Come to class for the rock star, stay for the concert
Professor David Leaf (far right) with music powerhouses after a concert for a show he produced, "An All Star Tribute To Brian Wilson." Left to right: Jimmy Webb, Phil Ramone, Brian Wilson and Leaf. Photo by Robin Siegel, © Words & Music, Inc.
In a new music class that will resemble a concert or a late-night talk show more than a lecture, UCLA students will fill the Popper Theater for weekly presentations and performances by famous songwriters and music industry pros.
Taking the stage will be celebrity songwriters like Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters and the prolific Dan Wilson, who wrote “Closing Time” for Semisonic and most recently co-wrote Adele’s Grammy-winning “Someone Like You.” Also appearing will be several Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees, including Mike Stoller (“Hound Dog”), Jimmy Webb, Lamont Dozier, and husband-and-wife team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”).
[Update, April 18, 2012: On a first-come, first-serve basis, anyone with a Bruin card can RSVP for one of 150 seats
at some of the upcoming classes.]
“Songwriting: Killer Hooks, Essential Songs and Songwriters of the Rock Era,” a new undergraduate course, helps kick off the inaugural season of the Herb Alpert School of Music
's new music industry minor
, which prepares students for employment in the music business.
Teaching the class — or perhaps, more appropriately, hosting it — is Lecturer David Leaf, an award-winning writer and director of several music documentaries, and the rare breed of academic who’s listed in the faculty directory and on the Internet Movie Database
“The class will look at the work of the greatest songwriters of the post-WWII rock generation,” from about 1955 to 1990, Leaf said. “Six of the guests are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, so we are exposing the students to genuine legends. By presenting these people, I want the students to learn what it means to devote your life to music.”
Famous musicians and singers will speak for the first half of each class and perform their hits on guitar, piano or a cappella. Among the guests will be Songwriter Hall of Famer Mac Davis, Grammy Award-winner Peter Asher, and the Go-Gos' Charlotte Caffey, who wrote “We got the Beat.”
The second half of each class will feature prominent music professionals from producers to publishers. Contributing their expertise on the business side will be Jay Boberg, a record executive with I.R.S. (International Record Syndicate) Records and a UCLA alumnus; Del Bryant, president of BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.); Jody Gerson, co-president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing; Randy Poe, president of Leiber and Stoller Music Publishing; and Jon Platt, president of EMI Music.
Leaf’s goal is not to show students how to write songs, he said, but to introduce them to the variety of ways one can turn a passion for music into a career.
UCLA’s Popper Theater at Schoenberg Hall only has room for 144 people, and there’s already a waiting list for the much-anticipated class, which begins April 2. While enjoying live performances will be part of every week’s class session, students expecting an easy ride are in for a surprise.
“I’m a big believer in making students work really hard,” said Leaf, who plans to pile on the homework. To prepare for each week’s musical guests, students will be required to listen to their music, watch documentaries, and read, read, read.
“When these guests come into class, the student will already know about them. They won’t be strangers,” Leaf said.
In their study materials will be a compendium of interviews with great songwriters of the era, and “Tunesmith,” which Leaf calls “the greatest book on modern songwriting.” The class will get a visit from the author of “Tunesmith,” Jimmy Webb, a multiple Grammy-award winning songwriter whose words were sung by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant and REM, to drop a few names.
“How often does the author of a textbook come into class?” Leaf said. “Shakespeare’s never visiting anyone’s class. But essentially, we get to study lots of people’s sonnets, and then they’re going to tell us about them.”
Students will also get a look at how a song is created, with the songwriters describing how they first developed the song, then performing a stripped-down acoustic version, followed by a clip of the song featuring the artist who made it a hit, Leaf said
“This is putting a spotlight on a little-understood art form: songwriting,” Leaf said. “There’s a certain amount of magic, or alchemy, or faith in yourself that gives you the confidence to keep writing until you write a great song.”
Leaf will interview the guests and moderate Q-and-A sessions.
“I’ll prod them to tell the stories that are important to explaining who they are,” he said. “It will be my job to move things along as if it were a talk show.”
It’s also reminiscent of one of Leaf’s previous jobs working on the show, “The Salute to the American Songwriter.”
“Really, the course was born there. ... To hear those songwriters talk about their craft and to hear them play their most beloved songs was thrilling,” Leaf said. “I feel like I’m curating an art exhibit, except these are living artists. That’s why this course is so exciting, because it’s living and breathing.”