About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Outcome orientations in education: product versus process

I've been teaching in higher education for around twenty years.  It has finally come to pass that my own children are closing in on my university freshmen, giving me a unique chance to gain some insight into the transition from high school to the challenges presented in collegiate learning.  So many of the college students that I encounter find themselves unprepared for managing their time when the rigid structure of high school comes to an end.  Different corners of society are putting a great deal of emphasis on assessment, but I am worried that we might not be taking the relevant measurements.  Careful attention must be paid to how students are prepared for college, and how they might be unprepared, so that we can support them as they make the giant leap forward.

American children are inundated with standardized tests, so much so that their curricula are specifically designed to generate good test scores.  Their assignments usually come with a detailed rubric, spelling out exactly how their work will be evaluated.  On the surface, this is an excellent way of providing clarity of purpose, fairness in grading, and accountability for students and teachers.  It works well enough, and students seem to find comfort in being able to "tick the boxes" as they do their work.  Ultimately, they can hold their finished product up to the standard model and predict with good accuracy what their grade will be.  The goal is a product that meets the specifications of the rubric.  Our high school students are very well prepared for this kind of outcome orientation.

Here at the university, my teaching is too complex for a rubric, at least when we get beyond a certain point.  I can assign points for using the correct fingerings, for accurately executing rhythms and dynamics (in itself, a subjective matter), and so on.  But here is the crux of it all:

I teach making beauty in the air.

There you have it.  Show me a rubric for measuring beauty and I will show you how it is flawed a dozen different ways.  Sure, the Westminster Kennel Club can use a rubric to identify a dog that most resembles the standards of their version of perfection, but try and tell me that you have never seen a beautiful mutt that touched your heart in some inexplicable way.  The standard version of perfection will simply bring us closer and closer to the standard version of perfection.  My students are expected to paint on a canvas of air and time, and approaching some standard version of perfection has very little to do with what touches the hearts of listeners.  Great art is almost always unique.  The best art is so unique that we are forced to go to certain artists because they are the only source of their particular brand of beauty.

Music is filled with examples of high art that burns the rubric to the ground.  An easy example is Thelonious Monk.  His technique is not anything that would be taught in a conservatory, his phrasing can be disjunct and even jarring, and his compositions are anything but standard.  With all that working against him, it is fair to say that he is universally accepted as one of the great geniuses in all of jazz, and perhaps considered one of the most important artists in American history.  Using the standard model of assessment, Thelonious Monk *the student* would never be admitted to a top shelf music school, and yet we study Monk *the artist* with great reverence.  Other examples include Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and countless others.  These artistic "mutts" are far more rewarding than any show dog.

The problem with preparing students for this kind of academic pursuit is that the work has little to do with product-related expectations.  Study at this level is almost entirely oriented towards process, and our students have little experience with such things.  Sure, I expect all my freshmen to be able to play 37 different scales at a particular metronome marking.  I require them to prepare a certain number of etudes each semester, and to perform compositions from the standard repertoire at regular intervals, but none of that accurately predicts which students will make the leap from competent craftsperson to artist.  Only those that excel at the process, only those that can cobble the various elements of craft into something that transcends the rubric will become something more than just a box-ticking automaton.  Thelonious Monk is a process, not a product.

I am still wrestling with the challenges of helping students to adapt to the slow motion progress and jagged learning curves associated with pursuing artistry.  I am trying to create assignments that favor curiosity and perseverance over the simplistic completion of tasks.  Above all, I am trying to meet my students where they are, to listen to their concerns, and to engage them in the long haul of our work together.  It's all a work in progress.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Mindfulness of "Thank You."

I love technology.  And I don't even mean "modern" technology.  I love old pocket watches, typewriters, and vacuum tubes.  I have radios from the 1920s and 30s.  My collection of metronomes spans three centuries.  I especially love anachronistic technology, like my 21st century tube amps and LED "Edison" bulbs.  I have an iMac, an iPad, and an iPhone.  I also have a chromebook, which I am using to write this blog post.  I love technology.

I use lots of technology in my teaching.  The Tonal Energy app on the iPad is absolutely vital in my studio.  I run the iPad through vintage JVC integrated amplifiers, Tannoy monitors, and a Dynaco A50 as a subwoofer.  From the cardboard standing desk to the 1920s saxophone-as-umbrella stand, my office is a well curated museum of technology.

