Conn College music seminar results in compilation CD of student work

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Joni Mitchell graduated from high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There is no record indicating she took any songwriting classes.

Stevie Wonder has received numerous honorary degrees. None of them was predicated on his taking and passing any songwriting classes.

At Hawthorne High School in Hawthorne, California, Brian Wilson DID pen a song for his music class. In numerous reports published last year, the teacher, Fred Morgan, admitted, "Brian wrote a composition for me and it turned out to be 'Surfin.' That composition got an F, but it made a million dollars."

Perhaps this all indicates there's no direct correlation between formal scholastics and the art of pop songwriting.

On the other hand, in the fall of 2018, 16 students at Connecticut College took a seminar called Music 201. In catalog speak, it promised to provide a "more facile grasp on the rudiments of songwriting," though the scope of the course went far beyond teaching the rudiments of writing pop songs and aimed to "deepen powers of observation and develop creative abilities ... through hands-on engagement with one of the most fundamental ways of making music."

Translated, that means the students were immersed in a curriculum that combined extensive listening/reading, analysis, songwriting and performance, and record production. And a byproduct of that was, through collaboration with each other and the seminar's two instructors, a 16-song compilation CD of their own material, released earlier this spring, called "Music 201 — New Works by Songwriters of Connecticut College."

So far, so fun — but there was one small caveat prospective students had to consider. The course wasn't taught by a visiting professor who used to be in a band that once opened for Duran Duran, or even a Conn College music faculty member swerving off the conservatory style path and dabbling in rock 'n' roll. Instead, one of the Music 201 co-instructors was Katherine Bergeron — as in, the president of Connecticut College. Bergeron's pre-Conn resume focused on the cultural and historical analysis of song (she's author of the book "Voice Lessons"), and she's, oh, yeah, a classically trained soprano. She also taught courses on song while a faculty member at Tufts and UC Berkeley.

The other instructor? Bergeron's husband, Butch Rovan, a professor of music and faculty director of the Brown University Arts Initiative — and a composer, instrument builder, multimedia artist and former rock musician. Together, in terms of both scholarship and performance, the couple brought decades of experience to the seminar.

No pressure for the kids

"I had heard President Bergeron's beautifully trained soprano voice from having attended previous graduation ceremonies and was therefore familiar with her interest in music," says Becca Nash, a member of the class of '19 who gradated Sunday. "I had no idea Butch was planning on teaching alongside her; it was a very pleasant surprise. Not only was I going to have the pleasure of being taught by the president of the college, but also her husband. I think this was an incredibly unique opportunity that I've never heard of being presented at any other college."

"I was fortunate enough to have known Katherine and Butch before I joined the class, but having them as professors definitely added another aspect to our relationship," said Emily Ehler, another class of '19 graduate. "They're both very knowledgeable about music and they made it all so interesting and enjoyable, there was no reason to skip or sleep through class."

The prerequisites for Music 201 were basic music proficiency — matriculation through any number of acceptable introductory courses, for example — and the completion of a written "pre-assignment" that included an imaginary musical biography and lists of musical tastes and experiences.

The structure of the course was multilayered. Students met for weekly three-hour sessions on Monday evenings, where Bergeron and Rovan delivered lectures presenting material reflective of their respective thoughts on music criticism and composition. There were weekly reading and listening assignments, and those were discussed at each session. The class also played together regularly and, of course, recorded the material that ended up on the album.

As far as the variety of assignments, they ranged from the entire class helping to compose material for a Conn Theater Department musical production based on "Peer Gynt" to exercises where each student had to write a tune based around the melody and structure of a pre-existing song. Examples of the latter included student Jack Pacilio's "Radio Static," which is a very loose reworking of John Lennon's Beatles song "In My Life."

"We love that assignment," Bergeron says. "It's interesting how a melody can be captured as a gestalt and then reshaped into a new creation. (In general), what impressed us most about the students was their collaborative spirit and willingness to support each other. That is a real Conn ethos."

