Postmortem II

In my previous Writing About Music semester postmortem (3.13.11) I promised a second, shorter installment dedicated to two aspects of the class I ran out of energy to address: the listening blog and the research paper. Said installment never materialized, and now I find myself with a second semester under my belt, and a great deal to say about new lessons and new materials, what worked and what crashed. On the other hand, I have a lot less to say about the history, philosophy, and organization of the class. So, with a little luck, I will get to say something about the research paper. A reflection on the tribulations of using blogs, which I presented on at a WAC meeting this past May, will probably require its own post(mortem).

Course re-organization

Fall 2010’s (F10) Writing About Music was organized with the intent of moving students from close listening to considering music in context (performance, literature, videos). For the Spring 2012 (S12) semester, I largely kept this model. On the macro-level, the first two-thirds of the semester stayed basically the same: description, comparison-contrast, and performance review. (For bare-bones descriptions of the assignments associated with these units, see the original post.) However, since I was concerned that the F10 semester was overloaded, particularly in the all-important unit on description, I moved the music/image and jazz poetry segments to the last third of the semester, which I revamped to examine crosscurrents between music, literature, and the visual arts. Here, jazz poetry and tone painting, which had cluttered the description unit in F10, seemed like they might find a more suitable home. One of the goals of the course (still!) is to build on students’ introductory knowledge of the humanities, not only by introducing them to sounds and styles with which they are likely unfamiliar—how can I forget that it was my own Writing About Music teacher who introduced me to Steve Reich?—but by inviting them to think about these sounds and styles in broader cultural, artistic, and historical frameworks.

And, somehow, make them better writers along the way.

Sadly, restructuring the last 5 weeks meant dropping music videos—a unit I look forward to building back into the course at some point in the future.

Intro and description: new materials and methods

One reading that had actually been in the “maybe” pile since F10 was Leonard Bernstein’s Introduction to The Joy of Music. I’m glad I tried it out; it’s a perfect complement to Jacques Barzun’s “Music Into Words.” Bernstein sets the writing-about-music bar impossibly high: it is either for the specialist, or it is entirely unhelpful; only artists of the caliber of Thomas Mann have any hope of succeeding. Barzun takes the opposite, empirical view: How can we say music cannot be put into words when no one can leave a concert hall without striking up a conversation? Indeed, maybe music must be transformed into words if it is to be fully appreciated. Somewhere between these poles of the necessary and the impossible lies the craft that we will spend the next fifteen weeks investigating. (Here, by the way, lies a clue to a damn good final exam … but more about this in a postmortem-to-be.)

I used Aaron Copland again to lead us into listening. And here already I arrive at a moment of Bernsteinian angst. First, a caveat: probably every teacher thinks that, if they could just fix the first few weeks of a semester, if he or she somehow frontloaded a course properly, the students would be miraculously better by the end. In a few weeks, one is supposed to make up for a dozen years of underfunded schools, standardized testing, parents who don’t read, and a culture that massively undervalues education. That said, one of the goals of this course is to improve not just students’ writing, but their listening—to improve each via the other, if possible. What I am coming to realize is just how crucial the 2-3 week description unit is to the rest of the semester. As for Copland and Barzun, the little practical wisdom they dispense about writing about music is only marginally helpful. For what I want most of all (as I noted in “Postmortem”) is for students to be concrete and specific: to become more conscious of what they are hearing, and then to try to find adequate language to describe it.

One of the reasons I am so much looking forward to the F12 semester is to consolidate the gains I began making in this unit last spring. Together with the more scattershot listening and describing exercise from F10, I drafted worksheets to help students (1) connect elements of music and some very basic technical vocabulary to “word palettes” they develop on their own or in small groups, and (2) interrogate the song of their choice in order to connect the vocabulary-building worksheet with the assignment at hand. I also spent part of a class going over basic song structure, a lesson which I adapted from my experience sitting in on music theory courses (thanks, Chad). Finally, I now have a useful student model for the assignment—I did get a few great descriptions back in F10, but as anyone who has tried their hand at developing grading rubrics knows, sometimes the best student essays are not the most useful models.

