Monday, October 13, 2008

Fall 2008 Midterm Status

Midterms are here! This post is for the benefit of my students and will be updated as I get midterms graded.

MUS 104: Your midterms are graded. Come get them today!
MUS 213: Your midterms are graded. Come get them today!
MUS 214: Your midterms are graded. Come get them today!
MUS 215: Your midterms are graded. Come get them today!
MUS 216: Your midterms are graded. Come get them today!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Aural Skills is a Funny Thing

I've never met anyone who wanted to be an Aural Skills teacher when they grew up.

For you non-music-majors out there reading this: (First of all, why are you reading this?) Aural Skills is a set of courses that music majors are required to take, generally as freshmen and sophomores, which help them learn ear training, which is the capability to notate music that they hear; and sight-singing, which is the capability to sing a written melody that they haven't heard or sung before. The classes are named differently depending on the college or university: sometimes they're called "ear training" even though they incorporate sight-singing, sometimes they're called something like "musicianship." Regardless of what they are called, they almost always deal with ear training and sight-singing, and they are almost always hated by the students with a firey passion.

Well, you may find it interesting that the professors of the classes feel about the same way. Okay, "hate" may be too strong word, but I would wager that most Aural Skills teachers look forward to teaching Music Theory more than they do Aural Skills. The reason for that is simple: Aural Skills classes are usually taught by Music Theory professors.

Sure, that makes sense, right? After all, Aural Skills is part of Music Theory. Except for one thing: it's not. Aural Skills is not Music Theory and never was.

Yes, the Aural Skills curriculum correlates well with the Music Theory curriculum, and it is primarily this reason that the Theory faculty usually teach the classes. But they are different disciplines. Music Theory is, as I've usually defined it, the art and science of figuring out why music sounds the way it does. It is the exploration of what makes music tick. Aural Skills is something entirely different: it is the development of physiological skills, both aural and oral, that are necessary for a professional musician or music educator.

So if Aural Skills doesn't really fit in the Music Theory department, where should it be? If you go through the list, you'll find that there is no good answer to that. Sure there are some departments — Music History, for example — where it obviously doesn't fit. Others seem right at first until you get to thinking about them. The Music Education Department? While a music education class should cover how to teach aural skills, it doesn't have the responsibility for teaching aural skills any more than a music ed class should teach you music theory. The Voice Performance Department? That's probably another close fit, but aural skills is an aspect of general musicianship, and it is not specific to performance.

What about having a separate Aural Skills Department? A few of the larger schools in the country (Berklee, for example) do just that. For most schools, however, the administrative costs of having a department devoted to Aural Skills makes little or no financial sense. Plus, having a separate department also implies that you have at least some faculty whose career is specific toward that discipline, and as I mentioned above, Professors of Aural Skills are pretty hard to come by. (It's worth mentioning that the more than a dozen faculty members in the Berklee Ear Training Department are, like most faculty at Berklee, performers.)

So what do we do? The Theory Department is probably the best place for Aural Skills, but we — students, faculty and administrators — need to realize that it is indeed a separate discipline, and should be treated as such. I wasn't too aware of this when I first started teaching, but over the course of the last decade I've learned a few interesting things about Aural Skills:
  • It's not only a different discipline, but a different type of discipline: it's physiological (involving mind and body working together) rather than purely cognitive;
  • Research in Aural Skills pedagogy (the science of teaching aural skills) is a hugely underdeveloped field; and
  • I have come to find the stuff fascinating.
Don't get me wrong, I love teaching theory and generally look forward to my Monday-Wednesday schedule more than my Tuesday-Thursday schedule, but I feel like eleven years of teaching Aural Skills has given me some insight that has really started to coalesce in my mind over the last few years and which I've been able to apply in class to the benefit of my students. I'm going to try to blog about these over the next little while (read: "very periodically over the next twelve months or more") in preparation for a journal article or something.

And who knows? Maybe I'll get someone so excited about it that they'd want to grow up and be an Aural Skills Teacher? Ooh... hopefully not.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Goodbye, MUS 113-170; We Hardly Knew Thee

So yesterday in our weekly Academic Area meeting we made a small change that should save a lot of grief.

