An Alternative Pedagogy for the 21st Century Musician

Student group - Fara Enclave (photo by César Alvarez)

In 2008 I was asked to teach a single course in the Music Tech division of the Creative Arts and Technology Department at Bloomfield College called "Digital Audio Engineering 1." I approached the class as a composer, producer and sound artist assuming that most of my students would be primarily interested in figuring out the studio tricks to make their tracks sound radio loud, compressed and commercial. I was right to a certain degree but what I did not expect is that they were hungry for a set of fundamentals around which to build a mature and unorthodox artistic practice. What sets the students in this program apart is that most have not been through traditional high school music programs but arrive at the practice of music making through their home computers. They are an entire crop of computer musicians that are from diverse backgrounds and musical tastes, and have little in common musically with the experimental electronic musicians that for decades have owned the title "computer musician." Home computers are enabling a whole generation of young people to make music without access to traditional musical instruments (much as the turntable did in the 1980s). Now a lot of these musicians are looking for a way to pursue that interest as part of their higher education. These musicians are the future of the music industry.

After seven semesters and 100s of classroom hours at Bloomfield I've started to identify an emergent framework for undergraduate study of "studio" music as a combination of creative and technical practice with historical and cultural study. The music industry is undergoing a cataclysmic transformation right now. and from what I can tell (looking at job postings and course offerings) many music departments at colleges and conservatories are stubbornly resisting the uncomfortable questions that this transformation raises for their curricula and pedagogy. I believe that creative and cultural workers will be highly sought after in the 21st century economy yet many of our music majors are being given a seriously dated education that ill-prepares them for this exciting yet dangerously uncertain field. Furthermore, many musicians are being excluded wholesale from the serious study of music because they lack the traditional pre-requisites (instrumental training, knowledge of jazz or classical music, ability to read music, etc) or because they are interested in popular music. My students have many careers open to them and most will wear several hats in order to collage together a respectable living as an artist. They will be performers, composers, recording artists, engineers (recording, mixing, mastering), sound designers, producers, bloggers, DJs, venue owners, bookers, teachers and live sound engineers. They will work at record labels, game design firms, post-production houses, event companies, marketing firms, radio stations, studios, internet start-ups, and even for sports teams. And their musical training will serve them in all of these roles.

Below I've begun to document some of my observations and classroom experiments in order to start a dialogue about non-conservatory non-traditional undergraduate music education, both to document them for myself and hopefully to initiate a dialogue about the future of the music industry through the lens of some its youngest participants. I've also included a resource list at the bottom of the post.

Here are some of the basic concepts and distinctions that I employ in my classes along with brief explanations:

1. Collaboration is King - In class I emphasize that, now more than ever, a career in music relies on juggling multiple loosely defined and constantly changing collaborations. In collaboration you must take total responsibility for your role and the end product. The challenge isn't only in fulfilling your role but in merging it with the roles' of others and offering leadership and cooperation.

2. Recording is the new scoring - Recording has supplanted score in my musical world. For trained an untrained musicians alike a well put together recording can effectively transmit a musical idea. Obviously scoring has a vast number of, still relevant, applications but recording melodies, rhythms and musical ideas has increasingly become an easier way to communicate nuance especially when working with musicians that work in improvised or popular genres.

3. Looping ≠ Repetition - Repetition in popular music is as valid and musically indigenous as it is in minimalism, and various forms of folk music. However many young musicians repeat sections and musical phrases out of habits both conscious and subconscious. I try to draw distinction between the physical repetition of a musical idea and the digital replication of an idea (looping). Each are superficially similar but carry a different musical agenda.

4. Ears are your instrument - Many of my students begin my classes focused on learning the ins and outs of devices and the "tricks of the trade." I try to organize the class to refocus their work on their own ears. Your ears, not a book, will tell you where to put the mic. I try to investigate the sonic qualities of our working and living environment in class. 

5. Software is self-taught - I spend maybe 5-10% of class time discussing software even though it is required for nearly all of my assignments. The reason is that I've found it to be a huge waste of time and resources to learn audio software in a class setting. People all discover and learn software in their own way. Similar to a concert band. You cannot teach everyone their instrument in the group. They must learn basic concepts and then go home and practice on their own. In class we discuss concepts, listen to projects, analyze music, discuss and examine trouble spots. My students learn software most effectively through the assignments themselves and, interestingly, through collaboration with one another.

6. Sound is the medium - I encourage my students to treat sound as their material rather than musical notes, lyrics or samples. In modern recording technology sonic imagination is everything. They aren't just musicians, but sonic artists. Music is just one way to use the medium

7. Form = Function - Songs are the unit of trade but not the imperative. Songs are what all of my students grew up on. But they are only one form of musical expression. As my students are learning through creating original work, form is often the most difficult place to experiment. Communicating the powerful impact that the form of the work has on the listener is a very important distinction.