Why the focus on listening? For one thing, most of my students—including some of those with strong academic preparation—are developmental listeners. Everything is about “the beats,” a term that seems to encompass the totality of musical expression. While for a relatively literate listener “the beats” probably connotes melody, harmony, and tone color as much as rhythm (as, to a certain extent, it must), to many others it seems to mean just what it did to the audience members on American Bandstand. It’s enough to make me wonder what they do hear. Perhaps it’s just a question of degree, some of them as alien to me (and I to them) on one end of the spectrum as the saxophone player who asks the pianist what happened to the thirteenth in that B flat chord is on the other. Or maybe, as has been suggested, what they are not hearing in melody and harmony is compensated for by an evolved perception of other elements, such as timbre. And yet, to some degree they must be appreciating melody, harmony, and structure; they are just not necessarily conscious of these things. My one older student from last semester, who sings in a gospel choir, and who quite innocently asked me one day what I meant by melody—a question for which, I confess, I was entirely unprepared—clearly knows what melody is, whether she can articulate it or not—the definition, I mean; not the melody. (As the eminent music essayist D.F. Tovey once wrote, “It will be my object [in his book Beethoven] to convince the most general reader that, ever since he became fond of music at all, he has enjoyed tonality whether he knew it or not, just as Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain, found that he had been talking prose his whole life without knowing it.”) Thus, from a listening perspective, the issue seems twofold: (1) making students aware of what they are hearing already, as we do with the elements of literature in other English classes, and (2) refining the organs of perception and cognition, so that this consciousness extends to more subtle aspects of music.

New lessons in comparison and performance

Since the comparison-contrast assignment on covers and originals draws heavily on the skills students begin developing in the description unit, refining the latter will, I hope, improve the results on the former, which were as mixed as in F10, this despite following my own advice to use more class time for small-group work on song pairs. Assignment aside, I did incorporate a new lesson into this unit which was quite useful in illustrating one of the more important concepts of the course.

One goal of the compare-contrast unit is to dramatize the way changes in music change meaning. Students seem to labor under the assumption that all meaning is carried by lyrics, and therefore, so long as the words are the same, the song “says” the same thing. For the lesson, I used two versions of “Born in the U.S.A.,” one the hit song everybody knows, the other the lesser-known version demoed during the recording of Springsteen’s previous album, Nebraska. I got the idea to do this from reading 33 Revolutions a Minute, a history of protest songs by Guardian critic Dorian Lynskey (thanks to Prof. Gerald Meyer, who gave me the book as a gift). As my reader may be aware, the hit version of “Born” is an example of a song where music and lyrics—and to a certain extent, verse and chorus—clash. Since many people have a hard time understanding the words beyond the chest-thumping chorus, it is difficult to hear the song as anything but a patriotic anthem, this though the verses are deeply critical of American myths of opportunity and equality. I began the lesson by playing the song, and then asked for reactions: both what students thought the overall message or feel of the song was, and how the music served to create it. After this, I distributed the lyrics, which we read and discussed as a class—the students remarking, of course, on the difference between what the words seemed to be saying and the feeling created by the music. (One student did present the interesting alternative that the rousing chorus was meant to show the protagonist retained his fighting spirit despite all the obstacles—an ideal “U.S.A.” that lies beyond the powers the song criticizes. In this reading, the song becomes patriotic in its dissent.) After this, I played the Nebraska version—solo guitar and voice. The reaction from the class was quite dramatic—how different was this protagonist and what he wanted to us to understand about his trials, and about his perceptions of his homeland, from the other! Finally, I handed out a passage from the Lynskey, where he calls the song “a Trojan horse with the door jammed shut”—a wonderfully pregnant allusion to unpack.

