No. 41 • 2021-08-27

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Back to the Classroom

Over the past 16 months, all instructors have experienced that teaching online challenges the traditions and assumptions of pedagogy. Not only have we had to learn all sorts of new tools and technologies in order to teach, we’ve had to change mindsets and become accustomed to very different norms and behaviors. But in this strange new medium combining videoconferencing (Zoom), collaboration tools (Slack and Microsoft Teams), and shared documents and storage (Google Drive), some have developed rather ingenious solutions to enable the best learning environment possible, given the constraints.

This Fall, most institutions are heading back into the classroom (hooray!, I think). But should we just go back to our standards and practices from before the pandemic? Or can we take what we’ve learned from a year+ of online classes to improve the in-person experience?  Of course, I believe the latter. I’ve been teaching remotely since April 2020, with varying degrees of success. Here are some methods from my online class experiences that I plan to use the next time I teach in-person, with an emphasis on keeping students active and engaged.

  1. Messaging / chat: For me, the greatest revelation from online teaching has been the difference in student questions and interactivity enabled by text chat. It’s clear that some who have difficulty asking questions or commenting verbally (whether online or in-person) become much more inquisitive and gregarious in a text chat. Last year, I created Microsoft Teams for each class, to enable real-time messaging both during and outside of class time (Zoom chat is similar, but doesn’t work outside the meeting). I believe this could carry over to the physical classroom, particularly for large classes, and I intend to use this in-person, so students can text questions and comments during class. I’d also like to allow anonymous messages (but that’s a little more challenging to implement, at least in Teams). A shared Google Doc is one possibility, but might be difficult to follow live.

  2. A virtual whiteboard, to capture notes and figures for playback later. This is tricky to do over Zoom (best to use multiple devices), and it will also be tricky to setup in a classroom. With a projector, I can display slides, other material, or a whiteboard to the class and use my iPad and Apple Pencil to annotate or just make notes freehand. The key is that it can be recorded and played back in order. (So-called smart boards are supposed to be good at this, but even if your classroom has one, does anyone actually use them in this manner?) I’ll probably record the audio as well, so that students can refer to it later (if you upload the video to YouTube, it will be automatically transcribed so that viewers can search for keywords/moments). There will definitely be some limitations… Thus far, I can’t think of a way to “live code” and also draw on the board at the same time.

  3. Pre-record lecture videos. Lecturing on Zoom is the worst (it’s just really hard to make a video lecture engaging). Even worse, students will often turn to YouTube afterwards for explainer videos on the content you present. Instead, for lecture-style content, I’ve been making high-quality short (10-20 minute) videos for students to view ahead of class that emphasize visuals and clear explanations (see below for an example). It does take an enormous amount of time as well as audio and video production skills on the part of the instructor, but becomes somewhat reusable content for future classes. Then, in class, students can ask questions and do active work to reinforce the concepts, which I intend to continue in person. It’s a similar approach to the “flipped classroom” movement of the previous decade+, but with even more emphasis on the quality of presentation.

  4. Software-based workbooks & activities: Another success in my online teaching has been to use software workbooks so that students in class engage with something active rather than just “follow along”. This requires students to bring their own laptops, but that’s fairly common these days. For my technical classes, I create Google Colaboratory (Colab) notebooks, online projects that provide students with some starter code, but they have to explore and code what’s missing to fully realize a concept. I try to craft activities where the work can be easily visualized and reviewed “at a glance”, via a shared Google Drive folder, and I can project selected examples. Of course, it’s a momentum-killer when technology fails in the classroom (as anyone who’s attended a presentation where most of the time was the presenter trying to connect their laptop to the screen knows). So, I wouldn’t recommend screen switching for in-class “show and tell” presentations. For other subjects, even Google Docs or Slides can be a great way to capture some student work live, even in-person. I have visions of walking around a classroom as students work on these mini-activities… I’ll see if that works out as well in-person as it has online.

Some were already employing these methods before the pandemic, but online teaching really highlighted the potential gains for me. Everything on this list is also an opportunity for educational technology vendors. To be frank, the tools still suck, and it takes a great deal of effort to piece together these solutions. Even if your organization doesn’t have a license for some of these tools (Zoom or Microsoft Teams), other comparable platforms are available for free (Google Meet, Docs, and Drive) and can be used, with effort. But it should be easier.  

Like the past year of online classes, these will all be experiments. But I am far more excited to incorporate the learnings from the past 16 months than to return to the “old ways”, since it means the adaptation and hard work over the past year might actually have been worthwhile for improving our future teaching and learning.

If you have other ideas for online practices that you’ll be bringing into the classroom, please reach out. I’d love to hear more suggestions!

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating…

As I’ve mentioned previously (and referred to above), I’ve been creating short, high-quality videos for lecture topics in my Applied Digital Signal Processing (DSP) class. I emphasize animated visuals and familiar sound examples to explore the math & engineering concepts behind digital audio and signal processing. It’s been a while, but I just released a new video in this series on the z-Domain and Parametric Filter Design. If you happen to be teaching (or learning) DSP this Fall, you may find these useful!

No. 40 • 2021-08-13

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Conferences… Back in person?

