Evacuating Los Alamos

Andrea, the kids and I drove to Los Alamos, New Mexico last friday morning to visit my parents, who live on North Mesa, and to attend my 20-year High School reunion. As we came into town, we were struck by the smoke plume from the Pacheco Canyon fire near Santa Fe, which was visible both from Blake’s Lotaburger in Espanola, where we ate lunch, and from my parent’s deck.

The Pacheco Canyon fire from the
Blake’s parking lot, 24 June 2011.

My dad is 67 and has respiratory issues due to a congenital defect which has affected him for several years now. He is far from inactive; the house they lived in, where I lived from 6th grade until I graduated from high school, was built by his bare hands. While the basic structure and layout shows the expertise of a seasoned architect and engineer—the house is effectively heated by a single wood-burning stove, and cooled by an attic fan which pulls the cool night air—the details are the work of an artist. The retaining walls, front steps and back patio are incredible works of masonry, crafted from flagstone my dad meticulously unearthed from Abiquiú using a white 1968 Chevy pickup and a crowbar (not to mention one of the few legally purchased licenses for doing so). The cabinet work, french doors, stairway, banisters and newel cap are intricately crafted and exquisitely beautiful. He dug the first foundation trenches with a shovel back in 1985 and is currently working on cabinet work in the main bathroom. He has often said that he never plans to finish building the house.

While the Pacheco Canyon fire hadn’t affected him—the smoke was happily moving away from Los Alamos—the Wallow Fire in Arizona had not been so kind. The smoke caused him to have bronchitis-like symptoms, including terrible fits of coughing. By the time we had arrived, though, he was back to 100%: walking on the treadmill every day (which he does while wearing oxygen), and able to enjoy his four extremely active grandkids.

Andrea and I attended a cocktail hour at a casino resort south of Pojoaque on Friday night as part of the reunion, and went to have dinner at Gabriel’s with a few close friends afterwards. On Saturday, Andrea, the kids and I went to Urban Park for a family reunion barbeque and had a wonderful time.
After the barbeque, Andrea packed to head back up to Greeley, since she had to work during the week. Our plan was for me to stay with the kids at my parents’ house until Wednesday or Thursday so we could soak up as much grandparent time as we could, since we are moving to Ohio on August 1st. We were then all going to meet up at my in-law’s house north of Antonito, Colorado and stay there through their annual Independence Day celebration on Saturday, July 2nd.

When we had gotten home from the barbeque, my mom had set up a kiddie pool on the back patio and was waiting to borrow our pump to inflate it. We ended up deciding to pass on it for a little while, since the kids had been outside all day and playing hard. I figured since we had until Wednesday, there would be plenty of time for swimming over the next few days. My mom had planned several activities: we would have a picnic lunch at Ashley Pond where we could feed the ducks, we could work on crafts that she had gotten for the kids to do at house, and my dad would treat everyone to dinner at The Hill Diner one night. With the kids worn out from playing outside, we opted instead to watch a movie in my parents’ living room.

Andrea and I also had a chance to tour our neighbor’s new kitchen. Tom Hornsby, my dad’s best friend and neighbor to the north, is a retired lawyer and has fostered a love of photography and gourmet cooking for years. Their house had a very small kitchen, and my dad had finally convinced him to remodel the upper floor of his home to add a large, gourmet kitchen. The near-final product was impressive, to be sure… incredible granite countertops, beautiful tiled floors, and so forth. Hornsby was very proud to show it off, and he had every reason to be; he had been working incredibly hard on it for a long time, and his efforts were paying off richly.

Another interesting aspect of the trip was that we brought both of our cars—our Dodge Grand Caravan and Buick Skylark—to be given a good once-over by Andrea’s brother Neil, who is a mechanic in Alamosa. On the trip down, we left the Buick in Alamosa and took the van and one of my in-laws’ many vehicles down to Los Alamos. By Saturday, Neil was actually done with the Buick, so Andrea took the van back up to Alamosa and swapped cars with Neil, taking the Buick back up to Greeley. That left us with my in-laws’ car in Los Alamos, which wouldn’t actually fit all four car-seats, but we figured we’d split the kids between two cars whenever we needed to go somewhere in Los Alamos, and then Andrea would come back down to Los Alamos with another vehicle to cart the whole family (and all our luggage) back up north.

Friday and Saturday nights at my parents’ home in Los Alamos were swelteringly hot, at least compared to our air-conditioned home in Greeley. We all had fans on us, though, and by morning the cool air had cooled us off enough to make us turn off the fans and crawl under the sheets. Fortunately, the dry air was inhospitable for bugs, so the unscreened windows and doors could be left open, and the attic fan kept a nice breeze moving through the house. The dryness gave the kids a few nosebleeds, but my mom added a humidifier to the mix and that stopped them.

The kids and I attended church with my parents Sunday morning, where a very proud grandma and grandpa were able to show off their four grandkids to people who had only ever seen pictures. We stayed for a while afterward to fellowship with friends, friend’s parents and former teachers. We got home, changed out of our church clothes, and relaxed for a short time before my dad realized that the refrigerator’s ice maker wasn’t keeping up with the added demand (I’ll admit it… I go through a LOT of ice) and so he should run to Smith’s and get a bag of ice. It was Jayden’s turn to go with Grandpa in the truck… the kids love to drive in his truck, partially because they get his undivided attention and partly because they get to be in the front seat (of course, in a small pickup like my dad’s, it’s the only seat). So off they went, and the rest of us stayed at the house where the kids were alternating between working on the crafts my mom had gotten and playing outside.

It was as we were relaxing there that Hornsby came in through the back door, somewhat panicked.

“The Jemez Mountains are on fire.”

The concern in his voice was not for himself, but for my dad, who he knew would be affected by the smoke. Smoke in the air meant that we would not be able to run the attic fan, and that we would need to close up the house at night, cutting off any air circulation through the house. It was going to be a hot, hot night.

The smoke plume, looking southwest from my
parent’s front yard at about 2:15 pm on Sunday.