The point, then, is that music impacts, curves—potentially even undermines—how we understand words. Now, if students leave the class feeling this in their bones, then perhaps I actually accomplished something. But I have the suspicion that, for many, the Springsteen lesson did not extend beyond that day. I say this because many still ended their compare-contrast essays with the assertion that their cover songs had not changed the meaning of the original … because, after all, the lyrics were the same. Instead, they tended to want to tell me whether or not they liked the cover version—which the assignment didn’t care a fig about—or express their outrage over the way a cover corrupted the original’s intention—as though the whole point of the cover (at least, the good cover) weren’t to revise, rather than to memorialize, said intention. One project for F12, then, is to weld shut the connection between the Springsteen lesson and the cover songs assignment. (Was it music, I wonder, that had prompted such a visceral response? Or was it the ingrained habit, which I also try to burn out of my composition students, of thinking analysis is solely about saying whether or not they liked something?)

The other new lesson I want to share came up in the performance unit. My F10 students found Virgil Thompson’s review of a 1945 performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony extremely difficult. Thompson’s purpose is to explore the way the historical moment inflects how a piece of music is interpreted, and, in times of crisis, distorts the composer’s intention, or at least Thompson’s understanding of it. With the covers songs, students had already been asked to consider the way history inflects meaning. My goal now was to build on this by exploring how artist, audience, and history interact to create meaning in the context of performance.

Before discussing the Thompson, I showed two videos of performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: Whitney Houston’s at the Superbowl at the beginning of the first Gulf War, and Jimi Hendrix’s at Woodstock. Students were by and large very good at picking out musical and visual clues, connecting them to the two events, wars, and eras, and parsing the differences between them. Armed with this example, I thought the class was better able to get a grasp of Thompson’s point about World War II’s impact on Beethoven. (Thompson aside, students also wrote some astonishingly interesting blog posts about the national anthem—so much so that I’m thinking of beginning this lesson in F12 with some informal writing about their perceptions of the anthem, and about anthems per se.)

If the Thompson went down a little easier in S12, the new companion reading, “Beethoven’s Kapow,” which I culled from Best Music Writing 2011 (though I neglected to highlight it in my review of 1.9.12), was tougher going—but, I thought, a very worthwhile complement. The composer is the same, the work similar, and the themes congruent. What would it have been like, Justin Davidson asks, to be at the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony? And how is listening to the Eroica—and classical music more generally—different in our own historical moment? It was very much a walk-through lesson … but then I think the heavy hand of the instructor can sometimes be very useful for scaffolding a difficult text.

I think it’s pronounced hi-A-tus: the question of reading

In the last several paragraphs I’ve been backing away from the question of reading, so it’s high time I addressed it. Because this is a writing- (and listening-) focused class, some of the same questions about the role of reading in freshman writing courses apply here. On the one hand, the readings can serve as models (e.g., How do I write a performance review?). On the other hand, the readings can help us explore ideas more deeply (e.g., How does the historical moment change how we hear a piece of music?). These are not mutually exclusive functions, of course; but it is difficult to find readings that do both well.* Many of the most thought-provoking readings hide their cards in terms of technique, while good models don’t always have a lot to chew on for big-picture discussion.

And yet, the real problem isn’t lack of models. It’s that, as the course is currently conceived, the assignments (for the most part) don’t address ideas that arise in the readings, leading to a disjointedness between the reading and writing. The performance unit is a good example. Students are assigned to write a performance review; and while it is hoped (!) that the readings will lead them to think in a more nuanced way about performance, discussing Lester Bangs’s meditations on God and technology, or whether the contemporary illiteracy about classical music is an opportunity or a tragedy, does not go very far toward helping them bang out a review. What roles, then, are Bangs, Davidson and Thompson supposed to play?

Enrichment, sure. I’m happy to enrich. It is, or should be, one of the big goals of a liberal education. To a teacher at a senior college, particularly an elite senior college, all this fretting about the ultimate purpose of reading probably sounds idiotic. We’re about opening minds, stoking imaginations, creating opportunities for lifelong learing. All well and good. But for the nontraditional students at a community college, making these sorts of clear links matters. (It matters elsewhere, too; it’s just that better-prepared students can usually be counted on to make those links themselves.) I’m not talking about assessment. Frankly, I wish the whole “culture of assessment”—a phrase invented to give accreditors a hard-on—would find a large, warm, fetid lake to go jump in. But I am talking about facilitating learning for students desperately trying to build a bridge between high school underpreparation and the expectations of a senior college. What this means for reading is that I need to be extraordinarily judicious—moreso than in a literature class, where it is often enough to find a theme and choose five or six books that speak to it and each other—about how to use reading in the class, and how the readings work (or don’t work) with the goals of the individual units.

