[Podcast] Andy Friedman: Word Nerd

In today’s episode, join us as we dive into Andy’s unique journey on exploring the art of writing, the musicality of language, and how he guides students to craft compelling narratives. Get ready for an engaging and insightful discussion!

TRANSCRIPT

Andy Friedman: 

And what what always fascinated me was how something can feel so clear in your head and you try to put it on the page. And it’s a jumble. So it’s really on the page that year. That’s the extended brain. Not to sound too highfalutin about this, but that’s something I often just tell my students, that drafting is not because like we’re imperfect, and we can’t just put up with our thoughts. Drafting is part of the thinking.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hey, folks, welcome back to the podcast. Hope you’re all doing well, this week, I got to sit down with one of our long term tutors, Andy Friedman, who is just a gem of a human being. I mean, this guy is such an amazing values match for Signet, and he’s he’s so caring. His true passion is education. And he’s also fascinating and fascinated by a lot of really cool things. But he has a degree in music theory. And he has taken opportunities to explore lots of other paths. He’s genuinely curious person who gives himself permission to follow those curiosities. And, as you can imagine, all of that is really inspiring for a teenager to get to form a relationship with and learn from when So Andy, he’s a self described word nerd. And that’s where the title of our episode comes from. He’s an amazing writing coach. He also does academic coaching. He does test prep, he does. academic tutoring, does all kinds of things. And we are just so lucky to have him here at Signet. And any of our clients who get to work with Andy just are so pleased with the relationship he’s able to build with their kids, the results that they start to see and the overall impact he has on the family dynamic. So take a listen. Andy, thanks for joining me. Looking forward to this.

Andy Friedman: 

It’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, of course. So let’s start with kind of telling people what you do. And then we’ll back up and talk about how you got there, of course. So I’m a principal tutor with Signet. I started off doing test prep about five years ago, and soon after I got into academic coaching. And then I’ve sort of picked up other hats along the way, including writing for college admissions. And what else do I do? I’ve taught some one off classes in the Boston area for test prep. And yeah, and that’s, that’s really one of the things that I love about the job is that it always keeps me on my toes. Yeah, always something new. And I love also you have such a varied background. Like you pick up the, you know, random music theory student or things like that, which I really

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, I think we’ve had one or two of those Sure. PhDs gotta be worth something. So there’s

Sheila Akbar: 

something right. Let’s say transferrable skills. So yeah, let’s talk about that. You do have a PhD in music theory. What drew you before we get to why you did a PhD? What drew you into music?

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah. So I came to music late in life, compared to other people who go into academia or become musicians. It wasn’t till I was about 15, that I picked up the guitar. I was sick at home for a week, and my dad always played guitar. And I was like, Hey, can you teach me he taught me three chords, which is really all you need for a lot of things. And I was just off to the races and then to classical guitar lessons played violin for a minute, didn’t go that well. And then in college, I went to college thinking that I would be there I was study literature, because that’s what I was really, really into poetry in high school. I was pretty emo. And introspective, and.

Sheila Akbar: 

That comes in no surprise.

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, and you know, faux profound and all of that. But first semester, I took a music theory class, and it was just like, Oh, my God, this is incredible. I can understand why things sound good. There’s rules, sort of not rules. But there’s sort of principles behind this. And I was just sort of hooked. And I was also really taken in by professor who became my mentor. And then grad school seemed like the next in music theory. I studied. I didn’t love composition in college as well. And my thesis was film score. And for a hot minute, I was thinking about trying to become a film composer. And I went the academic route instead, and, and focused on the classical Romantic era, and specifically the experience of listening and trying to talk about music theory experientially whereas usually we kind of look at the score and go from there. That was the general idea of the dissertation.

Sheila Akbar: 

You are a singer. Were you not singing when you were younger?

Andy Friedman: 

I sang very informally. You know, I grew up Orthodox Jewish. And so there was a lot of singing around the table, you know, Friday nights and in the synagogue around prayers, and I was at some Jewish choirs, but I didn’t I didn’t take voice lessons until college, my junior year because they were, they were free for music majors. And then I found myself in a clique club, but I haven’t had a solo senior year. And I’ve been singing on and off with choirs ever since. Just before the pandemic, I started getting into conducting. Pandemic kind of got in the way of that, but I’m hoping to get back into that. I’d really love to lead a choir of some kind, at some point.