Hornsby had been out on a walk around the neighborhood and had seen the smoke plume from the southwest, and so we all went out to look. It was ugly and it was close.

My dad and Jayden came back and, as we suspected, they were well aware of the situation… in fact, my Dad had seen the plume of smoke as he pulled out of the driveway when they were leaving, and though he hoped it was a regular cloud, he knew deep down that it wasn’t.

From the deck in behind the house, about an
hour later (3:15 pm on Sunday).

We spent the rest of the evening watching the smoke move above us. Everything outside took on a yellowish glow as the sun shone through the smoke, but the air remained clear and we couldn’t smell any smoke, so we left the doors open to try to keep the house cool. We kept an eye on the television news out of Albuquerque, and the more up-to-date information and rumors on Facebook and Twitter, and the more official but less frequent updates elsewhere on the internet. From there we learned that a voluntary evacuation of Los Alamos County had been initiated; my parents agreed that they would stay until there was a stronger reason to leave, since the most likely issues would continue to be smoke, which they could manage. Because the fire, now named the Las Conchas Wildfire, was burning on the other side of the areas that had been burned eleven years previously by the Cerro Grande fire, there didn’t seem to be any threat of the fire entering the townsite as it tragically had done in 2000.

The view from Los Alamos Middle School,
looking southwest on Sunday night, 26 June 2011.

After getting the kids to bed, I drove up to the Middle School, which sits on the highest part of the mesa, and from there I could see the fire peeking over the crest of the mountains in a few spots to the southwest. The entire horizon from the southwest to the south was glowing orange, but one of the many other onlookers there mentioned that it was difficult to distinguish between the glow of the fire and the glow of the sodium lights that illuminate the lab buildings that stretch across the southern horizon. I took several pictures and movies with both my digital camera and my iPhone, trying to find a happy medium between slow shutter speed and clear pictures, and then headed home to upload what I could to Facebook. The fire had reached 3500 acres at that time, and at that point it was our understanding that the firefight was still being organized, and no one was actually fighting it yet.

Thanks to the smoky sky blocking the sun all afternoon, the night was actually much more comfortable than we expected it to be. We all slept through the night—no nosebleeds—even with the house all closed up.

When I woke up, the house was opened up and fresh morning air was pouring in the open windows with the still slightly-orange sunlight. The smoke had gone from a fairly well-defined plume to a much more nebulous haze that covered the southeast half of the sky. It seemed as if the smoke was rising up from the Jemez, flying over Los Alamos, and descending into the valley upon Espanola and the surrounding communities. The smoke from the Pacheco Canyon fire was no longer visible, as the whole valley to the east was covered with a light brown haze.

But the air was clear at ground level, and we were enjoying it. The bad news was the official word about the size of the fire: almost 44,000 acres. I assumed at first that it must have been a typo… that someone had intended to type 4,897 and inadvertently typed 43,897. But as the morning progressed, we listened to KRSN over the internet and watched local news in between Noah’s Wii games, and it soon became apparent that it was not, in fact, an error… the fire had grown to more than ten times its size overnight. The air outside did not portray the threat that the news was bringing us, but we were confident that the Cerro Grande burn area would protect the townsite from harm, that the worst possibility was the prospect of the smoke descending upon townsite. My dad did a load of laundry, as he does every Monday morning, and I followed him with one of my own; he dried his clothes on the clothesline on the deck outside, and when my washing machine load was done I decided to throw it in the dryer (the “machine that slowly turns shirts into lint,” according to my dad) rather than wait for access to the clothesline.

When I came back downstairs, the smell of smoke was very obvious, and my mom was closing up the house. For whatever reason—wind direction change, flare-ups closer to town, I don’t know—the smoke had indeed descended upon us, and it smelled like we were sitting downwind of a campfire. Really, without the context of my dad’s health problems, I would have enjoyed the smell. I was disappointed also because I was just going to let the kids ride their scooters in the street—something that they don’t get to do at home because we live on a busier street. But the smoke meant we would need to keep them inside; Owen and Noah have both had problems with juvenile asthma and the smoke, combined with the high energy that would come with riding their scooters, would have not been good for them. My other plan, to inflate the kiddie pool, was also not an option, so we once again hung out inside. We made quesadillas for them for lunch, and my mom had pulled out chicken breasts to thaw out for dinner.

We had KRSN on my mom’s laptop in the kitchen, but it had faded into the background as we played games on the Wii and my mom’s desktop in the living room. So we didn’t hear the news until Hornsby called us to let us know: a mandatory evacuation of Los Alamos.

The evacuation would begin with the western area of the townsite, with North Mesa and Barranca Mesa evacuating last. The evacuation would be managed via the reverse 911 system, and we on the mesas would leave via Rendija Canyon road. My parents and I went upstairs with an urgency covered by a calmness for the benefit of the kids, and started packing. The dryer had finished, so I quickly folded our clothes and got them packed in our large suitcase. My parents finished packing their suitcases before I did, and began getting helping the kids gather their toys. The phone rang twice more; the first was one of my parent’s friends asking about their status, and the second was the expected reverse 911 announcement. We put the packed suitcases in the garage with the large garage doors closed, waiting until everything was in the garage before closing the inner door and opening the outer door.

As I was checking through the bathroom for toiletry items to pack, I heard a PA system out front, but all I caught from the message was “mandatory evacuation.” Hornsby told us afterward that we were to use Main Hill road after all, and not Rendija Canyon. I remember hearing from someone that a car had stalled on Rendija Canyon, though I don’t remember who it was who said it.

As we were loading the luggage into my parent’s and in-laws’ cars, Owen was worried because he couldn’t find one of his Hot Wheels cars that he had brought with him. Noah said he thought he knew where it was, and so we send them back in the house to look for it. They did not find it (my guess is that was likely already packed somewhere) and Owen in a tearful panic: “I don’t want my car to get burned up,” he lamented between heavy sobs. Jayden and Noah were also in tears, having failed to find the car. I gave each of them a hug and explained that Grandma and Grandpa had done this before—they were evacuated for a week during the Cerro Grande fire in 2000—and assured them that their house would be just fine. I buckled them in and finished packing as ash fell from the menacing brown sky.

