Monday, May 30, 2011

More Funny Stories / Inspirational Stories / An Update

(If you haven't already seen my first set of funny stories, check it out, too.)

1. In addition to "Mr. Bowtie," "The Bow Tie Guy," "Metal Guy," and "Mr. Ninja," I am apparently also called "The Pirate Guy."  A group of 10th graders at one school seems to have come up with that due to my long hair and ear piercings.  As thrilling as it would be to magically meet an old-fashioned pirate, meeting one who wears a bow tie would suitably fulfill my life.  Furthermore, I was recently talking to a student at "Pirate Guy" school about how she knew a lot of students at "Ninja Guy" school.  I told her that a couple students their call me "Mr. Ninja" and she said, "Those are my friends!"  Hm.  Small world.

2. I got asked to prom.  No, really.  Yes, by a student.  There are times when, after discovering that singing is my primary musical focus, students convince me to sing something for them.  On this day I had a class split into two adjacent rooms so that they'd have enough computers to use, and while singing for one room, those in the other came to the door to listen.  One of those girls, just before leaving class said, "Mr. Duval, I haven't found a date for prom yet and I think you would be perfect."  Stunned, wary, and unavoidably flattered, I said "No thanks, I'm afraid I can't do that.  Good luck."  It's really too bad I couldn't sing this well when I in high school.

3. I was in a cafeteria walking by a table of students that had just had a class with me.  One girl asked me where I was from and then, "Did you fly?" whilst comically flapping her arms like little wings.  "Yes, but I had to flap a lot faster than that," I said.  That joke earned laughs and led to her repeating the gesture each time she saw me that day (which was often, due to an assembly), which I responded to with direct imitation.  Plenty of other students laughed when their sub flapped his arms awkwardly in the halls.

4. At the same table, a student asked a question more ridiculous than the classic "Are you smart?"  This one asked, "Are you old?"

5. I'm not sure if this counts as "funny":  I was substituting for a middle school when I was confronted with some questions that I never expect to hear again...multiple times.  In one class, a student walked in and said to me, "You're creepy." Another soon asked, "Are you famous?"  I said "No, have you seen me on TV or something?" and the student's response was, "You look like a serial killer."  In a later class of a different grade, I was told, "You look creepy."  As if this weren't enough, the next day (in a new, hopefully less frightening bow tie), I was walking through the front door of the building and a girl whispered to her friend, "He's scary," as I walked by.  Such things have never happened at any other school or at that school again since that 24-hour series.

6. The second time subbing for a particular high school was filled with unexpected and flattering praise.  Just before a first period study hall began, a student that was in my class the previous week walked in and flat-out yelped with glee when he saw me.  Hmm.  Other students were also quite pleased (though not quite as vocal) to see me.  Yes, this happens to plenty of good subs, but I was particularly surprised to see this my second day in a school.  During a fire drill later in the day another teacher said, "Hey, you're that sub they keep talking about."  I am?  Apparently so.  Reputations spread quickly at that place.

7. Particularly after singing, I have had a number of students talk to me about becoming music majors.  I love opportunities to talk to students about finding and pursuing their passion(s).

8. There have been two incredible days this semester.  The first was when two music teachers had subs; I for band, and a non-musician for choir.  I had the chance to give input to a couple choirs and wound up conducting a few pieces.  The students and I all had so much fun because they responded to my suggestions, critiques, and conducting gestures.  That kind of ensembleship (pretend that's a word) is what makes music education unlike anything else, and it absolutely made my week.  The second was when I was subbing for a [different] choir teacher and worked with a wonderfully receptive choir.  I just talked about it, though I neglected to mention the amazingly inspirational moment at the end of that day; about five students walked to me and shook my hand as they were leaving class.  I couldn't believe it.  To any students out there, if you want to make a teacher feel appreciated, do that — shake your teacher's hand and say, "Thank you."

Finally, an update.  I've moved to a nearby state for the summer to a place where I can practice piano incessantly, attempt to accomplish a lot of my self-assigned "summer reading list," and apply for a lot of jobs.  I'll continue to blog, as I have a few in the draft phase and fully expect to find other research and current events to discuss.

A portion of my list.  I've yet to purchase a few.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Brief Revolutionary Thought

Today I was discussing with a fellow educator and friend the differences between an inner-city school district that we know and other districts we've worked in.  I ended up making an analogy that I think works incredibly well, and I want to make sure I've recorded it for reference and remembrance.

