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. 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. 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. 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.

No. 28 • 2021-02-05

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STEAMshop 2021

Followers of this newsletter know that I frame my work not in terms of STEM, but rather STEAM: Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, and Math. But STEAM is much more than simply exposure to the different disciplines; it’s the potential of better research, learning, creative work, and even products through the integration of disciplines. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a strong advocate for learning about STEM concepts through creative work. This framework forms the core of the ExCITe Center’s activities, and since 2015 we’ve hosted an annual workshop on Presidents’ Day for educators in the region to highlight exemplary transdisciplinary work in education.

Our upcoming 7th Annual STEAM Education Workshop on February 15 (9am-12pm) will be a little different. First off, it will be all-virtual. Second, this year’s event will focus on specific integrations spanning learning science, pedagogical practice, racial equity, and social justice. I am thrilled that the program will feature a keynote by renowned author and researcher, Dr. Bettina Love (University of Georgia), co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, who will address an audience of those in Pre-K-12 as well as higher education:

We Gon’ Be Alright, But That Ain’t Alright: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
Dr. Love’s talk will discuss the struggles and the possibilities of committing ourselves to an abolitionist goal of educational freedom, as opposed to reform, and moving beyond what she calls the educational survival complex. Abolitionist Teaching is built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an educational system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving.

The program also includes brief presentations and a panel discussion with Drexel faculty. Participation is free and ACT 48 credits are available for Pennsylvania teachers. All are welcome to register here (the event is free, although space is limited).

Dr. Love’s talk is brought to you through the generous support of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Center for Black Culture, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Office of Research & Innovation, the Office of University & Community Partnerships, the School of Education, West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning, and the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Caledonia [Stay at Home Choir with VOCES8] I’ve been really looking forward to this latest collaboration between our friends VOCES8 and the many thousand-member Stay at Home Choir! Premieres Feb. 6 at 1:30pm (for the US Eastern Time Zone). 
  • Save the Boys [Opera Philadelphia Channel] Wow, Opera Philadelphia is really nailing this streaming thing…. This is the first of four digital commissions set to debut on the channel in 2021. Newark-born Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey, premieres a new work inspired by an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (premieres Feb. 12).
  • Virtual Choirs & Orchestras [Alternative Classical] A nice summary of virtual singing and instrumental ensemble opportunities. It’s focused on the UK, but when you’re collaborating virtually, national borders have little meaning.
  • Eye of the Tiger [Jared Halley] Another great one-man a cappella performance from this prolific YouTuber. A classic 80s tune associated with Philly’s most famous fictional athlete (it’s from Rocky III).
  • NFL 2020 [Bad Lip Reading] In honor of this weekend’s Super Bowl… there’s always something for everyone in Bad Lip Reading’s videos. They also sometimes make music videos, like this classic.

What I’m creating…

I mentioned the videos I’m creating for my class this term, Applied Digital Signal Processing (DSP), a senior-level undergraduate engineering course. Ultimately these will form a “video textbook” for this class, but those of you really interested in DSP can check out the first 5 episodes here.

No. 26 • 2021-01-06

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A Year of Distanced Creativity

2021 brings hope for many things… vaccines, a functioning federal government(!), and perhaps a return to something close to life without a raging pandemic. But in this first newsletter of the New Year, I take a look back at some of the most noteworthy creative collaborations of 2020 and how the medium of virtual performance evolved incredibly quickly over the course of 9 months.

For any series, it’s important to recap the events of the previous season. So, as I embark on Season 2 of this newsletter, think of this as my recap of things highlighted in Season 1.

Happy New Year!

2020 was also the year drone light shows became widespread. The image above is from a particularly impressive performance created for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay (Scottish celebration of the New Year).

