Why I Teach

The “teaching philosophy” assignment in college methods classes always intimidated me. Every couple years I still rewrite mine… I’ve got it down to a few pages now. In the age of twitter, though, can we boil down “why I teach” to 140 characters or less?

Well, there are those that make a reduction sauce out of their motivation and goals only to leave something troublesome and problematic. (These are actual paraphrases)
“I want to have my choirs perform at convention.”
“Consistent 1s at Large Group Festival.”
“When I can do a concert of all Bach music and my high-schoolers eat it up, I’ll know I’ve made it.”

My “why I teach”s are more in line with the #notwhyiteach hashtag that @WillValenti helped to gain some traction a week ago. Still, though, I haven’t been able to reduce my reasoning to a convenient sound bite… Until now. Thank you to @luke_HS for posting this. This is #whyiteach…

Three things had to be in place for this to happen.

  1. These three musicians all had to have the confidence in themselves to feel that their voice mattered.
  2. They also had to have the musical sensitivity to figure out how they could contribute a small part to a larger musical whole.
  3. They all had to know the love and joy of music and trust in other people to ever attempt this.

My music program matters in the small ways I am able to contribute to any of these three things and in any situation where my students, past and present, find themselves with a musical opportunity and seize the moment.


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From Spirituals to Hip Hop with iPads in the Classroom

60 first-year choir students totally engaged, asking smart questions, having musical conversations with their partners for entire class periods. This minor miracle was brought to you by Hip Hop and by the Tabletop app on our class iPads.

The Motivation: We hadn’t sung an African-American spiritual yet this year, but honestly, I hate most of the arrangements that we own for my beginning SAB choir. The history is powerful and relevant, but often the accessible way the repertoire gets written down for younger groups robs the students of that very power and relevance. I also wanted to introduce my 9th-grade students to beat production. Our iPads gave us the perfect vehicle to satisfy both of those needs while providing hands-on musical bookends of African-American musical history, from the spiritual to hip hop.

The Prior Knowledge:

  • We learned the melody and worked on vowel shape and blend in unison.
  • We recorded the group singing it several times and voted on which performance was cleanest.
  • We introduced the iMPC sampler to students through our Promethean board. Students suggested a snippet of the melody that would be an effective note to use in a loop and also learned to chop up a sample.
  • 20140317-153319.jpg

    The Tech Set-Up:

  • On the computer, we finished chopping samples into every usable 1-, 2-, or 3-note phrase using GarageBand and loaded them into iTunes.
  • Since I have not found a way to sync a playlist to an entire cart of iPads, I loaded each iPad with the motherless samples playlist.
  • I also am not able to sync sound banks in Tabletop or iMPC among iPads (This would be extremely handy. If you know something I don’t about this, please share!), I had to load a drum bank and load it with the Motherless samples on each iPad.
  • After realizing the samples were a little too slow for a medium-tempo head-nodding hip hop beat, I adjusted the pitch on all of the samples.
  • I preconfigured each iPad with a new song entitled “Motherless,” a 4-bar loop, tempo at 88 bpm, loop and click activated.
  • 20140317-153332.jpg

    This was the most time-consuming part of the project. I could have taught the students to make these modifications, but that might have been a frustrating lesson with mixed results. Instead, I had a tech-savvy TA, a student teacher, and I spend a couple of tedious hours to get everything ready. This way, the students’ work was really about creating music.


