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“Pick a piece you love, most likely something you play, and tell me two or three things you love about it.”
That’s what I told students in the Historical Performance program at Juilliard, when I did a workshop with them on writing program notes.
That wasn’t how I started, of course. But it was a crucial step, the pivot, in the workshop, from talking about program notes in a general way, to starting to write them.
I did begin with general points. How I don’t love the standard kind of program note, which might talk about the history of a piece, and go on to add some technical details, some structural niceties, whatever.
Throughout it all, treating a piece of music as as if were a static, almost physical object. And not as an experience, as as something we live with in our lives. Or even, if you like, as a communal journey, a trip that performers and audience take together, one that could be different every time the piece is played.
The first kind of program note, in my experience, is stiffer and less likely to be anything that people really want to read. The second kind is livelier, but, above all, it’s more real — it can tell you what’s actually happening, right before your eyes and ears, right there in the concert hall.
For an example of a program note like that, here’s one I wrote for the Cleveland Orchestra, for performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, as conducted by the orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst. Franz wanted to be part of the notes. He wanted his ideas about the piece included, along with thoughts about how he wanted it performed. I attended a rehearsal; Franz was happy for me to quote things he told the orchestra.
That way, my note was more than just an essay on the piece. It was a living document, of what happened when this conductor set out to bring this piece to life. A piece, by the way, that he’d fallen in love with in his teens. Which I had as well, though I didn’t say so in the note. This was an experience Franz and I were delighted to find we’d both had, and I started the program note with him as a teenager. That, I thought, would quickly show how important the piece was to him.
So how could I help students write this different kind of program note? The answer, first, was to suggest a way to start any kind of writing — to riff a bit on what you want to say, to write down, in no particular order, the most important points you want to make.
But in this case, the points wouldn’t be about a piece as a static object. They’d be about a student’s experience with the piece.
And how better to get at that, than by asking the students to tell me things they loved?
The first student who shyly tried thought he couldn’t do it. But, maybe by good luck, it was a piece I didn’t know. So, very simply, one musician to another, I asked him to tell me about it. And things came pouring out.
Then the floodgates opened, with students telling me about pieces that they played, and, just as important, asking me questions about things that might come up when they wrote program notes (which they were all required to do, for upcoming concerts).
The discussion got so lively, the students had so much to say and ask, that I think the session demonstrated something I’ve long known to be true. Give people some skin in the game — show them that what they loved is valued — and they might well come forth as authentically themselves.