Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom.
I recently had a incredibly interesting conversation with NCSSM's Instructor of Computational Chemistry. He is a dear friend and a long-standing member of the NCSSM faculty. He introduced this concept to me as part of a conversation regarding the direction of our school's greater program and I have thought about it a great deal over the past several months. I believe that we will hear more and more about this concept, especially in the areas of STEM education in coming years. Computational thinking, when defined, is easily related to the music and orchestra classroom. I believe that I have been engrossed in computational thinking for virtually my entire life as a musician; from the time I was a student, to young teacher, to now as a veteran teacher. We use computational thinking when we are playing instruments, when we are practicing, when we are playing in or conducting an ensemble, and when we are planning and creating pedagogy and instrumental lessons. So, let's dive deeper into the concept of computational thinking as it applies to the orchestra class.

"Computational Thinking (CT) is a problem solving process that includes a number of characteristics and dispositions. It is essential to the development of computer applications, but it can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including the humanities, math, and science." ~Wikipedia

In this essay, we will focus specifically on music.

Students who learn computational thinking across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between academic subjects, as well as between life inside and outside of the classroom.  This is, obviously, a goal of arts and humanities programs in all school settings. I believe it is additionally a strong goal of music education and ensemble performance classes. We continually seek to facilitate interdisciplinary ideas, learning, and expression on a daily basis.

Computational thinking involves a number of specific components. Let's begin to look at them here.

1. Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts. 

I would hope that every music educator who reads this is thinking, "This is what I do every day." The goal of all strong pedagogy would be to facilitate success with complex musical ideas and tasks by breaking those tasks into smaller, more palatable increments. We do this throughout every rehearsal cycle in an ensemble. We also do this in music lessons on a daily and weekly basis. I often say that the most important music lesson a student ever has is the first one they have. That first lesson is when a strong foundation of " setup " is established. This is the beginning of success in much more complex techniques. Think about how one might approach teaching a student the technique of vibrato. It is not haphazard. There are many individual steps towards developing that complex technique. One might argue that we are never finished with the process. I believe that the most successful music educators are those who take the time to fully decompose the most advanced of musical techniques and articulate the process clearly.

2. Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data.

Any student who has learned to play an instrument through the Suzuki method, understands the importance of pattern recognition. To this day I still hear and see the pattern of four eighth notes and two quarter notes as "caught a little bun-ny." That pattern was drilled over and over to me at the very beginning of my music instruction. We seek patterns all the time in music. Rhythmic recognition is truly pattern recognition. Jazz musicians understand this as learning figures. Key recognition is truly pattern recognition. Modal recognition is truly pattern recognition. Shifting is pattern recognition. I could go on and on. The best musicians are recognizing patterns all over the place. It is truly one of the strongest skills that a musician develops. The more we recognize and repeat patterns, the less we have to really think about fixed ideas during a rehearsal or a performance. I often say to my ensembles, "solve the equation once." What I am really saying is to find the patterns, recognize them, and repeat them. This will free your mind up to think about other things in that same moment.

3. Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns

This may be my most favorite element of preparing a score for rehearsal. I am continuously seeking abstractions that I can use to articulate concepts for my students. In the NCSSM orchestra, we just completed a performance of Beethoven's 6th Symphony. In the second movement, there are a series of 16th note patterns. As I lived with the score and studied it, I noted that the 16th notes really serve two purposes in that movement. In some cases, I identify the 16th note patterns as "the engine." The function of engine passages in Beethoven, in my opinion, is to establish rhythmic drive as well as a harmonic underpinning. Think of this as the rhythm guitar of the orchestra, playing chords and a driving regular rhythmic pattern. My students have grown to be able to truly identify "engine" passages whenever we perform Beethoven. The other type of 16th note passage in this movement is more of a "melodic" function. Beethoven embeds the melody within the 16th note undulation in these passages. So, during the course of rehearsal, I would have my students identify "engine" passages versus "melodic" passages of 16th notes. This type of abstraction should be prevalent in the work we do as music educators. And, ultimately, we want our students to be able to do this type of work as well. It is not easy. This requires us as music educators to step back from the fixed notion of notes and rhythm on a page. We need to see the score in a more functional manner. I have spent a great deal of time in recent years considering the functionality of every passage in the scores I conduct. What is the purpose of every single note and passage in any given score? When we can answer this question of functionality, we have truly begun to embrace the notion of abstraction within the score. When we help our students to think about a score in this way, we have offered them this notion of abstraction.

4. Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems.

