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.