Taking a Knee for Arnold Schoenberg

Happy 2013, dear readers!  I know I’m due for a post that wraps up the Autumn semester—a piece of reflection and lexical repose—but the truth is I’ve been a bit distracted.  For most teachers (and students too, for that matter!) breaks are just as much a time to consider the successes of the semester past and recharge batteries for the work ahead.  But not for me.  At least, not this time. You see, for the past few weeks I have been immersed with a project about which I have been excited for quite some time (years, perhaps even a decade).

It surely comes as little surprise to learn that I’m working on a new piece of music.  After all, I’m a composer!  That’s what I do, right?  So then, would it surprise you to learn that the piece I’m so diligently and carefully working my way through right now was originally composed a century ago (105 years, to be exact)?

I know this is a blog about teaching.  I know this is a forum for open reflection.  And I know that I designed this space to be an opportunity for me to be transparent about my pedagogy, not wax philosophic about my scholarship.  However, I feel I would be doing myself and my students an injustice if I kept this project to myself, it’s just that much a part of who I am.  And so, indeed, I think it wise to avail myself of the opportunity to write a “Knee,” a blogging aberration, if you’ll allow.


Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this blog post: Taking a Knee for Arnold Schoenberg.

I couldn't resist…

Choral conductors and musical enthusiasts: what is your initial reaction if I say the words Friede auf Erden to you?

If your reaction was either one of awe or a string of curse words uttered at your computer screen, then you and I are in good company.  If you didn’t have any reaction at all, especially if you don’t know the piece in question, don’t feel bad.  Few do, and even fewer understand it.  That’s because this little known work by Arnold Schoenberg is routinely skipped over by ensembles.  For one thing, it’s physically taxing: the vocal lines are unrelenting unlike any choral work ever composed.  For another, it’s hard to program: the text (by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer) is a secular poem on a sacred subject that contains imagery that many deem liturgically off-putting.  Mostly, Friede auf Erden (“Peace on Earth”) is skipped over because it’s difficult. Unimaginably, impossibly difficult.

The work is built on a tonal structure that seems classical enough: D-minor (um…sure, let’s call it that) becomes D-major.  Unfortunately, the former key is never firmly established and, indeed, no key is confirmed until the very end (and with a massive, tonal cadence).  Complex passages of atonal lines replace a traditional development.  No key equals no solfege, and that means intervals have to be learned slowly, carefully, and methodically.  That might not sound like a problem for the more capable ensembles, but this 10-minute musical behemoth is meant to be performed a cappella (without accompaniment).  How many choirs make a habit out of putting together lengthy, a tonal a cappella works? Still, the piece seems to coalesce around…something.  Even at its most complicated (I’m struggling to avoid the word “dissonant” for theoretic reasons that I won’t get into here), lines of remarkable beauty seem to emerge from the fires of instability before being consumed again by chaos.

For me, this is Arnold Schoenberg’s great masterpiece.  Not his 12-tone system.  Not Pierrot Lunaire or Gurre-Lieder. Not even his treatise on harmony.  This story of grace and redemption, confusion giving way to clarity, and atonality succumbing to tonality (something quite profound for those of you who know anything about Schoenberg) at times reeks of Gustav Mahler, Schoenberg’s mentor who foresaw and feared tonality’s fate.

Too bad it’s almost impossible to perform.

Friede (to use the work’s nickname) calls for a choir of 40 in which each singer has near perfect pitch, the maturity to be sensitive with lines that seem to wander aimlessly, and the vocal stamina to attack blisteringly high notes without wavering, after pages and pages of chromatic leaps across and within the passagio.  I heard a college choir perform the work at a convention last year.  They received a standing ovation simply because because they survived to the end.  I was first to my feet.

Friede auf Erden was one of the last works performed and recorded by Joseph Flummerfelt and the Westminster Choir (it’s on the album, Heaven to Earth…as am I, for that matter!), not because he kept forgetting to perform it, but because it took him his entire life to put together just the right choir to attempt it, and almost as much time to mentally and spiritually reconcile the music itself.  That’s quite an admission for one of the great minds in the history of choral music.

Once I saw first-hand just how challenging Friede is to put together, I decided to rearrange the score – to make the work easier.  After all, I rationalized, Chanticleer’s Joseph Jennings reportedly did the piece in the style of a choral bell-choir: each singer performing only a few notes rather than vocal part as a whole (I don’t believe that story to be true, by the way, but I love the image it conjures).  And so I set out on a journey that would lead me through a master’s degree and culminate in a doctorate – my dissertation “Structural Analysis Through Ordered Harmony Transformations in the Early Works of Arnold Schoenberg” might as well have been titled “Blake Henson Struggles with ‘Friede auf Erden’ and Tries to Reconcile the Work Harmonically According to a System He Recently Invented for This Exact Purpose.”

Brief aside: I spent so much of my doctoral studies obsessed with this work that Will, the non-scholarly, non-academic bartender at the watering hole across the street from the music building at Ohio State (yes, THE Ohio State University), just posted a note to my Facebook wall saying “Go Schoenberg!”…and I haven’t set foot in the place in about three years.  But three years and a whole lot of b… soda later and that’s what he remembers of me. Yikes!


Okay, okay…

A few months ago I was having dinner with Michael Knight, the director of bands here at St. Norbert, and Joe Seroogy, local chocolatier and noted euphoniumist.  They were talking about music to perform with the SNC Community Band, and wanting to find some lesser-known gems for the upcoming season.  That’s when it hit me: a flute doesn’t need solfege. The move from tonality to atonality and back is nearly impossible for singers, but for a trumpet it’s child’s play!

“Okay Mike,” I interrupted, “I have an idea. Hear me out on this…”

He was almost as excited as I was.

So I’ve worked a little more during this break than I usually do.  Eh.  It’s all in the name of Music!  Friede auf Erden for Concert Band is almost done.  In fact, I drew the double-bar line today.  I actually hand-wrote most of it because I needed to see the full score at all times and my computer screen just isn’t large enough for that.  Next comes a long, rather arduous process of editing, re-mapping, and editing again.  But the score will be complete by the end of the month!

Obviously, I’m pretty excited.

It’s rare that composers care this deeply for a work that they didn’t actually compose.  But for me, this isn’t about fame or notoriety.  To be honest, I could leave this out of my tenure dossier and scratch my name from the cover without losing any sleep (I’m not sure the Faculty Personal committee will fully grasp the complexity of this project anyway).  It’s not about something I did, it’s about something I get to leave with the world.  For me, Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden is THE masterpiece, the greatest work  ever composed…that no one can perform.  With any luck, that is about to change. For almost ten years I’ve struggled to find ways to make it more approachable, to rework the score to be more easily sung.  It never occurred to me to simply not sing it all, but rather play it.

I’m looking forward to sharing this work with you in the coming months, particularly with those of you who don’t know it.  I’m not one to posit “definitive recordings” (that actually might be one of my least favorite expressions that musicians like to toss around), but if you’d like to get acquainted with Friede, let me suggest one or two performance before you begin searching YouTube for something that isn’t there (well, not really):


<a href=”https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/hear/id297759738?uo=4″ target=”itunes_store”>Hear – The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir</a>

The Norwegian Soloists Choir is not only a phenomenal ensemble, but this performance is sublime.  Perhaps even better, they get every not right.  It’s frightening, actually, how accurate and expressive they are.  They make it almost hard to recognize that this is both atonal and a beast to learn!  I’ve been in some pretty fantastic ensembles, but I can’t even imagine ever pulling off something like they do here.