Sheila Akbar: 

Amazing. And I always love sending your profile to prospective clients, because there’s so many interesting tidbits there. You worked on a horse powered farm?

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, yeah, it’s a suburb down over 10 years ago, I read this great book. It was a memoir of a Harvard grad who happened to be a New York City journalist who met this Pennsylvania farmer. And they fell in love and they started a farm. And the name of the farm was in the books, I just call them. I was like, You guys sound great. Can I work on your farm and write my dissertation this summer. And I did. And it was just, it was fantastic. Really, really hard, difficult labor, but I learned a ton and I cooked for them. And it was a really special summer.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s so amazing. And then the other thing that stands out from your bio that I’m always like, I got to ask him about this sometimes. So here’s my opportunity, the pasta

Andy Friedman: 

Oh, yeah, so took a year off of the PhD. Not sure making? if I wanted to continue. I went out to San Francisco where I had a good friend. And I was getting really into food at the time. This was sort of like 2008, it was like, one of the first foodie waves, which I was solidly writing. And I always had a thing for bread and pasta in particular. So I worked in a few restaurants, learned a few things just still still benefiting from but also learned that that industry was probably not for me, certainly not as glamorous as as TV makes it out to be.

Sheila Akbar: 

Oh as Top Chef makes it seem. Yeah, sure.

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, it’s grueling. It’s not very creative, unless you put it in your for 20 years and maybe get a chance to have a restaurant. So.

Sheila Akbar: 

Right. Well, the reason I kind of pick on those things, and I think the reason we’ve put them in your tutoring bio, is that you have this just like broad range of experiences that I know you bring into your tutoring relationships and a lot of different ways. So can you tell us a little bit about how you think about bringing your personal experiences to bear on the challenges your students are facing?

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, you know, I forget that I do that, because it’s such an automatic thing. But you know, whether it’s whether it’s test prep you know which, which I think one might think of is more just transactional, alright, here’s how to do this, right. Or on the other side, academic coaching, which is very holistic, you’re really getting to know the person and sort of grow with them, or help them grow. I’m always looking for those points of contact. And I’ve always had varied interests. And I, in addition to music, I studied philosophy and some science stuff and, and I just read a lot, and I’m just eternally curious. So I’m always looking for that connection. And then when possible, actually using it to ground a lesson, or in some relevant metaphor, you know, if it’s sports, which I can get pretty geeky about. So that obviously works well for a lot of teenage boys who otherwise might not open up as much or just really anything there into as something as simple as if I’m, if I’m trying to demonstrate a grammatical concept. And I have to come up with a sentence that’s on the topic of whatever, if it’s baking cookies, or if it’s watching Netflix, and something that’ll maybe help them remember it, and put a little smile on their face.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I always struggle with those, making up sentences for grammar, grammar lesson. That can be hard.

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, I’ve, I’ve gotten better at it. I found but I that was never Yeah, still not a strength.

Sheila Akbar: 

Well, I suppose that also I imagine it, it gives students some confidence that you can have a lot of different interests and pursue a lot of things in the course of your education, and still be like, you know, a normal person, I suppose. A lot of them I think think they have to have their thing figured out immediately or it can only be one thing. And what’s your experience been with that?

Andy Friedman: 

Exactly. That’s something I look out for any engagement is that sort of very single minded. I I have to have myself figured out by junior year of high school or, or my life is never going to take shape, I have to be on a certain path. And if they seem to be sort of, to put a baby to struggle with suffering under that delusion, I’ll try to subtly push push against that by particularly my story, or other stories of famous people who didn’t have their stuff together, I really figured it out along the way. And I found, so just knowing a lot of people to Princeton, and then Harvard, so the model driven people who very much had a path, and some of them absolutely took it and are still on it. Most are not, because that’s just not how life works. And we’re much better off expecting that than expecting all of the pieces to fall into place. And for and for whatever passion is driving that initial, that initial vision will always be there.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I do a lot of the same with with my students too. And I think one of the things that can be so interesting now is looking back, you’ve just got this, you know, portfolio of interesting experiences that you didn’t set out to have, right? You just sort of opportunistically took advantage of some things that came your way or created opportunities for yourself. And I feel the same way about my life. If I had just taken a really straight path from college, a specific major to a specific career and then stayed in it forever. I’m sure there would be some of life’s adventures along the way. But I find that there’s a much more interesting story to tell.

