Monday, January 23, 2017

New Semester, More Violin

It's the first day of the semester around here.

I have a reassignment this semester, so I only teach 6 credits (instead of 11).  I've got a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule, which is unusual for me.  But it's nice, because I mostly won't have to be in the office on Mondays and Fridays (well, every other Friday for sure I'll be in for meetings).

But today, I'm here.  Plugging away.

For my senior seminar, I make one-time use PDFs for readings from journals and such, and put them up on our closed system.  (My understanding is that this is legal under fair use.)

Last week, I put in some copy requests for the department student worker.  One of the requests was a book.  I filled in the card: 1-14, 35-52, and 220-228 (I just made up those numbers).  I penciled the bibliographic information on the first page, at the top (it's a book I own, so okay to write in, and bibliographic info doesn't offend me), because I want students to have access to the information, and I require that they cite texts, so they need it, and I want to model how to keep track of bibliographic information.

I got this one request, PDFed, except it had page 114 (and the rest), and was organized so students looking at a screen would have to move backwards rather than forwards in the usual way.

I took it back to the student, and she said "oops."

Then I got the PDF, and it had completely cut off the bibliographic information, but at least was oriented properly.  So I took it back.

And finally got it PDFed so that it's readable and has the bibliographic information.  WIN!

But boy, having to check every single PDF and go back and forth is irritating.  (The student just stopped by to double check something, because I have made her very careful.  Maybe that's a good thing.)

***

I had a violin lesson last week.  I'd practiced well, and hoped I was ready to move on.  I was very not ready.

I played the first piece quite well, for me.

The second piece, my memory slipped a couple times, and it wasn't good.

By the third piece, I was nervous and botched it badly.

So my teacher (very kindly) reminded me of two practice strategies and taught me how to do harmonics, which is necessary for one of the later pieces.  And she also reminded me (even more kindly) that I'd basically taught myself the last two pieces.  (She'd had time to point out some spots, but not enough to teach me the harmonics thing.)

I was really upset at myself after the lesson because I hadn't played as well as I should have, and I'd gotten nervous, and I'd really wanted to play well but hadn't.  By evening, though, I'd gotten over myself and practiced.  (If I practice the same day as a lesson, then I can incorporate what I've learned way more effectively.  It makes a noticeable difference.)

Here's what I learned: harmonics.  Usually, when you finger on the violin, you press your finger pretty hard to stop the string from vibrating beyond your finger up the fingering board.  That changes the pitch.  For harmonics, though, you barely touch the string at JUST THE RIGHT PLACE up the fingerboard, and both sides of the string on either side of your pinky vibrate, but at a higher pitch.  (The part I'm doing has me basically cutting the string two halves, which makes it vibrate a full octave higher.)  It's so so very cool.

Practice stuffs.  Two things.

The first is what's called "random practice." 

So, usually, you practice by taking your piece and working through the parts that are hard, and then you work through them again, and then again, and so on, and then maybe try the whole piece, or move on to another hard part.  The thing is, you work on a part again and again.  That's called "blocked practice."  It's how you learn stuff.

For random practice, you split out the parts you want to really learn (I've split my two less successful pieces into 8 parts that make sense musically as parts), and then you do something to randomize.  (I roll an 8-sided die, but you can also put numbers on pieces of paper, whatever.)

You roll the die (pick a paper), check the part (because I haven't memorized which is which number), and play it (by memory, in my case, since memorizing is hard right now for these, and a big part of the problem).  You play it ONCE.  And you make notes about where you mess up, or if you don't, whatever.  And then you move on to the next number.  It's sort of fun.  (If you don't need to memorize it, you could be looking at the music.)

What happens, is your brain says, not, "I'll do better next time" but "I have to get this because I don't get another chance."  So there's this pressure that's a bit more like performance.  And you're doing things not in an order, so you really have to know them.  But it takes a while for my brain to switch over.

After you've done this a bit (it doesn't take a long time for me to hit each of my 8 parts a few times), you look at your notes about your playing and find patterns.