About a year ago, I realized that my first interaction with my students in their weekly lessons was me staring at the computer (I keep their lesson records on Google docs).  To say that it was impersonal is an understatement.  It made me feel horrible, so I decided to make a change.  I vowed to begin each lesson by looking the student in the eye, giving them my full attention - asking them "How are you?"  It seems like a small change, but it has had a big impact on the way that I connect with my students.  I want to begin our work together by actively engaging in our relationship.  I want them to know that I care about how they feel.

In the process of practicing mindfulness and presence in my teaching, I started to notice things that I had been taking for granted.  At the beginning of this semester, I noticed that my students say "thank you," a whole lot.  The more I noticed, the more I tried to respond with a sincere "You're welcome."

For the last two weeks, I paid careful attention to the end of each lesson and coaching.  Literally, 100% of the time, my lessons, coachings, and office hours ended with a student saying "thank you."  Every single time.  This Friday, as I was leaving the building, I encountered a student in the stairwell and I wished him a good weekend.  He responded with a "Thank you!"  

As I exited the building, I held the door for a student that I had never seen before.  She looked me in the eye, smiled, and said "Thank you."  I almost burst into laughter.

Obviously, I am grateful for these wonderful students.  It is all too easy to complain about the young generation, glued to their phones, lacking in curiosity.  Perhaps my recent experiences are a direct result of actively engaging with the people that I encounter, or maybe it's been happening all along, but I was too glued to my phone, too lacking in curiosity to notice.

Either way, I feel greatly rewarded for my efforts in being more present in my work.  Connecting with people is a habit well worth cultivating.  If you took the time to read this post, I can only say "Thank you."

Monday, September 25, 2017

10 Rules for Being an Artist

If you write for long enough, you will eventually read something that you forgot about writing in the first place.  Here are ten rules, taken from my Saxophone Journal column in May/June 2013.

1.  Never immediately discount anything, ever.  Give it a chance, or put it away for future exploration.

2.  Study with a master teacher for an extended period of time.  Then, find a new master.  Repeat as necessary.

3.  Transcribe [copy] one artist until you gain deep insight into his style.  Then, find a new artist.  Repeat as necessary.

4.  Respect the tradition, study history, and get the oldest [artist] in town to tell you her stories.

5.  Don't lie to yourself, and don't quit.

6.  Have a notebook.  Fill it.  Get a new notebook.

7.  Be confident, but always assume that there is a better player in the band, and an even better player in the audience.

8.  Be generous . . . and share the spotlight.

9.  Regularly read all sorts of books, magazines, and newspapers.

10.  Teach!  You will nurture the future . . . by helping young artists, and by building new audiences.  You will also learn unexpected things from your students.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Of Circuits and Souls: Don Garber (1935-2017)

Don Garber passed away on June 4, 2017, two days before my 45th birthday.  I cried when I got the news, which is a little strange.  I never actually met Don, not in-person anyway.  I was his customer, as I had purchased a pair of his legendary Fi 300b tube amplifiers, and later the matching preamp.  I had to save for years to afford them, which was ok, as the waiting list was almost a year for each item.  That's how good he was.  You had to pay just to get on the list, and I can't begin to describe the agony of waiting.  Don didn't simply design and build amplifiers.  He crafted unique and soulful musical instruments.  If you are not an audiophile (also known as a crazy person), you probably have no idea what I am talking about.  Allow me to explain.

In any normal business, it would require an engineer to design a good amplifier circuit, a designer to create the casework, an assembly house to put it all together, a quality control team to do the testing, a packing and shipping department, and a whole team of folks to do the marketing.  Don did it all himself, and he didn't even have a website or run ads.  In the 21st century, he did not have a website.  Let that soak in for a moment . . . . . . . . . . .  It was all word of mouth, and some passionate reviews, which was how I discovered his work.  You see, the amps belong in the Museum of Modern Art.  They are gorgeous pieces of industrial sculpture.  And the sound?  I never grow tired of them.  My heart beats a little faster when I power them up.  Stereo fanatics are usually thinking about speakers and wires and tubes and transistors, but I tend to forget all about that stuff with my Fi gear, and I simply bathe in the music that they so effortlessly loose into the room, much in the same way that my best saxophones allow me to forget technique and totally focus on the emotions of the art.