For those of you unfamiliar with UNC Music Theory, here's the deal: theory students, in addition to registering for a theory class, must also register for a zero-credit-hour lab section. This section represents Theory Keyboard Labs, which are computer-graded tests taken every Friday outside of class. The professors do not have much to do with this; while they decide which tests to give, the only other thing they do is receive and record a grade report issued by the lab proctors.

The reason for this lab section, as I have always understood it, was to account for the fact that students had a required element of the class that was scheduled separately from the actual class.

Now the real pain with this was at registration time, especially in the fall with new freshman theory students. Here is the typical exchange between me and a theory student who is finding out that he or she passed the Theory Placement Test, which allows them to skip MUS 104 and go directly into MUS 113 and 114:

Me: “It looks like you passed the Theory Placement Test. Congratulations! We recommend that you register for MUS 113: Music Theory I and MUS 114: Aural Skills I.”

Student: “Oh, uh, do I take them at the same time?”

Me: “Yes, they're meant to be taken concurrently. MUS 113 is offered on Mondays and Wednesdays, and MUS 114 is on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can't sign up for either second-semester course until you pass both of these first-semester courses.”

Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”

(Time passes. Sometimes it's minutes, other times it's several days.)

Student: “Uh, I wasn't able to register for MUS 113 and MUS 114 because it says the sections are closed.”

Me: “Right. That's because you need to have the professor of each of those sections clear you to register. You need to choose the sections that work with your schedule, and then contact the professor and have him clear you.”

Student: “Uh, contact them?”

Me: “Yes. You can send them an e-mail, or you can just attend the class and ask the professor afterward to clear you for the course. Then you will be able to register.”

Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”

(Time passes again. Usually longer this time around.)

Student: “Uh, I could register for MUS 114, but I can't register for MUS 113... it gives me some sort of error.”

Me: “Right. That's because you need to sign up both for your regular section of the course, and for MUS 113-170; that's a zero-credit-hour lab section you need to take.”

Student: “Oh, when does that meet? How does that work?”

Me: “Don't worry about it yet; it will be explained in class. All you need to do right now is register for the thing. But here's the thing; the computer requires that you register for the lab section and the regular section simultaneously.”

Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”

(Time passes.)

Student: “Uh, I tried to register for that keyboard lab section but it's closed too.”

Me: “Right. And that's because you probably need to get cleared for the keyboard lab section too.”

Student: “Oh, is that something my professor does?”

Me: “Not necessarily; it depends on whose name is on the keyboard lab section. It might be your professor, or it might be one of the other professors who are teaching MUS 113. You'll need to ask your prof.”

Now, you may be thinking, why not just explain this all to the student in the first place? Believe me, I've tried.

Me: “It looks like you've passed the Theory Placement Test. Congratulations! We recommend that you take MUS 113: Music Theory I and MUS 114: Aural Skills I. You should register for both classes concurrently, since they are on different days and you need both to move into the second semester classes next spring. What you'll need to do is find the sections of those courses that work for you, and then contact the professor to have him clear you to register. You can do this either by e-mail or phone, or by simply attending the class and asking the professor after the class to have you cleared. After he clears you, you will still need to register for the courses. And when you register for MUS 113, you will also need to register for the zero-credit-hour lab section, MUS 113-170, which represents Keyboard Labs, something you don't need to worry about right now but which will be explained to you in the first few weeks of classes. The Keyboard Lab section might have a different professor of record, meaning that you might need him to clear you for that section before you can register. Once you are cleared to take both, you can then register, but the computer system requires that you submit the registration request for the regular section and the lab section simultaneously, or it will give you an error.”

Student: “Uh... what?”

So, anyway, what happened yesterday? We voted unanimously to do away with the separate keyboard lab sections entirely. The decision may need to be approved by the School of Music Curriculum Committee (I'm not sure why... it's a registration change, not a curricular change), but hopefully they'll be off the books by Spring.

