Science songster interview #15: Dave Nachmanoff

I first met Dave Nachmanoff through Wendy Silk, the leader of the NSF pilot project that helped support development of this website between 2010 and 2012.

While Dave is a musician rather than an academic, his cat-herding skills were obvious from his masterful coordination of a science songwriting workshop at the 2010 UC-Davis’ Oak Discovery Day, which resulted in the song I’ll Take Care Of You If You’ll Take Care Of Me.

In the interview below, Dave explains how he conducts such workshops, what he thinks music can bring to science education, and much more.

Dave Nachmanoff

SAS&M: As a philosophy PhD, you are highly educated, but not as a scientist. What about the realm of science or science education speaks to you or is most interesting to you?

DN: I suppose as a (former) philosopher, the questions in philosophy of science are often interesting to me, also the history of science. I’m not really much of a math whiz, so physics and lots of chemistry etc… tend to confuse me, and I lean more toward biology and life sciences, but the theoretical question of physics are pretty fascinating, as long as someone with better math skills can translate a bit.

SAS&M: You do artist-in-residence sessions or workshops in which you will help a class of students write a song, sometimes about science. Give us an overview of a typical scenario: what the main goal is, how much time you have to reach this goal, and how you get there.

DN: The main goal of the workshop is usually to complete a song by the end of the session, and for the students to learn about the topic that we are writing about by explaining it to me. Also by having to organize the information in a coherent way for a song, they are helped to sythesize information and pick out what is most important among the many things they have learned. The time frame varies, but it is generally a class period of approximately an hour. Sometimes we have two class sessions to complete the song.

The method is fairly simple, but a little hard to summarize. I start by playing a song (usually one of mine or something written by other students), then use that example to explain the parts of songs and how they function. Once that is clear, we brainstorm a song topic (or sometimes the teacher has already done this with them and they have topic ready) and we start to create a song map — planning out what the sections of the song will be about. After that we usually start by constructing lyrics for either the chorus or a verse (often the first verse, but not always) trying to stick with our outline (song map).

Once the class has come up with lyrics for a section, with a little help from me making sure that scansion and meter and rhyme are all OK, I will look for volunteers to sing/hum/whistle an original tune to go with those words. Usually someone can and will do it, and sometimes enough students want to do this, that we can divide it up and have one sing/hum the first line, another the second etc… I will create an accompiment on guitar as we go along which helps to drive the interest/excitement level up, as it starts to sound like a real “song.” Then we work section by section to fill in the parts of the outline. With luck and time we do some re-writing, looking more closely at word choice etc…

In partnership with a good teacher, the science part should be accurate (or at least accurately reflect whatever they are being taught), but being a layman with regard to science I don’t usually interfere too much in that part of things. Sometimes, though not always, the song will educate other students about the scientific topic in a (hopefully) fun and interesting way, sort of like Schoolhouse Rock, but written by the students, not by adults for students. If nothing else, it may help them retain the information that they have learned and then explained to me for the song.

SAS&M: When groups of students write songs with you, what are the main problems that you encounter?

DN: Probably the two biggest problems are the dynamics of working as a group, and musical “shyness.” From picking the song topic to choosing words for lyrics, if the group isn’t functioning well as a team, it’s hard to accomplish a collective task like this. The “shyness” problem is somewhat different depending on the age group and setting — teenagers and pre-teens, especially in mixed gender groups, can be very self-conscious about singing in front of their peers. So sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get anyone to volunteer to sing/hum a melody, though luckily there are usually a few in any group that will do it.

SAS&M: What fraction of your employment as a musician is devoted to these workshops with students? What other musical activities pay the bills?

DN: This is a pretty small part of what I do (at least recently). I probably do one or two “residencies” a year at the moment, with occasional one-off sessions, like the afternoon session I’m doing at an arts center in Davis in May. My primary work for the last 14 years or so has been touring as Al Stewart’s lead guitarist and opening act. I also do solo concerts — many house concerts, but also folk clubs and small venues and festivals. I write Custom Songs for people and run a small studio where I can produce CDs for others and do session work, often “long-distance” by sending files through the internet. I’m starting to do a bit of teaching (songwriting and guitar) by SKYPE now too.

SAS&M: Some people (like previous SAS&M interviewee Do Peterson) argue that music is best suited for capturing the emotions associated with scientific pursuits, rather than the scientific content itself. Others feel that music is uniquely well-suited for conveying content in a memorable way. What are your thoughts on this?

DN: I’m not sure I can really take sides in the argument, as I don’t see it as an either/or choice. Music is a wonderful tool for communicating about all kinds of topics and one of the great things about songs is that they can appeal to the head/heart/booty, sometimes all at once! Some songs can lead the listener to feel something, some make the listener think, or see things in a new perspective, and some just make you want to dance! As far as science goes — the dancing part might not be so important, but music can certainly convey ideas and content, and also capture emotions related to scientific pursuits.

SAS&M: Actually, previous SAS&M interviewee Lodge McCammon would say that the dancing CAN be a vital component of learning! Moving on, who else’s work in the arena of science-based music do you admire, and why?

DN: I think you have heard some of the songs my friend Jim Ocean has written on science-related topics, Jim is good at catching some of the emotional side of things, but also has a humor about many of his songs that keeps them interesting. I’m a big fan of the band They Might Be Giants and their songs (aimed at kids, but great for any age) about science are pretty amazing in their musical complexity and lyrical cleverness.

SAS&M: Any additional comments?

DN: I can’t claim to have a specialty in science songs, but as someone who is pretty passionate about songwriting, and also about education, I can see music as a wonderful tool that should be integrated into science education in the future. I love songs that are about non-standard topics, and at least so far, the top-40 is not glutted with songs about nuclear fusion or cell-division…. Thanks for doing what you do to shed more light on this hitherto somewhat murky intersection of music and academia!

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