We’re approaching the return of large conferences and festivals, in person. Yes, the Delta variant is causing concerns and we’re all monitoring the return of schools & colleges closely, but I think everyone hopes to return to in-person events (safely) in the coming weeks and months.

B.PHL 2021

I’ve been a planning partner for the B.PHL Innovation Festival since it started in 2019. Last year was all-virtual, but this fall (fingers crossed) the B.PHL program will be hosted at an in-person venue in the city and also available for streaming (and could move to all-virtual, if necessary). The full festival program will be available soon, but I can assure you there will be some fantastic sessions featuring local creatives, innovators, change makers, and celebrities. Free virtual tickets, with access to all sessions, are available until August 15 (and afterwards they increase to $20), so register now!

SXSW 2022

In 2020, SXSW (held annually in Austin, TX) was among the first large-scale events to be cancelled due to COVID-19. This enormous conference & festival plans its in-person return in March 2022, highlighting the most important breakthroughs in education, technology, film, culture, and music. Given the organizers’ belief that “the most unexpected discoveries happen when diverse topics and people come together”, you can see why I’m a fan.

The planning for SXSW 2022 is well underway, and this is the time when anyone can vote on proposed sessions. In the PanelPicker process, public votes weight 30% in the selection criteria. With Drexel colleagues Kareem Edouard and Chris Wright, I had planned to present a session at the cancelled 2020 conference. We’ve revised this proposal for 2022, adding the amazing Prof. Rasheda Likely of Kennesaw State University (and Drexel School of Education PhD alum) to our team. Our session proposal is “Building an Inclusive Maker Community”, and I humbly ask that you read our session description and vote for its inclusion in the program. Voting is open through August 26!

Thank you for considering our SXSW EDU 2022 session proposal. Let us hope all our in-person plans for this academic year can be realized!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The TikTok Medley [Penn Masala] Fantastic audio and video production in this medley of international hits, new & old, presented TikTok style by the “World’s First South Asian A Cappella Group”. Great group of students from the other U. across the street!
  • AAPI Representation in American Musical Theater [CollaborAzian] A discussion of AAPI representation on the musical theatre stage, and the future for AAPI theatre artists in the industry as we emerge from the pandemic, while still fighting for racial justice and contending with the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence. Part of a fundraiser for Stop AAPI Hate.
  • Deep River [VOCES8 & Chineke!] From the Live from London 2021 Summer Festival, just a beautiful performance and arrangement of this classic spiritual. The festival continues through the end of August.
  • Anita Baker Medley [Kings Return] Just 4 guys harmonizing in a stairwell… back with another great performance of hits by R&B giant Anita Baker.
  • Dear Evan Hansen in 10 Minutes [Titled Keyboard Studios] Wow. Amazing performers and a cappella arrangements in this abridged version of the hit musical. Just an incredible effort to put this together! (I’m also eagerly awaiting the movie version coming out in September.)

What I’m creating…

We just posted the fourth episode of our podcast, So, Where Do We Go From Here?, featuring an interview with science & technology writer, Michelle Sipics.

Co-host Melinda Steffy and I will be taking a summer break from podcasting, but we’ll be back in September with more guests from Philly’s creative community!

No. 39 • 2021-07-23

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It’s not easy.

A few weeks ago, I asked: After a year of remote learning, what can we take back into the classroom? Here’s another thought on that topic.

As Instructors, we are predisposed to make things appear easy, for a variety of reasons. One is simply as a motivational tactic… we tell students “it’s not hard” (even when it is), to try to avoid early frustration and discouragement. If we make it sound easy, maybe it won’t be as hard for them. But the more common reason is that an experienced teacher has taught the material many times before. As with all things, mastery of the material does make it feel “easy”, even when it’s not. And I think we internalize that feeling and sometimes forget that a topic or concept is not easy at all.

Over the past year, instructors facing teaching online experienced the opposite: the enormous difficulty of creating instructional videos or other digital content. All of us (students and instructors) have access to an incredible amount of high quality learning content on YouTube, and let’s be honest, YouTube is the primary source of learning content for our students. I don’t mean that these videos are misleading, rather that both the amount and the quality reinforces the notion that they are easy to produce. There’s usually a high degree of technical, pedagogical, and video production experience that goes into creating a well-crafted learning video.

It’s also true that it’s never been easier to be a digital content creator. I’m not referring the common reaction to the latest TikTok: “That got a million views? Hmph, anyone could do that!”. But making a good video no longer requires a big studio and lots of expensive equipment… You really can do it with your phone and a laptop. There’s a huge industry of tutorials and how-to videos to show us just how EASY it is to make content: videos, music, apps, etc. So, it’s never been easier, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s an entirely different skill set from creating a good classroom lecture or in-person activity. And it takes an enormous investment of time and practice to become proficient. Anyone who took on this challenge last year had to learn many new skills.

