Author Archive: kevinrburke

Internal Memory Drive

ImageWhen students in my music history classes first approach the earliest forms of Western music notation, they are struck by how little information is provided. Contemporary notation provides specific instructions for pitch, duration, loudness, articulation, among others, but the original neumes of the 9th-century monastaries gave so little detail that one could not perform chant from the source without already knowing the melody. These sources, I explain to students, provide just a point of reference; they are something to jog the memory and not used to preserve the performance details of a piece for individuals who had no familiarity with the repertoire. An extensive practice of memory and recollection was the norm, and the Gothic monks had developed the tools to access material deep in their memory banks, which explains the limited need for notation. Futhermore, bound manuscripts were extremely expensive and slow to produce.

A former professor of mine drew an analogy to the story of Red Riding Hood to make this point. Most students can recreate the narrative from memory, even if slightly different in delivery, because they know the key ingredients of the story (Oh, what big __________ you have). Students do not study the story of Red Riding Hood on a regular basis; however, they’ve developed the tools for reproducing it at will.

Today’s students are rarely required to memorize long texts and this practice seems as arcane as Gregorian chant. But memorization is more than rote; it requires deep focus and attention. When I was in 5th grade, I had to memorize all of the U.S. presidents in chronological order. I eventually accomplished this feat by learning some historical facts about the presidents and grouping them by major U.S. wars and events in territory expansion. Thus, in order to master an accurate delivery, one is encouraged to develop tools for recollection: symbolic words, relevant analogies, structural patterns, underlying meaning, etc. Students can recite the text and understand appropriate contexts for its reference.

A few years ago, Mark Bauerlein encouraged this activity in his blog for several benefits it provides. Search engines may have removed the need for storing information, but the extensive benefits of memorization are still relevant for our students. Courses on historical and global cultures that engage in oral traditions may find that rich discussions lie in the various practices of memorization and their dwindling use in the 21st century, digital age.

What Lies Beneath the Rhetoric

The dynamic series of events at UVa in June have come to represent a critical debate at the heart of higher education in the 21st century: progress vs. tradition. The Washington Post effectively summed this up in their characterizations of Dragas and Sullivan. In the coming months, many colleges and universities will likely reflect on the events in Charlottesville as they determine what type of institution they want to be. Beneath the concerns of finance, relevance, and reputation, it will be extremely important to remember who stands to gain or lose the most in these decisions: the students.

On one side of the discussion is the competitiveness and stability of the institution in an ever-changing, global marketplace. Students are commonly addressed by assessment, graduation, and job placement data in response to insecurities about declining government aid, rising student debt, skill competition with students in developing countries, and a sluggish job market. Streamlining the cost effectiveness of course delivery and updating the learning platforms for the millennial mindset may prove to be successful adaptations to these concerns. But what aspect of the college experience is compromised? I’m not sure if I know the answer to this, but I suspect it’s something intangible that sparks creativity and shapes character.

On the other side of the conversation is the priceless and timeless magic that has defined higher education for centuries. The environment that honors the free and open quest for knowledge, inspiration, and discovery and that celebrates the ideas of departments, students, and faculty, not what they generate in terms of dollar signs and academic market share. But a stubborn allegiance to traditions may compromise much for our students. Whereas the collegiate campus provides a supportive environment for learning and tolerance, our students will not always be there. If students are not prepared to take the first steps after graduation to build a future that supports life-long learning and meaningful engagement with their communities, tradition will need a significant make over.

The proper formula is still a mystery. But as these debates continue, students should drive the rhetoric.

R1 Online Learning vs. SLAC Online Learning

Steve Kolowich’s essay in Inside Higher Education this morning demonstrates an online learning model for small liberal arts colleges. Although Wesleyan and Bryn Mawr, the two liberal arts colleges he cites, are highly selective schools, a variety of small liberal arts colleges across the country could benefit from the OLI (Opening Learning Initiative). Adapting these online learning models is not an attempt to make small liberal arts colleges more like the large public universities that have offered courses online for years. Rather, this approach is exactly how small liberal arts college can justify their human component.

Traditional online courses do offer an efficient and cost-effective alternative to the lecture hall, and this can enhance the value of the liberal arts college not cheapen it. An integrated approach provides students with more individualized instruction, particularly those students who are struggling in adapting to college level expectations, while allowing for more project-oriented learning and professor interaction in the classroom As Jeff Selingo suggested in his NY Times op-ed earlier this week, networks of small liberal arts college like the New Paradigm Initiative, can collaborate on online courses that lend themselves to experiential learning components during class time.