Another good one is one by the Westminster Choir on the album “Heaven to Earth,” the final recording under the baton of Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt:

<a href=”https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/heaven-to-earth/id505533886?uo=4″ target=”itunes_store”>Heaven to Earth – Nancienne Parrella, Marisa Maupin, Maurycy Banaszek, Jacquelin Watson, Gloria Justen, Hanfang Zhang, Elizabeth Thompson, Daniel Hudson, Joseph Flummerfelt, Westminster Choir, Douglas Haislip, William Trigg, Steven Brennfleck, James Musto, Heather Fetrow, James Neglia, Phyllis Bitow, François Suhr, Joanne Hansen, Adrienne Ostrander & Charles Robert Stephens</a>

Listen well!  Then go and change the world.

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Directed Listening: learning to experience new music

Here at St. Norbert College, my colleagues and I have begun to talk about instituting a monthly music faculty listening series (like a lecture series, but instead of giving a talk, once a month a different faculty member would play a recording of a piece of music that they find fascinating or simply enjoy in its entirety).  The conversation—and my trying to decide what I might play first—has led to my asking myself this question:

How do I know so much music?

I’ll be the first to tell you that there are some gaping holes in my repertoire.  For example, there is a large helping of chamber works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven that I’ve probably only listened to once.  Of course, there’s a whole slew of 20th century works that I haven’t made it to yet.  That might be a summer vacation project waiting to happen!  But back to the point…

How do I know so much music?

What my students may not know (I only mention it tangentially) is that I’ve had a pretty exciting performing career.  Yes, I’m only [insert age here], but I’ve been fortunate to have had some once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences (if you really want to know more, you can read my official bio). Want to get to know some of the world’s greatest musical works firsthand?  Try planting yourself on the stage in Avery Fisher Hall for five years.  That certainly does wonders!

But the truth is, that’s not where I learned all of the music that continually shuffles through my head.  No, my deep-seated love for a good pair of headphones began back in middle school, thanks to the music-by-mail companies BMG and Columbia.

Programs like these mailed out catalogs of record albums (the CD had just come into vogue), and they’d offer you deals like buy one get 12 free.  Sure, you had to pay the shipping and handling (and the one disc you paid for was at an astronomical mark-up), but if you worked the deal carefully you could do quite well!  BMG, for example, had a standing offer wherein if you got a friend to sign up, not only would the friend be offered the 12-for-one deal, you would in turn be rewarded with four free CDs.  Since these companies distributed all of the great works of classical music, you could find “the” recordings of all of the masterworks.  Better still,  in the early days, they counted entire multi-disc operas as “one” CD as it came from a single stamp (that strategy quickly changed, but not until after I cleaned out their catalog.  Whoops?).


Those were great times. I signed up myself, my parents (individually), my sister, my roommates…I think at one point I even signed up our pet rabbit!  It’s no wonder those companies went out of business.  Whoops?

What made this process so rewarding was that this truly exceptional (and low-cost) treasure, took forever to ship!  At best, the process took six weeks.  Of course, that meant that once one of those glorious brown boxes finally arrived at your doorstep, you listened to every. single. note.  Carefully.  Multiple times.

There was no iTunes through which music could be downloaded instantly.  There was barely an internet (and “streaming audio” was a joke over 14.4kbps modems).  If you wanted to learn new classical music you used mail-order programs like these, watched a once-a-week show on PBS, or tuned in to the local classical station that always seemed to play Strauss.  Ordering CDs a few at a time and waiting [sometimes] patiently for the box to arrive simply became part of my childhood.

And I’m the better for it.

Yet while BMG offered a medium through which to acquire new music, I had no idea what was “important” or “good.”  Perhaps that was for the best as it meant I had no preconceptions about the music I was ordering, nor a hesitancy to listen to different things.  Indeed, I approached the task of ordering music by first admitting “I have no idea where to start.” Back then, the choral director Robert Shaw was in his prime, and I was certainly aware that he was known for outstanding choral music, so the first discs I ordered were his compilation albums.  There were many, but over the course of a year I managed to order them all.

Listening to these compilations, I learned that certain pieces spoke to me more than others.  For example, I liked the excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, so I ordered a complete Messiah recording.  I didn’t particularly love the recording I received, so I ordered a different one.  Then one more after that.  Eventually I found Paul McCreesh’s Messiah recording with the Gabrieli Consort and Players.  I fell in love with it.  I listened to it in its entirety over and over again, following along with the words in the booklet, eventually purchasing a choral score from the local music store.

When I finally grew tired of The Messiah, I looked for other works by Handel that were also recorded by Paul McCreesh.  That’s how I found the oratorio Theodora. It was beautiful.  I was hooked.

Throughout middle school, high school, college, and graduate school my CD collection expanded dramatically.  If someone recommended a work to me, I bought a recording (any recording, really) and listened to it in its entirety.  Whether I liked it or not, I would then usually look for a recording of the same work by a different ensemble or conductor, then a different work by that ensemble, and so forth. That’s how learning one work almost always turned to my falling in love with another.

There have been many things I’ve waisted money on over the years: fancy sport coats, rare bottles of wine, even first editions of books I had little intention of ever reading.  However, the money that I spent on those CDs was never, ever waisted. They continue to be worth every penny.


A few of my students and I have been having some wonderful conversations about learning new music. I’ve loved their enthusiasm, and their openness and eagerness to be confounded by art.  I’ve also been puzzled as to how to tell them to begin finding new works now that the instant accessibility of iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, and SoudCloud have replaced the 6-8 week waiting period of BMG and Columbia.  As strange as it may seem, that wait made the experience of listening even better. More to the point, digital music services make it easy to discover and listen to one song, but experiencing an album in its entirety is often more challenging. When I was first ordering CDs, you couldn’t buy just one aria—you had to purchase the entire opera.

With that came my realization: regardless of how you find the music, I think the process is still the same.  Start with a few individual pieces.  If there is one you like, find the work from which it is taken, or look for other pieces by the same composer.  Then find other recordings of that work or listen to other works by a different performer.

Just as a musical performance begins not with the first note, but rather with the impulse to make that initial sound, so too does experiencing new music begin simply with the desire to do so.

And with that, allow me to offer a few suggestions

Shameless plug: these are taken from the appendix of my new book, The Composer’s Craft, which will be available in the Spring!

The following suggestions are organized by performing forces to make it easier for you to direct your own listening (singers might want to start with vocal music, for example).  These aren’t necessarily the titans of each genre, but they ARE great works and works that should spark your musical interests.  You’ll note that I haven’t suggested particular recordings.  After all, isn’t comparing and contrasting different conductors and performers part of the fun?

Happy listening!