The forced shift in perspective from the past year could benefit our students (and improve our teaching) as we start preparing for a new academic year, whether in-person (fingers crossed!) or online. Too often, we forget that education is not a simple or automatic process. It’s difficult to teach and learn new material at any level in any circumstance. Lean into your experiences with online and digital content creation to let go of the idea that learning should be easy. It’s not, and sometimes it’s really hard. Instead, let’s embrace the degree of difficulty, emphasizing the challenging but rewarding nature of learning for our students. I believe that’s something truly useful we can take away from the last year. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Why Aren’t You Making Math Videos? [3Blue1Brown] If you’re interested in making great learning videos, here are tips from one of the best (Grant Sanderson). He’s also launching a “Summer of Math Exposition” contest for math learning videos (deadline August 22).
  • Butter [VoicePlay, featuring Deejay Young & Cesar De La Rosa] I dare you to sit still through this a cappella cover of BTS’ mega-hit!
  • Helium Life Jacket [VOCES8 with Elsa Bradley & Calie Hough] A beautiful ambient vocal arrangement and performance of this piece, originally by composer Slow Meadow (Matt Kidd), shot in super widescreen.
  • 007 Theme [MayTree] Like many, I’m eagerly awaiting the new Bond film. Here’s another great rendition by this Korean a cappella group.

What I’m creating…

We just posted the latest episode of our new podcast, So, Where Do We Go From Here?, featuring an interview with Philly hip hop artist, educator, and activist Ellect (Steve Tyson, Jr.).

Check out the music video for the single, “Degrees” and his album, Intellectual Property.

No. 38 • 2021-07-09

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3…2…1… Launching Podcast!

I’m pleased to announce the official launch of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my new podcast with Melinda Steffy! In this series, we talk to members of Philly’s creative community about what they’ve learned during the pandemic and what changes are informing their efforts moving forward. By sharing experiences and ideas for the future, we hope to highlight pathways and opportunities to find creative solutions for the many challenges we still face, individually and collectively.

In our inaugural episode, we speak to the amazing Dr. Natalie Nixon about the year that’s been and how creativity is critical for where we go from here. Natalie is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, and author of the award winning The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work, and her work has been featured in Forbes and in Fast Company. As president of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC she advises leaders on transformation—by applying wonder and rigor to amplify growth and business value. A hybrid thinker, Natalie consistently applies her background in cultural anthropology and fashion. She began her career in education and as a hat designer. Dr. Nixon was a professor for 16 years and is an early-stage investor at two social impact ventures. She’s valued for her ability to work at the intersection of commercial value and stakeholder equity.

We also posted a bonus episode, our “rehearsal” session with renowned theater director and producer David Bradley. The audio for this episode is a bit uneven (my apologies to David… we were still experimenting and learning the best ways to record the podcast). But it’s another thoughtful conversation about the performing arts during the pandemic and where we go, on stage, from here.

To listen and subscribe to our show, follow the link for your preferred podcast player or visit our podcast home page:

We’re thrilled to share these conversations with our Philly community and beyond, and we hope that others also find them as interesting, informative, and inspiring as we do. Later this month, we’ll be speaking to hip hop artist and educator, Steve Tyson (a.k.a. ELLECT) and Michele Sipics of Accenture Technology Innovation. Look for new episodes every two weeks, and follow us on Twitter or Instagram for updates!

If you have suggestions for potential guests for the show, please drop me a line.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Ten Times Virtual Choirs Stole the Show [Stay At Home Choir] A compilation of fantastic virtual choral  performances. Virtual choirs started well before the pandemic, and I fully agree such projects will continue to be impactful in the future, even after constraints on in-person singing are lifted.
  • Tech As Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium [National Endowment for the Arts] Last issue, I linked to the launch event for this report. Now here’s the full report, along with 10 companion essays from art practitioners. Recommended reading for everyone in the art-technology intersection.
  • Calculus Green [Prof. Robert Ghrist] I’m a big fan of these well-produced and visually stunning video textbooks for U. Penn’s calculus courses.This latest series is for those with some basic calculus who want to go deeper. Speaking from experience, I know these take an insane amount of work to produce!
  • Live from London – Summer 2021 [VOCES8 & Friends] Last summer’s virtual festival was a much-needed infusion of beautiful live vocal music from some of the world’s leading vocal groups. It’s back this summer with even more concerts and ensembles! (Streaming through August, via season pass or purchase individual performances.)
  • Minecraft Theme, a cappella [Maytree] The Korean singing group, known for lending voice to technology, drops another popular video game soundtrack. This one is particularly timely for me (see below).

What I’m creating…

We’ve already completed three weeks of our Young Dragons Summer STEAM camp. Here are some highlight videos from the first two weeks:

What I’m creating… (bonus)

The Apple Distinguished Educators (ADE) 2021 Festival of Learning is next week! This free weeklong virtual conference is hosted by teachers, for teachers.

Many sessions are open to all, including Beyond Virtual Ensembles, my workshop with fellow ADE Ellen Fishman on Wednesday, July 14 at 10am (Eastern):

Over the past year, music educators pursued projects using virtual ensembles to continue instruction and performance. These projects combine individual recorded performances into a group video performance. Though we are all excited to return to in-person music making, we believe there are many lasting benefits to virtual music ensembles, including more individualized instruction and feedback, collaboration with other schools and organizations, and the potential for very large scale works. Virtual projects introduce new opportunities for creativity, beyond live performance, introducing new media skills that may benefit students in their pursuits beyond music.

The process of producing virtual performances, however, remains challenging. We will share our experiences and offer a tutorial of best practices developed over the past year to get your virtual projects to the finish line.

