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“A Perfect Excuse” (another clarinet story)

December 17, 2014 Leave a comment

In this installment, I continue transcribing Nicholai Kiryuchin’s famous ­stories. As brief background, he had a long and distinguished career as Principal Clarinet of the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra that spanned for more than 30 years. Equally distinguished as a major clarinet pedagogue, he has nurtured several generations of aspiring clarinetists in Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where I was very fortunate to have been a member of his studio. Prof. Kiryuchin had a great habit of keeping up the creative spirits of his students by sharing with us the unforgettable stories he accumulated over the years of his distinguished musical career.

The events in this story took place when my teacher was a young lad, himself an aspiring conservatory student. As the most promising trainee of his professor’s studio, he was recommended for a gig at the Mariinsky Theater to cover for a second clarinetist, who had caught a bad cold during an opera production. It was a great opportunity, and my teacher practiced his part diligently. He was particularly eager to impress the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, a distinguished musician and professor of the Conservatory.

An example of the classic Italian operatic tradition, the score had a major clarinet solo in the end of the first act. My teacher was really eager to see and hear the principal clarinetist to play that solo up close. The orchestra started the introduction, and oh horror—the clarinet entered one bar too early! All the conductor’s convulsing grimacing, trying to correct the error, was for naught. With his rich powerful tone, projecting to the very last balcony of the massive theater hall, the clarinetist carried out the solo with expression and fortitude. Accompanied only by the strings, he was too consumed by his own playing to sense any discrepancies. The string instruments reacted to the mishap in a variety of ways. Some truly experienced musicians, who have seen it all, quickly ascertained the situation, and directed their stand partners to skip a bar to synchronize their playing with that of the clarinet. Other string players, who also realized that something was amiss, for some reason decided that they were one bar ahead and compensated accordingly, skipping a bar backward. Finally, the rest of the string section continued to play their parts without any adjustment.

The resulting cacophony would likely make either one of Schoenberg, Webern, or Schnittke jealous. The tenor, utterly confused by hearing that mess, nevertheless started singing relying entirely on his gut feeling, and his part sounded like a survivor’s monologue after a nuclear holocaust rather than the dramatic lament about unshared love, intended by the libretto. It goes without saying that the act was ruined beyond repair.

Once the curtain went down and the discombobulated audience briefly clapped before taking a break stroll around the theater, the livid conductor rushed over to the clarinet section. This was a pretty serious infraction with nothing good coming for the principal clarinetist. Indeed, the consequences could range from outright dismissal from the orchestra for gross incompetence to being banned from playing any future productions with the principal conductor. My teacher, sitting at the second stand, was terrified not knowing to expect from the upcoming verbal interchange between the conductor and the principal clarinetist.

Right before the conductor got to the clarinet section, my teacher witnessed the principal clarinetist doing something very strange and completely unexpected. He used his thumb’s long nail as a knife or a screwdriver to pick up a large pad of his clarinet’s lower joint, fully detaching the pad in the process. “What have you been smoking?! Because of you, the entire act is ruined! I am so buried in shame, I don’t know how to face the audience!”—bellowed the conductor, utterly irate. “Don’t you see—my pad fell out!”—yelled the clarinetist in reply in unreserved exasperation and waving the detached pad at the conductor. “If I don’t fix it right now, I’ll be out of commission for the rest of the performance! I really need to fix this pad without delay!” The conductor, who was trained as a violinist, was taken aback. He only had a vague idea about how wind instruments functioned and the role of pads in the clarinet’s mechanical workings. “Oh, well. Do you think you can fix it?” “Yes, I have my repair kit with me. However, you may need to lengthen the break by about 10 minutes just to be sure.” “Oh, that should not be a problem.” The conductor instructed one of his aids to postpone the next act by 10 minutes and left for his dressing room.

The principal clarinetist quickly put the pad back in place with the help of a cigarette lighter, and as he was checking whether the pad properly covered its hole, he shared the following piece of wisdom with my catatonic-looking teacher: “Quick gumption is an orchestral musician’s best friend!”

