Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of Alien: Covenant (2017)

SPOILERS AHEAD

(Please stop reading if you haven’t seen Alien: Covenant yet!)

Most of you are well aware of how much I love the Alien canon—that’s Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), and Prometheus (2012), recently evidenced by my 2012 review/dissertation of the same name.
You might also know that I’ve been tracking Covenant from the time it was announced as Paradise years ago.  So you might be surprised to hear that I was pretty annoyed at the end of my first Covenant viewing, and here’s why. 

Ridley Scott must think that I am stupid. 

Synopsis: Weyland crew in cryosleep, awakened by Mother, receives and follows unknown signal from unknown planet, takes lander to surface, interacts with alien egg or spores, breaks quarantine by bringing infected crew member back on board, things burst out, alien begins a killing spree of crew, turns out that synthetic is duplicitous and is trying to save the alien species, finally one (or two) crew member blows monster out the airlock. 

Sound familiar?  It should, since it’s the exact plot of the original Alien.  And Covenant.  Evidently there really is nothing new under the sun. 

Characters: When Eva and I saw it (on our wedding anniversary), her overarching comment was that she didn’t care about any of the characters, and only recognized Daniels, Tennessee, and David/Walter throughout.  I agreed, but then on my second viewing was able to concentrate more on the roles of Lope (Demian Bichir, who I first saw in The Bridge), Faris, Karine, etc.  I wouldn’t say I found them more developed, but it did make me feel a little better about the secondary cast. 

But then...we had flute lessons with David and Walter. “I’ll do the fingering” earned a collective groan from our audience, “No one will love you like I love you,” and my favorite, which was also a Night Ranger song from the 80s, “When you close your eyes, do you dream about me?”  I’m not even discussing the kiss (or the one with Daniels).  I thought Ridley Scott was too smart for this.

Other incredibly stupid lines from David: “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”  Someone down the row from me actually said “Jesus Christ, really?” out loud.  Hear, hear.

Perhaps my expectations were too high; Scott did direct The Counselor.

Fassbender as the Mindbender: Everyone talks about how amazing Fassbender is—I agree that he is a great actor, but he was hamstringed in this role in similar fashion to the entire cast of the Star Wars Prequels.  Even the greatest actors can’t make poor dialogue and plot points fly.   And coming up with the pseudo-Texas drawl accent (which sounds like he has marbles in his mouth) isn’t going to garner any award consideration.

I knew in advance about the two roles, and figured out the “major plot twist” within about five seconds of the landing party being rescued temporarily by David.  If not, there were 500 clues dropped before David reveals himself to Daniels after the log cabin spiel in the final act.  I mean, come on. 

Beliefs: Oram and being a “man of faith?”  That’s fine to explore, but have it mean something—similar to Shaw in Prometheus.  Faith had no bearing on anything he did, and his fate led you to believe that Scott was making fun of it, rather than using it as a departure for a discussion about creation and purpose.  As such Billy Crudup was completely underutilized, as his character was useless.

Effects: One of the scariest elements of the original Alien was the practical effects.  The beast was a guy in an alien suit, and it was scary because it looked real.  And speaking of real, the gestation period of the aliens has gone from days to hours to minutes. 

In stark contrast, Covenant's CGI is laughable.  Granted, I will give you the backburster scene—no one does that kind of thing like Scott.  But the neomorph, protomorph and xenomorph all reminded me of what destroyed Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend.  CGI isn’t scary.  Not at all—even when thrown at you during “gotcha” moments (really fast-moving CGI monsters attacking people with epileptic seizure-inducing lighting and lots of super-loud sound effects).   Seeing something practical is always more scary than the alternative.  Take the Evil Dead remake for example.

Score:  Jed Kurzell is no Marc Streitenfeld.  And quoting the iconic 1979 Goldsmith score doesn’t make you a genius.  In fact, the highest point was the orchestral quote of Prometheus in David’s chambers (not the flute version, come on—I’m pretty sure David did not know Streitenfeld).  In fact, the opening sequence of Prometheus alone was better than all of Covenant in the score department.  Not even Wagner could save it.

References: If you know the original Alien well, you remember the teeter-totter bird in the crew mess of the Nostromo.  Of course, we have one here as well, but it’s not even obscured for fans like me to find.  It’s part of a slow dolly shot that makes the obvious even more obvious.  You might also remember the little flared readouts from Mother (the opening credits do this as well), and also the countdown screens for the Nostromo detonation—those show up in Covenant if you watch the computer screens during the neutrino emission. The shower scene belongs in a summer camp slasher film.  Perhaps you were uncomfortable for a second when the tail made an appearance?  You should review Alien again and see how you feel right before Lambert gets it the same way, just not in a shower.

Stupid: I realize not every person who sees this film has seen the original alien over 30 times (and takes photos of the TV screen with captions and sends to his friends whenever it’s showing on regular cable), or saw Prometheus 10 times in the theater (twice the first day it was out). But I don’t like Ridley Scott dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator moviegoer, and that’s what I feel happened here. I imagined a scenario when they shot the last scene with Daniels and David, and Fassbender looks up and asks, “What would David say here?”  To which Scott asks the crew, “What’s the most ridiculous thing he could say right now that will get slow people on board with this plot twist?”  Some grip in the back says “How about ‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite?’”  Scott says “SPLENDID!  And ACTION!”

There was so much potential for this film—so many unanswered questions.  What was the black goo?  Where did the engineers come from?  Why did they want to destroy the human race?  And even within the film—why did David go completely insane and destroy the entire population of engineers on their planet?  Are there engineers on other planets (there have to be)? Why did David kill Shaw?  Will Origae-6 become LV426 (it can’t, really)? How will we connect between Covenant, Awakening and the original Alien?  Is Daniels Ripley’s mother?