I was surprised to find out that, although he lived in Brooklyn for most of his adult life, he was from Virginia, and his father was from Harrisonburg, where I currently teach at the very university where his parents met - then Madison College, but now James Madison University.  I wasn't surprised to find out that Don Garber was (primarily) a gifted painter, and I was even less surprised still to find out that he was a saxophonist in his younger years.  His work reflects the soul of an artist, in every regard.  Even the intricately cutout cardboard puzzle pieces that he used to pack his amps for safe shipping were strikingly unique and oddly beautiful.  I hated to recycle them.

When I first contacted Don, he asked about my speakers and he expressed concern that they might not work with his amps (and he was right).  He tried to talk me out of ordering, but I told him that I would gladly put the amps in the closet and save up for the right speakers.  When the amps didn't mate well with my Tannoys, he gave me detailed instructions on how to rewire the output transformers for a 4 ohm load.  I remember him calling me up and saying "how are you with a soldering iron?  You're going to need 40 watts, if you don't have one already."  I ordered a heavy duty soldering iron that same day.  He sent me copies of his hand-drawn schematics and he even gave me  some of his preferred solder, free of charge.  In the end, as fate would have it, I had inherited some old Wharfedale speakers a few years earlier that turned out to be perfect mates for my Fi 300b, but the bottom line was that he wasn't happy until I was happy.  For the record, I am, to this very day, tears-on-cheeks, don't look at me, I need a minute . . . that happy.  They have been singing in my listening room ever since.

Down the road, Don contacted me with concern that a reviewer wanted to order, for his personal use, a pair of Fi 300b amps to use with speakers similar to mine - the ones that didn't work, because complex crossovers are the work of the devil, by the way.  He was hoping that I could talk the guy out of it.  Who does that?!!!  "I don't want you to buy my expensive, hand-made product because I don't think it will work for you."  Don cared.  It wasn't about money or ego.  He wanted to share a piece of his soul with you.  I have owned all kinds of interesting electronics, but Don's amps are the only ones that I could honestly call "soulful."  The way they look, the way they work, the way they sound . . . every aspect tells you something about their creator.  He was part Picasso, part mad scientist, and all in.

Fast forward:  I hadn't been in touch with Don for a few years, so I decided to write him a letter around the holidays.  I let him know how much I love the amplifiers, and how they have become the center of many intimate social gatherings in my home.  I thanked him for being such a devoted artist.  He got back to me very quickly with a particularly artsy card and a handwritten note, complete with a Sarah Vaughn stamp.  It is worth noting that even Don's handwriting spoke to his attention to detail.  It was almost like a stylized version of architect script, very clean and legible, but also quite distinctive and unique, and captured on the printed logo on his amplifiers.  Anyway, I am so grateful for this final exchange between us.  I was surprised and saddened to hear of his passing, but I could not have engineered a finer farewell to a person that I deeply admired.

It isn't very often that you hardly know a person and yet somehow, you feel like old friends.  I suspect that Don Garber was simply that sort of person, the kind that instantly felt well worn and comfortable.  The world was better with Don in it, and I will feel his absence for a long time, but I am among the lucky owners of these amazing amplifiers that contain a little reflection of his soul.  Every time I play music through them and find myself quietly sobbing, or laughing out loud - every time I forget about the artifice and drown in the art, my friend Don will be right there with me.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Can Dyslexia Teach Us About Learning Music?

*this article was originally published in Saxophone Today (Jan 2017)*
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Can Dyslexia Teach Us About Learning Music?

As a university saxophone professor, a large portion of my work is spent helping students to learn repertoire.  I’m also constantly working on new music, while trying to keep the old standards as fresh as possible.  This heavy emphasis on the learning process has lead to an obsession with increasingly effective methods of learning (and teaching).  We all have limits to the amount of time that we can devote to practicing, so we need to make every moment count.  I am particularly interested in what we can learn from modern technology, so when I heard Gabrielle Emanuel’s fascinating NPR report on current research to better understand dyslexia,  http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/503693391/researchers-study-what-makes-dyslexic-brains-different, I was very excited about what I perceived to be obvious parallels between understanding the way humans read written words and the way we read music.  Moreover, a method for helping dyslexics to improve reading skills seems likely to have applications in music.