This is sequential pedagogy in its most pure and basic form. Have you ever seen a video on YouTube of someone trying to explain a musical concept or technique who really hasn't developed a step-by-step process for solving the problem? I have! In the end, algorithm design is pedagogical design. We, as music educators, do it every single day. And, if it's not in the front of your mind when you are planning for teaching, I recommend that you begin to focus on this. I do not believe there is any one specific answer to algorithm design for music educators. But, this notion of creating step by step instructions is critical to the success of our students. Clarity always wins in the end. Many years ago, I had a friend and mentor encourage me to think in this manner. He cautioned me that folks to whom high level musical performance comes relatively easily, can have difficulties with this when explaining concepts to their students. I happened to be one of those musicians. Many advanced techniques came relatively easily to me for some reason. So, as a young teacher, I committed to decomposition and algorithm design in a significant way. It has paid huge dividends for me in the classroom over the years. I am so appreciative of that mentor's advice!

"The characteristics that define computational thinking are decomposition, pattern recognition/data representation, generalization/abstraction, and algorithms.  By decomposing a problem, identifying the variables involved using data representation, and creating algorithms, a generic solution results. The generic solution is a generalization or abstraction that can be used to solve a multitude of variations of the initial problem." ~Wikipedia

Another characterization of computational thinking is the "three A's" iterative process based on three stages:

Abstraction: Problem formulation;
Automation: Solution expression;
Analyses: Solution execution and evaluation.

These can also be easily linked to the process of ensemble rehearsal or instrumental music instruction. As conductors, we must first identify the problem through abstraction. Next, we express a solution which equates to automation. And then finally we execute a plan for solution and ultimately evaluate the success of that plan. This is what music educators do every single day.

"Some say that the four Cs of 21st century learning are communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. The fifth C could be computational thinking which entails the capability to resolve problems algorithmically and logically." ~Wikipedia

As music educators, we commit to this on a daily basis. Our students should be observing the computational thinking process in our work every day. And, by extension, we must be encouraging students to think computationally in everything that they experience as a musician. This is yet another justification for music programs within the context of a stem education. The way we can encourage students to think when in the ensemble classroom has undeniable links to the science, math, and engineering classroom.

I would love to hear your reaction to these thoughts. I also encourage you to consider some of these ideas when advocating for your program. These are important facets of the work that we do as music educators and the work that our students do when they are in our classroom. But, if we are unable to articulate these outcomes, the greater concept is often overlooked. 

I wish you all the best as you continue your work in the music ensemble classroom. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

American String Teachers Association National Conference 2022: My Week and Experience

I woke up this morning in my own bed after being out of town for the past week. It is so great to experience the familiarity of my own place: my home, I own stuff, and the comforts of home. While I was staying in a magnificent suite at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta, it is always good to come home. This morning I was looking through Facebook and enjoying all of the moving posts about folks' experiences at the ASTA National Conference last week. The membership of this organization points toward our national conference as somewhat of a Mecca for reconnecting with friends and colleagues from around the country, acquiring new and unique ideas about string teaching and the art we love, and getting that annual reminder that we are not alone. 

My week was a little bit unique this year. Many of you know I have been serving on the National Board of Directors for ASTA for about 6 years as the Chair of the Content Development Committee. This was my last conference in that role. I will be rolling off the board in May and using my time to more fully commit to projects here at NCSSM, specifically opening our new NCSSM campus in Morganton North Carolina. So, as a result my week at the conference was a little different than many years. I didn't have much time to attend sessions, but it was no less meaningful and the work in which I was involved had, hopefully, a great deal of impact. This is my opportunity to chronicle my week a little bit and to give others a small window into that work.

Monday and Tuesday

I left home on Sunday evening to get a small jump on the long drive. It is about a 6-hour drive from Durham NC to Atlanta. I went about halfway and spent the night in Spartanburg SC. I got up early on Monday to finish the drive so that I could be ready for board meetings beginning at noon on Monday. I safely arrived in Atlanta and settled into my room. And after a nice lunch, the Board got to work. The board work on Monday and Tuesday centered around creating a new strategic plan to guide our organization for the next 3 years. I love all of the members of the board and these are opportunities for meaningful and thoughtful conversation about the work of ASTA, our membership, our mission, and how we want to spend our limited resources to make the field of string teaching and the United States a better place. Our conversations this year centered around many of the standard topics of the American String Teachers Association, such as professional development opportunities, and member resources, but wellness and diversity were really front and center as well. We were able to frame an outline and priorities for the new strategic plan through our work. That plan should be finalized by June and I am excited to see it implemented for our organization. For those who don't know, the organization has been through a great deal of transition in the last year as we have said goodbye to one Executive Director, hired an interim for 6 months or so, and welcomed our new Executive Director, Lynn Tuttle, to the organization. Lynn is a thoughtful and intelligent leader and I know she will guide ASTA with integrity and purpose in coming years. Truly, the entire board worked diligently and thoughtfully on this plan. We ended the day on Tuesday with a wonderful Board dinner.  I went back to the hotel fulfilled (and very full) ready to move into the rest of the Conference.


