adjunct teaching

Professional Update: November 2011

The beginning of a new month always seems like a good time to step back, reflect on the last month, and plan for the weeks to come.  Also, it's been a little while since I've given y'all a professional update!  Here we go:


We just passed the midway point of the semester and all seven students are doing great!  I had three new students start lessons this summer, which was great but there were a few students from last year who were unable to continue this semester so it sort of evened out.  Our next recital will be sometime in the spring so for the time being, we are working through new repertoire and technique exercises.  I am hoping to put together some type of assessment for maybe January or February.  I'm envisioning a low-key jury week where each student is asked to perform a solo piece or two and maybe a few technique exercises.  This would give me the opportunity to evaluate their progress and give more formal feedback to the students and their parents.


We are in the off-season for the Westminster Chamber Music Workshop but that doesn't mean we're not working on next year already!  Steve and I just finished applying for two Cultural Council grants and we're beginning to plan some of the events.  Speaking of events, we've also been maintaining a monthly "Community Concert Calendar" on our blog.  If you're in the area, check out our November calendar of events.  We're hoping to really focus on the musical events for the community this year and we'd like to keep everything free (as much as that is possible).  We're also talking about adding a new element this year but that's all I'm allowed to share with you!  Check our website in the coming months for more details!


This semester I am teaching one section of MUSC 2500: Class Piano I at Fitchburg State.  I have five students enrolled and all are doing well.  Our second quiz is tomorrow!  A few weeks ago, the Humanities Department Chair asked me if I would consider teaching a 3-credit course called "Commonwealth of the Arts" (in addition to two sections of Class Piano I) next semester.  There are several sections of this course offered each semester and many students are required to take it to fulfill their Humanities requirement.  Each professor takes a different approach: some focus on art, some focus on music, others focus on theatre.  The Department Chair recommended I use a particular set of textbooks (6-book series) but it was up to me what time frame I wanted to cover, what assignments I want to give, and what area I want to focus on throughout the semester.  After flipping through a borrowed set of books, my first instinct is to focus on books 4-6.  Book 4 starts in the Baroque period and book 6 is all Modern.  Each book includes elements of art, music, and theatre.  I am still in the early planning stages but I am very excited for this new teaching opportunity!

In 2010, a few Humanities faculty members started the Foundation Music Lesson Program at Fitchburg State.  Steve and I were both asked to join the faculty - lessons are offered for a variety of instruments to faculty, staff, students, and community members alike.  Over the summer, one of the co-founders asked me to consider the role of Program Coordinator, responsible for student registrations, coordinating with the teachers, arranging lesson facilities, and overseeing recitals.  I said yes.  I am now several months in to this position and am enjoying the opportunity to teach and work administratively in this program.  I organized a faculty recital back in September and we had a very interesting, very diverse program.  This month, we will begin marketing for the Spring semester - lessons, group classes, a student recital, and hopefully, another faculty recital!


The children in Singers & Scholars, our joint choir and Bible study program for 1st-8th graders are loving our around-the-world adventure!  We just finished the Africa unit with songs like "Siyahamba" and "A Ram Sam Sam" and are gearing up for our month in the Navajo Nation.  The Sanctuary Choir (our adult choir, though many of them are still children at heart) is preparing for a special Thanksgiving Eve service and a Christmas Cantata in mid-December.  The Thanksgiving service is combined with the Catholic church down the street.  We alternate hosting the service (this year, it's at their church) and the choirs combine for a special anthem.   My choir refers to them as "the BIG choir" - they can't believe the number of tenors!  Last year, we had about 45 between the two groups.  While re-organizing the Choir Room a little bit this summer, I came across 15 copies of a 1997 SAB Christmas cantata by John Purifoy.  It's not half bad!  I decided it would be just right for our group this year.  It's about 30-35 minutes in length, includes a narrator, and incorporates several of the favorite carols.  And besides, the choir hasn't done a cantata in over 15 years (or so they tell me).  There is no better time than the present!


Steve and I perform together every few months, though we haven't done anything big since our lecture recital back in April.  See clips here, here, and here.  Our most recent gig was in August at the church's annual Yankee Street Fair.  We played a 45-minute set under a yellow- and white-striped tent just hours before Tropical Storm Irene came barreling down Main Street.  We were asked a few months ago to prepare a short program for young children in town.  We're hoping to do something similar to the Musical Memory Game which we premiered at this year's WCMW.  As a way of engaging such a young audience, Steve and I will play short clips of music and the children will be asked to decide which ones matched.  Stay tuned for more info on this - we're aiming for early 2012!

Image Credit: Jen Shenk, personal, personal, personal, Nicholas Garofalo (last two)

First Day of School

It's my first day of school today - second year as a professor!  What a different world it is to spend the last few weeks of summer checking enrollment, revising a syllabus, triple-checking all the technology in the classroom, and writing lesson plans.