Because I could not fit all four kids and all the luggage into one car, Noah (the only one who had not had a turn to ride in Grandpa’s truck) rode with my parents in my Mom’s sedan, along with a few bits of luggage and their unused scooters. Our plan was to head up to Andrea’s parents house north of Antonito, where my in-laws had extended an invitation for my parents to stay as long as they wanted. I knew that my parents, who always felt uncomfortable imposing on others like that, would politely decline the invitation, but we didn’t take the time to work it out. With the cars packed, the chicken put back in the fridge, the doors closed up, and the house’s fire insurance policy in hand, we closed the garage door and headed off the mesa.

The smoke became most evident as we followed San Ildefonso as it curled down east of the golf course; the usual view from this stretch of road lets you see over the golf course and up into the mountains; the features were somewhat visible but considerably clouded by the brown smoke. Traffic was very light; at this point we were the only two cars on the road. Stationed at the roundabout at the bottom of the hill were several police officers, who appeared to be blocking access to North Mesa Road, and allowing people to Barranca Mesa only with approval. I figured that they were making sure people weren’t going to Barranca Mesa in an effort to use Rendija Canyon; the people they were letting through were probably residents of the mesa returning to gather their things.

Diamond Drive, passing the golf course. “LA” mountain is
emerging from the smoke in the distance. 27 June 2011.

Driving down Diamond Drive by the golf course slowly brought LA mountain into view through the haze. I had realized the night before that my in-laws car had less than a quarter of a tank of gas, and I had thought about being a good boy scout (“Be prepared”) and filling it up the previous night just in case, but decided that with the voluntary evacuation in effect—I overheard others at the middle school saying they were going home to pack—that there would probably be long lines at the gas stations. Now, with the mandatory evacuation taking place, I realized that would have to deal with the lines after all, and made plans before we left to stop at the top of Conoco Hill to see if getting gas would be realistic. As we crest the hill, I was very happy to see that the gas station had only a few cars, and so I pulled up and—on the third attempt at figuring out which side the gas tank was on—filled up. A national guard humvee was stationed there with several service men in grey camo sitting in the bed and standing nearby.

Yes, I paid for the gas. Conoco Hill, 27 June 2011.

We proceeded down Diamond Drive and as we neared the high school, portable LED signs identified the two evacuation routes: Main Hill Road and the Truck Route. Canyon Drive was closed, and so Main Hill traffic was directed into the left lane to turn on to Trinity; the right lane was for the Truck route. All the road construction equipment that had been scattered across Diamond Drive by the High School was parked in the lot by Sullivan Field, and it was at about this time that traffic started to slow. We were not at a standstill, but traffic was certainly getting thick, and we were moving at around five or ten miles an hour. There were people in orange and yellow vests standing between the two southbound lanes directing traffic through; they were not uniformed officials, and I guessed that they were likely construction company employees who had been pressed into service through the construction area. The stoplights were working as usual, but at Canyon and Trinity there were police officers directing traffic through, ensuring that the cars moved on through on the evacuation route regardless of the traffic signals. There was an occasional car in the single oncoming lane, and the drivers always had a concerned and determined look on their face as they no doubt raced home to get their stuff.

After turning onto Trinity, the real slowdown occurred, with cars choosing between the two lanes available to them. The other interesting feature was the National Guard units posted at nearly every intersection. Twice we saw emergency vehicles—an ambulance and a fire engine—pass us in the oncoming lane; for one of these, we were at the intersection of Trinity and Oppenheimer, and the people stationed at that intersection hurriedly directed a car coming the opposite direction off to the side so the ambulance could pass.

Every business we passed was obviously closed, including the gas station at Conoco Hill (fortunately for us the pumps were still turned on and accepting credit card payments). As we passed the police office we saw a slightly larger contingent of National Guard members and vehicles. The ducks—or at least some ducks—were still at Ashley Pond, sitting in the grass on the Trinity side of the water. At one point we saw a helicopter in the sky to the north of us; my guess is that it was either a news chopper or some sort of governmental tour of things, since it did not seem to have the weight or size of one of the larger fire responders.

If you’re a fan of their photography work, you can see the
whole series on my Facebook photos page.

I tuned the car radio to KRSN but was dismayed to hear only static; either they were not broadcasting via AM or there was some aspect of the car’s radio that I didn’t understand how to operate. I had given the camera to the kids and invited them to take as many pictures as they wanted; In addition to some kids-eye-view images of the skies and buildings around us, they ended up taking some cute pictures of siblings, feet, and Hannah Montana stickers.

The traffic was stop-and-go until the lanes merged together at the southeast corner of the Mari-Mac shopping center, by DP road. Interestingly enough, after merging into one lane, traffic sped up considerably; so much that we were traveling at or near the speed limit for the rest of the trip out of town. There was a line of news vans across the road from the airport. As we descended Main Hill road, the skies in front of us were clear, and the few glimpses of the sky behind us were the opposite; I almost envied the few souls who were driving in the opposite direction for their panoramic view of the entire situation.

The last vestige of official presence related to the fire on our route was on the other side of the turn off to White Rock: two or three police cars with flashing lights on blocking all the lanes going up the hill. They were parked close to the overhead LED sign, which I only caught a glimpse of: the message included the words “LOS ALAMOS” and “CLOSED.”

My mom has trouble if she eats too late in the evening, and since it was 4:30 when we got to Espanola, we stopped at McDonald’s to eat. The kids wanted so badly to play on the outdoor playland, but we needed to get on the road again, and it was actually windy and a little smoky outside. Ironically enough, as we ate our food, it began to rain… but then stopped after about thirty seconds.

Near San Antonio Mountain, just south of the New Mexico-
Colorado border, looking northeast, 27 June 2011.

We made it to Antonito around 7:00, and even there we could see the smoke, which stretched from the south to a point that was almost due east. The mosquitoes were very bad at my in-laws’, so we quickly unloaded the cars.

