Describe, Evaluate, Argue: Teaching Criticism for Young Writers

Hild Borchgrevink* and Ida Habbestad**

Abstract

In this article, we will describe and discuss experiences and methods from our joint development of a writing course in which young students aged 15–19 write reviews of live concerts and performances. The course aims to teach young people to express individual experiences and opinions, to reflect on how they experience performing arts differently, dare to disagree and learn to express and build opinions and arguments about live art in a classroom as well as in writing in a larger public space. Criticism is normally written by adult professionals. What happens if young people are invited to review a professional concert of classical music in a local newspaper? How can a writing assignment on live music or performing arts challenge pedagogical or social hierarchies in a class of students? Could the competence of describing and expressing opinions about performing arts be relevant for other school subjects, beyond an artistic context
Keywords: criticism, writing workshops, youth, independent initiatives, development, cultural schoolbag

Context

The development of our writing course started in 2011, when a festival for classical chamber music in western Norway, at that time led by poet and classical singer Are Frode Søholt,[1] asked us to give a workshop in music criticism for a group of students in the local high school’s music and drama programme,[2] as part of the festival’s outreach activities. After the workshop, the students were supposed to attend festival concerts, write about them and send us the texts, and the local newspaper agreed to publish a selection of the results.

In this period, we were both active as music critics in daily newspapers in Oslo,[3] as well as main editors for two online professional journals[4] in which we daily ordered and edited texts by professional writers on music and performing arts. We were also both involved in the development of a new, interdisciplinary online magazine for professional criticism of art projects aimed at children and young people.[5]

The festival emphasized that they wanted the students to be exposed to the festival programme exactly as it was set up by the professional curators. In other words, none of the performances in question were specifically intended for young people or adapted to a specific age group. Students at music and drama programmes are more familiar with performing arts than an average student would be, but many of the students in our first workshop had a practice within popular music and were not familiar with the classical genre.

On our side, we decided to make our daily editorial and critical practice the framework of the workshop. The school did not expect us to adjust to any prescribed pedagogical framework. They knew and appreciated that our workshop would give the students a glimpse into our writing practices on performing arts in general, and to criticism and editing as professional practices, parallel to preparing the students to attend the festival. Professional musicians performing at the festival gave similar workshops or master classes for other groups of students.

In Norway, professional artists visit all state-run schools 1–2 times a year through a national programme called The Cultural Schoolbag, currently a collaborative project between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education and Research.[6] In the field of music, this programme has been running in different forms since 1967, when the Norwegian Arts Council as part of the national cultural policy of the time, established the Norwegian Concert Institute (later Concerts Norway), aimed at giving everyone in Norway access to live music of high quality.[7]

The Cultural Schoolbag and its predecessors have contributed to a general recognition among teachers in Norwegian state schools of the value of exposing young people to professional art. It has also paved the way for additional, independent, local outreach initiatives from the professional art field like the one from the festival inviting us.

During the ten years that has passed since 2011, we have been holding more than 50 workshops similar to the first mentioned above, in different contexts in Norway, mainly with young writers as participants. Some of our workshops have been connected to The Cultural Schoolbag, most of them have been initiated by professional festivals or performing arts institutions. Some have also been co-funded by the Arts Council Norway’s support programme for criticism, applied for by us. On the way, our workshop has developed to include all kinds of performing arts: music, dance, theatre and various interdisciplinary live practices. Each workshop is always connected to one or several live performances that the young participants write in response to.

It follows from the festival’s wish to expose the students to the whole of their professional programme, and from our choice of an editorial and critical practice as framework, that our workshop exposes many young participants to things they are not familiar with. In the high schools we have visited, most students have reviewed literature, sometimes film, as part of their ordinary school programme, but seldom a live performance.

Criticism, the Temporary and the Public

Performing arts provide experiences that escape naming or framing, simply because of qualities like their duration or temporary character. A core aim of our workshop is to make the students experience this escape too, still providing them with some tools that enable them to respond actively to performing arts in writing. We try to make the students reflect on how the temporary and the durational imply that criticism of performing arts as a public practice can never be an objective one. That said, language can of course lean towards objective or subjective, constative or performative positions. Through practical writing tasks, the workshop aims to make the students more conscious about when their writing does the one or the other.

We mainly work with individual writing tasks written in response to short samples of performing arts. The written response to each task is subsequently presented in writing on the board and discussed with the group. This method ensures input from each individual student and protects diversity of opinion in the group by avoiding clusters of agreement that otherwise can appear orally if those who don’t agree, keep silent or a last speaker sways the rest.

