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I find it interesting how vehement some folks become when I state this simple fact: Songwriters are particularly resistant to coaching and feedback.

Implied by these protests are the following questions: How dare you suggest that gifted and intuitive tunesmiths should adhere to somebody else's rules, follow any formula, or study the traditions of pop song craft? Geniuses should not be subjected to the scrutiny of so-called experts, they claim. After all, who is to say what is a viable composition and what is not?

Admittedly, these are excellent thoughts and worthy of discussion. However, I don't consider myself an expert on anything, just a guy—with 40 years of professional experience and more credits than even the snootiest noses would sneeze at—who just might have something to offer to those who desire to hone and refine their craft. Because, regardless of how lofty the level of expression or how much genius goes into creating it, writing a pop song is essentially a craft, not an art. Yes, some songwriters achieve art. But, the process is really all about conceiving an idea, identifying and selecting the best available components, and assembling them into a new, fresh, solidly constructed, finished product (very much like designing and building cabinetry is a craft that has the potential of rising to the level of art).

If a writer is truly gifted, coaching detractors portend, no one should offer a single opinion that might divert him from his destined creative path. Certainly, every writer has his or her own unique point of view—that's a Muse that should never be muted. However, I was struck by an article in the Sports section of The Tennessean about Titans quarterback, Vince Young. Few athletes were born with more natural talent and passion for the game. A born leader, Vince is tall, strong, coordinated, mobile, fleet of foot, and wants more than anything to win. Using those innate gifts, he nearly single-handedly took his college team to a national championship. Yet, in order to become successful at his position in the NFL, Young has accepted the fact that he needs coaching on various aspects of his game. He could've just said, "Sorry, I'm God's gift to football. I'm a winner. Don't mess with me." Yet, you see, that's precisely what too many songwriters do. They bring their native abilities to the table, along with the pronouncement, "Take 'em or leave 'em."

Shaquille O'Neil is an astounding specimen of strength, power, and coordination. But, just like nearly every dominant frontline player in the NBA, Shaq refined his footwork by working with big-man coach, Pete Newell. Why? Because getting that extra half step on an opponent under the basket makes all the difference—even at seven-one/330. In the same way, even for a writer with a special, God-given spark, a song craft coach might suggest a fresh rhyme scheme or a way to use imagery that opens up heretofore unseen creative vistas. Or, a well-expressed, objective, constructive, and professional perspective just might shed some light on how one song is slightly missing the mark, and how that same composition, with tweaking, could potentially hit the center of the bulls eye. Could that kind of input be something of great value to a writer—even a burgeoning genius? I contend so.

Gillian Welch is revered as a song crafter of exceptional inspiration. As organic as her body of work is, Gillian is also a Berklee grad and spent several years under the tutelage of one of the world's pre-eminent songwriting instructors, Pat Pattison. My old friend, Tom Snow, who has penned dozens of contemporary standards is also a Berklee alum. After studying classical piano for seven years, I attended composition courses at Oberlin. Even with that legit music-theory background, I probably could have accelerated my progress considerably, had I found a mentor to help me develop my pop/rock craftsmanship. Although in my 20s, I stumbled into composing some relatively decent songs and had a little bit of success, maybe I might have come closer to matching Tom Snow's output, had I been smart enough to find a mentor to help me sharpen my skills. I was 53 before I had my first #1 in the U.S. I wonder if most headstrong twenty-somethings have the stamina and commitment to wait 30 years for their ship to finally come in.

(For the last 8 years, my daughter, Emily, has been the executive assistant to the head curator of the world's preeminent contemporary art museum: MOCA. In that capacity, it has become evident to her that, in order to get a major museum installation or art gallery showing, the artist of today needs to have an MFA. So, at 32, Emily has left her secure MOCA position to pursue her higher education. Imagine what it would be like if songwriters had to procure a graduate degree to have their songs considered for major artists. So, chillax. At least the music-biz isn't as rigid and tough to crack as the world of fine art.)

Now, let's talk pragmatics. How many writers barrel on ahead out of pure enthusiasm, investing hundreds of dollars into demoing songs that, in the long run, are not as good or as solid as they could potentially be? From my experience, this happens more times than not. If only to insure that you've considered every possible angle before making that all-too-common and expensive mistake, doesn't it make sense to invest an extra week and a few bucks—if only to be a little more assured that your composition is airtight and in shape to compete in the great, uphill marathon to Hit Mountain?

Don't get me wrong. I am not claiming that anyone is always right about which songs will succeed in the marketplace and which songs don't have a prayer. I'm actually not interested in making that particular judgment. (In that regard, the only valid calculation is whether any given song is likely to get a lot of pitches; or, for whatever specific reason or reasons, what its appeal might be to potential artists.) I'm far more interested in hearing what the writer's goal is with a song and helping him or her achieve it. And, no writer should blindly accept every fragment of feedback he or she receives, professional or off-the-cuff (that would leave us all chasing our tails in search of some vapid, meaningless, homogenized, committee-composed piece of pap). Every writer should hold to his or her own vision and keep listening to that unique, personal Muse. But, in my opinion, every writer could also benefit by swallowing some pride, and accepting and applying the kind of caring, constructive feedback that can help give a song a better chance at success—both creatively and commercially.