Solo Voice

Barber, Samuel — Hermit Songs

Dvorak, Antonin — Song to the Moon (from Rusalka)

Faure, Gabriel — Après un Rêve

Leoncavallo, Reggero — “Vesti la giubba” (from Pagliaccci)

Mahler, Gustav — Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Puccini, Giacomo — “O Mio Babbino Caro” (from Gianni Schicchi)

Puccini, Giacomo — “Nessun Dorma” (from Turandot)

Rachmaninoff, Sergei — Vocalise


Solo Instrument

Arnold, Malcolm — Fantasy for Bassoon

Berio, Luciano — Sequenza I

Crawford Seeger, Ruth — Diaphonic Suite No. 1

Dzubay, David — Solus 1

Feldman, Morton — The King of Denmark

Hindemith, Paul — Sonate für Posaune und Klavier

Honegger, Arthur — Intrada

Ravel, Maurice — Sonata for Violin and Piano

Stravinsky, Igor — Three Pieces for Clarinet



Beethoven, Ludwig van — Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, “Pathetique

Brahms, Johannes — Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79 No. 1

Chopin, Frederic — Nocturne in E-Flat, Op. 9 No. 2

Debussy, Claude — Clare de lune

Glass, Philip — Metamorphosis

Ives, Charles — Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord

Liszt, Franz — Consolation #3

Rachmaninoff, Sergei — Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23

Schoenberg, Arnold — Op. 11 No. 1

Vine, Carl — Sonata No. 1


Vocal Ensemble

Bach, Johann Sebastian — Singet dem Herrn

Brahms, Johannes — Lasst dich dur nichts nicht dauren

Howels, Herbert — Requiem

Ives, Charles — Psalm 90

Lauridsen, Morten — O Magnum Mysterium

Ligeti, Gyorgy — Requiem

Mendelssohn, Felix — Verleih uns Frieden

Poulenc, Francis — Un Soir de Neige

Schoenberg, Arnold — Friede auf Erden

Vaughan Williams, Ralph — Serenade to Music


Chamber Ensemble

Barber, Samuel — String Quartet in B Major, Op. 11

Beethoven, Ludwig van — Three String Trios, Op. 9

Bernstein, Leonard — Dance Suite

Brahms, Johannes — Clarinet Quintet in B Minor

Harbison, John — The Rewaking

Messiaen, Olivier — Quartet for the End of Time

Mozart, Wolfgang — Kegelstatt Trio

Ravel, Maurice — Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello

Schoenberg, Arnold — Verklärte Nacht

Shostakovich, Dimitri — String Quartet No. 8

Schubert, Franz — Trout Quintet

Smetana, Bedrich — String Quartet No. 1, “From My Life


Large/Mixed Ensemble

Beethoven, Ludwig van — Symphony No. 7

Berlioz, Hector — Symphony Fantastique

Brahms, Johannes — Ein Deutsches Requiem

Brahms, Johannes — Symphony No. 4

Copland, Aaron — Appalachian Spring

Grainger, Percy — Lincolnshire Posy

Hindemith, Paul — Mathis der Maler

Mahler, Gustav — Symphony No. 2 (then listen to No. 9!)

Persichetti, Vincent — Symphony No. 6

Stravinsky, Igor — Rite of Spring

Williams, Ralph Vaughan — English Folk Song Suite


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Midterm Grading

I have been promising to offer reflections on my classes, but until now that promise has gone unfilled. It probably would have gone untouched much longer were it not for a dream I had last night in which Politifact.com‘s Truth-O-Meter kept scoring my lectures (seriously).

I usually enjoy my first cup of coffee in the morning by complaining about the quality of morning news, but this morning I went right to my study and began making notes of projects and statements that Politifact would categorized as “Promise Kept,” “Compromise,” “Promise Broken,” “Stalled,” or “In the Works.”  I suppose I wasn’t too surprised that much of my self-directed criticism was in relation to this blog.  I’m not doing a great job keeping some of my promises here, am I?

And so, without any further adieu, allow me to reflect on what’s going on in my classes right now: MIDTERMS!

(And when I say “right now,” I mean it literally.  I’m typing this while the Musicianship V class does some composition/analysis for their theory midterm)

I strangely love designing midterms.  Midterms and Final Exams provide a unique opportunity to take pause in my week-to-week or concept-to-concept planning and ask myself “what have we covered so far that’s really important?” Of course, designing tests also means that I get to take them (they have to get checked and edited somehow) and I don’t get to take many exams these days.  That’s something you think you’ll never miss…and then you stop having them.  Okay, maybe that’s just me.

I can see I’m already digressing.  Again.

Here’s my problem with this year’s midterms: music theory is assessed regularly through homework assignments and quizzes, whereas music history is only assessed at exam times (a problem I openly recognize apropos the course design and my planning within it, but that’s another blog post).  Because of that, theory exams are the easiest to write (I just draw from my favorite homework and quiz questions) and thus the easiest to study for (review old homework and quizzes).  History, on the other hand, is more complicated as the only study aid that students have at their disposal is their textbook.  That’s why I’ve begun putting copies of my history lectures on Moodle (our online learning environment). Because I can sense your eyebrow raising, I concede that putting a copy of my notes online is not even remotely the same thing as students having access to their own, instructor-graded-and-commented-upon work.

What can I do to make these exams simultaneously more useful and successful (apart from restructure the course so periodic assessment becomes part of the design — really, I’ll get to that)?

For one thing, I try to let students have a hand in the exam’s creation process by first allowing them to choose the format.  In most classes, I use an in-class caucus system wherein we start with myriad options apropos the exam’s format and whittle down to our collective favorite by rounds of voting and impromptu, impassioned speeches.  Secondly, wherever possible I like students to write their own questions.  I create a “Music History Wiki” in Moodle in which students can add, delete, or edit questions away from class.  This typically provides for a bit of ownership as they’re then being tested on what they think is important (of course, I’ll add a few questions or topics myself if glaring omissions occur).  This kind of activity not only helps support the idea of a “flipped” classroom, but also generates an immediate study guide.  I think that’s very helpful.

Beyond that, I simply try to avoid tricking people.  “What is the purpose of this exam?” is always the first question I ask myself when beginning to design a test.  “To show them all of the things they don’t know” has never and will never be my answer.

Whether it’s because students are more concerned about the history portion of their exam (a mystery to those who have never taken one of my midterms), or because I spend so much time carefully crafting that test, the mean history score tends to be higher than its theory counterpart.

I’m okay with that.  I’m a music theorist with a passion for music history (not the other way around), so it makes sense that my bar would be set a little higher apropos music theory.  But the scores also indicate that the way I’m attempting to work around a design flaw in my course (the lack of periodic assessment in history) is working.  It also means that my students know how to study, and THAT is perhaps the most significant of silver linings.

Here we are: Midterms 2012.  How are they doing so far?  GREAT!  The juniors (taking their theory midterms as I type this) absolutely annihilated their history exam (in a good way).  I don’t like to curve scores, instead I just raise my “benefit-of-the-doubt-o-meter” as high as possible when I feel that more leeway is needed. But if I DID curve exam scores the juniors would have broken that very, very quickly, even with my B.O.T.D.-o-meter turned off.  It was actually one of the best history exams I’ve ever seen!

The sophomores did their theory exams yesterday, and those too were fantastic!  Even more exciting was that a trend I’ve been carefully following continued through the exam: students who started off the semester on shaky footing have been improving quickly and dramatically over the past two weeks.  A few of those students who may have started the semester with a series of C’s are in a battle for the highest grade on their midterms. To quote something I keep reading on Facebook: That. Is. Awesome.