A corollary: I needn’t feel guilty about having students not read very much during the first five weeks of the semester, when they are better served building skills through hands-on, listening-focused exercises. For the S12 description unit, I piloted two new readings from the 2011 Best Music Writing anthology (“Curiosity Slowdown” and “Making Pop for Capitalist Pigs”). While both had excellent, useful examples of description, these tended to get lost in other verbal fireworks and side issues. I did end up distilling some examples onto a handout, but only after “losing” a class day to discussion. With two semesters of hindsight, it makes more sense to restrict this unit’s reading to, say, five or six meaty passages as models for analysis … plus an excerpt from Stephen King’s “Imagery and the Third Eye,” which will tell my students more than anything else I could give them about what I mean by concrete and specific.

A caveat: this is not, nor do I want it to be, an entirely skills-based, workshop-style class. (N.B.: Many of the best workshop-style classes I took had  an interesting reading component as well.) I want us to engage with at least a few of the bigger cultural issues around music; such background knowledge is obviously part and parcel of being able to write well about it. At the same time, as I noted in the previous post, this is not a music and culture class—we are not doing a unit on, say, the music business, and then writing about the essays we read. Hence, the reading problem points to a larger identity problem—not a crisis, I don’t think, but a challenge. This is an English class, but sort of not; this is not a music class, but sort of is; this is a writing class, but … you get the point.

But to return to the performance unit: I like everything about it. The readings are smashing. The in-class exercise on Tito Puente is the sort of thing students point to fondly at the semester’s end. The annotated review assignment needs more time, but it is useful. It all works; it just doesn’t all work together. Maybe the performance unit is just too scattered, overloaded, like the old description unit was. Maybe it’s a question of where the unit is located, a sort of linchpin between the early skills-building units and the later, somewhat more thematically-oriented ones. An assignment should be like a magnet that makes all the ideas of a unit line up in a pattern, but the only thing tying the assignment to Bangs et al. is genre. This must have been the rationale behind the original (F10) incarnation of the assignment, which asked for two reviews of the same concert from two different perspectives/voices, and which failed, though less because of how the assignment was conceived than for reasons of time and length. Anyway, I have been lavishing three weeks on this unit, so there should be some time to play with the assignment and the order/choice of readings and exercises. More to come.

Synaesthesia (pulling teeth?)

I had mixed success (mixed failure?) with the last unit of the class, a smorgasbord intended to build bridges between music, visual arts, and literature, to understand how musical ideas can be articulated in painting, poetry and narrative, and to explore what the representations of and expression about music in other media can tell us about music (and vice-versa). As I noted, some of this material had cluttered the description unit in F10, on the rationale that thinking about music analogically is one tool for approaching it in language. It is not that students weren’t prepared to hear this, or even try it out. They just weren’t ready to explore the concept in depth. Nor were we able to do any justice to jazz poetry or tone painting under the narrow rubric of description.

The music and visual art (really, painting) material was mostly new. We began by listening to “The Old Castle,” from Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, and “The Engulfed Cathedral” by Debussy, which “tells” the legend of the Cathedral of Ys rising from the sea at dawn, chiming its bells, and sinking again. Two pieces with a similar goal, played on the same instrument, composed a generation apart … and yet the pictures they paint, the moods they evoke, the way they use sound, could not be more different. As always, surface similarities serve to throw differences into relief, and to help one think more deeply not just about how sound (and title!) work to create image, but about sheerly musical differences in style, with the image as one scaffold for hearing them better. (One of my favorite comments of the semester came from a student who works as a DJ. The Debussy, he said, “sounds like nothing is ending,” like “everything is being left in suspense.” Who more likely to hear this than someone who makes a living splicing together bits of music?)

