although the Audio Engineering Society conference is the most relevant to my field).  Anyway, in spite of the usual long-haired metal heads that seem to be living in a 1980s, Sunset Strip time bubble, there were actually several new trends at the show.  One of those trends was definitely a greater emphasis on education.

The influence of video training sites like YouTube, Groove3, and Lynda.com is starting to have a noticeable impact on the audio engineering industry (and on the media production industry in general).  You can see it in many of the booths at NAMM.  Traditionally, manufacturers would present a well-choreographed demonstration that made their product look fast and powerful, but was very difficult for novices to follow.  These days, manufacturers are actually presenting meaningful tutorials that are slower-paced and accessible to everyone.  They take the time to explain concepts, and they may even have the camera zoom in on elements of the software or hardware interface to make sure everyone can see what’s going on.  And the crowds are eating it up.  Don’t get me wrong, their primary goal is to sell product.  But the focus on education through accessible demos is a clear sign that the industry has shifted its focus to the current generation of autodidacts that make up their growing customer base.

And I chalk it all up to a generation of musicians and audio engineers that have learned most (perhaps all?) of their skills from online videos.  The value of video-based training is something that I recognized several years ago.  As a result, I’ve been making YouTube videos for my students for some time now.  And I just completed a game audio tutorial series for Groove3, a subscription-based video training site that specifically caters to musicians and audio engineers.  I personally believe that these videos are essential for my online course sections, and are also a nice “value add” for students in my brick and mortar courses.

I try not to duplicate course materials in my online lessons, and the videos are a perfect to way to expand upon the concepts presented in the course textbooks without simply writing a bunch more text.  It’s also a way for me to inject something of my personal take on various topics; this permits me to offer the online students an experience that is more similar to attending my classroom lectures.  I try to make the videos as concise as possible, with a quick pace and tight editing.  This may seem to contradict my previous statement about accessibility,  but you have to remember that viewers can pause, rewind, and replay videos at their leisure.  Also, cutting out the pauses and “ums” and “uhs” makes me seem smarter that I really am.  So that’s good…

Overall, I think the videos are some of the best and most meaningful work I’ve done in the last couple of years.  And recently I’ve stated asking students to create their own videos as a means for submitting class assignments.  It’s actually very helpful and enjoyable to see students visually present and verbally describe their work.  In addition, the skills they are developing by producing the videos will be useful not matter what they do down the road.