No. 43 • 2021-09-27

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B.PHL Festival 2021

The B.PHL Innovation Festival is back this week (Sept. 29 – Oct. 1)!  This third year of B.PHL is a hybrid event: the full program will be streamed online, but most sessions will be presented before a limited, in-person audience (proof of vaccination required). The program celebrates innovation in all its forms (technology, arts & entertainment, education, social justice, healthcare, and more), and this year features such well-known speakers as CNN’s Don Lemon, Grammy Award-winning artist Eve, and 76ers President Daryl Morey. Registration is free for both virtual and in-person attendance!

I am very excited to host a conversation with renowned tech blogger, podcaster, and Drexel alumnus, John Gruber. He is the creator of the highly influential blog, Daring Fireball, read by millions each month. He is also host of the podcast, The Talk Show and co-host of Dithering (with Ben Thompson). And he’s also the inventor of the ubiquitous Markdownlanguage, used by platforms like Slack, GitHub, and Discord for formatting. This “fireside chat” will cover his career trajectory in Philadelphia, including reflections on the city as a hub for technologists and independent creators. We will discuss his views on the “1000 true fans” approach to building a business and his advice on curating one’s own content and developing an audience. It’s sure to be a fascinating conversation for anyone interested in the future of tech, design, and innovation! Our session is Thursday, September 30, 2:15-3:00pm and (free) pre-registration is required (more on that below).

Some other B.PHL sessions also feature Drexel presenters:

  • Hi! We’re Your Creative and Entrepreneurial Mindsets. Let Us Help Inspire Your Innovation (Sept. 29, 2:15pm): My colleagues Liza Herzog, Dr. Barrie Litzky, and Charles Sacco (Close School of Entrepreneurship) and Dr. Larry Keiser (School of Education) will lead a discussion about the power of creativity in entrepreneurship and help participants identify their own creative and entrepreneurial strengths.
  • Transforming Organizational Culture Through Inclusive Communications Strategies (Oct. 1, 11:30am): Faith Kellermeyer, assistant director of Digital Strategy and Design at Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics, will co-host a workshop about how organizations can use social media to respond to social change and support antiracist causes.

The festival is packed with great speakers and sessions, so take a look at the full program at BPHLFest.com. To attend sessions, either virtually or in-person, you must sign up on the website for a B.PHL ticket (it’s free!). Important note: To participate in-person at Location215 (990 Spring Garden), you must also pre-register for each session you wish to attend to save your seat (occupancy is highly limited to allow for social distancing). And remember that proof of vaccination will be required at check-in.

Hope to see you there!

New term, new schedule! For Fall 2021, I’m going to try to publish the newsletter on alternating Mondays (there will be some adjustments for holidays).

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Dear Evan Hansen Medley [Jared Halley, feat. Peter Hollens] Great arrangements and performances of my favorite tunes from the hit Broadway show (and movie, which just premiered).
  • La voix humaine [Opera Philadelphia Channel] A new film of one of opera’s most powerful monodramas, starring acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette. Described by composer Poulenc as “a musical confession,” it’s the story of one woman as she grapples with grief, denial, and anger in the face of unrequited love, all shared through a one-sided telephone call.
  • Re-Opening Party w/ SnackTime & Deborah Bond [World Cafe Live] Yes, live music performance venues are re-opening! (Proof of vaccination required.) Really glad to see this event and upcoming acts on the calendar at our neighbors in University City!
  • Goldeneye [VOCES8 ] In honor of the new Bond film coming out in less than 2 weeks, here’s the theme from one of my favorites in the series. Our friends VOCES8 will also be touring North America in October (see here for dates and locations).

What I’m creating…

I wrote about the Minecraft Drexel Build last week. I am hosting a virtual information session and building tutorial for the project later today (Mon 9/27) at 5pm (on Zoom). All those interested can register here. (The session will be recorded for those who can’t make it.)

No. 42 • 2021-09-14

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Virtual Community Creation

Last week, I wrote about tools and methods learned from a year+ of remote/virtual instruction that I’ll be bringing back into the IRL (“in real life”) classroom. What about the future of online instruction?  Given the uncertainties of the past few weeks, we can all imagine a situation where we’re forced back online and a long-term future where more and more instruction is delivered exclusively online.

As I’ve written previously… Good online instruction is authentic to the medium, leveraging the benefits and limiting the constraints of tools and platforms. Good online platforms enable active participation, group interaction, and community building. For an example of all of these, I say look no further than Minecraft, a platform built around a culture of shared experiences and creativity. We used Minecraft for our middle school Summer STEAM virtual camp, and we designed new activities and worlds specifically within the norms and values of Minecraft. Click here to watch a summary of our camp activities.

As we start the new academic year, we’re kicking off a new ExCITe Center project to expand the Minecraft build of the Drexel campus. This project started with some amazing work in the early days of the pandemic by a handful of Drexel students to digitally re-create much of our University. Most campus buildings have been built, as well as some nearby buildings critical to Drexel students (e.g., Wawa and 7-11 😀).  The students who started the project have since graduated, but we hope to continue their efforts in keeping the Drexel Minecraft server a dynamic, evolving, and accurate virtual representation of the area. For example, only a few building interiors have been created; most remain exterior shells. Drexel Minecraft has already been used for virtual campus tours and events, and it will continue to serve as a showcase for the creativity and imagination of our students.

Most college campus builds have stopped at the borders of their campus. In keeping with our mission to be the most civically engaged University in the nation, we’ll also be connecting Drexel students with our neighbors and community partners to extend the build beyond campus boundaries. Our Summer STEAM program was just a first step in virtual building with neighborhood K-12 students. Later this year, we’ll be partnering with Science Leadership Academy-Middle School to re-create their brand new school building on 36th and Warren Streets as part of our Minecraft campus. We hope to build more sites in Powelton Village, extending to the Dornsife Center, the West Philadelphia Community Center, and beyond.

