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Musicians are Writers: Why Conservatory Students Should Visit the Writing Center

Wheaton College has built a reputation for attracting excellent students in all areas of study, and music is no exception. Every fall, Wheaton welcomes 40-50 freshman music majors into the Conservatory of Music to learn from dozens of esteemed faculty members.

I’m a music composition major, so music classes fill the majority of my schedule. This semester, I only leave the Conservatory building for one class: New Testament. Due to a heavy course load, ensemble participation, and instrument practice, music majors tend to overlook the Writing Center, prioritizing practice for upcoming performances over time spent refining written assignments. Not only do music majors have out-of-class requirements that make scheduling Writing Center appointments more challenging, but also music class assignments are not often papers. As a result, music majors do not always discover the value of a Writing Center visit.

Nonetheless, like all students, musicians are writers. Musicians need to have an understanding of the writing process just as much as those studying any other discipline, if not more. In order to get a better sense of why writing matters for musicians, I sat down (virtually) with Dr. Shawn Okpebholo, Professor of Music Theory and Composition. I chose to interview “Dr. O” because I admire his writing skills and he has been teaching music here at Wheaton for over a decade.

Dr. O began by explaining a writing assignment he created about four years ago: a sonata form and analysis essay. He designed this assignment to get music students writing. Dr. O affirms that “musicians need to have good writing skills” with one reason being that music is “becoming more of an entrepreneurial field.” On a related note, he maintains that musicians need to promote their work and express themselves on social media.

How should musicians promote themselves? Along with having social media pages, Dr. O emphasizes having an up-to-date personal website. A good website should meet the following criteria:

  1. Include a biography
  2. Have a nice aesthetic
  3. Feature well-written content

Aside from the entrepreneurial aspect of being a musician, conservatory students need to know how to write about music for other reasons. For instance, Dr. O stresses “writing program notes as a composer,” which is something I’ve had experience doing for my original compositions. I find that clearly articulating my thoughts in the form of program notes gives my music new meaning to listeners. Effective program notes can transform our understanding of a composer’s music.

An open concert program on top of stacked programs on a wooden surface
Photo courtesy of Abby Long

According to Dr. O, writing comes into play for performers when filling out applications and writing grants. Musicians need to submit well-written cover letters as part of applying for jobs. New openings can generate hundreds of applications due to the competitive nature of the music industry, so writing can play a key role in deciding who gets a gig.

To get a better grasp of how to write about music, I asked Dr. O to talk about his personal writing process. Dr. O creates at least three drafts until he’s satisfied with what he has written. Dr. O admits that he “writes how [he] speaks,” meaning that he can be too wordy in early drafts, so other people often help him revise. Yes—even Dr. O seeks out the type of assistance offered by the Writing Center! He shares his compositions with two “buddies” who read his writing and exchange feedback.

My interview with Dr. O validated my belief that the Writing Center is for everyone. No matter a person’s major or writing experience, everyone has something to learn. Despite what some may think, there’s no shame in going to the Writing Center. People tend to link asking for help with weakness, but in this case, having the courage to reach out for feedback reveals humility, a character trait embedded in strength. In fact, professors love when students ask for help, as this action reflects their students’ commitment to learning. 

In addition to offering constructive feedback, Writing Center consultants affirm the strengths of a piece of writing. All writers benefit from hearing some encouragement to indicate when they are doing something particularly well. 

The Writing Center is a free resource for all current students, so feel free to schedule frequent Writing Center appointments at all stages of the writing process. Writing Center consultants welcome students from all majors, including music.

One reply on “Musicians are Writers: Why Conservatory Students Should Visit the Writing Center”

[…] Believe it or not, the vast majority (86.8%) of our clients last semester were not English majors. We work with writers from all departments, from Applied Health Science to Urban Studies. Furthermore, our Writing Center staff represents a variety of majors. For example, our writing consultants major in subjects as diverse as Biblical and Theological Studies, Chemistry, and Music Composition.  […]

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