No prior music experience is required. To join us for the session, click here to register. Hope to see you then!

No. 37 • 2021-06-28

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No More Tests

It looks like most schools and colleges will be returning to fully in-person classrooms this Fall. 15 months of remote learning has been, more often than not, frustrating and exhausting, but also illuminating. The key question is will we take any practical learnings from those experiences back into the classroom with us, or will we simply revert to former pre-pandemic norms?  I will try to tackle some of those questions over a series of posts this summer.

Since April 2020, I’ve taught 4 classes remotely, and I’m pleased to report I offered exactly zero tests and quizzes. How do I know if my students learned anything? Rather than 1 or 2 high stakes exams per term, almost all my assignments were projects, large and small. Full disclosure: In recent years, I haven’t typically given many exams and quizzes (though still a few), so I was pre-disposed towards this approach.

It’s not because I’m worried about cheating… In fact, I believe concerns over cheating have been overblown. Organizations’ use of “nanny” software to prevent cheating has done a terrible disservice to learning (e.g., Dartmouth Medical School’s “scandal” where they’ve had to fully retract and apologize for accusations of cheating). Not only do they convey to students a disturbing lack of trust, such systems betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the technology (and promote unrealistic expectations of what’s possible). Furthermore, it’s a classic case of forcing a square peg into a round hole: the online medium (the very nature of which is about open access to information and resources) is simply not well-suited to the traditional “closed book” exam.

Whether in-person or online, exams unfairly advantage some students. Many (through friends, siblings, social groups, etc.) have access to “exam books”, collections of previous tests & problems from the course and professors, while other students (particularly first-gen college students) are unaware these exist. Clearly, those with access to prior examples have a fundamental advantage over those without. It’s impossible to control what’s out there and quite difficult (and time consuming) to come up with entirely new exam questions for the same course material. Thus, exams may not be an assessment of a student’s ability to apply the knowledge they’ve learned, but rather their exposure to similar questions.

I believe asking students to apply and demonstrate their learning through projects offers a better assessment of their understanding of course concepts. There’s no singular “right’ answer, so it’s never a question of rote memorization or “cookie cutter” work. In a well-crafted project assignment, students can demonstrate competency, but also create and express their work in their own ways, emphasizing their own perspectives and interests. Good projects remain relevant year after year, so they don’t need to be changed as often as exam questions. And reviewing prior examples is not detrimental or “cheating”, but actually helpful. Current students can learn from and be inspired by previous years’ projects, and they still have to do the work to create their own successful project.

In my Applied Digital Signal Processing class (for undergraduate seniors), for several years we’ve had a final project to implement an audio compression system (like mp3). This also worked well for this year’s online class. Each time, I give out “prizes” to the best performing systems, following established performance criteria (amount of compression, sound quality, compute time, etc.). Our big change this year was to recast the other assessments (a midterm exam and problem sets) into a series of weekly “labs” (mini-projects) that built more coherently towards the final project. Going online freed us from the prior materials, to reimagine an entirely project-based course. The final project results were similar to previous years and student feedback was (very) positive. I intend to use this framework for future versions of the class, whether online or in person.

First-Year Engineering Design (my Spring 2021 class) focuses on student-proposed design projects, supported by other deliverables (research, design schematics, parts lists, reports, presentations, etc.). This year, rather than final project presentations, which would have been tedious over Zoom, each group created a “Kickstarter”-style video, highlighting the objective, design, and function of their projects. We first had them make a short “project teaser” video midway through the term, to develop experience and obtain feedback. These videos opened the door to all kinds of creativity (both in terms of the projects and their films), but also kept the presentations focused. Our final meeting was a “film festival”, where the entire class watched and judged all of the group videos, with prizes for those receiving the highest ratings. I believe the video presentation format worked really well, and is another aspect I’ll incorporate in future versions of the class, whether in-person or online.

I think one of the greatest challenges in education is understanding how to apply concepts learned in one class more broadly, and I believe well-designed project assignments are one way we can better train our students for the future. In the workforce, how often do you take an exam? Now, how often do you create or participate in a project (a report, a presentation, a design, a program, etc.)? There is a long history to project-based learning, but my online teaching experiences have inspired me to completely eliminate exams and quizzes from my future courses. I understand this may not be the best fit for all classes, but I also believe there are many more classes than not where a project or collection of synthesis activities would be more effective for learning, leading to greater retention, application, and creativity. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Tech As Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium [National Endowment for the Arts] A virtual event to discuss a new NEA report about the creative ecosystem existing at the intersection of arts and technology, with presentations from prominent arts funders and artist-technologist pairs (tomorrow, Tue 6/29, free registration).
  • Songbird [Stay At Home Choir] The latest from the massive online choir, covering the Fleetwood Mac classic. This one includes over 1400 singers in collaboration with The King’s Singers.
  • Zoom Love Story [Stanford Fleet Street Singers] New video (and Taylor Swift tribute) from my former group. Romance still blooms in college classrooms (or not)… even on Zoom 😉 
  • Piano Piece Based on the Fibonacci Sequence [Peter Bence] A composition (and virtuoso performance) inspired by the mathematical sequence where each entry is the sum of the previous 2 numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.), by YouTube superstar pianist, Peter Bence.

