class piano

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

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!