And theory students, don't get too excited. We're deleting the lab section from the registration procedure, but the keyboard labs themselves will remain. And for some of you, they start this Friday! How fun for you.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Crime Syndicates and My Buick

Several weeks ago, I walked out of Wal-Mart to find that my 1996 Buick Skylark wouldn't start. The starter worked, but it sounded like it wasn't getting any fuel. So we had it towed in and the mechanic replaced a faulty ignition switch. Strange, I thought, since the starter didn't seem to be the problem, but sure enough the car started fine after that.

Until the following week, when it had the same non-starting symptom as before. After letting it sit for a few days and trying it occasionally with no success, we had it towed in again.

Turns out the ignition switch was faulty, but there was more: that particular model is equipped with a system that detects is the car has been hotwired. If so, it causes the exact problem I was experiencing: it won't start. And in my case, the system — which is located in the instrument panel — was malfunctioning. The solution was a new instrument panel.

This is interesting to me because it's not the only problem that instrument panel has. The indicator light for the transmission — the thing that tells you if you are in park, neutral, reverse, drive, etc. — was spotty; sometimes it would show up, other times it wouldn't, usually it would flicker a lot. More importantly, however, was that about a month or so ago, the needle on the speedometer had somehow gotten on the wrong side of the "zero" peg. How that happened, I don't know. Has the peg's existence started to flicker in and out like the transmission indicator light? Did someone steal my car in the middle of the night and take it up to 180 mph?

At any rate, a new instrument panel would have cost more than $400. However, my mechanic new someone who could sell him a used one for much less than that, but it would take a few days to ship it. I told him to get the used one.

That was two weeks ago. Let me tell you, dealing with my school schedule, Andrea's temporarily full-time work schedule, dropping off and picking up kids to and from elementary school and babysitters, as well as soccer practice, church, and heaven only knows how many other meetings and such with one minivan is nothing less than insanity-inducing. Not to mention the fact that I fully expect the transmission in the minivan to, at any moment, fall out from underneath the van and erupt in a firey conflagration in the middle of the road.

But yesterday we finally got the car back, and once again it starts fine. The speedometer works, but the little transmission indicator has apparently gone on to Transmission Indicator Heaven. Other than that, the only problem is the fact that the "THEFT SYSTEM" light is permanently lit, perhaps to serve as a reminder of the whole ordeal.

Now the weirdest part of it all, though, is this:

This was sitting on the console of the car, not prominently displayed or anything, but laying there as if it had been tossed aside. The thing is, I've never been to the El Paso Airport, and I've certainly never rented a car there. So here are my theories:

1. Though they told me they were waiting on a part for two weeks, in reality they sent it down to El Paso to participate in a mafia-run rental car outfit. No doubt the folks who rented my Buick wondered about all the trash in the back seat footwells.
2. While it only seemed like two weeks to us, in reality my car was sent through a time portal and has been living an entire lifetime as a rental car in El Paso.
3. My brother or sister-in-law, when they owned the car and lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, set the card on the dashboard after returning from a trip and the card fell into the dashboard. My mechanic, while taking apart the dashboard to replace the instrument panel, found the card and tossed it aside.

Sure, #3 might seem more likely, but it's certainly the most boring of the explanations. And it doesn't explain why I'm going to have "THEFT SYSTEM" burned into my eyes every time I drive at night.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Tao of Grading Systems

Most people seem to enjoy my classes, but most of my students are in agreement regarding their hatred of the seven-point grading system I have used. I can understand their dislike for it, and I can understand the reasons. I don't generally go into detail in my classes about the reasons for using this system, other than "it reflects the difficulty of theory department coursework."

Well, that's true, but it's not the whole story, and students should rightly wonder about this when other professors are using a ten-point scale. But here's the real purpose for the seven-point grading scale: the theory department has tried to enforce a 70% knowledge requirement as a measure for passing a theory class. That means a student should show knowledge of 70% of the material in order to pass on to the next set of classes. Since University policy is that a "D" is a passing grade, the seven-point grading scale builds this in, whereas the ten-point grading scale would allow someone to move up to the next section with knowledge of only 60% of the material.

Looking at the above diagram, imagine a student — we'll call him Ludwig — who takes Theory II from me and earns a 63% for a final grade. If I am using the ten point scale, that means he gets a D. UNC considers a D a passing grade, so the registrar allows him to sign up for Theory III, getting around the theory department's hope for a C or better to move forward.

