A workshop I’ve taught

workshops on writing and talkingMore on writing/talking about music, because as you’ll see in another post, I’m inspired to start a business in which I help people do those things.

In the past, I’ve taught workshops on these subjects. Here’s one of them. I’ll talk about others in future posts.

Center for Arts Criticism, Minneapolis

I did this workshop in the  ’80s. I had 15 or more people to work with, both pop and classical critics.

My method: We read Greil Marcus’s famous chapter on Elvis, from his first book, Mystery Train (one of the classics of rock criticism), as well as some George Bernard Shaw. I wanted to set the bar high — and give people a taste of very personal, very evocative criticism.

Then I’d play music, and ask people to describe it. Most of the descriptions were more or less generic. That is, they (a) could have described many pieces of music, not just the one I was playing, and/or (b) they were things many critics would say, confronted with the same music.

I’d been given writing by the people taking the workshop, and in most cases their writing was fairly generic, too. Example: a pianist plays Rachmaninoff with the local orchestra, and the critic says her playing was virtuosic. Which is more or less a given, for anyone playing a Rachmaninoff concerto at all adequately. And — apart maybe from suggesting that the performance was in some way exhilarating — tells us nothing about what this particular pianist offered.

I pushed the participants very hard on this. Kept asking for more description, more words and phrases, drilling down until I heard something personal.

Example: one thing I played was the first Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations, the opening “Aria.” One woman said it was delicate, then said it was precise. All true, but many things are delicate, many things are precise. I kept pushing. After a while, she said the performance was deceptive! I pounced. That was a fascinating thought, I said. I’d never heard anyone say that before, about this very famous performance. What did she mean? Please, I asked, tell us more!

After repeated doses of this, the people in the workshop were coming up consistently with intriguing, unexpected, personal — and accurate — words about the music they heard. They were, quite literally, transformed.

There was one problem, though. They got together, toward the end of the sessions, and asked me to talk with them about how they could use what they’d learned, in their writing. Their editors, they said, might not accept such a personal approach.

I agreed. That could be trouble. So we talked about how to compromise, how to write what you really felt, without going so far that your editor might not let you do it.

But isn’t this fascinating. And important! They all had more personal reactions to music than those they wrote about. But they didn’t think it was their job to use them. They thought it was their job to be generic, to say what everyone else said.

But they could unlearn that.

The Center for Arts Criticism — as I just learned by Googling it — changed its focus in the ’90s, when it lost its NEA funding. Now, I read, it focuses not on training adult critics, but on “youth media projects.” And it may no longer exist. Or at least I couldn’t find its website. 

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  1. says

    You need to know, Greg, that here in the heartland, actual “criticism” of performances can often be frowned upon. Local orchestras and their audiences seem so personally connected at the hip that nearly everyone takes offense at an honest appraisal of concerts. Let’s be honest: the Pumpkin Center Philharmonic isn’t going to play like the Chicago Symphony, BUT should they be held to a certain standard of excellence? Sad to say, there are fewer and fewer local papers here in Iowa that will even support an art’s critic.

  2. says

    Greg, your’s is one of the very, very few places where there is serious talk about music criticism. Thanks so much for it. I appreciate your approach and this account of your work with fledgling critics is illuminating. In my blog I have been pursuing some of the same issues in a different way. Sometimes I talk about the project of music criticism and how vital it is, as in this post: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/07/practice-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.html

    and this one: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/08/problems-of-music-criticism.html

    But most of my blog is music criticism in practice such as this comparative discussion of Bach performances on violin: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/08/nigel-kennedy-and-bach.html

    C’mon over and have a read! Leave a comment!

    • says

      Hi, Brian,

      As I emailed to you, I know about this sad business. I live (when I’m not in DC) in Warwick, NY, a small town an hour outside NYC. The regional newspaper runs reviews of groups like the Newburgh (NY) Symphony, and, if I believe these reviews (which of course I don’t) there’s never been a note played that’s any less than magnificent. The reviews are gush, from beginning to end. A student mezzo from Eastman, giving a recital around here, is praised as if she were Susan Graham or Christa Ludwig.

      I’m on a funding panel for a state arts agency, somewhere in mid-America. I’ve been reading local reviews by the groups applying for funds, and it’s the same story. Gush, gush, gush.

