On ensuring mediocrity.

I listen to a lot of music. It’s always been something I’ve gravitated to, from listening to WBCN in the wee hours of the night on my bedside clock radio in the eighties, to exploring genres and artists through my young adult years. I started buying music on cd’s. I was just becoming music aware and ready to begin amassing a collection when cd’s came onto the market. They sounded good- even if I had to get permission to play them on my dad’s stereo. Later, in 97 or so, I started trading mp3 files. And that’s when I started noticing something.

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The music didn’t sound the same- it didn’t have the same punch or nuance, and when I listened on headphones (as I often did), it wasn’t anywhere near as good. Shortly after this time, I started buying vinyl seriously. My collection exploded, and I still have it now. People wonder why I’ve spent so much time and money developing a collection on a “dead” medium. There are a lot of reasons, actually, and I can make a fairly convincing case given the time. That said, there is an interesting advantage to listening to music on vinyl.

In the earlier days of rock, vinyl was the only medium that existed. The recordings from the 60’s and earlier 70’s are among my favorites. In those days, the music was pressed into the vinyl quietly. That is to say, the actual sound signal was lower than in contemporary times. This means the quiet sections of the songs are quiet, and the louder sections are louder- there is a large dynamic range to the sound. This is a really, really nice thing if you’re listening to music with subtlety.

As time passed, sound engineers found that louder records sold better. And since the name of the game was selling records, louder was the new rule. In fact, you can look at empirical evidence that modern recordings are significantly louder than vintage recordings. There’s a great article here that demonstrates this. By systematically making all portions of the song louder, the loud sections end up not standing out as much. When everything is loud, how can you tell what should be?

Teaching has faced a similar fate: in an effort to raise the performance of the lower levels of teaching, governing bodies have established protocols, evaluations, and ongoing training aimed at improving instruction. Some of this is no doubt good- but what has been overlooked is that in the establishment and focus of making hoops for lesser teachers to jump through you have forced excellent teachers to jump through those same hoops. And while lesser teachers must improve to jump through those hoops. excellent teachers must stoop.

What is left is exactly what has happened with sound recordings in the last forty years- the compression of signal. We have become so focused on raising the lower performing members of the profession that we haven’t noticed we’ve hobbled the upper end. Our push for “everyone doing better” has really been a move towards “everyone in the middle.”

There might be a glimmer of hope on the horizon, if we are to believe the analogy with music holds true: in the last few years, as studios have been able to exert less control and as audiences have begun to notice the deteriorating quality of the records, there has been push back. Bands and fans have begun to demand better sound, and as a result it is now possible to buy less compressed sounding music. My fear, however, is that unlike the music business, education is not driven by the fans. We don’t see a loss of sales and don’t have the same motivation to be responsive to our consumers. I can only hope we learn to listen.


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