Conclusion: So did I like it?  I enjoyed moments of it—I love how Scott frames the space shots and the sheer amount of detail involved with every set piece, but it all felt like “Prometheus Light” to me, both in space and on the planet surface.  The backburster was awesome up until the point that the neomorph went from fetus to fully-aware-and-functional predator in about five seconds.  I was surprised by Danny McBride—I expected him to be comedy relief after Eastbound and Down, but he was enjoyable, as was Katherine Waterston as Daniels (and how much did James Franco get for that cameo?).   

But the bad clearly outweighs the good for me on this outing, so I’ll call this a 2.5/5 and wait for It Comes At Night, the IT remake, Blade Runner 2049 and The Last Jedi to round out my year at the cinema. 


2.5/5 stars

Friday, March 17, 2017

Auditioning Students: Play What You Can Play

I realized yesterday that I have been listening to University admissions auditions for over 20 years (both graduate and undergraduate), not to mention judging hundreds of other auditions for music festivals, regional and national scholarships, competitions—you name it. 

That’s a lot.  And I still find it one of the most exciting parts of my job.

Several years ago I started having my graduate students sit in on auditions with me, something I learned from my friend Jim Campbell, and recently we started a conversation concerning a trend in undergraduate auditions. 

Basically, I see two levels of prospective undergraduate student at FSU.

One, really well-prepared students playing appropriate literature for their ability level.  They come in playing solid solos on all instruments, and are typically very well-mannered, pleasant and hungry, and have often had a fabulous teacher for a long period of time.

Usually these students come from very strong HS band programs like Lassiter, Broken Arrow, etc.  And they’ve played appropriate literature for where they are developmentally.  These special students tend to make incredible progress while at FSU, and I can count most of our graduates in this category.

Many are between FSU and conservatories/peer conservatory-level university music schools.  Because of the State of Florida Bright Futures initiative (a lottery-funded trust for Florida students with high GPAs), we end up with a good number of them, which is really exciting.  A great experience all around, for us and for them. 

And then, the subject of this article. 

Two, students who come in playing music that is far beyond them technically, musically—almost everything-y.  We will concentrate on this for the rest of the article.

These poor students show up playing music they have no business considering, much less trying to play.  Imagine you’re a senior, but truth is you play at an 8th grade level (you’re not aware of this).  One of these scenarios probably morphs into focus during the Fall semester before your auditions. 

One, you ask your percussion/FB friends what they are playing for their auditions, or note what your friends from all-state or all-county post on their Twitter feed or Instagram pages.  They tell you Tompkins, Pratt, whatever, so you think you need to play that stuff to compete.  Even though you don’t have the hands for it.   I recently heard an auditioning undergrad student play Pine Cone Forest.  I know this only because I read it on his rep list—from listening alone I could not tell what it was. 

Two, your teacher (if you have one, band director if not) remembers what s/he played as an undergraduate and gives you that repertoire.   Had an auditioning student years ago who tried to play the second movement of Variations on Lost Love.  I couldn’t recognize it.  What's worse in this category?  Your teacher doesn't know what "play" means either.

Three, you Google “Marimba Solos” and see people playing Viñao (or something similar), and think “Wow, that’s pretty cool, and it doesn’t look that hard,” only to realize later the absolute depths of your error.

This is where potentially talented “fixable” students obscure their abilities by attempting to play the wrong repertoire, and it’s a deadly mistake.  Here’s why. 

Fixable students are often good players; they just have technical or musical issues to overcome, and I can tell what those are in a very short time—even if the playing isn’t the best they can do.

Programs that prescreen undergraduates can ferret these out, making sure none of these students are invited to play live—but we are not one of those programs.  I’ll hear anyone play, even these students, although I’d like to propose a way to fix this particular issue.

My standard reply to “What should I play for my audition?” is:  Whatever you feel you can play the best.

Do I care what you play?  Not nearly as much as HOW you play it.  How do I compare a student playing less-than-capable Delécluse vs. well-prepared and rendered Intermediate Peters?  Easy.  I take who plays the best. 

These are also the students whose parents tend to be the most involved in the process.  Sometimes that’s OK, but often these parents are the angriest after their son or daughter has not been accepted.  I’ve received a lot of these emails and phone calls over the years, and it seems to be getting worse.  Some colleagues I know don’t even answer them.  One auditioning student who didn't get in even came to a recital and told me to go you-know-what myself in front of the other students.  That was nice.

I usually do, but often trying to explain that your son or daughter was the victim of bad advice doesn’t go over well, no matter how true. 

So for the upcoming season(s), here are a few items for thought.

If possible, try and locate a professional teacher at least a year before your auditions.  If you can’t find one, email me—I probably know someone close to you. 

Be sure to visit studio or admissions pages for suggested repertoire.  Most only suggest, so you and your teacher can find what will be best for you.  If your repertoire is going to be radically different from what’s suggested, be sure to clear it with the professor before the audition. 

Do not be intimidated by what your friends might be playing.  Play what fits you best. 

I’ll be posting a video late summer/early fall about graduate prescreening strategies, including the technical elements and repertoire selection, so until then happy practicing!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Music Education is no Fallback

An auditioning student shows up this past weekend and plays great.  I ask him afterwards what he wants to do with his life, and his answer: “My band director says I should major in Music Education. Performance is too hard and I'll need something to fall back on.”

This is what I told him. 