The second lesson in this mini-unit took the form of a gallery walk. My partner did a gallery walk several years ago on the subject of allegory, and on recalling this, I thought it a natural, interactive way to approach the topic of music and image. I picked seven pieces of music, and seven paintings to go with them, which I set up on laptops around two classrooms. Student groups went from station to station, playing the music, examining the image, and recording their impressions, ideas, affinities, etc. on the provided handout. (Geek alert: I played the “Promenade” theme from the Mussorgsky every time groups were supposed to walk from station to station.) Some tweaking definitely remains to be done—both a longer pre-exercise introduction and post-exercise debriefing would be helpful (the gallery walk was right before spring break). But the level of engagement was high, and based on conversations in the gallery and work on the handouts, the exercise seems to have succeeded in pushing students to think analogically, associatively, etc. between visual art and music.**

For narrative, “Sonny’s Blues” delivered as usual, and this time around I actually took the opportunity to play some Louis Armstrong and (more) Charlie Parker in class. (Sonny calls Armstrong “old-time down home crap”; his brother has never heard of Bird, calls him, most squarely, “this Parker character.”) The assignment, however—a personal narrative—suffered from the same disjointedness I described with the performance review: after all this great discussion of a classic story, no opportunity to test the ideas out in writing. If I didn’t feel this in F10, it’s probably because the Baldwin came up earlier in the semester, and because the stories they wrote were so interesting. In S12 it was pushed to the end of the semester, and the move into writing personal narrative felt rushed. Based on this, I am more and more recognizing the virtue of giving students a choice between analytical and creative assignments; and this unit is a perfect opportunity to give students a choice between a literary analysis of the role of music in the Baldwin, and a creative assignment that takes its cue a bit more clearly from the reading. (For those who think that this will allow weaker students to “get away” with not writing analytically: my experience has been that weaker students feel much more comfortable with a “college essay,” and the stronger, more confident writers tend to choose the creative options.)

So … jazz poetry. My biggest disappointment of the S12 semester. Here was my plan: Spin the unit out over two weeks. Start by reviewing the elements of poetry students had learned and forgotten from second-semester comp. Introduce them to some basic elements of jazz—a genre which, to many of them, does not sound like music at all. Then, give them plenty of in-class time to work on the poems/artist (Monk, Coltrane or Holiday), answering questions to help them scaffold the essay. Fun! Excitement! Jazz! Learning!

While the plan wasn’t entirely unsound, numerous little snags along the way added up to overall, catastrophic failure by the unit’s end. A few reasons for this: (1) Because I wanted to highlight the “connections” theme of this last third of the semester, I focused too much on the musical elements of poetry rather than doing an overall review of the elements of poetry; the assignment, and the jazz poems, ranged more broadly. (2) Nothing but extensive listening and discussion is going to make jazz anything but weirdly alien to many of these students—particularly the kind of jazz practiced by Monk and Coltrane. I am not regretting choosing these artists; their styles are so recognizably eccentric, particularly Monk’s, that they almost beg a response, and create clearer connections to what’s going on in the poetry. But it will require more listening, more time, to get the students there. (3) Not surprisingly, the vast majority of students chose Holiday. I didn’t mind them writing about Holiday … if only they had been more careful about distinguishing the song “Strange Fruit” from the Cyrus Cassells poem of the same name …

Wile E. Coyote, back to the drawing board. The F12 plan: (1) I’m going to teach “Strange Fruit” at the very beginning of the semester, using the Lynskey—the song is the subject of the lead-off chapter from 33 Revolutions. This will serve a dual purpose, the second having to do with the research paper … which, as you have no doubt noticed, I will not be getting to this time around. (2) When we get to the jazz poetry unit, we will do the poems on Holiday (the Cassells, as well as Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” and perhaps Lisel Mueller’s beautiful “Saturday Morning”) as a class, and so focus our poetry review on examples of jazz poetry. This will have the added advantage of winnowing the writing choices to Monk and Coltrane, forcing students out of their comfort zones. (3) I will extend the time for background research (what the 33 Revolutions chapter will have given us about Holiday), as well as for listening exercises in jazz which are more closely tied to the first two units of the semester. Overall, this will mean extending the unit by at least one class, possibly to three full weeks.