Then you do block practice to work on the pattern of problems.  Except before you move on, you make sure you can play the part at least 5 times IN A ROW well.  (For me, "well" is different than it is for a more experienced student, of course.)  So, you play it once well, good.  Twice, good.  Three times, mess up, start over.

It's incredibly frustrating, and boy, by time #4, I'm getting really careful!  But it also works if you're ready for it.  (That is, if you can actually play the bit well enough once, so after you've done your learning blocked practice.)

I have my next lesson Thursday, and my plan for today is to play each of my 8 parts well 5 times, but in random order.

My teacher had taught me both of these strategies before, but I wasn't using them.  And I need to.  I think I wasn't using them because I hadn't really thought through the problems I was having well-enough to recognize them and use the strategies.  For most of the stuff I've learned, blocked practice has worked well enough.  But when I really have to learn it by memory for a "test," it's not enough for me.

It makes me think about the cognitive work we ask students to do in literature courses.  A lot of times, we read something, talk about it, introduce a concept, incorporate it, and move on.  But we don't do tons of repetition.  Of course, using a music model, students would be doing repetition through review and rereading the way I practice the violin, on my own, a little bit every single day.  But the reality is that students don't really do that repetition unless it's quite overtly assigned or there's a test coming up (which, frankly, is also inspiring my practice right now).

So, how do I get students to learn a concept or skill well enough to employ it independently when they read something else?  That's the real key, in a way, isn't it?  I mean, I want them to know the basic plot and stuff of As You Like It or something, but even more, I want them to know how to read verse well, to think about theatrical issues, social stuff, cultural stuff, textual stuff, so that when they read or see 1 Henry IV on their own, they get more out of it.

How?


(edited to change the title, since I used that title more than once before.)


Saturday, January 21, 2017

One of Many

We had a couple hundred people marching in our small city.  It was good. 

But it wasn't much.

I would have been impressed if our headmaster had been there, or chairs, or deans.  (I saw one or two department chairs from around campus, but not many.)

I marched with some friends, and that made me happy.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Milton Lost and Milton Regained

For some reason, over break, I had the desire to reread Lycidas.  It's been a long, long time since I've read it, since, probably, I was preparing for my GREs.  At that time, I was reading in a study group, four of us at a city-located state university that (rumor had it) hadn't been able to buy new books for the library for some years.  We were all in the MA program, and all wanted to go on for a PhD.  So we got together and studied the Norton's, English, American, and World.  We met a couple times a week for most of a summer (all while working, too), and at the end of the summer, we took the GREs.

We worked really well together, each of us pretty much caring about an area, and having taken courses in that area more than the others.  So I helped a lot with the medieval and earlier early modern, and Eve did modern British, and Joy did modern American.  And there was a man whose name I don't remember right now, but he loved Romantics, and so he helped with the Romantics.  He made "Tintern Abbey" work for me, and it wouldn't have without him.

But none of us knew much about what we then called the "long 18th century" and so, well, that was my weakest area. 

And yes, Lycidas was there; I know we read it, and I know I didn't appreciate it.  And over this break, I was thinking, maybe I would get it now?

So when I got back from visiting family, I looked in my school office, and couldn't find my copy of Merritt Hughes.  I think pretty much everyone who studied earlier lit in my era had a Merritt Hughes, right alongside our Riverside Chaucer and our Witherspoon and Warnke.

Anyway, I looked in my school office, where I found an edition of Paradise Lost I used last time I taught it.  And I looked at my home office, where I came up empty.  And when I was at school, I looked again.  And at home, I looked again.  I'm pretty organized about my books.  At school, I have three big shelving units.  Top left shelves are Shakespeare editions.  Middle Left and bottom left is for books I'm using, reference books, oversize books, and some storage.

Middle is criticism, alphabetically by author.  All the way.

Upper right is modern plays.  Then medieval and early modern texts excluding Shakespeare.  Then a few novels and modern poetry and such.

