Music Writing Class: 'It Has R2-D2 Sounds And A Weird Alien Siren'

Jan 22, 2014

When I first moved to New Orleans is 2001, I taught in a pretty rough public high school where I had an almost fatally hard time inspiring the kids to write. The traditional writing lessons and other tricks I knew weren’t getting to the students.

At the time I was doing a lot of writing about music for New Orleans magazines, so I devised for my students a sort of… English class, disguised as a music class. We call it music writing class.

Since I like rap, and the kids like rap, and we had that in common, I brought in my drum machine and led my students in songwriting sessions. We call this lesson The Rap Game. It’s really just a basic journal-writing lesson, just to a beat. The students discuss possible topics for their songs. Then they brainstorm on their chosen topic, make lists, then take those lists and turn them into couplets.

From the album YA! Young Audiences Raps, "(Theme Song For) U Look Hungry" :

Let's go out to eat and get some meat
Turkey and ham, macaroni and jam say
Do you like steak? I can surely make
If you hear me now sing loud and proud

Since Katrina, I’ve recorded almost 150 original songs with New Orleans students via Community Works, and also Young Audiences, who released the official album Young Audiences Raps. Though this might seem like a goofy “rap class” it actually fulfills many of Louisiana’s Common Core Standards, and helps the kids’ confidence and public speaking skills.

If students excel at these songwriting sessions, we then move on to writing reviews of albums by New Orleans musical acts — like this recent review of the debut EP by grungy downtown New Orleans R&B group The Special Men:

Student reviews: "Have you ever heard of an EP by The Special Men? I find it very interesting because of the various sounds and styles. The main genres are jazz and blues. But I may be mistaken."

"Well I had to listen to some songs by King James and the Special Men. I like the jazzy beat but your vocals could have been a little bit better. And it sounds like the people in the French Quarter. It is not worth buying."

Before we sit down to write these reviews, the class and I discuss the difference between objectivity versus subjectivity. Fact vs. opinion. Lyrics vs. vocals. We talk about different kinds of instruments an go over grammar, punctuation, capitalization and whatnot.

I never tell the kids what I think of any of the music, but I do pass along the guidelines I follow when writing album reviews. I tell them this job is about describing the music to those who haven’t heard it. I tell them, you’re allowed to say you do not like some 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 the music sounds like. One student successfully followed those instructions in a review of “One Foot in Front of the Other” by one-man-band Lonesome Leash:

Student review: "The whole Lonesome Leash band is not my kind of music. The music sounds weird and freaky at the same time. I especially hate the feedback. I just can't stand it."

I usually pick for the students music like Lonesome Leash that defies genre — weirder music is harder to describe. But recently we also reviewed the album Fooler’s Gold, by hot retro-jazz singer Meschiya Lake and her band the Little Big Horns.

Student reviews: "'Miss Otis Regrets' is about a woman that warns her man to never do something mean to her."

"'Miss Otis Regrets' was a really nice song. But she sounds like a cow that's kicked out of a barnyard."

"I think this album deserves 90.5%. It's songs are fun and energetic, something anyone would want to hear on a happy day."

One Man Machine is a loop-based, psychedelic improvisational band based around the poetry of its leader, Bernard Pearce. It’s not mainstream by any stretch, but the music is highly rhythmic with some memorable vocal chants, so most of the kids managed to enjoy it. Some of those who claimed to dislike One Man Machine’s new album With Out Warning were later caught singing the songs on the playground:

Student reviews: "One Man Machine makes smooth and sometimes wild music. The guy who's singing sounds like he has a disease. But I like the beat."

"Bad, raspy singing. Scary songs with creaky sounds and bells."

"Without warning is so awesome because it sounds like ghosts, zombies, vampires et cetera are having a party in the underworld."

The straight-up weirdest of all the records my students reviewed this semester was Term Two by local act Earl Long.

Earl Long makes sort of sound collage noise music with almost no steady rhythm or anything one might recognize as musicianship.

Student reviews: "This song makes me feel like I am going through one of my nightmares. It has a weird alien squiggly sound."

"The last song 'Brain Folds' has saxophone, weird talking and drums. It has piano, R2-D2 sounds, and a weird alien siren with bass."

When the kids have finished a new batch of reviews, I always try and get them published at some magazine or other like VICE, that will pay the kids at least 10 cents a word for their work. We also have begun publishing books of my students’ music writing that we release each Jazz Fest.

My whole aim with the class is just to get New Orleans kids the writing practice they sometimes don’t seem to be getting otherwise. But I also hope that the kids will walk away from writing record reviews with a more broad view of what they could possibly do for a living, and a feeling that work, and writing, can actually be fun.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries,  Entergy Corporation, The Hechinger Institute, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.