Hard to believe I’ve been teaching there that long! Starting in the spring of 1997, with the first edition of my flagship graduate course on the future of classical music. Or, as it’s called at the school, “Breaking Barriers: Classical Music in an Age of Pop.”
In the fall, I teach “Speaking of Music: How to Talk and Write About It.” Beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, September 5. Here’s the course overview, and here’s the week by week class schedule, with links to all assignments.
What we do in the course: work on describing music in words. And study and practice career-oriented writing, artist bios, program notes, and press releases. We also craft an elevator pitch — a 30-second take on who each student is as a musician, designed to make people care about what they do. So people will want to hear them play or sing, and to book them for concerts.
More on what we do
Originally this was a course about music criticism, but by 2011, we noticed enrollment falling off, I’d guess because students weren’t reading newspapers much, and weren’t reading critics. Entrepreneurship, though, was building up steam at Juilliard, and of course at other conservatories. So we thought we’d link the course to entrepreneurship, and thus the press releases, bios, program notes, and elevator pitch.
But we still read critics, because they show us — either well or badly! — how music can be described in words. I have to say I love this part of the course, the part where we work on finding words to convey what we hear. We work on that each week, not just by reading critics, but by trying our best to find words for some music I bring to class and play.
That music varies widely — classical, pop, jazz, world music. I’ve even brought in a bird song (the lovely song of the wood thrush). The idea isn’t to be fancy, but to talk as if we were talking to a friend, telling the friend what the music (or the bird song) was like. And also whether we liked it or not, or why.
What we learn
I try to teach two important lessons. First, that descriptions need to be objective. We have to report musical facts in an factual way. We can also be subjective, saying how the music made us feel. But that has to be tied to something objective, so someone else can see why we felt the way we did.
And then second, we should say whether we liked the music or didn’t, but that this should be tied to something objective. “I didn’t like that performance because the strings sounded too rough.” Which then grounds our reaction in the world we share with other people, who — if they heard the music — could decide that for them the roughness in the strings was a good thing, because the players sounded involved and excited.
Here’s what I’m playing in the first class: The slow movement from the John Cage String Quartet in Four Parts, as performed in an old recording (the first I ever heard of the piece) by the Concord String Quartet. Listen here, if you like. And if you want to join in, post a comment with your own description of the music. Let’s see what some of you come up with, and I’ll compare it with what the students said in class.