Still room in my online writing course

I’m ready to teach an online course in how to talk and write about music. As I blogged here earlier!

The course will be based on the one I’m teaching this fall at Juilliard. Adapted as needed to what the people who work with me want to learn. Among those who’ve signed up so far, we have one strongly interested in criticism, and one in blogging. But I’m also prepared to work on bios, press releases, and program notes. And on how to describe music in speech! One thing we’ll do is listen to music, and immediately describe how it sounds. I’ve done this a lot in the Juilliard course, and students find they get better at finding words to describe what they hear. Very useful in chamber music rehearsals, and, for that matter, in board meetings — if, let’s say, you’re on the board on a musical organization, and have to comment on performances, on the work of a music director candidate, or on a composer your group might commission.

Contact me if you’re interested. I’ll teach the course in three sessions, 90 minutes each. The same format as my branding workshops. For just $200. Which, quite honestly, I think is a bargain!


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  1. Don McKee says

    What can you teach me about icecream that will help me to enjoy it more than I do already?

    • says

      A dairy — one of the last surviving dairies in Orange County, NY — opened a creamery near my home in Warwick, where they sell terrific ice cream. If I had time to study this, I’d be curious to know what they went through in starting this new business. How did they learn to make good ice cream? Did they hire consultants? Did they hire someone full time to be in charge of their ice cream? How do they decide which flavors to offer? Why is my favorite, cherry vanilla, only offered during the late summer and early fall?

      Thinking about this now-beloved local company made me realize how much I don’t know about ice cream. What makes it good? What makes different brands taste different? Why is Haagen-Dazs vanilla my perpetual favorite, even more than the simpler, purer vanilla in the Haagen-Dazs “Five” series? Why does Ben and Jerry’s vanilla not even compare, even though I love their complicated flavors?

      I’m a very casual ice cream lover, but there’s a lot I’d love to learn about it.

      • Don Mckee says

        “What makes it good?” There is more knowledge in a single taste of ice cream than in all that could ever be said about it. There is more knowledge in hearing, simply, a great symphony than in all that could ever be said about it. Whether in the case of ice cream or music, it is a segmentation of that which is mysteriously, even categorically, greater than the sum of its parts.

        This matter of feeling vs. thinking recurred to me during some of the recent furor between Jackie Evancho’s fans and some of her classically oriented critics. It seems clear that classical fans are generally more articulate and intellectually involved with their music. However, it also seems clear that the experiences of many Jackie fans, as well as the fans of other genres, have been so dramatically moving for their being less hindered by the prejudice of accumulated learning, by the lack of technical knowledge, and for their being related to a profoundly intimate non-verbal category of knowing. I believe there is a good case to be made for experiencing classical music in a more fundamental way, with less regard for the influence of prior knowledge, the distraction of thought, and the need, or even the ability, to explain. How is it that an ordinary person can be moved so deeply by a Beethoven symphony, for instance? Surely, there is a deep parity or mutuality in the relationship between composer, performer and listener, for all of us. When we experience the separate, intellectually described elements as a singularity, a symbiosis, that experience will be purer, more impassioned, and certainly more mysterious.

        Isn’t there something to be said for experiencing classical music in a kind of vacuum of ‘unknowing’, as if hearing it for the first time? Could an effort to become more literate with regard to other genres be seen as an attempt to approach their music, and their fans, in the context of that which is more characteristic of the classical culture? Is it possible that in presenting oneself as more literate regarding other genres you will discourage even more of those who might otherwise be tempted to sample the treasures of classical music? While this should not be approached as a case of ‘either/or between ‘knowledge’ and ‘feeling’, it can be approached as a matter of changing emphasis, of shifting the balance in a measured way, toward ‘feeling’, and toward less filtered experiences. This is a proposition for the kind of balance you tend to see in the less formal, more popular genres.

        Perhaps the urge to gain more literacy about other genres is not as important as the need to experience and feel such music on a plane other than a primarily ‘cerebral’ one. Could it be that immersing oneself in ‘feeling’ is more important with regard to other music, than ‘understanding’ it? You could be encouraging people to do exactly this with appropriately selected classical music. While these potential converts might resist learning about classical music, they might well be open to the opportunity to ‘know classical’ in a less mediated way, by simply giving it a listen. Look at the more demonstrative audience reactions in the other genres. Classical audiences often ‘appear’ to function primarily as dress up opportunities for ladies, who are often accompanied by men who look like they would rather be almost anywhere else. Maybe this is largely a misconception derived from a long history of stereotyping, but, as you have already indicated, one underestimates the importance of perception at ones’ own peril.

        This explains some of the audience reactions to Jackie Evancho’s performances. Some of the `feely’ types had a more visceral, emotional response to them, being less encumbered by the intellect and its tools of explanation. Hence, they found themselves unable to explain their experiences without resort to gushing sentimentality fueled primarily by the strength of their ‘feelings’ over what they saw and heard. On the other hand, those whose experiences were more thought imbued and shaped by previously accumulated knowledge and expectations, found the gushing sentimentality of Jackie’s fans, to be evidence of their lack of qualification to even take part in the discussion. This is not to provoke even more of this rancorous, not to mention silly, discussion with regard to Ms. Evancho. For the fair-minded, there is much to criticize on both sides. I use her example here, because, for me, it presents such an ideal illustration of this dichotomy between feeling and thinking.

        Is it possible that efforts to become more literate about other music will work contrary to the more the important need to spend more time experiencing it through a less intellectual, less constrained kind of perception? What is wrong with asking those of other genres to ‘feel’ and to ‘taste’ classical music without adding the potential, or even likely, intimidation of urging them to ‘learn’ as opposed to taste or to feel? Here, one side has more ‘understanding’ of music, while the other side has a more emotional connection with it. (Yes, I know, there is a lot of generalizing here!) When you consider what is at stake, it is the classical crowd that will have to make the accommodations. Everyone else is doing fine.

        All that is suggested here is some movement away from thinking, toward feeling, away from judgment, toward sentiment, and away from what we like to believe is objectivity, toward the subjective. It is a matter of giving oneself to the music rather than taking the music in terms of how others think it should be presented or taken. There is nothing wrong with listening to classical music in exactly the same spirit with which we take our wine or our ice cream. It only matters that it ‘tastes’ (feels) good. I take a deliberately meditative approach toward music by engaging it with a more collected and empty mind. For many of us, more intellectual involvement risks the kiss death for a less mediated, more heartfelt experience. The notion that I should feel obliged to learn more about ice cream in order to increase my enjoyment of it, is alien to me. One is a matter of knowing ‘about’ ice cream, the other a matter ‘knowing’ ice cream. Again, it’s a matter of ‘balance’ and ‘change of direction’. Of course, we cannot ‘stop’ thinking any more than we can completely ignore our feelings.

        Here, l paraphrase a 13th century German mystic who spoke of matters other than music:

        ‘For they know about music but they do not Know Music.’

        ‘Let go of music for the sake of Music.’

        ‘Listen to Music without a why.’

        ‘Music’s exit is her entrance’.

        ‘The most beautiful thing a person can say about Music would be for that person to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth …so be quiet and quit flapping your gums about Music.’