5 Fatal Mistakes Students Make When Taking a Gen Ed Course and How to Avoid Them

I'm teaching a gen ed course at Central Washington University this term, called History of Jazz. As I was preparing for the course, I thought back on all of the mistakes I've made in taking courses like these, and mistakes that I've seen my own students make over the years. So I thought I would put together a video for my future students to help them avoid making the kinds of mistakes that can derail their progress early. Are you a student who has struggled with gen ed courses in the past? Are you a teacher and wish someone would advise your students on the unspoken expectations of your class? If so you might find this video beneficial to you. Inside I'll tell you:

  • How not all slacking creates equal consequences—I’ll tell you the worst possible time to slack off in a new class.
  • The one technique that will help you avoid distraction and be twice as productive as a student.
  • An exercise that you can do right now to fight boredom and make any class interesting.
  • The truth about how your mindset can lead to failure… or put you on the path to an "A."

PDF Summary of 5 Fatal Mistakes Students Make When Taking a Gen Ed Course and How to Avoid Them.

Learn one new high-value skill this term in each of the following areas: reading, note-taking, and studying. Here are some resources to do this, as promised:


  • Level-Up! Reading Course. You can watch the first session of my video course, "Level-Up! Reading" here. I made this for my music history students specifically, but everything applies to college reading in general. This session teaches you the myths, mindsets, and techniques to complete your reading assignments in half the time, while understanding more than you ever have before.



Posted on September 17, 2015 and filed under Teaching.

Distraction: The Villain of the Internet Age

A couple years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He argues that the Internet is changing the way we think, making us more distracted and in fact making it more and more difficult to read, think, and create for extended periods of time.

Though at times sounding the alarm too loudly, Carr paints a clear picture of a world in which all contemplative and focused thinking is crowded out of our minds by the constant white noise of technology.

You should really read this book. But if you've been spending too much time on the internet lately, don't worry, Epipheo made a video of the book's main points, so you don't have to read it after all... 

h/t DIYGenius

Posted on July 13, 2015 and filed under Productivity, Reading.

Crowdsourcing the Perfect Morning Success Ritual—Share Yours Here

Do you want to be more productive and focused on what matters most?

If so, one of the best practices you can set up for yourself to do this is to create a morning routine, or morning ritual, that sets your whole day up for success. Everyone’s morning success ritual will be a little different, and part of the benefit of such a ritual comes from discovering your unique algorithm. But if you’re like me, it helps to hear what others do, to get ideas that you can use.

The purpose of this post is to provide a place for people to share their morning productivity rituals, and to get ideas from what others do. So you can skip now to the comments to share yours or get ideas, or you can read on for a quick primer about what a morning ritual is and why it can be helpful for you.

The Morning Ritual—A Durable Concept

You can proactively create habits in the morning that lead to greater focus on what matters most, and greater productivity on your most important contribution.

I see this concept all over the place these days in the personal productivity literature, such as in Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch and Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. Some big names in the online entrepreneurship community are also talking about it, like Jeff Walker and Eben Pagan. Eben Pagan likes to say that we only have so much willpower in a day, and that by setting up a routine to be habitual over time, we can relieve some of the cognitive heavy lifting by making productivity habitual. This is backed up by recent scientific discussions of habit, such as in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

But the morning ritual is not a new concept, of course. Stephen Covey, of 7 Habits fame talks about it in the seventh habit, Sharpening the Saw. Then there’s the famous story of the 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope claiming that he never would have written his novels if not for his porter bringing him coffee every morning. We are fascinated by the rituals of creative people, so much so that we have extended blog posts and even entire books based on sharing them. Then there is Erik Satie, the early 20th-century modernist composer, who brilliantly lampoons the idea of the artist's routine, reminding us not to take the routine too seriously.

If there’s one thing The Lego Movie taught us, it’s that sometimes it’s okay to follow instructions.

If there’s one thing The Lego Movie taught us, it’s that sometimes it’s okay to follow instructions.

Morning Ritual—Principles for Success

Here’s the idea again in short: If you build a morning routine that leads strategically up to your main work—writing, research, creating—it will become easer and natural, even habitual, to do that work more consistently.

Here are some principles for crafting your morning ritual:

1. Work from the inside out, not the outside in.

Don’t let the world in until you choose to do so. That means checking your email should not be the first task in your routine. Take care of yourself first, grow yourself, then radiate your strength outward. Furthermore, don’t jump from yourself straight to the “world out there” (social media, work emails, etc.). Tend to your close relationships (family, close friends) before you open yourself to the working world.

2. Care for your whole self: your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

Include exercise, reading inspiring books, prayer/meditation, visualization, journaling, and other uplifting activities in your morning routine.