Should you be seeking a song craft coach, what you should be looking for is someone who you can trust to be honest; someone who is sensitive and diplomatic, yet willing to give your songs the tough love they need to blossom and flourish—that includes selecting the most resilient seeds, fertilizing, watering, and pruning. It's not absolutely necessary that this person be experienced as a songwriter. But, it sure helps if he or she speaks a language that communicates clearly where your song is succeeding, where it may be falling short, and what you might try to improve it.

Even Tiger Woods has a coach for his swing (...if only he'd employed somebody to mentor him in his love life!).

Wishing everyone success, good health and fulfillment in 2010.
Rand Bishop

Tags: Gillian, O'Neil, Shaquille, Snow, Tiger, Tom, Vince, Welch, Woods, Young, More…craft, song

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Rand,

As always a tremendous post. I find a lot of writers tend to be "living room" writers.They very seldom step out past the narrow confines of their living rooms, or often must past the open mic or writer's nights. Therefore, they have a somewhat limited view of what is out there. They listen to the radio and hear a very small amount of songs, writers and artists relatively, so they really have no back ground to base what they do on.

People as yourself and myself to a lesser degree, have spent a lifetime immersed in the competitive nature of the music industry. Writing with others is one of the primary things we do to build our skills and contacts. Many writers do not, so in addition to hesitation to get some coaching (which is the best thing they can do) through the Internet, they can get their music out there in a variety of ways. And often they feel that is now all they need. "If I can just get my music out there." Many times, if they don't get out of the living room. they don't know if they have something that is commercially viable.

So getting coaching can help on an overall basis as much as single songs. It can strengthen the overall writing as well as help to understand the other issues out there.

As in everything you write, you have very succinctly put your finger on the situation. I hope writers read this and get great perspective. We are all learning always. That ability is what makes for great songwriting.

MAB
Thank you, as always, Marc, for reading and taking the time to endorse. I'm really addressing the songwriters (and their enablers) who seem to feel that songs are somehow magically inspired and are therefore precious and untouchable. The pretentiousness of that notion gets me crazy. We are, after all, trying to communicate honest emotions and stories in some catchy, memorable, and lasting way. To assume that the first inspiration is the only one is almost always so far from right.
Best in the New Year,
Rand
Back at cha. great thread.

MAB
Rand, I hope you didn't think us too vehement when some of us suggested that coaching was not a panacea for success in the songwriting field. I don't think you were saying that it was, but sometimes, that is all people hear.

Your question was why so many were resistant to coaching and here is where I see the disconnect. The fact is (or as I see it) - most people do not want to put out the effort it takes to be coached or apply the offered coaching. All they are looking for is the "secret," or the right "connection." In essence, all they want from you is to know how you did it because they don't believe what you did was all that hard. I liken it to kids downloading cheat codes for xBox games. As a society (and industry), we have been led to believe that there are formulas for success. It's like, "if I just had these pieces of gear," "if I could just meet so-and-so," "if I get such-and-such producer," "if I go to all the right parties or have just the right people over to my place," and on and on.

The other thing that makes (self-proclaimed) songwriters resistant to coaching is they don't really want to be told the truth. When you come from an environment where all your family, friends and the mayor of your small town has told you you are amazing and everything you do will turn to gold, it doesn't set well when someone is honest with you, even if they are trying to help you be better at what you do.

In my opinion, that's why so few songwriters get coaching. Because there are really so few gifted songwriters. Only the greatest realize the need for input. On the other hand, maybe they just can't afford it.

I, for one, was never discounting the advice you have to offer and I didn't really take the few negative points about your last installment on this topic to be so vehement...I wish I were a songwriter, so you could help me.

Cheers and Happy New Year!
Bret:

No one ever claimed that coaching is a panacea or a sure-fire path to success. (And, I certainly don't have any issue with passionate, i.e. vehement discussion. In fact, I quite enjoy it.)

I just find it extremely odd that, in a business that relies so heavily on certain skills, those who pursue a career don't avail themselves of help that could accelerate their progress. Actors, dancers, clowns, painters, sculptors, and athletes of all stripes all seek coaching/instruction. But songwriters, not so much. Your thoughts here are all completely valid and certainly well thought out -- especially the truth that many writers don't want to hear the truth. (For many years, I was paranoid about playing my songs for anyone. What if I don't get the response I want?)

Interesting that any and all of those "ifs" you enumerate above could actually BE the missing ingredient to a writer's success -- but, only if he or she is ready to take advantage. When a writer does meet that so-and-so they've been waiting to connect with, they'd better be prepared to wow 'em. When the opportunity turns up, having a box full of well-sharpened tools couldn't hurt.

