Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones summed it up when he said, “songwriting’s a weird game” that can be tricky to make sense of.
But last fall, 14 students dove deep into the creative wizardry and technical processes that collide to form song.
The seminar, Music 201, “On Songs and Songwriting,” was taught by President Katherine Bergeron and her husband, Butch Rovan, and examined different genres of song from critical and analytical perspectives.
Students were asked to study songwriting through a blend of listening, reading, writing and performing before recording an album of their original songs in collaboration with both Bergeron
Author of the book Voice Lessons, Bergeron is also a trained singer and music historian, while Rovan is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and professor of music at Brown University. His broad range of musical skills and experience were an asset in such a multilayered seminar. The fall 2019 semester marked only the second time Music 201 had been offered, and the new batch of songs were performed for the College at a concert in December; the album will be available later this spring.
“This course is a joy to teach,” Bergeron said. “It’s incredible to observe the students’ growth in both confidence and sophistication over the space of just one semester. The songs on this year’s album display a wide range of styles, from hip-hop to alt-country to heavy metal to everything in between.”
For Ryan D’Alelio ’22, Bergeron and Rovan’s approach to teaching songwriting took a welcome venture outside the fundamental conventions of music theory in ways that opened up the creative floodgates.
“We were able to explore the inner workings of how a song is constructed, and I was able to expand my abilities as both a listener and a songwriter,” D’Alelio said.
Even for a veteran musician like Rovan, the students in the seminar brought an exciting energy to the songwriting process.
“The collaborative spirit of the class was infectious,” Rovan recalled. “The students inspired us and each other, working together to realize their songs both in a live performance and in the studio. And they inspired a large audience of fans who filled Fortune Recital Hall for our final class concert.”
The students all came from different musical backgrounds, each with their own individual styles, tastes and talents, from vocalists to guitarists and piano players. And, of course, several students dabbled in a bit of everything, such as Adam Khan ’22, who sang and played the ukulele and a bit of guitar and piano as well.
“President Bergeron and Butch’s deep passion for music made classes so enjoyable, and created a really fun and engaging environment,” Khan said. “I also thoroughly enjoyed the final performance, because it definitely bolstered my confidence in songwriting and singing.”
At the end of the day, the most valuable piece of the experience may well have been the relationship-building and collaborative skills the students learned writing, performing and recording together.
“Song is the oldest form of musical expression,” Bergeron and Rovan explained. “It’s a medium that builds community and builds trust.”