Categories: Clarinet, teaching

An E-flat clarinet story & clip

December 17, 2014 Leave a comment
During my formative years studying music at Saint Petersburg
Conservatory, I was fortunate to have been admitted to the studio of
legendary Nikolai Kiryuchin, former Principal Clarinet of the famed
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra. This amazing musician and pedagogue
extraordinaire has had a tremendous influence on me as a clarinetist
and a person. By the time I entered his studio, he had long retired
from performing, and was focusing his enormous energy exclusively on
teaching. Nevertheless, his musical war chest was full of amazing
stories from his more than 30 years of making music with some of the
brightest stars of the Soviet classical music scene. A talented
raconteur, he generously shared his stories with his students.

One of my teacher’s stories involved the E-flat clarinet, perhaps the
most capricious and hard-to-play instrument of the clarinet family.
The Mariinsky Orchestra was recording one of Dmitry Shostakovich’s
ballets. Present in the studio, the composer was closely monitoring
the recording session, at times gently steering the conductor on
issues of tempos and interpretation. When the session was over,
Shostakovich walked over to the clarinet section and placed a sheet
with hand-written music on the Principle Clarinet’s stand. The
composer then gently inquired:
“I couldn’t sleep last night and ended up writing a clarinet solo part
for the “King Lear” movie score I have been composing. I hope that the
part makes sense, and I am really curious how it actually sounds.
Would you be so kind and play this solo for me right now?”

My teacher examined the score carefully, paused for effect, and
replied with utter seriousness: “I am afraid it would be impossible
Dmitry Dmitrievich.” Dead silence fell over the recording studio.
Everyone was utterly shocked that one of the city’s most versatile
clarinetists could not play a piece composed by the country’s most
prodigious composer. Has Shostakovich made a major orchestration
mistake, making the solo unplayable on the intended instrument?

“Is something wrong with my score?”—asked Shostakovich with a bit of
tremor in his voice.

“Not at all, Dmitry Dmitrievich!”—cheerfully replied my teacher. “The
issue at hand is that you wrote the piece for the E-flat clarinet,
which I currently don’t have in my possession. And if I were to
transpose the part on my B-flat clarinet, I’m afraid the part would be
outside of the instrument’s range. However, if you don’t mind waiting
for 15 minutes, I can run back to the Mariinsky Theater and grab the
E-flat I have stashed away somewhere in my locker.”

“You have scared me, funny man! I can use a smoke break right now.
Please, by all means, go and fetch your E-flat in the
meantime.”—replied the composer, visibly relieved.

Fifteen minutes later, my teacher brought his E-flat to the studio. He
sight-read the part flawlessly, after which Shostakovich said: “You
know what—your interpretations of this solo is exactly what I had in
mind! If you do not mind, let’s record it right now!”

This clip is this historical recording. One of my conservatory
classmates, now employed by the St. Petersburg music archives, was
able to locate this recording and share it with all of my teacher’s
numerous students. (The human voice in this clip was later
superimposed through some recording magic).

Enjoy!
Categories: Clarinet, teaching

On the Odd Relationship between Technical Experience and Age

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Computer Science is an odd discipline in many respects. I find quite puzzling the relationship between the perceived value of technical experience and age. I have observed this relationship as shown in the following graph.

ExperienceAge

At certain career points, a computing professional is likely to find his or her experience grossly overestimated or underestimated.

1.)    When starting college (age 18), the perceived value of experience is vastly overestimated.

A common misperception is that incoming freshmen must have been introduced to computing (coding in particular) to successfully major in Computer Science. Somehow having reached the ripe age of 18 is considered as too old to start learning the discipline from scratch. Having never studied computing as part of their K-12 curriculum is commonly deemed to put students at a severe disadvantage, if not preclude them from succeeding in the CS major altogether.

2.)    When graduating college (age 21-22), the perceived value of experience is mildly underestimated. In essence, if you have a degree in CS and can solve programming puzzles, which commonly have little to do with your future day-to-day job responsibilities, companies are eager to hire you. Having had industry internships, which provide invaluable practical experience, is a positive but not decisive factor in getting the first position after college.

3.)    For young professionals (age 22-30-35), the perceived value of their experience is similar to how professional experience is perceived in other areas. Until 30, the perceived value of experience grows more steeply, and it continues to grow until the professional reaches his or her mid-thirties.