Describe, Evaluate, Argue

For similar reasons, we try to avoid the preformatting that a recipe or bullet point guide to writing a critical text on performing arts might produce. If we have a recipe, it is the three verbs in the title of this article, in Norwegian, beskrive, vurdere, begrunne. They partly correspond to interrogatives what, how and why respectively, but we have stayed with verbs because of how they underline writing as an activity and as the activity of a subject, how the what of performing arts criticism is an individual what. The first verb means describe. The second and third do not have unambiguous equivalents in English but could be translated as evaluate, argue—or maybe assess, reason—point being that criticism of performing arts needs to, on some level, describe the live expression it is writing about, normally voice an opinion and if so, be able to reason around its opinion. A text does of course not need to give the three verbs equal weight or carry them out in the order mentioned.

The Workshop

Task 1: Single words

A normal workshop lasts around three hours. The initial task of the workshop is designed to be a miniature encounter with something unfamiliar: Each student is given a pencil and some small sheets of paper. We tell them that we will play music for them, and that while listening, they should write down any first five to six single words that come to their minds. We stress that incorrect answers do not exist, that they should not look at each other’s sheets and that they write anonymously. The soundtrack we usually play lasts for around 3 minutes and crosses musical genres.

Immediately, the music may sound abstract, but it also contains recurring rhythms and some ambiguous sounds that might be categorised either as everyday ambient sounds or as music. When the track is finished playing, we collect the sheets of paper. One of us reads the words aloud, while the other writes the words on the board. The passage quoted below is a sample of words from a workshop in a music festival in the town of Odda in 2016:

adventure, forest, doll, creepy, murder
strange, special, untuned, tramping, clapping
happy, fear
messy, classical, orchestra, old, sad
special, funny, weird, instrument, clapping
adventure, dance, lively, strange
amusement park, rain, storm, adventure, dance
strange, special
clarinet, rainbow, beat, roller coaster, old
weather, rainbow, stepping, roller coaster, jumping
lively, angry, sad, romantic, frustration
gloomy, happy
sad, lively, happy, angry
old music, party, foreign
scary, fearful, happy
confusing, sad, angry, quarrel, Christmas
weird, cool, conversation, unique, teasing
teasing, delight, bipolar, recurrence, fluid
conversation, teasing, wonder
theatre, dance, teasing, children
dance, good mood, adventurous, scary, violin
string instrument, cheerful and sad, whimsical, good mood
romantic, old days, nature, dance
slow, boring, bad, special, tragic
contemporary music, messy, vicious, murder, not good, slaughter of pigs
happy, special, mysterious, exciting, clapping
messy, different, mysterious
fast, slow, messy
absurd, gloomy, untuned, varied, cheerful
unique, varied, festive, medium tempo, ear-catching violin
messy, cartoon, old fashioned, lots of variety

The soundtrack we play, usually produces a large variety of word types as above, from strong expressions of opinion to more neutral descriptions of some of the instruments playing. With these words on the board, we ask the students to reflect around the difference between the words: Can they find words depicting opinions, descriptions, movements, tempo, expressions, feelings, images, experiences, references to things other than sound?

The purpose of writing at this initial stage is to activate the whole group of students and to get as many individual reactions to the music as possible. In some early courses, we tried to retrieve such associations orally, but then the conversation is quickly dominated by students who are orally secure, and the variety of words is normally also significantly reduced.

Gjertrud’s Gypsy Orchestra. Homepage. Photo: Tove Elin Berg

Task 2: Video, single words + one sentence

In the next task, we add a visual dimension; for example, by playing a video with accompanying sound. We normally search for a clip that shows an artist or performer that the students will experience live at the festival but performing a different material than what is on the festival programme. The idea is to build some recognition, but without anticipating or controlling the students’ experience of the live expression and situation they will encounter and write about later.

In the video assignment, the students are again asked to write five or six single words about the video, and in addition they will now also write a sentence.

