I am a music educator and professional musician based in western North Carolina.

I am a music educator and professional musician based in western North Carolina.

Further Evidence Against Learning Styles

I’ve written about “learning styles” a couple of times before, here and here. If you haven’t read them or it’s been too long ago, the gist of my argument is that music teachers and students need to abandon this idea of learning styles. The evidence doesn’t support that it’s actually true.

Dr. Steven Novella recently blogged about this topic on Neurologica. He summarizes “learning styles” as:

The idea is that individual people learn better if the material is presented in a style, format, or context that fits best with their preferences. The idea is appealing because, first, everyone likes to think about themselves and have something to identify with. But also it gives educators the feeling that they can get an edge by applying a simple scheme to their teaching. I also frequently find it is a convenient excuse for lack of engagement with material.

https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-learning-styles-myth/

Novella’s blog post also mentions and links to the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning’s article, Learning Styles as a Myth. The article is short, but well cited and doesn’t just discuss evidence against learning styles but also provides helpful evidence-based suggestions for improving pedagogy.

Lastly, it’s fun to play around with this online test to supposedly tell “What’s Your Learning Style?” Like Novella, I found it to be pretty silly. As a professional musician you’d expect my results to be skewed towards “aural,” but there’s so much subjectivity and missed context here. For example, one of the question asked what I would prefer to do for fun, and it included “listen to music” as one of the options. I actually answered “read” instead, because often I’m engaged in music and sounds so much throughout the day that for fun I prefer quiet to relax.

As I have argued before, what these test are telling you, at best, is what your learning “preference” is, not your learning style. There’s a difference between how a student wants to learn and whether or not the materials are being absorbed. It’s long past time for teachers to leave the learning styles myth behind.

Site Updates Will Continue

Oops. If you were looking for something here in the last couple of days you got an error message. In making some updates some stuff got changed around which resulted in the site not being accessible. The solution turned out to be pretty easy, it was harder for me to figure out what changed than it was to make the correction.

At any rate, now that I’ve got that fixed, I’m planning on doing some more cleaning up of the site here. Hopefully there won’t be any other access issues, but you might notice some plugins going off and on as I test out some different stuff.

Remote Recording Sessions

Like a lot of musicians right now, I’ve been participating in some different recording projects where all the musicians either video or audio record themselves from different locations and then put everything together to sync things up. It’s been a good way for me to keep excited and interested in playing music, even though we’re not able to make music in person right now.

There are many places people can go for advice on the technological aspects of putting together these recording projects, and most of those resources are probably more informed and experienced than I am. I did, however, want to share some of the things I’ve been working on recently and how those recordings were put together.

This first one my involvement was just as a player. The parts were sent out and assigned to everyone and we were given a click track and some basic instructions to help everyone get coordinated. I did maybe 3 or 3 takes, with a few false starts in there. The click track we used was modified from a recording of a quartet performing this piece. The starting tempo was plugged in and a metronome clicked it off. During a couple of moments where there was some silence a metronome click was dubbed in to help all the musicians stay at the same tempo without being able to breathe together and cue each other.

While recording for this project I found it a little tricky to cue up my camera, then the click track, and get into position to be ready to play quickly enough. In retrospect, having a longer count off or even just some extra silence at the beginning of the click track would have made it just a little bit easier to be ready to play from the beginning.

Once the parts were all recorded, the audio files were pulled out and synced with each other using GarageBand. The videos were compiled and synced up separately using Adobe Premier Pro and the mixed and edited audio was dropped into the video. Some of the audio and video aren’t perfectly lined up with each other, but you have to look for it and the final audio ended up pretty good.

I made this video for my elementary school music students, so it’s a bit on the silly side. I did this project completely on my own and took me a while, mostly because I don’t have the necessarily video editing software to do this split screen video technique, so I had to come up with a different solution. Again, I started with a click track that was just a bass line and a metronome click. In order to get the opening shtick to a line up with the timing I also recorded my lines and stuck them in before the bass line started in the click track. That way I was saying my lines about the same time as on the click track and would also be able to react on the other video parts at the right time.