4.)    From age 35 on, the perceived value of technical experience starts to plummet precipitously. IT is commonly considered an up or out field—either you switch into management or you leave the field altogether.

5.)    In middle age (45+), the perceived value of technical experience reaches the negative territory. One’s experience is held against them. Software development is unabashedly rife with age discrimination. “This is a young man’s game.” “Technology is evolving so rapidly with new languages and tools introduced every year. For older IT professionals, it is just too hard to learn these new technologies. Their minds were molded by different technical realities.”

Because these experience perception patterns reflect industry-wide trends, computing educators have a limited but vitally important role in properly preparing students for successful long-term careers in computing. To that end, I propose three concrete action items.

1.)    Actively dispel the myth that to successfully study CS in college, a student must have some prior coding experience.

The vast overestimation of the value of having some computing experience before starting to study CS in college is particularly harmful. While a student may benefit from being introduced to computing earlier on, the freshman year in college is definitely not too late to start learning the discipline. Having participated in multiple orientation sessions for incoming freshmen, I continue to be taken aback when approached with a question: “I find computers very interesting, but I do not know how to code. Do you think it would still be possible for me to major in CS?” I usually reply that the student has been fortunate to have the opportunity to learn the foundations of the discipline properly, without having to unlearn any bad habits.

To bring the point home, I usually draw parallels to other disciplines to highlight the ridiculousness of so grossly overestimating the value of prior exposure to coding. How do the following questions sound to you? “I am fascinated by Architecture. However, having never participated in construction projects in high school, I am not sure whether it would be possible for me to major in Architecture.” “I am excited about Airspace Engineering, but having not built any flying machines in high school, can I still major in this discipline?” If this does not help, I then talk about my own journey into computing, which I started at 24 without any prior exposure to computing even as an end user.

2.)    Encourage students to take internships.

Industrial internships are an essential component of computing education. It is well-known that internships provide an excellent avenue for students to complement the theoretical knowledge acquired in the classroom with practical technologies and tools. Another important advantage of industry internships is exposing students to the day-to-day realities of the IT workspace. Usually students love these realities, coming back to school reinvigorated and happy with their career choice. Nevertheless, other students often realize that working in IT is not for them. Some of them decide to go to grad school and pursue a research career thereafter, while others may decide to switch majors altogether. Getting this real world exposure early on is invaluable.

3.)    Convey the importance of properly developing non-technical (soft) skills.

To smoothly move into management when they hit mid-age, students must have well-developed non-technical skills. Whenever giving career advice to CS students, I always stress the importance of developing strong communication skills, both oral and written. In addition, I often encourage students to take non-CS classes as a means of broadening their intellectual horizons and expanding their toolset of practical skills. A business minor may be a wise investment for CS students who see moving into management at a later point of their careers.

Categories: careers, teaching

Selecting Graduate Classes to Take in a Research University

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment

“What classes do you recommend I should take next semester?” I have been asked this question too many times, usually by graduate students who are just starting their studies. Because my take on this issue is a bit unusual, I have decided to express my thoughts on this matter as a blog post.

Taking a graduate class is first an opportunity to learn about the professor’s research and second to learn about the actual subject matter. When it comes to graduate classes, with some minor exceptions, professors teach those classes they want to teach. This situation is in contrast with teaching undergraduate classes—some undergraduate classes need to be covered, and faculty are often assigned to teach them out of necessity. In a research university, professors are researchers who occasionally teach, and research is what occupies most of their time and efforts. When teaching a graduate course, professors will always try to use it as an avenue for introducing their research to the students. If you are not interested in the professor’s research, do not take his class.

When shopping around for graduate classes, one should pay more attention to the instructor’s recent publications and research grants than to the actual course curriculum. This advice is motivated by the following observations. Few graduate courses have a required textbook, so the majority of reading assignments usually come from research papers. Course instructors decide what these papers should be, and their research interests heavily bias the selection of reading assignments. Course projects in graduate classes are also commonly open ended, and used as an opportunity for professors to try out new research ideas. Oftentimes, even the course’s title may not accurately express its content. For example, an HPC researcher teaching a graduate networking course is likely to focus on the networking topics relevant to HPC. A student not interested in HPC may feel disappointed.

