Music for the Masses: Music Clubs, Part 2, April 2013

In the March 1 issue of LJ, Music for the Masses introduced librarians who host music clubs at their branches, offering patrons the opportunity to discuss a particular rec­ord, performer, or subgenre as other clubs do books. Here’s the second part of an interview with Steve Kemple, music reference librarian with the Cincinnati Public Library; Michael Farley, adult reference librarian at Bethlehem Public Library, NY; and Tammy Sayles, marketing and outreach librarian, and Bill Thompson, reference librarian and professor, both at Western Illinois University Libraries, Macomb.

How do you determine what music to play?

Bill Thompson:I sometimes suggest a topic if something is going on in the world—Jazz Fest, say.  Also, if I know of someone’s research interest, I might ask them for a recommendation. Or if I see them perform, I might ask them what music matters to them. It’s not that different from book clubs, really. For example, I can imagine asking someone on the music faculty to do “the music of death and dying,” and we could get a great series of fugues, death arias from operas, funeral hymns, country and western songs, Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” and so on.

Michael Farley: I go by intuition and choose music I am personally enthusiastic about, familiar with, and that I want to share with people and see what their thoughts are about it. My excitement about what I present seems to inspire the group’s interest in attentive listening.

Steve Kemple: Some weeks we focus on a theme, like Iranian music or bossa nova, while other weeks we start with an album, like John Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. One particularly effective tactic has been to pick a familiar tune and listen to renditions by different performers. Often this will lead to deciding on the next program’s theme, for example listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing “The Girl from Ipanema” got us talking about scat singing, which led to deciding [on that for] the next program’s theme.

What is your favorite album session so far?

Tammy Sayles: My favorites are protest music and Warren Zevon. I enjoyed the protest music because it was presented by our government documents librarian, who traveled to concerts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so he presented the music from the concerts he had attended. His stories about what was happening during that time, the artists who performed, and his personal photos were very entertaining. I liked the Zevon presentation because he wasn’t a musician I was familiar with, and I found myself really enjoying his music.

Farley: Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys. We listened to each track and discovered the arc of a story—from idealism to dis­illusion-ment—embedded in the sequence. It was actually quite moving to talk about.

Kemple: I think my favorite session so far is on Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. At the time I was running the program with fellow librarian Andy Balterman, and he brought a lot of knowledge about Hancock. We listened to the entire album, then different versions of the title track. When Andy pointed out that Tony Williams’s percussion was emulating ocean tides, it blew everyone’s mind.

What advice would you give to those wanting to take something like this on?

Sayles: Give yourself time for the idea to take hold. I do not subscribe to the notion that an event is only successful if it has a certain number of attendees. I believe an event to be a success when attendees tell me as they are leaving that they really enjoyed it. Set three or four different listening parties, set the day of the week and time the same for all, and then promote the events as a series.

Thompson: Stress that [this] is an opportunity to learn about new music.  This ties it in with the library’s educational mission. It is also a way to promote your library’s music collection. Don’t focus on the numbers. Some kinds of music are more popular than others (and will draw a larger crowd) than others. Really, ten to 15 people is about perfect for this kind of event.

Farley: Find some artists or bands you are really excited to share with people. Be prepared to fill attendees in on biographical or historical context. Choose certain tracks to play as representative. Give some thought as to what is happening in the music and offer a comment to the group to get a discussion going. It’s easy to be opinionated about music you love, but it’s important to resist coming to any conclusions before the group has a chance to think about it themselves.

Kemple: Find out what kinds of music your customers enjoy. Start out with something they know and love and go from there. Be equal parts challenging and generous. I would also recommend having things for people to look at while listening.  This can be an opportunity to bring in other items from the collection. Finally, don’t be afraid to let the conversation digress. I think that’s one of the more profound aspects of listening programs—the way music can be a touchstone for other topics. Listening to music from Iran led to a discussion of sociology and politics, while bossa nova led us to information theory. (And eventually to Neil Young…because that’s what everything ultimately comes back to, right?)

About Matthew Moyer


  1. Gina Shimel says:

    I loved this article and thought it was such a great idea that I am starting my own music club for our library after the first of the year. I was wondering if there were any more tips or handy advice to someone like me, that would help it become a success. We have so many music lovers at our library that it seems like such a no brainer to have a music club!