Postmortem I

As I noted in my inaugural post, Fall 2010 was to be my first opportunity to teach Writing About Music, a course I co-developed with a colleague along similar lines to the Writing About Music course I took as an undergraduate. Now that the smoke has cleared (cough, cough), I thought to post some reflections (cough) about the way we approached the course, and a few of the successes and failures (cough!), in the hope that something of what follows might be useful to colleagues around and outside of CUNY. Think of it as a walk-through … maybe inspired by CUNY’s recent PESH violations, and the risk assessment walk-throughs we just finished at my campus. So, get on a pair of comfortable shoes, and give your back a streeeeeeeetch …

Course organization

The Writing About Music course I took as an undergraduate was structured modally, and in developing the Hostos course my colleague (Prof Tere Justicia) and I made an early decision to follow a similar model. The course is thus more writing- (and listening-) than reading-focused; in some ways it feels closer to the “workshop” model of a creative writing class than to the lit surveys usually taught at this level.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a description, narrative, technical analysis, imitation, and performance review, a voice-based revision of the review, a free assignment, and a free response to music criticism (I may be forgetting one). For the original version of our course, we replaced the technical analysis and imitation with a compare-contrast and a research paper, and ripped out the free assignment. When I revised the course for its second run, I replaced the voice-based revision with an argument. The research paper, which asked students to contextualize a historically significant album or piece of music, was submitted in chapters over the course of the semester, to be revised and resubmitted as a final project. Students also engaged in informal writing during class and on a Blackboard-based blog.


Because the course is focused on music as a text for inquiry and writing as a process for inquiry, the question, “What to read?” loomed large from the beginning. First, Prof Justicia and I never intended to teach a class on music and culture. There is actually an excellent textbook by a Hunter colleague, Anna Tomasino, called Music and Culture, published by Pearson. Although I appreciate the utility of themes such as race, gender, and economics for writing about music, and adopted some of these for my last formal assignment, they were not the focus of the course we envisioned and designed.

Conversely, I was not teaching (nor would I be qualified to teach) a class in music appreciation. As a result, the excellent music appreciation textbook Prof Justicia adopted for the course’s first run, Musical Encounters, by David Nichols, did not seem suited to the course as I wanted to teach it. True, the basic information about music theory and practice would have been helpful (more on this later). The text’s accompanying CD is exemplary, as are the listening guides. But in an English course where writing is the focus, and fifteen weeks is all we have, my feeling was that this text went too far afield into music history, theory and culture … and said almost nothing about how to write about this odd beast called music.

Finally, there are a couple of academic press books on the market specifically for writing about music, which I found either disappointing or ill-suited to the HCC student body. Richard Wingell’s Writing About Music is largely a guide to writing a research paper with a short introduction about music. The other, A Short Guide to Writing About Music, by Jonathan Bellman, was much closer to what I was looking for, and reading it helped me strategize about how to approach my own course. In the end, however, perhaps because it seeks to appeal to students at different levels, the book contained too much that was irrelevant to my course (such as the sections dedicated to critical theory and to technical analysis) and was too research-handbook oriented to be a good fit.

Finding “the right book” can be a porridge-too-hot/too-cold exercise in futility. So, inspired by my own college writing-about-music experience with Dr John Spitzer, whose bibliography I shamelessly raided, and with the help of intrepid writing fellows & musicology students like Mr David Pier (formerly at the GC; commented on an early version of the syllabus) and Ms Angelina Tallaj (currently at the GC; worked with me throughout the semester, Robin to my Batman, or probably the reverse), I decided to play the bricoleur and assemble my own readings. After all, the world of academic publishing presents us with the fantasy that we’re all engineers, and they can fashion our perfect tools. But every teacher knows that we’re really bricoleurs, and proud of it, regardless of whether we adopt a textbook or cobble one together.