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, so I guess there’s kind of two parts. The first part is it, it’s kind of risky, because things don’t often work out. And then it’s limiting, because you sort of close yourself off to the happy surprises and serendipities that for most people, when they tell their life stories actually are actually sort of the highlights. The things that came out of nowhere, the things they took a chance on. And now I’m here and I love it.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s get into I guess, how you approach? I don’t know, what do you want to do tutoring coaching, writing? What would you like to talk about how you approach it?

Andy Friedman: 

Maybe writing. So since we’re in the writing season, so you know, we are both knee deep in all sorts of college essays. Also working with a few students, coaching students and writing students on their essays as they come up, you know, in English and in history. And so

Sheila Akbar: 

Right. You’re a self describe word nerd, I remember this.

Andy Friedman: 

I’m a word nerd. I’m a grammar geek. I could pick ups, several books within arm’s reach to prove all of that. One is a ironically, very big book on concision. And I regularly read usage dictionaries, and we don’t have to, I’m getting lost already. So yeah, so I’m pretty passionate about the written word. And not not just the rules, the art of it, the poetry of it. And and maybe most of all, that, that writing is really the next step in thinking. It is not. It is not just a sort of, like isomorphic transferal, from one medium thoughts to the page words, right? And what what always fascinated me was how something could feel so clear in your head, and you try to put it on the page, and it’s a jumble. So it’s really on the page that year. That’s the extended brain. Not to sound too highfalutin about this, but that’s something I often just tell my students, that drafting is not because like we’re imperfect, and we can’t just put up with our thoughts. Drafting is part of the thinking. Right? And it’s actually in figuring out what we’re trying to say, as we write it, that we figure out what we’re thinking. And that’s true for, you know, a five paragraph English essay where you have to come up with a thesis, which true for personal essay, where you’re really trying to convey something deep and important about yourself, which is why, you know, for example, in just plain old, expository writing, I think it’s a bit of a mistake to generally taught to write it in order, you know, thesis, then you bring your evidence and then you conclude, I always tell people write a provisional thesis. Just write for now what you think you’re trying to say. And then then go through your evidence, see what the evidence is actually telling you conclude, and then write your thesis paragraph and figure out what you actually wanted to say. And I think that’s kind of the way it should be. done, right? It’s very hard to figure out your actual argument you have sort of a vague idea at the beginning. But until you get into the details and really try to find the words. So I didn’t expect to revise your your opening paragraph. I think on a larger scale my dissertation, I didn’t figure out what I was trying to say till maybe five years later. At the time, I knew, I’d say I was way off, I move partly what I was doing, but it had to sit with me for a while. And I was like, Oh, I see what I was trying to get at. You know, I would say, you know, I wish I could have figured out that, but I think that’s a very common experience.

Sheila Akbar: 

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I remember, when I was writing my dissertation, I had written a bunch of chapters, what I thought was going to be an introduction, which actually ended up becoming my conclusion. And I remember one day, I was like, just, they just didn’t hang together. So I wrote notecards, with sort of the key pieces of each chapter, and I spread them all out on my living room floor, there were like, hundreds of note cards. And this was maybe a month before I really had to submit it. And it was like one of those kind of conspiracy theory diagrams with like, the red string.

Andy Friedman: 

I was gonna say, you had sort of a Hollywood feel to this scene.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, it really was. But it actually introduced me to the idea of a storyboard in my writing. And for me, that idea just resonates so much more than an outline, we’re thinking about a shape certain key moments that we really want to land that we want to stay with somebody. And so I’ve started talking to students about that, but the shape of their essay as opposed to the outline, or, you know, we’re all familiar with movies and TV shows, we think about those kind of key scenes that really stick with you, what would be in the recap, in next week’s episode, which I think is a fun way to do this, I’ve always used actually always used film, when I’m teaching writing.

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, I think that it’s brilliant. And I also emphasize, I try not to use the word outline, because it can become sort of mechanistic and sort of calcified. And it’s this very architectural thing. Whereas, you know, whether we’re making an argument or but especially when we’re telling a story, it’s really flow. Right? And as a as a music minded person. And in a way, that’s what my dissertation was about was, can we talk about the flow and not just the notes? So So I think we’re very very simpatico and in that respect.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. Well, yeah, I was gonna ask you, how does your love of music and your sort of more theoretical academic understanding of music influence the way you try to help people.