Thanks for your flattering words, and don't be at all concerned about this guy. One doesn't survive 40 years in this biz without developing some pretty thick skin.

Best,
Rand
I have used coaches before and I absolutely recommend it. I not only have a song coach, but also a music industry career/life coach I consult with. Admittedly, I've not had much commercial success but I suppose that type of success is independent from (or a byproduct of) what I'm really reaching for, which is developing as a writer to the best of my abilities.
I, too, have benefited from life coaching, Rhett. An effective life coach can help you shift from overwhelm to a list of doable priorities. I love that you are reaching to develop "as a writer to the best of your abilities." That's a high goal indeed, and an aspiration for which you will be surely rewarded in personal fulfillment, and hopefully with well-deserved recognition and success.
Rand,

Your post is awesome. It brings to light a dilemma I encounter quite frequently in my business.

I offer 'rewrite consults' as part of my business on my website. I help writers touch up their songs by offering a Nashville perspective. I only offer consults on songs that I think have a) potential in the marketplace, or b) have potential in serving as a canvas, so to speak, in which a writer might progress in their craft. For example, If a song comes in that I don't think has real market potential, but it's a song that's set up perfectly to help a writer learn a new skill (such as a song that's just begging for a twist in the bridge or a hook that has another slant that could be implemented to play on the title that the writer didn't think of) I'll tell the writer I have some specific ideas about how to take their song up a notch or 2 and I'll offer a consult. I;m nothing but straight up in every instance with regard to the reason I'm recommending a consult. If I think the song has (or doesn't have) real potential, I'll tell them.. In other words, I'm not about offering false hope..

The clients that have utlized this service have been very pleased. However, I occassionally get reamed out by someone who wonders how I can sleep at night when I'm asking for money for the time I spend coaching, teaching, critiquing, or suggesting changes for their songs. I get accused of trying to 'co-write for hire' which is apparently listed as a cardinal sin in some songwriting book somewhere (even though I don't feel like that's what I'm really doing).

There seems to be this belief among some that no publisher should ever charge for anything...that is, if that publisher is interested in a song, they should sign it, get behind it and go to work on it...for free. And they should pay all the bills along the way(demo costs, plugging, etc.) My feeling is if a song comes in that has potential that I think I could help get in shape through a consult, I'm willing to have a go at it if it's something I can get behind. But the way I look at it I'm either working on my songs or I'm working on a client's song, and if a clilent wants me to stop working on my songs to help them work on their songs, I don't feel like I should have to feel guilty about asking them for compensation for my time.

Most people are cool with this, but I do get the occassional rabid writer: "How dare you ask for money to help me fix my song!" I just smile and say, "Ok, fine, fix it yourself!"
I would think more songwriters would be willing to get you to do a one-time "work for hire" fee on their song. Then they could legally claim it was just that. Nothing more....
I've never heard of the term "rewrite consults," altho I have personally worked with a very select few publishers who gave constructive feedback that actually helped me write a better song. I offer a similar service, but frame it as coaching. It's as though a quarterback threw a pass that didn't quite make it the distance, and I show him how to adjust his motion to put more strength behind the throw. When I'm working with a writer who has real potential, is receptive, and brings me a song that is inspired, I really enjoy it. Sometimes it's like toting bales of hay (prickly and makes me sneeze). I'm not sure how long I want to continue coaching songwriters. I do it in a more organic fashion when I write with developing artists (a talent I have a certain proclivity for).

Anyway, good luck with all your endeavors.
R
Thanks Rand. You probably hadn't heard of the term 'rewrite consult' 'cuz I coined it when I started my business. Before then I'd never heard of it either. ;>) It's more like song coaching than anything else but I do offer concrete suggestions and will even contribute actual lines if I hit on something that works in addition to guiding writers in a more global sense. You might do the same thing. I know that's what Rick Beresford does and he also calls it coaching. I think more people are familiar with the concept of song coaching which is why I've actually been considering switching to that terminology for the last few months. Some people just aren't sure what a rewrite consult is or what that means. Maybe that was a bad call on my part. initially.

Thanks for your post.

b
Perhaps the only difference in my "coaching" style is that I am very careful to "suggest" something as opposed to "offering" a specific idea (qualified with the caveat that what I'm suggesting is not the final or the definitive idea, but more a guideline to inspire the writer to a more specific image or a more creative rhyme, etc). I am also very careful to consider what the writer is actually attempting to accomplish with each song (a tune for the artist to perform his or herself is evaluated on a much different criteria than one written to pitch for the marketplace.) Regardless, among all so-called artists, I find that songwriters at large are still the most resistant to coaching. I blame that attitude on Bob Dylan and those lads from Liverpool, who both implied that pretty much anybody can do it (true, but not all those who answer the Muse are genuine geniuses, and a few helpful, crafty suggestions might lift a piece from good to great.)

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