3. Build in a system to capture flashes of brilliance while also not derailing the routine.

This one is important. Here’s the deal: when you start doing this, you are going to experience onrushes of ideas, tasks, projects, things to write, things to create. It is crucial that you have a way to capture these ideas in a consistent way, so that you know you won’t lose that thought forever, but you don’t derail the system. The note-cards system that has been used for years, and has recently been described in Daniel J. Levitin’s recent book The Organized Mind, is what I use. This topic could get a post all its own, but these are the basics. Get a stack of 3x5 notecards and keep them with you at all times. When you think of a task or an idea, offload it from your brain to the card—but only put one task or idea per card. Collect these ideas and tasks for later review. When you review them, the notecards can easily be rearranged and sorted, which is perhaps the most powerful part of this system.

4. It’s not a ritual if it changes every day.

Be the bouncer of your own morning. Imagine a bouncer guarding the door to the VIP room of an exclusive night club. Burly, scowling, scary. You can bet that everyone who is let in will be scrutinized. Do the same thing with your morning routine. It’s not a ritual if it changes every day. Set your ritual and stick to it. Do a quarterly review of your morning ritual to approve changes and discontinue tasks that have lost their value.

5. Begin your morning ritual the night before.

I also have a nighttime routine that is designed to remove barriers for the morning. Before I go to bed, I do the following:

  • tidy up my workspace
  • open the file of the project that I will be working on the next morning
  • program the coffee maker
  • set out clothes for the next day at the foot of the bed
  • set my alarm manually (I don’t have it on repeat)

I truly believe that this nighttime ritual has been crucial to the sustained success of my morning ritual. When I wake up, everything has been prepared, and this makes it almost effortless to fall back into my healthy and productive routine the next morning.

Alright, Already, Let’s Get the Details!

I find that when people teach the concept of the morning ritual, they usually talk in the abstract. The details—such as a suggested sequence of activities—are either not a part of the content, or they are behind a paywall. Don’t you wish you had a group of like-minded people to trade ideas with, share what works for you, and get ideas of what works from them? If you already have that, then you’re lucky. But if you don’t, please use the comments section of this post to share what you do, or to get ideas from others.

Two Caveats

  1. This post is meant as a resource, but it will only work if you give as well as take. Be brave and share your process, even if it is not perfect.
  2. Though you might want to ask follow-up questions of commenters, please keep comments positive and free of judgment.

Let’s crowdsource ideas for morning productivity routines. Share yours in the comments below, then come back to see what others do. I’ll get the comments started with my own morning ritual…

Use a “Pre-Mortem” to Help Your Projects Succeed


In the theater world, there is a practice called the post-mortem, or “post-mort,” in which the team gathers after a show to discuss what went well, and what areas could be improved (read: what failed miserably and can’t happen again). In music, we don’t do this as regularly, but it does happen after some concerts or major events.

The end-goal of a project is often obscured. Use a “pre-mortem” to clear away the clouds and face up to a project’s potential disasters.

The end-goal of a project is often obscured. Use a “pre-mortem” to clear away the clouds and face up to a project’s potential disasters.

In this post, I want to introduce an idea that I found in Chip and Dan Heath’s latest book, Decisive, called the pre-mortem. This is an activity for an individual or team to think through all of the events that might make a project go wrong before they happen, and ultimately develop strategies for avoiding these pitfalls.

I am part of an entrepreneurship education group at Millikin University, where we share and develop resources to use in our arts entrepreneurship classes, and across the curriculum. For our latest meeting, I wrote up the pre-mortem activity that I have provided below. This activity can be used by teachers or students:

  • Teachers: Use it in any class where there is a major project, such as a research paper, presentation, or group assignment.
  • Students: You can take it upon yourself to run a pre-mort for any major project to help you plan. Imagine running a pre-mort for your senior recital, an important presentation, or your dissertation defense.

Activity: The Pre-Mortem


Often times, we do an exercise after a venture fails, analyzing what went wrong and fixing it for next time. This exercise allows students to perform a “premortem,” a thought experiment that helps them identify the key points of potential failure in the project, then to design strategies to avoid those problems.

Usage Suggestions

This exercise would be appropriate for undergraduates, graduates, or business project teams. This exercise assumes that there is already a defined project in place that the team is working on.

Learning Objectives

Identifying potential failure points for a venture or project.

Materials List

Pencils and paper; whiteboard and pens.

Pre-Work Required by Students

A somewhat clear understanding and vision of a group or individual project.

Theoretical Foundations

Chip and Dan Heath, Decisive (2013), 202–206. Gary Klein, Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making (MIT, 2009)

Suggested Time Plan (time)

  • 5 min.: Brainstorm the following prompt in teams of three or four: “Okay, 15 weeks from now your project was a total fiasco. It totally failed to meet the requirements of the project, and did not achieve the desired results. Why did it fail? List 20 reasons.”

