Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Renée Fleming at the Opera Club

What an absolutely delightful evening we had with Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera Club on March 19th! Renée was the honored guest artist for cocktails and dinner at our Club (on the Dress Circle level at the Met). She was tremendously gracious and generous with her time, mingling and warmly chatting with members and our guests and agreeing to our photo requests. While it's hard not to fawn over a performer of Renée's accomplishment, she made us each feel very comfortable to be with her.

The magic of the evening continued after dinner, when Renée spoke to us about her career and life in an interview format conducted by Sarah Billinghurst, Assistant Artistic Director of the Met, and took our questions before we broke for the evening's performance of Cavaleria Rusticana & Pagliacci. I took some notes of Renée's comments that gave us wonderful insights into the life of one of the world's greatest opera stars.

My first note was of Renée's recollection of a chat she had after singing to a small audience several years ago. Someone came up to her after her performance and told her: "You have an amazing voice! You should take some lessons!" With that bit of self-deprecating humor, Renée - the child of voice teacher parents, with voice degrees from SUNY Potsdam and Julliard -­ noted that the general public doesn't understand the difference in education required to sing on American Idol vs. at the Metropolitan Opera.

She has sung 51 roles in opera, and would still love to do a Strauss, Wagner, and world premiere opera role. As a lyric soprano, she has a broad range and could sing in any language.

Renée recalled that she learned something after giving birth to one of her children: that women who have just had a baby have no memory. Alas, she didn't know that at the time and was very frustrated with her inability just then to learn a new role.

She believes firmly in maintaining the health of the voice; the voice is such a fragile instrument. Renée noted that unlike many other singers, her voice has not "gained weight" over the years (just as Plácido Domingo's also has not).

Sarah mentioned that 1 1/2 million viewers around the world have watched the Metropolitan Opera HDTV broadcasts at their local movie theaters, dramatically expanding the numbers of those who have had the opportunity to see and hear Renée perform.

As to how many years Renée might continue to perform in operatic roles, she replied she doesn't have a particular target, but will take it one year a time. This year, of course, has been a remarkable one for Renée at the Met, featuring her on Opening Night and in Thaïs, Rusalka, and the 125th Anniversary Gala.

Renée finds that the Met, acoustically from the stage, is her most comfortable house. Despite its size [I believe it's the largest opera house in the world today, with just under 4000 seats], Renée says when she just sings well, it carries; she doesn't worry about her voice filling the house.

She noted that she learned a lesson early in her career about singing with ease. She found a piece she sung from Rusalka (in the Czech language of her family heritage) was almost "too easy" to sing. It took a while for her to recognize that it was easy because the piece was a good fit for her voice - an important lesson for singers: They need to audition with pieces that fit!

In working with conductors, she looks to be inspired by a conductor - one who encourages her to take risks. The conductor makes or breaks a performance - especially if the conducting is poorly paced. She can't take tyrants, but has had the good fortune of working at length in this house and city she loves [and, I daresay, loves her!].

Renée continues to share her gifts and knowledge by offering master classes to singers and discovering and encouraging young talent. Among those discoveries is Shenyang, a bass baritone she heard in a master class she conducted in Shanghai. She introduced him to the Met's Young Artist Program where he as been developing while attending Julliard. Shenyang will have his Met premiere on April 13th as Masetto in Don Giovanni.

Now that Renée's Met season is over, she will be taking one of her daughters to visit colleges. I've sent Renée my blog piece on Getting Admitted to a Good College. I hope she and her daughter find it helpful! Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the pictures the photographer took of Renée and me and using it in my holiday letter!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Study Algebra?

"Why study math?"
This was a question that I, as a math major, asked somewhat rhetorically to K-12 educators in Ohio. I was stunned with the responses I received.

"It's important that all students know how to do math" was a reply I received from a top state education official. Okay, but then what do teachers do in school after the 4th grade, by which time kids are expected to be able to "do math"? We were in the midst of the state's efforts to institute standards-based reform, so my question was of serious importance.

I met with the chairs of the mathematics departments of my state's public universities. They were delighted to speak with a chancellor who was a mathematician and explained that "doing" math was, of course, a foundation skill, but all students needed to learn much more. Algebra instruction, for example, was a way to develop analytical problem solving abilities in students. This problem solving ability goes beyond algebra problems; while the techniques are taught in algebra, they apply to all problems. Their point on algebra was of major significance, because algebra was right at the heart of the standards debate.