As the Collegiate Learning Assessment and other recent studies have shown, millennial students are not prioritizing study time outside of class; this has put the burden on many professors to use the classroom to accomplish work students could and should do on their own. The integration of online instruction will guide students through these steps, providing the professor with individualized data on and customizable options for student progress, and encourage low student-faculty ratios to really shine in the classroom. This approach will actually help small private institutions justify their value even more, as the hands on learning that is difficult to conduct in the large lecture hall is now the primary focus of the classroom.

As a sample, I envision a highly interactive music appreciation course hosted at several small colleges. These faculty members–who typically wear a lot of hats–can upload online components such as talking point videos, graphs and heuristic models, annotated scores, and clips from primary sources in their area of specialty and benefit from the wealth of sources from their colleagues with different specializations. Discussion forums, Twitter feeds, and Blogs linked across multiple campuses, as well as a series of content and listening quizzes will provide professors with data on the progress of their individual students. Designated tutors and review groups will offer additional resources for struggling students. All of this can occur on the students’ own time. The benefits of the small class are now prioritized. Class time can be given to students learning instruments, constructing opera scenes, engaging in community arts programs, conducting research projects, delivering presentations, and attending concerts.

Humanities Counters in Old School Fashion

In an essay posted to Inside Higher Education this morning, Peter Burian effectively turned a traditionalist argument into a refreshing voice of reason amidst current debates on the value of humanities fields. Many champions of the liberal arts, including myself, have emphasized the “transferable skills” argument of liberal arts study for career-oriented discourse of higher education. This approach has breathed new life into the content course and pushed students to grow beyond their comfort zone for a competitive edge in today’s global economy. And while this curriculum crashing is a necessity, Burian reminds us that professor crashing is indeed required.

Assessment, course evaluations, accreditation, retention, and graduation rates are all important to the best teachers. But in our quest to be good teachers, do we forget to show students why we’re inspired to be good teachers? Burian hit the nail on the head in shifting the conversation from relevance back to essence. Rather than defending the value of the humanities to external demands, professors ought to emphasize and explore the depths of what makes us human. One cannot face the complexities of a culturally diverse and complicated world fully without seeking what lies beneath the shallow commerce of information in the digital age. And this fulfillment is a privilege of humanistic study, not a goal.

While I applaud Burian for reiterating the timeless benefits of the humanities, I predict an uphill battle in trying to “reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.” Perhaps the first step is to model these principles. Students should not perceive humanists as task masters for student performance, facilitators of “great works” surveys, and preachers of the liberal arts gospel. Rather, students should admire professors for their individual quests for knowledge, truth, and understanding and should awe at their deep and unique perspective on current realities. One cannot and should not teach what one is not passionate about. Passion will inspire more than words.

Go Fish

I often encounter the following Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for lifetime.” But I’m not always certain that I live by it enough in the classroom. As we often say in education, our job as teachers is not to give students the answers but to show them how to find the answers. We are not encouraging them just to learn for our test, but to be a lifetime learner. Whenever we create a special resource for our students, we may be denying them a profound learning opportunity.

An educational technology expert recently introduced me to a wonderful iPad app called ScreenChomp. ScreenChomp allows iPad users to create video tutorials from interactive screen shots with full annotation capability. Primary and secondary education teachers already engage with this application to archive video demonstrations of math calculations, verb conjugations, and other resources on course management sites.

I immediately began experimenting with ScreenChomp, as there are several complex demonstrations I often repeat for students after class and during office hours that could easily be uploaded to MOODLE. As I drafted a list of videos to create–“How to find the thesis statement in a scholarly article,” “How to invert a dominant seventh chord,” How to complete a Babbitt, 12-tone matrix, “How to distinguish members of the saxophone family,” etc.–I thought about how much my students will love me for such an extensive body of resources.

Yet, as the fog of self-absorption dissipated I began to have second thoughts. Why do I need to demonstrate these abilities? Aren’t students supposed to demonstrate these outcomes? Bingo! I’ll have the students make the videos. Although having students create peer learning resources is not new, this seemed to provide a better model. Furthermore, making instructional videos adds a bit of permenance to student presentations. Unlike live presentations, videos will remain in circulation. The performance doesn’t end.