Know what else is hard?  Being a brain surgeon.  Being an architect.  Being a police officer, utility engineer, mental health professional, lawyer, newspaper editor, banker, line operator, landscape artist or airline pilot. 

It’s hard to be a professional fisherman, audio engineer, movie director, graphic artist or member of the armed forces.

Guess what.  It’s all hard.  And if you want to be great—really great—at anything, it takes an incredible amount of hard work.  And then, to paraphrase one of my mentors, it takes more hard work.  And then it takes more hard work and a little more hard work.  And then after all of that, it takes more hard work. 

That goes for anything worth doing in this life.  And that hard work never stops.

For those unfamiliar with the argument, older people often tell young aspiring musicians to major in Music Education because it’s easier to get a job as a band director/choral director/orchestra director at the primary and secondary levels—that being middle school and high school—than as a performer.   

It’s also recommended most notably for young musicians who either aren’t particularly good or downright poor at playing their instrument, or perhaps (more troublesome) haven’t had the right experiences to become great at playing their instrument.  

That’s right. Let’s encourage mediocre musicians to take on one of the most challenging jobs on the planet—that of a high school band director.  Let’s put them in front of hundreds of our kids (AKA the next generation of musicians and patrons) where they can take out their frustrations and shortcomings, and dissuade not only following music in college but perhaps not supporting the arts at all when they get older.

There are lots of people like that—things didn’t pan out for them, so they shouldn’t pan out for you.
At 17 years old I was a piano-memorizing whiz (I was an abysmal reader).  No percussion lessons.  I bought my first drum set in 11th grade from a Sears catalog using money I earned working at Belk’s and took to learning Rush tunes.  I went to college as a piano major only to realize that I didn’t want to play the piano professionally.  Then I became a Music Education major because people told me Performance was too hard.  And I loved being an Ed major—most of my music friends were, and I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences.

But then I had my student teaching practicum.  I realized very quickly that I did not have the skill set for teaching high school, middle school, or elementary children.  I graduated, and after lots of graduate training (where I attended master classes subtitled “why you’ll never get a job”) and an incredible amount of hard work, I got my first job.  Then I got another one.  Then this one. 

But this is not about me, I’m just noting for the record that every person who told me I’d never make it was wrong. 

Students do not choose to be Music Educators, they are chosen. They are selected from birth, just like performance prodigies and every bit as special.  They can think of nothing they’d rather do than work with kids through thousands of rehearsals, parent meetings, arranging, drill writing, teaching AP courses, traffic duty, acting as counselors, advisors and a thousand other things these people have to do. 

When you take people who want something more than anything, and are prepared to do anything to get it, you set up a model for success that starts from the top.  I want my children working with teachers who are doing their life’s work—they can think of nothing they’d rather do than read to my child, or take extra time to show them a neat chemistry reaction or play a Tower of Power video.  Music Educators go to bed every night completely exhausted, yet they can’t wait to get back to their band rooms. 

I did not have a teacher like this in high school band.  But I had lots of them afterwards, and it truly takes a village.  My mentors never gave up when people told them that their chosen profession was too hard, and neither have I.  And neither have my students. 

You want to design life-changing drugs to help people?  No, you should be a pharmacist because there are more jobs.  You want to design a telescope that allows us to see nearby planets?  You should teach middle school science because there are more jobs.  You want to be a NASCAR driver?  You should work at the DMV because there are more jobs.  You want to be a Senator from Illinois and later the President of the United States? 

Imagine what our world would be like if people settled at the very beginning and never attempted anything because it was hard. 

Here’s what I ask students.

Do you want to be a professional musician?  YES. Do you want to be a high school/middle school band director?  YES.  Do you want to work with kids and stay out all night at contests and myriad things that will make your program great?  YES. I say bring it on, Music Education Major (or for us at FSU, Music Therapy too). 

Do you want to play with a professional performing organization, chamber music organization, military band, or teach at the University level?  YES.  If the talent and desire are there, then I say bring it on, Performance Major. 

And if you’re not cutting it, the programs will weed you out.  And I firmly believe that a dose of reality is warranted—if a student can’t play well/teach well, then maybe finding something else to do would be a good idea, since playing is really at the heart of what we do anyway.  Remember you can enjoy music at almost every attainable level for the rest of your life—as an amateur.

There are jobs in music.  They’re tough to get and increasingly competitive, but they are there, and someone has to get them.  And while there are more band director jobs than say, professor of percussion jobs, they are still hard to get—and that’s just when the hard work truly begins. 

And sometimes students who show all the promise decide to do something else.  And that’s totally cool, because virtually every field outside of music LOVES music majors coming into their field.  Why?

Music students are disciplined, can work on their own or with groups, are highly intuitive problem solvers, organized, obsessed with detail, can be taught, can be trusted, celebrate diversity, can process incredible amounts of information, are creative, show up early and prepared, emulate “team work” and know something about performing under pressure.   

What person doesn’t want those qualities in anyone who is close to them, from your plumber to your mayor?

True, some people, well lots of them, may not make it in performance.  There is only one Chris Thile after all.  But there is also only one you. 

I guess you have to decide what “make it” means.  To me it means filling your career pie-chart with all of your musical activities, and if most or all of it is actually music and you’re making a living wage, you’re a “professional musician.”  It’s that simple. 

I have friends who are principals of the best orchestras in the world.  Friends who play in every level of our military bands.  People at every level of virtually every facet of the music industry—and they are all professional musicians.

Band directors, college, high school, middle school, elementary teachers—all professional musicians.  Freelancers, chamber musicians, people who play at retirement homes and teach privately—all professional musicians. 