My parents and I exchanged regret for what was supposed to be such a fun time in Los Alamos. We promised to save our plans for the next time, whenever that will be. It’s a long way from Ohio, but I have every intention of making the trip as often as we can. They got back in the car and drove off, heading north to stay in a motel in Alamosa for the night. My dad said they wanted to drive around to the various towns in the area, sight-seeing and “motel-hopping” until the evacuation order is lifted.
That was about twenty-four hours ago. My in-laws are both working, since they weren’t expecting visitors until Thursday, and so I’ve been sitting around listening to KRSN and combing Facebook for updates all day while the kids have been playing with the wealth of toys and video games here.

According to the various news reports I’ve heard, Los Alamos remains safe; the fire threatened the Pajarito ski area but the firefighters have been successful in protecting everything in the area. There is no way to know how the winds may shift, and if the Cerro Grande fire is any indication, there are no guarantees until the fire is put out, but things are looking positive at the moment.

Andrea will be here tomorrow evening, and we’re looking forward to a fun weekend celebration. After that we’ll head back up to Greeley and resume packing for Ohio. My parents called a while ago and said they are heading to Santa Rosa for the evening. I know that they would rather be home, but the latest reports seem to indicate that it may not happen until the end of the week.

I won’t be able to be there with them then, but like 10,000 others, I hope to return to Los Alamos soon.


As many of you know, I’ve been in the process of applying to other schools for a tenure-track teaching position. Because of this, I’ve been putting off making some changes to the way I teach my classes, figuring that upon moving to a new school, I’ll likely need to make some significant adjustments anyway.

Well, as I approach another final year here at UNC, I decided I should stop putting them off, and so students who have had me for theory or aural skills in the past will notice some fairly significant differences beginning this semester. I’ll go over these on the first day of classes, of course, but since you’re reading this, you’re obviously pretty bored, so I’ll give you a little (okay, maybe not-so-little) preview of what’s to come:
Music Theory: A Revised (But Not Really) Late Policy

As I understand it, I am fairly well-liked by students at UNC. Though I’d love to credit my rugged good looks, I know it has more to do with my homework policy, which allows students to turn homework in late and redo any and all assignments for a higher grade. The irony of this is there is enough proverbial rope there for students to hang themselves pretty easily; without the sharp teeth of an unbending deadline, students often get lazy and end up procrastinating their homework submission to the point of failing the class.
Now, I could certainly adopt a no-late-assignments allowed policy, but I don’t feel good about punishing a student because he or she happened to forget to bring a completed assignment… or (more likely) forgot the assignment was due today and neglected to get to it. I gave this a lot of thought this summer, and I think the way to solve this issue is to simply follow my own syllabus. See, this is what my syllabi say about late papers:
Homework must be turned in at the beginning of the class period on the date which it is due. Late assignments will have their grade lowered by two (2) points for each class period it is late. Assignments will not be accepted later than six (6) class periods after the due date. Exceptions will be made for unusual circumstances at the instructor’s discretion.

The thing is, for the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I haven’t assigned late points… and I’ve allowed students to submit assignments as late as the last day before Finals Week. The reason I’ve done this has to do with bookkeeping: with papers coming at me from all directions, it’s hard for me to keep track of when something was turned in. But after yet another semester of getting close to half of the homework for the semester on that Friday before Finals Week (and none of it particularly high quality work, having been procrastinated and completed under duress), I’ve decided to solve the bookkeeping problem with technology:

I’ve always loved stamps, so bring able to justify the purchase of one of these bad boys is awesome.
So starting with this semester, homework that is submitted on the due date gets no penalty, homework turned before six class periods have passed (that’s three weeks!) gets late points taken off, and homework turned in after six class periods will get a zero. I’ll still grade it, so students can at least prepare for the final. Homework can still be redone up through the last day before Finals Week, but the late points stick.

I’ll make sure students are warned about impending due dates; I’m envisioning a chart showing due dates and late points that I’ll post online and bring to class. The goal of all this, of course, is to discourage procrastination… whether or not it helps, time will tell.

Music Theory: No More Keyboard Labs

Oh, I’m sorry, I should have made sure you were sitting down before you read that.
Keyboard Labs — computer-graded tests which involved applying theoretical principles to the piano keyboard — have been a part of the curriculum since well before I arrived at UNC. Waaaaay back when, they were given by the instructors in their office: students would come in one at a time and suffer through transcribing progressions while the prof sat there and graded their proficiency with it. When technology allowed it, these tests were moved to the Piano Lab, proctored by lab monitors, but hated only a little bit less by the students. (Probably because they could cheat on them easier. What, you think I didn’t know?) Over the last five years, as the UNC Theory Faculty has almost completely changed (Dr. Ehle and I are the only two theory faculty who were teaching here six years ago), fewer and fewer instructors are incorporating Keyboard Labs into their classes; in fact, I believe I was the only one doing them last semester.
On a practical level, I think it’s silly to pay lab monitors for an entire day of proctoring to serve only one professor’s needs, even if that professor is me. On a curricular level, our Class Piano curriculum includes most of the skills covered in these tests, and so I think it’s time to bid this long-standing institution a perhaps-not-so-tearful adieu.

