Music writing class: “It has R2-D2 sounds and a strange alien siren”

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When I first moved to New Orleans in 2001, I was teaching in a pretty tough public high school where I almost had a hard time inspiring kids to write. The traditional writing lessons and other tricks I knew didn’t reach the students.

At the time, I wrote a lot about music for magazines in New Orleans, so I imagined for my students a kind of… English class, disguised as a music class. We call it a music writing course.

Since I love rap, and kids love rap, and we had that in common, I brought my drum machine and led my students in songwriting sessions. We call this lesson The Rap Game. It’s really just a basic journaling lesson, just at a pace. Students discuss possible topics for their songs. Then they think about their chosen topic, make lists, then take those lists and turn them into verses.

From the album YEAH ! Young Audience Raps, “(Theme Song For) U Look Hungry”:

Let’s go out to eat and have some meat
Turkey and ham, macaroni and jam say
Do you like steaks? I can surely do
If you hear me now sing loud and proud

Since Katrina, I have recorded almost 150 original songs with students in New Orleans via Community work, and also Young audience, who released the official album Young Audience Raps. While this might sound like a wacky “rap lesson,” it actually meets many common Louisiana basic standards and helps kids gain self-confidence and express themselves in public.

If the students excel in these songwriting sessions, then we move on to writing reviews of New Orleans musical act albums – like this recent review of the grungy downtown R&B group’s debut EP. from New Orleans The Special Men:

Student comments: “Have you ever heard of an EP from The Special Men? I find it very interesting due to the variety of sounds and styles. The main genres are jazz and blues. to trick.”

“Well, I must have listened to songs from King James and the Special Men. I like the jazzy beat but your voice could have been a little better. And it sounds like the people of the French Quarter. It’s not worth it. worth buying. “

Before we sit down to write these reviews, the class and I discuss the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. Made against opinion. Words against voice. We talk about different types of instruments and go over grammar, punctuation, capital letters and so on.

I never tell kids what I think about music, but I do pass on the guidelines that I follow when writing album reviews. I tell them that this job is to describe the music to those who have not heard it. I tell them, you have the right to say that you don’t like a piece of music, as long as you can explain why you don’t like it, hopefully in a way that helps the reader understand what it looks like. the music. One student successfully followed these instructions in a review of “One Foot in Front of the Other” by Lonesome Leash solo:

Student comment: “The whole group Lonesome Leash is not my kind of music. The music sounds both weird and creepy. I especially hate comments. I just can’t take it. “

I generally choose for students music like Lonesome Leash that defies genres – weirder music is harder to describe. But recently we also reviewed the album Fool’s gold, by retro jazz singer Meschiya Lake and her band the Little Big Horns.

Student Comments: “‘Miss Otis Regrets’ is about a woman warning her man never to do anything mean with her.”

“‘Miss Otis Regrets’ was a very beautiful song. But it sounds like a cow that has been kicked out of a barnyard.”

“I think this album deserves 90.5%. Its songs are fun and energetic, something everyone would want to hear one happy day.”

One Man Machine is a looping psychedelic improvisation group based on the poetry of its leader, Bernard Pearce. It’s not common at all, but the music is very rhythmic with memorable vocal chants, so most of the kids managed to enjoy it. Some of those who said they didn’t like One Man Machine’s new album Without warning were then caught singing the songs on the playing field:

Student Comments: “One Man Machine makes soft and sometimes wild music. The singing guy looks like he has some illness. But I like the beat.”

“Bad raspy singing. Scary songs with squeaky sounds and bells.”

“Without warning, it’s so great because it looks like ghosts, zombies, vampires, etc. are partying in the underworld.”

The strangest of all the recordings my students reviewed this semester was Second trimester by local law Earl Long.

Earl Long makes a kind of sound collage noise music with almost no regular rhythm or anything that you can recognize as musicality.

Student Comments: “This song makes me feel like I’m going through one of my nightmares. It has a strange wavy alien noise. “

“The last song ‘Brain Folds’ has saxophone, weird lyrics, and drums. There’s piano, R2-D2 sounds, and a weird alien mermaid with bass.”

When the kids have finished a new round of reviews, I always try to get them published in some magazine or another like VICE, which will pay the kids at least 10 cents a word for their work. We have also started publishing my student music writing books which we publish every Jazz Fest.

My goal with the class is simply to get the kids in New Orleans to practice writing that they sometimes don’t seem to have otherwise. But I also hope that kids stop writing record reviews with a broader vision of what they could possibly do for a living, and a feeling that working and writing can actually be fun.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from ministries in the Baptist community, Entergy Corporation, the Hechinger Institute, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


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