    The Classes in Action:

  • I demonstrated how to get started with some sounds on my own iPad plugged into the Promethean board.
  • I was very clear that students would have a chance to really mess with all of the other parameters the program offered if they took Hip Hop Studies or came in of their own time but that the assignment over the next couple days would be to work within this tight framework – these sounds at this tempo.
  • We have 19 iPads and 57 students, so half the class worked in sectionals while the other half partnered up on iPads. The next day, we switched.
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    My Learning (Common Mistakes)

  • Not using the click track, so their beat (while sometimes good) would hiccup at the end of the phrase
  • Not starting their phrase on beat 1, which was a problem if they wanted to add other loops or other instruments
  • Trying to do too much… Less is more!
  • Not saving while they were working. Sometimes the app crashes!
  • The Results:

  • Kids were incredibly focused during the project, working together extremely well with partners and asking smart questions.
  • At the end of the first day, kids were excited, some of them frustrated, but all of them wanted to continue. In order to divide the class in half again, I added another component to the piece. On days 3-4, half the class worked on writing a rap based on Motherless Child lyrics while the other half continued their beats.
  • Their products at the end of day one were largely not so hot. There was a learning curve for nearly all students. By the end of the second day, however, we had about 10 loops that were strong enough to get everyone’s head nodding.
  • The Next Steps:

  • We are uploading our favorite loops to the choir soundcloud page so that students can all listen. After two days, the loop with the most likes will be used in concert for certain students to rap over.
  • We also have 10 or so students that were really turned on by this project. They might end up in Hip Hop Studies in future years, with their own beat making programs at home, or in the choir room during free periods to do extra work!
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    iPads in the Choir Rehearsal: Student Arranging

    My Pop Vocal Styles choir is, year after year, filled with big personalities, leaders who thrive on the solo opportunities in the group and the democracy inherent in the curriculum. As in any other choir, however, I recognize that there are several very musical but introverted students who don’t get the chance to shine with so many other bright lights around them.  The day I heard one of those students – let’s call her “Mary” –  belting out a flashy solo line without a care in the world, as if she were alone in her car or her room, I knew we were on to something.

    It began when a student suggested that the class work on singing Ed Sheeran’s version of “Wayfaring Stranger”. This group in particular runs on student input a lot, so the recommendation was nothing unusual. My student teacher understood that Sheeran’s recording, while very well done technically, was not meaty enough to justify spending six weeks of rehearsal on it. With the teachers in charge, we could have lifted the harmonies – thick and catchy but simple – in 1-2 rehearsals. We loved the song, though, and wondered how we could make the process student-centered enough to justify including it in our April concert repertoire. 252930-garageband-for-ipad-interface

    My talented student teacher devised a series of lessons where students would record a background loop with GarageBand on an iPad and then write/record additional harmony layers themselves. The class spent one period as a large group recording, re-recording, and then looping a background groove and 2-3 classes in small groups adding new layers to the arrangement. As we traveled around the music area, we saw incredible engagement and collaboration and heard musical ideas we would not have come up with ourselves.

    The engagement piece is where I am lucky as a music teacher. 99% of my students choose my classes opposed to study hall, while other teachers struggle with students who at least at the beginning might rather be somewhere else. However, I acknowledge that there is always more work to do to make the content and pedagogy in my classroom more relevant to my students. What my student teacher brought to the classroom in this unit with the iPads was exactly that. The students had ownership over their arrangements and their process, and they felt a new level of engagement with the use of iPad technology. Like any process, there were moments that weren’t perfect. Some groups struggled occasionally – too many or not enough leaders. Even “Mary,” who was using her voice with a confidence I had never seen or heard from her, caught me watching and retreated to her default shy demeanor.  However, the small groups and iPads both forced everyone to contribute and allowed everyone to have the safety of the rest of the choir as a background track in their headphones. This is definitely a project I will do again!

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    March 10, 2014 · 2:43 am

    Hip Hop Studies at ILMEA 2014

    Here are some notes from the presentation I’m giving today at the Illinois Music Education Conference for those who couldn’t be there, couldn’t get a copy, or want active links…

    <My Prezi from today

    Hip Hop Studies
    Teaching Emcee and Beat Production Skills
    Illinois Music Education Conference
    Anthony Cao
    January 22, 2014

    Hip Hop Pedagogy
    Why? – “The struggle continues & HH is the safest & most welcoming space to challenge oppression” @amilcook 
    How? (Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life – Marc Lamont Hill)

    • Pedagogy OF Hip Hop
    • Pedagogy ABOUT Hip Hop
    • Pedagogy WITH Hip Hop

    How? Satisfy the Hip Hop Head AND the Conductor

    Music Literacy and Notation

    • Limits of traditional notation
    • Many forms of alternative notation
    • The Big Question: Are we indoctrinating students into the Western system of notation or are we enhancing their understanding of music by helping them to encode the sound visually?
    • Notation Relevant to Hip Hop – Tone grids, drum maps, piano roll, etc.