There may be nothing in the world that I love more than watching the “lightbulb moment” which occurs when a student realizes how something works or why it’s important to their course of study, as well as to the way they understand the world around them and the way they work within it.  These moments are rare, but they are vital.

To my students: keep up the great work!  You’re forcing me to rethink some things that, quite frankly, need to be rethought, and you are offering a terrific lens through which to do so.

Happy Friday!  Midterms are almost over. And with that…

“Maestro? Some celebratory music, if you please!”


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Are You Listening?

How much time each day do you spend listening to music?  I’m not talking about having the radio on while you work, or playing a CD in the car. I mean real listening.

What’s that?  What do I mean by “real listening?”  I’m so glad that you asked!

To my composition students who have heard this speech already, I beg your indulgence for a moment.  To everyone else, I’d like to begin this post by positing the notion that there are generally three ways of aurally experiencing a musical performance: hearing, listening, and hyper-listening.

Hearing is what you do when you have an iTunes playlist on in the background while you hang out with friends, drive to the store, or do a bit of homework.  These kinds of musical experiences are both good and valuable.  Hearing allows us to appreciate music we already know or to introduce us to pieces with which we are not yet familiar so that we may listen to them later.  Unfortunately, given the natural fragility of a musical work, it is unlikely the piece that is playing on Pandora can stand up to the myriad distractions by which you are otherwise hampered.  Much is lost when we default to “hearing” music.

Hyper-Listening is what many of us do when we focus on the act of listening and not the music itself.  If you’re a music student, odds are good that you know exactly what I mean.  You prepare for it as if you were Rambo gearing up to take on a legion of alto clefs.  You proclaim “the hour of listening is upon us!” as you turn off all the lights, hang a “do not disturb!” sign on the door, toss your cell phone into the laundry hamper, plug in your best headphones (“no computer speakers for me!”), and prepare yourself for some of the most focused, motionless sitting you’ve ever done in your life. From the moment you hit play, this “listening” becomes an exercise in trying to follow each individual line.  You may even pause from time to time to ask “was that an E-flat or an F?”  If you are listening to something for a class, you may find yourself attempting to preempt a question that your professor may or may not ask: is this 2/4 or 4/4? Was that a viola that reached over the second violins, or is that a cello playing in treble clef?  Wait, was that a Neapolitan 6th?! Believe it or not, this experience, too, has merit, but by focusing so intently on the individual notes, you make it difficult to sense how and to what end those notes come together.

Listening lies at the crossing-point, and it is perhaps much more akin to active experiencing than anything else.  When you listen, allow the music to guide you, don’t try to wield it yourself.  And while you may be sensitive to unexpected melodic turns or dramatic harmonic shifts, allow yourself to be more concerned with how they effect the work’s direction than with how to label those individual moments.  If hyper-listening is being read a story and continually interrupting to ask “is this when the dwarf enters? Is he magical? Where does he get his power? Why doesn’t he have a wand? Can we have ice cream after this?” then listening is letting the story unfold naturally, unhindered.

As an example of what I’m talking about, listen to the following excerpt of a motet by Anton Bruckner (click your browser’s “back” button when you are finished):

Bruckner: Os Justi (excerpt)

Hey. I said listen. If you kept working on that e-mail to your parents, or had to turn the speakers down as it got louder for fear of bothering someone else in the room, then you probably weren’t actually listening.  Give it another try.

On the other hand, if you have already begun your essay on how “Os Justi” was composed in 1879, and is a motet in the Palestrinian style that highlights the potential harmonic development available in the Lydian mode, then I’ve got news for you: you need to try again too.

To really listen to this example, you must be willing to cede control of your own spirit for a minute and two seconds.  Musical experiences like these (even one minute of them) require you to go to a deeper place. You’ll know you’ve found the right balance between hearing and hyper-listening when your pulse begins to slow a bit; when at the 30-second mark, you begin to hold your breath ever so slightly, and at the climax 9 seconds later, you close your eyes and exhale, perhaps even wincing a touch as the harmonic unfolding begins to delicately collapse like a soufflé pulled from the oven.  This is no ordinary minute of music. This is the beginning of a remarkable journey—a journey inward.

As a teacher and a composer, I believe there are always multiple ways to say something.  With that in mind, for those of you who still aren’t quite understanding what I’m getting at, allow me to call in a reinforcement.  For the next four minutes, put yourself in Denzel Washington’s shoes as you watch this excerpt from the movie Philadelphia and listen to how Tom Hanks describes the aria “La mamma morta” from Chénier’s opera Umberto Giordano.


I cannot over-stress the importance of regularly listening to music.


Listening helps you understand how music works in a manner that goes beyond merely conceptualizing counterpoint, harmonic progressions, form, melody, rhythm, texture, and timbre.  By fully experiencing what a composer or artist is saying and how they choose to say it, listening teaches you not just how music is made, but why.  This is paramount to our lives both as artists and as expressive, creative beings.

Listening to music reminds us of the journey we are on, and that while there may be many walks, there is but one one road.  As we listen to music and allow it into our bodies and to guide our souls, we are reminded of the importance of our own thoughts, of the necessity of sharing who we are with one another, and of the extent to which our voices are so desperately needed in this world.

You have something to say.

Speak, and we will listen.

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A Note about Notes (the non-musical variety)

Hooray! We survived the first few weeks of class.  Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s no small feat! If you have already begun counting the days until the next summer vacation, I have some bad news for you: it’s a long. way. off. That’s okay! There are many books to read, scores to study, performances to give, recitals to attend, and lectures to tweet through (ahem). It’s going to be a busy year!  But for now, it’s Saturday, and Saturday means college football.

For those of you who don’t yet know me very well, I’m a big fan of college football.  I went to a music school from 5th grade through high school (no football there) before spending a year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX where football games are about as rowdy and exciting as Saturday brunch (which, incidentally, is exactly what they mean by “tailgating” at SMU). For the five years that followed, I attended a music school in Princteton, NJ (not much football there either, sorry Tigers), after which I moved to Columbus, OH for my doctorate wherein I was talked into buying season tickets for the Buckeye home games.

Woah. Let me tell you, it’s hard not to be a college football fan after joining 102,328 of your closest friends in cheering the Buckeyes to a win over Michigan (boo Michigan!).

But I digress…

I spent much of this morning watching football and, perhaps more importantly, listening to commentators talk about football.  For many FBS schools, today represents the beginning of conference play, marking the end of the “tune-up” games and the beginning of “real” football. As such, I couldn’t help but notice how the conversation between commentators seems to have suddenly shifted.  Criticisms for how a coach is going to right their team’s ship now that the season is in full swing, have replaced the pre-seasoning Heisman Trophy crownings and National Championship matchup odds-making.  I actually laughed out loud when a reporter asked Ohio State coach Urban Meyer how he was going to help his team improve after beating California by only seven points.  My laughter grew louder when he responded by shaking his head and launching into a list of areas in which he expects his players to improve.

I’m glad I’m not a football coach.  Those stakes are just too high for me.  I would quite simply be crushed under the weight of expectations that their schools have for them (not to mention those they have for themselves).