  3. Steve Ledbetter says

    Greg, I’m enjoying this a lot. As someone whose professional credentials come from pure academic musicology, tempered with 30 years of writing program notes and giving pre-concert lectures, I’m reasonably experienced at talking about music as compositions, but almost completely inexperienced in discussing performance. Until very recently I almost never wrote journalistic reviews of performances (and even now it is only a very slight part of my activity), and I’ve felt somewhat hamstrung in finding personal and original ways to talk about the performances. It always seemed easier talking with close friends at the bar after a concert than getting it down on paper. I found today’s post especially interesting.

    • says


      Thanks, and I can understand how you might have trouble writing about performances, if you’re not used to that.

      You might take a cue from your greater ease in talking about what you’ve heard. Sometimes any or all of us might freeze, confronted with the proverbial blank sheet of paper, or now the blank screen. Or else we put on a different suit of clothes, something more formal or writerly. And that can stand between us and our thoughts. I know it happens to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others. One friend from long ago charmed me with her letters. (Yes, snail mail. Back in those days.) Then she got a job as a newspaper columnist, and her writing got stiffer.

      So why not pretend, when you’re going to write about a performance, that you’re talking to a friend? I do that with my students. When I ask them to talk about music in class, I always say, “Just say this to the rest of us,” or “Say it the way you’d talk to a friend.”

      Then, once you see what your thoughts, feelings, and impressions are, think of how to put that in written words. In whatever style you think is appropriate to your writing. Just make sure you keep the pipeline to your original impressions open.

      If you try this, let me know if it helps!

  4. says

    Dear Greg, I’m all for the kind of writing exercise you describe. Getting young writers to dig deep, to go beyond cliche and boilerplate is enormously valuable. But as a former critic with more decades of experience than I want to recall, I can’t help but wonder where these writers are going to find work as critics. To me, it appears to be a dying profession. Do they really want to commit to such a serious pursuit, perhaps in blogs, with little possibility of remuneration?

    • says

      A very good question, Ellen. It’s something I’m going to talk about in class tomorrow. During the first weeks of the course, I give — in pieces, class by class — a short introduction to the details of a critic’s work. Tomorrow I’ll start this, by talking about where critics find work.

      It’s intriguing that, despite the truth of what you say, many younger people want to be critics. Or, anyway, arts journalists. Arts journalism programs abound at universities. Editors, as far as I know, get plenty of pitches from younger writers who want to be music critics. Even though, as you say, the chances of ever making a living from criticism are shrinking by the week. The explosion of criticism on blogs isn’t going to make a living for many people.

      I’m glad, then, that what I’m working on here isn’t limited to critics. My Juilliard course is aimed at musicians. I hope they’ll learn how to deal with critics, or just to understand critics better, which may help when they get reviewed. And, more important, I hope the course will help them talk about music.

      When I post about the business I want to launch, in which I teach or coach people in these things, I’ll stress how wide the field of potential clients might be. A lot of people could use this. Maybe even at NEC!

  5. says

    I think it’s important to make a distinction between evaluating a performance and describing its impact and meaning. I have heard minor-league concerts that, though not stellar technically, had fire or soulfulness or energy or even fragility that I was glad to experience. And as Greg often points out, major-league concerts can sometimes be lackluster even if they are technically polished.

    Sometimes evaluation gives low marks even when a performance has power: I remember thinking in the middle of one concert that I didn’t approve of the way of playing, and yet at that very moment I felt a tear, because the music was sneaking past my defenses and touching me.

    Personally I’m less interested in a critic’s opinion of a concert (did s/he like it? how did it stack up in the rankings?) than in finding out whether anything beautiful or arresting happened for that writer. If I miss a concert I might ask a friend “How was it?” but I really mean “What happened?” As a performer and composer, of course I want listeners to like the music, but I’d rather hear what they experienced, what they visualized, what they felt or imagined, what associations came up. That’s so much more interesting—and useful—than whether they liked it, whether it was good enough.

    And it matters how much we focus on evaluation because people have been misled about classical music into thinking that it’s all about admiring greatness instead of sharing in human experiences. If concerts are occasions for admiring greatness, then the audience is not necessary, because experts can take care of that, and ordinary folks are not needed.