Through teaching and running Freeway, I’ve had many opportunities to hold and attend a lot of great songwriter clinics. So, I want to share some of the best advice I’ve learned about songwriting.
“A song is a snapshot of time” ~Tom Conlon
This is such an inspiring statement and so very true! Music is an amazing art form. Most people attach sound to music, but seldom visual art. Words and lyrics create settings and paint pictures in listeners’ heads. The music evokes certain moods. Certain lyrics will reflect the culture of the time period in which they are written. Various music styles move with time as well. Since culture will always continue to change and evolve, lyrics can be fresh forever. Just look Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come”. It’s clearly about the civil rights movement. Songs are a “snapshot in time” and it’s almost our civic duty as writers to capture these moments.
“Make songwriting a Ritual.” ~ Danielle Howle
To master writing, you have to maintain the attitude you would with anything you would master. You have to stay the course and practice writing. One of the toughest parts about working out is getting yourself in a routine. You have to be intentional and set aside time to write everyday. Get into the ritual of songwriting. If you are prolific, you are bound to have some gems in there. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. Not ALL of your songs will be amazing. I am a huge Beatles fan. They wrote a ton of tunes and they have a lot of songs that I don’t like at all. You can’t have the cream of the crop without a good sized crop.
“If you aren’t writing, you aren’t living.” ~ Tom Conlon
Yes. It’s the second time I’ve referenced Tom Conlon, but he is a very wise man. If you aren’t filling the tank up, how do you expect to put anything out? It’s the same as any endeavor in life. Take a trip out of town, watch a movie, read a book, listen to new music, go to a show, or take part in any other activity to create some new life experiences. If you aren’t experiencing life, you will not have anything to talk about. You will be amazed at how inspiring it will be.
Hopefully, these pieces of advice will aid you in being a better writer as well. Always remember the importance of your art, make it a priority, and live a little. Until next time, happy writing!
More Songwriting Tips:
Several years ago, my friend invited me to a guitar show at Jamil Temple. As I was walking through I saw Jerry Sims playing guitar in the middle of the show. Jerry is a local legend, owner of Sims Music, and even has his own signature 7 string Ibanez guitar. After he finished playing I asked him my question I ask every great player: “What’s your best advice for improving as a player?”. Jerry thought for a moment and answered, “Learn Tunes. Honestly, to this day, I try to learn a tune a day.” I was hoping for some profound answer, instead I got, “Learn Tunes.” That has stuck with me since then and has proven to be a fact. Today, I want to share 5 ways learning tunes can improve your playing:
Every song is like a new puzzle or challenge with techniques of varying difficulty. Metallica taught me bends, hammers, and pulls. Dire Straits taught me hybrid picking and double stops. Van Halen taught me tapping. Stevie Ray taught me how to play single notes while muting others. I could go on for days. My technique is a conglomerate of all of the tunes I have learned. To this day, I am constantly challenged by the songs my students bring into the lesson room.
Some of the best riffs and songs I have written have come from learning other songs. There are so many great ideas buried in your favorite songs. The trick is to actually tear the song apart and research its innards. You can find lyrical wit, chord structure, melodies, rhythm patterns, sound effects, instrumentation, and so much more to create a pool of ideas to grab from.
3. Language and style
As I have mentioned before, music is a language. Just as Spanish, English, and German all have different characteristics and vocabulary, so do the various styles of music. Digging into songs can give you the vocabulary used in specific styles. I have delved into classical, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, metal, indie, grunge, and much more. Every style was a new exciting adventure for me, equipping me with a new set of vocabulary.
Your repertoire is directly proportionate to how many types of gigs you can play. If you can cover a large variety of styles and tunes, you will be able to play in a lot more situations. Also, it makes stepping into a gig easier if you have less to learn. This skill also transfers into original projects. Most music you play with others will have strains of songs that have been written before. The ideas you have garnered from your repertoire will help you in your creative process. More gigs equals more money. Having a large rep can definitely increase your worth.