Perhaps I’m being too quick to distance myself from this situation. Isn’t coach Meyer doing exactly what I should be doing?  Constantly analyzing my team and continuously refining my preparation, all so I can field the very best squad I can help train?


Okay, I’ve talked myself into it.  Let’s do it.  Let’s get to work.  Let’s be reflective.  Let’s see if we can find the holes in our offense and consider how we can begin to improve our game.  I’m tossing out the coffee and pouring Gatorade into a squeeze bottle. Coach Meyer, this blog post is for you.


When a football coach evaluates his team, he starts by reviewing tape from the previous scrimmage.  Because we don’t have cameras mounted in the theory room (how creepy would that be?), I keep a set of documents in Evernote in which I jot down positives and negatives of each class after the session has ended.  While I’m usually keenly aware of the areas I’d like to improve, from time to time I’m able to find a trend in my notes, something that I might not normally have considered. In this case, I’m glad I’ve taken good notes, because the aspect of class that most concerns me isn’t studying, homework, listening, or playing exercises at the piano.  Rather ironically, the issue that is raised most in my notes is that I need to take time to discuss…how to take notes.

I’ve seen you sitting back there, shaking your hands to work out the cramps that come from writing too much, too quickly.  Your frustration is palpable (I’m close to being literal there, I think a few of you are about ready to throw your pencils at me!).  Yes, there are things I can do to help.  I can put less text in my presentation, or allow for more time between topics so you don’t have to write continuously for an hour.

Fair enough.  I’ll work on that.  I’ll try to be less textually overwhelming, but you need to meet me in the middle.  After all, what are the odds that I’m going to be the last professor you ever have who inundates you with information?  What if the next person isn’t so willing to reconsider his or her lecture style?  It might be great if everyone simply talked less, but let’s face it, that’s not going to happen (part of why many of us become college professors is to have access to a captivate audience at whom we can talk…a lot).  So let’s look at the other side of the coin: how can you be more efficient in your note taking?

Consider this: I post my presentations to Moodle after every class. Why is that relevant information?  Because it means you don’t need to write down every word on every slide.  You’ll have access to that information later.

Then what do you write down, if not what’s on the screen?  To answer that, you must first ask yourself the following question:

Why am I taking notes?

That answer is likely to vary from person to person depending on your learning style, but odds are your response is something to the effect of “to help me retain important information” or “to create an information roadmap by which to study, something I can lay over my textbook to guide my review.”

Ah! A textbook!  I almost forgot about that!  Not only do you have access to my presentations, you also have the textbook on which my lectures are based.  With that in mind, let’s consider the primary question:

What should I write down?

Now that you know you’ll have access to the written information in your textbook, as well as my presentation slides, what is it that you don’t have access to?  What I’m saying.

It’s true, my lecture style is to put the highlights on the screen and wax philosophic about what makes those things interesting or relevant, so taking notes exclusively on what I’m saying probably won’t serve you well in the long-run (thought it might make you a hit at your next music theory and history party!).  Instead, let me encourage you to use my speech as a guide.  Am I repeating anything?  Do I seem to be emphasizing a fact or a bit of text?  Do we as a class ever stop to consider a point or debate a concept?  Do I begin class with a preface, like “today we’re going to talk about…” or do I end with a review of things we covered?  These are perhaps the most important things to write down.

Of course, there’s more to notetaking than deciphering my speech.

When I ramble on about the history of opera or Berlioz’ idée fixe, what are you thinking about?  Have you ever considered that what you’re thinking or feeling about a specific topic might be worth writing down? You should! IT IS!

If you stop to ask a question, but choose not to raise it in class because you think it might either be answered later or ultimately proven to be moot, write it down!

If you are listening to a piece of music and find it to be particularly disinteresting, write down why!

If you find something to be funny, feel like I’ve skipped something important, wonder why one person seems more interesting than another, or wish you’d been able to listen to a symphony rather than an opera overture, make a note of it!

Through your textbook and our Moodle course, you have access to many of the things I think are important, but what you do not have a record of is your own thoughts or feelings on these subjects as you learn them and how you relate to the material we cover is often every bit as important to the facts and histories themselves. Remember that you take notes for you, not for me.  I don’t read your notes, but hopefully you do.  So write down things that interest you. Write down terms or facts you want to take away from class.  Yes, even write down your feelings and reflections, however fleeting they may be.  As my friend Gerald Custer would say, “your feelings are worth sharing.  Your thoughts are worth writing down.”

Notetaking is a science to be sure, a topic that a lot of very smart people have spent years researching and discussing.  Just as a football coach is constantly evaluating other teams’ systems for a new play or formation to fold into their own gameplan, so do college professors evaluate one another’s teaching and research.

It is with this in mind that I’d like to refer you to the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth University, which has put together a tremendous set of resources apropos good notetaking:


This website is filled with fantastic tutorials and guides, including an invaluable word document on taking lecture notes as well as a link to the Cornell Note Taking System, which offers a very cool and extremely useful form for jotting down thoughts and reviewing them later.   Check it out!


Well readers, it looks like I’m going to have to end this here.  I encourage each and every one of you to spend some time thinking not just about how you take notes, but why you take notes. Odds are good you’re working too hard, and by writing down too much information you’re missing the opportunity to invest yourself in the subject at hand (not to mention some almost humorous jokes about augmented sixth chords.  You really don’t want to miss those…okay, maybe you do).  But for now, it’s half-time in Ann Arbor and Michigan is beating Massachusetts by 29.  Something tells me the reporters wont be asking Brady Hoke how his team can improve next week, but you never know.  Until then, come on Minutemen! Win one for your Scarlet and Grey friends in Columbus!

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“Back to school, back to school…”

[This post is dedicated to the young woman who quietly confessed "I'm so nervous!" as she passed me in the convocation processional this evening]

It’s that time again.

Convocation has ended and a new banner has been raised.  Freshmen have been [extensively] welcomed and parents are back home trying to decide what to do with their newly acquired spare bedroom.  Upperclassmen have moved back to campus and are now cursing me for scheduling Musicianship V at 8am (side note: scheduling is complicated, especially in a music department in which choristers play in band and vice-versa. Yes, I scheduled class for 8am, but do you really think I would have done so if there was another legitimate option?  So, sorry gang. Bring coffee.  Bring lots and lots of coffee).  A new school year is upon us whether we are ready or not!

But first, a moment of self-humiliation.

Of all my back-to-school photos—and there are lots—this is by far the worst.  I’m sharing it because it happens to be the only one of which I have a digital copy.  Sure, I could ask my sister to send a better one (she is, after all, in most of these with me), but that would put her in the position of forbidding me from posting said photo on the inter-webs and I’m a big fan of “it’s better to say you’re sorry than to ask permission.” So Nikeboy it is.  But I digress…

In my everlasting quest to be transparent, to share the things that other professors tend to keep secret, I’d like to offer a little back-to-school tidbit: we, your teachers, get nervous for the first day of school too.

Perhaps nervous is too strong of a word, but I’d venture to say that more care, focus, and energy is poured into a day of syllabus-reading and acquaintance-making than any other day in the semester.  In fact, as my colleagues and I were waiting for the Convocation processional to begin, several of us were discussing how we wished the festivities were held on another day because we’d like to spend the 24-hours before the start of the school year in a sort of self-guided, spiritual retreat.  It’s the calm before the storm; the deep breath before a year of [hopefully well-managed] chaos.