To account for the portion of the course grade taken up by Keyboard Labs, I am increasing the Daily Work portion of my theory course grades to 50%, and I am going to try to have a few more graded in-class assignments to balance things out a little.
Sorry, still don’t believe it? It’s true… Keyboard Labs are dead. Yes, that means you don’t have any scheduled theory-related things on Friday! Yes, between practicing for these tests and taking them, that means you have a little more spare time than you used to. And before you get too far in planning what you are going to do with that extra spare time…
Aural Skills: Homework

Okay, wait, just hear me out on this one. Believe it or not, my goal with adding graded homework assignments to Aural Skills is to actually improve the students’ life, rather than make it more painful.
The thing with Aural Skills is that there’s only one way to get good at it, and that’s individual practice. I could spend every minute of every class period on ear training exercises and it would do very little to help the students. Why? For several reasons. First, the in-class stuff has to be targeted at the median skill level, so there are inevitably going to be some students who are bored stiff and others who are frantically trying to keep up (and spiraling into frustration). Second, there is no way to spend time on everyone’s weakest exercises; some students may need more practice with rhythmic dictation, while others may need more time on chords. Third, in-class exercises have to be rushed, and often students don’t have time to go through the entire thought process they need to before being given the correct answers. And having the answers given, no matter when it happens, makes the student approach it differently (“I’ll try this and see if it’s right” as opposed to “I better focus and really try hard so I can get a good grade”).
Of course, practicing outside of class has always been expected… I implore my students on a daily basis to this end, but let’s face it: most students don’t spend the time outside of class that they need to. I don’t take this personally — I know that most of them really do intend to spend more time on it — but college students are crazy busy, and individual aural skills practice tends to always be a weak point.
So then that brings us to the idea of somehow requiring aural skills practice for a grade, and that often takes the form of MacGAMUT or something similar. I won’t go into my gripes with MacGAMUT here (as an aural skills teacher I applaud it but as a computer interface designer it gives me wildly violent convulsions), and most other software I’ve seen tends to get pretty limited especially with the higher-level chromatic stuff. Plus, working with any of these programs is about as fun as watching paint dry. Like, really boring paint.
So what I’m going to try is homework that might be marginally fun to do: transcribing popular music. It’s going to be pretty restrictively guided transcriptions… for example, dictating the melody of a song using solfege, or notating only the rhythm of some other song. I’ll provide answer blanks that guide the student through it pretty carefully, with lots of instructions, and I’m choosing songs very specifically to match the skill level of the class. Sure, they’re going to be challenging, but it’s music people enjoy. The Beatles. KT Tunstall. Muse. Owl City. And I’ve found out how to make the music itself available through Blackboard, so there shouldn’t be any need to spend gobs of time in the lab or Music Library to do the homework.
And my intention with this homework is not to create more work, but just to structure the existing work a little more. Doing these transcriptions counts as time spent practicing your aural skills… heck, it’s the way I keep my own skills honed.
Aural Skills: No More Gigantic Exams

The other big change — and this is probably the biggest one — is getting rid of the one thing the students and I both hate the most about Aural Skills: these monumental, hour-long exams that blast into the scene like Godzilla at midterms and finals. For the students, it’s pure, concentrated pain — before, during and after the exam.
So, you know what? Bam. They’re gone.
Well, of course, I still need to evaluate the students, so it’s not that testing is going away, but why have it all crammed into one day? Fatigue plays a huge part of student’s trouble on these exams, and having everything on one day makes for a ton of preparation. Plus, if that particular day is your off-day, you’re hosed.
So I am breaking the evaluation into 9 smaller (10-15 minute) tests over the course of the semester. Each one will be over one particular skill (for example, melodic dictation) and will have a more casual feel to them. Between these tests and the four sight-singing tests we always have, every Thursday will have some sort of evaluation, but I think having everything spread out will be less overall stress (remember, no midterm and no final!) and more chances to improve one’s grade.
All Classes: More Blackboard-y Goodness

Lastly, I’ve spent the last two or three weeks really trying to work with my arch-nemesis, Blackboard (why UNC would choose an actual supervillian to provide online course management, I’ll never know) and I’m happy to say that we have come to a slightly better understanding of each other. As a result, I am not only beefing up the amount of stuff I’m posting on Blackboard (as I mentioned above, all the Aural Skills homework, with recordings, will be up there) but I have also figured out how to export my gradebooks into Blackboard without needing a ton of extra effort. The Grade Center in Blackboard will now have individual assignment grades as well as overall averages, so students will be able to see exactly where they are at, gradewise (including which assignments have yet to be handed in). I should be able to update the system after each grading session, so it should stay pretty current. Really, the only thing Blackboard’s Grade Center won’t have is the Tuition Wasted Through Absence column… but you can check with me personally if you’re worried about that one. (That, or just not skip class.)
Once More Unto The Breach
To be honest, this may be the most prepared I’ve been for a semester for a very long time, but with all these changes, I fully expect something to go haywire and need to be revised on the fly, so bear with me. Either way, I look forward to 15 weeks jam-packed with theory and aural skills goodness… starting Monday. See you all then!

A Small Gift to My Students

My dad told me a story once about when he was a boy growing up in Kansas City. One of the neighborhood kids had found out that he was related to Daniel Boone. Of course, at the time, Daniel Boone was a superstar and coonskin caps were a frequent sight in any group of kids. This boy took every opportunity to bring up his famous relative, leaving the other kids wishing that they had a famous ancestor.

Now, this particular neighbor kid eventually moved away, and after seeing the moving van drive off, my dad pointed out — for probably the hundredth time — that the boy was related to Daniel Boone, and wished aloud that he had a famous relative. It was at this point that my grandmother decided to tell him that he was, in fact, related to President Abraham Lincoln, which out-awesomed Daniel Boone by a factor of ten or twelve and which caused my father to utter in stunned disbelief, “You tell me this now?” My grandmother’s reason for withholding this precious bit of information was just what you’d expect it to be, if you had ever met my grandmother: she wanted my dad to live on his own merits, not those of some famous relation. (And that’s just as well, considering there are more than enough rogues and crooks on my father’s side to more than balance out whatever Honest Abe’s family contributed to the bloodline.)
Fast forward to seven or eight years ago, I found the source of my grandmother’s information: the obituary of my great great grandmother, Abigail Stover (neé Nave), which stated that President Lincoln was her great uncle. Unfortunately, for Lincoln to be anyone’s great uncle, he would have to have a sibling with grandchildren, and President Lincoln did not… his younger brother Thomas died at the age of three, and his older sister, Sarah Grigsby, died while giving birth to her first child, who also did not survive the birth.
My dad: “Well, they tended to embellish things a bit back then.”
So, on to the gift: another type of genealogy. The connection here is not blood, but learning. My faculty advisor for my Masters and Doctorate was Dr. Evan Copley, who retired a few years back. He studied at Michigan State University with H. Owen Reed, who studied with, among others, Bohuslav Mårtinu, on whose third piano concerto I wrote my own dissertation. Reed actually studied with several other composers of note, and of course they each studied with other great musicians, and so on.
Now, this genealogy comes, quite literally, from an afternoon spent on Wikipedia, which means 1) you can trace my steps if you like, and 2) well, the information is as reliable as anything else on Wikipedia. It is, of course, woefully incomplete; I’ve studied with many other professors, as has Dr. Copley, and so forth and so on. If this type of thing interests you, think of it as a “start.” Most importantly, don’t put much stock in this; it’s not going to mean anything on a resumé, and bringing it up to others will just make you look pretentious. My main point in doing this is to show you that it’s actually a pretty small world, and that the masters we study existed in the same world we do, even to the point of affecting us more directly than we may have previously considered.
So I give you my “Professorial Lineage”; and if you’re a student of mine, I commend it to you for further expansion downward.
(PDF, 15.9 MB)