This effort will help Drexel students learn about the surrounding neighborhoods and establish meaningful relationships with community members. We hope our students will mentor younger students in the building process, working with them to add the structures and landmarks most important to them. I firmly believe engaging in a shared creative process will bring more people together to better understand both the common challenges and the unique opportunities present in West Philly. I can’t begin to predict the new kinds of projects that may emerge from these collaborations, both virtual and, hopefully, IRL as well.

If you’re already a “crafter”, you can join our server in Minecraft (spectator mode) here: mc.excitecenter.org:19132.  If you don’t have Minecraft visit this website, which offers a 3D preview of the world. We will follow-up in the coming weeks with a virtual building tutorial for those who want to participate in the building process. If you’re interested in following this exciting project, please sign up for updates here.

This is Welcome Week for new students, and we invite all new Drexel community members to join us (IRL) at the ExCITe Center this Thursday, Sept. 16 at 1pm to learn more about Drexel Minecraft.

Registration required: sign up via Drexel One or register here.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Kyrie [VOCES8] Start your day with this beautifully serene movement from Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat. I’m simply astounded by the volume of amazing music performances VOCES8 has released throughout the pandemic.
  • Landfill Monitor Restoration [The 8-Bit Guy] I’ve become addicted to this YouTube channel, which is like This Old House, but for technology. I love it. (Yes, I’m weird).
  • The Legend of Zelda [MayTree] Known for lending voice to technology, this Korean a cappella group is back with music and sound effects from another classic video game. Nintendo players, rejoice!
  • Bitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How is That Possible? [NY Times] A few months ago, I wrote about the enormous energy consumption of NFTs. Here’s more data and details about the massive energy consumption of cryptocurrencies (from which NFTs are derived).
  • How Deep Is Your Love? [Kings Return] The 4 guys in a stairwell are back, with an amazing 4-part arrangement and performance of this Bee Gees classic.

What I’m creating…

I have several projects that are in process:

  • I just posted another Applied DSP video. If you’re teaching / learning signal processing, you may want to check out the series.
  • Our podcast, So Where Do We Go From Here?, will return with new episodes later this Fall! In the meantime, listen to our 4 summer interviews with Philly creatives.
  • My lab is working on a new video series on Minecraft, Music, & Coding. The first episode will drop in a few weeks.

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. 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.

No. 29 • 2021-02-19

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Virtual Music Education

Like everyone who participate in music ensembles regularly, I miss it terribly. There really is something magical about getting people together to make music. While some instrumental groups have managed to safely assemble in person, singing remains one of the most dangerous ways of spreading COVID (I don’t know of any groups that are singing together in person, only virtually).

Many experienced musicians are finding ways to cope and adapt, but for those still in the early stages of learning an instrument, singing, or playing in ensemble, the pandemic disruption could severely inhibit musical development. Given the challenges in reopening public schools, it’s not surprising that music lessons, orchestras, and choruses have been put on hold in many places. Others have shifted to virtual lessons, and while it’s not quite the same as being together, the back and forth interaction of lessons is a better fit for Zoom (it’s actually possible, as opposed to singing/playing together as a group, which is not). The most innovative educators are developing new forms of collaboration and performance, using technology to connect ensembles across schools and organizations.

The a cappella group I sing with, The Tonics, thought we might use the current limitations of our ensemble singing to raise awareness of the challenges in music education. Since we can’t sing together in person this season, we’re creating a series of virtual videos as fundraisers for local organizations. With the release of our latest video this month, we’re calling upon others to support the fantastic team at Play On Philly (POP), who provide musical instruction to K-12 students in our city. Throughout the pandemic, POP students have continued to participate in virtual instrument lessons and ensemble practice completely tuition-free. We hope you’ll join us in supporting this amazing organization!

And here’s to all music educators, especially those who are still providing lessons and rehearsals, safely, through the pandemic. Thank you for all you’re doing!

My publishing schedule has shifted to every other Friday. The next issue of Creating at a Distance will be posted in two weeks on March 5th.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Original iPhone Ringtones – A Cappella [MayTree] This may be the most a cappella-tech throwback mashup ever… Korean vocal group MayTree recreating the original iPhone ringtones. Also check out their renditions of Windows XP sounds and many other songs.
  • Trepak (Russian Dance) from The Nutcracker [Pennsylvania Ballet] This is a few weeks old, but here’s a lovely virtual holiday greeting from the PA Ballet dancers and orchestra (hard to imagine doing this with all the snow on the ground right now)!
  • Playing Music Together Online Is Not As Simple As It Seems [NPR’s Jazz Night in America] This video is from last summer, but it’s a nice explainer on the difficulties of live (real-time) music collaboration on the internet, with some jazz musicians who are making it work (within some constraints).
  • Creative Conversations for a Changing World, No. 1 [B.PHL Innovation Festival On-Demand] Last Fall, Jessica Zweig (Program Director at Play On Philly) and I co-hosted a 3-part series of discussions with innovators in the arts and non-profit sectors. The first of those events with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation) is now available for streaming.
  • Live From London Spring [VOCES8 & friends] The next installment of VOCES8’s online streaming festival of amazing vocal and chamber music has started, with premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest ensembles (February 13 – April 22).

What I’m creating…

Made this for my wife on Valentine’s Day, and she granted permission to share it with everyone. One of my favorite ’80s early synth pop tunes that’s also become an a cappella classic. None of the groups I’ve sung with had this in the repertoire, so here’s my arrangement performed at my desk… with a few extra twists!

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.