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Coffeehouse goodbye

A few weeks ago my 8th class full of songwriting students met in the Duke Coffeehouse on east campus to sing their final-project songs. It was a final for me, too—my last significant act as an instructor at Duke—and it was a great way to close things out. I don’t remember the event ever going more smoothly. There were no major delays getting the doors unlocked, the technical glitches were all small, and everyone played either solo or duo—no complicated setups—so we managed to get through 17 songs in about 90 minutes. There were, as usual, a few very polished performances and a few that staggered along in fits and starts, with the rest somewhere in between. Charley—the only one who really put on a show—got onstage with a long black wig and a lighter and warned us that we’d better prepare to rock out. His song was called “Hard.” This is the chorus:

You make it hard
You make it hard
You make it hard
You make it hard for me
You make it hard for me

It was a doo-wop number, with backup vocals played from a recording, so the double entendre had a playful, guileless feel that’s infinitely more innocent than the stuff you’ll find on top-40 radio these days. Since my 9-year-old daughter was with me, I was glad for that—she thought Charley was great, and so did I. (The thing that really got the little wheels in her head turning was the graffiti in the women’s room.)

It’s an odd thing that I ended up teaching this class. When I was in high school and should have been basting myself in rock I listened almost exclusively to jazz—my father’s Miles Davis records felt like a life raft in those days. I was completely alienated from my peers and so there wasn’t much to draw me to their music. It’s amazing how much of it seeped in anyways—thinking back, it feels like Rod Stewart’s voice permeates the whole depressing era, but at the time I’m not sure if I could even have told you who it was singing those songs. I grew more receptive to mainstream popular music as I went through my 20s and 30s, but it never developed into more than an incidental, haphazard interest. But what really mattered to Duke was that they wanted to hire my wife and knew they could seal the deal if they came up with something for me to do as well. Luckily the couple of people in the music department who could have taught songwriting had other things to do, and I guess they figured I couldn’t do much harm with it.

Whoever originated the class (I think it was a graduate student, but I’m not sure, and I’ve never seen the original syllabus) had the inspired idea of calling it “Songwriter’s Vocabulary,” making it clear that it’s about musical materials and techniques, not about the ineffabilities of self-expression. I followed the lead of my immediate predecessor, John Ferri, in structuring the class as a non-traditional introduction to music theory. We make our way through rhythm (approached as prosody), melody (scales, phrases), harmony (chords, progressions, voice leading) and form, but the assignments are mostly exploratory and composition-based. There’s a weekly lecture-assignment-workshop cycle in which I say, in essence, here is some stuff (e.g., scales or chords), here is the terminology, here are some examples of how it’s usually used, now go out and do something with it, and next week we’ll see what you come up with. The looseness of the assignments makes the students feel like they’re at sea sometimes. I try to present the theory not as rules but as guidelines, tendencies, and expectations, and for me the effort has been enlightening, though I still don’t get it across to the class as well as I should. Music theory is only as good as it sounds, and when we go over the assignments in class the theory is almost always borne out—when a student “breaks the rules” it sounds awkward. Sometimes it sounds inspired, though, and I can’t think of a better way to learn about both the usefulness and the limitations of theory.

My ideal has been to make the class accessible to anyone who has some musical facility and wants to write songs. There are a lot of fine musicians on campus who fall through the cracks in the music curriculum because they aren’t very comfortable reading music. Many students have told me that one of their goals in taking my class is to improve their reading and writing, and half or more of the typical class reads quite well, so I use staff notation on the board and in handouts all semester. But I suggest more informal and intuitive ways for them to write down their own ideas—imprecise notations that are precise enough to get the job done, especially if they’re supplemented by a recording or in-class performance. And even when they’re writing abstract musical fragments for an assignment, I urge the students to work with a lyric, no matter how ridiculous or incoherent. Words can’t convey rhythm unambiguously, but they can go a long ways towards pinning it down, both for the student who writes them and for me or my TA when we read them.

It’s been pretty easy to reach the students who sing and play the guitar, who have a rock band, or are in one of Duke’s many a cappella groups. There are plenty of students with a traditional background, from piano lessons or playing in school bands or whatever, who want to try their hand at songwriting, too. I settled into a comfortably loose amalgamation of traditional theory, graphic notation, and composition projects some years ago. In the past few semesters I’ve had several students whose orientation was more towards hip-hop than rock, and they’ve shaken my complacency. In line with most music theory classes, I put a lot of emphasis on chords, and for a vast swath of popular music that makes perfect sense—chord progressions, whether simple, complicated, explicit or implied, are the structural backbone of most every song. But the hip-hop model leans much more on rhythmic and melodic patterning, and if I was to teach the class again it would be high time to work that into the mix. As much as anything else, I’d be doing myself a favor. I’ve spent a whole lot of time talking about harmony—it’s endlessly fascinating but also well-worn ground, and another trip around it isn’t likely to do me that much good. To get myself to the point of being able to say something useful about how a hip-hop song is put together, I’d have to get out of my comfort zone and learn something.

In terms of the musical models I use, I haven’t had to venture into unfamiliar territory nearly as much as I expected when I started. I have about a dozen Beatles songs that serve as textbook examples, and I draw on some other rock classics (not quite the same thing as Classic Rock, but there’s plenty of overlap)—the students don’t seem to find them terribly old fashioned (except, maybe, for Annie Lennox). When I ask the class to bring in music they admire, they often show up with old stuff, too—from the past few years I can recall some Beatles, Springsteen, Neil Young, Led Zepellin, and Velvet Underground—and in technical terms most of the newer songs they like are in the same ball park. What I have had to do is listen more closely and objectively, even to music that’s familiar—something I’ve had to do for other classes I’ve taught, as well, and it’s always led me to a richer experience of the music. My appreciation of music that is simple and direct is definitely more genuine than it was 10 years ago. There was even some evidence at the coffeehouse that I’m conveying that to the class. Introducing his song, called “Simple,” James said that it was inspired by a comment I made, while talking about a song in class, that “simple is good.” Out of that, James came up with a classic guy-with-acoustic-guitar kind of love song that sits right on the line between simple and simplistic up to a beautifully conceived bridge that transforms it and gives it real depth. Ironically, the polish on the song and James’s self-assured performance made it obvious that he was one of the most experienced and sophisticated musicians in the class.

It’s been fascinating and heartening to hear the 100 or so students who’ve come through the class get up on stage and sing their piece (and I don’t think there’s been a single student who hasn’t been able to take part, which is pretty amazing—there may, of course, be a case or two that’s slipped my memory). The big revelation for me has been the ones who feel their way tentatively from assignment to assignment and then show up at the coffeehouse with a couple of verses and a chorus that are not only a real song, but their song—an unpolished little gem that’s both conventional and personal. There’s no denying that if I wanted to claim some credit as a teacher, it’s these kids I should point to, not the well-developed talents like James. But the only thing I really feel I can take credit for when the session is over is that I insisted that they all write a song and show up to sing it. The rest is theirs, and it feels like a window onto a musical creativity that’s disentangled from technique, where originality arises naturally from personality. It’s a great thing to remember when I get lost in the intricacy and abstraction of my own music, when I need to be reminded what the means are and what the ends are.

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