Overall, taking a graduate course is a great opportunity to try out the instructor as a potential thesis or dissertation advisor or a committee member. By taking a graduate class, one learns not just about the instructor’s research interests but also about her research style and personality. What kind of open-ended questions does the instructor pose to students? What kind of feedback does she provide? How much attention does she pay to the quality of written or oral presentations? All these questions can guide the decisions of whether it may be worth your while to get involved in the instructor’s research or invite them to serve on your committee.

There are some exceptions of course. Some professors may not be active in research, while others may decide to follow a state-of-the-practice curriculum. The easiest way to identify such courses is to see if there is a required textbook. No research focused graduate class will have a required textbook. A graduate class may have a bunch of recommended textbooks to consult for the background information, but most of the reading will come from research papers. Finally, if not sure, just ask the professor how they plan to teach the class.

Finally, what about the prerequisites? You really like the instructor’s research, but you feel you have not had sufficient background in that area. In most classes, this limitation should not be an issue. If you genuinely like a research area, you should be able to get up to speed fairly quickly. Besides, quoting Einstein “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” particularly when talking about research related issues. If the majority of your grade comes from a term research project, your ingenuity in coming up with new ideas will be more important than almost any background knowledge you may lack. Grades matter little in graduate school anyway. Always remember that in graduate school, “A” means average; “B” mean bad; and “C” means catastrophic.

Unsolicited Random Advice on Having a Successful IT Career

May 7, 2013 5 comments

Whenever I am teaching a class with a substantial percentage of graduating seniors, I usually close my last lecture with some advice for my students who are heading into industry to pursue their professional careers. This time, I’ve decided to publish this information as a blog post.

The following advice should be taken with a grain of salt. It just collects some random tidbits of information I’ve accumulated over the years. Nevertheless, this advice is genuine, as I truly wish someone had shared this information with me when I was starting my professional career.

  • 0.) Exercise regularly. As your body gets older, it takes an increasing amount of maintenance to keep in shape. Do not neglect physical exercise under any circumstances. Note: Switching from college life to office work, when you’ll be spending 8+ hours sitting in front of a computer, must be balanced with targeted, regular exercise. Buy a decent gym membership before you start work and then set a regular exercise routine.
  • 1.) Time moves at a constant rate, but our perception of it does not. Plan accordingly. Humans are horrible at long-term planning, as our perception of time changes continuously as we age. We perceive the length of any given time period (a day, a month, a year, a decade, etc.) proportionally to our age. Therefore, planning based on our past experiences is foolhardy. 
  • As a specific example, assume that you are 20 years old and you wish to set some goals to accomplish (e.g., get a graduate degree, get married, buy a house, start a company, etc.) by the time you are 30. You ask yourself: how much time do I have? A common strategy is to look back at how long it took you to get to your current age from the time you were 10 years old, and it seems like an eternity! However, perception-wise, it takes much less time to get from 20 to 30 than from 10 to 20. Furthermore, when it comes to time planning, perception is reality. Therefore, a safe estimate is to half the time when planning based on your past experiences. For example, plan that it’ll take you as long to get from 20 to 30 as it took for you to get from 15 to 20.
  • 2.) The best time to take risks is now! If you want to pursue something in life that requires taking risks, do it while you are young. Take risks while you are young and the consequences of failure have a limited ripple effect. If you always wanted to start a company, do it now. The allure of receiving a stable paycheck can become hard to escape.
  • 3.) There are people who ask questions, and there are people who answer them. Be the one whom people ask for help, and not the other way around: that’s how you earn respect and gain value as a technical professional. If something does not make sense, try to figure it out first on your own before approaching your co-workers for help.
  • Become “the go to” person in your organization, someone who can answer technical questions and make things work. Get a thorough understanding of the system you are developing or maintaining. Don’t be afraid to look “under the hood.”
  • 4.) Software is in the service of business; not the other way around. IT is a tool that helps businesses increase their competitive advantage. Therefore, IT professionals with strong domain expertise are invaluable. Extend your expertise beyond the purely technical realm to learn about the domain at hand. Try to understand how your customers use the technology you are creating to benefit their business practices. For example, if you are building financial systems, learn about finance as much as possible. 
  • 5.) Do not become too comfortable. If you have become too comfortable, you stopped learning. Stopping learning in a fast-moving industry like IT is suicidal for your career. Once you feel that you are becoming the most knowledgeable, experienced person in your organization, it may be time to move.
  • 6.) Your professional reputation is your most valuable asset. The higher you move up the professional career ladder, the bigger is the role of your reputation. Professional references may play an increasingly decisive role in obtaining senior positions. Integrity is key. Make it a habit of doing your best possible work all the time and treating people right.
  • 7.) Keep in touch. I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to know if what you have learned in this course turned useful. Have I missed something important? Was I right on?
  • In addition, I’m available for advice, recommendation letters, consulting, etc. If you become very rich and successful and find that my teaching had positive influence on you, do not forget to establish a chaired professorship and give it to me! 🙂
Categories: careers, teaching