What I’m creating…

My new podcast with Melinda Steffy will be launching next week! Here are some members of Philly’s creative community, we’ll be interviewing:

  • Natalie Nixon, author & creativity strategist
  • ELLECT (Steve Tyson), artist & hip-hop educator
  • David Bradley, theater director & producer
  • And more!

Check the podcast page next week for info to subscribe!

No. 36 • 2021-06-11

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So, where do we go from here? (A new podcast!)

Last newsletter, I teased some big news for this summer…

It goes without saying that the past 15 months have been… unprecedented. We’ve all had to adapt to a new and evolving set of constraints, and many have had to endure and persevere through significant changes to their work, social lives, and creative experiences. But we have also developed new skills and discovered new ways of doing things; things we previously didn’t think possible. As we begin to return to more traditional, in-person activities, how can we take what we’ve learned during the pandemic and create, collaborate, and just do things better?

To explore this topic, I’m teaming up with Melinda Steffy, Founder & Principal of Concentric Strategy, which brings creative problem solving to organizational strategy & communications. She previously served as Executive Director of music education nonprofit LiveConnections, which she guided for 8 years from start-up through its merger with music venue World Cafe Live. Melinda’s 18-year career in the nonprofit sector has been deeply shaped by her perspective as a visual artist and musician.

Together, we’re launching a new conversation series So, where do we go from here? As co-hosts, we’ll talk to members of Philadelphia’s creative community (broadly defined) about what they’ve learned and what changes are informing their efforts moving forward. We’ll connect with authors, performers, educators, industry and government leaders, and more. By sharing experiences and ideas for the future, we seek to highlight pathways and opportunities to find creative solutions for the many challenges we still face, individually and collectively.

Our chats will be 45-minute Zoom conversations, open to all for live streaming and Q&A. After each live session, we will post lightly edited recordings as a podcast for those who aren’t able to join live or just want to listen on their own time. We plan to group these conversations into “Series”, the first of which will launch in July.

As a sneak preview, we’re hosting an “open dress rehearsal” on June 17 at 12:15pm for our live conversation with our mutual friend, David Bradley. David brings decades of experience as a producer, theater director, writer, and arts educator to his work. Throughout his career he has specialized in boundary-crossing artistic collaborations which frequently explore civic and community themes. He’s a long-time member of the resident ensemble at People’s Light, where his more than 30 productions as director include The Diary of Anne FrankOf Mice And MenYoung Lady from Rwanda, and The Giver. David is a co-founder of LiveConnections and been a producer on all of LiveConnections’ collaborative albums with Philadelphia schools. He teaches at Arcadia University and is a graduate of Yale University.

We are aiming for fun and informative conversations that we hope will resonate with many of us in Philadelphia as we emerge from pandemic constraints. More amazing guests are lined up for July, which we’ll announce in a few weeks, and we look forward to some great discussions. We invite you to join us in kicking off this new adventure next week!

Register here (free) for our sneak preview conversation (via Zoom) and check out our podcast webpage for more information.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Broadway’s Back [The Tonight Show] I don’t usually like these kinds of musical parody collages, but this one is so earnest and captures the excitement of returning to live theater!
  • First 8 Minutes [In the Heights] In case you didn’t hear, the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony Award-winning musical premiered this week, directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). Here’s the first 8 minutes of the movie!
  • We Got Time [The Crossing] This looks amazing… A new piece by Matana Roberts honoring Breonna Taylor, presented as a linear work, which the audience walks through, safe and social-distanced, at The Woodlands in West Philadelphia. Here’s a more detailed description by Peter Crimmins from WHYY Arts. (June 11-13)
  • AI Song Contest 2021 [Wallifornia MusicTech & Deepmusic.ai] 38 teams from across the world have been collaborating with AI to create new songs. Check out some really interesting creations, and vote for your favorites to determine the winner (vote by July 1).
  • Whole New Worlds [A Cappella Science] Again, I generally dislike song parodies (changing the words to existing songs), but you have to admire the incredible effort put into this virtual a cappella medley, a mashup of astronomy and songs from Aladdin. This is from 2017, but I’m now following this channel!

What I’m creating…

There have been quite a few music announcements recently from AppleAmazon, and Spotify, specifically service enhancements like “Lossless”, “HD” or “HiFi” audio and new “Spatial Audio” content. I posted several Twitter threads commenting on these new features:

No. 35 • 2021-05-28

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#StopAsianHate

May is Asian & Pacific American Heritage month. It feels particularly timely this year given the surge of hate incidents targeting Asians in recent months. I’ve been unsure how to write about it, but I’ve tried to collect my thoughts here.

There are so many ways in which I am incredibly fortunate and privileged. My parents came to the U.S. seeking more education and new opportunities, and they fully achieved those goals with highly successful careers. So, by sheer luck of the birth lottery, I grew up loved, supported, comfortable, and I received a world-class education and so much more. I am so grateful to my parents, as well as earlier generations of Asian immigrants who forged the path in the face of tremendous challenges.