That’s to say nothing of the theorists, composers, DCI instructors, film scorers, session players, conductors, engineers, producers, music therapists—all professional musicians.

My advice for that band director:  Ask some more questions, and don’t be afraid to consult with an expert.  You never know what talent and hard work, coupled with a pinch of “I’ll show you” can do for a kid.





Monday, January 16, 2017

Music, Sports and Venn Diagrams

I‘d like to share highlights of my recent meeting with Adrian Crawford, author of “Get To Know Coaches Before Criticizing” (Dec. 8), written in response to my article “Coaches Should Be Held To The Same Standard as Teachers” (Nov. 30). 

Once we had a chance to discuss our vantage points—Adrian from a coaching household, an All-American who played basketball at Tulsa, Florida State, and later as a professional in Spain, now a local minister and coach—and mine, a professionally-trained musician with an international teaching, performing, recording, and service career, working in one of the largest and most respected music programs in the country—we found a great deal of overlap in our Venn diagrams.  Here are some examples.

Professional musicians and athletes share a great number of experiences, including having more candidates than there are professional positions, extremely high levels of competition, performance anxiety and stress, dealing with criticism, teamwork, and exceptionally high levels of specialized training reserved only for those talented and driven enough to “make it.”  Most musicians who grew up playing sports (like I did) already know about this, but I think it safe to say that many athletes are unaware.  Adrian was genuinely surprised when I told him how professional orchestra auditions work, and yes, there are obvious factors outside the overlap—I’m not attempting to perform with a 300-pound lineman trying to level me with millions of people watching, just as a basketball player doesn’t have only one chance to sink a shot from mid-court or be sent home.  But the majority of the basic experiences are shared.

Many place a premium on the academic reputation and operation of the Academy, quoting the alarming inequity of salaries and lack of behavioral standards as a symptom of large-scale identity problems (see The Athletic Trap: How College Sports Corrupted the Academy, Howard L. Nixon II, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).  However some may not be aware of the comprehensive mission to train student-athletes to be successful outside of sports. As Adrian noted, no one sees the support the coaches give their student-athletes off the field—just as no one sees the support of our young musicians off the stage.  As spectators we might only get those few seconds of outburst to make a generalization.  And that brings up an important point about how coaches are trained.

According to B. David Ridpath’s “College Coaches Behaving Badly: Time to Enforce Some Common-Sense Standards” in Forbes, one major factor separating the Academy from athletics is that coaches receive no formal certification.  Where academics typically have increasingly streamlined paths through degrees, certifications, and professional experience, coaches follow more of an apprenticeship trajectory—they play for a coach as a student-athlete, teach as graduate assistant/trainer, become assistant coaches under a head coach, and finally a head coach.  In most cases, they simply coach the only way they know how—as their forbears did it, and for some that can include use of obscenities.  Adrian and I agree that you can have intensity without cursing, and I suggest once you start down the obscenity path it’s a slippery slope to other unacceptable coaching behaviors.  While admitting no one is perfect, I believe some certification or system to monitor coaching behavior should probably be in place if Athletic Departments continue to function within the Academy.

Here’s an interesting fact concerning those obscenity-laced rants as culture.  I learned recently from an Air Force veteran and master musician that Military Training Instructors (MTI, aka Drill Instructors) have been moving away from obscenity-fueled training over the last seven years. In 2009 the Air Force started a new program called “Military Training Instructor Deliberate Development,” where mentorship and valuing trainees as individuals with intrinsic worth became the instruction standard.  Instructors became capable of intensity without profanity, without threats of physical abuse, and without personal verbal maltreatment. 

If an entire wing of the military can implement a new way to train soldiers more efficiently, free of obscenities, physical abuse, and other trademark “Bad Coaching Behaviors,” then perhaps there’s hope for everything else.

I know that over my 20+ years as a Professor, now spanning three successful programs, I have not been perfect for every single minute.  There are fortunately many more moments where I know a huge difference has been made in the life of young people than not.  However, if I were under the insane amount of scrutiny some coaches deal with—and had a bad day—and had it captured on national TV and social media in front of millions of people—I would not want people to extrapolate and somehow come to the conclusion that those seconds of camera time defined me as a musician, teacher, or person.  I believe this was the main point of Adrian’s article, and I agree with him.  
One thing I have learned above all others in my career is that you must give respect in order to get it.  Respect your students, your staff, your workers, and most importantly those who may not see things as you do—and let them know that you love them and appreciate them—and anything is possible.  It’s not about manipulation, it’s about modeling best practices for your students. 

Therefore I remain convinced that obscenity-laced rants are disrespectful, unsuitable and unsustainable as teaching tools.  If they weren’t we would have tons of pedagogical research lauding this approach as a viable way to motivate and instruct across all levels.  One of my esteemed colleagues called this behavior a kind of willful laziness, substituting obscenities and personal insults for real information, and it happens systematically at every level—college, high school, even junior high.  One argument regards colorful language as the only way to get the attention of a student-athlete who knows no other method of communication, which likely is not the fault of the current coach. However the chance to elevate the discourse and prepare student-athletes for life after University—from that point onward—rests squarely with that coach.

If it were up to me, there would be fines for every instance of these tirades—on TV, heard by children behind the bench, or caught by media.  I imagine that coaches would act a lot better after paying $10,000 for every obscenity caught by the press.  By the way, that 10k is 0.2% of a 5-million dollar salary, and just for the sake of comparison that percentage would come to a $160 fine for me.  And my opinion has nothing to do with anyone’s ability to take intense criticism or instruction, weakness, or being called a “liberal snowflake”—it’s about class.  Words like tradition, pride, and excellence are rooted in class.