And then reference series (MLA Approaches to Teaching, Cambridge Companions, the sorts of books that I'm likely not to remember the author, but to remember the series.). 

Then there are school stuff: advising manuals, catalogs and such.

At home, in the office, two big shelves: Left is criticism, alphabetically by author.  Right is Shakespeare, then early modern lit by author, then some reference stuff (dictionaries, etc).

Novels are in another room, as are birding books and such.

So, I should have been able to put my hands on Milton right away; he should be there, right after Middleton and before Rowley.  But no.

And this evening, for some reason, I looked again in my home office, and I noticed a thick book in the criticism section with a brown paper bag cover, the sort of cover I put on books that are worn but worth taking care of.  And yes, it was my Merritt Hughes Milton.  What it was doing there, I don't know.

But now I get to reread Lycidas, and I'm hoping I get more out of it than I did the first time.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

What if?

I really need to start working on my syllabus and class planning for my classes.

When I think about it, I suddenly wonder: what if I don't remember how to plan a class?  How to make a syllabus?  How to set up assignments?

Of course, once I get started I'll be fine.  It's the getting started that's so hard.

Do you folks ever have that feeling, that even though you've done this a lot, tens of times, maybe you won't be able to pull it off this time?

We need a longer January!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Changed Light

I was outside digging away at my driveway (which I didn't finish, but the neighbor will with our snowblower, I hope).  It was dismal, windy, cold (but not super cold).

And then suddenly, the light changed.  It was like when you switch out a regular yellow-cast light bulb for the ones that are supposed to be more like outside light.

Except I was already outside.  But suddenly, the light was suffused with blue and pink.  It might have been that the sun hit just at that height off the horizon to make the colors come out.  Or it may have been that some of the clouds moved out of the way. 

But it was beautiful, and shocking.  I sort of stood there, mouth agape, trying to figure it out.

And then, of course, I went back to digging.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Reading a Colleague's Work in Progress

One of my colleagues is working on a book, and was talking about it to me, since it's something I'm at least tangentially interested in, and I said I'd be interested to read it, so they emailed me the first chapter draft, and I'm reading it.

I don't know quite how to respond.

Here's the thing.  You know how students sometimes spend a long time winding up, setting up stuff, quoting "as X says" and such, just bits?  It does that in a major way.  It doesn't engage with the Xs it quotes, just takes quotes and does the "as X says" thing. 

And I'm 11 pages in to a 30 plus page chapter, and I have no idea why I'm reading (except that I said I would).  What I want from an introduction or introductory chapter is to know the basic argument, and how that argument differs from, disagrees with, or adds to what's come before.  This chapter, so far, gives me none of that.

So if I say that, what I'm basically saying is, you really need to totally rework the first chapter, and I'm pretty sure this colleague has worked very hard on this and doesn't want to hear that the chapter isn't working.

And if I don't say that, I'm not responding helpfully or ethically.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Unexpected Benefit of Blogging

Today in a facebook thread, I wanted to know when something I asserted happened.  So I came to the blog and did one of the little searches from the upper left corner for a keyword, and voila, I was able to read my reaction to hearing about the event.  I hadn't been terribly specific, but I'd used the keyword, and it was specific enough.

I have to admit, I can pinpoint a lot of things to dates/times because I've put them in the blog.  It's sort of cool, actually.


So, on that note: I need to go work on my pieces for the violin book 2 "test"!  I'm having difficulty memorizing the pieces.  And playing with a full bow.  And playing dynamics.

Yeah, time to go play!

Saturday, January 07, 2017

In the Blink of an Eye, a Week Goes By

It's been a week, very quick.  I feel as if I've gotten nothing done, but of course, I did.

I worked through the parts of two history books I wanted to read to understand early modern slavery practices in Western Europe and the Americas.  Horrifying, as you'd expect.

