Songwriting: Fearless: By Michael Anderson
I always tried to find a way to make my classes relevant to the students that are there rather than have a format that I impose – so I asked a lot of questions at the beginning of a term to get an idea of where the students are coming from – what they know and what they want to learn.
On the way to the first class of a night extension class I ran into a former student who had really come a long way since she was student originally. I asked her to say a few words to the class before I gave the lesson.I was very interested to hear a former student’s perspective, and I was sure the new students would find what she might have to say perhaps more connecting to how they were feeling and approaching the class. What she said didn’t surprise me. She said the first time she attended one of my classes she wasn’t writing – she was “blocked”. She said that the journaling and free writing I had her and other students do opened her up to at least expressing her feelings and that the live aspects of the class – getting up and performing what she was writing - helped her get comfortable in front of an audience and eventually gave her confidence in her songs.
She then did a couple songs live and blew the new students away. I was very proud of her because I remembered where she started and could see how far she had developed since then. She was always fearless in accepting constructive criticism, in fact begged for it, not only in class but in the many one on one sessions we had.I have seen it over and over – I tell students about the process – but to hear it from one who can relate directly to them was far more powerful than my talking about it.
One of the interesting parts of her talk that only I was aware of however, was the fact that the class I taught that she attended was an experiment. It was a class full of vocalists – and many of them didn’t play any kind of instrument.I had to rethink exactly what a song was and just how we actually write songs in order to be able to teach a class like that. I realized the primary instrument for songwriting was the human voice. It changes everything when you realize that. I had to think about what a song was – and decided, like the library of congress, that it was a lyric and melody.
So I had to think again about how we write songs. There are of course all the books and tutorials, experts and advice givers – the generalities - but the bottom line is still the basic - saying what we feel in a way that relates to someone else so they can feel it too.One of the ways I am finding to teach that is to get the classes more personal and less “informational”. Smaller classes, maybe even “in the round” – less curriculum and more song presentation. Once the group can feel what is going on it is really easier to look at a song and see what is working and what is not working. Then, you can take the elements that are in every songwriting book and apply them to what you are hearing.But that fearless commitment to communication needs to be the basis.
At some point then the development of a song does become technical. Because you can have a strong emotion and good story and relevant interesting details and miss in the way the listener perceives it. That is where reliable feedback with experience in a safe environment becomes a very valuable asset.Do you have that? If you don’t, how can you find that?
That is where the generalities become specific – because every writer and every song is unique. Knowing what should be happening in a chorus is a different thing from knowing how to make the chorus you are working on happen. You can learn through experience and trial and error, or you can get advice from someone who has learned from experience or trial and error or both. Because it takes time to learn that.I am finding more and more students who are open to specific, direct critiques of their material and methods. Maybe the world is getting more serious, I don’t know – but I am finding fewer people who just want to be told what they want to hear and more people who want me to be honest and direct.
What should you do if you have gone through the books, the seminars, the theory, and philosophy of songwriting and you want to take that next step in your development? I recommend you play live (immediate and honest real time feedback), use a service like Taxi for the critiques and not just for the strokes, and / or go one on one with a professional who you trust to tell you what they are really hearing.And be fearless.
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