Month: October 2017

BandLab: First impressions, my setup

I recently started experimenting with BandLab, a pretty cool combination cloud music editing platform and app. The idea is pretty cool: use your mobile device to start on a project, away (presumably) from your cushy office and laptop. Then, you can work more readily at your laptop, later.

The app includes collaborative tools, and the option to ‘fork’ someone else’s work (if they’ve made it available) in order to make it your own. I like the idea.

So, I downloaded the app, and I made an account.

This is a different kind of account. It’s an accounting of my first impressions.

Recording on my mobile device

Because the phone’s built-in mic seemed to pick up more of the sounds of my fingers on the keyboard than the actual piano, I bought a splitter and a patch cable to record directly from the piano’s headphone jack.

Initially, I planned to use one headphone jack for the phone, and the other for real headphones (because it’s valuable to hear what you are playing — at least at my level of incompetence).

It was an adventure. I plugged everything in, and it seemed to work, but something about the setup was sending phantom headset volume control signals to my phone. The phone volume wasn’t important, but the constant notification was overlapping other things on the screen.

Grr.

Google research was no help. Different apps were suggested, and I installed and then uninstalled them. (Guess whether they were effective or not.)

So, in case anybody is curious, here is what I learned the hard way: using the splitter with a microphone plugged in but no headphones caused the weird signal. I guess I could have gone digging for my old jogging headphones, just to have something plugged in, but I didn’t feel like standing up.

So, I tried using BandLab’s live patch-through setting, to hear what I was playing. That drove me crazy because there was a minuscule between playing a note and hearing it and that drove me crazy.

Now I know, and I think that the next time I sit down to record, things will go more quickly. (Most of the time I had blocked out to try recording went into sorting out the cables.)

My first impression

So, what did I think?

I’ll save you long, wandering reflections on how bad my piano playing sounded when played back to me. Instead, I had two takeaway lessons from my first attempt to record something in more than one track:

  1. Playing with a metronome is going to be important if I want this to work. Sure, you can listen to what you’ve already recorded as you play, but I need to get my rhythm locked down better. I loved that BandLab broke things down into measures (you can see them at the top of the multi-track window), but that’ll only be helpful if I stick with them.
  2. I’m going to need to think more deliberately about the building blocks of a piece. That goes for ABAC type song structuring, but also for ‘what is this track for?’ kind of thinking. What I did was pretty basic: play a piece I know on piano, play it again with the ‘strings’ setting on the epiano, combine them in the app.

Where is all this going?

I don’t know. With all the other things I’m working on, I don’t know why I have this in my head. There is a ton for me still to learn, but I’ve really enjoyed my time at the piano, and this gives me a little something to work towards.

Will I post songs that I’ve written? I don’t know. I have ideas for things to write about, though no real lyrics, yet.

More likely is that I’ll post MP3s of ‘orchestrations’ I’ve made for existing songs, or instrumental music that I’ve put together on several tracks.

Only time will tell.

 

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Branding, or how much material can you copy from the Internet?

I’m going to sit now in judgment on other English teachers. I think that most of them make one of two opposing mistakes:

  1. Everything comes from the Internet. Their students experience the lessons as a hodge-podge of formats and headers. The general impression that students have is ‘All Toby does is print stuff off from the Internet.’
  2. They make everything themselves. The people I have seen do this generally have pretty abysmal formatting, but they make great resources tailored to each group. The groups are impressed with the work they put into preparation and would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues, but the teacher is so swamped with preparation, that they don’t have time for more lessons.

As a guy who wants to make a resource to create worksheets on the Internet, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on downloaded (or photocopied) resources. Students do not value your talent in leading a conversation, introducing vocabulary, and explaining grammar. The best teachers make it seem so effortless, that most students won’t appreciate the effort you invest until they try to teach their own native language.

And, of course, going the other route and just doing everything yourself is great… for one group, but not for twenty or thirty. (Not if you also want to learn to code, have writing projects, make music… This post is basically aimed at me.) What’s more, when I create a resource for only one group, we always find typos, and there is no point correcting them because nobody will ever see it again. This means that everyone basically sees the first draft of everything. I make a pretty good first draft, but the second draft is always better.

The first pillar of my solution: I use stuff from the Internet. But I have also become very proactive about communicating in the I form what my plans are, and on what basis I’ve made them. And that I got some resources to help us with whatever. Here are some things that I have said in my lessons:

Steffen, Mary, and yes, sometimes you Bert, have been making the ‘He, she, it — s muss mit’ mistake and I know that you know it. But we’re going to drill it a bit more in the next lessons to help make it automatic.

Or:

Normally, I’m happiest when you don’t make mistakes, but I’m glad you made that one because it brings me to something I want to talk about: the passive voice!

I know you all love grammar, but it’s important to master this if you want to talk about processes…

The goal in these little chats is to explain that I am a professional who has a plan, and not just a guy who was lucky enough to grow up speaking the language they are paying to learn.

The second pillar of my solution: With my worksheet generator (mostly) finished, I’m focusing this year on creating worksheets that are highly reusable, and yet tailored to me. The goal is to make it clear that I made the resources and to make them so quirky that it feels tailor-made for my classes. (Which are, fortunately, all quirky.)