  • 10 min.: Share with entire group the reasons, capturing all of them on a white board. Include tick marks for doubles.

  • 15 min.: Assign each group one problem to solve, using the top four reasons from the sharing time.

  • Have each group prepare outside of class their presentation of the solution to the problem, to be delivered in the next class period.

How do you think a pre-mortem might help you develop strategies for success in your projects? Are there other strategies that are especially helpful for you? Share them in the comments.

Posted on April 8, 2015 and filed under Arts and Entrepreneurship, Teaching.

3 Teeny Presentation Tools that Make a Big Difference

A week and a half ago I gave a presentation in Las Vegas. I was at the Music Teachers National Association national meeting talking to musicians about how to better understand and articulate their core artistic identities. After the presentation, several people asked me for advice on how to give a presentation that is natural, engaging, and professional. I gave them the long answer: practice, prepare, rehearse, design.

But what I didn’t tell them was that the three tools below work behind the scenes whenever I give a talk. You can use the same tools in your own presentations to make them more professional, and avoid embarrassing presentation moments that haunt even seasoned presenters.

Small tools can make a big difference. (photo: unsplash.com)

Small tools can make a big difference. (photo: unsplash.com)

I spend a lot of time giving presentations. I give five to ten major presentations a year, at research or professional conferences, in front of music departments, or for residencies. In the classroom, I typically give five to ten presentations a week, which have varying levels of “presentation” in them, mixed in with discussion and activities.

But if I spend a significant portion of my time giving presentations, I spend more time preparing for them. I carefully choose my core objectives, select relevant examples, and craft a narrative arc. I spend far too much time agonizing about my slide design and which chorus slide to use.

That’s why it is so frustrating when a presentation goes wrong not because I’m unprepared, but because of in-the-moment hurdles that I’ve not foreseen:

  • My computer screen goes to sleep in the middle of a point.
  • The computer is in a corner of the room and I feel trapped there, advancing my slides by pushing the arrow key, disengaged from my audience.
  • And on top of all that, I mismanage my time so that I have to rush through the ending points. These are the bring-it-on-home, shout-chorus points, the ones that are the most important, the ones I spent so much time crafting. I end the presentation feeling frustrated, and my audience feels cheated.

Have you ever attended a presentation when these blunders happened? Have they ever happened to you while giving a presentation? I want to share with you three teeny tools I have found to make these embarrassing moments disappear. Each tool is small—either in size or in code—but each can make a big impact on the professionalism of your presentation.

Tool 1: Caffeine (Software, Mac, free).

Think of a time when you’ve been sitting in a presentation, and the slideshow screen suddenly goes blue. The presenter rushes back to the computer and clicks a key so that the slideshow returns. Then a couple minutes later the same routine is rehearsed, then again five minutes later. What has happened is that the presenter’s computer has gone to sleep, making the projector lose the visual feed. It is the presenter's version of the old Windows BSOD—the Blue Screen of Death.


Our current best practice for fighting this problem: remember to wiggle your finger on the track pad every so often to keep the computer from going to sleep. But this is silly, and worse, it doesn’t work. How are we supposed to manage all the aspects of presentation delivery and to wiggle our finger at fixed intervals? The solution: hire a personal assistant to travel with you and wiggle his finger on the trackpad at fixed intervals. Or, you can download Caffeine, a free app for Mac, and forget that this problem was ever a problem.

Caffeine has one purpose: to prevent your computer display from going to sleep with the push of a button. The beauty of the app is its simplicity. There is an icon that lives in my toolbar, and I can turn it on with a single click. No menus to scroll through. No confirmation click needed. Just click it and you know that your display won’t go to sleep during your presentation. I have mine set for 2 hours so that I can turn it on well before the presentation starts. Then after two hours, it automatically shuts off and my power-saving settings go back to normal. That’s it!

I’ll be honest: This single app was the inspiration point for this entire post. It has solved a nagging problem for me, and can do the same for you too.

Tool 2: Wireless Presenter Remote.

At the MTNA conference, the room where I presented was narrow but very deep. That meant that the podium was far away from about half of my audience. But because I have a wireless presenter remote, I was able to advance my slides just at the right time, while not being chained to the podium. (I also had a wireless lapel microphone.)

For my presentations, I use the Kensington Wireless Presenter, which is currently about $30 from Amazon. This model includes the remote, as well as a laser pointer. Some models also have storage capacity on the USB receiver stick, so you can carry all of your presentation files with you. But my favorite feature of these presenter remotes is the ability to blank the screen with the push of a button (“blanking” the screen turns the presentation black, so that it looks like the presentation has gone away). If I sense that the audience is focused too much on the slides, blanking the screen draws their attention to me, and back to my message. Then when I’m ready to go on, I can just pop the presentation back up with the push of a button.