Using a seven-point scale, however, means that Ludwig's 63% translates into an F, meaning he gets to enjoy Theory II for another go-round.

Now, if the theory department were consistent about checking student grades at the beginning of each semester for every course, and dropping students who didn't have a C or higher in each prerequisite class (yes, professors can do that!), then this wouldn't be an issue. But that fact of the matter is that it hasn't been consistently applied before now.

Starting in the spring, however, it will be done, and in fact the School of Music Curriculum Committee is currently looking into the possibility of having it be a registration-based requirement (i.e., students with a D in a prerequisite class would not be allowed to register for the course in URSA).

With that being the case, a seven-point grading scale would be unfair, since someone with a 74% would not be allowed to move on to the next section.

So, as of Fall 2008, I am adopting the ten-point grading scale. I know that my students will like this, because it actually represents some grade inflation (a 90%, which used to be a B, is now an A). But there is that awful drawback: A "D" is now a failing grade in theory courses.

Incidentally, this coincides with another change, which is the addition of plus and minus grades. The university is allowing individual professors to decide whether or not to adopt this system; I plan on doing so, because I think, for example, a B+ is a better grade than a B-, and the student should deserve credit for the extra work involved.

The almost humorous effect this brings into play is this: students used to hate my grading system because a 93 was the lowest "A." Guess what: 90-92 is now an "A-." So guess what score is the lowest A?

(Cue maniacal laughter here.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Shirts

Two new designs join the Music Theory SuperMegaPlex! The first is for anyone who has incorrectly analyzed a dominant thirteen as one of those elusive iii9 (or, worse yet, iii6/9) chords. You know who you are...

The other is a shout out to one of my most underappreciated peepz, tenor clef. Don't be dissin' my brother, now!

Back in the Saddle

Some blogger I am, not posting anything since March!

I'm resolving to change that now, though... fall semester starts on Monday and there is plenty to talk — er, blog — about. First, of course, is that I'm back at UNC for another final year, filling in as Interim Director of Music Technology while the administration re-does the search for a new Assistant Professor of Music Technology.

Of course, I'll be teaching music theory again as well: one section of MUS 104: Foundations of Music Theory, and one section each of every sophomore-level theory course. That means I'll be teaching MUS 213 again, and that means the triumphant return of ¡Analysissimo! To my MUS 213 students: yes it's something fun, but then again it's a music theory class... I'll let you reconcile that. ¡OlĂ©!

I'll also be teaching MUS 214 for the first time in years. Good thing? Bad thing? I'll leave that up to the students to decide.

With the beginning of the school year I'll also be starting up your favorite webcomic (okay, that part's probably not true), Red Pen. Updates will once again be Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, starting this Friday. If you'd like your writing utensil or other type of office object featured in the strip, hey, that's cool. Bring it by!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter!

Check out the pictures of our fun and color-coordinated Easter celebrations on the Flickr page.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Massive Flickr Update

Over the past few days I've been uploading pics to our Flickr site... lots of pics. In fact, almost every pic we've taken since we got our first digital camera in 2001... more than 3,000 of them. So take a look, if you'd like, and enjoy!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Midterms, Spring 2008 Edition

I'll keep this post updated with my midterm grading progress, so my students know when they can come by and pick up their tests.

MUS 113: Your midterms are graded. Come by anytime and pick yours up!
MUS 115: Your midterms are graded. Come by anytime and pick yours up!
MUS 116: Your midterms are graded. Come by anytime and pick yours up!
MUS 215: Your midterms are graded. Come by anytime and pick yours up!
MUS 216: Your midterms are graded. Come by anytime and pick yours up!

I have also graded Prof. McLaird's MUS 215 exams; if you are one of his students, you can come by and see your score.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A few words from Sofie

We happened to catch some cooing from little Miss Sofia on video today:


Friday, January 11, 2008

More Darwin Calendar Server

I've updated this post with some corrected information: the bit about creating a startup script wasn't working because of what looks like some debugging code in one of the scripts. I poked around enough to figure out how to fix the code, and hopefully it won't cause some other problem as a side effect. Thanks to Reb for pointing out the problem.