Letter to Emerging Songwriters From a Songwriting Coach

James Linderman is one of the passionate coaches who helped nurture our 120+ community of songwriters who participated in this year’s S.A.C. Songwriting & Blogging Challenge.  As the challenge wrapped up he summarized some words of wisdom which he has agreed to share with us here.  Thanks to Debra Alexander, our other passionate coach, for transcribing James’ video.

by James Linderman

Be Wary of The Critique.
As you have your work critiqued, remember that you are winning over—or not winning over—one single listener with a perceived importance. Credentials can be a bit of a mirage. The hit song someone has had doesn’t necessarily give them that much information to pass along to you as to how to produce a hit song of your own.

The material that you need to produce a song that you can love comes from:

1) your own personal tastes—deciding what you like and don’t like about other people’s work
2) transferring those personal tastes onto your own work
3) and hard work— the diligence of building skills, so that you can flesh out ideas so that they become, not just imagined, but real

Gaining a true perspective on the value of your work doesn’t necessarily come from the approval of a celebrity. Deciding what music is “consumable” is not determined by celebrities, academics, or any particular segment of society. We all, as “folks,” get to decide what music we like…and that is what makes “folk music.”

Be Wary of the Idea of One Big Break. 
People who get their music moved forward have generally worked very hard to get their music moved forward. Forwards are based on the personal tastes of reviewers, as well as a few rules…but remember that personal biases are always a factor, because listeners are flawed human beings.

Getting your music forwarded is a terrific thing to have happen, but consider the break in getting your music forwarded as only part of a series of small steps. Most peoples’ careers are not based on a single piece of good luck or good fortune or one single break. Once you get a break, you have to produce more and more work to show you deserve to have a place at the table. Also it is very difficult to get peoples’ attention, and it is even harder to hold that attention.

Move forward by getting one piece of music recognized, and then another piece of music, and then another… take small steps; back up “breaks”  by more hard work in order to obtain longevity.

Build Community.
Karma is a ruthless and fairly relentless piece of social equipment. Karma looks after the things that we generally don’t. Be good to one another. Build relationships with people. Move one another forward and make an effort to have each other’s backs. If you’re doing this right, you’ll have a lot more rejections than you’ll have things go through, and it’s good to have people around you to help you get through the discouraging times, and also to help you have more opportunities and broaden your chances so you can continue to have hope.

Create Your Own Luck.
If you want to have success that is built on making contemporary music, get a radio (!) and put your ear to the ground so you can meet the criteria of contemporary listeners. If you want to be in that part of the music industry, listen carefully to understand what makes contemporary popular music successful, and produce the same kind of music.

If you don’t want to make that kind of music, you can still find success in other parts of the music world. Find other listeners who like whatever kind of music you want to make. Making music only for money is perhaps a hollow pursuit if it is not a reflection of what you truly desire to express.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Success.
More people are afraid of success than of failure. Failure can feel very comforting. Because there are so many rejections compared to successes, you’ll find lots of people who will sympathize with you, people who are in the same boat as you, people who will come to your rescue. On the other hand, when you’re successful it can be very isolating. Lots of people will be jealous of your success; people will be critical of it, and feel you didn’t deserve it because their vision is based on what they put into their own art and they are not willing to see the value in the work you do. Be aware of people who only like you for your accomplishments, and what they think you can offer them. Cultivate relationships with people who understand who you really are, as your achievements are not really you.

Learn How To Shut The World Out.
Mostly, you need to put your head down and work hard at your craft:
-Practice your songs in front of a mirror
-Know what you look like
-Know what you sound like
-Record everything
-Become a great archivist of your image in terms of your art
-Know what it is you want to produce
-Know what it is you DO produce
-Know where you are in the continuum of your career

Your Listeners Deserve Your Work.
Take the opportunity to play your music because you have every right to do so, and you deserve to play it, and your audience can enjoy it whether or not you think you’re on a ‘professional’ level.

Your Listeners Deserve Your Work.

Take the opportunity to play your music because you have every right to do so, and you deserve to play it, and your audience can enjoy it whether or not you think you’re on a ‘professional’ level.

