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. 10 • 2020-07-08

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Art, Education, Tech, and Equity

Mid-Summer is normally a time for performances, festivals, and new works spanning all art forms and genres. But right now there’s no clear path in sight for the return of live audiences, especially with COVID-19 cases rising across the country. Conversely, with the start of Fall terms now just 1-2 months off, most in education are consumed with plans for reopening our schools, colleges, and universities for possible in-person instruction, thoughseveral prominent Universities have announced highly scaled back versions of an on-campus experience.

Both the performing arts and education have turned to technology as a partial solution (online classes and streaming performances). At the start of the crisis, most of us accepted the tradeoffs of moving (too) quickly online for classes this past spring. We could be forgiven for making it up as we were going along, because well… we were. When performance venues shut down, any new bit of content or diversion was received by audiences as a gift. And with ticket income essentially going to zero, any opportunity for engagement (and maybe even a tiny bit of revenue) was welcomed by arts organizations.

Technology can be used in amazing ways, enabling us to do and create things that weren’t previously possible. But the use of tech can also further divide us into haves and have nots. Much has been written about the Digital Divide, the inequitable access to high speed internet that hinders education, employment, and economic opportunity. I believe that internet access should be a right and a public utility, but also that the growing divide is about much more than access.

While we rely more and more on technology, it is also clear that the tech industry has an equity problem. The most profitable companies in the world are also some of the least diverse. We all use products and services from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, while their employees are overwhelmingly white and Asian males. It’s not that I believe there’s ill intent, but when there’s a lack of diversity among the voices involved in the creation of new tech, the outcomes also serve a less diverse audience (and are sometimes downright scary). Racially biased facial recognition systems have led to false arrests. Amazon inadvertently built an AI for human resources biased against women

So, I don’t think about the Digital Divide in terms of devices and connections, but rather the pathway to generate knowledge, creativity, and opportunity. While smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, the software applications (and expertise) to assemble creative collaborations (the kind that I try to highlight in this newsletter) aren’t widespread. I fear that COVID-19 isolation is further increasing the digital access divide into a learning and cultural divide: those with essentially unlimited bandwidth, equipment, and training to participate in creative making and learning vs. those without.

For more information and resources, I spoke about this topic in my
TEDxPhiladelphia 2019 talk, Getting Woke to the Digital Divide.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • What to My People is the Fourth of July [Daveed Diggs] A powerful video monologue inspired by Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”.
  • 8 Minutes 46 Seconds [Richard Young and friends, including Joseph Conyers of the Philadelphia Orchestra ] A moving collaborative performance by musicians from around the world of the “Albinoni Adagio” (by Remo Giazzoto), in tribute to George Floyd, lasting exactly 8:46.
  • With a Little Help From My Friends [The Muppets & James Corden] Heartwarming socially-distanced performance of the Beatles’ classic tune by our favorite characters.
  • Pipelinefunk [Armin Küpper, via YouTube] An amazing solo saxophone jam using a huge pipeline as a creative partner.
  • WAFM [Greg Chun] Original a cappella song and public service announcement that perfectly captures the current moment, by actor and composer (and Fleet Street alum) Greg Chun.

What I’m creating

Your (semi) weekly Hamilton reference… No way to convey the beginning and ending rhythms of this song with piano (at least not with my meager keyboard skills). So I combined last week’s intro and outro using Minecraft music blocks with piano and vocals. Sorry to make you Wait For It.

No. 9 • 2020-07-01

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Hamilton! (what else?)

If you’ve been following this newsletter for any length of time, you know that I’m a fan of Hamilton. This is a big week for all fans, with the filmed performance of the Original Broadway Cast premiering on the Disney+ streaming service this Friday. Just you wait… just you wait!

Why has this show been able to transcend musical theater, attaining cultural prominence even beyond past Broadway megahits (Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, etc.)? Maybe it’s the mashup of styles (hip hop, Brit pop, classic theater torch songs)? Or perhaps the unique reframing of the American Revolution as it relates to our current struggles of immigration, racism, bigotry, and equality? The inspired casting of people of color in the leading roles of our country’s founding fathers and mothers? Or just the story of the ultimate innovation-powered startup: the United States of America? Of course, it’s all of these elements and more.

An additional component relatively new to the arts world is the creative team’s avid use of Twitter (in particular, composer, librettist, and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda) to engage with the show’s ever-growing legion of fans. Not only does this open a window into the creative process and humanize the creators, it’s another avenue to connect the show to the current world and raise awareness and advocate on behalf of issues. It’s hard to imagine Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber engaging with the public in such a manner, to explain a lyric or the research behind an historical moment!

Another unique innovation is the Hamilton Education Program(EduHam), an opportunity for students from Title I high schools to see the show (for just $10, “a Hamilton”) andcreate their own raps and performances that they share onstage (!) before they watch the musical. It’s an incredible way of broadening students’ exploration and understanding of American history and its relevance to our very modern challenges. With performances on hold for the COVID-19 outbreak, they recently launched EduHam at Home, a virtual version of the program.