    Emcee Skills
    Flow Diagram – Visualizing Rhythm/Rhyme (Book of Rhymes – Adam Bradley)
    Freestyle/Writing Activities

    • Rhyme on Time – rhyming word every beat 4
    • Just Keep Spitting – steady rhythm no matter what!
    • Dropping Knowledge – start with keyword list/topic/prompt or shout keywords midflow
    • Lyrical Remix

    Beat Production
    Beatmap – Visualizing Texture Form
    Beat-Making Software

    FL Studios
    Ableton Live

    BeatMaker 2
    FL Studios Mobile

    Hip Hop Resources

    Some of my favorite…

    Asante, Molefi K, Jr, (2010). It’s bigger than hip hop: The rise of the post-hip hop generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
    Bradley, Adam (2010). Book of rhymes: The poetics of hip hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books
    Chang, J. (2006). Can’t stop, won’t stop: A history of the hip-hop generation. New York: Picador.
    Cobb, W. J. (2007). To the break of dawn: A freestyle on the hip hop aesthetic. New York: New York University Press.
    Dyson, Michael Eric (2007). Know what I mean?: Reflections on hip hop. New York: Basic Civitas
    Hill, M. L. (2009). Beats, rhymes, and classroom life: Hip-hop pedagogy and the politics of identity. New York: Teachers College Press.
    Jasper, K., & Womack, Y. (Eds.). (2007). Beats, rhymes, and life: What we love and hate about hip-hop. New York: Harlem Moon.
    Rose, Tricia (2008). The hip hop wars: What we talk about when we walk about hip hop–and why it matters. New York: Basic Civitas.
    Schloss, J. G. (2004). Making beats: The art of sample-based hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
    Seidel, S. et al. (2010). Hip hop genius: Remixing high school education. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Copyright Criminals. Directed by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod. Indiepix Films, 2009.
    Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, directed by Kevin Fitzgerald, Palm Pictures, 2004
    The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy, directed by Israel, QD3 Entertainment, 2002
    Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, directed by Byron Hurt, Media Education Foundation, 2006
    Scratch, directed by Doug Pray, Firewalk Films, 2001
    Chris Emdin – Teachers College, Columbia University – TEDx Talk
    Barrios, Beats, and Blood (Drug War and Hip Hop in Ciudad Juarez)
    Man to Man Talk – Leroy Moore/Krip Hop
    Google Versus Debates – Hip Hop on Trial

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    Madonna’s Drops N-Bomb on Instagram

    So Madonna Instagrammed a picture of her son boxing and hash-tagged “disn***a”. There’s so much wrong here that I don’t know where to start.

    The incident bothers me because her apology started with a combative “Ok let me start this again. #get off of my dick haters!”. Later, she begrudged:

    I am sorry if I offended anyone with my use of the N-word on Instagram. It was not meant as a racial slur … I am not a racist… There’s no way to defend the use of the word. It was all about intention … It was used as a term of endearment toward my son who is white. I appreciate that it’s a provocative word and I apologize if it gave people the wrong impression. Forgive me.

    “Sorry if I offended anyone” is the apology that shouts, “I don’t see anything wrong with what I did,” putting the onus on the offended party, not on the offender.  I certainly am not, nor was I being, offensive, but if you were so sensitive that you misinterpreted my words, I guess I feel kinda bad.  I would really prefer that people not apologize at all over hearing that weak line ever again.