Most Notable (Socially) Distant Creations of 2020

  • March 30: From us, for you: Beethoven Symphony No. 9 [Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra] This was one of the first collaborative performance videos to go viral. The accompanying caption perfectly captures the feeling of the moment: “We’re adjusting to a new reality and we’ll have to find solutions in order to support each other. Creative forces help us, let’s think outside of the box and use innovation to keep our connection and make it work, together. Because if we do it together, we’ll succeed.”
  • March 30: And now, MOZART at a social distance: A Virtual Symphony [Cunningham Piano Online Ensemble] This performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, organized by Cunningham Piano, was the first large-scale (111 performers) virtual music video from Philadelphia I’m aware of, which inspired me to start this newsletter.
  • June 6: I Still Can’t Breathe [Chester Children’s Chorus] This piece originally premiered in 2016 in response to the killing of Eric Garner, written and directed by CCC’s founder and artistic director, John Alston. This revised version for 2020, released in response to the murder of George Floyd with additional video and a new opening message, was also featured on PBS Newshour.
  • Juneteenth (June 19): To Be or Not #ToBeBlack [The Public Theater] Shakespeare’s quintessential monologue, performed by Black actors reflecting on the struggle for racial justice. From the caption: “Listen as Black actors across the nation explore the truth in the painful reality of being Black in America with Shakespearean text. Timeless words that were never intended for us, yet the notion ‘To Be or Not To Be’ carries infinite weight throughout Black American history.”
  • June 27: Helpless [Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton with The Roots & Jimmy Fallon] An exuberant all-acoustic performance of one of the show’s hit songs that pushes beyond the standard Zoom grid that we’ve become accustomed to (with some instruments improvised from household supplies). Of course, this was also part of the lead-up to the release of the filmed stage performance of Hamilton (now available on Disney+). And the Hamilton team continues to release virtual performances of other songs from the show, to encourage electoral participation.
  • July 19: Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently [Eric Whitacre] The composer’s groundbreaking Virtual Choir in 2010 first established the collaborative music video format, which became mainstream in 2020 due to the pandemic. VC6, Sing Gently was written and conceived for this moment of separation and social isolation. Whitacre started writing only in March, collected video submissions over a few weeks in May, and then released the final piece in July with 17,572 singers. Some background and details of its production were covered in a feature segment on CBS This Morning. I celebrate this work as an example of how music and technology can bring (so many) people together, in these disconnected times.
  • August 3-October 31: Live From London [VOCES8 & friends] An online streaming festival of amazing vocal music, with concert premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest vocal ensembles: VOCES8, The Swingles, The Gesualdo Six, Apollo5, and Chanticleer. Although those performances are no longer streamable, the holiday sequel Live From London – Christmas, remains available through January 15, 2021, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, with even more groups like the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6.
  • September 23: Lift Every Voice and Sing [105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir] A stirring virtual performance by conductors and singers representing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities of the song that’s become known as the “Black National Anthem” (written by James Weldon Johnson and Music by Rosamond Johnson, arranged by Roland M. Carter).
  • October 23: Opera Philadelphia Channel premieres. Long before COVID-19, but amidst a challenging arts landscape, Opera Philadelphia demonstrated a willingness to embrace non-traditional, innovative approaches. Digital Festival O was a rapid and timely response to the necessities of the pandemic. In lieu of a live 20-21 season, the company rapidly pivoted to launch a streaming service featuring premieres and reimagined works filmed specifically for this format. The content has been original and phenomenal, with more premieres and performances yet to come in 2021! It’s a bold step to develop new content and audiences for this evolving, digitally-native medium.
  • December 15: Global Ode to Joy [Stay at Home Choir] This list concludes as it began: with Beethoven. This production was part of a global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. It features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. The performance features the Stay at Home Choir, an organization that only came into being in 2020 and has produced stunning performances throughout the year with thousands of participants. It’s a hopeful message for the New Year of what’s possible through creative collaboration.

What I’m creating…

Happy New Year! I recently put together this video with fellow 1980s and 90s alumni of my high school Madrigals group, to celebrate the holidays and the 100 Year anniversary of
University Laboratory High School. I’m so glad that creating at a distance has enabled me to reconnect with old friends and bring us some joy at the start of the year.

No. 25 • 2020-12-16

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Making some space for joy

I’m a sucker for holiday performances. In my years with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I sang too many Boston Pops Holiday concerts to count (imagine forcing that holiday cheer, again and again… for 12 performances in 10 days), and I get the cynicism of the season, especially in this annus horribilis. But ever since moving to Philly I’ve missed participating in holiday concerts, and this year, without the opportunity to gather socially, the loss of in-person performances feels particularly poignant.