I’m gratified by the recent successes of Asians in the arts and media: film, television, music, journalism, theater, etc., which broadens representation and people’s perceptions of diversity in this country. I want to pay tribute to some early media and arts pioneers from my youth: George Takei, Seiji Ozawa, Connie Chung, and so many others. Obviously, the Asian American identity is not monolithic, encompassing an enormous diversity of cultures and traditions. My ancestry is Korean, and we have a strong identity and a proud heritage. In childhood, I’d often try to emphasize those distinctions (although “I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean, you ignorant a**hole!” was maybe not the best response to racial insults). So, it wasn’t automatic to feel kinship with other Asian communities, but I think more and more members of the AAPI community are feeling it now.

For certain, we’ve all encountered racism. We are very different peoples and individuals, and it is daunting to feel that you are seen as “the same”. It is also exhausting. In my case, I haven’t been the recipient of much directed hatred, but mostly subtle “otherness”. My name received a lot of attention growing up; not all of it negative, but most of it unwanted for a kid growing up in the Midwest who was just trying to fit in. I even tried using my English middle name (Edmund) for a summer after 1st grade (fortunately, it didn’t take). I think even then I knew it wasn’t going to change my how people would initially see me.

There are optimistic signs that historical divisions sewn to isolate minority groups is breaking down, and our shared struggles are uniting groups of color to support each other. Greater acknowledgement and recognition of widespread, structural racism has brought so many together in common advocacy to #StopAsianHate. Any form of targeted racial or ethnic violence or discrimination, whether Anti-Black, Anti-Asian, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Muslim, Anti-Latinx, or any other kind, hurts us all, and we must stand together. #RacismIsAVirus

Unfortunately, education remains an area where minority status continues to divide groups, particularly with regards to “elite” schools and universities. Admissions to highly selective Universities (anti-affirmative action lawsuits against Harvard and other institutions) are one example where people of color have been pitted against one another. The controversies over admissions to New York Ciry’s magnet schools are another. Although Asians are (in some places) well-represented in higher education, particularly in STEM fields, AAPI student enrollment nationwide is equal to our representation in the US population (7%). But I submit that Asian representation in faculty and administration, has been achieved largely by assimilating into the norms, practices, and traditions of fundamentally elitist and exclusionary institutions. In some instances, Asians have become the very obstacles we once faced.

A pernicious undercurrent exists in academia, where some start to believe we have greater knowledge and insight than others on all things. It can lead to a particularly galling form of hypocrisy… far too many see themselves as “intellectual”, “progressive”, “culturally-responsive”, and “accepting”, and yet propagate the practices of exclusion every single day. The hallowed halls of higher education remain some of the most unwelcoming and judgmental spaces, particularly for Black and Brown people.

Academic institutions can be very slow to change, and those who have long been part of the existing system can be unwilling to change. Everyone in higher education, regardless of race or ethnicity, should be pushing for greater diversity and inclusivity. We must acknowledge that some groups face a far less welcoming environment in our classrooms. I believe AAPI faculty members, in particular, must stop siding with higher ed traditionalists regarding “academic standards” and “rigor”, which are simply dog whistles for exclusion.

For make no mistake, Anti-Asian biases still permeate higher education. As a tenured Full Professor and Director of a University Research Institute, I still regularly have meetings or engage in correspondence where people mispronounce or misspell my first name (it’s just one word, no space!). Despite the fact that it’s two very common English syllables, people manage to mangle it all the time (or infuriatingly will just give up on my first name and call me “Kim”). It still irritates me, just like it did when I was 6 years old. After nearly 5 decades of rationalizing or brushing these off as innocent mistakes, I have finally learned to call it what it is: Racism.

Sorry, I’m a week late with this newsletter! Our academic year is still wrapping up (quarter system… ugh), but I’ll be back in 2 weeks with some big news for the summer!

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating…

Our Young Dragons 2021 Summer STEAM camp will be all virtual, in the online world of Minecraft, Pocket Edition. While there are other Minecraft-based programs, nearly all of them require the PC version, an impediment for many families. We have developed brand new, custom activities specifically for the phone, tablet, and console version of Minecraft to enable much broader access.

Young Dragons is a free, 4-week online summer camp for rising 6th-8th graders living or attending school in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone (19104), an area served by Alain Locke Elementary, Morton McMichael School, Martha Washington Elementary, Science Leadership Academy Middle School, and Belmont Charter School. More information here.

No. 34 • 2021-05-07

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My Year of Creating at a Distance

This newsletter debuted almost exactly a year ago today (issue No. 1 was posted May 6, 2020). I started it because, despite the restrictions of the pandemic, I was witnessing incredibly creative work enabled and taking new form via technology. Some of these works inspired me to do everything I could to remain creative and productive, whatever the constraints of social distancing. I think it’s important for each of us to reflect on our efforts over this period, so here’s some of what I’ve created over the past year:

Group a cappella videos

Solo a cappella videos

Participated in several large online choir productions. Here’s my favorite:

Crafted a song in Minecraft

Music jam videos with my research lab

Developed videos and interactive content for 3 online classes

More online talks and workshops than I can remember. Unfortunately, most are not available for streaming, but here are a few:

Co-created a live talk mini-series, Creative Conversations for a Changing World (with Jessica Zweig, Play On Philly)

Developed an iOS app to help people participate in virtual choir projects.  I also released an Android version, but it turned out to require much more time and attention than I can give it, and I won’t be able to maintain it in the future (sorry Android users).

