Making Up a Song

For the last month, I have been teaching a songwriting class. It’s sponsored by Theatre Within, the same non-profit that helps us run the John Lennon Real Love Project in public schools. This 4-part series takes place online and serves people who are dealing with cancer themselves or have a family member who is diagnosed with the disease.

I believe that these classes are helpful to those I’m serving, not just as a way to distract them from dealing with cancer, but because what we do together is emotionally satisfying and engaging. I know this because they have told me so. And ain’t it cool that something I love to do can be something I share?

When I was a kid, I knew I wanted to write songs, but I had no idea how to do it. Of course, I was a great listener and I had been taking guitar lessons beginning at 8 years old, so I had some of the building blocks in place. What I discovered (and now teach) is how to move from an idea, lyrical or musical, and then fit that into a recognizable structure or template (e.g. verse, chorus, verse, chorus) that’s pleasing to the ear and, hopefully, memorable and meaningful.

If I have a “superpower” in songwriting, it’s probably encapsulated in those last two words: memorable and meaningful. For me, one is artistic and memorable (the music) and the other is a craft and, hopefully, carries meaning (lyrics).

So far, I’ve been able to break down the craft of lyric writing in order to teach it to children and adults in much the same way that someone might teach waterskiing, knitting, or origami. (It would be accurate to say, “I could write a book about it.”) With our help – because I often co-teach with Beth – students have been able to grasp the concepts of simple lyric writing and repeat it for themselves. What I always tell people is, “I’m not trying to create the next generation of lyricists (though someone in here might take it up), but I do hope that you’ll be able to use these concepts to be a better writer, speaker or advocate for an idea.” In that regard, I’m doing teachers, professors and businesses a service by educating people on how to express themselves cogently.

Teaching someone how to compose a melody is another matter, entirely, for me. This is the work of the artist, the dreamer, the person who can grab something floating on a cloud and bring it down into their fingers or their mouth. Sure, there are scales one can learn, and establishing a key of a song suggests a bunch of notes in the pocket (and out of it), but I still find it to be like telling someone how to enjoy ice cream. It just happens.

Many artists describe it as channeling or connecting with their Muse. I agree.

After writing a lyric with a group of school children, we’ll ask “does anyone think that they can sing this?” In the group, there may be one person brave and/or talented enough to give it a go and it’s wonderful to see a fellow “cloud catcher” grab a musical idea and, magically, sing it on the spot. It’s often sung with some trepidation, so I’ll sing it back to them and then say, “is that right?” Receiving acknowledgment from the writer, I’ll then ask them if they can go further. If they can, great. If not, I can pick up the ball and put it over the goal line. This writing partnership is a collaboration with a Teaching Artist and is very satisfying because it involves listening, honoring, and expanding upon someone’s idea. It’s one of my favorite parts of teaching/coaching.

Do you know a different way to get kids or adults to write melodies? I’d love to hear your ideas!

What really makes the whole experience pop is the moment when a song’s lyrics and melody sync up in front of the group. In my experience, there’s an audible gasp or a “WOW” as the two parts of a song fuse and become one. When I was a little boy, that was the process I knew I wanted to make my own. And it’s still, fifty years later, as enjoyable and life-affirming as ever. To be a creator, to make up something that has the potential to make us and someone else feel that “WOW” is the greatest gift I possess and, fortunately, love to share.

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