The way I’m approaching this goal is by using two kinds of text in the worksheets. There are the absurd texts that I write, illustrating the use of the structures to be practiced. (See this example.) And there are the ‘drill texts’ in which the students fill in the blank, or complete the sentence, or translate from German, or whatever… and these are (almost) entirely boring, could-be-copied-from-the-internet bland.

The goal is to make something that confronts students with the vocabulary and structures they need and is still uniquely me. Then, after one group finds a typo, I can correct it and use it with another group. Because I teach in three different schools, I make them without a header and just paste in the header I made for the appropriate school.

In summary: I’m only about two months in, on using the second pillar of the solution. Nonetheless, the first results are positive and, combined with using my dynamically generated worksheets (which are, being made by me, also quirky) with the appropriate header on them. (That’s automatic with my great website!)

Practice Objectivity

This is another post in my ongoing series on the individual chapters in “The Obstacle is the Way.” I don’t know how useful or interesting it will be out of context.


In a chapter about how assigning values to things before we fully comprehend them, I think my favorite couple of lines are these:

Everything about our animalistic brains tries to compress the space between impression and perception. Think, perceive, act–with millisecond between them.

A deer’s brain tells it to run because things are bad. It runs. Sometimes, right into traffic.

I think I those lines for a number of reasons. I like the acknowledgment of our ‘animalistic brains,’ I like the visual aid, and I like the juxtaposition of the animal and the modern, because our animalistic brains weren’t made for the environment in which we live.

Which isn’t to say that they don’t offer anything of value, but that reacting to an upset boss the way you’d react to a predator–or even an upset ‘chieftain’ in a hunter-gatherer society–is counter-productive and one of the ways we repress ourselves.

I’m diverging away from the material of the chapter by getting into this territory, but something I’d like to examine better (or, read more about) is the fact that I don’t think people believe what they think they believe. When the animalistic brain reacts, the rational brain is a few steps behind and supplies reasons after the fact. (No, it would be tragic if my boss were to get angry at me, because…)

Getting back to the material of the chapter, the two paragraphs above are followed by the following two paragraphs:

We can question that impulese. We can disagree with it. We can override the switch, examine the threat before we act.

But this takes strength. It’s a muscle that must be developed. And muscles are developed by tension, by lifting and holding.

And, this is another thing that I think isn’t talked about enough: the importance of controlling yourself when it’s not super-important, because it will be much harder when it’s important. (For me, one example is being careful of how I speak to my kids when I don’t need to be careful about what I’m telling them, so that I have ‘muscle memory’ there for when I’m more concentrated on content than on how I say it.”)

The chapter only offers three strategies for doing this: contempt, describing things by means of their strict content, and thinking of your own problems as the problems a friend has. The rationale for this last one is that we’re more objective when thinking about our friends’ problems than when thinking about our own.

I think, if I could expand on this chapter, it would be to add priorities. Something that frustrates me is when a person complains about something in their life (the town where I live is so expensive!) but rejects all suggestions to make changes. Eventually, it usually comes down to something being more important (as long as my parents are alive, I want to live close to them). When a conversation reaches that point, I suggest “Instead of feeling sorry for yourself in such an expensive city, why not be glad that your parents are alive, and you’re happy to sacrifice having a big apartment for being close to them?”

It has been my experience that, if something is important to you, moving the ‘downsides’ of life in general into the appropriate ‘cost column’ in the accounting ledger of life makes a big difference. After all, we all think things along the lines of “there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for goal.” That suggests, after all, that living in an expensive city is better than living in an expensive and dangerous city. You’re ahead of the game! The price could be much higher!

Making business worksheets

Not long ago, I wrote about the “imposter syndrome” I feel when I try to teach Business English. Don’t worry, I certainly still feel that way.

However, my goal this year is to go from simply saying “it’s all English, master this grammar and then use it in a business context” to showing it. And, to that end, I’m actually making business worksheets focusing on a specific grammar and using ‘business texts.’

However, to avoid getting caught in the situation where I write about things I don’t know, these worksheets follow fictional companies in ridiculous industries (the collection I’m working in for emailing follows a business in the “world domination” sector).

Here’s one of my favorite example texts, from a worksheet focused on using the passive to describe processes.

Hits are made at the Ohmpah Express! Internationally famous groups such as the Grammar Junkies and the Homework Heroes were discovered by the talent scouts of The Ohmpah Express and their unique sounds were developed in weeks of workshops with our ‘rock doctors.’

At The Ohmpah Express, we don’t wait for music to happen. Here, music is made. The musical demands of next summer are predicted now, using complicated statistical models. Rhythms, lyrics and songs are carefully constructed using advanced aritifical intilligence (and some alcohol intelligence) and refined until they’re guaranteed to sell out stadium concerts the world over.

Then, these songs are delivered to the talent we have developed in-house and are turned into platinum-selling albums.

I’m happy to report that the worksheets have had the best resonance of any I’ve used for ‘Business English.’ Partly, that’s because my students know me and we all laugh at the absurdity of these businesses, and it’s partly because my texts still come across a lot of vocabulary that they find useful in a business context (‘proprietary algorithms,’ ‘generate reports from user data’)

If you’re struggling with adapting texts to your students, the lesson to me seems to be adapting the texts to you, and inviting your students along for the ride.