Developed a text-based markup format for music lyrics + chord charts

Web apps on the OpenProcessing platform (written in P5.js)

As we gradually transition back to in-person interactions from a year+ of social distancing, this newsletter will also evolve. I will, of course, continue to highlight and share my thoughts about novel creative work enabled by technology. My posts will remain a mashup of arts, tech, equity, and just plain cool stuff, but I’ll try to highlight efforts that build upon the learnings of the past year. Heading into the summer, I feel a growing sense of optimism, and I look forward to what happens next!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Sogno di Volare [Stay at Home Choir] The latest massive choral collaboration by our friends in London, featuring 3600 singers with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing this stirring anthem by composer Christopher Tin. The organization is also launching a new album project, featuring 5 large scale collaborative performances.
  • Behind the Scenes of the Strings On-Line installation [RITMO – University of Oslo] I linked to this experimental installation of self-playing guitars last summer. Here is a short film about how it was put together.
  • Bridging the Distance: Folk Music, the People’s Music [World Cafe Live Education] Our friends from World Cafe Live have adapted one of their Bridge Sessions for young audiences as a virtual celebration of the diversity, themes and spirit of folk music from a variety of cultures. Featuring teaching artists Elena Moon Park, Joe Tayoun and Ami Yares, the program is aimed at students in grades 2-6.
  • Villanova A Cappella Palooza [Villanova University] Livestream recording of their in-person (outdoors) festival, featuring all 8 student a cappella ensembles. Glad to see they were able to make a live performance work safely. Live music is coming back soon!

What I’m creating…

See above 😀

More seriously, I have several new projects in process right now: music, tech, videos, and even a livestream conversation series. I’m just tied up with the end of the academic year, so I’m looking forward to summer to launch some of these efforts. Of course, I’ll post things here when they’re released!

No. 33 • 2021-04-23

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Above: From the New York Times, number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the US. Note how it is trending downwards in recent weeks.

STEAM and the Vaccination Race

The COVID-19 vaccines are a triumph of science and technology. This is, by far, the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed and deployed on a mass scale. Vaccines are now available to all over 16, and I recently received my second shot. I hope you’re getting yours, too, and I’m looking forward to greater activity in the coming months. It’s also looking like teenagers will be able to get the vaccine this summer, greatly increasing the probability of an in-person return to school in the Fall.

But make no mistake, we are in a race against the virus: we must vaccinate most of the country/world faster than the virus can spread and mutate into more resistant variants. So while there’s cause for optimism, time is critical. This makes the recent decision to pause (and likely, unpause) the Johnson & Johnson vaccine all the more frustrating.

There’s been vigorous debate on whether a full pause was the right approach. My fear is that this decision will reduce public confidence in this vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccines, in general.  We were already starting to plateau in doses administered, as the “early adopters” have received theirs. Approximately 40% of adults have received at least one dose. We’re now at the stage of trying to vaccinate those who are difficult to reach or are more cautious, reluctant, or suspicious of the vaccine. What’s particularly frustrating is that the J&J is the better vaccine at this stage. It requires only a single dose, and it can be stored using normal refrigeration, not super cold storage. It is the best weapon against the virus for hard to reach areas and populations. 

Of course, potentially catastrophic side effects must be taken seriously. And there were 6 reported cases of serious blood clots that may have been related to the J&J vaccine, with one death. Any of those incidents is tragic, and I feel for those affected, but that’s out of 7 million doses administered. That’s an extremely rare occurrence, and many times less than your chance of dying from COVID. But the CDC decided to pause the J&J out of “an abundance of caution”. 

I understand the reasoning behind the pause. Ignoring potential side effects would have been catastrophic, also providing future fuel to vaccine deniers. It’s a difficult and terrible choice and complicated one. But this is where a perspective beyond the expertise of the members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (physicians, scientists, and public health specialists) may have been beneficial. The core question goes beyond the scientific: it is literally how do we weigh the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few? It involves emotion and group psychology, not just the raw data or any one individual’s response.

In STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields, we are trained to avoid emotion. The traditional belief is that emotions hinder logical and unbiased decision making (e.g., Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek). But that ignores the other perspective: emotions are fundamentally human, and to ignore emotion is to deny our humanity (see again, Star Trek). In the case of vaccine side effects, there’s a great deal of complexity to weigh. But what seemed missing from the decision and announcement surrounding the pause was a narrative that could acknowledge the side effects while still maintaining confidence and support for the vaccine.

It’s challenging to distill a complicated decision into an emotional core, and STEM trainees (I’m including medicine here) are not particularly good at developing such narratives. But you know who are?  Artists, writers, and performers. There should have been a storyteller in the room. Or even better, the training of scientists and policymakers involved should not only have been traditional STEM, but STEAM (STEM + Arts), integrating artistic experiences. There are also writers and fluent in science and medicine who could have been brought into the decision making process.

