(Yes, that is a boring title.)

I’ve been Tweetstorming quite a lot lately, and someone said, “Don’t you have a blog?” This reminded me that, yes, I do have a blog and should probably start using it more. (There was a time when I wrote a blog post every day.)

Some background:

I love this gig. It’s a great gig with great colleagues, great students, and administrators who more often than not get it. But it is not without challenges. First and foremost is geography. We are 90 – 100 miles from anyplace with more than, say, 25,000 people, and three hours from the Twin Cities. In many fields, that wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference, but since music is so specialized (you wouldn’t want me teaching, say, flute), the six full-time faculty cannot hope to cover all the possible areas of instruction. We rely more on adjuncts than I would like, but we do provide mileage for those coming from more than 10 miles away, and we do also put people up in hotels as necessary.

The problem with this is that it is unsustainable. Not financially, necessarily (though it may be that), but just in terms of building a traditional music program. I wouldn’t want to drive three hours each way every week for no more than four students, but we cannot in good conscience give a student less than the best possible instruction. We have tried some online lessons (through a partnership with MacPhail Center for Music) and that has worked to some extent, but to do that well we would need a large increase in our capital budget to update some rooms with a full spectrum of equipment for those purposes (cameras, microphones, necessary connections). This will be an ongoing challenge.

The other issue we face is somewhat tied to the first issue. Our curriculum is pretty much the Standard Undergraduate Music Curriculum (four semesters of theory, two semesters of history, lessons, a jury, a senior project, and some electives). It is designed to prepare students for graduate study, a teaching career, or a performance career.

But most of our students don’t do that.

We’re a liberal arts college on the prairie. Even though we have a high percentage of first-generation students, who are usually geared more toward music education as a career, most of our students don’t take that path. We have a couple of students who are carving out performance careers, but they are the exception. Same for graduate school. Our students usually end up working outside of music, using the ancillary skills they develop in the program and continuing in music on an amateur or semi-professional basis while paying the bills in some other way. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are days I’d do that. But it doesn’t make sense for our curriculum to reflect an approach that is simply not in line with what our graduates do. Thus, we are making some changes to the curriculum.

They haven’t all been ironed out yet, but when they are, I shall post them for your feedback. Like David Letterman in his Late Night years, the stuff may or may not work, but we’re going to try it anyway. If it doesn’t work, well, it wouldn’t be too difficult to return to the traditional model. But if it does work, we could change the face of music education in a liberal arts context.

Of course, this new curriculum would not likely earn the imprimatur of NASM, but we’re not accredited by them anyway, and many of the top music programs are pulling out. I have nothing against NASM; I worked with them at the last gig, and I think they do what they do very well and they should continue to do it. I just don’t necessarily agree that what they do overlaps much with what we do.

More bulletins as events warrant.


Trying something different. What do you think of this as an assessment plan for a semester-long Theory II class?

I am changing assessment policies from the previous semester. This semester will be divided into four units, and each unit will have a list of ten (10) skills/concepts. These lists will be posted on Moodle. Your grade for each unit will be as follows:
Show mastery of nine (9) or ten (10) concepts A
Show mastery of eight (8) concepts B
Show mastery of seven (7) concepts C
Show mastery of six (6) concepts D
Show mastery of five (5) or fewer concepts F

Each unit will be capped with a written quiz (50 pts) and an aural skills quiz (50 pts).

Homework assignments will be corrected and recorded, but not graded in the traditional sense, and you will still be required to turn in at least 70% of the assignments to get a passing grade.

There will not be a midterm examination, and the final examination will be an oral final. I will give you one or two pieces of music to analyze the Wednesday before final exam week, and you will schedule a 15-minute block of time during final exam week to discuss your analysis with me one-on-one.


I was in Burlington, VT at the Institute on General Education and Assessment sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities last week. Believe it or not, there were some fascinating talks and discussions. I am rethinking how to assess my classes and the music program, as well as some changes in my pedagogy. Yes, there was lots of jargon (my only complaint, actually), but it was an eye-opening experience (especially as I will be serving on the campus’s Assessment of Student Learning Committee next year).

Also, I had the chance to break bread with the legendary NTodd Pritsky, so there’s that. He’s a mensch among men.


Continuing with the theme launched in Tuba-Euphonium Tuesday this week, I decided to make a list of ten books every theorist should read at some point during the MA/MM program (or just before entering). Caveats here: 1. As always, I can’t claim to have read all of them, though at the very least I have read excerpts. 2. This list assumes an undergraduate degree in theory/composition or a solid BA. 3. Some are (or can be considered) textbooks.

And away we go, in no particular order…

1. Heinrich Schenker, Five Graphic Music Analyses
2. David Lewin, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations
3. Felix Salzer, Structural Hearing
4. Joseph Straus, Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory
5. Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music
6. Allen Forte, The Structure of Atonal Music
7. Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard Meyer, The Rhythmic Structure of Music
8. William Rothstein, Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music
9. William Caplin, Classical Form
10. David Huron, Sweet Anticipation

This list is going to be hopelessly and helplessly incomplete. I have tried to cover tonal music, atonal music, rhythm, form, and even cognition. The tonal materials skew Schenkerian; that’s not intentional, but even if you don’t like Schenker you have to deal with him.

Thoughts? Complaints? Addenda?


(NB: This was originally a note on Facebook from last summer.)

I just finished rereading one of my favorite books – Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

That seems like an odd way to start a post on education, since the book is about Moses’s acquisition of power in New York City and the State of New York. Education is barely mentioned, and then only to discuss the schools that weren’t built while Moses was building roads, bridges, and parks. However, there is one striking parallel between Moses’s roadbuilding and modern American education.

The map of New York was irrevocably changed by Moses. He built bridges and roads to lessen the load on existing bridges and roads, then built more bridges and roads to lessen the loads on the ones he built, then built more bridges and roads…well, you get the idea. Everytime he built a new bridge or road, he promised it would reduce traffic on some other bridge or road. However, this never happened. A new bridge would open and almost immediately become clogged, but the bridge which was supposed to get relief never did. Traffic was now horrible on two bridges. So he’d build a third, which would promptly fill up; now there are three congested bridges and no relief. Moses remained convinced that one more bridge would always do the trick, and he used his power to make sure he could keep building those bridges – to the detriment of tunnels, subways, buses (he purposefully built some roads and bridges in such a way that buses could not run on them), railways, etc. His refusal to see anything wrong with a system that clearly did not work – indeed, one that made things worse – not only led to the metastisizing of that system, but also made it impossible for alternatives to develop or flourish.

Let’s take a look at high-stakes testing. Now, this is just me blowing off steam on Facebook, so I haven’t actually done anything real like looking at data, but anecdotally – I’ve been in the classroom since 1998. I’ve seen standards drop right and left as testing has become more important. Anyone else notice this? The oligarchs, anti-teacher types, and “we should run education like a business!” folks looooove tests as the arbiter of funding and status because they remove actual education from the equation. Test scores may go up and down, but I have seen nothing to indicate that learning is any better than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. In my darker, more conspiratorial moments, I believe this is a feature, not a bug. Public education was the great equalizer, and if there’s one thing oligarchs hate, it’s an equalizer.

And so, like Robert Moses with bridges and roads, the all-testing-all-the-time types shut down other means of education reform, tie teacher pay and school support to test scores and not to learning, and use the force of funding and law to make sure a non-testing-based approach to school quality assessment never has a chance to develop, all the while piling more and more tests and clogging up the system further. This system cannot long endure.