If you were looking for me at the back-to-school picnic, I’m sorry to have disappointed. I ran straight back home and started in on a back-to-school routine that’s been over twenty years in the making. It’s actually become something of a comforting, even therapeutic process: get out my clothes, iron my shirt, set the coffee to come on (something I’ve been doing for longer than I care to admit), make my lunch, pack my bag, take a shower, and try to be in bed early.

24th Grade, here I come.

I feel an awful lot like…well, like this:

Students, faculty, and staff all have this in common right now: we are all anxious.  We are all excited.  We are all even a little nervous.  For the faculty, nervousness stems from the faith we have in our own abilities to plan courses, to preemptively troubleshoot problems, and to be flexible with something that’s been carefully and systematically constructed.  Staff members are worried that new infrastructures and systems that have been arduously crafted and finely tuned over the summer won’t collapse when a few thousand people jump on-board tomorrow morning and find that a task once accomplished in four steps now only requires one.  So if you feel a few butterflies as you walk to class tomorrow, know that the person standing in front of you is probably feeling just as anxious, they’ve just spent more years learning how to hide it.


To the class of 2016: welcome to St. Norbert College.  It’s going to be a wild four years.  You’re going to love it!

To the upperclassmen: try to be patient tomorrow.  There are bound to be some hiccups, but you guys have been through this.  Just relax and have some fun!

To the girl who unintentionally confessed her nervousness to me this evening: you’re going to be great. By this time tomorrow you’ll have forgotten all about ever feeling unsettled, but in the unlikely event that those feelings persist, you’ll find that the students here at St. Norbert have an enormous capacity to love, understand, and comfort.

And to the students in my 8am Musicianship V class: I wasn’t joking about the coffee.


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Textbooks Revisited

“I don’t know how to read the textbook.”

Have you ever had one of those conversations in which you smile and nod, try to offer intelligent responses (but end up saying things that either don’t make sense or make you sound silly), then ultimately cave to your seemingly spontaneous inability to be articulate and opt to simply sit there and listen only to realize exactly what you should have said a few hours later?

When something similar happens to Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail (remember the dinner party?), we think it’s funny and even endearing, but when it’s our mouths that seem suddenly filled with cotton, the paralysis can be frustrating, even overwhelming.

Just such a tragedy struck me while I was talking with a student a few days ago.  While reflecting on the previous school year, he realized that he wasn’t getting the most out of his textbook, a problem which he traced back to one startling admission:

“I don’t know how to read the textbook.”

I was floored.  I mean it, I was stunned.

I talk a lot about vulnerability with my students.  It’s hard to be a musician.  It’s difficult to share your art with others.  Anyone who has ever performed in public knows what it means to be vulnerable.  For the better part of an hour, you stand on a stage under the only lights in the theater while a room full of friends, family, and complete strangers listen intently to you as you share your inner-most thoughts and beliefs.  It’s brutal.

Vulnerability is a huge part of musicing. As someone who spends a great deal of time considering and discussing it, I like to think that an artist’s vulnerability can’t surprise me anymore.

I was wrong.

It takes a lot of courage to admit that you need help with something, but I can’t imagine the strength needed to admit what my students shared.  To walk into my office unprompted, confess not being good at something so fundamental as reading a book, and then to ask for help improving.

Cotton-mouth strikes again.

I was bowled over by the vulnerability of the act, and his strength to attack it head-on.

The truth is, reading any textbook can be a challenge, and no two books are alike. Furthermore, how to read, understand, and study a text isn’t something we professors spend a lot of time teaching.  Oh, but it sure is something we love to asses.  Right now, in fact, I’m designing a series of reading-comprehension quizzes to use next semester.  Have I also been designing a guide or a series of discussions on how to approach and understand our textbook?  Nope.

Students: 1

Dr. Henson: 0

As is so often the case, a few hours after the chat with my student, I thought of what I should have said (N.B. Meg Ryan, I’ll try not to laugh at your verbal misfortunes anymore). While this will almost certainly be a part of my syllabus and it will definitely be a topic for the first week of class, let me take a few moments now to share what I should have said then, not just to the student who asked, but to everyone who happens to find this blog.


How do you read your music theory textbook?

First, ask yourself: why am I reading this?  What are my goals in reading this book?

I believe you should approach reading your textbook as a way to be introduced to new concepts, not necessarily as a means to master them.

Just as every professor has a different point-of-view when they approach a subject, so too do textbook authors.  I chose the textbook we currently use (Miguel Roig-Francoli’s Harmony in Context), because I like the the theory it presents and the structure according to which content is paced. Equally important in my decision to adopt this text is that Roig-Francoli’s approach differs from mine just enough that we can bolster one another’s shared philosophies while often offering contrasting perspectives.

With this in mind, I’ll return to the question: how do you read your textbook? I suppose it just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t format my responses in a list. I like lists.

1) Skim first. The first time you broach a new chapter, let your eyes skim the surface of the writing.  Look for main ideas like section titles and subject headings.  As you skim, make a list of key concepts or terms.  You can always tell if you’re approaching the first step correctly by writing a summary of the chapter.  If you can summarize the concepts and terms in a short paragraph, you’re on the right track.  If you find it difficult to get more than a sentence or two out of your reading, you might need to skim a little more carefully.  And if you find one paragraph to be too limiting, you might be reading too closely for the first pass.

2) Separate the text from the examples. When I need a refresher on a subject, I pull open our book and play through the examples.  The content already exists somewhere in my mind, so what I’m looking for is a quick way to dust off my mental cobwebs.  The important thing here is that I already know what our book says, I’m just looking for a refresher.  If you were doing a self-guided study of music theory I would strong suggest you read each paragraph and study the associated examples as you arrive at them, but as that isn’t the case in most traditional college classes, I don’t think you need to be quite so diligent.  Read the text first.  Look at the examples second.  When you do look at the examples, use them as opportunities to further concepts you gleaned from your reading.  Resist the temptation to try this the other way around. When theorists analyze they often use their own shorthand, which gets explained in the accompanying text.  Trying to understand analytical graphs without first knowing what the abbreviations mean can be brutal.

3) Write questions as you read. It’s good to make notes while you read, to jot down keywords and important concepts as you pass them.  Perhaps just as important is to couch those within your personal narrative.  Said differently, ask questions as you read.  Where did this idea come from?  How is this useful?  How is a different from b?  When might this be used? Questions like these can guide your reading by giving you a reason to keep going to seek out the answers, and in so doing uncover new questions.  This might be a good time for me to offer a different approach to note-taking: don’t take notes, keep a diary.  Notes highlight someone else’s points while a diary reflects on these, but allows you to focus on your own thoughts.

4) Play the examples.  I can’t say this enough.  Play the examples at a piano.  Every music student at St. Norbert College must learn to play the piano, so don’t start arguing that you’re not a pianist.  Wanna know a secret?  I’m not a pianist either.  Use these as exercises in score reading and opportunities to improve dexterity at the keys.  Even if you don’t fully understand a subject, listen to what each concept sounds like.  I could write a treatise on the importance of listening to and playing what you study in theory class (perhaps that will be a blog post later), but for now I’ll skip to the end and say this: it’s easy to forget that we are talking bout how music works, how pieces from one period are similar (but works from multiple eras sound radically different), and why composers make certain choices.  It’s easy to forget that all of this math and science is the crux of something very personal and human.  We must remind ourselves of that every chance we get.