I mentioned I don’t have video editing software to do the split screen technique, so my solution was to open up four QuickTime windows on my computer monitor and start each one at the correct time while recording my screen, also using QuickTime. In order to get them synced together I needed to find a way to start separate video window one at a time and at the correct time. My solution was to include at the beginning of each video a count off for each instrument as a point of reference.

So on each video at the very beginning I recorded myself saying, “One, two – one, tow three four. Voice, two – one, two, three four” (in time with the metronome click in my headphones), then “Bone, two…” “Bass, two…” and “Keys, two…” On my computer I arranged the video windows where I wanted them and then watched each video until just before that instrument was counted in. In other words, starting the trombone video would start it right at the “Bone, two…” count off, etc. I then recorded my screen with QuickTime and started the voice window, starting the trombone window right as the voice recording got there, then started the other two video windows in the same way. There was a lot of hit-or-miss here where I ended up a a little bit off, but after a few tries I was able to get each video playing together being synced up pretty close.

The audio for this was done in GarageBand to make sure the audio was lined up. The QuickTime screen recording and the audio recording from GarageBand were lined up as close as I could get using iMovie. I wouldn’t want to try to use this technique for more than 4 videos, but it did the job for me.

Grandpa’s Spells

This last one is just an example of an audio recording project I made with two of my musician friends/colleagues. My friend Annie played both bass and guitar on this and James played the trombone. The tune is a Jelly Roll Morton composition called “Grandpa’s Spells.” I sent out a click track to Annie and James ahead of time that included a metronome click and a bass and drum part.

To create the bass and piano click track, as well as to help me chart out the arrangement we were to use, I used Finale to input in simple parts, exported those parts as a MIDI file, and then dumped those into GarageBand. Once in GarageBand I could record my part over those and send out click tracks to the other musicians that had their part removed. That way James could play his piano part without having a MIDI piano getting in his way, etc. The musicians recorded their parts and sent them back to me, which I dumped back into GarageBand to edit and mix.

Even though the musicians I’ve worked with on these, and other similar projects, were not able to get together in person or go to the same studio to record, it’s pretty amazing what we are able to do today with fairly cheap and easy to use technology. In fact, I would say that the most difficult hurdle to completing these projects is that you need to rely on everyone to have the time, energy, and inclination to set up a device to record on and a device to listen to the click track on at the same time and record their part. For a variety of reasons, many of my current remote recording projects are in limbo because we’re still waiting for musicians to get around to doing their part. Hopefully I’ll have some more of these to share before too long.

How Contagious are Wind Instruments?

Hopefully by the time you’re reading this post it will be out of date. Currently my area is still under a the 2020 pandemic lockdown and the only music performances going on are digital. But as we start to open things back up again there are questions about how soon we can get back to making music together again. One major question that I wondered about is how contagious are those of us playing wind instruments? If we’re carriers of covid-19 or flu are we putting our fellow musicians at risk by playing our instruments with them? There are some researchers who have been looking at this, including some from the Frieburg University of Music and the Bamberg Symphony. Dr. Sixto Montesinos helps us with translations from those publications.

To the best of our knowledge, there are no measurements of the viral load in the blowing air of wind instruments at present. It is known, however, that wind instrument playing requires an intensive exchange of air in the lungs and respiratory tract with sometimes high air pressures. To what extent the viral load is reduced by the airway in the instrument is unclear. It is to be assumed that the release of the breathing air into the environment during playing can lead to virus-containing aerosols. In addition, playing wind instruments causes condensation of the exhaled air in the instrument, which is to be regarded as another potentially virus-spreading material.

Risk Assessment Regarding Corona-Infections in Music Making

“We (The Bamberg Symphony) believe that playing a clarinet or a horn, for example, hardly releases any aerosols because the air flow in the instrument is slowed down where the sounds are generated.” said Marcus Axt, Director of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.

