Screen Porch

How Classical Music Can Unlock the Creative Writer’s Brain

By

Yurina Yoshikawa

In the fall of 2022, I started teaching a class at The Porch that would become a regular offering, simply titled Words & Music. This class was designed as a special collaboration with another local nonprofit, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra (NPO), an all-volunteer group composed of professionals and amateurs that provides free classical music concerts to various neighborhoods throughout Middle Tennessee. I happen to be a violist and board member of the orchestra, and I wanted to see what would happen if we created a program that would be mutually beneficial to both organizations, with the goal of getting new students to The Porch, as well as new concertgoers to the Philharmonic. 

The concept of this class was simple: I would choose one piece of music that the orchestra would perform in an upcoming concert, play it for my students via my laptop, and have them write down their sensory responses, first with zero context of the composer or piece. I wanted to make it clear that you didn’t need any prior exposure to classical music in order to do this exercise. What’s important is to listen intently, and let the brain make connections with memories, dreams, even things like a movie score that the music evokes. 

It's important to me to debunk the myth that classical music is reserved for trained ears only. Even if you don’t recognize the instruments or know any musical terminology, I’m a firm believer that you are the expert of your own emotions, and that’s the only qualification you need for this class. Together we brainstormed keywords, impressions, and ideas together, and I reassured them that there are no wrong answers. They came up with things like bells, birds, suspicious, dawn, luscious, which I scribbled on the whiteboard. We then studied poems and excerpts of novels and essays where writers responded to music in different ways, ranging from E. M. Forster and Edward Thomas to Zadie Smith. 

Before listening to the music a second time, I would reveal the composer, the piece, and what was going on in the world at the time: a mini history lesson, no more than 10 minutes long. If we were listening to Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, we would talk about the foggy and fraught landscape of New York City in 1939. For Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1912 Violin Concerto, we talked about the composer’s biracial background and the classical music industry’s newfound appreciation of his work in the last few decades. With Béla Bartók’s 1915 Romanian Dances, we discussed how the composer sought to preserve rural folk songs, how he boldly refused to give the Nazis permission to perform his music, and how art can be used as resistance. When we listened to Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, mvt. 1, we talked about the world in 1889 when the piece came out, when one tech mogul (Thomas Edison) seemed to be at the heart of every news item, when the world seemed at once both globalized and on the brink of war, and technological advancements were progressing at an unprecedented speed, causing excitement and anxiety. (Sound familiar?)

It's important to me to debunk the myth that classical music is reserved for trained ears only. Even if you don’t recognize the instruments or know any musical terminology, I’m a firm believer that you are the expert of your own emotions, and that’s the only qualification you need for this class.

With this context and confidence that they have plenty of things they can write about in response to the music, the students and I listened to the same piece a second time while forming our initial keywords into full sentences or lines of a poem. They continued working on their pieces at home, and later submitted a finished poem or paragraphs from an essay or story to be printed on large posters and displayed in the lobbies of the Nashville Philharmonic concerts for concertgoers to engage with. 

As the instructor, I was constantly amazed by my students’ various responses. My heart melted every time I saw a student walk into a Philharmonic concert, beaming with pride at their names displayed on the posters. We’ll be offering more Words & Music classes this Spring, this time under the helm of instructor Leslie Hinson. (You can register in the links below.)

Sign up for the next Words & Music class in March (with Leslie Hinson!) Teens / Adults

Saturday, February 17, 2023 for Teens

https://www.porchtn.org/class/words-music-a-collaboration-with-the-nashville-philharmonic-grades-9-12

Saturday, February 24, 2024 for Adults

https://www.porchtn.org/class/words-music-a-collaboration-with-the-nashville-philharmonic-adults-2 

Work from our Spring 2024 classes will be displayed at these concerts: 

March 3, 2024
4:00 p.m.
Lawson High School
8001 Hwy 70 S, 
Nashville, TN 37221

March 5, 2024
7:30 p.m.
Covenant Presbyterian
33 Burton Hills Blvd, 
Nashville, TN 37215

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Reflections on Words & Music, a collaboration between The Porch and the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra

How Classical Music Can Unlock the Creative Writer’s Brain

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