Another workshop

Workshops on writing and talking

I know I’m neglecting other things I might post about. But this subject seems pretty hot. Patience, if it’s not your cup of…shot of…[fill in your favorite hard or soft beverage; I'm partial to bourbon].

This post is about a workshop I taught for the Pittsburgh Symphony. I’ll be posting on other subjects shortly.

Prelude (about how I’ve worked when I teach how to talk and write about music):

A few [people in a workshop I taught] were timid…but when I teach something like this — and very definitely in my Juilliard course on music criticism — I’m always encouraging. If someone thinks they have nothing to say, I tell them (and I really mean it) that they surely have something going through their head when they hear the music I’m playing. If they need time to find the words, they can have it. No rush, no pressure. And if they think their words won’t be adequate, I’ll often tell them that I’ve felt that way myself, even at the height of my career as a nationally-known critic.

Sure enough, they’ll come up with something. And then I praise them. With good reason, I’ll add, because simply by summoning the courage to speak, they’ve accomplished something.

And very likely they’ve said something valuable. That’s happened over and over at Juilliard. Someone — maybe someone whose first language isn’t English — is sure they have nothing to say. They’re shy. They’re embarrassed. Some will laugh or giggle nervously.

And then they speak, and say something truly striking. It was in there all along. They just needed encouragement.

So here’s another workshop I’ve taught:

Pittsburgh Symphony

I did a lot of work with that orchestra — coplanning and hosting a concert series, leading discussions with members of the audience. And more.

But one of the happiest things I did — their idea to do it — was leading a workshop on how to talk about music, for the Symphony’s entire staff. Including the goth kids who did telemarketing, who were the last to arrive, coming into the room together, looking like they’d emerged into daylight for the first time in weeks.

We must have had 50 to 60 people at this session. Non-musical staff, of course. Apart from the musicians, orchestras typically have very small artistic staffs. So these were marketing, publicity, development, and operations people, and of course the telemarketers. And many of these people, if not most of them, didn’t go to the orchestra’s concerts, as far as I know. In my experience, that’s typical of orchestra staffs, strange (or problematic) as that might seem. So we’re talking here about people who work for a classical music institution, but may not know much about classical music.

And now I’m thinking of a discussion that happened on Facebook, in response to something I posted there. A music professor saying, with great sincerity, that unless people learned about sonata form and other classical music technicalities, that they couldn’t listen to classical music in any depth.

Well, that’s a complex discussion. (The late Christopher Small would have strongly disagreed, and pointed out, in his writing, that Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven aren’t on record, in their letters or elsewhere, talking much about sonata form.)

But one thing strongly struck me — the people in this workshop talked about music very well.

My method: I brought a recording of Rainbow Body, an appealing piece by Christopher Theofanides, which the orchestra was playing that week. I’d play a passage, and then ask the people in the workshop to describe how it sounded. In their own way, very personally, without worrying about how much they thought they knew (or didn’t know) about music.

Of course I picked varied passages. The results were just stunning. The descriptions were eloquent, individual, striking, and certainly faithful to the music (at least as I myself heard it).

So then I picked places in the piece where the sound of the music changed. I asked the people to describe the changes. Again they did wonderfully, even better than before.

A few were timid, throughout all of this, but when I teach something like this — and very definitely in my Juilliard course on music criticism — I’m always encouraging. If someone thinks they have nothing to say, I tell them (and I really mean it) that they surely have something going through their head when they hear the music I’m playing. If they need time to find the words, they can have it. No rush, no pressure. And if they think their words won’t be adequate, I’ll often tell them that I’ve felt that way myself, even at the height of my career as a nationally-known critic.

Sure enough, they’ll come up with something. And then I praise them. With good reason, I’ll add, because simply by summoning the courage to speak, they’ve accomplished something.

And very likely they’ve said something valuable. That’s happened over and over at Juilliard. Someone — maybe someone whose first language isn’t English — is sure they have nothing to say. They’re shy. They’re embarrassed. Some will laugh or giggle nervously.

And then they speak, and say something truly striking. It was in there all along. They just needed encouragement.

Read about the workshop I taught for critics, in Minneapolis

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Comments

  1. Herbert Pauls says

    You have raised a very interesting point about sonata form. What we have usually been taught about that form is, strictly speaking, anachronistic. So of course Mozart and his contemporaries did not know the finer points of “sonata form”, especially in the language of 19th C explanations that have come down to us, and therefore could not have written about it in that way. There is an important theorist born before Clementi, Mozart and Beethoven – Heinrich Koch (1749 – 1816) – and his definition of the sonata is highly interesting. It might even be pertinent to this blog, which tries to move in the direction of steering the discussion of musical works away from exclusive talk of technicalities and toward how the music makes us feel. In Koch’s big Lexicon, he spends considerable time talking about the sonata as a series of unified moods and specific characters which exist for the purpose of not merely exciting the emotions, but really moving them to the point where the heart overflows. It is really quite an eye opener. Interested readers who do not have the Koch Lexicon at hand, and who read some German, can download the entire 1000 pg pdf of the original 1802 publication free of charge. Thanks to public domain sites, I now have a large number of these old classical era treatises and they seem to focus a great deal on the emotional side of music. Very different from the intentionally dry neo-classicism of the 1920s, a misnomer if there ever was one.

    • says

      Herbert, so many thanks for this! And how fascinating. This is new territory for me. I’ll download the PDF, and hope I have enough German to make my way through some of it.

      Sonata form has long struck me — Heinrich Koch and I might find we had a lot to talk about — as essentially a narrative. Which is one of the reasons it’s not as complex as so many people think it is. You establish your home (a place with many things going on in it), then you take a journey, then you come home again, changed by your experience. In some pieces — the Lenore No. 3 overture would be an obvious example — the narrative is right on the surface, and in fact quite explicit, if you know Fidelio. But it’s always implicit.

      From a postmodern (if you like) view, musicologists like Susan McClary have talked about sonata form in other tangible, real-life ways. The fine points are always there, like Mozart, in the “easy” C major piano sonata starting the recapitulation in the subdominant, instead of the tonic. I can imagine Mozart having drinks (or playing billiards) with some musician friends, and telling them what fun he had staging the recapitulation that way.

      But any composer, putting music together, in any genre, makes musical choices, and is intrigued by them. If you’ve ever read Alec Wilder’s classic book on American popular songs, you’ll see him getting ecstatic about formal details, like the way a song moves in and out of the bridge. But none of that ever stopped people from loving those songs.

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