Attendance Policy Considered Harmful

April 11, 2013 2 comments

A recent e-mail exchange between an NYU professor and a student has been making rounds around the Internet. During the first class meeting of the semester, a student walked into a classroom an hour late; the professor would not let the student into the classroom; the student got upset and expressed her frustration via an e-mail to the professor; the professor’s anonymized reply, made public, became an internet sensation. How so? Using very harsh language, the professor explained why the student was wrong and also gave some advice about how the student should behave in the future. What I found most surprising about the reaction to this story is how almost everyone is siding with the professor, complimenting him for having the guts to tell it like it is.

By contrast, I disagree and find the entire incident quite bizarre, as it goes against both of my core teaching principles: (1) treat students as adults, and (2) don’t take yourself too seriously. In line with these principles, I have no attendance policy in my classes. During the first lecture, I usually say something as follows: “I certainly hope that you will find my lectures interesting and worth your time. However, if you have something more important to do with your time than to attend my lectures, please feel free to do so–I won’t get upset and it will not affect your grade in any way.” I have no attendance policy because I respect my students’ right to decide how they want to learn (or not to learn) in my classes. They are free to attend my lectures in full or in part,  or only read the textbook,  or only talk to me in person during my office hours, or engage in any combination of these activities. Besides, there could be things going on in their lives that are more important than attending lectures. For example, they can be preparing for a job interview with the company of their dreams or creating a proof-of-concept for their brilliant startup idea.

However, the issue at hand with the NYU incident seems to be not missing the lecture but rather walking in late.  It does not bother me a bit when students walk into my classroom late. Let’s take an extreme case of a student coming in 10 minutes before the end of the lecture. My thinking will go as follows: “Wow, this student was obviously doing something very important that did not allow him to come to my lecture on time. However, he finds my lecture so interesting and important that he found it worth his while to attend the very last 10 minutes of it. I must be doing something right!” Besides, who knows–perhaps some of the insights I share in the last 10 minutes may prove to be valuable for the latecomer. So in my view, coming in just for the last 10 minutes is better than not coming at all.

But what about distracting other students by walking in late? Gimme a break! We live in a distracted world, in which we need to switch our attention to various matters continuously. In fact, the ability not to let distractions derail your work progress is one of the most valuable skills for a modern professional. I have worked in industry, and I do not remember having a sterile working environment, in which I could focus on the tasks at hand without any distractions. Working in a cubicle, I had to learn to maintain my focus in the presence of extraneous conversations in the neighboring cubicles, colleagues passing by, phone calls, etc. Why should the modern classroom be so drastically different from the modern workplace? Of course, common sense still applies: I do take exception to students talking loudly to each other during the lectures.

Notice how in the absence of an attendance policy, the NYU incident would never have transpired. I understand that it was an MBA class, and the professor may have good reasons to run his classroom the way he does. However, as a computer science professor, I choose not to have an attendance policy that explicitly disallows absences and lateness. I believe that my students are better off as a result.

