What is a song?
President Katherine Bergeron asked her students this question in a songwriting class that she and her husband, Butch Rovan, co-taught last fall. The course, “Music 201, On Songs and Songwriting,” explored the expressive dimension of song through criticism, analysis and composition.
During the semester, the 16 students who took the class each wrote a song that Bergeron and Rovan helped produce, and the work was turned into the recently released CD Music 201. The collection of songs on Music 201 reveals the unending vitality of song as an expressive medium, with its capacity to speak in so many different accents and to say so much with so little.
“This album—with a hymn, a country song, a jazz ballad, and even a Chinese folk song in the mix—is a testament to the students’ boundless creativity, intelligence and originality,” Bergeron and Rovan wrote in the CD’s liner notes. Bergeron sang both lead and background vocals on some of the tracks while Rovan, a multi-instrumentalist, was both recording engineer and session musician, adding parts from guitar to piano to organ to bass clarinet to tenor sax.
For some students, the class was part of the continuum in the ever-evolving life of a musician.
“As a music minor, it was refreshing to build on my music theory to learn about the emotionality and meaning of chord progressions and melodies,” said Rebecca Nash ’19, a psychology major.
Nash is a member of ConnChords A Cappella Group, and she felt encouraged to take the class because she always got a “friendly smile from Bergeron” whenever the two passed on campus.
“One of my favorite moments in the course was the process of recording the album,” said Nash, who wrote “Time Again,” a song that “speaks of hope after heartbreak.”
“The encouragement from the president made the process that much more exciting. She was just as excited as we were,” Nash said.
Kevin Hyland ’21, a music major interested in audio engineering and songwriting as a career, said he could not pass up taking a music class with “my college president.”
“Working with President Bergeron and Butch Rovan was amazing. They were always bouncing ideas off one another. They taught me how to analyze songs from a rigorous academic perspective that breaks songs down into their foundational nuts and bolts.”
For some students, Music 201 was the first songwriting course they had taken.
Emily Ehler ’19, who is majoring in psychology and minoring in studio art and classics, said that Bergeron provided endless passion for the class.
“Although not well versed in music theory, I was able to channel my passion for singing and songwriting through this course and understand some of the nuances of music,” Ehler said.
“Getting to know Katherine and Butch on a personal and academic level was a great experience. Knowing how invested they were in our lives as students and individuals made me feel even more of a valued member of this community.”
Amanda Johnson ’19, a behavioral neuroscience major and president of the Class of 2019, also had no experience in music classes before this course.
“I was a little apprehensive about the coursework,” Johnson said. “But it gave me a unique opportunity to learn from the president of our college. I was excited to get to know President Bergeron in a more casual classroom setting and to hear about her experiences as a musician.”
Johnson took what she learned in the class and is applying it to her field of study. The song Johnson wrote for the CD is “Memories Fade,” about her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Growing up, Johnson saw the progression of this disease slowly destroy her grandmother’s mind but also discovered that music reduced her grandmother’s anxiety levels.
“I presented on this topic at the Holleran Center’s Program in Community Action Conference. I hope to continue researching the use of music as a form of therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.”
During the class, students learned to write about songs at the same time they learned to write songs. And listening closely, one can hear the threads running through Music 201 answering the original question, “What is a song?”
“A bit of melody, a few words, some instruments. Songs can be simple. They can be complex. They are secrets we share with others or hold close to our hearts. They help us through good times and bad,” said Bergeron.
Bergeron and Rovan will teach Music 201 again in Fall 2019.