Finding words

Writing about music tends to go in one of two directions. Either it is technical and analytical, which presupposes an academic musical background, or it is poetic and imagistic. I think the best writing about music tries to strike a balance between these two tendencies: it uses technical language sparingly, in such a way that the lay reader is both hailed and challenged, and it uses image and metaphor both imaginatively and precisely—that is, focusing on what is happening in the music. Good writing, then, requires good listening. Finally, because of the subject’s abstractness, music writing demands (and I think rewards) familiarity with a range of music, and to an even greater degree, with a store of cultural capital with which to think analogically. That abstractness is why so many music-oriented humanities classes tend to focus on history or biography or culture: they serve as a variety of mirrors, shields that permit us to look into the music’s Medusan face without turning to stone.

So, the challenge. Even after a year of college—imagine!—students come into a class like Writing About Music with limited vocabularies, little to no technical background about music, and little in the way of easily-accessible cultural capital. (I don’t just mean “culture” in the Western, Great-Tradition sense: I mean their own cultures.) As such, they have an excessive tendency to fall back on describing their emotional response to music, and to describe it in the most clichéd, vague terms. It’s not that the emotional response to music isn’t valid. It’s that they can neither describe these emotional states (what Aaron Copland, in one of our first readings, calls “the expressive plane” of listening) with any sort of nuance or depth, nor can they connect those emotional states to what is happening in the music (for Copland, “the sheerly musical plane”). So much of good writing about music is about finding precise words to describe a sound, or an emotional state, or a relation, or a mental image.

So, after an initial reflection about music, which invited students to write about the simple prompt “what does music mean to you?” (as gleaned, on Mr Pier’s recommendation, from the book My Music, together with some representative responses for class discussion) in very much the vague, general, emotion-drenched terms described above, the goal for the first several weeks was to begin to move them beyond this. Again, not entirely. And not only because we took music as our subject: it could be argued that this class is “developmental” in the sense that, unlike reading skills, which I could hazard students had spent a year improving, I could not assume that students came into Writing About Music equally prepared to listen, or knowing anything about how to effectively translate that listening into language.

Our models and advice came from Copland and Jacques Barzun, from Alex Ross and Whitney Balliett; our listenings, Earl Hines and Igor Stravinsky. We examined the vocabulary the writers used, where the language becomes poetic or technical, how elements of genre and biography help contextualize or ground a description. But of everything we did leading up to the first assignment—a 2-3 page description of a piece of recorded music of their choice—the most productive was an in-class group exercise on finding words. It was simple: I put together a mix of short pieces from different cultures and genres (Ms Tallaj suggested an emphasis on vocal music, which I followed); I played each 2 or so minute piece twice, the second time more quietly; all the groups did was try to find words to describe what they were hearing. They were invited to use a dictionary and thesaurus, and even their goddamn f&@!ing phone, to look up synonyms for the bland words that first popped into their minds; they were invited to find not just adjectives, but nouns and verb (parts of speech matter so much, as Virgil Thompson reminded us). My only regret is that I didn’t spend two full class days doing this, instead of just one. For the assignment itself, I privileged specificity above all else. I wanted to know what was happening in the music, and when it was happening, as best they could describe.

We took a couple of detours in this first unit as well: Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral,” accompanied by three short readings about it, and paintings by Monet, Turner, and Redon; a one-week unit on jazz poetry. My intention was to give students a range of strategies for approaching music in language, as well as some intellectual fodder for thinking about the relationship between image, music, and text. (One of the “Cathedral” descriptions actually resorts to sketching church arches, and compares them to how the score looks from a distance! It was not a great piece of writing, but maybe better than any other dramatized the challenges of the task at hand.) Anyway, the problem here is probably self-evident: way too much in too little time, particularly for the jazz poetry, which should become a unit in its own right.

My intention for the second assignment/unit was for students to build on the skills practiced in the description paper by comparing two pieces of music. I settled on the idea of “cover versions” because I figured these would provide clear similarities and differences between easily-approachable pieces.

