The Algorithms Got Me

Sometimes I think I’m messing with the algorithms of my media consumption when I research things for classes I teach. Recently I’ve been working with a class exploring the Blues. I know…it’s a big genre and there’s lots to cover, but like most of my classes, we find a path and we follow it and make stops along the way. Curious how music finds you where you’re at and not where you think you’re going.

As we explore the blues and the importance of it throughout the 20th and now the 21st century of music, I started noticing more and more articles about Ahmaud Arbery. The reporting of anyone’s death by the hands of another is tragic, however this one stopped me in my tracks. Although there is much to discuss about race and how people of color are seen in the United States, I’m going take a moment and tell you what my algorithm did to me.

As I am reading another NY Times article about the Arbery case with my morning coffee, I had my music media player playing from the list of music recommend to me. I often do something like this before I start teaching. Eventually my teaching of the blues and this particular shooting in Georgia came crashing together when my computer played Strange Fruit performed by Billie Holiday followed by When Will I Get To Be Called A Man performed by Big Billy Broonzy.

Why these two songs, and in that order?

I turned the music down, took a moment to collect myself, then I got ready for class.

Sometime I think my algorithm is reading my mind.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 15

Close One and Cheers:

Like most Friday’s before a break from school occurs, thing are bound to go wrong. Sometimes it’s students behaving unruly or planned events that disrupt the day, like a class parties. You never know what might come up of these days. Today my “WTF” moment happened due to poor bandwidth.

Now that my kid is also doing school from home, for the foreseeable future and my partner is also working from home, I believe we have met the limits to our wifi home connection. The three of us were working our network as hard as we could. After suffering through several classes with poor connections, where both my kid and I were wondering what was going wrong with our computers. A few dropped meetings later, and then having to reconnect to virtual classroom I worked in all month,  it dawned on me that we have never done this at the same time in our home.

We quickly jumped into our prospective computer’s Task Manager & Activity Monitor to figured out what which apps and extensions needed to be running and which did not. This really helped and made it easier to get through our meetings in without disruptions. Soon I’ll need to contact our provider to ask for either more tips or an increase in bandwidth. When I take into consideration that we will be working like this for at least another month, making sure our network can support us, is crucial. 

Just when I started to think I was getting the hang of my virtual classrooms, and got too feeling like this is normal. The universe reminded me not to get cocky, and that I am lucky to have the privilege of work from home and still teach music. I’m glad it all worked out, lesson learned.

Now that this week is over, and my school is in spring break, I feel like I can take a moment to reflect on the past three weeks of remote music teaching. However, I’m tired and want to sit and pour myself a sip of scotch. With that tumbler I’d like to toast all the teachers and parents who pulled resources together to provide an educative experience of our kids and students. Who knows, perhaps I’ll have two drinks… 

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 14

Tired:

On a typical day I feel like I get to move around a fair amount. With conducting ensembles and moving around campus, I might even say I am very active. On occasion I might get a work out before my day starts. However, since the coronavirus era of teaching started, my movements have been more confined. I move from my bedroom, to the garage to the room in my house which serves as my virtual workstation. A bathroom break every once and again. With the occasional trip to the kitchen for coffee and meals.

My eyes get tired, so I can do several things to help with that part of my virtual experience. My ears get fatigued from wearing headphones for too many hours, so I change my audio situation from cans to speakers now and again. However, the part that is surprising to me, is that my back and legs are sore. To no ones surprise a comfortable chair is an important items needed for this much virtual teaching while sitting. Along with the options of standing or walking while teaching sometimes, might in fact be necessities for this type of work.

II guess moving forward, I’ll have to get specific about changing my routine and perhaps investing in a recliner….for teaching purposes of course.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 13

Live sound in a virtual space:

Now that things are settling into what seem more and more a regular routine, I started to ask some fundamental questions about the user experience within my virtual platform. 

  • How is the sound of my voice received by my students? 
  • When I speak or demonstrate on my instruments, what exactly are my students hearing through their speakers, earbuds or headphones?

After recording myself using the USB microphone mentioned in a previous post, I figured out the mic I am currently using works better for speaking into and not prolonged playing into through my digital classroom. For recordings a Soundtrap track or a live performance situation in Microsoft Teams, an audio interface with another microphone really works better for the those circumstances. 

In my case, plugging in a Scarlett 2i2 and using an MXL 770 condenser mic worked wonders for controlling the sound I wanted my students to hear, as I demonstrate in virtual classrooms. However, when ever I need to speak, the USB-mic works much better for me. Switching back and forth was just a toggle of a button in Teams and each situation felt better to my ears.

It’s been three weeks of teaching band and orchestra in a digital space, and I still working out the kinks. 

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 12

Three Great Moments In One Virtual School Day

Today I had several experiences with students and colleagues which are cause for acknowledgement, appreciation and gratitude.