Risks to entertain others (1)
Good circus artists who love to showcase their talents
They dance to music in a circus (2)
It was a bit strange, but at the same time it was imaginative and had a lot of dancing.
I think it gave me a fun and lively feeling. The dancing was artistic, and the movements were emotional. The style seemed free and vibrant.
I have six friends. We’re thinking of making a game show, but it’s a little dangerous, but we want to do it. (4)
You have to take chances to succeed. The video was calm and you got the content very easily.
Circus is about trying new things and in a lot of what they do, you must be a little tough to cope. The music was in tune with the dance.
Mysterious atmosphere with music and movements. Background music.
It was motivating to watch. Got the feeling that everyone could join in and show what they can do. (3) Lots of different talents.
Acrobatics, control, what you risk, only you have control. It is your choice.
Acrobatics is about taking risks.
Risk, dance, circus, theatre, a lot of dance

Task 2, Honningsvåg 2014, group of 14-year-old students. Response to promotional video for Cirkus Cirkör: UNDERART:. Ode to a Crash Landing (2014)[8]
Trailer of Underart by Cirkus Cirkör

The transition from single words to sentences is an interesting pedagogical challenge. When asked to write single words, a student might combine a description, a feeling, a strong opinion and unexpected association. Writing a sentence implies a choice of perspective that locks the writer more in one direction. In the above description of a promotional video from the Swedish circus company Cirkus Cirkör, who toured the Norwegian county of Finnmark for the Cultural Schoolbag in 2014, perspectives vary between more neutral descriptions (2), concentrated renderings of theme that also catches the relation between performer and audience (1), feelings elicited in the writer (3) and a sentence that might not be related to the input at all, but which if it is, is speaking from the perspective of one of the persons on stage.(4)

When the sentences are written on the board, we try to make the students reflect on this difference between association, opinion and analysis. We compare their sentences and their single words and encourage them to suggest how the playfulness or a strong opinion can be preserved in longer arguments.

When we have time for a third task, this often departs from another video taken from material sent to us by the students in advance. Before each course, we ask the students via a teacher to send us a critique or review of music or of performing arts that recently did catch their attention. In this way, we get a glimpse into expressions that the students listen to or watch outside school, and we often create a writing assignment or a discussion around a selection of this material. It also makes students start reflecting around criticism of music and performing arts before we arrive.

Another goal of the video assignment is for the students to experience, as mentioned above, how some qualities of performing arts escapes naming, and how also putting words to it implies making choices and thereby ignoring some parts of the artistic expression. We talk about how the sentences written about the video show how each of the students sticks to different things in the same video clip: some write about sound and music, others about the room or the site, the light, the instruments played, the camera perspective or editing techniques used in the film. The video also works as a starting point for a discussion about perspective and the different types of freedom of choice that is offered to a spectator in a live expression and a recording respectively.

Contexts for Criticism

After two or three such open writing assignments with discussions, we move on to talk more specifically about reviews and critiques as expressions of opinion in a public space and what gatekeeper mechanisms that exist in this space. Again, we start in a specific artistic experience: Without further introduction, we play the students a song. When the song is finished, we collect some reactions to it before we tell the group that it was released as a single in 1997 and subsequently reviewed in a free concert and nightlife industry newspaper in the city of Oslo.[9] We then show the review, copied in below, and ask the students whether they think this is actually a review:

The entire review reads, “Hold kjeft! Drittkjerring,” which roughly translates, “Shut up! Bitch.” Also, both the name of the song and the name of the artist are slightly misspelled. The review was signed (and, by the way, written by a man about a female artist).

After the first surprise has subsided, the students rarely agree on the answer to our question. Some think it is a review, others do not. The minimal format of the text is an effective starting point for the students to reflect and reason around what a review is. If this is a review, why? What makes a text a review? And if it is not, why not? What is missing? How can we know that this is a review of music? And why does a writer choose to formulate himself in this way? The discussion also often touches upon whether the spelling mistakes are random or made on purpose, and how they affect our confidence in the critic and his competence.

Although a majority of students reacts to the blatant attack on the artist’s person and the complete lack of reference to her music, surprisingly many also mention a performative dimension and argue that the purpose of the provocation and the total absence of reference to the music in question might be to make the reader so curious that she has no choice but to buy the record and listen for herself.

This sequence of the course normally leads us to the title of this article. Natt og Dag’s review also work as an introduction to talking about media, how they work and how the media landscape continuously changes and has changed since 1997. The review was published in an edited newspaper. What is the relationship of responsibility between a critic and his editor-in-chief? Who should the artist approach if she wants to react? Today, we are inundated with similar statements in social media that did not exist when Grenne’s words were printed. Would his three-word review have provoked as much today? What does the publishing context mean, whether online or on paper, for how we read and interpret a text?

The discussion with the students about media often turns into a practical description of our collaboration with a specific newspaper in connection with the course.

The Final Texts

Normally, the students write their final text of approximately one A4 page after the workshop, after having attended a live performance. We receive all texts by email and give all participants a short individual feedback in writing. This feedback focuses on content and on qualities of the actual text as criticism and/or response to performing arts. We do not correct spelling mistakes.