So many parents have complained "Why does my child need to learn algebra? I took algebra and I never use it!" This conclusion is so common that it has even been memorialized by Hollywood. In Peggy Sue Got Married, the title character is a housewife and mother who is sent back in time to her high school years. As seen in a 49-second clip from the movie, she blows off an algebra test because, as she explains to her algebra teacher, she knows she won't ever use it.

While it's understandable that a typical parent might feel as Peggy Sue did about algebra, I was really shocked when a local teacher's union representative echoed the same conclusion when he complained in the media that the state's new high school graduation exam was too difficult, since it tested algebra knowledge.

I believe it's important to speak plainly and openly with parents and the public. It may be true that few of our kids will have to solve quadratic equations after their school years. But don't you think they'll have to solve problems? In fact, most businesspeople I've spoken to say that one of the basic abilities they need in their employees is to solve problems they've never seen before.

In our school curricula, algebra is the main subject in which our kids are taught to solve problems in a systematic, analytic manner. Unfortunately, algebra taught poorly results in students learning only how to mimic problem solving methods that they've been forced to memorize. But algebra taught well gets students on the path to developing that skill of "solving problems they've never seen before" that employers are demanding and is an important foundation for further learning.

Might the reason that educators, union officials, and parents haven't understood the importance of algebra in our kids' education is that so few of them learned it properly themselves? More thoughts on this to come.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book One-way Airline Reservations vs. Round-trip

US Airways changed their pricing scheme several months ago: They no longer offer lower fares for round-trip travel. Because they charge a fee for changing reservations and because last-minute fares are often higher, travelers should consider booking individual one-way reservations instead of round-trip or multi-segment itineraries.

This rule applies to any airline that prices trips as the sum of as individual origin-destination trips - and is especially important for cheap flights.

Here's why:

1. US Airways now prices flights on an individual origin-destination trip basis, without any discounts for round-trips (or Saturday night stay-overs, or any other factor involving combination of origin-destination trips).

2. US Airways charges a $150 change fee for changing a reservation.

3. If you miss flying a segment of a reservation, US Airways (like all airlines) cancels the rest of your reservation.

4. If the trips are booked together as one reservation and you have to change a segment, that will require a re-pricing of the whole itinerary at the time of the change. If that's done near the flight date, it may result in a much higher total fare.

5. If the trips are all booked individually, you can keep the unchanged trips at their original fare; not using any individual segment will not affect the other reservations. So, if you have to change or not fly any segment of a reservation, it may be cheaper to just throw away the original ticket for that segment and pay for a new ticket for the segment than pay the change fee to recoup the fare paid for that segment.

Be sure to check that the sum of individual one-trip tickets is the same as a round-trip ticket for your planned itinerary. It may take a few more minutes to do this checking and book individual trips, but when you have to change a segment, it could save a lot of money!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Finding Happiness in What You Do

"Be happy in what you do" is a basic maxim of success. I agree completely. But I've learned there are two ways to find that happiness.

When I began my career, I felt I was very fortunate to have found a company in which I really enjoyed working. After 17 straight years of formal education, I would be entering the job market in the depths of the 1971 recession with my newly-minted Cornell MBA degree. There I was, in the Spring of 1971 at the ripe old age of 22, interviewing for jobs. My honors advisor, Prof. Joe Thomas (now Dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University), noted that I was smart and that was a competitive advantage; I should talk to consulting firms, since they look for smart people. After interviewing with the few consulting firms that recruited at Cornell that year, I took the offer of Arthur Andersen & Co. to join their management consulting practice in their NYC office.

Andersen's recruiting process sold me. I would be working with other young professionals, consulting on the data processing needs of our clients. My mother had been a pioneer in computer systems, having implemented the first international airlines reservations system in the world for Pan American Airways. I had grown up with computers and enjoyed my computer courses at Michigan. I had worked for IBM in my summer between MBA years, and wrote my honors thesis using computer modeling for complex inventory control questions. AA&Co. would train me in the firm's methodology and other things I'd need to become a successful consultant - they were paying me to learn! I'd work in the Rockefeller Center area of NYC, with my periodic expense account lunches, when not working with broad variety of clients around the world. What a glamorous career! The partners in the firm explained that their job was to help develop the next generation of partners. If I worked diligently, after 10 years or so I might be admitted to the partnership. Everyone was truly supportive. I was really comfortable with my choice of firm and career. I had found a wonderful match and was very happy - and my career progressed as I expected. I was really fortunate to have found an environment in which I was very happy.