Will some coaches stop throwing their headsets, clipboards, screaming obscenities, shoving student-athletes, and acting like children as a result of this ongoing discussion?  Probably not.  However, will the continuing collaboration between Adrian and I make a difference? Could it provide a model for people to celebrate evolved discourse between two seemingly disparate people or points of view? That is our hope.

My program within the College of Music, as well as our Athletic Department, Adrian’s basketball academy, and every other cognate of Florida State University has a common mission.  We are to cultivate, train and support our students to be successful after graduation, period.  Does every gifted student-athlete have the chops to excel academically?  No.  Do people think student-athletes enjoy a status that protects them from the full rigor of academics shared by the rest of the student body?  Yes, many of them do.  And do people largely misunderstand what student-athletes do? Yes—and it goes both ways.  But here’s the thing—the coaches are doing the same thing I am—they’re trying to prepare their students for life after FSU.  And while I still cringe when I see coaches around the country using pedagogical approaches that are morally and ethically questionable—and I’m not alone there—I think I’d rather start the discussion with what we have in common, just as Adrian and I are doing.  And after becoming more familiar with what we do on our side of campus, coaches might have some suggestions for me, just as I have for them.

I’m looking forward to learning more about how our athletes are coached, and as I hoped, Adrian is excited about coming to watch our percussion ensemble (which has won our version of a National Championship, twice).   That will be fun for sure, as Adrian is a first-class guy, and I feel lucky to know him. 


The good news:  There are more people out there like us who are interested in continuing this conversation and making a difference, and I hope that what we’re doing will inspire people with divergent beliefs or practices to sit down and discuss their positions with respect and understanding.  

You might be surprised just how much you have in common.    

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My View (from the Tallahassee Democrat, 11/29/16)

Coaches Should Be Held to the Same Standard as Teachers

As the 2016 regular college football season comes to a close, I’d like to propose a discussion about class. Not the kind that our students are supposed to attend, but class as it refers to how we at Florida State carry ourselves as an institution of higher learning—as a role model, a national and international leader, based upon the most important aspect of higher education: the success and support of our students. 

My 8 year-old son is obsessed with college football, closely watching multiple games with me every weekend. On several occasions this season he was able to lip-read everything coaches screamed at players and officials. Most of this language consisted of the F-word, S-word, etc., and it started a conversation.

Son:  Dad, why do coaches yell at the players with the F-word? 

Dad: That’s a good question.

Son:  Do you yell at your students like that?

Dad:  Absolutely not.  I respect them, and they respect me.  That respect is not based on fear and intimidation.

Son:  Fear and what? 

Well, you get the idea.  And the more I thought about it, the more I started to draw some analogues between what we saw on the screen and what happens in my small corner of Florida State.

Yes, I work at FSU.  My program is a national leader.  Our students have won international awards.  We operate within one of the premiere programs at FSU and in the nation, and what we do here changes the world, at least our small part of it.

I never speak to my students in any other way than with deference, even when I might be upset about something.  However, if I were to act like many of these coaches do, I am 100% sure I would be fired.  And rightly so.  The academy is no place for harassment and motivation through threats.  Rather it should be a place for guidance and the free and open exchange of ideas, even when those ideas are divergent.

You could blame it on pressure.  According to Safid Deen of the Tallahassee Democrat, the FSU athletic program accounted for $120,822,522 in revenues and $111, 386,681 in operating expenses in 2014-15. In fact we are one of the very few athletic programs in the country that makes more than we spend annually.  

That is an insane amount of money.  And with that kind of revenue on the line, perhaps coaches are granted some leeway in the class department from time to time from university officials.  Here are some other figures to put that in perspective.

FSU’s operating expenses were $1.1B in 2014-15 with income totaling $613M (http://economic-impact.fsu.edu/).  All of the sudden that $9.4M doesn’t go as far, even knowing other figures impact the bottom line (this does not include the positive economic impact of FSU athletics upon the Tallahassee and surrounding communities, for example).

My point is that regardless of these astronomical numbers we should hold coaches of all collegiate sports to the same standard as other teachers and leaders of the academy—to aspire to a higher level of communication than screaming and yelling obscenities—no matter how much money is at stake.  We should think of how we represent the University as a whole, not just the football program or any other sport.

And we cannot default to “the culture” as if it were something insurmountable—athletics programs (and humanity, for that matter) are full of cultures that need to change. 

More people see the occasional fuming at players and referees than see our insanely-cool magnet lab, our concerts in Ruby Diamond, or any other aspect of our internationally-lauded performance and research in virtually every field important to our community, our country, our environment, and beyond.  And are those five seconds of cursing at a 20 year-old student athlete really what we want people to remember when they hear “We are Florida State?”

I think we can do better.    

Sunday, July 3, 2016

PAS drops the ball.

July 3, 2016

First, I'd like to congratulate the 2016 International Percussion Ensemble Competition winners--
friends and terrific musicians with great ensembles who deserve to be recognized. Winning this
competition is one of the defining events in the history of a percussion program.

Second, I will outline how those groups--totally without their knowledge--competed against only 75% of the entries. Granted, that 75% was still comprised of some of the best ensembles in the
country-- but the fact that it was 75% versus 100% is worthy of exploration.

Let's start from the beginning.

For the first time, PAS, without consulting the Percussion Ensemble Committee, launched an online
application for the competition, which had the contestants upload Dropbox links through a portal.
This was in mid-April.

Both the College and High School groups each have six judges, whose names are confidential for
obvious reasons. I've judged the College version twice, and was selected to judge High School this
year.