Foundational to the philosophy of the United States' government is the idea that the legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed.  Instead of power being seized and enforced by force or inheritance, it is granted only voluntarily by the people as a group.  This bottom-up idea was, while not entirely new, revolutionary when applied.

Education is not much different.  The value of education can only be transferred to those who consent to be educated.  People have tried, and most of our educational system is built around this old method, to educate by force.  Yes, knowledge can be gained when it is forced, but such a case is analogous to order gained by force; it isn't nearly as legitimate and valuable as that gained by consent.

I experienced the success of a class that consented to be educated today.  I worked with a choir that, while done with their performances for the year, was so receptive that they let me "experiment" with vocal warmups, which we did for 30+ minutes!  I taught them a few vowel symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, about some vowel modification, about diphthongs, and more, because they consented to be educated.  It was awesome.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

This Is Not About Osama bin Laden

Now that the dust has begun to settle...

I'll get my own opinion out of the way first: I do not celebrate death, but I'll admit that I don't particularly mind that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Having disclosed that, please join me in letting go all of the arguments that you've given or heard about whether this killing was right or wrong, and allow me to introduce an educational perspective.

I've only subbed for one class during which students brought up bin Laden's death, but the brief time the subject was in the air was almost enlightening.

"See, there he is," one student said to his neighbors while gesturing toward his computer screen.

"Eww" and, "That's fake," were the responses, while a faint laughter spread among those nearby.

When I looked, I saw a photo of bin Laden's head with wounds of all types; a gunshot, bruises, dirt rashes, scrapes, and crude lacerations. Fresh blood was strewn about his face and embedded in his scars — there was a prominent gash from the bullet's impact. The photo was, of course, a fake, but one that someone had put a fair amount of effort into.

"Close that," I promptly said.

The student did and I reminded him to focus on a project he had to do. I can't at this point remember exactly what the next student said, but it carried a clear message of, "We're still giddy that he's dead. We're the victors and deserve to revel in his suffering and death."

His tone invited me to comment, with hopes that I would agree and the implication that I would be unpatriotic if I didn't. I firmly insisted that I would not discuss such a sensitive issue while in the role of a teacher and managed to stifle their desire to continue talking about it, as well. To my pleasure, it did not come up again and no more computer screens strayed from Microsoft Word that period.

We are perpetuating a cultural viewpoint from which an immutable line is drawn between black and white. This line is drawn between "us" and "them." In determining whether this murder was "good" or "bad," all that these students felt they needed to consider was whether the victim was with us or against us. This ethnocentrism is so powerful that looking at a gruesome photograph of a gunshot victim was a boost to victorious pride; I don't think they even felt like they were looking at a human.

When bin Laden's death, and the related unquestioned hatred, is at the forefront of my mind, I am not worried about whether those who wish us death will be further inflamed, I am not thinking about how 9/11 victims' family members could potentially find relief in justice, I am trying to think of a time in human history when the idea that "we" are always right no matter what has done anything but usurp cultural progress.

When 13 year-old students find joy in another's blood, and I can reasonably attribute their reaction to a culturally ingrained line dividing black from white, we are not teaching the next generation to be any better than ours, we are teaching them to hate.

I want to think that if I were to ask any of my friends or colleagues, "Do you want your children to grow up thinking that unquestioned hatred is acceptable?" they would answer, "No, of course not."

(Related: A post by a friend and new blogger about bin Laden and a post by Jonah Lehrer about revenge.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Music and the Brain: Music Processing ≠ Speech Processing

ResearchBlogging.orgMusicians describe music using much the same syntactical terminology as others do for language.  Music has periods that are like sentences, sections like paragraphs, expositions like introductions, codas like conclusions, questions and answers like a conversation, and parallelism like many quality works of prose.  The syntax of music has so many similarities to that of language that it almost goes without saying that our brains surely process the music and speech in the same way...

My world has been shattered!  This week I learned of two new studies that diverge from the past decade's prevailing evidence that our brains process speech and music in almost indistinguishable ways.  (I wonder if we've been experiencing some degree of confirmation bias. (That was just an excuse to link to a great recent article by Jonah Lehrer. (This is just an excuse to embed a tertiary pair of parentheses!)))

The bad news is that I don't have access to the full text of these articles, so I won't be able to analyze the science as much as the simplified conclusions.  The good news is that this post won't be as long as it otherwise would've been.  The other good news is that other bloggers have discussed these articles in enough detail (and the abstracts themselves are well enough written) that I can still talk about them.

