How to talk and write about music

That’s what my Juilliard course this semester is about. And it’s what the course should be called, though this year we adopted a title that’s a hybrid of what the course used to be and what it is now: “Music Criticism: How to Talk About Music.”

Because for many years this was a course about music criticism. But then two things happened. First, fewer and fewer students seemed interested in criticism. I might guess that’s because they — like so many people under 40 — don’t read newspapers, and thus don’t encounter music reviews. But as my students this year have told me, it may also be because students, rightly or wrongly, don’t have much respect for critics, and aren’t very interested in what they might say. (A feeling magnified, of course, if you aren’t reading critics regularly.)

And then the second thing that happened was Juilliard’s emphasis on entrepreneurship, which is new this year. Of course Juilliard follows in the footsteps of other schools, which have had entrepreneurship programs for a while.  I’ve on the committee which is planning Juilliard’s evolving program, and no wonder, then, that I thought my course should be part of it.

So I remade the course. I’ve always emphasized talking about music, and we’ve always spent a lot of time on that. I play music every week in class, and ask the students to describe it. Then we work to refine their descriptions, so that they’re true to what the students hear and feel, and also understandable to those who haven’t heard the music.

This year, I’m using music critics as examples of how to do that. Of course they’re writing, not talking, but the same principles apply. You just have more time to think how to apply them when you’re writing.

And I’ve expanded the course to cover artists’ bios, press releases, program notes, and blogs. These all are important ways that music gets written about. And they’re writing that my students might well do, or have done for them. And should have opinions about! That is, musicians shouldn’t simply accept a bio that a manager or publicist writes for them. They should know what they want their bios to say.

It’s clear how this is entrepreneurial. In an emerging classical music culture where people increasingly make their own careers, you need to take control of — well, your branding, how you’re presented to the world. This course deals with one part of that.

I gave a link earlier, which goes to the week by week class schedule, complete with links to all assignments. (Except for a few I haven’t decided on  yet.) You can also look at the course overview, to get a larger idea of what I’m doing. I think it’s an important course.

Last year, when I talked about the criticism course (as it was then), a number of people said they’d love to take it. So this year I’d like to make that possible. I can teach the course online, in a format much like my branding workshops. Three 90-minute sessions for $200, though I’ll need a critical mass of five or six people to sign up before I can begin.

Let me know if you’re interested! We’ll read some top-class older music critics, George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, as well as some reviews I’ll choose from current writers. We’ll look at novelists who write about music in special, evocative ways. We’ll look at bios, press releases, and program notes. If anyone would like to write these things — or write reviews, or do any other kind of music-related writing — I’ll look at what you write (and give extensive comments) for an extra fee.

If we have time — I haven’t mapped out the sessions yet — we’ll look at blogs, and rock criticism, which isn’t like classical criticism: the critics emerge in their writing as full personalities, and the writing talks about the meaning and effect of the music, not just (as most commonly in classical criticism) purely musical details,

Look at my course, and if you’d like to take it, contact me.

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  1. says

    Fine plan for your course, Greg — I’m doing “Writing about the Arts” at NYU this semester, along the same lines but multi-discipline criticism (or entrepreneurial writing), obviously — and I’ve just lectured about bio writing for the New School Jazz program. You’re right that many students are not reading criticism, and the question then is how or if criticism will continue. And not just arts criticism, but critical thinking, a sceptical, inquisitive, probing approach. I hope you’ll speak to their interests, and stimulate their thinking.

    • says

      Thanks so much. Looking forward to your email. As I said in response to another comment, I’ve got two people besides yourself interested so far. Two more, and we’re ready to go. Looking ahead to that, when you email, would you give me a rough idea of when you’re available in November? Might as well get a ballpark idea of scheduling right now, because from doing my branding workshops, I’ve learned that scheduling a group of busy people is a lot harder than teaching them!

      It’ll be interesting to see what people who take the course will want to learn. One of the others interested seems to focus on criticism, the other (if I’m understanding her correctly) on blogging. What would your interest be? I can shape the course to fit many needs.