I have found that my inspiration in music ebbs and flows. I do my best to keep it peaking. One of my favorite things to do is just listen to music, find something that moves me, and learn it. This almost always inspires me to play and also to write. I encourage you in your down spikes to explore and find new music that churns that inspiration back to the surface.
If you are practicing the same stuff everyday, it may be time to add something new and stretch yourself in a new direction. Try to challenge yourself into learning a new song everyday this week, but don’t just learn the song, learn from the song. Use it as a source of inspiration and a way to propel yourself to new territory and opportunities. Happy practicing!
There are so many dynamics that shape a musician such as: practice, playing, writing, etc. Perhaps the thing that was most critical to my personal development was my failures. I learned from and was motivated by failures more than anything I’ve ever done with music. So, I would like to share a few failures with you that made me a better musician. Hopefully, you too can learn a little something from my failures. Maybe you can embrace the failures that are certain to come in your musical journey and learn how to churn them into positive energy.
Getting Stomped by “Donna Lee”
If you have ever followed jazz, you are aware of Charlie Parker. You are also probably aware that his heads are very challenging melodies to play. I just started working on a tune called “Donna Lee.” It was the toughest head I learned up to that point in my playing. One night, I headed over to an open jazz jam here in Columbia, SC. I sat in to play and the band counted off the tune at a murderous tempo. I hung in there for the melody, as then it came time for the solo…and I got crazy lost. The bass player was annoyingly yelling out chord changes to me.
Finally, I stopped playing at what I thought was the end of the form, but quickly realized I wasn’t sure of anything. So, the bass player and drummer crushed their solos. Then, they looked at me to start the head again. Thank God the bass player clued me in on where to come in again. We finished the song, and I haven’t played with those players since…hopefully, they will let that one slide from their memories…HAHA. I threw myself into a fire and “Donna Lee” roasted me.
I learned a lot about my playing, however. I realized I didn’t know the form as well as I once thought. I needed to practice the tune at various tempos and I needed to understand the overall format of jazz improv. So, naturally I went home and shedded that tune like crazy. Had I not had my butt kicked, I never would have pushed myself so hard. So, throw yourself into the fire. It can inspire you to get better if you have the right attitude.
Check out Part 2: Comping…What’s That?
“Genius is the fire that lights itself.”
Very few of us are geniuses. So, how do we keep ourselves motivated to not only learn new things, but also make it a habit? Here are a few ways to spark your enthusiasm for learning.
A book…a magazine article…a blog…it doesn’t matter. Just read something about your interests, i.e. suggestions for practicing, techniques that interest you, the life story of someone you admire. It can be just about anything as long as it offers some insight into what interests you. I find it especially inspiring to read insights from someone in your field of interest. “The Cycle of Self Empowerment” by Dom Famularo (Self Empowerment) and Kenny Werner’s “Effortless Mastery” (Effortless Mastery) are just two great examples of inspiring essays and reflections on how to achieve your potential.
Find a Guru
Ask around to get the popular opinion of everyone you know about who is the most qualified expert in your field. Then contact that person to see if you can study with them. Even a conversation can get you going in the right direction. A mentor/student relationship can be the most influential relationship in your life; this connection can be a great motivating tool, holding you accountable for honoring your commitment to excellence.
Create Projects to Complete
Nothing compares to the sense of satisfaction that comes after a project or task is completed. This feeling is a payoff in itself, but you also get the benefit of the outcome. The crucial part is to have projects lined up in advance, so that the feeling of contentment that follows completion doesn’t discourage your momentum. Here’s a great, two-part method: first, devise a project, i.e. learning a solo note-for-note, then announce your intention to complete this task to your friends and colleagues. This accountability will help motivate your action.
Even though we’re not all geniuses, we can use their example as inspiration to apply ourselves to exploring our potential more thoughtfully. Enjoy the challenge of becoming more of what you can be. It’s the most important “project” that you’ll work on in your life and no one else will do it for you!