The transfer of responsibility from the professor to the student is a good thing. My students have occasionally asked me to pronounce a word on their Powerpoint slide during a presentation. Why should I answer? Aren’t they in the position of expert? Did they not seek resources online and in the library to learn how to pronounce it ahead of time? And most importantly, would they be able to ask me in the middle of an instructional video to pronounce a word for them? I think not. Cue resourcefulness, preplanning, and revision. The work that goes into a video with unknown distribution far exceeds the minimum requirements for delivering a single performance to a finite audience. Any engaged learning activity should develop transferable skills, skills rooted in the liberal arts and applicable to a variety of disciplines and careers. When we catch fish for our students, we deny them an opportunity to master these skills.

Good Enough for Jazz

Jazz improvisation is a challenging concept for undergraduate, non music majors to grasp. One can either offer vague descriptions of expressing the soul or attempt to simplify complex patterns of harmony. Neither angle proves satisfying, as non majors have difficulty relating to the process by which a self-taught musician channels emotions with convincing melodic gestures and a thoroughly-trained musician sequences complex chordal structures with ease. Professional musicians are either uncannily talented or exhaustively schooled in music theory.

But I am convinced that non music majors can try their hand at improvisation as well. And it is important that they engage in the behavior of solo and group improvisation to fully appreciate the creative process that defines jazz. Group performances of modal jazz changes, the scale-based form found in Miles Davis’s “So What” from Kind of Blue, make this opportunity quite accessible. Not only do students piece together components of the jazz ensemble, they have an ability to shape their own creative voice through several phases of improvisation. A comprehensive knowledge of jazz harmony and standard changes is not required and not really necessary for non music majors. Students in this exercise are protected from playing “wrong notes.”

The modal changes in “So What” are relatively simple. The “head” is in D dorian and the “bridge” is in E-flat dorian. Each chorus is a conventional AABA, 32-bar cycle. In even simpler terms, the white keys of the piano form the basis of “A” and the black keys of the piano (plus F and C if you really want) form the basis of “B.” Several rhythm section practice tracks (with a walking double bass and drum set) are available for these modal changes, or you can have students use Garage Band on iPads to construct a walking bass line and basic swing pattern on the ride cymbal.

The exercise is broken into 4 phases before free improvisation can take place within the ensemble. In phase 1, a piano soloist explores rich harmonies using the notes of the modal scales. I instruct students to “comp,” that is to freely articulate chords from any notes in the scale, that is any notes they want from the white and then black keys of the piano. Students are encouraged to spread their fingers in order to shape extended harmonies with wide voicing rather than the dissonant tonal clusters that result when their fingers are closed. In phase 2, students engage in variations of a thematic motive. They develop a short melodic gesture of 4-8 notes from the scale then attempt to vary it with slight changes in pitch, length, and rhythm. Some even advance their technique by using inversion, parallel harmonies, or imitation between the right and left hand. Again, as long as they know when to shift from the white keys to the black keys within the form, they avoid unpleasant notes. In phase 3, students employ a hybrid of chordal comping and melodic motivic variation to convey two contrasting moods, tranquility for the head and agitation for the bridge. Students tend to employ soft dynamics, slower rhythms, and light or legato articulations for tranquility and loud dynamics, quicker rhythms, and accented articulations for agitation. In phase 4, the final phase, two student soloists engage in a conversation, a technique jazz musicians often refer to as “trading twos.” Student A introduces a short melodic/harmonic gesture on one piano and Student B answers with something complimentary or contrasting on another piano. In some situations, a student playing a walking bass line on the iPad may also participate in the conversation.

Although this is a rather simplified reconstruction of “So What” changes, students have an opportunity to engage in the behavior of improvisation, both individually and collectively. Despite some resistance from a few individuals who do not want to play in front of their peers, the exercise yields a positive response in the classroom. Many students are surprised when they hear how well they sound along with the rhythm section. I require a post jam session discussion and ask that students reflect critically on the behavior of improvisation. How does jazz engage members of the ensemble in creative collaboration? What messages can a jazz soloist communicate to attentive listeners? What are the roles and responsibilities of each member of the rhythm section? What are the aesthetics of evaluating convincing solos?

