Friday, November 30, 2007

Beach Pictures!

For the past several years, my family has all gathered at the Beach for Thanksgiving. It is the perfect chance to see all my family that lives in Alabama, and we always make great memories. This year was especially fun because it was the first time Sam and his cousin Eli really played together (previously "playing together" meant Sam and Eli played next to each other - this year "playing together" meant convincing each other they could "bounce" on the bed since they had only been told not to "jump" on the bed).

Sam, as you may recall, is a fish, and would have walked to Cuba if we had let him loose at the water. We also discovered that he was a, well, a sand-eating animal and loved to lick it while being buried in the sand. Click on the picture for more fun pictures:
Misty has a better camera and took much better pictures involving the entire clan. If you really want to see how Eli and Sam "played together," click on this picture she took and you can see her wonderful set of Beach pictures:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

So You Want to Write a Fugue?

It's the end of the fall semester for teachers and for music history teachers that means one thing:


Today I began my two day journey through Bach's music and his life. Since Bach wrote so many wonderful organ works, the textbook I use has included two, including a prelude and fugue. This is the first full fugue we have covered, so I had to go through the entire process of a fugue. The fugue has always intrigued me because it acts like a form, giving shape and direction to a piece of music, and we discuss it as a form, calling such pieces "fugues," but it really is not a form. The fugue is more of a process: composers write a melody, here called a subject, present it once in each voice, bring it back in parts and pieces throughout the work, and end with a complete statement of the subject one last time in the home key. As a listener, you follow this process, your ears perking up every time snatches of the subject peek out of the dense texture.

You would think such a rigorous process would have quickly fallen out of favor, but the fugue has remained one of the most used organizational structures in music. It pops up in all sorts of places, perhaps one of my favorite from the past few years was in Kevin Gilbert's The Shaming of the True, a Gentle Giant-influenced concept album that featured the "Suit Fugue (Dance of the A&R Men)." It's a brilliant piece of a cappella fugal writing.

Along those lines, I've recently started showing my students Glenn Gould's "So You Want to Write a Fugue" in class to demonstrate how the fugue works. We have a strong vocal program, and for people used to following words, his verbal/musical explanation does wonders in making this abstract concept concrete.

As much as I enjoy this performance, it always reminds me about the deep-seated paradoxes I find surrounding Gould. About half way through the performance, a new subject enters, "Never Be Clever for the Sake of Being Clever." It strikes me that Mr. Gould wasn't or couldn't follow his own advice. Nevertheless, it is a marvelous way to teach this concept.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

See what a week with Cousin Eli will do to you?

During Sunday lunch, Joy began playing a game with Sam that has only recently begun to amuse him. She looked at him and asked, "are you an elephant?"

Sam, looking dubious, replied in his best, lilting little-boy voice, "Noooooo."

"Are you a turkey?"


You can image how long this exchange went on. Throughout it all, Sam kept giggling until, finally, Joy asked him, "Then what are you?"

Sam peered up at her, a smile stealing across his face, and declared, "I'm a silly goose in a caboose!"

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sam has a Message

Well, at least he will be on June 6 of next year.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Using PowerPoint Well, or How to Keep Your Audience Engaged

On Tuesday I began to lose my voice. It isn't as uncommon an occurrence as you might think; I lose my speaking voice about once a year to sinus infections, so I've learned to soldier on through. The main problem with this problem is the troubling fact that I make my living by talking. I have to stand in front of a group of people for hours at a time and talk. So when I come to weeks like this one, where the next week is break and the weeks following are devoted to student presentations so I can't cancel class, I have to come up with creative ways to teach my material without talking as much.

Enter PowerPoint. Most of my classrooms are what the university has designated ILE - Ideal Learning Environments. Unfortunately, ILE is simply code for "has a computer and projector and document camera," not "has comfortable seats, is a comfortable temperature, has an in-tune piano, and has a coffee bar at the back." I suppose that would be too ideal. But you take what you can get.

Before coming here, I had never used PowerPoint in the classroom before, so I've been on a steep learning curve. But I've figured out a few tricks that I'd like to share, mainly because I've seen it used poorly so often that I feel posting this can count as community, nay, service to mankind in my tenure portfolio.

Lesson 1: Omit Needless Words
Most of you will recognize that I'm stealing my first lesson directly from Mr. Strunk, but it holds true for PowerPoint as well. Most slides look like this wonderful one I stole from
That is an incredible amount of text to read through. And do you know what happens the instant a screen with a lot of text is unveiled? All eyes dart to their paper to write down everything on the slide and their ears turn off. For the next four to five minutes (at least) you have lost your class. Now, occasionally you want them to write everything down you have on the slide because you are giving lists of musical works or obscure titles, so how do you have the best of both worlds? Bring in each section one by one. That way you can give them time to write down what you want to make sure they have down and have time to talk to them as well. But by and large, do not put large amounts of text on a slide.