The original plan was to release the film in theaters in 2021, but since live productions aren’t currently running, they made a bold (I think) decision to release the film early on the new Disney+ streaming platform. Cynics will say it’s just a way to make money during the shutdown, but it would have been much easier to wait and release the film in movie theaters to maximize profits (the traditional route of theater > pay per view > streaming). I credit Disney for trying something different to meet this moment.

On top of all this, the original cast just put out a new socially-distanced collaboration with The Roots, playing household instruments. It’s not only a fantastic performance of the show’s hit song “Helpless”, but pushes beyond the standard Zoom grid-style performances that we’ve become accustomed to. Even in isolation, Hamilton continues to innovate.

This is what we should aspire to: a synthesis of creativity, technology, inclusivity, virtuosity, emotion, and profound storytelling that integrates authentic learning. And despite this darkest of years, it helps me remain hopeful and excited for this Independence Day.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Thoughts on Racial Injustice Part III [via LinkedIn Live] A lunch conversation (today at 12pm!) with renowned designers John Maeda and Raja Schaar (Drexel Product Design Program Director and IDSA board member).
  • CO VID-88 [Ted Arthur and friends, via Facebook] A beautiful collaborative composition with 20 pianists, with each composing a short segment to add to the end of the video.
  • Lawrence Brownlee discusses race and opera [ABC News] The renowned operatic tenor (and artistic advisor to Opera Philadelphia) highlights the lack of diversity among artistic administrators. Also don’t miss The Sitdown with LB, his show on Facebook Live.
  • Code Blue [Wilma Theater] A new 13-minute digital work shot with the actors’ iPhones. According to director Blanka Ziska, the Wilma’s Artistic Director, the piece is “looking at our current moment of crisis that has been exacerbated by two kinds of viruses: COVID-19 and racism.”
  • C-U Sings Vol. 1: Let It Be [via YouTube] More than 50 musicians in my hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois came together to produce this collaborative version of this Beatles’ classic as a fundraiser for local healthcare services.
  • MKBHD interviews Apple’s Craig Federighi [via YouTube] Preeminent YouTube tech reviewer Marques Brownlee remotely interviews Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering about the company’s recent announcements at this year’s (virtual) Worldwide Developers Conference.

What I’m creating

Wait For It… here’s a work (very much) in progress that I’ll post without further comment.

No. 2 • 2020-05-13

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Rebuilding together in Minecraft

With schools, colleges, and universities closed around the world, enterprising students are re-creating their physical institutions and campuses in the virtual environment of Minecraft with astonishing detail.

For those unfamiliar with Minecraft, it is much more than a game… you can build entire worlds with a variety of materials (brick, stone, wood, etc.). The low-resolution “blockiness” is intentional, designed for rapid building and flexibility. Construction is performed meticulously block-by-block, with little or no automation (hence the “craft”). As you can see in the linked video, some are extraordinarily creative in their use of materials to evoke structures in the real world.

Locally, students at U. Penn started PennCraft, which quickly became the most detailed and extensive build of any campus. They also invited Drexel students, who have built a large percentage of our adjacent campus in Minecraft. Those familiar with Drexel will recognize some of the iconic structures on our campus, including the Dragon statue and even the Wawa!

One of the most noteworthy aspects is that these collaborations formed virtually. The students only know others by username in Minecraft and Discord (a chat platform)… they don’t know each other’s real names (which made it interesting for me in reaching out to them). It’s a highly detailed recreation built and organized entirely online by individuals who don’t know one another in the “real” world. Very interesting implications for our current time of isolation and perhaps our long-term future.

My son (12) made the Drexel flyover video.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • BlockByBlockwest [more Minecraft… :-] A music festival & fundraiser in Minecraft, organized by local band Courier Club. Their first attempt was overloaded by demand within 30 minutes and rescheduled for Sat. May 16 at 3pm.
  • Philadelphia Heroes and New Normal Forum [virtual conference, May 13-14] A forum to share stories, forge connections, and envision the post-crisis reality for our city. I’m particularly interested in the sessions on creative placemaking and equity.
  • #MemorialForUsAll [Jazz at Lincoln Center] A moving New Orleans style tribute, honoring those we’ve lost, led by Wynton Marsalis.
  • Into the House [musical parody… for Broadway nerds like me] I was the Baker in a production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods in 1998. The Narrator & Baker’s Wife from that show, my friends Jake & Cara Yara, created this brilliant reflection on COVID isolation with their enormously talented family. Miss you guys!

What I’m creating

For my spring class, Intro to Entertainment Engineering, I assigned a project to create a photomosaic, a photo composed of a mosaic of photos. I’ve published a demonstration and tutorial with my code online for all to try (no coding experience required). With a little effort, you upload photos and create your own photomosaic.

Try the demo