On Wednesday, the Board came together to finalize some of the details of the outline of the strategic plan in the morning. We worked for a couple of hours and then many of us had to move on to our work as facilitators for the Wednesday pre-conference sessions. I was honored to be conducting and guiding the ASTA National Conference Teachers Orchestra on Wednesday. About 23 teachers from around the country registered for this pre-conference session to come together and make music for the afternoon. This was the second time we have put this event together for ASTA.  The Teachers Orchestra was a wonderful success again this year. We came together at noon and rehearsed until 5:00 p.m. The rehearsal included great music-making, many smiles, new friendships, and was an overall fulfilling afternoon. We had a wide variety of repertoire that included an arrangement of the Day of Wrath (Dies Irae) from Verdi's Requiem, arranged by Deborah Baker Monday, works by composers Katie Labrie and Gabriella Frank, and even the winner of the ASTA 75th Anniversary composition contest, Nagyszentmiklos, by Todd Mason, a tricky but amazing work which is basically ah homage to the influence of Bela Bartok. There was plenty to do for the afternoon. Our time together culminated with a informal performance at the opening  reception of the conference at 6:30 that evening. What a pleasure to conduct the group. It was truly a joy to spend the day with these wonderful teachers from around the country. Again, I strongly believe everyone had a great time and enjoyed the process of music making and bringing a short program together throughout the afternoon. I was honored to be part of this. Following the reception, I ran to another dinner with all of the other adjudicators and clinicians for the National Orchestra Festival, which was set to begin on Thursday morning.

 Thursday Friday Saturday 

 As part of the National Conference each year ASTA hosts the American String Teachers Association National Orchestra Festival where student groups from around the country apply and come to our conference to perform for a set of adjudicators and receive educational clinics. This year, I was invited to be one of the clinicians who worked with orchestras following their adjudicated performances. My role in this event was to listen to orchestra performances and then give them a brief educational clinic immediately following their performance. I heard orchestras from Florida, Texas, Colorado, Indiana, and other regions of the country. Truly, all of the performances were magnificent and I was encouraged throughout the festival regarding the level of string teaching and playing that's happening in our country today. Over the course of Thursday and Friday I heard and cliniced 8 different orchestras. In my clinics, I tried to give students the opportunity to reflect on their own performances, consider their successes and areas on which they could improve in their performances, reflect on their trip,  and, I aspired to give them a few small musical nuggets to think about as they move forward in their playing as individuals and ensembles. I truly hope that the instructors walked away from each of my clinics with a little something new to think about. And, obviously, my goal was that each student would feel valued and honored in their efforts. There were also usually many parent chaperones in the room and I always try to make a point to thank them and honor them for the dedication it takes to be part of a music community in a school and to support their children in their orchestral endeavors. Following all of the performances, a National Grand Champion is named and all of the groups are ranked. On Saturday morning, the winners of the middle school and high school divisions were announced at a high energy award ceremony. Later on Saturday afternoon, the Middle School and High School Grand Champions performed as the closing session of the conference. The Grand Champions are Seven Lakes Junior High Chamber Orchestra from Katy, Texas under the direction of Jennifer Gingell and Bethany Hagin and  Eau Gallie High School Chamber Orchestra from Melbourne Florida under the direction of Erik Bryan.  The performances were absolutely stunning. I am also thrilled that my colleague Ryan Ellefson from East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina took his ensemble to the event and they were awarded second place in the high school division. Sadly, I didn't see their performance because I was clinician another group at that time. But all indications were that they were absolutely spectacular. I know it was a huge weekend for Ryan and for every student and parent who participated in the event. I am so pleased for them!

Following a social gathering on Saturday evening, I got to bed early and set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. I left Atlanta when I woke up at that early hour and drove directly to my youngest son's baseball game in Raleigh. The game was slated to start at noon and I had missed several games being away this week. I didn't want to miss the game on Sunday. I made it to the game on time to see all of his at-bats. I was also so pleased that my middle son, Joe, could come and watch the games with me. He had been in London for the past 2 weeks with a class trip from UNC and just arrived back in Raleigh on Saturday. What a cool way to come home!