Victoria Williamson (in the blogroll) introduces us to research by Rogalsky et al. in her post, Music and Language – not as much overlap as we thought? These authors used fMRI to monitor the brains of subjects as they listened to meaningless yet grammatically sound sentences, meaningless scrambled sentences, and basic novel melodies.  Comparing the meaningless sentence processing to the melody processing revealed that "sentences elicited more ventrolateral (lower and outer) activation, whereas the melodies elicited a more dorsomedial (upper and inner) pattern" in the temporal lobe.  Yes, there was also overlap* in the auditory cortex (a region of the temporal lobe), but that is attributable to the primary processing of sound.

*Additional data even demonstrated that within that overlap, patterns of speech and music processing were still distinct, yet I strongly suspect this is due to the differences in acoustical properties between the melodic sounds played and the spoken voice.

The final information gained from the neurological processing of scrambled sentences furthered their support for the argument that "basic hierarchical processing for music and speech recruits distinct cortical networks."  Vicky words it well:
The authors conclude that the distinguishable patterns of activity likely reflect the different auditory features present in speech and music: Also, the fact that while language is largely dependent on grammar, music is more dependent on pitch and rhythmic contours. Finally, the 'end game' of language and music are fundamentally different; the former is to derive combinatorial semantic representations and the latter is to drive acoustic recognition and perhaps emotional modulation.
(Sorry, that's a slightly modified quote because I think she made a typo.)

Alas, I have a criticism (one which may have been addressed in the full text).  What if a basic melody isn't the best correlate to a sentence?  My suspicion is that the syntax of a chord progression is much more analogous to the syntax of a sentence.  Perhaps the differences found in hierarchical processing would be less pronounced, or different, if harmony were compared instead of melody.

Another set of researchers (also in California) seem to have been simultaneously trying to answer one of the questions that Rogalsky's research begs.  Parker Tichko (also in the blogroll), this time, frames the work best:
Previous research proposed that whether an auditory stimulus is perceived as music or speech is assumed to be a result of its acoustic properties.  Thus many studies focused on decoding, or reverse-engineering, the acoustic components of speech and music.  However, recent research has proposed that music and speech might be processed differently on a neural level, suggesting that it is not necessarily the acoustic properties of auditory stimulus that result in the perception of music or speech, but rather independent neural correlates.
In this, Deutsch et al.'s, research, the authors played a trick on their subjects.  I'll gloss over the details, but they essentially played a recording of a sentence and then repeated a part of it ten times (sometimes in a modified set, sometimes unmodified) and asked their subjects to rate whether the sounds were more like speech or song.


It's amazing how much the voice sounds like it is singing by the end of that, isn't it?  It came as no surprise to read that the authors' survey revealed agreement among their subjects.  Interestingly, they sometimes had a subject repeat the phrase after listening to it ten times, and they usually sung it back.  Strikingly, that singing was closer in precision to a musically notated approximation of the original.  This suggests that as this voice's speech began to sound like song, the importance of pitch and rhythm became so strong that the recording eventually sounded more musically imperfect then the subject's own rendition!

So, who wants to see the results of fMRI while a subject is listening to such a speech-to-song illusion?  I DO.

Corianne Rogalsky, Feng Rong, Kourosh Saberi, and Gregory Hickok (2011). Functional Anatomy of Language and Music Perception: Temporal and Structural Factors Investigated Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging The Journal Of Neuroscience : 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.4515-10.2011

Diana Deutsch, Trevor Henthorn, and Rachael Lapidis (2011). Illusory Transformation From Speech To Song Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129 (4), 2245-2252: 10.1121/1.3562174

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Funny Stories!

1.  A very hungry English class was instructed to write an extended metaphor for life (in imitation of a Seinfeld quote).  The topic of conversation had just been about tacos, so a student asked if she could write about hot sauce as a metaphor for life.  "Sure!" I said.  "Flavorful in its initial impact, but prompt to strike with spice and pain?"  "Something like that," she responded, "keep going."  Knowing she'd write down whatever she could, I fired off a paragraph's worth of hot sauce = life prose, which left the class almost stupefied.  Needless to say, almost all of the work turned in was written about food.

