Teaching a residential college class began for junior mechanical engineering major Ian Frankel the same way it began for anyone else wanting to teach a college class: by taking College 300. That class teaches students interested in leading their own course how to write a syllabus, how to think about the way the course will progress across a semester and teaching techniques.
“I wound up with a rough outline that pretty much got thrown out the door after the first class,” Frankel said, admitting the theory behind how a class works and the reality of it happening in real time are vastly different things. “People are at different skill levels and I had to adjust for that.”
Frankel is teaching Guitar Theory once a week to 19 students, who range from beginners to more advanced players. Frankel has been playing guitar since he was nine years old. In high school, he was a member of Andover Academy’s jazz ensemble. While there, he learned music theory, which changed the way he played guitar. When he came to Rice, he joined Mariachi Luna Llena.
“I knew I wanted to play in an ensemble here, and when I saw them perform at Owl Days, everyone looked like they were having fun, and they had these dope outfits,” said Frankel. “I started as a guitarist, but switched to guitarrón when the original player left.” He laughs at the idea that the instrument and he are roughly the same size. “Being part of the group is great, though. We play on campus, at weddings, events, all kinds of things.”
Frankel wants the students in his class to realize that music can be fun, as well as rewarding. He deliberately set out to teach theory, instead of straight finger placement and chords, because he wanted his students to have a deeper understanding of music.
“Learning theory helps you figure out the music on your own,” he explained. “You can hear a note, know which chord it’s in, and work from there. It makes you much more independent as a musician. When you see guitarists moving their fingers up and down the neck of the guitar, they know what’s up.”
Frankel admits to owning eight guitars, including an electric guitar and instruments with nylon and steel strings. He also owns a banjo and a ukulele. He loves the musicianship of Ian Ethan Case, Calum Graham and the late Joe Pass. In addition to playing with Mariachi Luna Llena, he occasionally plays sets at Willy’s Pub.
When he first came to Rice, he initially thought he’d major in statistics, but selected mechanical engineering because he felt it gave him opportunities to do a broader range of engineering studies. He’s fascinated by the way small things can have big impacts on a larger system.
“Look at the way a wind can destroy a huge bridge,” he said. “That’s amazing.”
He has spent the last two years doing research in Assistant Professor Matthew Brake’s lab, modeling non-linear oscillating systems with the harmonic balance method (a numerical method used for periodic inputs/solutions.) He hopes to study the stability of systems as well as numerical methods for accurately calculating frequency response functions for non-linear systems using a method called continuation.
“Last year, I didn’t really understand the math behind what I was doing,” he said. “I was plugging in data. But this year, I get to write code, and I can see how the code relates to the outcome.”
Those kinds of moments and being able to see how things are interconnected makes Frankel think he’ll likely pursue a graduate degree in computational modeling.
In the meantime, though, he’s enjoying playing guitar and teaching his fellow students.
“I really want them to have the guitar as something happy in their lives. There’s something stress relieving about being able to pick up a guitar and just play.”