What Can You Learn from a Songwriting Class?

Last night I attended a free, one hour songwriting class taught by composer and songwriter Jody Gray at the Gotham Writers Open House.  I jumped at the chance to sign up, but was a bit skeptical as to what I could actually learn in a songwriting course.  This was the same skepticism I faced when I begrudgingly decided to go to my voice therapy sessions after my vocal chord surgery last October.  Songwriting.  Correction, GREAT songwriting, I believe, is an instinctual process and cannot be taught.  Just as you learn how to use your voice.  It comes naturally.  Anyone can play a simple chord progression, rewrite the same old tired generic lyrics, crank out an album and call themselves a songwriter.  I’m not saying I’m in the category of GREAT songwriter by any means, but I am definitely proud of my ability to manipulate the standard songwriting form in order to create a new, yet familiar, sound experience for the listener.  That is wire you must balance in order to become one of the greats:  finding that balance between writing songs that showcase your individuality and unique skill set while utilizing a recognizable, more mainstream format.  But I digress….let’s leave that conversation for another day.  All my suspicions aside, my curiosity peaked as people began filing into the room…

Fifteen expressionless faces lined the walls of the tiny classroom waiting for the teacher.  Most had their new, free Gotham Writers notepad and pen in hand, however I could spot the more serious writers who swapped the freebies for their raggedy journals and ballpoints.  Jody stumbled into the room a few minutes late apologizing profusely, saying he fell asleep on the train due to jet lag.  He arrived the night before from a trip to Italy.  It was a great excuse so no one minded.  He quickly whipped out his lap top paired with a mint green 70s style bluetooth speaker.  I was anxiously awaiting his introduction.  “The best way to organize lyrics,” he said as he played My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music.  “Listing,” he said as he held up a new finger for every item Julie Andrews lists in the song.  He then compared that song to Carrie Underwood’s hit Before He Cheats talking about how ‘listing’ is a classic songwriting method that has proven to be successful within each new generation and evolution of songwriting.  Now I became even more intrigued; this is not something I had not consciously thought about while writing.  I began to wonder if any of the songs I have written involve listing..  This is what I was hoping for; to take away some small nugget from the class I could actively use to enhance my work.  Even if nothing else came from the class, I was satisfied.

Jody then began to talk about form, describing it as a template or “the basement you can build your building on.”  Somewhere over the Rainbow and Hey Jude were played several times in order to clearly identify the A A B A songwriting form.  He went on to examine how lyrics and melodies work together, how to choose vowel sounds, and how to keep your stream of conscious linear.  I found myself thinking ahead knowing what he was going to say, already well versed in the subject at hand, but very entertained by his enthusiasm and delivery.  I knew I wanted to pick his brain after the class was over.

Not really knowing how to eloquently phrase the question ‘How can I do what you do?’, I gave him a brief summary of what I do and what I would like to do with my songwriting and he offered up another great nugget of advice:  “Find the people who fill in your blanks.”  Meaning, you should constantly be searching for and collaborating with people who can do things you can’t in order to create and recreate exciting new musical designs.  I understand that was a mouthful..  For example, I mentioned that I love jazz and have written a few jazz inspired songs which we plan to have recorded acoustically.  Upping the anti, he suggested we not only record the song acoustically, but collaborate with an electronic musician who can strip away the acoustics and rewire the vocals over a more computerized sound.  Find a producer who can bump up the tempo and remix the structure in a way you couldn’t think of.  Twist it around, fold it up.  Search for different outlets where you can expand your creative process by working with other people who can add new elements to your music.  Don’t tape yourself up in the box of ‘this is my song and nobody could do anything to make it better.’  That is the mindset I get trapped in quite frequently now that I think of it.  Anything that we create we become extremely protective of, often closing our eyes and ears to any criticisms.  When you are in the arts, it is so important that you are constantly improving yourself, challenging yourself, evolving yourself.  And you cannot do anything alone!  It is extremely intimidating to collaborate with others on creative projects due to the constant underlying fear of judgement and strain of self doubt weighing heavily in the back of all artistic minds.  However, connecting yourself with other artistic brains can produce a beautiful quality of work that could not be accomplished alone.  I believe I may be digressing yet again…

My point was to share with you what I learned about taking a songwriting class.. in the brief hour I was in one.  What did I learn?  I learned that you will get some valuable nuggets of information from any class you take, depending on how actively you listen and participate, BUT sometimes you learn the most from talking to the teacher after class.

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