The presenter remote is a small investment that will pay you back by giving you more control over your presentation pacing, and more ability to engage with your audience by getting out from behind the podium.

Tool 3: A Timer.

Have a timer visible at all times during a presentation, and use timed signposts. This tool might sound obvious, but too often I see presenters try to manage their time internally. Because we know that psychological time can move at varying speeds, this is a recipe for disaster. This leads to a presenter coming to the end of his or her time, but falling short of the talk’s big payoff. You’ve seen it: the presenter realizes how short time has become, signals panic to the audience (either conspicuously or inadvertently), then rushes through the talk’s final points. The presenter becomes frustrated, and the audience feels flabbergasted, leaving a poor impression for everyone of the talk. I have been the presenter in this situation more than I care to admit, and it is still one of the most difficult parts of delivering a strong talk for me.

I fight this by having a timer visible at all times during my talk. I use the timer that is displayed on my computer screen in presentation mode (I use Apple’s Keynote software), in combination with my phone timer. Here’s why I use a phone timer too: First, I can set it somewhere out front, so that I am not trapped behind the podium during the talk. Second, I set the timer not for the length of the talk, but to tick down to zero at my conclusion signpost. By this I mean that when the timer ticks to zero, I need to begin my conclusion as soon as possible to have enough time to make a convincing end to my talk. Having this signpost will give you an external cue that you can count on, and will allow you to end well, so that you can avoid the embarrassing race to the end I described above.

The conclusion signpost represents an crucial point: just having a timer in front of you will not solve the problem. But if you use it intentionally, and build in signposts throughout your talk, it can make you more consistent, fulfilled, and effective as a presenter.

Small Tools, Big Impact

I hope you’ve seen how these three teeny tools might help you avoid some common presentation hurdles. You’ve spent the time to make your content valuable—these tools can help you get out of your own way so that your delivery shines. Each of the tools can be implemented immediately, and two of the three are free (assuming you own a phone with a timer).

These are my three go-to tools, but let’s make the list longer: what teeny presentation tools make a huge difference for you? Share them in the comments.

Posted on April 1, 2015 .

Eighty and Rising

"Eighty and Rising" is a new Spotify playlist I created, to keep up with the best-reviewed new music releases. It's called "Eighty and Rising" because all albums on the list have a Metacritic score of 80 or higher (out of 100).* I will periodically update it with new albums, and remove albums that have been on the playlist for a while. 

If you're looking for a way to keep up with new music of varying genres that has caught the ear of music critics, head on over and subscribe to the playlist.

*Metacritic.com is a brilliant website that collects critics' reviews from leading publications and gives an aggregate score on a 100 point scale. If you study pop music (or movies or TV or games), it is a vital tool.

Posted on January 29, 2015 .

The Worst Music of 2014

Now that all of the "best of" lists are out of our systems, what were the worst albums of 2014? I checked Metacritic.com to answer this question. There were five albums whose aggregate critics' score was under 50 points (out of a 100 point scale). There were no albums that scored below a 42. You can access all of Metacritic's info on these songs by going here or clicking on the links below.

III - Take That. Metacritic Score: 42

NOW + 4EVA - Architecture in Helsinki. Metacritic Score: 42

Growing Up in Public - Professor Green. Metacritic Score: 45

PartyNextDoor Two - PartyNextDoor. Metacritic Score: 46

Louder - Lea Michele. Metacritic Score: 48

When I went to put a Spotify playlist together for these songs, I found that only three were carried there. Coincidence? Here is the partial list:

Posted on January 26, 2015 .

A New Sufjan Stevens Album Is Coming in Almost-April

Sufjan Stevens will release his first studio album since The Age of Adz (2010) this March 31st. It's called Carrie and Lowell, and you can catch a sonic glimpse of it in the trailer below. Laura Barton over at The Guardian says that the full album is more llinoise than Adz in its sound. Judging by the fact that his new work Round-Up was about the Pendelton, Oregon rodeo, and there's a track called "Eugene"—the city that was my old stomping grounds—I have a feeling that Oregon scenery will make an appearance. 

Posted on January 23, 2015 .

I Really Want to Know:

What do you think of Sia's recent SNL performance of "Chandelier"? Is it art? Sensationalist? Moving? Over-hyped? Pop at its best/worst? Check it out at the link below and then me know in the comments or on Twitter. 

Watch the video on NBC.com.

Posted on January 19, 2015 .

A New Visualization of Musical Rhythm

John Varney and Ted-Ed teamed up to create this interesting and effective way of visualizing rhythm. The idea of visualizing rhythm as a circle is not new, but this explanation and animation are excellent and useful. A student of mine shared it with me recently, and you might find it interesting as well.

Posted on January 15, 2015 and filed under Teaching, Design.