Andy Friedman: 

I suppose the most obvious connection is just the musicality of language, which I think if you could say I, I love both of them deeply, I think for the same reason, beautifully worded sentence, that it’s really the music of it, as much as the word choice, although those are also, you know, bound up together. And I’m not talking about surface things like alliteration, and pawns, when I’m talking about sort of a deeper kind of musicality in a sentence, and then between sentences, the way, the way you pull the reader along with it’s a kind of melody, and then there’s a counter melody, and then something surprising, but then something, you know, a number of short sentences followed by a longer one. It’s like a great solo write, or a great melody has that kind of that pool, where it’s not only beautiful, but it has this kind of inevitability to it. And it just drags you along. And you’re right there with it. That’s what I think that’s sort of the essence of what I love about both.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. And I know, you know, we’re in the business of teaching students how to write while also getting them to finish some very important writing. So how do you balance those two things?

Andy Friedman: 

Yeah, I’ve definitely, you know, earlier on, I was in danger of sort of getting too caught up in trying to transmit all this wisdom to 16 year olds who probably couldn’t care less. But I just try to I never actually start waxing poetic like I am now. I should just say like, that would be bad tutoring. So So task based, right. But you know, I’ll suggest a revision. And I never suggested a revision without explaining why. Right, if it’s an actual mistake, there needs to be a comment here because whatever, fine, but more for word choice or or sentence construction. I’ll say, you know, I think this flows nicer because of whatever right or how about maybe two items here instead of three. And I think one thing I find amazing is how often there’s consensus around it, right? It’s not, obviously it’s a subjective thing, both in music and in language. Ah, but most of the times we miss some of my favorite parts when I’m working with a student not writing is all suggests I think we’re even better, they’ll suggest something. And it’ll have the right music. And we’ll both smile and be like, Yeah, that’s absolutely it. Yeah, you know, and it’s right. Yeah. Yeah. So so I don’t try to like, you know, teach these ideas in the abstract. It’s always in the context of the writing itself.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. What I love about you, Andy, is you’re such a great example of somebody who can go there and wax poetic and be extremely philosophical about, you know, how do we learn? Why do we love music? What, what is the sound of these words, but also, like you said, really geek out about sports, or just connect with somebody on a very, like, mundane is the wrong connotation. But you know, every day kind of level that really speaks to how your passion for teaching and connecting with students allows you to kind of pull from all these different areas. And it’s not just that you’re super smart, which you are. But you really are very focused on connecting in a way that makes sense for whatever student and whatever challenge, I really love that about your work.

Andy Friedman: 

That’s very, very kind of you to say, I do try to do that. And when it goes, well, it’s really special. But it’s very nice of you to say,

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, of course. Well, it’s true. Well, I think that’s a really nice place to leave it. Any final thoughts from you that you want to share?

Andy Friedman: 

No, this was great. I, I’d be happy to go for another hour. But maybe we’ll do this again, some time.

Sheila Akbar: 

We will. And we can talk about some of your other specialties at that time. Awesome. Great. All right. Thank you, Andy.

Andy Friedman: 

Thank you.

Sheila Akbar: 

What a good guy. So as we wrap up here, I want to remind you about a couple of resources. So obviously, we have my community on circle that’s called How to get into college. Some interesting things happening over there, we’ll have some new boot camps and some courses coming up. But as always, there are great free resources there, including live office hours with me where you get to come and just ask your questions, no strings attached. So please do take advantage of that and join that community. And then the other thing we’re doing this month and next is we’re holding a series of info sessions about the work that we do at Signet and how it might work for your family. So take a look at our website and sign up for an info session. Learn a little bit more about how you can get some help. And then the last piece is my LinkedIn. I’ve taken a little bit of a winter break from LinkedIn I needed I needed some space in my brain. So I haven’t really been actively posting since the middle of December, but I have restarted so you can follow me on LinkedIn for interesting articles highlighting other people who work in this field and my own opinions on what’s happening in admissions and what you need to be doing right now to help your kid through it. So please follow me there and hope to see you next time. Thanks.

Picture of Signet Education

Signet Education

More Resources