Despite our current restrictions, many arts organizations are producing new content for this holiday season and delivering it a variety of novel ways. This issue highlights my picks for viewing and listening (some free and some paid), coming from Philly and from afar, that I’m particularly interested in checking out over this holiday break.

I’ll leave you with the immortal words of Francis Xavier Cross (Bill Murray from the 1998 classic, Scrooged):

“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s… it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we… we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a… miracle. It’s really a sort of a miracle. Because it happens every Christmas Eve…

If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these bastards who says “Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud”, it’s NOT! It can happen every day, you’ve just got to want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it! You’ll want it every day of your life and it can happen to you! I believe in it now! I believe it’s going to happen to me now! I’m ready for it!

Frank Cross

Happy Holidays!

Holiday (Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season [The Philly Pops, pictured above] The organization undertook great efforts to recordthis year’s holiday concert at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington. Music Director David Charles Abell welcomes back Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez (Hamilton reference!) for her third Christmas with the POPS. Performances are streamed daily for free (Dec. 18 – Jan. 1), as a gift from the Philly Pops to all!
  • The Hip Hop Nutcracker, recorded live at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This holiday mash-up is a contemporary dance spectacle set to Tchaikovskyʼs timeless music. A unique and joyful event, this production set in New York City is performed by a supercharged cast of a dozen all-star dancers, a DJ, a violinist, and MC Kurtis Blow (!), who opens the show with a short set ($25, streaming performances every evening at 7pm, Dec. 15 – Jan. 3).
  • Love in the Park [Opera Philadelphia Channel] This 5-episode “musical loveletter to Philly” features 16 members of the Opera Philadelphia chorus, conducted by Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden and accompanied by pianist Grant Loehnig, performing beloved opera arias and choruses alongside musical theater selections. While not explicitly holiday-themed (it was filmed in Dilworth Park in September, hence the scenes with beautiful weather), I think it still fits perfectly with the season. Available now via the Opera Philadelphia Channel (available now: $15 for 7 days of access, or get a season pass to watch all channel content for the year).
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, from the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January, $100-150 to stream concerts through Jan. 15).
  • World Cafe Live – House Concerts [World Cafe Live] This series features 8 streams over 2 weeks (one each night Wedesday-Saturday, beginning Dec. 9 and ending Dec. 19). The lineup is all WCL regulars – artists who have played our stages many times over the years, some of whom would be doing holiday shows at the venue around this time. These are pre-recorded sets from the artists’ home setups (free to watch, but donations which will be split between the artist & WCL)
  • A Christmas Celebration with John Rutter [The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra] World-renowned English composer and conductor John Rutter, celebrated vocal group VOCES8 and a stellar line-up of special guests, and the many thousand voices of the Stay At Home Choir, all join the RPO for this unique online performance (£10, available through Dec. 22).
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] A global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy (including a unique collaboration between our Philadelphia Orchestra and digital artist Refik Anadol). Also features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (free to stream).
  • A Soulful Christmas [Kimmel Center] The annual Soulful Christmas choral concert, featuring hundreds of choir singers from area churches, will be an online program this year with hosted by music director Dr. J. Donald Dumpson and WDAS radio DJ Patty Jackson, with special guest Bishop Norman Hutchins. Honoring the tradition, on Dec. 20 they will share recordings of previous performances as a live broadcast on WDAS(105.3 FM) at noon and via an on-demand stream.
  • The Prom [Netflix] I love an unapologetic song and dance show (this is a movie version of the Broadway hit musical). While it’s not super-deep (nor holiday-themed), the feel-good spirit certainly fits with the season. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, so if you can imagine an episode of that show with Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, and Nicole Kidman, it’s pretty much this.

What I’m creating…

I’ll return to my holiday lights project later… In the meantime, here’s one of my musical projects for the holiday season. I performed this many many times as a member of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers, though usually with a group… not by myself!

Hope it brings you some joy!

No. 24 • 2020-12-02

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Ready Player… Meh

Happy December!  Over the long Thanksgiving weekend I was eager to start (and then managed to slog through) reading Ready Player Two. My one word review:

Meh.

