Category Archives: Teaching

Semester Preview: Spring 2015

Last semester was quite a challenge. But a new semester has begun, and that means new opportunities to be a better teacher, scholar, and colleague. With the first week of the Spring 2015 in the books, here’s what’s on tap for the rest of the semester, including some of the goals I hope to accomplish in the next five months.

Good Form

I finally have the opportunity to teach something outside the core sequence. Form and Analysis is my first upper-level teaching attempt, and I could not be more excited. Don’t get me wrong: I love teaching intervals and sequences and secondary dominants and melodic dictation as much as the next person. Really, I do. But teaching Form and Analysis gives me the chance to branch out and gain some much needed experience. Plus, I really like studying musical form, so teaching it should help my research.

As psyched as I am for it, though, I’m also a bit anxious. Despite my apprehension, I’m making a conscious and concerted effort not to stress too much about the preparation. For the sake of my other classes, not to mention my research and service commitments, I cannot spend too much time planning Form and Analysis. I’ve got to trust myself (and the colleagues to whom I most certainly will call upon for advice . . . again) to make the right decisions and not be too hard on myself when I recognize something I could have done differently/better.

The first week went pretty well, I think. The students answered questions readily and willingly, which is usually a pretty good sign this early in the semester. I hope that continues. So far, the text has proven a solid choice. The questions and exercises posed at the end of each chapter have come in hand as starting points for discussions, which has helped reduce my planning time.

Focus on the Focus

I really like my schedule this semester. The times that I teach seem to be favorable for balancing teaching preparation with research. When it comes to potentially having some time to research, however, my biggest issue thus far in my career has been actually getting to the research. Lesson planning and teaching prep tends to dominate my time at school, leaving little time for research and service commitment. This semester, I have at least two chunks of time each day that should help me balance the three academic tentpoles.

In an effort to maximize my on-campus productivity, I’ve been trying to stick to my to-do lists and calendar. I’m happy to report that after only a week, the method is already proving effective because of both a very structured schedule and my strict adherence to the timetable. I was able to achieve a nice balance of planning and research this week, and I’m hoping to build on that momentum and get even more done as I settle into daily and weekly routines.

I’m at a place called Vertigo

For my first doctoral seminar back in grad school, I wrote a short analytical paper on a Ligeti piano etude, “Vertige.” While not a great analysis in and of itself, I think it’s a solid foundation for a more detailed examination. Contour and graphical analyses (cartesian and possibly 3-D) are my methods of choice as I attempt to find 1) similarities between the “melodies” in “Vertige”; 2) the connection between these melodies and the semitone runs, if one exists; and 3) if these similarities and connections carry across to other etudes. I’m really looking forward to getting more familiar with these piece and to see if analyzing them is as fun as listening to them.

(That’s probably the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever written.)

The Interverse, part 2: The Two-Part Interverse

Some rock and pop songs have an interverse that is comprised of two parts. While the relationship of those parts to the rest of the song is usually fairly easy to determine (independent/dependent, sectional/continuous), the functional designation of the two-part interverse as a whole becomes more difficult to determine because of the presence of two subsections. If each part has a different designation (e.g. independent continuous and dependent sectional), how is the entire interverse designated in relation to the rest of the song? Additionally, does the section’s overall designation alter the definitions of “independent” and “dependent” material, if at all? I’ve had this idea in the hopper for a while, so I’m trying very hard to get it on a conference program or two, which will force me to research the music and write the damn paper!

Reading = Writing

My father always told me that good writers read. A lot. He is a fan of the editorials and interviews because those were the most stylistically interesting pieces in newspapers and magazines. Despite his best efforts, however, reading never caught on for me as a primary hobby. Instead books, I’d always reach for video games, the TV remote, or my bike. Now that writing is a part of my job, I’ve discovered two things: 1) my father was right, and 2) I wish I read more as a child. But since I can’t change the past, the future is my focus, and that includes a lot more reading. My issue with reading is that I often feel guilty when reading non-professional things (e.g. novels, stories, poetry) because I feel like if I have time to read that stuff, then I should spend it reading for research (e.g. articles, books, dissertations). Like many things in life, though, it’s all about balance. Just like a healthy food diet is composed of a variety of foods, a healthy reading diet includes a variety of sources, . What I read necessarily influences how I write, both stylistically and procedurally, and since I’m looking to improve my writing, it only makes sense that the first step is to read more.

Writing = Reading

I’ve also realized that it works the other way. The more I write (professionally, creatively, or otherwise), the more I will read, and necessarily so. For research, I have to read what’s been written in order to write something original. The same goes for my personal creative writing. As my writing time increases this semester, I expect the same to happen to my reading time. Reading leads to writing, which leads back reading. It’s a cycle I hope to start this semester and sustain for years to come.