When we collaborate with a newspaper, students can choose whether they want their text considered for publication. Those who want, must write and send us their text within a deadline that we agree on with the newspaper, normally 24 to 48 hours after the concert or performance. We explain to the students why such deadlines exist, about the news criterion in a newspaper, the autonomy of an editor-in-chief. This also prepare the students for the rare occasions where the newspaper must withdraw from publishing their review, which can happen in a busy publishing environment.

When receiving reviews from the students, we select three or four among them. Before these are sent to the local newspaper, we do a quick editing process with the writer in question by email or phone. We correct as little as possible—it is the student’s text—but we correct typos that will, in any case, be corrected before print or which will obviously weaken the writer’s credibility or authority. Sometimes, we ask students to add a few sentences where we feel that their reasoning or opinions can be elaborated. We also clear up factual errors and misunderstandings that may arise when students attend unfamiliar performance and concert situations. As far as possible, we therefore try to have one of us present at the performances or concerts that the students write about.

When we select reviews for publishing, our criteria are the same as in a professional editorial role: The most important is the quality of the text itself. Then, we aim for the three or four texts we publish to cover different concerts in the festival. It has also happened that two different perspectives on the same concert were published. As far as possible in such a small selection, we select writers of both sexes.

When the texts are on the street, we often get surprised reactions from teachers, who never get to know in advance which texts we choose. We do not know the students from before and do not know how they usually write. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Our workshop normally lasts around 3 hours. We are not together with the students long enough to know if our feedback to them is understood. At the same time, independence makes us less biased. This can be an educational and democratic advantage in that we promote other voices. We have experienced receiving texts from multilingual students who, precisely because they master several languages, have formulated themselves unexpectedly and poetically.

Text examples

The transition from associative single words to sentences is of course also present when writing longer texts. Below are two final reviews of the same live performance—a theatre production intended for junior high schools, touring the Cultural Schoolbag in the county of Hedmark in 2015. We very seldom select performances that are intended at specific age groups as our case, but here our workshop followed a tour with such a production and was offered to smaller groups of students who had volunteered to serve as student assistants during Cultural Schoolbag productions at their school. These texts are shorter than our normal final reviews, as they were written during and not after the workshop. The students wrote for around 30 minutes after having completed the course and, subsequently, attended the performance. Texts were not published outside class. The texts are included here because their length allows for the inclusion of two, to show a difference in the students’ choice of perspective:

A. Olli suffers from ADHD and struggles to concentrate and adapt both at school, at home and elsewhere. Every day he is told that he should remain still, be calm or adapt to others. This is difficult for him, and his father and his teacher Tor do not make things much better. Olli’s best friend Vegar will help him. But every time he [Olli] objects, he is held back. One day when Olli’s father is at school to talk to Tor about Olli’s behaviour, he [Olli] is determined to communicate his thoughts. He also does this little by little, after Tor’s many interruptions. This piece shows that there is poor communication between adults and children (1), in the way that Vegar really wants to help Olli, but Tor does not want to face the truth. This says a lot about the relationships the people in the play have with each other, and it is well played. (2)

B. The actors in the play were good at playing many roles and at pretending that there were several people in the room. (1)  Role switching took place by replacing simple, small props, such as a cap. (2) The table and chairs were only moved a little so that we would understand that the roles moved. The play showed the life of a boy with ADHD and that almost no one showed confidence in him. No one wanted to hear what he or his friends said. (3) It made me open my eyes a little extra and think a little about what should be done by those who are responsible for the children at home and at school. (4) I think this play has good morals and wants to tell us something.

Final review from two different students (not published), Kongsvinger 2015, mixed group of students, 15 and 16 years old. Response to a live performance of Teater Grimsborken’s production Sitt stille!!! (2015).

The first text focuses on retelling the narrative or message of the performance, inserts a short interpretation (1) and ends with an even shorter evaluation (2), without further reasoning. One might read the text as a description, but there is nothing in the text that reflects the specific event or performance—the text might be about any performance of the play during the tour. In our feedback to students like A, we might suggest adding more visual description to achieve specificity and to give reasons for how or why they considered it well played. The question of when the pronoun “he” points to Olli, his father or his teacher Tor is an example of something we would sort out together with the student if the text was to be published in a newspaper, but that we do not spend too much time on in class.

Grimsborken’s production Sitt stille!!!, 2015

The second text focuses on describing and evaluating the acting, thereby early informing the reader that she is reading about a play. We get a reason for why the writer think it was good, through examples (1, 2), a short, descriptive sum-up of the narrative (3) an interpretation (4) and an individual opinion (5). Text B is more unclear about the content of the play and what the message of the performance might be. But read together, the perspectives of the two texts tell us quite a lot about the performance.