8. Software and hardware updates. Concepts persist - The technology is changing so rapidly that by the time we update our labs the following version of the software has already leapfrogged us. I avoid dealing with software minutiae because the physics of sound and the fundamentals of sonic manipulation stay the same across platforms. If you possess a broad understanding of music and sound as material, the technology will not out-run you.

9. Cliché is weakness - A cliché is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect. I push my students to recognize and replace clichés with original thinking in lyrics, form, timbre, and composition.

10. QUANTITY not quality - The specific nature of teaching a student composition, software, and music fundamentals all simultaneously is that often they gain access to musical tools out of any traditional order. So for instance they can put out an album before they learn to sing on key. My way of confronting this is to challenge them to start working on their 10,000 hours. I'm interested in them making hundreds of recordings that are terrible rather than agonizing over one. It is just like an instrumentalist in a practice room. Thousands of hours need to been spent. This is also why I assess assignments on how much effort and time has been put in rather than my own taste. I want my students to have as many recordings and projects as possible under their belt before they need to start working professionally.

11. Detail Detail Detail - The nice thing about encouraging students to attend to the details of their work is that it goes hand in hand with the development of their ears. "The more you know about mixing the longer it takes to mix." The reason is because at first you don't hear the lack of compression, frequency build up, popping t's, or out-of-tune vocals. It is the hundreds of hours-logged that helps the students achieve this awareness. One of my main jobs as an instructor is engender attention for these details so they can hear them in their own music and that of their peers.

12. Earn your "Producer Ears" -  The hearing metamorphosis that takes place after just 3 semesters of critical listening is as fascinating as it is predictable. Once you learn how to mix you can't listen to the radio without hearing the compression and whole worlds of sound reveal themselves. This art of detailed and critical listening is at the core of any 21st century music career. Also the development of  "Producer Ears" is a life long project that can start in the classroom.

13. Sound is a language - Learning to make music is a process of transforming your brain. And words are the fundamental unit of being and understanding. Just as an instrumentalist learns to read music the producer learns the language of audio. This includes a laundry list of musical and audio concepts and parameters, which, once mastered, help you to articulate and understand what you hear. I emphasize language as a bridge to listening. HERE is a list of audio terms.

14. Your career already started - When I was in college we called it "the bubble." Because it felt like everything we did was somehow removed and cut off from the real world. As music on the Internet has become ubiquitous I find that one of the most important skills to develop is the relationship to the network. I don't emphasize that students try and monetize their music as much as they start thinking about avenues and networks that are in place which might offer them musical knowledge, audience, insights, and inspiration. Also, I emphasize that everyone in the class could be a current or future collaborator, manager, publicist, DJ, label owner, etc. and that students should bring to class the energy and intensity that they would hope to have at the highest levels of their career. Their work ethic and commitment to good work is something that everyone will perceive and remember.

15. Integrity is everything - If you don't show up on time and do your work people won't trust you to collaborate. Period. Integrity as a student is setting you up for a successful life as a musician. 

16. Understand Branding - Though it may sound sinister, understanding branding early can really help musicians move through the rocky early stages of a career. Understanding your brand means identifying your audience and the archetypes that you are tapping into in your work. Study the brands of artists you admire and learn from them. Branding isn't necessarily about commodifying yourself as much as it is about honing in on your authentic core as an artist.

18. Music is Science - I implore my students to treat everything we do in class with the same seriousness that they would in an academic class. Unfortunately all their previous schooling teaches them that music is an "elective" and not a course for serious study. Notes should be taken, and reading and listening should attended to with true academic rigor. 

19. Twist the knobs - You can't rely on constants to achieve a certain sound. Just twist the knobs until you find the sound you are looking for. This idea exemplifies a learning process based on exploration and trial and error. There are no immovable rules about the way any music should sound. Finding the right approach for every problem and project is an exercise in experimentation and flexible thinking. There aren't easy answers, you have to listen every step of the way.

20. Effects are narrative - I want my students to understand their tools as narrative devices. Reverb, delay, compression, equalization, phasing, distortion, etc. are all story telling tools that help sculpt sound into something meaningful, pleasing or challenging to the listener. The goal is not to make your music conform to generic standards, but rather to maximize its intended effect.

21. You are what you eat - The music that you make will be original and unique in direct proportion to the diversity and detail of your listening.