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2015 S.A.C. Blogging & Songwriting Challenge Wrap Up

Creative Commons License.  Photo by Andrew Hurley
Creative Commons License. Photo by Andrew Hurley

The 2015 S.A.C. Blogging and Songwriting Challenge was the first of its kind.  Every week industry professionals issued challenges that allowed our 121 participants a taste of life as a professional songwriter.  Those who committed themselves 100% to the task found that songwriting took over their lives, consuming their thoughts and time.  For many it was a taste of the life they aspire to live.

We are grateful to each of our professional mentors, Rob Wells, Heather Gardner, Ron Irving, Jordan Howard, Vincent Degiorgio and Cara Heath, who not only issued challenges but also provided personal feedback to a handful of submissions vetted by our songwriting coaches.  The response from the industry was so positive we were able to give participants a choice of taking on two challenges in the final week.  It is generous of them to have taken the time to nurture the next generation of songwriters.

We are also grateful to our songwriting coaches, Debra Alexander and James Linderman who lived in the trenches with our songwriters.  Our coaches shared advice on lyrics, chord structures and collaboration, going far above and beyond what was expected, fuelled by their genuine desire to see our participants succeed.  For many of our songwriters, the help these coaches provided defined their experience of this challenge, opening up new tools and techniques to apply to their craft.

We would also like to thank Barb Sedun for arranging a real life pitch to Matt Dusk (to be posted below), along with Matt himself and his management team for their willingness to give our emerging songwriters a chance to present him songs that would expand his sound for his next album.  Having a real opportunity like this has been a game-changer, increasing the intensity in a way no other challenge could.

Lastly, we must thank all of our passionate participants.  Everyday the Facebook group was full of positive feedback and constructive criticism as many songwriters shared their work in progress, often times in genres far outside their comfort zones.  So much zeal. So much love.  By the end of the first week, the group began to feel like a summer camp of sorts, with new friendships forming that we hope will continue long after this challenge is history.

So, we end with where we began.  It is time to submit your song for Challenge No. 1 issued by Matt Dusk. Please post the following below by Tuesday, March 24 at 11:59pm:

1.  Your Name
2.  What was the hardest challenge or hardest part of the challenge for you and why?
3.  What did you enjoy most about participating in this experience?
4.  What is something significant that you learned from taking on this challenge? (It can be about yourself or about the challenge)
5.  Would you do this type of challenge again?  Why or why not?
6.  Your link to your Matt Dusk submission.  Please include lyrics on your SoundCloud page.  If one of your collaborating partners is submitting the link to your song, you can refer to their posting (ie. See link from ____________).

S.A.C. Challenge 2015 – Week 1 Blog – Writing for Matt Dusk

by Debra Alexander

Writers across Canada are working on writing a song to pitch for Matt's next album!
Writers across Canada are working on writing a song to pitch for Matt’s next album!

The S.A.C. Songwriting & Blogging Challenge 2015 got underway unofficially a few days before the official launch, with an e-mail welcome to participants and an invitation to join a special Facebook Group. The Challenge blogging community quickly coalesced online, posting greetings, best wishes, encouragement, and brief introductions about themselves and their songwriting. Many posted links to their song samples, while some have had to set up their blogs and song streaming accounts and make their very first posts. Most are dealing with a new onslaught of social media and learning how to balance life, work, and songwriting with new demands on their time. A few industrious writers are even simultaneously enrolled in Pat Pattison’s Berklee songwriting course on Coursera (the focus of a previous year’s SAC Challenge). Returning Challenge veterans welcomed newcomers and reacquainted themselves with friends from previous Challenges, and initiates jumped in fearlessly—or maybe not so much! The walls of comfort zones are tumbling down, and as brave souls inspire others to step out and step up, there’s been a chain-reaction of empathy. Everyone feels the heightening of the raised bar that a legitimate pitch possibility brings.

With the official Monday morning launch on February 9th, 117 participating songwriters were greeted with an inspiring video by artist Matt Dusk, calling on untapped Canadian songwriting talent to help him expand the musical landscape for his new record. Matt cited several reference songs, and much discussion swirled on the Facebook page as Challengers began analyzing the tracks and charting their approach to writing a song Matt would want to place on the record. Tempo, groove, BPM, chord progressions, arrangements, Matt’s vocal range, subject material for lyrics—all are finding their own way into the task, and many new co-writing relationships are being forged as well.