"The course began with an introduction to songwriting and what a 'good' song was," Nash says. "As we learned more complex melodies, rhythms and chord progressions, our learning was integrated with our own creativity." She lists writing a melody to an Emily Dickinson poem; expanding the concept of "regular music" through exposure to a wide variety of artists and styles; and collaborating with another student on an original song eventually included in the "Peer Gynt" production as high points of the experience.

Members of the class, along with Ehler and Nash, were Matt Allen, Colin Archer, Andrew Becker, John Blackwell, Ben Greene, George Grotheer, Ruicong Han, Kevin Hyland, Amanda Johnson, Shiwei Li, Oliver O'Neill, Pacilio, his brother Luke Pacilio, and Dexter Willet.

Harmony and chemistry

Some of the students had played music with each other; others hadn't. Mini-bands formed during the class to fit the evolving demands of the songs. On one occasion, when it was time for Blackwell to record his song "Thinking About It," he lost his voice. Johnson reached out to her friend Jenna Berloni, who'd sung on Johnson's album cut, "Memories Fade," and who wasn't enrolled in the class, and Berloni stepped in and sang "Thinking About It."

"I never knew how close I would get to my classmates through a class like this one," Ehler says. "They never tell you how influential music and the arts can be on creating relationships, but I certainly experienced that firsthand."

For the most part, the songs on "Music 201" explore contemporary pop music with wide-ranging genetic touchstones and sophisticated structural blueprints and melodies. The first-time listener can hear — with increasing admiration — hints of diverse artists and styles: '60s pop (a la the Kinks), '80s New Wave (the Cure), Chinese folk music, emo (Weezer), and indie folk/pop (Pinegrove, Ingrid Michaelson), chamber pop (Iamthemorning). There's no country or hip hop selections, per se, but the harmonic structures and theories tended to suggest a different approach to songwriting.

Lyrical content addresses time-honored topics such as romance and break-ups — impressively, it might be added — but also loneliness, a relative's Alzheimer's, third-person observations of other relationships, losing a friend, the dissolution of dreams, and the relentless gallop of time. 

Rovan says, "The studio could get pretty intense, but it was also a lot of fun. We worked with the students for several days and nights — sometimes quite late into the night — then followed with a few evenings of overdubs. Working on the tracks, we really got to know one another well. They are incredibly talented students."

Discussing each student's song clearly generates excitement for Bergeron and Rovan — the genuine sort maybe not always associated with professors who've been in academia for years. Months after the seminar was finished, the instructors still name-check the students and the specific songs they brought to the project, with admiration for the variety of musical styles and the players' adaptability in a group context.

Ehler and Nash both say the whole process underscored the real-world importance of band and studio chemistry and dynamics. "We definitely experienced some of that, especially when we were in the rough-draft stages of our songs as we were getting ready to record," Ehler says, adding they all participated in and shared plenty of constructive feedback — both complimenting aspects of the songs they like as well as stuff that could be changed in any given tune. "That type of collaborative environment can be tricky to navigate but it ultimately ended in us all recording the best songs we could," Ehler says.

"Our students were incredibly entrepreneurial in drawing on each other's talent and on the greater pool of musical talent at Conn," says Rovan, explaining that Conn musicians outside the class, typically from a campus organization called MOBROC (Musicians Organized for Bands' Rights On Campus), also contributed to some of the sessions. Bergeron and Rovan also played, sang and helped arrange and produce.

The class culminated with a one-off concert in December, and the CD was celebrated with a release party in April. Bergeron and Rovan thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would love to do another Music 201 seminar, but whether time and circumstances allow that to happen remains to be seen. For now, they're just glad it happened.

"In the end, the course is about much more than writing pop songs," Bergeron says. "It really is an extended exercise in close reading and close listening — focused on some great songs throughout musical history. The students' compositions emerge from a deeper understanding of what makes songs work and why we write them."

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