I got frustrated enough with the ice forming inside at the edges of some windows to take action.  I started out using painters' tape and bubble wrap.  But then I went to the home improvement type store and bought kits and insulating tape, took off the bubble wrap and painters' tape, and taped up areas, and put plastic sheets over some windows.  There's a noticeable difference in the house, especially in my bedroom (the window in my bathroom was bad, and the sliding glass door, just as bad.  Now it's pretty darned good.  And the red room, which is the TV room.  It's a problematic room anyway, because it was built as a conversion from a second story deck; underneath is enclosed, but not heated.  It's got a tile floor, and six big windows, basically the three exterior walls are mostly windows, and they're sliding windows, which tend not to be really airtight, anyway.  (In summer, it's a delightful space, and it's got great light in winter, and is lovely for watching birds on the deck.)  It's still not exactly toasty, but at least there's not a breeze now!

I should have done this years ago.  The good thing is, I'll have a good idea where to put more caulk, and will put plastic sheeting up much earlier in the future.

Here's a housing question: from the way all the plastic sheets bow in slightly, like sails with a bit of wind, it looks like the air pressure inside the house is less than the air pressure outside.  Why is that?  (Wouldn't it even out very quickly from doors opening and closing?  Wouldn't the warmer air inside tend to make it higher pressure inside?)


I'm progressing on the violin pretty well.  I posted this in August, when I had a "test" to pass from Book 1 to Book 2.  Now I'm working on the three pieces for my "test" to pass from Book 2 to Book 3.  (Or, as I like to think, leveling up.  Ding!)

I should post more about practicing violin because it's really fun and interesting.  I've learned a lot.

First, I really trust the process.  I know that even if a piece is really super hard for me, there are three year olds out there who've learned it, and generations of Suzuki kids have learned it at my stage, so I can learn it.  That really helps.  Strings, my teacher, does a great job of breaking things down for me so I can focus on the one hard part first, or learn this fingering, or practice X to help with Y.  She's so good at teaching!


Second, I like scales.  I was having trouble thinking of a note when I played it, which was making playing certain things more difficult (like, you see an F, where do you put your finger, especially if you're not coming from an adjacent note).  So I found a chart on-line, and printed it out and filled it in.  It's in two parts, the sharp scales and the flat scales.  I filled in all the notes, and they're in order.  Now the cool thing with these is that each scale starts a fifth from where the last scale started; the sharps start a fifth up, and the flats a fifth down.

So on my chart, I start with a C scale (a weird one on the violin), and then move up a fifth to the G scale, adding one sharp, and so on.  And since the violin strings are a fifth from each other, it's relatively easy once you get the concept to follow on.  I practice either the sharps or flats every day, with broken thirds.


Third, Ševčík!  I have two practice exercise books, one for bowing, and one for fingering.  Holy cow, they're HARD!

The bowing book starts with long notes, full bow.  Then you practice with half bows, and then with two strings and some fingers, and finally, you do a full long note with a full bow, and then a quarter note with a full bow.  It's way harder than it sounds to make the quarter note not sound bad.

The fingering one is even harder.  It starts like this (link here):


And then, once you can do these individual measures (at different speeds), you play them more, and then you get to this (same source, different screen capture technique):

And that's just the first page.  There are more to come.  The thing is, I may be able to play the quarter note version with one bow (since these are slurred), but unless my fingers move pretty fast, I run out of bow before I finish the eight note version.  I'm getting way better, but I'm still on the first page.  (I think I started working on Ševčík in mid-summer.

Again, this is part of trusting the process.  There's no way to teach your fingers to play the violin without doing lots of playing.  If you do structured exercises (Suzuki, the Ševčík, etc), then you're trusting that a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time and found these effective.  You're not going to get some magical moment where you pick up the violin and ta da, you just whip off a concerto.  At least, I'm not.  (If you're good, of course, then you can make it look like ta da, but people aren't seeing the hours of practice, just the result.)


Four, I like the Suzuki music choices.  I already feel like I'm playing real music, little bits, sometimes simplified, but real.  I'm working on a piece by Lully, another by Beethoven, and another by Boccherini (the minuet).  But they're also really hard (for me), and I need to memorize them and play them well.  So, you know, I need to go practice.


