Take lessons with me!

Looking for music lessons in Portland, OR (or perhaps over the internet)? I teach all ages and levels and all sorts of musical styles. Along with traditional approaches, I offer a unique emphasis on the science and psychology of music and on creative exploration. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New recording: The Brain Parts Song

After giving up the chance to start my PhD now, I'm pushing myself to get involved in lots of projects until I potentially re-apply to grad schools. Among other things, I'm taking an online class through the local community college: Human Development and Learning. This class relates to my interests in psychology and education, plus it will be valuable if I ever pursue formal teacher certification.

This week's assignment was to do something creative involving learning the basic parts of the brain, so I wrote a song, of course:

Brain Parts Song by Aaron Wolf


I had to fight the urge to be a perfectionist. I simply didn't have time to add all sorts of instrumentation or details or make a video... maybe another time, but I'm busy with other things.

This song is very purpose-driven: a song for memorizing. Unfortunately, I don't think it does that optimally. These brain part names are really hard to rhyme, so I resorted to rhyming words that fit descriptions of the parts. However, that choice means that the names could be erroneously mixed up and the song would still work musically. Plus, this might be too much content crammed into three minutes — it would be more memorable if there were room for more exact repetition. I'm happy with the result, and I did my best, but it may not be the best study tool for everyone... At least it's a fun song.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Comparison of Different Media for Music Education

When I first realized that most of the content I learned in my schooling and private lessons was available in books at the library, it made me question the value of the lessons and classes. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn't have actually read all the books on my own at that younger age... But I wasn't presented with the opportunity so I didn't know it was available. Of course, in the days before the internet, there simply wasn't quite as much information readily available and even finding the right books at the library was harder before computerized catalogs. Of course, books aren't as meaningful until after one has had real-world experience to relate the ideas to.

A teacher's job is to get students to learn and be thoughtful, and, ideally, that is done as efficiently as possible. The most efficient learning for beginners is full multi-sensory immersion: playing music with others in a real-world context. Then students are able to relate these experiences to more removed media like recordings and abstract symbols such as music notation. Of course, efficient also implies practical; so the value of experiencing different media must be weighed against accessibility and cost. Teachers should make students aware of the opportunities of different media as soon as students are ready for them.

Though not all students may follow through, I intend to do everything I can to enable and encourage independent study. Unfortunately, while information is now more readily available than ever, the options are overwhelming (see this compelling video: Barry Schwartz On The Paradox of Choice). So my job is both to directly teach particular ideas as well as to be a guide to the learning process in general.

This post is about evaluating different media. I am sure that information scientists (i.e. librarians et al) and pedagogy scholars have done extensive work studying this subject (please let me know if you have specific recommendations about research I should check out), but here I would like to share my personal thoughts specific to the study of music through different media including private lessons, classes, books, videos, software, and more.

Different media offer different benefits. Therefore, the best learning is multimedia using the all the forms for their different values.

Pros and cons of learning music through different media:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Opportunities vs life circumstances: music vs environment...

I've been through a lot since my last post. I went from being quite certain that I would move across the country to pursue a PhD in Musicology (with a cross-cultural focus) to changing plans and now staying in Ann Arbor while my wife, Samantha, does a MS degree in Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. I won't get into discussing the complex issues of different universities, my general feelings about academia, the issues about the prospects of UofM for me, other alternatives, etc (maybe another time...). Simply put, every opportunity comes in a package with all sorts of issues, pros and cons, open or closed doors, costs, etc. Making decisions about these things is very complex. It is impossible to truly know what unchosen decisions would have brought. Among many other factors, I am sincerely excited for Samantha — and not just for her sake, but because I also find biology and environmental issues fascinating and important.

So now I am continuing to teach private lessons while also considering how else to make the most of the next couple years. I have several projects to pursue. I already have more than a dozen planned blog articles on many subjects. I have an endless reading list. I want to record and compose new music. I ought to get out and perform more, perhaps get together an ensemble with other musicians. I intend to pursue formal publication of some of my academic research. I may take and/or audit various classes. And I just got started working with a programmer friend with the goal of realizing some of my computer-based music theory education ideas. I could even start on finally writing my guitar method (given that I've reviewed over 700 related publications and still haven't found anything quite like what I want), but I think that project may have to wait...

Today I want to share two specific items:

(A) I fully revised my page here: Lessons: Details, Philosophy
The updated page describes much of my attitude as a music teacher and clarifies (I hope) my wacky philosophical title of this site. I had trepidations about trying to explain in a few sentences some philosophical concepts so complex that I'm not sure I fully understand them. But, as Professor Bob Woody replied recently when I commented on his blog, maybe writing controversial or simplistic things might encourage more comments! I have certainly gained more understanding by sharing my thoughts and making them open for criticism than by trying to hold onto my ideas until I think they are flawless (which is never). As that static page doesn't allow comment, please comment here regarding that page.

(B) I thought of a way to be more environmentally responsible in my teaching:

The background: I feel happy and responsible that my wife and I share a single car — and still, it is rarely used. We put much less miles on our shared car than the average single-driver car. This is possible for many reasons, including our decision to run errands by bicycle or foot as much as possible and to avoid other unnecessary driving. But the main reason I drive so little is that I teach out of my home studio most days. The problem is: while this saves me a lot of money, it doesn't actually reduce cost and pollution overall because my students still drive to come to me. Yeah, it's still better than if my students and I both drove to meet at some separate location, but it still isn't an ideal sustainable  arrangement considering environmental and energy costs (and I don't believe in the absurd premise that electric cars or similar can somehow be efficient enough to make sprawling, commuting suburb life sustainable). If my career is to be feasible and responsible in the future, this needs to be addressed.

There is the possibility of online teaching with video conferencing and such, and maybe I'll try that sometime. Online can never be quite the same as in-person lessons, but maybe it really could be a fair compromise in some cases. But I thought of a more immediate solution:

I just need to encourage students to take public transit or bike (or even walk) to lessons. I had hesitated to do this in the past because I know it is hard (though not impossible) to bike with a guitar, but I realize now I just need to have enough various instruments of my own so that students can use one of my guitars in their lessons. Yes, it is better for me to see how they play with their own guitar, but it is more important to encourage students to save money and reduce pollution and waste. I want to live in a world where people are healthy and responsible and bike more, and I'm thrilled to have thought of a way to directly encourage that. I added a note to my official policy and will mention it to my students in the future. I hope it works out for at least some folks!

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Thanks for reading. Check back here (or subscribe via the form to the right) to keep up with future updates. The vast majority of my planned posts are about general insights in music and related things, in contrast to the largely personal nature of this post. Thanks goes out to the numerous folks who helped me in so many ways throughout my grad school application process — I gained a lot of perspective and understanding even though I will not be going back to school yet.