Wednesday, December 02, 2009
TEACHING WRITING WITH MOZART
This year I’m going to try teaching writing with the help of Mozart’s music. It’s often struck me that classical composers must have worked in a somewhat similar fashion to the way my young writers work on their formal essay assignments. When I listen to a Mozart quartet, I hear the main theme developed in various ways, just as I (hopefully) see a thesis expanded and explained in the students’ essays. Mozart comes back, over and over, to the major idea of the piece, and I insist that the students do the same on their essays. One of the most intriguing similarities between classical music and essay writing is the role creativity can play in the “development” part of the composition. Mozart’s themes (opening melodies) are, to my untrained ear, quite plain and unadorned, but he develops them with astonishing inventiveness and zest, something I hope my students can do in their middle paragraphs. No matter how straightforward their main point is, they can develop it with all the inventiveness and originality at their disposal. Seventy-word sentences, ingenious metaphors, long strings of gerunds, short sentences like sawed-off shotguns – all can be used the way Mozart used his development sections, to play the wildest tricks with the theme and take it out to the most distant boundaries. As the essay comes to an end, the students can “recapitulate” the main theme, as music professors might say. The young writers can smoothly bring us back to where they started, with a reminder of the central point of the essay, just as Mozart always brings us back to his opening melodies. In music, this recapitulation often includes a “cadenza”, a virtuosic section in which the soloist can display her or his finest artistic talents, and perhaps I can encourage my students to do the same in an essay. As the paper draws to a close, why not let the young writer loose to do some runs, riffs, fills, and trills?