We began by listening to a few different versions of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Tokens, etc.) and discussing the similarities and differences between them. This was intended as a platform for the weekend listening on which the formal assignment was based. Although the “Lion” lesson was moderately successful, given the students’ level and time limitations, I think it would have been better to focus the entire unit’s listening around the songs they were assigned to compare in the formal essay. Of the five possible pairs, the most popular was the two versions of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and Cake, followed by “Imagine” by John Lennon and A Perfect Circle. (Interestingly, despite the large number of Hispanic students, no one chose to write about The Beatles Cubanos!) Ms Tallaj designed the excellent assignment, which included two creative choices: contrasting assessments of the “original” and cover, and a mock interview with the cover band.

Interestingly, the topic of “covering” songs generated heated discussion. Students were fascinated by the aesthetic, economic, and moral implications of “covering” someone else’s song—which is more than a little ironic, given the ubiquity of sampling and “mash-ups” in today’s pop music, to which our discussion and listening eventually turned; but also given the ever-growing problem of plagiarism, which had led me to believe that these cultural shifts were partly responsible for students’ seeming inability to understand what “giving credit” means anymore. Anyway, the blog went nuts on this question, with a few students sticking to the position that great songs should never be covered!

One other note: I’ve found that nothing works for generating animated discussion like giving the students a list of juicy quotes from the readings (in this case, a pair of articles from Popular Music and Society and Crawdaddy) at the beginning of class and asking them to pick one or two to write about for ten minutes. (If you’re unfamiliar with Crawdaddy, look them up on the web; they have an interesting history.)

Music in Context

I haven’t read much in the way of pedagogical theory, but in organizing my courses, I generally strive to begin with some basic skills, and then integrate these into more complex (although potentially more familiar) tasks over the course of a semester. In expository writing, for example, I start with representing ideas (summary, paraphrase, quotation), and then ask students to integrate these into comparative and argumentative essays. (I’m about to throw this model out the window, but never you mind.) I do this because my experience has been that students coming out of high school or a bout with the ACT know how to structure an essay, but have no idea how to write about texts. (This may change a little now, what with the CATW replacing the ACT.) I tried something similar in Writing About Music by beginning with description and compare-contrast, which asked the students to (try to) focus on the music per se, and then having them integrate these listening/writing skills into reviews, stories, and arguments—that is, into the contexts of performance, literature, and music videos. I suppose it will be objected that without context, there is no listening experience, and hence nothing for a student to write about; perhaps even that there is no such thing as “the music itself.” I see the point, and my students’ reactions to jazz seem to bear this out. But there is also something to be said for getting students to “face the music” in whatever way they can—for trying to force something out from under the comfortable folds of context, context, context. Like the description assignment I often do with my developmental writers, which asks students to really look (and listen, and smell, and …) the place they are describing, ideally the music description forces students to really listen to something that they think they already “know.” (By and large students chose music they were well familiar with, but in hindsight it occurs to me that I could add this stipulation to the assignment instructions.) My intention was to pull away the crutches for the first few weeks, and then hand them back halfway through the semester and say, “Yes, but look at how well you can walk!” True, they might have been limping, and more than a few fell right on their butts; but at least they were trying things they wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

We stepped out of compare-contrast into performance using the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. I thought it would make a nice transition for a couple of reasons: because of the extraodinary number of versions that have been recorded over the years, from salsa to disco to all manner of parody; and because it begs questions about ideology, sublimity, and transcendence, raised in the readings by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Lester Bangs, E.M. Forster, and Virgil Thompson. The first of the two assigned Thompson reviews was meant as a linchpin: Thompson hears a martial performance of the Fifth in 1945 and connects the interpretation of the piece with the historical moment. The goal was for students to be able to look backwards (to ideas about “covers” or “interpretations” of a classic piece of music) and forwards (to the role of performance in music-making).

