In the key of Conn College: Students in songwriting class release album
The music we listen to in high school or college unwittingly becomes an imprinted soundtrack by which an individual can always revisit the glory days of Youth. Through subsequent decades, when memories start to take on the yellowing tones of dusty scrapbook pages, all it takes is to hear one of those old songs and the individual is instantly transported back with dayglo clarity and the precision of an H.G. Wells time machine.
In an intriguing sonic twist at Connecticut College in New London, students who enroll in a class called Music 201: On Songs and Songwriting, are essentially creating their OWN soundtracks.
Taught by Conn College president and classically trained vocalist and performer Katherine Bergeron and her husband Butch Rovan — chair of the music department at Brown and a composer and electronic music expert who also teaches at Conn — Music 201 is an immersive and all-hands-on-deck course. First offered pre-COVID and typically in the course catalog every other year, the class teaches students the craft of song composition with theoretical and tactile guidance. Ultimately, their tunes are arranged and recorded with the help of others in the class, then produced and mixed by Rovan and Bergeron. Most importantly, the students work on their classmates' songs as well as their own.
The completed songs are then released on a compilation album — a literal soundtrack, if you will — and available digitally not just to members of the class but the whole world via Bandcamp. Physical CDs of volumes one and two are available at various locations on campus. The latest album, "Music 201 VOL. 3," has just been released digitally with a CD to follow.
Have a good summer
On a bright spring morning earlier this week, in the Fortune Recital Hall at Cummings Arts Center on the Conn College campus, Rovan and Bergeron are casually meeting with a visiting journalist and three of the 15 students in the most recent Music 201 course, which took place last fall. On hand are class members Nartşav Ömür, Lucie Bernheim and Mia Jurkunas, all sophomores. In addition to the opportunity to say goodbye to each other before summer break, they're happy to talk about the class and their experiences.
Fortune Hall, with its onstage grand piano and a professional quality mixing board and soundproofed vocal booth adjacent, serves as headquarters for Music 201. Over the span of the semester, individual songs written for or during the class are tested in coffee houses and other performance situations, then analyzed, constructively criticized and reworked within the walls of this room with other members of the class. It's clear there are already pleasant memories here.
"I didn't come to Conn because Music 201 was offered," says Ömür, from Istanbul, Turkey. "But the opportunity to be in a situation where I could work with other musicians and record a professionally produced song is something I've always wanted but never could have afforded. When I saw the course was available last fall, I pulled the trigger. It's worked out in ways that I never could have hoped for."
Rovan and Bergeron say there are no requirements to enroll in Music 201 though a basic knowledge of music is helpful. There's no selection process — it's a first-come situation. The instructors are happy to suggest helpful preparatory courses if a student is curious but might want a little more background. If it's true many of the students in Music 201 have never written a song before taking the class, they will have by the time the course is finished.
Ömür, who studied classical guitar for years before switching to electric, learned the foundations of blues and classic rock before focusing on melodic subgenres of metal in his campus band Prose and Conns. His tune on "Vol. 3" is called "Left Forever," a structural power ballad nuanced by a subtle arrangement and with vocals by classmate Miranda Ma, whose own contribution to the album, "Collateral Damage," is a mid-tempo pop song.
That stylistic variety is typical and perhaps expected of a group of students who didn't seek each other out because they were looking for folks with kindred musical tastes. While much of the material on the album falls into pop or singer-songwriter parameters, listeners will also enjoy art rock, indie folk, cabaret, jump blues and bossa nova. The array of styles — as well as the arrangements, imagination and performances — is impressive across the board.
As with many of the pieces on the recording, backing-band instrumentation is provided by Music 201 alums — and Conn College Class of 2021 graduates — Kevin Hyland (guitar), Luke Pacilio (bass) and Naveen Gooneratne (drums). Rovan also credits the Conn College music department for making the class possible.
"Jim McNeish, who runs the recording facilities, and Midge Thomas, chair of the department, have been incredibly supportive," Rovan says. "This album wouldn't have been possible without them."
"It's amazing how our songs came to life," says Bernheim, a member of the class of 2024 from New York City. Though she's a music major who says she's been writing songs since she was 7, and the availability of Music 201 resonated in her decision to come to Conn, she says she always feels self-pressure when it comes to singing, writing and performing.
"I literally didn't finish writing my song till the day before class," Bernheim says. Her song "Salvation" kicks off the album in gentle, folky fashion before blossoming into a sophisticated, multi-instrumental arrangement. She says she was helped along by two vivid dreams that kick-started the creative process.
Jurkunas, a sophomore from Winchester, Mass., majoring in psychology and theater (minor in government), is a fan in musical theater and approached the course from that context. "I had some friends taking the class and I decided to see how I could apply it to my interest in theater," Jurjunas says. "Plus, it's a class being taught by the president of the college. How can you turn that down?"
Her contribution to the album is "I Should Hate You," and she came up with the melody while driving, using a voice memo app to get it down before she forgot it. "I liked what I had," she says, "but it turned out so differently in class. I appreciate very much the way it all worked. I would never have thought about the possibilities. And playing on the other songs and working with the other students has been a fantastic experience."
Jurkunas is also a native of Lithuania, and both she and Ömür included bridges in their songs containing lyrics sung, respectively, in Lithuanian and Turkish. Such unexpected characteristics are bonuses in the overall educational/real-life experience of Music 201, they say.
Another dynamic that was part of the latest class was the by-chance fact that two of the students were just coming out of a relationship break-up with each other — and their respective songs for the class were written about the other. There was no overt bitterness or tension — "everyone got along just fine," one student says — and the reality of the situation reflects the reality of outside experiences on artistic endeavors. Such situations are rife throughout the history of popular music. Just ask Fleetwood Mac.
And, of course, Bergeron and Rovan are learning along with their students over the course of the each semester.
"You can't be working in a creative and autobiographical medium like songwriting and NOT learn something about your students as people. It's a privilege, really," Bergeron says.
The morning's gathering has taken on the tone of a small party. Ömür plays a bit of guitar; appropriately, a "cheat sheet" chart containing chords to another student's tune is taped to the instrument's neck by the headstock so he could read the music as he played along during the session. Bergeron and Jerkunas sit at the piano and vamp on "I Should Hate You," harmonizing while, across the room, Bernheim adds a third part.
"I love that song," Bernheim calls out.
Really, as they all prepare to exit, the only remaining question about Music 201 is when physical copies of the CD will be available. It turns out there's one song still missing.
"Actually, (the absent tune) is one Butch and I wrote as a sort of coda for the album," says Bergeron. She seems slightly embarrassed that, while all the students got THEIR songs done on time, she and Rovan are still in the process.
The room fills with laughter at this charming confession. "You get an Incomplete," Ömür says.
Bergeron assures that the CD will be ready soon. After all, "VOL. 3" is one of life's soundtracks.
Who: Students and instructors of Music 201: On Songs and Songwriting
What: "Music 201: VOL. 3," tunes written and recorded by fall 2021 class members
Where: Digital version on Bandcamp, physical CD coming soon
How much: Free
For more information: conncollmusic201.bandcamp.com
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