Google Information Literacy

This summer I’m revising the library projects in my music history sequence for music majors. Working with an instructional librarian is truly a wonderful experience. A short meeting and series of quick emails later and I found exactly what I needed on my desk: a current version of both the American Library Association’s standards for Information Literacy and the Music Library Association’s instructional objectives for meeting these standards in a music curriculum, as well as an article in the Music Library Association’s journal on weaving sequential library instruction into the music curriculum. Seriously, Instructional Librarians are better than Google!

And this is exactly what the curricular library projects should show students today: information literacy for the Google Age. Google is an incredible resource and I use it all the time to find the nearest Chipotle, the spelling of Dohnanyi, and the hours the campus library is open. But it’s not going to yield the best resources for student research if used in this way.

Library projects should be an entirely transparent experience for students. Introducing the class to various media in the library (scholarly articles, critical editions scores, discographies, etc.) does little to develop a critical research acumen when the objectives are not discussed in current contexts. Today’s students are not going to kick the search engine habit unless our library projects show them the potential pitfalls of passive research.

As Nicholas Carr has argued in his recent book, The Shallows, there is a question of ethics whenever one engages in a new form of technology. To him, the search engine has cultivated high skills in skimming vast quantities of information quickly but has hindered the ability for deep concentration and reflection. This idea reminds me of the findings of the Collegiate Learning Assessment as reported by Arum and Roska in Academically Adrift. Students are neither assigned nor held fully accountable for reading and writing large, complex texts in the college experience. Many pass courses and graduate without them.

This argument is reflected in the library project as well. Requiring students to construct bibliographies and request a source through interlibrary loan for a single assignment has as much benefit for good information literacy habits as Milton Babbitt has for getting non music majors to buy season tickets to the symphony. Students need to see (and fall for) the potential risks of lazy research.

My intent, at this early point in the summer, is to engage my first semester music history class in an information literacy duel. Google teams will be pitted against the wisdom of the instructional librarian in accessing current, authoritative, relevant, and bias sources, to use the CARB technique of evaluating sources. Controversial figures in music history, Hans Pfitzner and Dmitri Shostakovich to name a couple, will demonstrate the fallacy of believing everything in print (both on paper and the screen). Although library stacks also house sources with questionable information, the point will be that good information literacy yields resources vetted by the researcher and not ranked by other factors (i.e. company purchases).

It is not enough that a single designated course and assignment walk students through the motions of accessing and evaluating a variety of sources in the library. We should hold students in all of our courses, especially upper-level courses, accountable. In recent semesters, I’ve begun cringing at the reference slides of student Powerpoint presentations that are littered with URLs of and I wouldn’t be caught dead posing as an expert on a topic with those resources displayed for a room of my peers. When students are confident in attaching their names to that type of research, it’s a serious problem.

The Art of Conversation

I tend to converse at two opposite extremes: either I dominate the conversation (i.e. I am lecturing to my students) or I remain silent as I thoughtfully take in the ideas of others…or just plain tune out. Recently I was reminded of an etiquette game for children on the art of conversation. While sitting in a circle, children take turns sharing ideas and listening by tossing around the conversation ball. The lessons in this activity are that no one dominates the conversation, that everyone participates, and that it is as important to listen as it is to speak. The playful ball tossing is also a reminder to keep the conversation moving. From time to time I should brush up on this activity in both my professional and personal life.

College students could also stand to practice conversational etiquette. Usually the professor or a handful of students dominate conversation in the classroom. And while this structure may present some presentational benefits to learning, we should be doing more to prepare students for a highly transferable skill: the ability to engage in conversation on an unfamiliar topic with people other than their familiar network of friends and family. We have unrealistic expectations if we expect discussion-based learning to occur where the fundamentals of conversation are absent.

I truly believe in the Music Appreciation Class and my ultimate goal is that students will learn to enjoy having rich conversations about music from active listening habits. In a summer version of this class–Jazz and the American Spirit–I capitalized on my low enrollment in order to give the old conversation ball a try. While listening to Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas,” the students and I actively conversed, discussing everything from tempo and instruments present to the distinct timbre of Rollins’s tenor sax and his motivic exploration during solos. Some students even chimed in with acute observations of the drum beat and comparisons to the styles of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon. In small groups, this exercise pushes students to draw on background knowledge (whether limited or extensive) and remain in the conversation. In a sense, students have to improvise on the spot and remain in step with the other members of the group much like the jazz musicians they are describing. Note to self: with my larger classes this fall, I will need to break the class into several small groups.