Curbing the Unnecessary Scholarship (an annual April 1 e-mail)

April 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

The Taulbee Survey Report ranks CS departments based on the amount of their external funding: “The U.S. CS data indicate that the higher the ranking, the more external funding is received by the department (both in total and per capita).”
(Source: http://cra.org/uploads/documents/resources/taulbee/CRA_Taulbee_2009-2010_Results.pdf). And yet, as the recently submitted Faculty Activity Reports (FARs) indicate, some of you are spending only between 60% and 90% of your time on “research activities,” defined as bringing in external funding to the department. If we are truly serious about increasing the rank and prestige of our department, we should be spending a 100% of our time on such research activities. Two obstacles stand in the way of realizing this vision: teaching and scholarship. Fortunately, recent advancements in massive open online courses (MOOCs) have great potential to significantly alleviate the first obstacle if not to remove it altogether. Effective handling of the scholarship obstacle, however, will require some creative problem solving. To that end, a new committee has been established: Curbing the Unnecessary Scholarship or The CUrSe Committee for short. How do we know what scholarship is unnecessary? We will use the following intuitive definition: a scholarship activity is necessary if it prepares preliminary results for a successful funding proposal; it is unnecessary otherwise.

Conference publishing is particularly harmful. Publishing at conferences wastes faculty and graduate student time, while traveling to conferences incurs high administrative overhead, draining staff time and resources (and is bad for the environment). Besides, allocating budget for conference travel makes your funding proposals less competitive. All other factors being equal, which proposal has a better chance of being funded: the one that asks for $5K in domestic and international travel or the one that asks for $500 to travel to DC to discuss your next proposal with an NSF program director? It is simply unjustifiable to be wasting your and your graduate students’ time to go through several rejection cycles to have your papers accepted to conferences with ridiculous acceptance rates (e.g., CHI, ICSE, KDD, IPDPS, SC, etc.). Conference publishing is a dangerous addiction and should be treated accordingly. Therefore, the first recommendation of the CUrSE committee is that we go cold turkey on conference publishing for a period of one year. Then, the committee will assess the expected positive impact of this initiative and may recommend occasional recreational conference publishing on a case-by-case basis.

Journal publishing should be curbed as well. Too much time and effort is spent on preparing journal manuscripts and addressing comments from the reviewers. To address this inefficiency, the CUrSE Committee is tasked with compiling a list of journals that do not impose the unnecessary burden of the review process on the authors. The committee needs to identify those journals that fully embrace the value of inclusiveness and welcome all submissions irrespective of their topic, content, or fit.

The journal writing process itself can be streamlined as well. A couple of years ago, SCIGen, a promising technology emerged from MIT that makes it possible to automatically synthesize scientific manuscripts (Source: http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/). At the time, SCIGen received some negative press due to its technical imperfections stemming naturally from the breakthrough nature of this technology. Only because an innovative technology does not pan out as intended right away, it does not mean it would not mature over time to become ready for practical application. Therefore, the CUrSe Committee will explore whether it is the right time for us to invest time and efforts in mastering SCIGen.

Once all the unnecessary scholarship is properly curbed, we will be able to dedicate all our time and efforts to increasing the amount of research funding in the department. What about graduate students? One point needs to be made perfectly clear: the value of a graduate degree is positively correlated with the rankings of the department awarding the degree. Therefore, our graduate students should be even more interested in and dedicated to increasing our rankings than we are. To help our graduate students really increase the value of their future degrees, we must immediately stop counting publications as a criteria for graduation. Instead of saying “OK, this student deserves a Ph.D., as he has published N papers,” we should be saying “OK, this student is ready to graduate, as he has contributed preliminary results for N successful funding proposals.” When a graduate student asks you “When can I expect to graduate?”, you should have profound answers prepared; for example: “When your thinking reaches the right depth.” If students ask you what devices will be used to gauge the depth of their thinking, just look thoughtfully off into the distance and utter Yoda-like: “You won’t miss it when you get there.”

Please, let me know by EOB today, if you feel prepared and motivated to join the CUrSe Committee. We need a lot of talent, energy, and passion to eliminate the scourge of unnecessary scholarship, thereby fulfilling our raison d’etre of increasing our department’s rankings!