As I judged the High School entries, I noticed that at least two non-consecutive groups had
recordings so full of white noise (static) that I couldn't tell what was on the submission.

Here's an analogy: Imagine watching a speech--you can see the mouth move, but there's no
audio--nothing but static--so that you can't tell what's being said.  We'll come back to that.

I thought it was just recording naiveté on the part of the directors, so I gave the groups a zero
because I couldn't hear anything but static.

Weeks go by, and finally the announcements came last Tuesday, and I saw two first-time winners, as
well as one now three-time winner in the College category, as well as two fabulous High School
programs and a terrific Middle School in their respective divisions.

But later that day I heard from five college directors that their scores were downgraded because of
poor audio quality across all of their submission entries--with judges’ comments to confirm it! I
couldn't believe it. Scott Herring from the University of South Carolina (a Committee Chair and a
former IPEC winner) forwarded his recordings to Eric Willie, Chair of the PE Committee and Judge,
who listened and told Scott that these submissions were totally different from what he judged. Read
that part again.  That happened to eight groups total (three high school groups included).

So what happened? Eric, Scott, Paul Buyer (Executive Committee member), and I talked about the
situation through emails, texts, and phone calls.  Scott and I were told that PAS would redo
the contest with new judges. That was Tuesday night.

In the meantime, I heard one of the winning submissions (I heard USC's, Furman's, and a few others
before the application deadline--directors often send their submissions to others before making
application) and am positive they would have won regardless of how many times the competition was run. I felt horrible for the announced winners, most of whom had already told their students and
administration about the results--and then had to walk that backwards when they found out that the
wins could be vacated.

Then, the Executive Committee of PAS, of which I was a member for three years (as Second Vice
President and President-Elect) got involved. Eric send a questionnaire to the judges asking us
whether or not the audio quality of the submissions affected our judgment--remember this part.

I know.  Read that last sentence again.  This was on Wednesday.

I responded with two letters.

Hello, all,

Absolutely it would change my judging. I had two HS groups with what we now know was the same
problem (excessive white noise), and the audio was so bad I couldn't tell what they were playing. I
placed both groups last as a result, as I figured the directors just didn't know how to record.
Obviously that wouldn't have happened if the recordings hadn't somehow been compromised.

But I can tell you that as rough as it is on the announced winners, the PR damage PAS would incur
for knowingly allowing unfair results to stand would be pretty incredible.

Feel free to contact me anytime, and thank you to all of the judges who spent so much time going
through the submissions.

JP

Then this one.

Hello, all--sorry, I just have to write one more thing.

The fact that we decide whether or not recording quality affected (or would have affected) our
judgment is immaterial. As of now, there are at least five college ensembles with documented
differences between the quality of the recordings they uploaded and the recordings that were
experienced by judges.

That's one third of the university applicants.

Truly, the only way for this to be corrected is to have another jury of 12 judges listen to the
applicants again--using CDs or something more reliable than the online system (that was never
tested by PAS--even the PE committee didn't know it was being utilized until the applications
opened).

That's the only fair way to declare a real winner. I know it's hard, and I know it's tough on the
people who were announced, and it takes extra time--but this is on PAS. It was their system, and it
clearly didn't work.

To do anything other than a complete re-do would be to compromise the integrity of this
competition, the PE committee, and PAS.  And that's no joke--that's as serious as it gets.

I already admitted that I probably put two HS groups in last place because of it, and one college
judge actually commented to a group that the recording quality (which was one of the corrupted
files) affected his score.

That's not right, it's not fair, and there's only one way to fix it. Sorry, I just had to.

JP

Thursday. Even with documented evidence of inequality and unfairness, the Executive Committee and PE Committee decided to leave the results as they were, effectively ignoring 25% of the total
applicants--which included four IPEC winners.

Their rationale? As it turns out, there was a line in the new application PDF--and I should say, an
application that Eric Willie, (Percussion Ensemble Chair), had not seen until this week--that said
all recordings had to be submitted as .mp3 files.

So instead of contacting eight directors who all clearly missed that detail--including Brian Zator,
a member of the Executive Committee and past IPEC winner--PAS had someone in the
office attempt to convert the files without any director's knowledge or consideration--and clearly
with the wrong encoding algorithm. The recordings ended up being impossible to compare to the
others--remember that analogy about a speech? Well, most of the converted recordings were full of
white noise.

I know this because I heard examples as a judge. The email from Eric included a little caveat about
how instead of disqualifying the eight groups who clearly missed this part of the application, they
converted the files themselves and didn't contact the directors.

But here's something else you should know. When applying for the competition you have to prove that every person in the ensemble is a paid member of the Society, including the director--you do this
by entering names and ID numbers to make sure that everyone is current.  Your application cannot be
processed with it.

PAS personally contacted several directors to let them know that a member or two were not paid up
on their memberships after the application deadline.  But not to alert them about the.mp3 requirement.

Do I downgrade poor recordings when I judge? Yes. Absolutely. If you don't care enough to record
with the same quality of your performance, I have no patience for you. That's why I take such great
care with our live recordings and four critically-acclaimed CDs.

Here's my next letter. Friday.

Dear Eric,

You, the Committee and the EC had all the facts you needed to make a fair decision--the right
decision--and you ignored them. My letter to the judges from Wednesday night is below, since some
of you haven't read it. I was one of the judges who graded at least two ensembles at zero because
of what we now know was file corruption from some PAS staffer trying to convert HD audio files to
.mp3 with improper transcoding, adding so much white noise to the audio that it was impossible to
know what was being played.