If any assignment failed last semester, it was the performance review. Here it was an issue of the chefs trying to get too creative with what should have been a relatively straightforward assignment, which resulted in a few gems and a lot of nicely-detailed botches. That admitted, let me focus on a couple of things I thought did work. (Don’t worry, I’ll liberally salt a few wounds at the end of the post.) First, I “outlined” a review of an Aventura concert from the New York Times using the “Comment” feature on Word, and then asked students to do the same with a review that they found on their own—this by way of giving them some viable models for how to approach the assignment. The other thing that worked well here was an in-class exercise where students met in groups to answer questions about excerpts of two performances we watched in class: Glenn Gould performing the Goldberg variations, and Tito Puente’s band in Calle 54. The point was to get students noticing different aspects of performance, which would serve as a template for gathering material for the formal assignment.

For the narrative I used a prompt that the fiction writer Ron Carlson once gave to my graduate workshop: “The first time I heard [song title] by [artist], I was with [person] at [place] and we were [doing something].” My original idea had been to give this prompt the first or second day of class as a diagnostic, and then to hand it back with comments later in the semester, to be revised into a formal assignment. It’s a great prompt for two reasons: from a narrative perspective, it forces students into a moment in time, and hence away from the sort of dull abstractions that become a crutch when they try to write a story; from a musical perspective, it automatically connects music, emotional memory, and culture. Anyway, we did draft this one in class; it was traded, extended, turned in, returned, and revised. In the end—and in some cases, from the very beginning—it delivered some of the semester’s best writing: learning to dance salsa with an aunt, getting lost on the way to church, creating hip hop culture and community on the stoops of the Bronx in the ‘80s …

As for reading, I had wanted to give students three stories relating to three different genres or periods of music. “Sonny’s Blues” was a shoe-in, and I confess that we spent every moment of class discussion during the unit on this complex and beautiful story, which (not surprisingly) captivated the students like no other reading this semester. (The other two selections were E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “A Tale of Don Juan” and John Cheever’s “The Music Teacher.” The Cheever story is wonderful, weird and dark, but I doubt I’ll assign it again—I’d rather something contemporary. Suggestions?)

Finally, argument. I thought videos would be a great focus, as it would give students the opportunity to work with visual texts, and think critically about one of the most common modes of delivery for the popular music they listen to. Ms Tallaj was instrumental in getting the material together for this unit, from suggesting vids to coming up with viable readings. We ended up with Juan Luis Guerra’s “A pedir su mano” and Calle 13’s “Pa’l norte,” Matisyahu’s “King Without a Crown,” Madonna’s classic sex vid “Justify My Love,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” the old Aerosmith/Run DMC crossover “Walk This Way,” and a Pepsi commercial to “Forever Young,” the last of these suggested by my colleague at NYU’s Gallatin Center and professional trombonist Greg Erickson. (Confession: I became totally obsessed with Lady Gaga videos for a day or two there; unhappily, I am almost fully recovered.)

I thought the readings worked really well in this unit for their variety and depth. First, a paper about the Matisyahu video by Kevin Holm-Hudson … who, in the small world of popular music scholarship, turns out to be the same Holm-Hudson (is there another?) who edited and introduced an anthology on progressive rock which I’d used in my own scholarly work. The talk discusses Matisyahu’s Rasta-Jewish cultural context, and then analyzes the  “King Without a Crown” video, and so served as a great jumping-off point for thinking about the assignment—that is, about what elements of a video are there to be read: color, dress, motion, visual planes, and narrative content, and how these connect to the music.