After a few years working, I learned an important lesson from one of my mentors. His name was Paul Tom. Paul had started his career with IBM in Texas and then Washington, DC. He took his position as a manager in AA&Co. in NYC and later became a partner. Paul was a wonderfully personable guy who took seriously the task of developing his staff charges. Early on, I was with several other young staff invited to Paul's bachelor pad apartment, high above Lincoln Center on West 65th Street. Paul waxed poetic about how wonderful it was to live in NYC: The most exciting place in the world to live. Later, Paul transfered to the Stamford, CT office and bought a suburban home in Connecticut. Again, at a social function he hosted in his new home, Paul extolled the virtues of living in suburban Connecticut, with his idyllic home on the Rippowam River. There was no better place to live on Earth. Several years later, Paul transferred to the Toronto office. I visited him in his suburban penthouse apartment with a beautiful view of Toronto in the distance. Again, Paul noted his delight in getting out of the NYC rat race and the wonderful life and clients he had in Toronto.

By then, I had learned my "Paul Tom lesson in happiness." You can be lucky to find the perfect job and location in which you'll be happy (my 1st lesson). But you can also decide to be happy in any job and location in which you find yourself (the 2nd lesson, from Paul).

I have shared these two lessons in happiness with all my staff and colleagues at Andersen and subsequent endeavors. One of my staff told me the 2nd lesson - be happy in whatever you find yourself doing - was something he had learned earlier when he participated in "est" sessions with his siblings and parents. After quickly calming my concerns about est's cult-like reputation, he noted that est put my 2nd lesson very simply: "Happiness is a choice."

So it's pretty simple. I've learned I might as well be happy, since I can choose to be so instead of choosing not to be happy. Why choose anything else?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Getting Admitted to a Good College

I've been asked many times for help in getting friends' kids into a good college, given my long involvement with Cornell as an active alumnus, and my work as a Trustee of the SUNY system and as Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents. I'll offer these disclaimers at the start: I've never been a college admissions officer nor do I have inside information to offer; I also have never had children so haven't gone through the college selection process with my kids. However, I have talked to a number of college admissions officers and have worked with many who have been fellow Trustees of the College Board. Given that exposure, I have some observations and advice to share.

First, it's really important to understand that "a good college" shouldn't be defined in terms of parent's or grandparent's generations ideas of prestige. The objective should always be: Will the student (I'll call him/her "Stu") get a good education there? Will Stu learn the important things needed to in order to start out well in life after school?

When you focus on the learning, you get into the more important questions: What does Stu want to study? What kind of learner is Stu? Is Stu highly self-motivated and a well-disciplined learner or not so much so? If the former, the resources of a large university, with its many choices of majors, minors, courses and activities, can provide a wonderfully broadening experience. If the latter, Stu may get lost and easily distracted in a big university; Stu may do better in a smaller setting with more personal and caring attention by the faculty and staff. Ultimately, chances for success are better when the student is happy with the campus he/she's at. The big objective shouldn't be getting INTO a college, it should be on getting OUT! Focus on success through college, not just getting in the door!

The traditional college experience of those fortunate to go away for a residential 4-year undergraduate experience from age 18 or so is about "formative education" (as Jim Duderstadt, former president of the Univ. of Michigan has said). It's about growing, but not just the mind. When I went to Michigan at age 16, I knew I was pretty smart, independent, and hard working, but I needed to grow up socially and mature too. So I needed a campus where I could be learn through my extra-curricular activities as well as my studies. (Of course, my parents thought I spent too much time in extra-curricular activities, but that's another story.) Amongst the Ivy, I've long said if you just want to study, go to Harvard or M.I.T. (technically, not an Ivy, but it's elite); if you need to study AND be involved in other activities, go to Cornell. Cornell looks at activities as well as grades and admits students who excel in both. However, formative education is about stretching and growing, so just because Stu hasn't been involved in extra-curricular activities in high school doesn't mean Stu should pick a school where he/she'd just be studying all the time. College should be about educating the whole person and helping ensure development into a well-rounded individual.

So how to determine if Stu will be happy at a campus? If Stu's school's college counsellor really knows his/her students, listen to his/her advice. Campus visits -- especially weekend ones where Stu can live with current students -- seem to be very helpful. Talk to friends and students from Stu's school who are currently there or have recently graduated. Some of the chatty college guides that give the straight poop from current students (like the College Prowler), might be helpful. (I met the fellow who started College Prowler when he was a student -- a nice guy who saw a market need and looked to fill it!)