To that end, it's especially odd that eight people missed that little tidbit about .mp3
submission in the application materials--including Zator, who's on the EC and a former winner-- as
well as three other multiple winners and four other respected directors--and also funny that even
you didn't see or know about that requirement until yesterday. There's no reason to convert the
files to a lossier format, as the .wav or .aiff files would stream just fine, and if it was
absolutely mission critical that this conversion take place, PAS should have alerted the groups (as
Mark noticed--they were quick to alert when a membership lapsed) and given them a chance to convert them--and finally PAS never tested the new system, which is typical thinking back to the thousands of issues we've had with our website and other connected technologies not being Beta tested--in fact, the PE committee didn't even know the new system was being used until after applications opened!

In other words, you chose the most absurd reason possible for ignoring the facts laid out in my
letter, which I wrote when it started to feel like PAS was going to back-walk from their
original solution of redoing the entire competition (from Paul's email to Scott Herring on Tuesday
night and my communication with you).

Many of the members believe that there's little integrity left in what the EC and PAS does, and if
left alone this will definitely cause major waves in that respect once it gets out.

I find it difficult to believe that an organization that (at least in this respect) places so
little importance on fairness and transparency is willing to make decisions based upon upsetting
the smallest number of people rather than what's right. The only way to correct this is to run the
contest again with new judges, and let the winners compete with all of the candidates, not just 75%
of them.

JP

Several of us held out some hope that the EC, which makes all final decisions for PAS, would
examine the facts and reboot the competition.  But they did not.

So this was my note to them.

Hey Julie, Paul, and Brian (that's Julie Hill, Paul Buyer, and Brian Zator),

By now you have seen all that I've written about the IPEC, including two letters to judges, and a
letter to the PE Committee and others this morning (on the back of Mark Ford's letter). So I'm sure
I don't need to remind you of how I feel about the decision--it's been thoroughly detailed with all
of your points addressed.

But here is what I want you to know.

Just a few short years ago, I remember being constantly frustrated by the decisions we made on the
EC--many of them widely considered unfair--all under complete secrecy, so that the Board of
Directors and Membership never knew how or why we made them. I eventually let the near- constant
backlash, drama, and clean-up affect me so strongly that I became compromised, which of course led
to my resignation.  I just couldn't take it anymore, and I broke down.

And I know that my actions shifted a great deal of unwanted responsibility, especially onto Julie
and Brian--I'm not stupid, after all. But I was never worried about your ability to adapt and make
things work, especially considering the shape I was in after I got out of the hospital.

Even with my EC experiences, I still believed in the organization and decided to give being a
regular member another try after a hiatus, only to run into this IPEC disaster.

Even after leaving the EC, I find myself defending your decisions to members all over the country.
Many of the members believe there's little integrity left in what the EC and PAS do, especially
this year considering other decisions you have made concerning PASIC 2016.

But the IPEC decision is literally the worst one that you've made. You worked harder to find a way
to justify the flawed results than to address what made the contest fail. And that is unacceptable.

The only way to make this right would be to have everyone compete against everyone, not just 75% of the field, especially when the missing 25% includes four past winners; one of them multiple
winners.

JP

Saturday. No one wrote back to me, but they responded to Mark's letter with this (I was copied on
it).

Brian and I were on the phone when your message came through.
The EC had an emergency conference call earlier this week regarding the IPEC (Zator removed himself
from the discussion because his group entered the competition).
The email that was sent by Eric was done with the full support/vote of the EC.
I know this is not the decision you and others hoped for, but I also appreciate your support in
moving forward.
Very best, Julie

Now here's the thing. I have no ill will towards anyone in this entire affair. And I fear that all
of this discussion with a fairly large group of people has somehow cheapened the winning of the
contest for those who were selected. I would apologize for that, only it's not my fault--it's PAS's
fault, and more sharply, the Executive Committee's fault.

And if the story about disqualification is true, we should have been told we were
disqualified. Or given the chance to submit the correct file type.  Or, there shouldn't have been a 
letter to the judges asking whether or not audio quality affected our judgment if the .mp3 
requirement was going to be the pivotal factor in letting the results stand.

They had a chance to do the right thing, but as I said in my letter, they worked harder to find a
reason to discount our applications than they did to correct the failure of the process.

In fact, I'm so concerned about the unfairness of this competition that I've announced that I'll 
withdraw FSU's application if the EC agrees to run the competition again.

Will I stay a PAS member? Probably not. Will I continue to require all of my students to be
members, as I have for a decade and a half? No. Has the organization, leadership, PE committee and
the IPEC lost integrity? Yes. Will we apply for future competitions? I doubt it, because now that
I've published all of this stuff PAS will never invite me to present anything or win anything ever
again.

And that's OK, because I have one of the best jobs on the planet at one of the highest-ranking
institutions of learning--especially when it comes to music--period. I'm a Full Professor, which
means I don't have to have activities to fill up my resume anymore. My students are among the
absolute best in the world, and our alums are out there changing the nature of our musical
landscape in ways that makes me so proud that I don't know what to do with myself.

But as PAS members you have to ask yourself--is this the way you want your leadership to operate?
It is my hope that members hold the EC and other governing bodies within PAS to a standard of
transparency which currently does not exist. And this kind of thing happens all the time--I know,
because I was there. Translate that into almost any other kind of organization and heads would
roll.

This particular incident--no matter what anyone says--is a stain upon the Society that nothing
will wash out quickly. And those of you who don't know much about how the organization does
business--you need to know about this.

You can find email addresses for the Executive Committee and Committee Chairs on www.pas.org if you want to let them know what you think, or you can try to contact the Board of Directors or the Board of Advisors. Or you can write me anytime if you have anything you'd like to say either way: I'm always open and transparent about my thoughts and dealings, although I no longer have any official position with PAS (other than being a member). But you should know that nothing is going to change.