    But it was a term of endearment for her son! Yikes. I’m a parent and try not to judge choices that other parents make, but I guess whatever backward family stuff you have going on at home should at least stay off Instagram. In all seriousness, though, let’s examine “#disn***a” as a term of endearment. The photo was not of her son’s SAT scores or piano recital. This was a boxing photo. Would Madonna have celebrated one of the first two in the same way? Would she have used the same hashtag? Still today we live in a “Birth of a Nation,” Trayvon Martin country, where Black men are feared as inherently violent and criminal. We don’t need another reinforcement this ugly racist stereotype, which is exactly what this awful Instagram moment accomplishes. We should be moving past a time when this is the only type of Blackness that is assumed and/or valued.

    More than anything else, can we just agree that it is never okay for a white person to use the N-word? This is a word that slavery and racism invented, and we’ll never be so far past that that white people should be privileged to superimpose “irony” or “endearment” as a new connotation. While there may be some laws protecting Black people from discrimination, and while racism may no longer be quite as overt as it once was, the truth is that by walking through this life with dark skin, you are more likely to…

    Be charged with drug possession
    Be suspended from school
    Not graduate high school
    Be harassed by law enforcement
    Be targeted by debt collectors
    Die young
    Be afflicted with major illnesses
    Have a poor night’s sleep
    Receive the death sentence

    These are real effects of our racist past and perpetually racist present. 40 acres and a mule never happened. Many white people still cringe and cry “reverse racism” anytime we’re asked to acknowledge our own privilege. Could we just leave this one damn word alone?

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    Phantom Diphthongs in Pop Singing

    When Adele first came on the scene about 5 years ago, I remember being captivated by the way she seemed to glide through different vowels on the same syllable.  Linguists and classical singers call this a “diphthong,” or

    a vowel sound, occupying a single syllable, during the articulation of which the tongue moves from one position to another, causing a continual change in vowel quality

    ‘Fine’ is a combination of (lacking the IPA fonts here to do this correctly) AH + EE (or IH)
    ‘Boil’ is a combination of OH + IH + UH (technically a triphthong).

    Pop singers may sing all of these vowel sounds to a varying degree, but Adele does this odd vowel maneuver to a much larger degree than most, on words you wouldn’t expect.  Take “Daydreamer” from her debut album 19.  She sings the chorus

    You can find him sittin’ on your doorstAY-EEEEEEEp
    Waiting for a surprAH-EEEEEEEse
    And he will feel like he’s been there for hAH-WERRR-OOOOOOOOs
    And you can tell that he’ll be there for lAH-EEE-EEEEEf

    It’s an interesting sound that some have passed off as part of her accent, but I think it’s something different.  Singers who can’t access their head voice well  for whatever reason often use closed vowels EE or OO as an easy way to focus their head voice.  The end of each phrase in this chorus also includes a register change, where Adele lightens up and this funny vowel combination is the result.

    I especially began to pay attention to this overuse of the diphthong as my students began to use them in their own singing.  This was not just part of Adele’s accent.  Was it part of her appeal?  A new stylism?  Check out the talented sisters Lennon and Maisy Stella in their most famous cover: “Call Your Girlfriend.”  She uses the same vowel modification to aid her in her head voice.  At :41, “only” begins with a much more closed [u] vowel, which allows her to focus her head voice.  Time will tell if she learns to carry her pop belt higher with less tension and make her head voice stronger.

    However, the vowel modification that happens three seconds earlier is even more interesting to me.  “Never meant to hurt no one” becomes WUH-EH-EEEn.  This is not a natural diphthong in the word that just gets a little more stress here.  Neither is it a case where the vowel modification helps to flip registers.  Many other singers are picking up this affectation as well, though to a lesser degree.  Check out the higher line in the chorus to Anna Kendrick’s Cups, where “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” has a light “GAW-EH-EEN”.  Even Ray Dalton ever so slightly sings “Like the ceiling can’t hold UHHHH-EHS” in Macklemore’s Can’t Hold Us.  It’s as if consonants that use the tip of the tongue (N and S) are pulling the entire tongue upward to modify the vowel.