5) Reread. If the first time you go through a chapter you’re skimming for content in attempt to summarize concepts, read the second time to try and understand a philosophy or to pick out a subtle, gestural nuance.  As an example, let’s pretend that one of the topics in your reading is the cadential 6/4 (one of my favorite things!).  When you reread the chapter, look for discussions on why a particular notation is preferred or what musical era seems to use this figure most frequently (and is there a style of music that avoids it all together?).  Use this as a chance to preempt your own problems.  Might you run into trouble when you begin to use the cadential 6/4 in your own analysis?  Why do you think that might be the case? This kind of reflective consideration is what professors often describe as “the difference between undergraduate and graduate-level reading.” But guess what! You don’t have to wait until you go to graduate school to be reflective.

6)Look for study questions at the end of the chapter. Many music theory books offer study questions and assignments at the end of each chapter, and Harmony in Context is no exception. Since this blog is all about transparency, I’ll let you in on another secret: I regularly copy these assignments to use as quizzes.  There.  Now you know my evil plan.  Since our assignments come from an accompanying workbook and not out of the text itself, you get several pages of outstanding material at the end of each chapter to use for your own review.  I use this material all the time.  Why shouldn’t you?


As I write this, I’m finding it difficult to list do’s without turning to dont’s. Call it my attempt at staying positive while my coffee pot sits empty (I’m out of coffee here in the office.  I know what you’re thinking. No, I don’t know why I even bothered to show up today).  Indeed, while I want this post to be more helpful than ominous, I think it is important that I offer at least a few words of caution. While I generally try to avoid ending on a sour note, perhaps you will indulge me this once as I close this post by offering four things to keep in mind as you read:

1) Don’t feel like you have to understand everything before coming to class. I mean it. Our first class on a new subject is usually more of an introduction than a full-fledged workshop, and I like students to be able to contextualize that discussion.  Come to class ready to discuss and tease-out what you have read, but you do not have to feel prepared to take an exam.  I will never give a pop-quiz on something we haven’t discussed.

2) Reading your textbook is not about learning what we didn’t get to in class. It’s true that we don’t cover everything.  Some topics need lots of time and attention, others we glaze over in transition.  Still, there are a few concepts we simply skip over. As such, it might seem like you only need to read the parts of your textbook that we don’t get to in class to be a well-rounded student.  That just isn’t the case.  I try to be open about the fact that much of music theory exists as a two-sided coin.  While I try to offer both sides, there are many subjects that I feel work better discussed one way than other. In these cases it’s not always beneficial to be equally pluralist.  Quite often, your textbook takes the other approach.  If you have ever found me to be confusing in class (and let’s face it, I even confuse myself sometimes), think of your text as your other teacher.  When my approach doesn’t work, odds are good that your book’s stance will be much more clear.

3) Don’t wait until after class to familiarize yourself with the text. I can feel myself wading into a fight on this one. Several of my best students choose not to open their texts until after we have discussed a new topic in class.  Instead, they use their text as reinforcement to lectures, not the other way around.  Believe it or not, I’m okay with that!  Everyone has their own study habits, and as long as you have a system that works for you I’ll be happy.  However, I think coming to class unaware of the day’s subject starts you off at a disadvantage. If you know we are studying leveled analysis, you will be equipped to mentally prepare yourself for lots of reading, discussion, and fun with Roman numerals.  If we are discussing motiving transformations, on the other hand, you can probably assume we are going to be doing a lot of writing and perhaps even sharing our work with one another. Roman numerals aren’t likely to make a significant appearance in that class. You’ll be surprised how much easier classes become when you’re mentally prepared for the type of work you’ll be doing.

4) Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I will conclude with this because I’ve already said it, but I think it’s is worth mentioning again.  The answers to questions like what is the point of this? and why is this useful? aren’t always readily available.  Sometimes you need to read a few more chapters before you are able to fully contextualize what you are learning.  Don’t be discouraged.  Keep asking “why?” Remember that it is certainly acceptable and even imperative that you hold your professors and your textbooks accountable for doing their jobs – the quality of your education depends on it.




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The Semantics of “Failure”

“Aren’t you afraid of what telegraphing your failures as a teacher might do to your career?”

In the past month I have had nearly a dozen conversations with colleagues at various colleges and universities about transparent teaching and this blogging experiment. In eleven conversations, this question popped up nine times.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the advice. I realize that the perils of open experimentation are very real for a non-tenured Assistant Professor. I understand that a few of my colleagues will look down on this endeavor with considerable skepticism and trepidation (though I suspect most of the naysayers will come from research universities, not liberal arts colleges). So why don’t I care? Why don’t I pull the plug while I still can, or refocus this as a blog on effective teaching and learning strategies? Because I don’t believe in failure, at least not in the traditional sense.

One of my first composition teachers was a composer/poet named John Parker. John taught me a number of invaluable lessons, but perhaps the skill I use most often relates to how I handle rejection. Back then, I didn’t have a regular publisher (shameless plug: check out my works at GIA Music!), so I had to spend a considerable amount of time writing cover letters and mailing manuscripts to different presses. In my first year I submitted ten to twelve scores; by the second year of solicitations that number was up to nearly thirty.

The first round of responses came within one five-day stretch. Each letter began the same way:

“Mr. Henson: Thank you for your submission. After careful review we have decided not to accept…”

One week. Twelve rejections.


I wanted to quit, and I almost did, but John wouldn’t let me. “A rejection letter only means failure if you let this be the end of your career,” he told me. “But if you keep going, if you use each letter as an opportunity to learn something about that publisher and the piece you sent, you get stronger, better.” As I paused, still feeling dejected, trying to consider how these letters might be useful, my teacher reached into his filing cabinet and dropped a folder onto the desk. The label read “VICTORIES.”

“Take a look,” he urged.

Opening the folder, my eyes widened. I expected to find contracts or acceptance letters, instead I found fifty or sixty letters from different publishing houses. Each began the same way:

“Mr. Parker: Thank you for your submission. After careful review we have decided not to accept…”

“Victories?” I asked.

“I learned something from each of those rejection letters,” he explained, “and now I know exactly where to send which manuscript and at what time. It’s only a failure if you let it be the end, but when you use them to make you better, rejections aren’t ‘rejections’ at all!”

“I suppose not,” I conceded.

“What are they?”


My first acceptance letter arrived six months later. Shortly thereafter I received my second, then my third. Before too long I was up to a dozen. Roughly fifteen years later, I still have “victories,” though I’m thankful that they are fewer and farther between. When they come, I study them carefully, consider how best to use the information they present, and file them away just as my teacher did with his.

It’s only a failure if you let it be the end. But if you learn from the mistakes and use the surface-level misstep as an opportunity for larger-level success, then your failure isn’t a failure at all.

As a teacher, I frequently make mistakes. I adjust. I learn. I’m better the next time around.


Mistakes make you stronger, rejection makes you better.

That’s how failures become victories.