Do and Redo

One of the things I think I’ve become known for at UNC is my homework policy, which is very lenient: I allow students to turn homework in late, and I allow them to resubmit assignments for a higher grade as many times as they can until they get a perfect score or the semester ends. This is not just something I do in order to be popular or well-liked (although that’s a nice side-effect, to be sure); it’s a policy about which I’ve given a great deal of thought, and which has evolved over the last ten years or so. It works the best for me for several reasons:

  • In my classes, homework presents the student with the topics and types of exercises that they will find on the exams. Thus, gaining a real understanding of the homework is the best way to prepare for the exams.
  • Often, the misunderstanding of a single element can cause a cascade of errors throughout the homework. If someone misunderstands how to build a particular type of chord, for example, it could be disastrous for a long assignment which uses that chord throughout. Grading that assignment objectively might result in a very low score — a 12%, for example — that does not truly portray the student’s understanding of the assignment as a whole. However, knowing that the student can fix and resubmit the assignment frees me from feeling like I am condemning that student to a horrible fate while remaining objective.
  • Allowing a student to “try again” — or submit homework even though they didn’t meet the deadline — reduces the chances that the student will throw up his or her hands and “give up” with that particular assignment… something that benefits no one.
  • The system actually makes grading much easier. Because students can redo their assignments, grading consists of identifying which problems are wrong, and not explaining why they are wrong — this is left as an exercise to the student as he or she is redoing the assignment. Of course, if a student continues to make the same mistake after a few redos, I will give them some guidance either on paper or in person. And because I allow students to turn in assignments after the deadline, I don’t need to keep track of when a particular paper is handed in, nor do I need to play judge and jury regarding reasons for papers being late. (And, as any teacher can tell you, the whole “judge and jury” role is an exhausting one.)

The only drawbacks to my system is that students sometimes take advantage of it too much. I’ve had students go the entire semester without turning in anything, only to frantically complete all of their homework by the end of the semester and hand it all in. Unfortunately, this generally results in some very poorly done homework and no chance to redo it, and I can only hope that the student learns a valuable life lesson as a result. However, I think that giving students these opportunities to manage themselves — even though, to quote a colleague, it gives them “freedom to fail” — is an example of respect from professor to student, something to which all students have a right.

Aural Skills is a Funny Thing

I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be an Aural Skills teacher when they grew up.

For you non-music-majors out there reading this: (First of all, why are you reading this?) Aural Skills is a set of courses that music majors are required to take, generally as freshmen and sophomores, which help them learn ear training, which is the capability to notate music that they hear; and sight-singing, which is the capability to sing a written melody that they haven’t heard or sung before. The classes are named differently depending on the college or university: sometimes they’re called “ear training” even though they incorporate sight-singing, sometimes they’re called something like “musicianship.” Regardless of what they are called, they almost always deal with ear training and sight-singing, and they are almost always hated by the students with a firey passion.
Well, you may find it interesting that the professors of the classes feel about the same way. Okay, “hate” may be too strong word, but I would wager that most Aural Skills teachers look forward to teaching Music Theory more than they do Aural Skills. The reason for that is simple: Aural Skills classes are usually taught by Music Theory professors.
Sure, that makes sense, right? After all, Aural Skills is part of Music Theory. Except for one thing: it’s not. Aural Skills is not Music Theory and never was.

Yes, the Aural Skills curriculum correlates well with the Music Theory curriculum, and it is primarily this reason that the Theory faculty usually teach the classes. But they are different disciplines. Music Theory is, as I’ve usually defined it, the art and science of figuring out why music sounds the way it does. It is the exploration of what makes music tick. Aural Skills is something entirely different: it is the development of physiological skills, both aural and oral, that are necessary for a professional musician or music educator.
So if Aural Skills doesn’t really fit in the Music Theory department, where should it be? If you go through the list, you’ll find that there is no good answer to that. Sure there are some departments — Music History, for example — where it obviously doesn’t fit. Others seem right at first until you get to thinking about them. The Music Education Department? While a music education class should cover how to teach aural skills, it doesn’t have the responsibility for teaching aural skills any more than a music ed class should teach you music theory. The Voice Performance Department? That’s probably another close fit, but aural skills is an aspect of general musicianship, and it is not specific to performance.
What about having a separate Aural Skills Department? A few of the larger schools in the country (Berklee, for example) do just that. For most schools, however, the administrative costs of having a department devoted to Aural Skills makes little or no financial sense. Plus, having a separate department also implies that you have at least some faculty whose career is specific toward that discipline, and as I mentioned above, Professors of Aural Skills are pretty hard to come by. (It’s worth mentioning that the more than a dozen faculty members in the Berklee Ear Training Department are, like most faculty at Berklee, performers.)
So what do we do? The Theory Department is probably the best place for Aural Skills, but we — students, faculty and administrators — need to realize that it is indeed a separate discipline, and should be treated as such. I wasn’t too aware of this when I first started teaching, but over the course of the last decade I’ve learned a few interesting things about Aural Skills:
  • It’s not only a different discipline, but a different type of discipline: it’s physiological (involving mind and body working together) rather than purely cognitive;
  • Research in Aural Skills pedagogy (the science of teaching aural skills) is a hugely underdeveloped field; and
  • I have come to find the stuff fascinating.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching theory and generally look forward to my Monday-Wednesday schedule more than my Tuesday-Thursday schedule, but I feel like eleven years of teaching Aural Skills has given me some insight that has really started to coalesce in my mind over the last few years and which I’ve been able to apply in class to the benefit of my students. I’m going to try to blog about these over the next little while (read: “very periodically over the next twelve months or more”) in preparation for a journal article or something.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll get someone so excited about it that they’d want to grow up and be an Aural Skills Teacher? Ooh… hopefully not.

