And today my Juilliard course started. This is a graduate course about music criticism that I’ve been teaching for many years. You can read the same course overview the students get, and the same class schedule. On which you’ll find all the assignments, with links, so you can sample the reading and listening the students will do.
I have to say that the response I got to this on Facebook really warmed my heart. Students who took the course said how much they’d liked it. And others wished they’d taken a course like this. One critic I’ve known for ages (are we really that old, Peter?), who’s now a teacher, asked if he could use a guide I wrote on how to write a review. I wrote it with only my students in mind. Hadn’t expected anyone to say they hadn’t seen anything like it.
Critics and criticism — big topics. I always begin any course I teach by asking the students why they’re interested in taking it, and the response this time included both some skepticism about critics, and some thoughts about what musicians can learn from them. One student wonders if it’s even possible to describe music in words, which he’s certainly not the first one to question.
If you follow the links, you’ll see that we read George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, as well as the critics writing now for the New York Times. Each week, one student brings in a Times review, and discusses it. (I’ve also encouraged them to bring my wife’s reviews from the Washington Post. Promising to hear any criticisms of her with a completely open mind!)
We also read rock and jazz reviews, and, above all, we work on the simple — or not so simple — act of talking about music.
So here’s what I think was the main thing I did in class today. I played a piece in a highly unusual style, that it’s unlikely any of the students would know. And I asked them to describe what they heard. (I’m not saying what the piece was, because I’m likely to use it again, and want to be sure the students are surprised.)
Because they don’t know the music, they start from square one in describing it. A good exercise! Among much else, it was fascinating to see how the students said both objective things, and subjective things — they’d describe the sound of the piece, for instance, but one student started by saying he liked it, and another started by saying it frightened him.
One lesson in that: to be useful, a review — or a simple description of the piece, of the kind you might make if you talked to a friend — has to be both objective and subjective. You won’t get far if you don’t describe some simple facts, like whether the piece was fast or slow, loud or soft, repetitious or highly varied. What did it sound like?
But then, having stated all that, your readers (or your friend) will want to know what you thought of it. Especially if the piece sounds really unusual. “Never heard anything like that before! Did you like it?”
And a really good critic — a really good writer — finds ways to mix the objective and subjective comments together, so you get a unified view of what the experience of hearing the piece was really like.