If the fool would persist in his folly …

Evaluation and future directions

I hope S12 was a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of semester, and not the reverse. On the plus side, I think the class was much more dynamic in terms of how musical and visual examples were integrated into the lessons. Some of the new readings were dynamite, too. Conversely, even the most abject failures seemed productive, revealing something about how to remedy them in the future, at least after mulling them over for a while in The Pit. I have noted many of these, most associated with the course’s identity and the lack of articulation between assignments and readings. In F12, this will be solved, depending on the unit, by either eliminating/reducing the reading (description, compare-contrast) or revamping the assignment to address the reading (narrative). I should add that the jazz poetry assignment did give students a range of choices, creative and analytical, based on the readings … but here, it was the preparatory work that misfired. The performance review remains a riddle to be solved.

I was able to curb something of the many-headed ambitions behind this course, and so give students more room for self-directed learning in S12. That said, some of the old ambitions were replaced by new ones just as quixotic, and occasionally as seat-of-the-pants, the extended unit on jazz poetry being the most flagrant example. And I haven’t even gotten to the research paper, which, though less ambitious, was a bigger flop than in F10; or the blogs, which were only marginally better.

All this noted, F12 will be a somewhat different semester. About half the class will be Digital Music students.§ The couple I had in the course S12 engaged well with the material and raised the level of discourse of class discussions. It will be interesting to see whether and how the dynamic of the class shifts with a critical mass of such students—students, that is, with a bit more historical context for understanding the material, and perhaps more likely to have a musical background.

Funny, as I screw around with the course structure—and I think the next time I teach the course after this fall, which likely won’t be for 2 or 3 years, I am going to do a radical overhaul—I am tending toward something like the shape of Musical Encounters, the music appreciation textbook my colleague used the first time the course was taught at Hostos. I still wouldn’t use that book, but its organization—from the elements of music, to history, to themes—makes a lot of sense. While history would have to drop from the middle, an overhauled Writing About Music course might divide neatly in half, with the first eight weeks dedicated to the elements of music, the writing focused mostly on listening, and the last seven weeks reading-heavy, the writing focused mostly on themes. It seems like this would amplify rather than solve the problem of competing identities, forcing the course to decay into two more stable elements: music appreciation, and music and culture. Another possibility would be to “professionalize” the course—that is, drop the humanities angle in favor of assignments focused on what music writing professionals do, giving more weight to reviewing and researching, as well as building in, say, an interview assignment. The Digital Music program, which was interested in formulating a Writing About Music course even before I approached them, may indeed choose to take the course in this direction for DM majors. Finally, there is the option of overthrowing the reign of the mode in favor of a wholly thematic organization. Such a structure would decidedly slant the course toward ideas in music and culture, subordinating (though of course never eliminating) the listening component.

Well, we can talk about horses and carts, carts and horses, all we like; but there comes a time when carts and horses start to look so much alike I can’t tell one from the other, and I dream of carts that pull horses, not the reverse.

Wake up, wake up. Classes start Monday.


* I am not talking about a distinction between skills and content, but two different kinds of content, one experiential and listening-based, as students might use in a personal essay, the other reading-based, as in, say, an expository paper about literature.

** The pairs were: (1) Friedrich, Wanderer: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, I; (2) Debussy, Reflections in the Water: Monet, Impression: Sunrise; (3) Schoenberg, String Quartet No. 2, I: Kandinsky, Impression III – Concert; (4) Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie: Albert Ammons & Pete Johnson, “Boogie-Woogie Dream”; (5) Charlie Parker, “Donna Lee”: Jacob Lawrence, Play; (6) a Jackson Pollack drip: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, “Ornette”; (7) Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, VII: Ad Reinhardt, Black Painting. The least successful pairs were the Kandinsky/Schoenberg and the Reinhardt/Reich, the latter partly because the quality of image was poor, and failed to convey what I wanted it to—the minimalist ethos of minute, incremental, periodic change. Once again, I am happy to share any handouts, assignments, etc. with interested, skeptical, and/or hostile parties.

§ No longer true. Likely the same mix as S12. Registration is down across the college. Has the recession gone on long enough that the countercyclical pump has shut down?


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