Perfection Doesn’t Exist

I don’t know a lot about many things, but I do know enough to listen attentively when smart people say things. With a lot of help from my wife, I now recognize the vast difference between excellence and perfection, chief among them is that the latter doesn’t actually exists. According to Stephen Hawking:

One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist. . . . Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.

For a great majority of my life, I have been a perfectionist. While those tendencies have undoubtedly helped me achieve many goals, I have realized that aiming for perfection is choosing to go after an unattainable goal. And someone of my ilk likes to accomplish goals. I like checking items off a to-do list. I like finishing one thing so that I can starting something new, something fresh. Plus, being a perfectionist is exhausting. Seriously. When every little thing has to BE. JUST. SO. AT. ALL. TIMES, it’s no wonder why it was tough to get out of bed.

This semester I’m going to try to go a little easier on myself. Some methods/examples/lessons won’t be as successful as others. I know that. But what I need to do this semester is believe that wholeheartedly and truly be OK with that. Just take notes and try to do it better the next time. No one has it completely figured out. That’s why there are a lot of really good teachers who succeed using different methods. The common trait among these methods is the fact that they all are constantly being refined and tweaked. Just like mine.

Here’s to a great semester!

Semester Review: Fall 2014

The Spring 2015 semester begins today, so I figured what better way to get back into this writing thing than by taking a look back at what was, quite frankly, a fuckin’ bear of a semester and what made it such a challenge.

“Unexpectedly intense” is how I would describe the Fall 2014 semester. At first, I didn’t know why. The conditions seemed primed for a pretty run-of-the-mill semester: I was starting a promotion-track job teaching classes that I’d taught before in a place where I had already been for a year. Rather unexpectedly, however, I felt an intense amount of pressure. I never really found a grove. It was only when I had a chance to get away from campus for a few days for SMT that I figured out why the semester felt so pressure-packed. Fort Myers is a long way from Milwaukee, so I had a chance to reflect on the semester in progress. Ultimately, I concluded that the “unexpected intensity” wasn’t caused by just one or two things, but rather the result of a perfect storm of circumstances.

Technical Difficulties

Before the school year started, I got my very first iPad. This was a big deal for me. I’ve wanted one for the longest time, not just because they’re great devices in and of themselves, but primarily because I like to augment my teaching with technology. Now that I finally had an iPad, I could integrate its capabilities into my teaching workflow to help the classroom environment feel more modern and more engaging. Through an Apple TV and the classroom projector, I could wirelessly display not just a score from my iPad, but my annotations as well. Additionally, because of the campus-wide wifi network, I could also control music playback wirelessly from the iPad. That meant that I was no longer anchored to the document camera at the front of the classroom. With iPad in hand, I could lead my class through an analysis from anywhere in the classroom, thereby making the previously static (and often dry) task of in-class score analysis more dynamic. As an added bonus, it eliminated the amount of paper I needed for class. Hooray for sustainability!

But, as the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I didn’t want it to look like I was incorporating an iPad merely for the sake of using the latest tech trend. I’ve known teachers (hell, even school districts) who rushed this sort of thing, with predictably dreadful results in tow. I identified a clear pedagogical benefit to using this technology in my classes. The issue, however, was that I wanted to make the integration of the techology as smooth as it could be, like I had been using an iPad the whole time. For someone with perfectionist tendencies, that is a lot easier said than done, a fact I found out the hard way. There were unexpected issues like stuttering playback and weak/lost Apple TV connections thanks to building’s mediocre-at-best wifi signal. I found workarounds when necessary and (almost) always had contingency plans in place (paper scores at the ready; my iPhone or iPad plugged in… how 2009!). What frustrated me the most, though, wasn’t having to make contingency plans; that’s always a good idea. It was the fact that I had to revert to my contingency plans many more times than I should have.

Taking the Plunge

The iPad wasn’t the only the significant addition to my teaching workflow. Previously, I had used the learning management system (LMS) as simply a repository for a handful of digital scores, worksheets, and recordings. This semester, however, I decided to take the plunge and make FGCU’s LMS, Canvas, an integral part of my classes. Instead of in-class singing performances in Aural Skills, I had students record videos of themselves singing. No longer did I have a separate Numbers spreadsheet for student grades; I entered and calculated them directly in Canvas. I shared links, posted scores and recordings, made announcements, and asked questions all through Canvas.

At the start of the semester, I had hoped that leveraging Canvas’ capabilities would streamline the bookkeeping and administrative side of teaching (the side I refer to as the “necessary evil” side). And in some ways it did. The singing videos freed up enormous amounts of class time and was well-received by the students, not to mention that it was also highly effective. Once I got the hang of some of Canvas’ gradebook feature, it did make calculating grades a breeze. In many other ways, however, the system slowed me down. In my experience, the problem with LMSs is that the software’s potential far exceeds its execution. The learning curves are very steep, mainly because non-intuitive, visually unappealing UIs often make simple tasks more difficult. Slow on-campus network speeds and even slower website loading times compounded my frustration.