There's something very exciting to me about this world of academia.  Students criss-crossing over the quad; tall, ivy-covered buildings; libraries full of books; the voices of lecturers drifting through the hallway.  The pursuit of knowledge can be a very exciting one if you put your mind to learning.  As I approach the academic world from "the other side," I feel like one of my primary goals as a teacher is to inspire learning.  I want my students to succeed and do well but I want them to truly desire learning most of all.  As I told a student today, I truly believe you can be as successful as you want to be.  How do you teach this level of commitment and strength of will?  How do you develop independent learners?  So you see, even professors have much still to learn.

This afternoon, I'll meet the five bright-eyed students currently enrolled in my class (as of 10:19 p.m. last night); dive into our thick, spiral-bound textbook; and pray for no major technology failures.  However, seeing as how technology is not always on our my side, the backup plan is to play "air piano" and play multiple rounds of "rhythm editing" - a sure crowd-pleaser.  Don't you wish you were in my class?!

Image Credit: personal

The Adjunct: The First Year

You're probably wondering, "What happened after that post about becoming an adjunct back in August?  How were the classes?"  Well, I'm back with a full year of college teaching experience under my belt and four classes (two each semester) on my resume.  But that's not enough for me.  I want to know what I can improve, how I can teach more effectively, and how the students perceived the class.  What better way to get this feedback than by creating an end-of-the-semester assessment!  (Dorky, I know.) The university does a course assessment at the end of each semester; however, I as a teacher did not receive this feedback until FOUR MONTHS into the next semester!  My solution: Create my own one-page assessment to give to students on the same day as the university assessments.  I had two envelopes - one for me and one for the university.  This way I get instant results... and feedback from the school in about four months.

I asked the following questions about the course itself:

1. Please state your reason(s) for taking this course (i.e. elective, interest, minor) 2. Did you have any prior experience with the piano prior to taking this course? 3. Please describe your favorite aspect of this course 4. How can this course be improved in the future? 5. Did this course meet your expectations?

Then I asked students to rate my teaching effectiveness (5-point scale: 1-Strongly disagree, 2-Disagree, 3-Neither agree nor disagree, 4-Agree, 5-Strongly agree)

1. Demonstrates commitment to each student's progress 2. Seeks a good, working relationship with students 3. Selects appropriate material for learning new concepts 4. Establishes a welcoming learning environment 5. Introduces new concepts in a clear manner 6. Demonstrates enthusiasm in teaching 7. Addresses technical challenges and works to resolve them 8. Presents an extensive knowledge of musical style 9. Introduces music theory concepts in a clear manner 10. Establishes strategies for effective practicing 11. Respects the needs and goals of the student 12. Prepares and encourages students for and in performance 13. Manages class time effectively 14. Approachable; open to communication

I had 11 students submit responses.  Here are the results:

Course Assessment Question #1: Almost half stated, "Interest in improving piano skills;" about a third said, "Elective;" and only one indicated "Humanities requirement."

Question #2: Five said, "Yes;" six said, "No."

Question #3: One indicated, "Sheet Music;" one said, "How we were tested;" five students said either, "Playing the piano," or "Learning how to play;" one said, "Learning how to read music;" one said, "All of it;" and one said, "Being able to make constant strides in the understanding of the piano and how to play it."

Question #4: One commented, "Better classroom;" four students said, "More class time," or "Meet more times per week;" two had no suggestions for improvement; one suggested, "Instructor play more;" and two said, "Spend more time on important lessons rather than going at such a fast pace."

Question #5: All students responded, "Yes."

Teacher Assessment #1 - Six students said, "5-Strongly agree;" five said, "4-Agree" #2 - Ten students said, "5-Strongly agree;" one said, "4-Agree" #3 - Nine students said, "5-Strongly agree;" two said, "4-Agree" #4 - Seven students said, "5-Strongly agree;" four said, "4-Agree" #5 - Eight students said, "5-Strongly agree;" two said, "4-Agree;" one said, "3-Neither agree nor disagree" #6 - Six students said, "5-Strongly agree;" five said, "4-Agree" #7 - Five students said, "5-Strongly agree;" five said, "4-Agree;" one said, "3-Neither agree nor disagree" #8 - Ten students said, "5-Strongly agree;" one said, "4-Agree" #9 - Six students said, "5-Strongly agree;" five said, "4-Agree" #10 - Nine students said, "5-Strongly agree;" two said, "4-Agree" #11 - Nine students said, "5-Strongly agree;" two said, "4-Agree" #12 - Eight students said, "5-Strongly agree;" three said, "4-Agree" #13 - Eight students said, "5-Strongly agree;" three said, "4-Agree" #14 - Ten students said, "5-Strongly agree;" one said, "4-Agree"

I was pretty pleased with the results!  The answers to these questions are so helpful in my future course-planning.  I can self-evaluate all semester but in the end, it's the student opinion that matters the most.

If you made it this far, thanks for bearing with me!  I not only survived my first year of college teaching, I learned a great deal!  Looking forward to more opportunities like this in the future.