Getting to know a campus and making the match in Stu's own mind will be helpful in the admissions process. Highly competitive schools such as Cornell are now getting 10 applications for every available place they have. The admissions folk at Cornell tell me that for every student they admit, there are 4 others who are virtually indistinguishable from the one admitted in terms of grades, class ranking, leadership activities, SAT scores, etc. One difference is that the admitted applicants have taken the trouble to learn more about Cornell and have demonstrated they really believe they'll be happy there. At that level (after screening out those who just wouldn't do well at their campus), admissions officers are really looking to make the good match between what a student may be looking for and is willing to work hard for, and what their campus has to offer. They want students to succeed, but they don't know the applicants well; when the applicants have done their research and determined they will really be happy at that campus, they make the admissions officers' jobs easier.

I've also been asked for advice on what kind of summer job Stu should take to improve his/her chance of getting into a good college. I look at the summer jobs as part of the formative education process. What would Stu like to learn more about? If Stu is fortunate enough that he/she doesn't need the job mainly to save money (though learning about hard work and money is always an important lesson), that increases Stu's options. Taking a job -- even as an unpaid intern -- related to Stu's area of academic interest would be good. Working in a field in which Stu thinks he/she may have interest as a career would help him/her see the reality vs. the romance (I'm thinking of kids who think they'd like to help people as a doctor, only to learn much later that they can't stand the sight of blood or being around a lot of sick people!). Broadening Stu's perspectives by working in areas he/she's less familiar with -- for example, volunteer work with people in poverty -- can be life changing. The breadth of choice in summer jobs is probably as large as the breadth of choice in colleges; alas, it's one I have far less expertise with. Summer jobs might have some impact on college admissions, but I would think that the impact on the student of the experience is of far greater importance.

4/9/09: Just read an interesting blog with other helpful thoughts: http://www.educatednation.com/2009/04/09/college-admissions-panels-using-their-powers-for-good/

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Attention Spans & Learning

Thirty-five years ago, I wrote my first course on computer systems design at Arthur Andersen & Co. I learned then things about adult learning that are just being applied in colleges today - and they're considered very novel! The punchline: Adult attention spans are short - under 8 minutes long - and shortening, so for learning to be effective, learning activities need to be changed at least every 8 minutes (and maybe even shorter).

Here's my story. Our in-house courses at AA&Co. were conducted at our firm's school in St. Charles, Illinois. They ran from 1 day to 4 weeks in length. In our consulting division - which later became Accenture - our line professionals wrote our own course materials and taught the courses. I learned COBOL programming in 4 weeks of 5 1/2 day/week classes that ran from 8:30 am until 10:30 pm (with coffee, lunch, and dinner breaks). Okay, we were smart and motivated - and we were being paid to learn. But how could our firm ensure we'd learn well?

Two years later, when I was sent to write my first course, I was told that researchers had determined that the adult attention span was 10-15 minutes. If the same learning activity continued longer than that, students' minds went to sleep. So in writing the course, we had to change the activity - live presentation, video, problem solving, reading, discussion, etc. - every 10-15 minutes.

Starting over a decade ago, as Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, I visited Ohio campuses and took special interest in learning about new uses of technology in classrooms. While many professors used various technology tools in their classes, not one knew of the attention span principle that had been drilled into me when I began my professional career.

Years later, in a meeting of university faculty senate presidents, I related my story about the 10-15 minute attention span and asked why professors continued to give 50 minute lectures. I was immediately challenged by a cognitive psychologist in the group. He said he had done research in this area and that I was wrong. I started covering myself, noting that my story was from a finding from 25 years before. The professor interrupted: "My research indicates the adult attentions span isn't 10-15 minutes, it's 6-8 minutes. And we don't give 50 minute lectures; many of us - including me - give 75 minute lectures."

Given the continuing explosion of information, increasing demands on our time, and new, ever-briefer techniques to grab our attention - consider 6 word newsfeed headlines, 140 character twitters, terse instant messenging notes - those 6-8 minutes have probably shrunk even more.

My conclusion: If we hope to increase the efficiency of learning, educators will have to start paying attention to research-based principles like the "change the activity" rule I learned so long ago. Advocates of new teaching techniques - like the 1-minute lecture (reported on 2 days ago in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece) - appear to have come to the same conclusion, though perhaps without the cognitive research foundation. If learning for some students in some topics can be made more efficient by applying 35-year old research, imagine how much more efficient it may become if we apply the research done since then!