This is Ernest Cline’s sequel to his best seller, Ready Player One. For me, the original was a highly entertaining nostalgia trip, combining callbacks to ’80s pop culture (my formative years) with an all-consuming virtual reality world (called the Oasis). I thoroughly enjoyed that book (let’s not talk about the movie), and like another popular VR media touchstone, The Matrix (one of my all-time favorite movies), it probes the questions: If a virtual simulation becomes indistinguishable from the physical world, is there a difference? What does that mean for us as individuals? As a society? As a planet?

(And yes, there are horrible parallels between our current online world and The Matrix / The Oasis, but that’s a topic for another day.)

While not quite the dumpster fire of The Matrix sequels, Ready Player Two similarly retreats from these somewhat interesting philosophical questions and instead falls back to basically the following: Virtual reality is awesome (and might save the planet!).

We’re still very far from a virtual world indistinguishable from our physical reality. Unfortunately, the popular notion of “VR is awesome” has done a disservice to education, particularly in our current state of mostly remote, online learning. It has reinforced the notion that the best (only?) virtual learning experience is to simulate the physical classroom and the conventions and interactions of that setting (one person speaking to many, forcing eye contact with students, dispensing Socratic questions, etc.). I get why most instructors go there… it’s familiar and what we’re used to. But ultimately, it doesn’t make sense.

We’ve learned that the best way to travel through water is by swimming, not by trying to run through it. If our physical medium changes, we don’t expect to do the same things. Carrying over the conventions of in-person teaching into an online setting is like trying to run in a swimming pool: you can kind of do it, but it’s slower and distorted (and there’s a lot of extraneous flailing about).

But what if instructors learned how to properly “swim” in this online medium? And what does “swimming” look like in the medium of remote learning? We are still in the process of figuring that out, and it takes practice and effort and time (I’ll bet you didn’t learn to swim in one day). But rather than starting with “How can we adapt our existing class / curriculum to be offered online” (running in a swimming pool), I believe we must start with “What are alternative pathways to learning the course material?” and then develop content, tools, and practices that are authentic to this online environment.

(This is primarily directed towards higher education, where I have the greatest experience, and perhaps high school. I believe online learning is much different, and in many cases inappropriate for younger students.)

“Swimming” requires an understanding of the conventions of online interaction: text over voice. Video over lecture. And projects over problem sets. Those who’ve already incorporated project-based learning in their instruction have a head start. Let’s face it, our students have to do much of this on their own, so there’s never been a better time for interest-driven projects.

(And I mean actual project-based learning, where students are given agency to develop their own problem/project and create a solution, not where students are given materials and a set of IKEA-style instructions to construct a pre-determined artifact.)

“Swimming” also requires creativity and a willingness to experiment, which is why I’ve been so fascinated with artistic collaborations since the start of the pandemic. I think there are better examples of such creativity and experimentation happening in the arts, at all levels (so many high schools produced virtual musicals this Fall). But that willingness to try something new (and learn from failure) needs to be present for all subjects.  

Sadly, some are talking about this as a “lost” academic year, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an authentic opportunity for learning and growth, both for instructors and students. While it’s incredibly difficult to get people to see possibilities beyond their own experiences of in-person instruction, that’s exactly what we’re asking of our students; that’s education. In this year of disruption, let’s embrace the fact that we’re on a shared journey. Let’s lean into the distinctions between IRL (“in real life”) and online. If we learn to “swim”, and figure out ways to learn better together online, it won’t be a lost year.

I publish the Creating at a Distance newsletter every two weeks. The next issue will land on December 16.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • WPA 2.0: Envisioning a New Era of Public Arts Funding [Mural Arts & Carpenters’ Hall] A virtual panel discussion on how FDR’s Works Progress Administration could serve as a model for sustained public investment in our nation’s cultural infrastructure, moderated by Jane Golden (Today, 12/2 at 5:30pm). 
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] Originally conceived as performances across six continents, this global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday has gone online, inviting artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. Featuring a performance with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (Thursday, 12/3 at 7:30pm).
  • Teaching music over Zoom is hard, but Drexel app makes it easier for Philly high school students [Philadelphia Inquirer] In-depth article about the virtual choir collaboration between local schools and Grammy Award-winners, The Crossing, using my Virtual Chorister app.
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January).
  • LightsOn [Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance & Philly Culture United] Express your support for the arts by joining this letter writing campaign to Philadelphia City Council advocating for arts and culture to be included in any comprehensive relief package for the city.
  • A Jazzy Holiday Overture [Drexel Jazz Orchestra and ACE-Lab] This virtual concert features Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” in an immersive 3D environment using visual animation by Drexel colleague Nick Jushchyshyn and his students in the Animation, Capture & Effects Lab (Thursday, 12/3 at 7pm).
  • ABBA A Cappella Medley [Jared Halley] Pure ’70s fun. I only recently stumbled upon singer-producer Jared Halley’s many creative works (always 16 tracks of him, a cappella), but I’ll be following now, for sure.