Lesson 2: Use Slides to Enhance your Words
I'll give you an example of what I mean by this lesson. Yesterday, I had a presentation of the revisions I've made to my syllabus in response to the diversity training I've received this semester. Most people simply put their syllabi up on the screen and talked us through step by step. Of course, you now know what happened - we all began reading and stopped listening. For my presentation, I wanted to take them through my thought process in revising this syllabus. So I began with a series of 15 slides of pictures of composers along with their names and dates. Then, while describing the current state of the canon in music history, these images flashed rhythmically behind me. I didn't draw attention to them until they were halfway through at which point I asked my audience if they noticed anything similar in the pictures - they all got my point that music history is usually taught as a progression of dead white European males. More to the point, they were listening to me the entire time and the images served to punctuate what I was saying. If you haven't seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, you should just to watch how well Gore has mastered this skill.

Lesson 3: Don't be afraid of a Black Screen
Too often we leave up slides long after their relevance is gone. We aren't quite ready to move on to the next slide so it just remains. So our students stare at the information or images on the screen simply because they are conditioned to look at screens (ever try to talk while the TV is on mute? You still watch it). I've learned that you only put images up on a slide as long as you want your students to see them. As soon as you've moved on, go to a black screen. I literally put in black slides that I've turned the background to black so nothing is there for them to look at but me. It is all a matter of rhythm and timing, just like in theater, so make sure you know what words you want the slide to appear with and with what words it should disappear. Using PowerPoint in this manner makes for dramatic reveals and so is effective in helping with Lesson 2.

Lesson 4: Less is More
Above all in using PowerPoint in the classroom, remember that less is more. Imagine PowerPoint as a huge, delicious cake like the ones you get from Costco with the cheesecake filling and the mounds of icing. Those cakes are amazing and delicious and always welcome. But after you've eaten a small piece, you've about had all the Costco cake you can handle. If you eat a large piece, you'll probably be feeling it for a while. And if you eat more than one piece, you might just have a heart attack. Treat your slides like pieces of Costco cake. If you give your students tons of cake, they become lethargic and bloated and want nothing more than to go lie down. But if you only give them a little at a time, it is a delicious treat and they come back wanting more. Your PowerPoint is cake, so use it wisely. I like to throw one provocative statement on the screen like this one:
Just putting that up and letting my students read it always gets them talking. It starts slowly, but as long as that slide is up, they are talking. I, of course, follow it with a black screen.

Ok, I need to go and soldier through my class and see how much I can communicate and get them to talk with my PowerPoint. I'd welcome any suggestions you have as to the effective use of PowerPoint in your classrooms or even tales of PowerPoint gone awry.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Raking the Yard

This afternoon we decided to attempt the dreaded task of raking the yard. With Sam. With Sam holding a rake. And twirling it around near my truck.

You would think the rake would be the source of angst outside this afternoon, but actually Sam was a great help pulling his rake back and forth across patches of ground. No, the source of angst came from the pull of the neighbor's yard. Sam wants to explore. He loves running up and down the street. And no matter what we tell him, he can't seem to stay in our yard. So, after being warned that he needed to stay on the grass or risk going inside, he decided to stray again. And so he went inside.

(insert visual images of Sam screaming in protest here)

I stayed outside and kept raking, which was a much less tedious task than usual because I was raking under this tree:
For some reason our maple decided to be the last at the leaf-changing ball this year, but when she arrived, she decided to make an entrance.

Here's one more picture, just to savor. I usually hate raking leaves, but this made my day a little better. That and Joy finally getting to help rake leaves so I didn't have to do it alone for at least the first half. Hopefully next year Sam will get to help more, especially since when the leaves fall from this maple, they make great, colorful piles to jump in.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Have Camera Will Travel

This past weekend, we journeyed down the interstate to visit Joy's sister Heather, her husband Adam, and, most importantly for Sam, their two dogs. We went to celebrate Joy's birthday (which is today - Happy Birthday Shout Out to Joy!) and had a wonderful time. Joy and Heather went for makeovers and to generally cause mischief so Adam and I kept Sam. As you can see from the picture below, his uncle is already getting Sam ready to go to OBU and ride the tiger (or lion...just go with it).

Click on the picture to see more of our great weekend, including Sam in the doghouse. Enjoy!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Late Night Talk

Sam has recently begun a new habit that Joy and I find hilarious: after we put him to bed, he'll talk for about 30 minutes before falling asleep. Alone, this behavior isn't too strange; after all, many parents report that their children talk themselves to sleep. What is interesting is that Sam seems to realize we can hear everything he says over the monitor, so he talks to us. A few choice excerpts:

"Mama, open the door please."

"Sam has a green bus and and blue bus and a red bus in his room."

and my personal favorite, playing off his pronoun confusion:

"Mama rock you."

Friday, November 2, 2007

New Lyrics, Sam Style

Sam must still be reading the blog because last night he decided to begin changing all the lyrics to the songs he knows. It started innocently enough. We were driving back from school where I had picked him up from Joy's Kindermusik class and commenting on the passing buses and trucks, when Sam decided to begin singing. Evidently, he's just learned "God Is So Good" in bible study and as with every new song, he sings it all day long.

But last night he put in a twist.

He got me to start singing along with him and after a few verses he looked at me, cocked his head, and declared,

"Dada, sing 'God Loves Trucks!'"

I complied, but I draw the line at "God Loves My Thomas the Train Shoes." He may indeed, but it just doesn't scan with the song.