Goodbye, MUS 113-170; We Hardly Knew Thee

So yesterday in our weekly Academic Area meeting we made a small change that should save a lot of grief.

For those of you unfamiliar with UNC Music Theory, here’s the deal: theory students, in addition to registering for a theory class, must also register for a zero-credit-hour lab section. This section represents Theory Keyboard Labs, which are computer-graded tests taken every Friday outside of class. The professors do not have much to do with this; while they decide which tests to give, the only other thing they do is receive and record a grade report issued by the lab proctors.
The reason for this lab section, as I have always understood it, was to account for the fact that students had a required element of the class that was scheduled separately from the actual class.
Now the real pain with this was at registration time, especially in the fall with new freshman theory students. Here is the typical exchange between me and a theory student who is finding out that he or she passed the Theory Placement Test, which allows them to skip MUS 104 and go directly into MUS 113 and 114:
Me: “It looks like you passed the Theory Placement Test. Congratulations! We recommend that you register for MUS 113: Music Theory I and MUS 114: Aural Skills I.”
Student: “Oh, uh, do I take them at the same time?”
Me: “Yes, they’re meant to be taken concurrently. MUS 113 is offered on Mondays and Wednesdays, and MUS 114 is on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can’t sign up for either second-semester course until you pass both of these first-semester courses.”
Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”
(Time passes. Sometimes it’s minutes, other times it’s several days.)
Student: “Uh, I wasn’t able to register for MUS 113 and MUS 114 because it says the sections are closed.”
Me: “Right. That’s because you need to have the professor of each of those sections clear you to register. You need to choose the sections that work with your schedule, and then contact the professor and have him clear you.”
Student: “Uh, contact them?”
Me: “Yes. You can send them an e-mail, or you can just attend the class and ask the professor afterward to clear you for the course. Then you will be able to register.”
Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”
(Time passes again. Usually longer this time around.)
Student: “Uh, I could register for MUS 114, but I can’t register for MUS 113… it gives me some sort of error.”
Me: “Right. That’s because you need to sign up both for your regular section of the course, and for MUS 113-170; that’s a zero-credit-hour lab section you need to take.”
Student: “Oh, when does that meet? How does that work?”
Me: “Don’t worry about it yet; it will be explained in class. All you need to do right now is register for the thing. But here’s the thing; the computer requires that you register for the lab section and the regular section simultaneously.”
Student: “Oh, okay. Thanks.”
(Time passes.)
Student: “Uh, I tried to register for that keyboard lab section but it’s closed too.”
Me: “Right. And that’s because you probably need to get cleared for the keyboard lab section too.”
Student: “Oh, is that something my professor does?”
Me: “Not necessarily; it depends on whose name is on the keyboard lab section. It might be your professor, or it might be one of the other professors who are teaching MUS 113. You’ll need to ask your prof.”
Now, you may be thinking, why not just explain this all to the student in the first place? Believe me, I’ve tried.
Me: “It looks like you’ve passed the Theory Placement Test. Congratulations! We recommend that you take MUS 113: Music Theory I and MUS 114: Aural Skills I. You should register for both classes concurrently, since they are on different days and you need both to move into the second semester classes next spring. What you’ll need to do is find the sections of those courses that work for you, and then contact the professor to have him clear you to register. You can do this either by e-mail or phone, or by simply attending the class and asking the professor after the class to have you cleared. After he clears you, you will still need to register for the courses. And when you register for MUS 113, you will also need to register for the zero-credit-hour lab section, MUS 113-170, which represents Keyboard Labs, something you don’t need to worry about right now but which will be explained to you in the first few weeks of classes. The Keyboard Lab section might have a different professor of record, meaning that you might need him to clear you for that section before you can register. Once you are cleared to take both, you can then register, but the computer system requires that you submit the registration request for the regular section and the lab section simultaneously, or it will give you an error.”
Student: “Uh… what?”
So, anyway, what happened yesterday? We voted unanimously to do away with the separate keyboard lab sections entirely. The decision may need to be approved by the School of Music Curriculum Committee (I’m not sure why… it’s a registration change, not a curricular change), but hopefully they’ll be off the books by Spring.
And theory students, don’t get too excited. We’re deleting the lab section from the registration procedure, but the keyboard labs themselves will remain. And for some of you, they start this Friday! How fun for you.

Crime Syndicates and My Buick

Several weeks ago, I walked out of Wal-Mart to find that my 1996 Buick Skylark wouldn’t start. The starter worked, but it sounded like it wasn’t getting any fuel. So we had it towed in and the mechanic replaced a faulty ignition switch. Strange, I thought, since the starter didn’t seem to be the problem, but sure enough the car started fine after that.