What I’m creating

Messing around with Arduino and 600 individually addressable LEDs for a new home project for the holidays. I’ll be back with an update in two weeks…

ECE-101 Fall 2020 seminar speakers to date

No. 19 • 2020-09-30

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Virtual Concert Halls & Classrooms

What do virtual music & arts collaborations have to do with education?  My experiences as a musical performer have greatly influenced my teaching, but I believe the relationship extends much further than individual training… there are deep similarities in objectives and methods:

  • In the performing arts, we try to craft an experience worthy of an audience’s time and attention.  It’s the same goal for class instructors.
  • Throughout history, artists have integrated new technologies and tools to inform, challenge, and yes, entertain. Again, the same could be said for teaching.
  • In the arts, we must connect with our audiences at some level… to get them to care. This is also crucial for learning.

I contend this alignment has always existed, certainly well before COVID, but now I’ll go even further: our explorations for virtual arts collaborations will not only influence, but inevitably shape the way we teach and learn in the future, both online and in person. 

Working remotely with musicians has brought into focus both the challenges and possibilities of virtual collaboration. While many want to participate in virtual ensembles, a significant number are hesitant due to both technical and artistic challenges. We’ve needed time to build some familiarity with new processes and eventually create new tools (like the Virtual Chorister app) to make participation easier and more accessible.

But through inspiring large-scale projects, like those of the Stay at Home Choir (pictured above), I am convinced that these kinds of collaborations will continue to have an impact, even in a post-COVID world (whenever that comes).

In the virtual classroom, I am teaching a seminar for first-year undergraduates (over 100 students in the class). In person, I would never be able to have each student introduce themselves individually (that would take weeks). Online, I asked my students to fill in a shared spreadsheet with their hometown, nickname, and what they find most inspiring about engineering. It was fascinating to watch responses appear in real-time, with some contributions building upon others. It turns out even Google has its limits, and having 100+ students edit the same document simultaneously was too much, and some students were locked out. Oh well, live and learn… we’ll have to build a better tool for that!

These explorations all start in unfamiliar territory, but offer opportunities to experiment and learn together. To me, the links between arts and education have never been stronger or more clear: Good instructors are artists. They are creators of media. They are developers. And they are the ones who will create the future of learning. Eventually, we will return to stages, auditoriums, and classrooms, but those artists and teachers who have been experimenting all along will have even greater insight into crafting worthy experiences, integrating new technologies, and getting audiences to care. 

Thanks to all who joined the second of our Creative Conversations yesterday! Register here for our the final event of our mini-series on October 13.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Lift Every Voice and Sing [105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir] A stirring performance of Roland Carter’s arrangement by conductors and singers representing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities.
  • PHLConnectEd and the Digital Navigator Program [Technology Learning Collaborative] A webinar about current efforts in Philadelphia to address digital equity issues, part of National Digital Inclusion Week (Oct. 7).
  • Parallax Podcast: The latest episode features urbanist and Drexel colleague, Alan Greenberger, Distinguished Fellow at Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and Dept. Head of Architecture and Interior Design.
  • Air on a G String [The Swingles] Ward Swingle’s classic arrangement of J.S. Bach’s well-known work. Catch their full performance at the Live from London online festival of vocal music (available for streaming through Oct. 31)!

What I’m creating

My Virtual Chorister app is almost at 7000 downloads!

The most frequent by far, has been for an Android version. Today, I’m announcing that I am officially working on it…  I hope to have more news in the next few weeks!