Five, practice is actually really good.  Hard, but good, and satisfying.


Strings is away for break, and we talked before she left about my goals for break.  In addition to working on my pieces, I'm focusing on dynamics (playing louder or softer is so hard) and on bowing (using the full bow, which I tend not to do when I'm learning a piece, and then have to rework everything, but it sounds so much better when I use a fuller bow!).



Friday, December 30, 2016

Two Movies

I've been to two movies in the past week; that's pretty close to a record for me, since I don't go to lots of movies. 

I saw Fences first, and what a film.  I don't know how I never read the play before, but holy cow, it's powerful. 

You know how people always ask if there's a great American novel or if America can do tragedy?  I think Fences is a pretty damned great American tragedy.  It reveals a core of racism, which is our tragedy.

Beautiful acting, directing, photography.  I really couldn't ask for more from a film.  I sure as heck hope the Oscars won't be so white this year.

Here's an interesting take on Fences  from Black&Smart.

Then I went to see Rogue One, expecting the fun I expect from Star Wars films.  (And noting that the films I think of are the first three out, because I can't remember the prequels, having seen them each once.  But also, I enjoyed the most recent one before this, The Force Awakens.  And, to be honest, not having read any press about Rogue One, I thought it would be a sequel to that.)

Not impressed.  It didn't help that the back of my chair kept getting kicked by a kid, or that another kid had a meltdown in the chair next to me (a surprisingly quiet meltdown, to be sure), and was shortly taken out by an adult (who had come with a crowd of like 5 little kids).

I may have missed things early on (see: kids in theaters), but it took me a long time to realize that this film was supposed to be set just before the first one.  I kept thinking, but Darth Vader is dead, isn't he?  and when are Poe and Rey going to show up?

There were lots of explosions and such, but the humor was pretty weak, and that's part of what made Star Wars films fun; they sort of chuckle at themselves for being space cowboys.

Shockingly, I'm going to see another film this afternoon with a friend, setting an all time record for me for seeing films in theaters within a week.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Academic Anxiety Dream

I had an anxiety dream last night.  I was looking for my class on campus, trying to find the right building, figure out the room, and no one had a printed bulletin (no one has had a printed bulletin in years, of course), and I kept trying to find it.  And I didn't know what I was going to say if/when I found it since my syllabus wasn't ready.

And I kept thinking, wow, break went by really fast, I'm not usually this unprepared.  What am I going to do?

I haven't had an academic anxiety dream that I remember in a while.

***

I hope your holidays are/were good ones.  I got back home yesterday to a messy house; I'd been intending to clean it up before I left, but with snow incoming, I'd left a day early.  It's rather dreary and depressing to come home to a messy house.

I have much to do: pay taxes, clean up the house, de-ice the drive (since the snow just sat while I was gone, not much, but enough to get nastily icy), and yes, prep courses for spring.

I have a course reassignment for spring, for which I'm eternally grateful.  And my search is over, I hope.  (We did our part, and will only need to do more if for some reason a contract can't be made with an appropriate candidate.)

Searches basically are a black box at this point, for most of us.  We turned in ranked names and filled out paperwork.  The chair takes those names, and requests to hire someone (but may choose someone else that we didn't rank as high), and then paperwork gets done, deans dean, and so on.  A call is made, or more than a few calls, and then at the end, we'll be told (if we're lucky) that candidate X will be joining us in the fall.  And that will be that.  Fingers crossed.

At any rate, with the search over, and the paperwork done (I hope), and only two courses (and not composition!), this semester is looking to be better.

***

I got a bad cold in early October.  It went to my lungs, and stayed there, giving me a gunky cough for a couple of hours a day.  So the week of finals, I went to the clinic, and the PA gave me a prescription for an antibiotic.  Like a good patient, I took the whole 5 day course.

It seemed to be doing the trick, except yesterday I started having lung gunk again.  And today it's back.  I should call the clinic again.  Ugh.

***

I'm making a late start this morning, but now I'm on my way!