Teaching Assistant

Before the term started, one of my students in the advanced orchestra approached me about being a teaching assistant.  Currently, the school doesn’t have a policy regarding this, nor a mechanism for how to evaluate and grade in this type of scenario. Knowing that the term would start in a virtual setting, I assumed the student would politely ask-out of this experience, but instead, this student wants to help younger players learn, and what teacher would get in the way of that?  I’ve quickly discovered that having a TA is quite the luxury, especially as I work with the Intro to Orchestral Strings class. My TA has been fantastic with the less experienced students by proactively offering to work with students in the virtual practice rooms, and then also occasionally leading some sessions in the general lessons as well.  Leadership like this is impressive, appreciated, and a breath of fresh air.

Discussion with Colleagues

The second great moment today happened as part of a conversation involving differentiated instruction. The discussion at first seemed typical for our team, where we started to talk about these things as if we were still working in a standard classroom and the coronavirus did not disrupt the foundation of our existence. However, when we started to discuss the way in which we were meeting students needs through a variety of differentiated virtual assignments, (designed to help with a diverse pool of learners), the conversation offered more food for our artistic pedagogical appetites. It got so involved and intense that I felt re-energized about my current role as virtual educator, and gave me a renewed sense of purpose as I dove in to afternoon classes.

Student Slaying Assignment

The assignment was part of an exploration of the Blues, in both form and chord progression. Student were asked to play an exercise involving dominant 7 chords over a blues progression in the key of C. Afterwards, they were asked to improvise a solo using the elements we had covered the past two weeks. Those elements included the use of the blues scale, minor pentatonic scale and major triads. A large part of this class involves listening to the music we are studying and then discussing the elements observed, such as “vocal inflection”.  Today, one of my violin students, flat out SLAYED the exercise and the their improvised chorus of this blues progression.  Vocal inflection was definitely demonstrated, observed and appreciated.

 

Some days I love my job.  Today was one of those days.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 11

Duet with myself:

Today starts the 3rd week of the spring term. Some things feel normal and routine, as mentioned in the previous post and other things feel new. One of the actives I enjoy doing with students is active listening of music. This typically involves listening to a piece of music or two with students and then asking students questions about the piece(s) of music we listened to. 

What is the instrumentation or orchestration of this piece?

Tell me about the meter of this piece?

And one of my favorites, Does this sound like anything you’ve heard before?

The discussions can go in many directions, and I enjoy the different lanes of exploration when we do. But today I start an alternative aspect to the usual set of questions to my students. 

Since the beginning our venture into our virtual classrooms this month, my students have spent a significant amount of time recording themselves and listening back. The reactions from some has been totally surprising to me. I’ve consistently hear comments like “I can’t believe I sound like that” and “is that what I sound like”. Part of the issue for some students is not understanding how to get the cleanest sound from their microphones. The other issue is, really listening to oneself can be a jarring and humbling experience. Especially when you have been taught to listen to and become part of the sound around you. Which to my ears as their teacher, also means that I have been very focused on creating a group sound and not giving enough attention to the sound of my individual students.

To help my students learn to listen to themselves and be active in the evolution of their own sound, I’ve asked students to start using apps like Soundtrap to record duets with themselves. With the goal of having students learn to really listen to themselves, and know what they want from their own voice. With this in mind I think eventually I’ll add assignments for students to play all voice parts to chorales. As both a study for their sound and as a theory assignment. If the coronavirus ear of teaching continues, we may even have an entire exhibition of student original works for analog instruments and computer.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 10

Routine & Balance

After ten days of teaching remotely, plus a week of keeping track of assignments the week before, while preparing to be a virtual teacher, this thing we now think of as remote teaching, is starting to feel routine. Teaching from my makeshift home office is starting to feel almost normal too. In fact, it’s surprising to me how this pattern has evolved over these three weeks.

At first I kept the same sleep schedule and my morning routine for the sake of not making too many adjustments. After all remote teaching was at first supposed to last for about a month. Then after a few announcements by the WA State Governor Inslee, then the CDC stating that this may very well be our collective reality at least until May, I started to change my mind set about this experience. I became more positive and started approaching long term solutions to some of the challenges facing me, my students and most certainly my family. After all, they too are stakeholders in this environment with me.

The routine is becoming cemented with me, so I’m sure my students are starting to feel it as well. Working from home is no longer the hurtle it was two weeks ago, and now I’m most concerned with the balance of working from home and still being a good father and husband for my family. It seem that the work-life and home-life balance I had been trying to figure out before the coronavirus era began, is still something I’m going to need to tweak and work out. Funny how the challenges of being a full time teacher during regular work hours and keeping an active performance career doesn’t really change in our current situation. I still need to find the time in my day to work on my ability to play the trumpet, and lesson plan for my students with the added advantage of becoming 1/2 of our home school faculty for our kid. 

New challenges are coming. Old challenges are evolving. The earlier wave of obstacles is becoming routine.