The Bamberg Symphony

So preliminarily, it looks like woodwind and brass instruments don’t increase the risk of spreading the covid-19 virus, although as far as I can tell they don’t address the need for emptying spit (I mean, water) from the water key. Joking aside, while it’s mostly condensation that we’re emptying out of the spit valve, there must be some spit getting in there and we already know that the inside of brass instruments aren’t always the most sterile environment to start with.

A number of the ensembles that I work with have members who are more at risk from covid-19. Some of these groups also cater to audiences that are older and in the high-risk population. Many of the venues where I play have smaller stages where musicians really need to squeeze together to all fit. Before we go back to playing together it would be nice to know for sure that we’re not inadvertently putting our fellow musicians and audiences at risk.

Then we also need to consider private lesson teaching. I fortunately have a larger room for my at-home music studio, but in the past I’ve used very small offices to teach private lessons where it’s not really possible to stand 6 feet apart. Many of my colleagues use very small rooms to teach their private lessons in.

I’m glad that there folks out there taking a science-based approach to what sort of risk playing a wind instrument will be as we start playing together again. So far it looks like the risk will be minimal based purely on playing your instrument near other musicians, but please keep in mind that the results are still preliminary and will require further research. I’ll post any updates that I learn about here, but please also pass along any information or articles if you happen to come across them in the comments below.

Planxty George Brabazon for Trombone Quartet

Planxty George Brabazon is a composition by Turlough O’Carolan. My wife has gotten interested in folk harp and has been learning to play this piece. For fun, I wrote a trombone quartet on this piece.

Planxty George Brabazon by Turlough O’Carolan, arranged by David Wilken

If you want to hear a more traditional setting, here is a performance on YouTube.

Here’s a PDF copy of my arrangement, free to download.

If you do end up reading it or performing it, please let me know if you liked it.

Salaputia Brass – Guess the Embouchure Types

Here’s a pretty neat short video of the Salaputia Brass Ensemble performing the movement “EWAME” from the new album “Sounds of Evolution.” They are all playing into mouthpieces that have cameras installed in them, so that you can see the view of their embouchure inside the mouthpiece while performing. Take a look at them and see if you can guess all of their embouchure types. My guesses will be after the break.

Because we’re only able to get an accurate look at which lip predominates, we’re not going to be able to note the musicians’ embouchure motion, but we can tell the player’s air stream direction. Starting from the upper left and moving across each row here are my guesses.

Continue reading Salaputia Brass – Guess the Embouchure Types

Do a Bad Job With Your Online Teaching

Hopefully this post will soon be obsolete. At the time that I’m writing this a large number of schools across the U.S. (and the world) are switching from in person classes to teaching online in order to stop the spread of covid-19. While it still remains up in the air whether or not my teaching will need to switch to online (hard to teach ensemble playing online), faculty at both at the college where I teach and the school system where MusicWorks is hosted have been asked to begin preparations to teach their courses online.

I’ve done a pretty fair amount of online teaching in the past, so it’s not something that intimidates me particularly. That said, Rebecca Barrett Fox has a counterintuitive suggestion. Do a “bad job.”

For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.

Her main point is that if your course was not initially designed to be taught online that your students’ circumstances may not be well suited to take online. Students may be living in homes that have poor online access. They may be sharing computers or be accessing course work on their phones. Some students may be also caring for children or sick family members.

The college ensemble I’m directing is really impossible to teach online. While I have ideas for how to keep my students engaged in playing their instruments online, they are really better geared towards one-on-one learning, rather than the group playing that we’ve been focusing on. Fortunately it’s a small group, so it won’t really be much of a drain on my time to do some one-on-one online teaching and there are all sorts of things I can help them with that will translate to better ensemble playing when we’re able to meet in person.

As I wrote above, my hope is that this post will soon be out of date. Everyone please stay healthy.