The other readings were an article from Popular Music and Society about Caribbean women’s attitudes toward gender in Caribbean popular music (by an old colleague of Ms Tallaj’s at John Jay, Peter Manuel), and a short article by Camille Paglia about Madonna (discovered in Prof. Tomasino’s earlier-discussed reader; many thanks). For the assignment I gave students a few choices. In one, they were asked to write a letter to either Madonna or Lady Gaga arguing that their videos reinforced negative gender stereotypes, and then a second letter from the artist to the writer defending the video/music. (This was inspired by Manuel’s ambivalent conclusions about representations of women in Caribbean popular music; students were invited to draw from his article and/or Paglia’s.) In the other two choices—one a formal argument, the other a dialogue—students considered the theme of “crossing” as it appeared in the songs and videos, whether in terms of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, genre, generations, or national boundaries. Should I be surprised that most students chose to write the letters … or that the best papers addressed one of the other two choices?

Reflections & regrets

A few things occur to me. The first is that I was not assiduous enough in the second half of the semester making sure that students carried over and honed the listening and writing skills they had begun acquiring in the first half of the semester. In the future, I will have to set some specific requirements regarding those skills in the assignment instructions. That may seem like a no-brainer; but a new course tends to pull one in many different directions, and sometimes one finds oneself putting out so many other fires that the one in the boiler room gets neglected.

Second, misgivings about the role of the readings. I’ve always been a stickler about college writing being writing about readings. Every other sophomore-level elective I regularly teach (if once every couple of years counts as regularly), like Latin American Literature and Studies in Fiction, is focused entirely on writing about readings. But in those five formal essays, which amount to half their grade, students did almost no writing where they were asked to engage with readings. Only the research paper provided that opportunity. I salve my conscience with the idea that this is a different class, that it is in some ways closer to teaching a writing workshop than literature, that it is doing all sorts of other important things … and yet, I still can’t rid myself of the idea that I failed my students on a very basic level for a sophomore-level English course because they didn’t really write about readings!

Third is the very sticky subject of student preparation. My students last semester ranged from a few immensely talented and self-motivated writers to those with almost no facility with English who had somehow managed to pass their two first-year writing courses. In terms of musical background, there were students who had played professionally and students who could not name a single instrument in a small-group ensemble. There were also several students who, at the beginning of the semester, had never been to a live musical performance. Prof Justicia raised similar issues after teaching the course for the first time, and some of my revisions were intended to address these disparities. Altogether, it raises the question of whether an introductory music class should be a pre- or co-requisite for the course. The question then becomes whether in a community college like Hostos we could get sufficient enrollment to run it, and if not, whether we need to re-tool the course to accommodate the reality of the institution. There is also the possibility of working with the Humanities department, and particularly our rapidly-growing Digital Music program, on recruitment. More on this as we move forward.

Fourth is the issue of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. As I’ve alluded to a couple of times, this was an overloaded course—not in terms of the total amount of writing or reading, but in terms of the diversity of tasks built into each unit. I had to make some adjustments for that over the course of the semester, but more remains to be done. I like the idea of students applying skills and ideas to a new text as a means of scaffolding; but for such a difficult (albeit attractive) subject, I think that students could use more focus on the formal assignment itself from the beginning of each two to three week unit. That means no jazz poetry unless I cut an entire other unit and rearrange the course, no “Lion Sleeps Tonight” unless it becomes the subject of the formal assignment, and so on.

Finally, I want to work on putting themes up front. This is a modally-organized class, at least as it is currently conceived, and I think there are advantages to this in terms of clarity of tasks and close attention to writing. At the same time, in the readings and in our listening experiences, a few themes kept cropping up: the romantic and sublime; secular and spiritual music; ideology, appropriation and creativity; culture and memory. Listing some “big questions” on the course syllabus, as is done on the syllabi for the ESL intensive program I’m currently teaching in, and trying to loop back to these questions at every opportunity in discussion, should help to weld the semester together in a way that the disparate tasks and diverse musics students engaged with over the course of the semester didn’t.


In a second, shorter installment, maybe a few months hence, I will go over the elements of the class I have not had a chance to discuss yet: the research paper and the listening blog, as well as how listening was integrated into the semester. But this is enough for now. I need to take five. By the way, I’m happy to share syllabus, assignments, etc.

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