Canadian songwriters from coast to coast, along with some discerning U.S. music-city songwriters, recognize the value of coming together as a community under the umbrella of the annual SAC Challenge Event. We have guitar and keyboard players, producers and lyricists, vocalists and business-savvy music-pros, all reaching out to each other to lend a hand and make creative partnerships. The degree of support is amazing, ranging from offers of phone calls to help with technical, gear-related issues, to invitations to live regional events where writers can connect face-to-face. My fellow Challenge songwriting coach James Linderman has been instructing and encouraging between the lines of the Facebook communiqués, and has generously posted some much appreciated how-to videos on guitar techniques and on timing, tempo, and groove. He keeps us all laughing, and makes even the most challenging Challenge fun!

As participants engage in the creative process for the next 6 weeks, they are asked to write a weekly blog post about their experiences. Already the blog and Facebook posts bear witness to the benefits of taking part in SAC Challenges of years past. Writers have made contacts they never would’ve made, both locally and long-distance; written songs they never would’ve written, recorded songs for an upcoming record, and received a FACTOR grant for songs that came out of a Challenge. I know I speak for the whole community when I say we are grateful to Lily Cheng and The Songwriters Association of Canada, Barb Sedun and SOCAN, and Matt Dusk for this year’s Challenge. We are all excited to be involved in building a wonderful songwriting community as we develop our songwriting craft and embrace each new assignment.

Please post a link to your blog post for Week 1 in the comments section below.  Your song for week 1 will be due at the same time as your song for week 6 is due.

And the winner is…(Songwriting Course and Blogging Challenge)

northeastonSeveral weeks ago over 50 S.A.C. members signed on, not only to complete Berklee Professor Pat Pattison‘s online songwriting course offered by Coursera, but also to blog about their experience in the 2013 S.A.C. Songwriting Course & Blogging Challenge.  From the get go, the private Facebook group was a flurry of activity as people shared song snippets, inspiration and things they had learned from Pat.

Fast forward several weeks later, and not everyone made it to the finish line.  The course proved more intense than many people anticipated.  But everyone benefited from participating.  Unbeknownst to participants, a winner was selected to receive a FREE ONE YEAR S.A.C. MEMBERSHIP to be added to their existing membership.

It was difficult to choose because, those who did make it to the end, really put their heart and soul into the process.  In the end, North Easton was selected for his display of inventiveness, creativity, and personality.

Over the next few weeks we will be posting highlight blogs from each week, to give you an example of what people were learning along the way.

In the mean time, CONGRATULATIONS to North Easton.  And congratulations to all who took part and walked away with a new set of songwriting tools and skills.  Here is North Easton’s final song submission:

Special thanks to Debra Alexander for helping us to blog about the course along with facilitating the online discussion.  And here are some tracks from other participants that made it to the finish line. ENJOY!

Ember Swift

https://soundcloud.com/emberswift/stars-are-many-revised

Anastace

Ross Douglas

Michael Holland

Dawn Schumilas

Jennifer Potter

Songwriting for Survival – Inviting Your Audience to “Follow the Lion”

by Debra Alexander

The Final, Sixth Week of the SAC Songwriting & Blogging Challenge 2013 is upon us. Our relatively small (50/65,000) but extremely dedicated and talented group of Coursera Songwriting Class Participants has braved jungle-like entanglements of song form, plot development, point of view, number of lines, lengths of lines, rhyme schemes, rhyme types, melodic and harmonic rhythms, and song structure. In short, we’ve been asked to climb the highest tree in the forest and have a look around in order to make decisions on how to support our lyrics with prosodic choices for every syllable, word, phrase, line, and section contained in our songs. And we have emerged from the jungle a new and upright-walking species of survivors.

Berklee College Professor of Songwriting Pat Pattison brings us full circle in the last lesson and reminds us that the reason we set out on this journey was because we, as songwriters, have ideas that we want to express. Our ability to translate to an audience how we feel about our subject will either bring our audience closer and intensify the feeling, or distance our audience and dissipate the feeling. The tools we have developed during this course are now at our disposal to aid us in our endeavour to create emotional resonance.

Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the development of one of Pat’s songs, starting from the initial idea to a fully realized lyric and melody. The final decisions required in writing the song concern phrasing, which Pat calls the “body language” of communication. In every day communication, it turns out that our actual words account for much less meaning than our tone of voice and our body language. So phrasing, in songwriting, is an extremely important skill to cultivate. We learn how to write front heavy vs. back heavy, and strong bar vs. weak bar phrasing to create stability or instability. Additionally, tone of voice can be equated to certain melodic intervals, and our awareness of these relationships can help us intensify the feelings we’re trying to express.

One of the most fascinating segments of Lesson Six was, for this writer, the part where Pat describes the work done by ethno/evolutionary musicologist by Joseph Jordania in his book, Why Do People Sing? Music In Evolution. Jordania posits that our tree-dwelling hominid ancestors, over the millennia, learned how to drive lions off their kill by making noise together, and that this skill fed the entire tribe. For 2.5 million years, we were scavengers who followed the lion; we were coming down from the trees, learning to raise our voices together, “singing” to get our supper! Singing is actually linked to survival, and predates language. So remember, Pat says, “when you write a song…invite your audience in, let them sing with you, let them bond with you. Let them be your tribe.” He goes on to say that songwriting “is really a lifetime of fun, a lifetime of exploration, a lifetime of growth…”

I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to the Songwriters Association of Canada for inviting me to participate in the SAC Blogging Challenge 2013 as mentor and guest blogger. And now, I have to go after a few of those lions I’ve been trailing.

All ye hunters, please post:

1. How you feel you have used front heavy, back heavy, and/or weak bar phrasing tools to assist the expression of your stable and unstable ideas.

2. The URL to your Week 6 blog. (NOTE:  please post the exact URL to the entry and not just the general URL to your blog)

Know Where You’re Going – Mapping Out Your Song

by Debra Alexander

Your school teachers probably encouraged you to plan your essays before writing them. Perhaps they taught you about outlining, showing you diagrams using boxes and a funnel, stressing the benefits of including a strong ‘topic sentence’ in each paragraph.

Songs are like essays. They have a message, generally, that’s conveyed with a beginning, middle and end. There’s a sense of forward motion. As I write this, Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night is at number two on the Top 40 chart. While the general topic is partying, the underlying message is that the consequences of wild party behaviour are worth it, and that doing it all again next Friday is a foregone conclusion.

Experienced songwriters know that having a message is absolutely key to the process of songwriting. In Nashville, some writers book three or more cowriting sessions a day; they won’t waste time working on an idea that doesn’t have enough potential for development. From the out- set, usually, there’s got to be a message.

Let’s use another top-charting song, Dierks Bentley’s Am I the Only One, as a test case. Just look at that title. Get your songwriter brain think- ing. Ask yourself how the songwriter might potentially develop this idea, moving forward lyrically to the point where the idea in the title is expressed, “am I the only one?” Practice this when you see titles of songs you’ve not heard. Write down all the possible ways the title might be developed. Then make a map to see how the writers actually crafted the song, lyrically.

In this case, Am I the Only One is built in eight bar sections; two eight bar sections make a complete verse, and two eight bar sections make a complete chorus. This is what the song map would look like…

The song moves forward because the hook is delivered from a new per- spective. In the first chorus, it’s the singer’s. In the second chorus, it’s the woman’s. This is one technique that can keep things interesting. The mes- sage is: “come on everybody, let’s have some fun tonight.”

The Katy Perry song and the Dierks Bentley song both deal with the subject of partying, but each has a unique message to deliver. They use different techniques to create a sense of forward motion. Like a good essay or short story, they reach an emotional peak at about 7/8ths of the way through. They build to a high point where the message is crystal clear.

Try mapping your latest song. What’s your topic? What’s your mes- sage? How have you developed the song from section to section so that it moves in a forward direction? Did you reach the highest emotional in- tensity about 7/8ths of the way through? Is it interesting enough that you could listen to it repeatedly? Even if you didn’t know what you wanted to say from the outset when you sat down to write, you can help ensure that you’ll deliver a clear message by mapping out your song.

Debra Alexander is a veteran of the Nashville, New York, Austin, New England and Toronto music scenes. She cycles from Toronto to Mississauga to teach music theory and songwriting at Metalworks Institute.