So, it was certainly a busy, but fulfilling week. As always, my best memories and takeaways include the friendships old and new, and personal interaction with my colleagues, from around the county.  There is no substitute for the smiles, hugs, conversations over coffee, and well-wishes for and from this like-minded group of folks.  The American String Teachers Association continues to be strong and continues to provide a welcoming community for all in the field.  Thanks to all of you who impacted me over the past week.  I look forward to seeing you all and others at Orlando next year. 

Monday, February 28, 2022

A look 14 years back

I was recently looking back over some of my first posts on this blog and thought it would be fun to revisit a few and see if I am still in agreement with myself.

Seating Auditions are Traumatic
September 12, 2008

Seating auditions are traumatic. Anyone that has ever played in an orchestra knows it. A musician's seating is a concrete expression of a musician's "rank" in the ensemble and one really can't hide from the number. (1st chair, 2nd chair, 14th chair, etc.) 

I have to constantly remind students in my ensembles that auditions are not a concrete ranking of musical expertise.  They are more like a quick snapshot, capturing a single moment in time. 

Sometimes photos give a very true impression of a person's image. Sometimes they really don't.  Sometimes our eyes are crossed and we look horrible. Other times, we see a shot of a person that just makes them look fantastic. They are all the same person, but that snapshot can go either way. 

Auditions are similar. Sometimes we go into an audition, get nervous, and end up being the subject of an audition "photo" that depicts our eyes crossed and hair totally messed up. Other times, we show better that we actually are. But, in the long run, generally speaking, the image is still us. And, in both "good and bad" auditions, we give some kind of general impression of the player that we are. 

The beauty of the orchestra and string ensemble is this: once the auditions are over, we all have the same responsibilities - to prepare our parts, participate in rehearsals, lead from any chair, and work to be as integral a member of the group as everyone else. Seating order ultimately does not matter. Yes, it provides a tangible "rank." But it really doesn't change anything. We are an ensemble. And, by definition, it is all about the entire group. Ensembles are only successful when everyone understands their importance to the sum and fully commits to that concept. (Just think of the last time you watched a dance ensemble performance where one of the dancers didn't operate at the same level as the rest of the group. Ruined the effect - didn't it.) 

Here is where I usually go into sports analogies and the need for team play, but I will spare you that line of argument today. My orchestra received their seating on Wednesday right before rehearsal. It was a weird rehearsal that day. Players were getting used to their new stand partner, adjusting to the reality of that new "ranking" that they had just received, and generally getting comfortable. I really hope that today is better. This is such a fantastic group of musicians and I have such high expectations for the year. For now, we move on as an ensemble. Seating doesn't matter. That is the first key to success as an orchestra. A chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Now we get to the real work of developing musicianship, artistry, technique, repertoire, and a commitment to the goals at hand. I will enjoy the journey! 

As I read this today, I certainly still agree with every word of this brief essay.  But, in 2022, we should also be seeing seating, particularly in the classroom, through a new lens.  How does your ensemble seating look when seen through a racial equity and inclusion lens?  How does it look when seen through a gender equity and inclusion lens.  Frankly, that would not have crossed my mind in 2008.  But, if the actual seat of player really doesn't matter, as I said in 2008, then what are we telling the student who is always in the back of the section about their value and worth? Or, better said, what are they perceiving we are saying to them? I tend to rotate seating much more than I did 12 or 13 years ago.  I try to be conscious of  unintended statements seating may be making about my students. I also try to pair up students in creative ways which help everyone succeed in the long run. There is no "right" answer here. But there is plenty of room for self-reflection and sensitive deliberation when making seating decisions.

I have conducted a few honors groups in the past few months as we are just getting ramped up again post-covid.  I have noticed a great deal of discussion about a new and different level of nerves in seating auditions. In fact, it was the topic of conversation just last weekend at the NCMEA Eastern Regional Orchestra Festival.  Our kids have become used to the comfort of the video audition and playing by themselves in a live setting is more foreign that it used to be.  It is time for us to start getting back to those live auditions.  There is value in feeling those butterflies in the stomach and maybe even making a few mistakes in the audition room.  Life doesn't end with a bad audition.  We simply learn about where we need to grow.  These are good lessons!

In the end, I still love the analogy of a snapshot. We recently had some family photos taken and in most of them, the wind had blown my hair into an odd place.  I absolutely hate when my bangs go straight down.  They should be combed to the side to look "right."  Only in the last 3 shots, after I had taken a look at the photos, did my hair look right to me.  Oh well...not the greatest look, but at their core, the photos still look like me.  My wife claims she really didn't even notice.  I know I did. But, I still can live with the photos.  And, there will always be another chance!