For my friends who were recognized as the winners--I am very happy for you, and hope you
play the concerts of your lives in November.   I really do--and I hope to hear all about it, too.

JP

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Facebook Questions and Answers 12-6

Hey everyone!  Here are our answers to the Facebook poll from last week--enjoy, and if you have any other questions just drop me an email at jparks@fsu.edu.

Q: Have you found there to be "perfect" default mic placements (your go-to placements) for marimba, snare drum, timpani, etc.?  Or do you find that each environment, mic models, and instruments offer different challenges and do not allow for standard placements?  --Brandon Arvay

A: That's a great question--for most single instruments and/or groups of instruments, I use a 20" custom stereo bar and a pair of DPA 4006-TL omnis in an A/B configuration (and panning the omnis hard L and R).  When recording in our room I know about where to place everything from years of recording those instruments, but to tell the truth it's about how the instrument sounds at various distances and heights--and don't forget distances between microphones.  You can find several different stereo bars online; AEA, Grace, and DPA make really nice ones (that are really expensive); I was lucky to have one of our former house engineers make one for me modeled off the DPA bar. You can make one yourself pretty easily, or of course you can use a separate stand for each microphone.

Before I came up with our "standards," I tried a lot of different set-ups--both with my ears and the mics.  For example, when recording marimba I would stand in front of the area to be played, and have the marimbist play while I moved myself (and my ears) backwards, upwards, downwards, etc. until I found what I wanted the image to sound like (imaging is how long or short the instrument sounds from right to left, or where notes are in space, how far away or how close the instrument is during tracking).  Then I placed the array in that position at that height. I also used several different pairs of mics before we got the DPAs (Earthworks, AKG 414, etc.).  I tried XY, ORTF, NOS, etc., but found that straight-up A-B stereo was the best for our room.

I use omnis as overheads on virtually everything, no matter how many other mics I use as spots. Snare drum and other "narrow" instruments like tambourine, triangle, cymbals--you don't have to worry about what they sound like left to right; you just want the mic array pointing straight at them from whatever distance you feel sounds best--based on ears.  Same with glock because it's so narrow; xylophone--you want to figure out the top note and bottom note of what's to be played, then stick the array in the middle of it from a distance that sounds best.

Same for marimba--if you're playing a Bach cello suite and you point the array at middle C, the whole thing is going to live on the right side of the image, rather than having symmetry.  So I'll have the player put their mallets on the highest and lowest notes, then put the array in the middle of that, rather than the middle of the instrument.

For ensemble recording, I have the DPAs on a stereo bar up pretty high, then use spots throughout the ensemble--and that changes depending on what instruments are being recorded.

Q: What is your method for mastering to insure consistent sound quality across all device platforms?  For instance, do you do any rough mixing on sub-par playback systems or do you rely primarily on quality reference monitors?  Especially marimba!  It's such a rich sounding instrument, it easily distorts computer speakers.  --David Newton

A: Great question! I have a set of Genelec 8040 nearfield monitors in my office/studio control room that are FABULOUS.  That's where I do all my critical mixing and mastering.  However, I also have a set of KRKs with Primacoustic decouplers at home, plus two pairs of cans--Sennheiser HD600 and Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro Reference, and at various points I will use all four to zero in on my mastering settings.  The "Truth" for me is typically what comes out of the Genelecs--if it sounds great there, it sounds great on virtually anything.  We also have a set of Bowers and Wilkins Nautilus speakers with dual Macintosh preamps, but the room they're in isn't acoustically treated so I rarely use them (they're over in the recording suite of our largest concert hall).  Using all four of these sources over time has allowed me to make accurate extrapolations from what I hear over each one--it takes a while to develop that kind of familiarity with your gear, but it's time well-spent.

To be honest, I don't check out what things will sound like on general computer speakers or on Apple earbuds, Bose headphones, Beats, or even my own IEMs etc. because I trust that people who listen to what I'm working on will have something good enough to enjoy the full high-definition audio experience when listening to our recordings.  Often it's too much reverb in combination with the low end of the marimba that distorts small speakers with limited frequency response.

Maybe in the future we can discuss the mastering workflow for most of the percussion music we record!

Q: When mixing/mastering on headphones, do you prefer open-back, closed-back or "partially" open?  --Nathaniel Compton

A: Another great question: My Sennheiser HD600 cans are open; the DT-770s are closed.  To be honest, I haven't found many headphones that image as accurately and cleanly as the Sennheisers, and if you're in a quiet space the openness of the headphones doesn't matter, at least not to me (you can also go up another hundred dollars to the HD650s, but most of the online chatter doesn't lead me to believe that the difference is truly that great between the models).  It should be said that I mix and master with a combination of monitors and cans--if I get things sounding great on the Genelecs in my office, then they'll sound great on virtually anything.

Q: How do you eliminate hum in a daisy-chain of pedals going to a Fender amp?  --David Wright

A:  Most of the time--I say most--hum is a result of unclean and inconsistent power (or a bad ground).  I'd suggest getting a quality power conditioner (Monster and Furman make several excellent models at a variety of price points), and then recheck your connections.  Hum can also come from a power cord coming in contact with a mic or instrument cable, so you want to make sure that everything is "clean."  I spent an incredible amount of time in the back of my largest hardware rack, taking plastic zip ties to keep audio cables and power cables separate after my system developed a hum--that cleaned things up immediately.

Thank you to everyone for the questions, and we'll do it again soon!