22. I don't care if you like it. What did you hear? - The only thing that most non-musicians can say about music is whether or not they "like" it. To me this is a largely irrelevant descriptor as students develop producer ears. The study of music is a practice in opening your ears to understanding the inner-workings of all music. Music that you "dislike" will usually teach you more about yourself and music in general than your favorite music. I frequently quote John Cage: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

23. Fail Fast - I encourage students to hurry up and screw up. Because if you are playing it safe you will move forward too slow. This is an incredibly important distinction in the field of music because so many cards can be stacked against you. Most of my students are being watched skeptically by their families and even friends, as the conventional wisdom says a career in music is next to impossible.
This causes many of them to never want to take the risks that they will need to take everyday as a working musician. College is a time to fall on your face over and over again because by the time you've finished the 4 or 5 years you will A) not be terrified of failing and B) have a better handle on how to stay afloat in the first place. An alternative pedagogy for musicians must hold creative risk-taking at its core.

These are some of the books, articles and podcasts that I use in my courses -

The Recording Engineer's Handbook by Bobby Oswinski
The Mixing Engineer's Handbook by Bobby Oswinski
Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Audio Culture edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner

Space Is The Place Part 1 and Part 2 by Myles Boisen

Radiolab - Musical Language
Radiolab - Pop Music

Film - Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes
Film - Shaping your Sound (This video is very dated but really good information. It is so dated in fact that it makes it entertaining)

These are materials that have informed my ideas about music and I have sometimes used in class -
Noise: The Political Economy of Music by Jacques Attali
Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin


Christopher DeLaurenti said...

Spot on and Amen!

Daniel D.Royul Cody said...

As a student in that first class Cesar has ever taught, and being privileged with being the first students to go through all 3 classes of Digital Engineering with him as my teacher, I do thank God that I was able to learn under his style of teaching. As he readily agreed with the fact that he was learning as a teacher as he taught Us, that unsure-ity of how to handle the class led to a very candid understanding of the skills, techniques, and methods he used in his music, combined with his understanding of the music industry. I have a lot of respect for him and am grateful for what he has taught me.

While I could go on for days about the benefits of my music production from his teaching, and how the number list alllll definitely are true, I'll hone in on a couple of them that really jumped out in my memory when reading this. #19 & #20 HUGELY affected my producing mind. These days when I have a song in my head, I make it sound like it is in my head. There are times that I get it exactly right, there are times when I get it close enough. But that class when Cesar said "Don't just go with the presets, play around with the knobs" have rung in my head ever since, and its 2 years later. Thats my motto when I talk to those who are producers who come to me asking questions about how I do this or that.

Keep doing the great work you do Cesar. There are many others like me who appreciate all the work, time, and effort you have put into teaching these classes

Seth Nehil said...

Hi César,
had a chance to read this last night (and forward it to some of my colleagues). Reaffirming thoughts, especially for a fellow "newish" teacher. I've been working to develop a sound program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art here in Portland OR. We have a very different student body here (my students being fine arts and experimentally-minded), but I still found your ideas valuable. I've come to many of the same conclusions, and discussed them in various meetings, but I've never formalized them in such a way.

The notion of not teaching software seems potentially controversial. I've always struggled with finding a balance - how to introduce the basic and necessary concepts without getting locked into any particular program, and how to convince the students that I can't "give" them any immediate tricks to make a "good" recording. Your words legitimize my decision to use class time for more interesting and conceptual rather than technical subjects... to an extent. I'm limited by the tools that are available (or the lack thereof) but I'm still searching for good ways to create in-class workshops for hands-on exploration of equipment. I agree entirely that the ears are the most valuable tool, and I try to give example after example of ways that sounds have been discovered through experimentation and accident, in both pop and experimental formats. I sometimes say that I could teach a sound class using only rocks and sticks, but it's dangerous to give administration any ideas about how to not spend money!

I treat the axiom "recording is the new scoring" somewhat differently, by talking about the way "the studio as compositional tool" allows musicians and artists to deal directly with sound itself, responding and adapting to sounds - as they are created, layered and manipulated. I combine that with exercises in scoring and improvisation using found objects and/or instruments. We try to find a common ground between musical and non-musical members of the class, inventing scoring languages on the spot. The failures of this exercise are usually as interesting as the successes.

I've only taught this class twice now, and I'm looking forward to splitting my single semester into two parts (beginning and intermediate) in future years. We're just starting to give this program definition, working to find a unique approach to sound-as-art which can also overlap with sound-image relationships, as utilized by animation students, performance students, video majors, etc.

I also appreciated your "sound is language" axiom - this has been one of my guiding principles, and I've been developing a project wherein each student creates his or her own sonic dictionary for provided terms. I draw these terms from a wide range of areas - engineering, acoustics, acoustic ecology, etc. I have found two books to be especially useful in this regard:
Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds by Jean-Francois Augoyard, Henri Torgue and Andra McCartney
and AudioVision by Michel Chion. Stephen Handel's Listening is also great, but mostly for my own edification.