    I was sure ZZ Ward was from England after hearing her single Put the Gun Down, especially with the twinge of English accent scattered throughout the first verse.  “E” vowels sneak into several words in the chorus, including “don’t” (DUH-EEENT), “car (CAH-IHHHH-uh), and “know” (NUH-EEE).  This singer was raised in Pennsylvania and Oregon, however.  Her passion for the blues and knowledge of Son House may explain some of the mystery vowels.  The line right before the chorus goes, “I think I’m cursed (CUH-EEESD), I had him first (FUH-EEESD), which reminds me of Son House, who sings “join the Baptist church (CHUH-EEECH)” and “won’t have to work (WUH-EEEK) in Preachin’ the Blues.

    But the influence of the blues or of British singers can’t explain all of these occurrences, can they?  Maybe it’s a New Zealand thing.  FSU’s AcaBelles do a cover of Lorde’s “Royals” that includes several diphthongs on the words “blood” (BLUH-EEEED), “us” (AH-EEEEES), and “buzz” (BUH-EEEZ).  Nope.  Not a New Zealand thing.  There are faint traces of Lorde’s accent in her original, but no trace of these diphthongs.  The AcaBelles’ performance is not about a blues influence, regional accent, or vocal need because of range/register.  It’s just… there… as something we pop singers do now.

    Where am I going with all of this?  As a teacher who coaches singers in all styles, I have several students who use this sound, some of them gratuitously.  I have to help them at least identify what it is they are doing if not also help them choose between when it is effective and when it is too much.  Finally, as someone who tries not to be too snobby about language,  who recognizes that accents, pronunciations, and slang change over time, I have to at least wonder: where did this come from?  Where is it going?

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    No, My Daughter Is Not Going to Be “So Exotic”

    “Your daughter is going to be so exotic.” I’ve heard it too many times. She is mixed Asian/white. Before my wife and I even seriously thought about having kids, friends and casual acquaintances have thrown this into small talk with an eased privilege that has made me cringe. Of course, I’ve never known exactly how to respond. I guess this is my response…

    One definition of “exotic” used by Meher Ahmad is “exotic: [ig-zot ik] adjective: of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized: exotic foods; exotic plants.” Following her logic, there is nothing that “foreign” or “unnatural” in a globalized society about a part-Asian young girl growing up in a medium-sized Midwestern city. The claim is simply not true.

    However, there is something more problematic here, an uneasiness I feel with the term “exotic” itself. When you say she’s going to be “so exotic,” what does that mean? Another definition of the word is “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual”. Different from or unusual compared to what, exactly? My daughter likes Finding Nemo, dogs, slides; she doesn’t like tomatoes or bugs. She hasn’t even outgrown her diapers yet, but you’re going to permanently cast her into a “you’re-not-one-of-us” club because her mom’s ancestors and my ancestors come from different continents? And can we get real about the “exciting, mysterious” part for a second?  This connotation comes from the same line of thinking that leads to the fetishization of Asian women. If you need further explanation of that, go ahead and read about the documentary “Seeking Asian Female”.

    Of course, this documentary is really only steps away from a third definition of “exotic”: “of or relating to a striptease.” That’s not what I meant at all! Oh? Well, put the word “exotic” into the googles like the kids do these days. See that? First page already refers to exotic dancing. Now go ahead and try the image search. I dare you. While you’re at it, take a look at the genius music video “Asian Girlz” to see just how Asian women are rendered hyper-sexual and submissive in white male imagination. (All women of color, really.  Check out Priyanka Chopra and Pitbull’s song “Exotic” as the term is painted broadly on women from South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America.)


    “Exotic” is a loaded adjective.  It objectifies women.  Questlove uses the word to lament how he is perceived as dangerous, showing that it vilifies black men.  Let’s relegate this term back to describing gum flavors and not people.  Next time you run out of small talk about my daughter, just ask about her favorite animal.  And if you feel the need to use a cultural stereotype, at least say, “She is going to be a chess champion!”

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