Who’s Got the Blues?

I woke (E) up this mornin’ and didn’t know what to teach in class…yeah-yeah-be-dah-daw-de-daw (E7)

I woke (A) up this mornin’ and didn’t (Am) know what to teach in class (E)…yeah-ye-yeah-ye-yaw-be-bah-be-baw (E7)

So I got (B7) to just remember not to be (A7) that ol’ bumblin’ ass (E-E7-F#m11-Go7-E9-F13-E13)

This past spring faculty at my institution gathered in a development workshop on “performance learning,” which reminded me of an activity I regularly build into my courses for non majors. But the organizers of the workshop defined “performance learning” in more specific contexts than the familiar expression “performance-based learning.” Performance meant a public performance with an audience and the student in the spotlight, and the goal was learning how to harness the motivation that drives student athletes before the big game. A significant event, such as a final exam, was not the only factor; it was the public exposure in front of teammates, fans, and family. How can a public performance bring the best out of students and their learning?

For several semesters of music appreciation, I’ve engaged students in a compositional activity to learn the blues. After studying examples by Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, and W. C. Handy, students are to author several stanzas of blues text, sequence the characteristic harmonies, and describe the musical expressions of the text with each line. I italicize “describe” because before this workshop I never actually expected the non music majors to demonstrate their understanding by actually performing their compositions. I was wrong.

Thank you Garage Band and iPad for making this possible. The new version of this assignment now requires teams of students to perform the blues for the class. In addition to the steps described above, students choose instruments on Garage Band (drum set, guitar, piano, string bass, etc.) and along with a singer play their compositions. The “smart” function for instruments in the iPad app allows students to preset chords in the harmony so they can easily simulate the act of playing the instruments. In many ways this resembles the level of difficulty one experiences in Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Everyone in the class can participate.

The added benefits of this experience are noteworthy. For one, students are pushed to act outside of their comfort zone and to demonstrate some level of competence in the area. Second, students must have mastered basic musicianship skills of counting measures and staying with the beat, both crucial to developing active listening habits. Outcomes such as these go beyond the “content knowledge of blues” to demonstrating relevant skills that will assist them throughout the course and will likely have a lasting impact on their interest in the music.

Service Learning Across the Curriculum

It is no surprise that service learning continues to gain momentum in liberal arts curricula, since the outcomes resonate well with many college mission statements. Preparing students for community and global citizenship is and should be a major priority. The new, peer-reviewed “Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education” illustrates the interdisciplinary conversations of this growing component of the liberal arts in the 21st century. Many majors are building in service learning courses and projects to engage students in relevant applications of theory to practice.

Some traditional liberal arts fields, including my own, however, have left the responsibility of service learning to other departments. But I suspect (and hope) that the growing interest in service learning pedagogy and the success of student writing across the curriculum initiatives will inspire faculty in all disciplines to altruistic pursuits. Music has understandably ignored the pedagogy of service learning for two main reasons: 1) students already give to the community through a variety of concerts, tours, and workshops. Everyone from young children to senior citizens benefit from these offerings. 2) Music students gain knowledge and relevant experience through these performance opportunities. The issue with this model is that there is a disconnect between volunteerism and the actual learning. Students are not expected to reflect and articulate the gifts of music to the cultural vibrancy of their communities.

Any field and subfield can develop a service learning component, but faculty should take a thoughtful and practical approach to designing a successful experience. A deterrent to exploring this possibility is the content course–no surprise! Any attempts to coordinate community partnerships with the schedule of course topics will be a challenge and the result could be a poor educational experience for students and an awkward exchange with the community. It is better to identify relevant needs and pair skills that can meet those needs.

The research paper assigned in my upper-level music history course requires several transferable skills, notably archival research methods and writing. Local libraries and historical societies house unkept artifacts of musical life that, while rarely conforming to course content goals, offer something culturally significant to the community if properly catalogued, interpreted, and shared by the able hands of undergraduate music majors. In the process of working with local collections, student have an opportunity to develop archival research skills while actively engaging with local history. While the exercise may not meet content needs, it certainly meets skill development needs as students have an opportunity demonstrate the relevance of their major and the course through service. Where local organizations find difficulty in managing collections with limited funds, students can help and learn something in the process.