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Taking a “Knee”

In his opera Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass popularized the use of “Knee Plays,” or intermezzi that are performed between acts. These relatively short scenes replace intermissions and give the stage crew an opportunity to change out any necessary scenery. While the action in each “Knee” functions independently of the opera’s plot, the continued use of motives helps unify the larger work.

As I have begun discussing my idea for this blog with my friends and colleagues at St. Norbert College and elsewhere, it has become apparent that from time to time I will find it necessary to break from my reflective agenda and answer a few questions about the nature and background of the blog itself. An homage to one of my favorite living composers, I intend to refer to these asides as “Knees” so my students can distinguish between the posts that are in response to their classes and those that follow-up on outside questions and comments.

While this blog is getting underway, expect to find many of these “Knees” as I attempt to answer some of the questions I have already begun to receive, most notably:

How did I come up with the idea for this blog?

What is Full-Spectrum Pedagogy, and how does this fit in?

Am I worried about career implications from being so open about my failures?

How will I know if this has been successful?

Let me note that I currently have comments disabled. This blog is meant to be a window into my process, not necessarily a medium for discussion. That said, as I grow comfortable with blogging (also depending on how a few pedagogical initiatives at St. Norbert unfold) I may reconsider broadening the scope of this project, and in so doing open these posts for comments. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions or offer comments in the mean time! If there is anything you would like to share, please consider e-mailing me at blake.henson@snc.edu .

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The $192.48 Doorstop

My students don’t read their textbook.

As the cost of education continues to rise (“skyrocket” might be a better word), I feel it is my job to keep supplementary costs as low as possible. This means, wherever feasible, substituting freely available, streaming audio for expensive collections of recorded music, linking to open source or public content instead of requiring paid journal access, and not demanding out-of-class attendance at concerts unless they are free and within walking distance of campus. Of course, the biggest cash-eating-monster in most classrooms is the course text (remember those Monster Books in Harry Potter? Anyone who has ever had to purchase a brand new textbook knows that those are, indeed, very real).

Harry Potter's "Monster Book"

I generally use two types of textbooks: reference materials and teaching books. Reference books typically offer answers to the myriad quirky problems that may arise in a skill-centered class. While these usually reside on the library’s Course Reserve shelf, from time to time the book’s use over the course of a semester significantly outweighs the financial cost, and said book is upgraded from “suggested” to “required” on the syllabus (the book I use in my “Introduction to Composition” class costs $24 new).

Teaching books are the textbooks every college students knows and loves. Chapters divide the text into subjects, often concluding with summaries and critical thinking questions. Keywords are in bold. Some come with CDs, workbooks, and access to online encyclopedias. When evaluating and choosing to adopt a new text, I try to be cognizant of three principles:

1) Textbooks are expensive. The more “stuff” they come with, the more expensive they become, and some companies make it difficult for students to purchase the book without also buying web access to a one-of-a-kind, digitalized copy of the Magna Carta.

2) Textbooks are heavy. Music students already carry around stacks of scores and musical instruments. They also rarely have an opportunity to return to their dorm rooms during the day. If I choose to adopt a printed text, I need to do so under the assumption that they will not bring the book to class very often.

3) Textbooks go out of date very quickly. Because Music Theory is a subject that lends itself to copious amounts of research, theories, philosophies and pedagogies go out of date quickly and often. This means that buying a textbook is like buying a computer—by the time you get home with one it’s already out of date; the only way to stay current is to be willing to purchase an endless string of upgrades.

Still, from time to time there are books—good ol’ fashioned, hard-bound, 800-page textbooks—that are superior to their cheaper (if not free) digital counterparts, which a combination of teaching and learning styles will force me to adopt. They’re expensive. They’re heavy. And they go out of date much faster than a wiki. I usually consider every feasible alternative to traditional textbooks, but when it’s what your class needs, you take a deep breath and go with it. Sorry students. Sorry parents.

This is why I am sad when my students stop reading the textbook. $192.48 is an expensive doorstop.

Last year, at the end of the fall semester, I polled a group of students about their textbook use. The general consensus was this: I was giving them all the information they needed in class. While there may be things in the book that I didn’t talk about in class, the students felt that most of what they needed to survive the homework and exams they could get from our discussions. That said a lot about my teaching.

For the spring semester, I adapted my pedagogy. I took myself out of the equation as much as possible, promoting things like student-driven learning, higher-level thinking, and student-designed projects and presentations wherever possible. I focused on being explicit in my modeling, regularly brining my textbook to class and responding to class discussions with “that’s a great question. How might [the author of our book] respond to that?” At the end of the semester, I polled again. Students actually used their texts less than they did in the fall. Very clearly, I was missing something. Either my assessment wasn’t lining up with my teaching, or my expectations were not being communicated effectively. Perhaps a little of both.

I still don’t have the answer. This isn’t a blog about pedagogy, but rather an opportunity for my students to see that sometimes the professor gets stumped too. This is a medium for me to say “here are the questions with which I am grappling, and these are the steps I am taking to solve them.”

Before the summer began, I had lunch with Jay Cook, one of St. Norbert College’s support specialists and an instructional design guru. He suggested moving to a hybrid teaching approach that uses both in-class and digital components, as well as flipping the classroom so that student-driven learning and peer-to-peer workshops occur online, outside of class. With Jay’s help, I have already begun experimenting with Google docs and wikis as spaces for student-generated chapter reviews. I ultimately hope to allow them to collectively write their own exams outside of class—an extension of something I was already doing in the classroom.

As for my textbook concerns, on days when the majority of my class has read the material beforehand, we are able to move very quickly through the pedagogical scaffolding into higher-level thinking and creating. However, when the majority of the class skips the reading, we get stuck in the “remembering” and “understanding” levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. With this in mind, next semester will see a big change in how I guide the presentation of materials and assess student learning. Traditional, labor-intensive quizzes geared toward understanding and analysis are being replaced by very short, online comprehension quizzes. These modules will become available in our online classroom every Saturday night and will close with the start of class on Tuesday. Students will be presented with no more than ten simple multiple-choice questions about that week’s reading. Quizzes will be pass/fail and a student will be able to take each as many times as they want until they receive a passing grade. These comprehension quizzes will comprise 10% of their class grade, so the only way they can earn an A for the course is to pass all of the comprehension quizzes.

My hope is that students will start to develop a routine, wherein reading the chapter (chapters of our theory text are generally short, no more than 12 pages) and taking the quiz becomes part of their Sunday night regimen.

Of course, there are two sides to this coin.

A big part of transparent teaching and explicit modeling is making sure my students know why I think reading the textbook is important. When we are able to climb to the top of Bloom’s pyramid, I need to be certain they know how and why what they have accomplished is significant.

I also need to ask more questions. Rather than polling the students who happen to be outside my office, I need to get in the habit of giving the entire class opportunities to periodically assess my teaching as well as their learning. Learning is a two-way street.

In the coming months I’ll be blogging about setting up a digital classroom for a previously all-analog group of students, designing better tools for assessment, and carving out new avenues for directed student-driven teaching and learning. I’ll be sure to share the successes stories, but I also promise to write about my failures.

Here goes nothing!

N.B. In case any of my students are already reading this, I will not be using any of your names (unless you give me permission to do so). This blog is about giving you some insight into my previously undisclosed thought-process, not a public forum for me to pick on you. No worries.

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