In the big picture, written language is a relatively new development for humans.  Evolution has hard-wired our brains for certain critical skills, like recognizing faces and learning spoken language, but reading requires a step beyond pure instinct.  Without getting too technical (and I encourage you to read Emanuel’s excellent article for slightly more detailed information), our brain likes to take pictures of things.  The first time you see an object, your brain needs to learn what the object looks like, and that means recognizing it from many angles.  Figuring something out for the first time happens in a particular part of the brain, but a different structure takes over when you can recognize an object in the abstract.  For example, if you see a car from the rear, you still easily recognize it as a car.  This skill involves a certain part of the brain called the occipitotemporal cortex.  Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) shows that this area of the brain is not only used for recognizing objects, but it also plays an important role in reading written language.

Our brains basically try to take “pictures” of words, so that we can quickly recognize those words without having to sound them out every time we see them.  This allows the brain to treat common words like symbols, seeing them as discrete objects, rather than a bunch of letters.  If you see the word “the,” your brain recognizes it quickly because it has stored an image of that word.   Words like this are known as sight words, and they are a vital component of learning to read.  Unlike cars, words are not objects that have the same meaning from different angles; think about a young child that writes some of their letters backwards, or reverses mirror-image letters like lowercase b and d.  This is unnatural for the brain, which is why we all need time and practice to learn the art of reading and writing.  [I taught myself to write with both hands, but I sometimes have trouble writing lower case q with my right hand, because I can’t remember which way the letter is oriented, but this only happens with my non-dominant hand, and only when I am tired!]  Dyslexics exhibit difficulty with sight words, and fMRI shows that their brains are less active in the involved neural structures when they are exposed to sight words, when compared to non-dyslexics.  Everyone must learn that a car, when viewed from any angle, is always a car, but letters and words are like one-way streets – direction matters!

Emanuel goes on to explain research being conducted by Guinevere Eden of Georgetown University.  In short, subjects with dyslexia were given intense training in learning to recognize words at sight, which resulted in a measured increase in activity in the appropriate structures of the brain.  Moreover, fMRI showed an increase of activity in other parts of the brain, suggesting that the brain can compensate for problems in some areas by recruiting other structures.  This can also be seen in patients with brains damaged by injury.  With disciplined practice, the brain forges new neural pathways.

In many ways, reading music is identical to reading language.  When we first learn to read music, we count the lines and spaces on the staff and use a mnemonic device (like “Every Good Boy Does Fine”) to determine the note names.   With practice, our brains will memorize an image of the staff, and then quickly identify note names by their positions in the staff.  I find it particularly interesting that an inexperienced music reader might confuse B with D, for example, because the two notes form a similar image, especially if one temporarily loses the visual center line of the staff.  From a more advanced perspective, scale passages are quickly recognized at sight, and the same holds true for triads and chordal structures.  A similar process happens when reading rhythms, where we go from having to count out the individual components to seeing a group of notes as an image that is a symbol for a certain cliché.  Young readers can easily execute quarter notes in a row, but syncopated figures are like little riddles that must be solved (sounded out?) before they can become grouped into images that can be recognized at sight.

 All this had me thinking about a method of practicing that I use, and how this method could be refined to take advantage of the brain’s strong tendency to organize components into meaningful image-symbols.  I tried working on some long, complex lines of music using the following method:

1.     Divide the line into clear visual groupings of notes.
2.     Play each group slowly with a pause between each group.
3.     Gradually increase the tempo within each group, but maintain a pause between groups.
4.     Play the line very slowly with no pauses, but still try to see each group as a separate unit within the longer line.
5.     Play in time, as written, increasing to the desired tempo.

In my own practice, this method worked very well.  In a relatively short amount of time, I was able to see each group as a “chunk,” and my eyes were free to move ahead to the next grouping while I was still playing the notes of the previous group.  I tried it with some of my students who came to their lessons with trouble spots in their prepared etudes.  While none of this was done in a scientific manner, I can say that the anecdotal evidence of taking the student through these five steps resulted in a rapid improvement, and the desired outcome was reached with seemingly far less repetitions than is required by the common method of repeating the line slowly and very gradually increasing tempo.

There are many well-known approaches to “note grouping” as a method for learning and interpreting music, so this is not really anything new.  With that said, fMRI is providing us with profound insights into the way that our brains work, and this information is bound to have broad applications for enhancing the way that we teach and learn.  While we might not ever be able to download talent directly into our minds like in The Matrix movies, we can definitely supercharge our practice by knowing how to quickly stimulate the parts of the brain that are involved in the acquisition of certain skills.  I will be following up on this article when I have a chance to do some of my own research.  Good luck, and practice well!