Life on the other side of the fence

This week marks the end of my first semester of collegiate teaching.  I survived!  There were plenty of new experiences – leaving the room for course evaluations, grading tests, giving written feedback, and administering juries, just to name a few.  It’s life on the other side of the fence.  I am so thankful for the education I received at Eastman which prepared me for these situations. I saw the need for periodic “checkpoints” – making sure that the students are keeping up and able to master the new concepts during the course of the semester.  How can you grade piano performances by seven different students simultaneously and objectively?I developed a unique system using the technology resources in the lab.  Every few weeks, I chose four items for students to record via Garage Band.  They had 30 minutes to complete these items, which allowed them the opportunity to re-record, if needed.  I am more concerned about whether or not they can perform the selected items rather than how well they do on their first attempt.  At the conclusion of the test time, the students emailed me their files for grading.  This allowed me to use a rating scale to grade their performances on tonal and rhythmic accuracy and expression.  I generally listened to each item three times to focus individually on each of these criteria rather than having to take in everything the first time.  When the students get their tests back, they have a very clear measure of their tonal, rhythmic, and expressive performances across all four items.  It’s a great way to see areas of consistency (i.e., John is great with rhythm but could spend more time on his preparation of tonal patterns).

I graded my fourth and final quiz/exam on Tuesday (yes, I am the teacher that gives a final exam on the last day of class – two days prior to the final).  The final exam is a 15-minute jury.  Students were asked to prepare the following:

  • Three 2-octave scales of choice
  • Solo piece
  • American Song
  • Harmonization study
  • Transposition study
  • Improvisation study

My classes are held in the Music Technology Lab so many of my students are not used to playing on an acoustic piano.  There are four small practice rooms on the first floor of the Fine Arts building (all with Boston uprights) but I thought it might be nice to arrange the juries to be held in a space that had a nice instrument.  My students were enamored with the classroom Steinway – the touch, the sound, the pedals – I think it had a positive impact on their performances.

For the jury, I decided not to record the student performances, for time’s sake.  Rather, I developed a grading chart to be filled out while listening.  I included items such as fingering, characteristic tone, rhythmic consistency, tonal accuracy, hand position, posture, technique, pedaling, phrasing, and articulation, each worth no more than 5 points out of 100.  This proved to be a great tool.  I administered six juries on Wednesday (with grades: 94, 93, two 89s, 87 and 85) with six more to go on Monday.

Time to take what I have learned and prepare materials for my classes next semester!

The Adjunct: Lessons Learned



Lesson #1: Never underestimate the power of networking.

Last spring, I applied for a part-time position at a small church in a small town another state away.  I knew no one and no one knew me.  I sent my resume, had a few conversations, and sent a recording of some of my recent performances.  A few days later, I received an email from a Humanities professor at a college in a town adjacent to where the church was located.  She, too was a musician (with three degrees in organ performance) and had received my resume from the search committee at the church.  “Want a job?” she said in one email.  “We have an opening for a part-time adjunct teaching class piano.  You’d be great.”

What a vote of confidence!  I haven’t even met the woman yet!  I went back and forth on whether this was something I really wanted to pursue.  In the end, my final semester of school caught up with me and I was soon fully immersed in the day-to-day once more.

A few months went by.  I got the job for which I had originally applied, performed a collaborative recital, graduated from Eastman, and began moving plans.  Around June 1st, I received another email from the music professor.  “Are you still interested in applying for the adjunct position?  We’re getting ready to make a decision.”  I scrambled to update my CV and resume, write a cover letter, and fill out the application.  Two days later, I was offered the position via email by the Humanities Chair.  “Is this real?” I asked Steve.  “They haven’t even met me!”

Lesson #2: Welcome to the world of guessing.

So I got the job.  Now what?  I was full of questions:

Do I pick the textbook? Do I have to write anything specific in my syllabus? Is there a standard grading policy for the college? How many students are registered for these classes? Do I have an email address? I need office hours? I have an office?! How much does this pay again?

August 1st rolled around.  I moved, I started my position at the church, I began plans for opening my piano studio.  The semester feels as if it’s looming around the corner (it is – September 1st!)  Finally, I received an email from Human Resources with an overwhelming number of attachments (14, to be exact).  Contract, health insurance, mandatory contributions, direct deposit, etc.  By the way, I had five days to submit everything.  I somehow managed to fill out every form correctly and turn it in on time.  This was also the first time I met anyone at the college face-to-face.  “So what do I need to do from here?” I asked.  “Just wait for us to contact you,” the woman replied.

Three weeks later, having not heard anything, I took it upon myself to email Human Resources.  Finally, I’m official!  Now the fun begins.  Before my first class, I need to get a college ID made (building A), pick up a parking pass (building B), pick up a key to my classroom (building C), access Blackboard, find my office (building D), make copies of my syllabus (building E), find my classroom (building D), and figure out how all the equipment in the music technology lab works.

Lesson #3: All freedom comes with a little responsibility.

I feel an enormous amount of freedom in this position.  My first class is in two weeks and I haven’t met any Humanities faculty members.  I haven’t had any type of new teacher orientation.  No one has told me about grading policies, measurement and evaluation standards, or final exams.  I have no idea how many students are in my two classes!  I have a great responsibility to the department and the school.  Despite the challenges of being left guessing, the unknowns give me the great opportunity for freedom in my teaching.  I set the pace, I choose the text, I choose the methods of evaluation.  I am confident in my education and preparation and therefore, I’m ready for the challenge.

Wish me luck!