Can You Teach Songwriting? By Michael Anderson
Can You Teach Songwriting?
I have been having an ongoing discussion with a friend of mine recently, and it mirrors something I have thought about many times over the past few years. It is: Can you teach someone how to write a song?
This friend is the mother of two very good songwriters – successful artists. She says songwriting is an innate talent – and the process of the struggle is a self inflicted and absolutely necessary path to realization of an artist’s potential – something like the caterpillar struggling to get free of the cocoon and become a butterfly. The entire growing and learning paradigm of the starving artist is part of the deal.
I am a product of that environment and process. Becoming a songwriter was a long, and at times, difficult journey - one with lessons in every failure. But also, amazing insight and sense of accomplishment in every success, large or small as they may be in the eyes of the world. Every step was fulfilling when it was paid for in effort.
In the past few years I have seen my role as a writer become more of a mentoring process – I have become more of a consultant / counselor / mentor / teacher, through MI , and various other means.
In this role I have to continually evaluate my relevance.
When you are the artist the results speak for themselves (or they don’t). You pay the price, and reap the benefits. Being an artist is a uniquely self sustaining enterprise. It takes a strong individual to stand and deliver, and then face the results of their effort.
As a mentor / teacher, the process becomes entirely about the student. Are you a good teacher if your student is talented? Are you a poor teacher if your student is not? Can you teach a student to be successful?
I have stated in my book and many times to individuals that I cannot make them talented. That decision was made by a higher authority than me.
And I tell them that whatever level of talent they have been gifted with will only be developed through their personal effort and desire to become as good as they can be.
I think one of the reasons my friend says you can’t teach songwriting is that our society has a tendency to teach through a codified process. In a way, that is the only way a society can teach in an organized, efficient manner.
But art is not organized and efficient. And artists are not organized and efficient (for the most part). Most artists I have known are disorganized, inefficient, cantankerous, self indulgent, self centered, narcissistic, arrogant, and lazy. And those are the nice ones.
I have noticed basically two schools of thought in methods of teaching and learning.
One is by rote – give the student information, let them learn the information, test them on their memory and comprehension of the information, and give them a degree that says they learned, at one time, that body of information.
That is a good way to learn information. It is not designed to teach creative process. But when an employer hires someone with an accounting degree he can be pretty confident that person can add, subtract, and balance financial statements.
But does a publisher hire a songwriter because he graduated from a music school? Does a record company sign an act because they read charts well?
Of course not. Completely irrelevant. The proof is in the work and the work alone. As it should be.
We are dealing with a new era in not only the music business, but in the artistic paradigm. The old business models have changed radically and are in the process of change continually. How can an artist of any kind keep up with the market and develop their craft?
I have come to believe the old café society could be a model. Artists in Paris in the 1920’s and writers in New York in the 1950’s and 60’s hung out together, they talked, they argued, they were made aware of what was going on through personal networking. Hollywood in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s was that for me. Artists need that contact with other artists. Might be the internet, might be magazines – but nothing takes the place of personal contact and interaction – “that is a great song, I have to go write one better because my new song isn’t as good as that” - “I have a great idea sparked by that conversation” - “I want that girl / guy to notice me, I need to write a song that gets their attention”.
All valid reasons to create.
I have found the best way to mentor writers is to ask questions – make them find their own answers. I remember people teaching / mentoring me – not always aware that they were – by example (good and bad), by criticism, by praise, by indifference, with romance, money, and scorn.
We are not islands – people learn from people in many different ways. I have never heard of a great songwriter who totally lived on an island alone and crafted all these great songs that affected the world. Songwriting is an interactive process.
I believe a learning environment should make that interaction available. Then it is up to the student to take it and run with it.
So no, you can’t teach songwriting.
But you can learn to write better songs.
back to list