For Future Reference

I also made changes to the way I write and organize my lesson plans. The way I had been doing it was inefficient, and made referencing older plans more tedious than it needed to be. So, instead of each day having its own document, the entire semester’s plans are in one document, organized in a long table. Not only is it easier for me to see what I did last class or last week, it’s more conducive for taking notes about how the lessons went. For years, I’ve been trying my make myself do this more consistently, but for whatever reason(s) I haven’t been able to do it. This new system has helped me take many more notes about the methodologies and procedures in my teaching, which has already helped me improve. I can also envision it being much easier to reference lessons from previous semesters, which will go a long way toward being a more efficient and more consistent teacher in the long run.

Sophomore Slump

My sophomore classes weren’t progressing like I thought they would. The Theory III students were having a difficult time with the form unit while the Aural Skills III students (many of whom were also in my Theory III section) struggled mightily with dictation. I took their lack of progress very personally because most of these students had me for both theory and aural skills their freshman year, so I thought their preparedness and comprehension of the second-year topics (or apparent lack thereof) was on me. “Oh great,” I fretted. “My first year in the permanent position and already I’m screwing up. Maybe I’m not as good a teacher as I thought…”

Two ≯ One

Based on my recommendation, we switched music theory texts. This meant that, because we didn’t want our sophomores to buy another expensive set of materials, they continued using the old text while the freshmen used the new ones. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal. I use material from different sources all the time to supplement (or even replace) assignments/drills/examples from the primary text. The trouble was this: not only did I want the transition to go smoothly for myself, I wanted it to go well for my colleagues. It was the first decision I made as “The Theory Guy” at FGCU, so I wanted to prove that my choice of texts was a good one. I didn’t want my colleagues questioning my choices already.

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

In an effort to increase my productivity on the research front, I tried a new daily routine that included both earlier wake-up times (4-4:30 a.m.) and bedtimes (8:30-9 p.m.). Normally, I would get out of bed around 6:00 in bed any time between 9:00 and 11:00, depending on how much work I needed to do that night. But by October, I noticed that I was not getting much research work done. Because of the other changes I made to my teaching workflow and increased service commitments, I spent so much time planning and in meetings that it was difficult for me to get in research time while on campus. And by the time evening rolled around, after putting my son to sleep and having dinner with my wife, I was exhausted and had no energy left for anything, let alone detailed intellectual activity. Plus, I didn’t really want my evenings spent doing work. When I leave campus, I want to leave “Dr. Endrinal” there so that I can concentrate on being “Mr. Endrinal” and “Daddy” at home.

The routine worked. I was awake for the same number of hours as my 6 a.m.-11 p.m. schedule; the main difference was that by the time 8:30 p.m. rolled around, I had already done some research work. Even an hour a day is better than no time at all. Unfortunately, after SMT, I was so worn down from the semester that I just couldn’t get up before 6:30. The momentum that I had gained in the two weeks before Milwaukee had all but vanished.

Skip to the End…

I learned several lessons from that whirlwind of the semester, namely:

  • Change is good and necessary, but too many changes at once can be overwhelming, not to mention counterproductive, no matter how small they may seem initially . It was difficult for me to keep track of what was working and what needed improvement, and that leads me to my mistake: I assumed every new thing I was trying would work flawlessly. I mean, how could they not work? I mean, they were my ideas, so of course they were going to be successful, right? In Lee Corso’s words, “Not so fast, my friend.” My hubris was indeed my downfall.
  • I need to quit trying to prove that I belong and just do my job. I need to trust myself to do the job right. After all, that’s only way I know how to operate. I do belong here at FGCU and in the wider music theory community. And I need to always remember that I am extremely lucky to do what I love to do. Not everyone can say that.
  • Music is a hard subject, both to study and to teach. And necessarily so. I cannot expect my students not to struggle at times just because I didn’t struggle with music theory as an undergraduate. Beethoven is hard. Bach is hard. Form is hard. Dictation is hard. Music is nuanced and subjective and deeply personal, and I needed to be reminded that many most students do not just “get it.”
  • There’s no such thing as an “average” or “run-of-the-mill” semester. Every semester is different simply because new people are involved every time. The constant rotation of students (and even faculty) gives each term its own flavor. Because of this, I should expect to be tweaking and adjusting my teaching constantly, not just semester to semester, but month to month and even week to week. In other words, I need to roll with the punches.

The biggest takeaway from all this is that much of the pressure I felt was self-inflicted. I tried to do too much too soon and it bit me. Hard. But I’m recovered now. I’ve had a lovely holiday break and I’m actually excited to tackle the upcoming term and apply what I’ve learned and pass it on to my students.

Peace out, Fall 2014.