August 2018 Convention
Orlando, FL

Writing About Music Panel

Julie Hobbs, John Bailey, and Mihoko Watanabe

This year, the NFA Research Committee put together a panel to address the very practical issue of how to write well for school papers, program notes, and research projects. It had direct application for teachers and students and also addressed how best to plan your time as you near deadlines. John Bailey, Julie Hobbs, and Mihoko Watanabe each taught from their experience and gave examples of how to address difficult issues in writing and how to give writing feedback.
They outlined four common mistakes writers make: opting to summarize a topic instead of giving their own analyses; failing to know who their intended audience is; making basic editing errors; and getting the content wrong.

Julie Hobbs said, “Analysis takes courage.” She encouraged writers to tell the reader something she doesn’t know instead of focusing on what is obvious. “Put your perspective on it. What is this piece compared to another piece?”

John Bailey encouraged teachers to have their students write program notes for every performance so they can practice and improve their writing skills over the course of their study. He emphasized that “the purpose of program notes is for the audience to enjoy the performance more.” He also said program note-writing style ought to be conversational, clear, and welcoming to audience members with different ranges of music knowledge. Getting details right sets good expectations for the quality of the performance. Bailey also highlighted how important it is to use proper accents on names. “If you miss an accent you’ve misspelled the name.”

For students and teachers whose first language is not English, writing in English correctly may take careful preparation. Mihoko Watanabe spoke about how creating a timeline helped her a great deal in writing well in English. This included finishing a draft three weeks prior to its deadline, researching long before a deadline approaches, and proofreading at least five times before submitting a project. She also suggested reading the paper out loud, writing something every day, and reading a lot of books in English to immerse yourself as much as possible with the flow and grammar of the language.

This sort of preparation is also of high value to those of us who grew up speaking the English language. Regarding her advice, Watanabe was quick to say, “I’d recommend it” to anyone writing about music, not just those who are newer to speaking and writing in English.

—Ellen Johnson Mosley