Until the following week, when it had the same non-starting symptom as before. After letting it sit for a few days and trying it occasionally with no success, we had it towed in again.
Turns out the ignition switch was faulty, but there was more: that particular model is equipped with a system that detects is the car has been hotwired. If so, it causes the exact problem I was experiencing: it won’t start. And in my case, the system — which is located in the instrument panel — was malfunctioning. The solution was a new instrument panel.
This is interesting to me because it’s not the only problem that instrument panel has. The indicator light for the transmission — the thing that tells you if you are in park, neutral, reverse, drive, etc. — was spotty; sometimes it would show up, other times it wouldn’t, usually it would flicker a lot. More importantly, however, was that about a month or so ago, the needle on the speedometer had somehow gotten on the wrong side of the “zero” peg. How that happened, I don’t know. Has the peg’s existence started to flicker in and out like the transmission indicator light? Did someone steal my car in the middle of the night and take it up to 180 mph?
At any rate, a new instrument panel would have cost more than $400. However, my mechanic new someone who could sell him a used one for much less than that, but it would take a few days to ship it. I told him to get the used one.
That was two weeks ago. Let me tell you, dealing with my school schedule, Andrea’s temporarily full-time work schedule, dropping off and picking up kids to and from elementary school and babysitters, as well as soccer practice, church, and heaven only knows how many other meetings and such with one minivan is nothing less than insanity-inducing. Not to mention the fact that I fully expect the transmission in the minivan to, at any moment, fall out from underneath the van and erupt in a firey conflagration in the middle of the road.
But yesterday we finally got the car back, and once again it starts fine. The speedometer works, but the little transmission indicator has apparently gone on to Transmission Indicator Heaven. Other than that, the only problem is the fact that the “THEFT SYSTEM” light is permanently lit, perhaps to serve as a reminder of the whole ordeal.
Now the weirdest part of it all, though, is this:

This was sitting on the console of the car, not prominently displayed or anything, but laying there as if it had been tossed aside. The thing is, I’ve never been to the El Paso Airport, and I’ve certainly never rented a car there. So here are my theories:
1. Though they told me they were waiting on a part for two weeks, in reality they sent it down to El Paso to participate in a mafia-run rental car outfit. No doubt the folks who rented my Buick wondered about all the trash in the back seat footwells.
2. While it only seemed like two weeks to us, in reality my car was sent through a time portal and has been living an entire lifetime as a rental car in El Paso.
3. My brother or sister-in-law, when they owned the car and lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, set the card on the dashboard after returning from a trip and the card fell into the dashboard. My mechanic, while taking apart the dashboard to replace the instrument panel, found the card and tossed it aside.
Sure, #3 might seem more likely, but it’s certainly the most boring of the explanations. And it doesn’t explain why I’m going to have “THEFT SYSTEM” burned into my eyes every time I drive at night.

The Tao of Grading Systems

Most people seem to enjoy my classes, but most of my students are in agreement regarding their hatred of the seven-point grading system I have used. I can understand their dislike for it, and I can understand the reasons. I don’t generally go into detail in my classes about the reasons for using this system, other than “it reflects the difficulty of theory department coursework.”

Well, that’s true, but it’s not the whole story, and students should rightly wonder about this when other professors are using a ten-point scale. But here’s the real purpose for the seven-point grading scale: the theory department has tried to enforce a 70% knowledge requirement as a measure for passing a theory class. That means a student should show knowledge of 70% of the material in order to pass on to the next set of classes. Since University policy is that a “D” is a passing grade, the seven-point grading scale builds this in, whereas the ten-point grading scale would allow someone to move up to the next section with knowledge of only 60% of the material.

Looking at the above diagram, imagine a student — we’ll call him Ludwig — who takes Theory II from me and earns a 63% for a final grade. If I am using the ten point scale, that means he gets a D. UNC considers a D a passing grade, so the registrar allows him to sign up for Theory III, getting around the theory department’s hope for a C or better to move forward.
Using a seven-point scale, however, means that Ludwig’s 63% translates into an F, meaning he gets to enjoy Theory II for another go-round.
Now, if the theory department were consistent about checking student grades at the beginning of each semester for every course, and dropping students who didn’t have a C or higher in each prerequisite class (yes, professors can do that!), then this wouldn’t be an issue. But that fact of the matter is that it hasn’t been consistently applied before now.
Starting in the spring, however, it will be done, and in fact the School of Music Curriculum Committee is currently looking into the possibility of having it be a registration-based requirement (i.e., students with a D in a prerequisite class would not be allowed to register for the course in URSA).
With that being the case, a seven-point grading scale would be unfair, since someone with a 74% would not be allowed to move on to the next section.
So, as of Fall 2008, I am adopting the ten-point grading scale. I know that my students will like this, because it actually represents some grade inflation (a 90%, which used to be a B, is now an A). But there is that awful drawback: A “D” is now a failing grade in theory courses.

Incidentally, this coincides with another change, which is the addition of plus and minus grades. The university is allowing individual professors to decide whether or not to adopt this system; I plan on doing so, because I think, for example, a B+ is a better grade than a B-, and the student should deserve credit for the extra work involved.
The almost humorous effect this brings into play is this: students used to hate my grading system because a 93 was the lowest “A.” Guess what: 90-92 is now an “A-.” So guess what score is the lowest A?
(Cue maniacal laughter here.)

New Shirts

Two new designs join the Music Theory SuperMegaPlex! The first is for anyone who has incorrectly analyzed a dominant thirteen as one of those elusive iii9 (or, worse yet, iii6/9) chords. You know who you are…

The other is a shout out to one of my most underappreciated peepz, tenor clef. Don’t be dissin’ my brother, now!

Back in the Saddle

Some blogger I am, not posting anything since March!

I’m resolving to change that now, though… fall semester starts on Monday and there is plenty to talk — er, blog — about. First, of course, is that I’m back at UNC for another final year, filling in as Interim Director of Music Technology while the administration re-does the search for a new Assistant Professor of Music Technology.
Of course, I’ll be teaching music theory again as well: one section of MUS 104: Foundations of Music Theory, and one section each of every sophomore-level theory course. That means I’ll be teaching MUS 213 again, and that means the triumphant return of ¡Analysissimo! To my MUS 213 students: yes it’s something fun, but then again it’s a music theory class… I’ll let you reconcile that. ¡Olé!

I’ll also be teaching MUS 214 for the first time in years. Good thing? Bad thing? I’ll leave that up to the students to decide.
With the beginning of the school year I’ll also be starting up your favorite webcomic (okay, that part’s probably not true), Red Pen. Updates will once again be Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, starting this Friday. If you’d like your writing utensil or other type of office object featured in the strip, hey, that’s cool. Bring it by!