2.  Soon after speaking to Mrs. D about some ridiculously frustrating events for her, I was her sub.  With these students in particular, I've made a habit of instructing them to draw something silly on the back of quizzes when they've finished and are waiting for others.  I've asked them to draw various things from their favorite animal to their favorite architectural structure.  On this day I recommended they draw "SuperD____ saving the middle school from aliens!"  The results were fantastic, as were the laughs from Mrs. D when she saw them.  The most memorable had her fighting off a space-duck with the power of the whole note.  Win.

3.  Some music theory students were making jokes near the beginning of class and one of them mumbled something about life and a box of chocolates.  Someone then said, "Sure, life is like a box of chocolates, but I'm allergic."  Laughter erupted.  Also, the "someone" was me.

4.  It was "Parents Day" at a middle school.  My class was in the library working on a project — many students were on computers.  One student was distracted by her iPad and I walked up behind her and said, "Remember, you have to have something turned in today.  I'd like you to focus."  She nodded and smiled and I started to walk away but she didn't make any move toward her computer.  I placed my hand near her keyboard and leaned in a little.  "You need to do some research.  Get started," I said, more firmly. She looked a little puzzled this time, turned around more, and pointed to a "Parents Day" sticker on her shirt.  She pointed to the boy next to her and said, "I'm his mom."

5.  In a jazz band rehearsal there were some missing students, including a soloist for one piece.  During the vamp in that section, sans solo, I called for a "cowbell solo!"  The cowbell player just hit it louder.  Hmm...the humor of that doesn't quite translate to paper, does it?  Well...we could all use more cowbell.

6.  I've allowed students to call me by a few different titles, such as the famous "Mr. Bowtie."  I was at a high school walking swiftly by a classroom during lunch when a student shouted, "Mr. Ninja!"  I stopped and took a few slow steps back until I could see in the class again.  "Yeah, you're Mr. Ninja," she said.  "I am?"  Apparently she first called me that many weeks prior after something that happened in Biology, but I don't remember it at all.  I guess I'm a ninja...who wears a bow tie.

I'd almost forgotten that my readers like hearing funny stories, and I should let you know that these were somehow the only things I could think of from recent weeks even though I'm sure funnier stuff has happened.  Consider this an expression of my intention to included more, and funnier, events like these in my future posts.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Music and the Brain: When it Fails

You're probably not "tone deaf."  While an argument about semantics isn't particularly important right now, I must point out that if you can tell the difference between a person saying, "The sky is falling." and "The sky is falling?" you can differentiate pitch (a major marker of inflection) and are not what I would call "tone deaf."

There are, however, people who are deaf to rhythm or melody.  There are people who can hear and recall sounds as well as anyone, except when listening to music cannot process it as expected.  The condition of amusia encompasses these anomalies and is just beginning to be defined, understood, and researched.

I intend to expand upon the topic of amusia with discussions of the relevant research, but there's a lot of research to read and I would like first to introduce readers to some quotes that paint a fascinating picture of amusical minds and moments.

In Oliver Sacks' "Musicophilia," he tells us that Che Guevara was rhythm-deaf, which was made worse by a stroke.  He also recounts a quote about a former singer who "complained of hearing 'a screeching car' whenever he heard music."  He then talks about a personal and temporary amusical event:
I was...listening to a Chopin ballade on the radio when a strange alteration of the music occured.  The beautiful piano tones started to lose their pitch and their character and were reduced, within a couple of minutes, to a sort of toneless banging with an unpleasant metallic reverberation, as if the ballade were being played with a hammer on sheet metal.
After a similar experience weeks later, he identified that this was an effect of a migraine aura.  Next, a quote from Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography:
Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds...The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.
Sacks' incredible background provides him with even more stories, each about a different type of amusical experience.  One of them reminds me of a spoken sound bite in a Chumbawamba song in which a band member says, "I only recognize two tunes, Silent Night and God Save the Queen, and I only know which is which because one of them everyone stands up for."  It seems that's neurologically possible.

My thoughts, based on my limited readings on amusia, are centered around which neural connections may be malfunctioning.  As pointed out in Music and the Brain: A Primer, there are a lot of areas in the brain involved in processing music.  I have not discussed as much the importance of the communication between these areas.  These testimonials regarding amusia seem to demonstrate that while the basic processes can stand alone successfully, the conceptualization of music doesn't materialize when there is an error of communication between two or more areas.

While it is always a loss to individuals when their brain is incapable of processing something that a normal brain can, the potential scientific insights are profound.  Studies of amusia will teach us much about how parts of the brain communicate with each other and what causes these anomalies in the first place.

If you still wonder if you have a diagnosable amusia, go take this test.