Reading texts together two by two like this is a section that we sometimes include also in the ordinary workshop when there is time. It is an effective way of showing the students what differences in perspective look like and how a public space is constituted between individual voices.

The two above texts lack the associative and more abstract qualities that our workshop’s initial task normally spark. When students respond to this kind of text based theatre with a social theme and directed towards a specific age group, we find this quality is hard, if not impossible to achieve. Below is the response to the first music task (in the workshops in Hedmark we used sentences, not single words) by the group of students that student A and B above were a part of:

It was quite dark tones, which rose sharply, and it was a little uncomfortable to listen to.
It is mysterious and the tension rises.
Heavy, high notes that give a special soul to the music.
It is mysterious and adds a mood that makes me feel that I don’t know, and a little scared
The music begins quite calmly, it becomes more and more dramatic and builds up.
The drama and atmosphere build up along the way. It creates a peak of tension and becomes very intense.
This song was quite monotonous and the rhythms went forward very strightly, but at the same time it was extremely scary.
Intense music that puts me in a funeral mood and there are chills down my spine.

Task 1, Kongsvinger 2015, mixed group of students, 15 and 16 years old. Response to the first 3–4 minutes of the orchestra piece Atmospheres (1961) by composer György Ligeti.[10]

Conclusion

The three verbs describe, evaluate, argue have emerged experientially in our first few workshops, growing from the reflection with the students around the five or six words that the students write in our very first workshop task in response to a short, abstract piece of music. We find that the verbs give room for individual perspectives, writing styles and opinions. They have also inspired our own professional practice. We have both employed them in professional editorial process feedback to critics as a framework for discussion of where a text has its emphasis and in which direction it might be developed further. In 2016, one of us also used them as analytical tools in a research article—in a text analysis comparing five reviews of the same contemporary dance performance.[11]

Teachers in subjects as different as language, maths and politics have also responded that they think our three words can be transferred to their field as an approach to nonfictional writing. We believe that this is not just to our credit, but an example of how the specific experiences that performing arts require from and build in its critics, can be of use in other fields of thought.


[1] Gloppen Musikkfest. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

[2] Students are from 16 to 18 years old.

[3] In daily newspapers Aftenposten and Dagsavisen respectively.

[4] Ballade.no and Scenekunst.no.

[5] Periskop.no.

[6] www.denkulturelleskolesekken.no/english-information/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

[7] rikskonsertene.wixsite.com/nordicschoolconcerts/norway (site from 2014). Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

[8] youtu.be/W69oBG8kR3c. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

[9] Natt&Dag, November 1997.

[10] open.spotify.com/track/3HVUDpc6RNoY4d1zF5F287?si=o6VD8VGJR2WAhMiyEYzAYA. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

[11] Hild Borchgrevink. “Dans, offentlighet og tverrfaglighet. Beskrive, vurdere, begrunne. Hva skal en dansekritikk gjøre?” Bevegelser – norsk dansekunst i 20, edited by in Sigrid Svendal.Skald forlag, 2016. 


*Ida Habbestad is executive director of the Norwegian Society of Composers. Former editor-in-chief of the online magazine www.ballade.no (2012–18)and head of board in the Norwegian Critics Association (2013–19). Since 2019, she has been leading the professional committee for the Norwegian Cultural Council’s support scheme for journals and criticism. She is a trained musician (BA) and holds a master’s degree in recent music history, both degrees from the Norwegian Academy of Music. She has extensive experience with editorial work, mainly as a journalist in Ballade (2006-2010) and critic in Dagsavisen (2007–11) and Aftenposten (2011–17). She is often used as chair for debates and professional discussions both about music, cultural policy and similar topics. idahabbestad@me.com. 

**Hild Borchgrevink is a Ph.D research candidate at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo (2020–23), with a project on language and art music as epistemological and performative practices. She holds an MFA in Art and Public Spaces from the Oslo Academy of Fine Arts, an MA in musicology from the University of Oslo and an equivalent to BA in creative writing and performative criticism from Skrivekunstakademiet i Hordaland and the art academies in Stockholm and Tromsø. From 2012 to 2017, she was the editor of Scenekunst.no. Latest peer reviewed article in print: “On Sound and Sharing,” Criticism for an Absent Reader, edited by Anette Th. Pettersen and Maria Veie Sandvik, Uten tittel, 2018. hildbo@gmail.com.

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