How many books, plays, and movies are tales of “the greater good”? Protecting humanity from the virus is the greater good and that sometimes entails heroic sacrifices. Those who suffered ill-effects from the J&J vaccine are heroes and should be celebrated as such. Taking this narrative approach may have been better for both advising the public of the situation, maintaining confidence in the vaccine, and most critically, staying ahead in the race against the virus.

Unfortunately, according to some polls, the pause has undermined confidence in the J&J vaccine, and may be a significant setback in achieving herd immunity. Of course, we’ll see how this will ultimately impact the vaccination race over the next several months, but this incident strengthens my belief that STEM professionals would benefit from broader STEAM training.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • No Tears Left to Cry [TONEWALL] A divine virtual performance of this Ariana Grande song by “the super-charismatic queer a cappella band” of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
  • Phantom of the Opera Medley [Jared Halley] Another a cappella masterpiece (more than 9 minutes!) by the premier solo a cappella YouTuber. This time, it’s a medley of classic songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit musical.
  • One Day More [Stuart & Heather] More musical theater! I’m one of those people who has fantasized about singing all the parts to this Act One finale of Les Misérables (just ask the staff at ExCITe). These two (fantastic singers) actually did it… really well!
  • Gloria & Et in terra pax [VOCES8 & Academy of Ancient Music ] This joyous Easter performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass, part of the Live From London series, really brightened my day. It truly is “peace on Earth and goodwill to all” expressed in music.
  • The Rite of Spring Toy Orchestra [Chris Ott] I’m sure you’ve always wanted to hear the beginning of the 2nd movement from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed with toys. Perfection… or something.

What I’m creating…

Sorry, I’m working on several projects, but nothing that’s ready for public consumption. Watch this space!

No. 32 • 2021-04-09

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Above: one moment from Drexel a cappella group 8 To The Bar’s video submission to the ICCA 2021 competition. 

The Other March Madness

The world of a cappella (singing ensembles without any instruments) is a showcase for the human voice and group collaboration. It’s a unique musical subculture requiring a wide range of skills: vocal arranging, live performance and stage direction, choreography and dance, humor, imagination, and of course, great singing. The genre has a particularly strong presence in higher education, where there are over 1000 collegiate a cappella singing groups. 

I’ve been fortunate to sing with several groups. In college, I was particularly drawn in by the ability to present rich musical performances, without having to carry instruments or set up any gear. This makes it easy to perform anywhere and to tour, visiting other schools and venues. In fact, much of what I know about music directing, graphic design, marketing, and studio recording comes from my collegiate a cappella experiences.

There’s a well-established annual multi-stage competition called the International Championship of Collegiate A Capella (ICCA), as featured in the book and movie Pitch Perfect. (There are also annual high school and pro competitions, too, all organized by Varsity Vocals.) Participating in the event can be an incredible experience, and the live performances are truly astounding and have some of the most enthusiastic audiences ever.

But the 2021 ICCA competition is different: it’s all virtual, with groups submitting a 4-minute video performance. I’ve linked to a few examples in recent weeks, but wanted to highlight the creativity that I see emerging to take the genre to new places. Remember, this isn’t what singing groups normally do… most have just learned to make videos this year.

While some are in the standard “Zoom squares” format, you’ll also find a variety of remote and socially distant collaboration, video effects, and high quality musical production. Things I could’ve only dreamed of in college are now within reach for ambitious college groups (and even high school ensembles). From the competition rules: “all audio and video recording, mixing, and editing must be done by group members”, so it’s all the creative work of students. Similar to how a cappella entered popular culture through movies and TV, I believe some of these ICCA submissions will redefine the virtual ensemble video. I’m certain some of these methods will be incorporated into popular music videos.

The regional quarterfinals took place a few weeks ago in March, and you can watch all 250 of the competitors videos and see the results of those advancing. The semifinals are tomorrow (April 10), and those will be live streamed via the Varsity Vocals YouTube channel. I look forward to seeing what happens next!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Native Hill [The Crossing] The trailer for a new album by the Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia ensemble in collaboration with composer Gavin Bryars, featuring a beautiful water color animation by artist Will Kim.
  • Singing will be a vital, national therapy for this miserable year [ClassicalFM] An interview with composer Gareth Malone about his new piece Locus Iste, his latest project in collaboration with the Stay At Home Choir.
  • SonoBus sound test [Royal Academy of Music Aarhus/Aalborg] For the super nerdy… here is video of a test session with remote participants using SonoBus (which I’ve heard good things about) for real-time music collaboration. It shows that some degree of synchronization is possible… within limits. 
  • How the Skagit Valley Chorale Learned to Sing Again Amid Covid [NY Times Magazine] A long, media-rich feature on how a chorus linked to an early superspreader event has put together a virtual video concert. Loads of great info and insight!
  • Live From London Spring Highlights [VOCES 8, English Chamber Orchestra] I still really miss live ensemble music! Here are some lovely excerpts from an exceptional concert. You can still purchase this and other performances from the Live from London Spring series, through April 30

What I’m creating…

Heading deep into the Wayback Machine for this one… I had the incredible fortune of competing in the very first ICCA finals at Lincoln Center (in 1996) as a member (and music director) of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. I don’t think there’s any video of our performance, but here’s a track (another ’80s throwback!) from our album, which won several Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards in 1995, including Best Male Collegiate Album.