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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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Q. How many songwriters does it take to change a lightbulb?

A. No - we're not gonna change it. We think it works.
Dear Barbara:

Funny.

According to the index in my newly released book, The Absolute Essentials of Songwriting Success (Alfred Publishing, 2010), the words Barbara Cloyd or barbaracloyd.com appear on no less than six separate pages. There is no doubt that this exposure will create an explosion of business for you (lol). Don't thank me, my sister in song. Please let me thank you for the juicy quotes I harvested from your website to support my theories on how songwriters have created their own success for 150 years.

Warm Regards,
R
Lol!
Rand,

Couldn't agree more. I think the reason that writers that have written less than 10 songs believe they are qualified to compete in the big leagues is because there isn't any objective measure of achievement or progress in songwriting. If you're a runner you've got your hundred yard dash time. If you're a linebacker you've got how many tackles per game. If you're a tennis player you can easily be ranked according to how many wins/losses you have. But with songwriting the best that you can get is an opinion from someone else. Most of my clients do what most of us do in the beginning...we bounce our stuff off of family and friends. When someone gets positive feedback from all their friends and family they feel they must be on to something. So, why not pitch to Kenny Chesney, right?

I ask my writers this: if you're the best hitter on your company softball team does that mean you quit your job, move to Atlanta, and walk on the Braves training camp? We all laugh at how obvious the answer is to this questions. But for some reason, when it comes to songwriting the answer seems not so obvious. And it stings when you find out from a teacher, coach, or publisher that you have a long way to go, especially when all your friends and your entire family just told you that you wrote a great song.

My grandmother used to say, 'You should send that in!!!'. I'd reply, "To who?" She'd reply, "To Readers Digest!".

I often wonder if I missed an opportunity by not taking her suggestion.... ;>)
Rand,

I know this post was from a while back but before reading your book and meeting you in person I didn't feel right about talking to people like yourself and MAB that are Nashville icons. I really enjoyed reading your posts and your book, Makin' Stuff Up was great too; really made me think about the craft of writing a song. I know that I need coaching and lots of it. I working real hard on my vocals now with Kim Wood Sandusky and writing when I can, getting stuff on paper, trying to follow your direction from the book and hoping to get some personal one on one time in the future......ya know they just don't pay Chili's waitresses THAT much! LOL! So, from one newbie, hopeful, future 'artist' to a future mentor....please don't give up on us yet! We need you! Amy
Did anybody call for "ICON MAN???!!!" Hey Amy. MAB here.

One of the things you can get from both Rand and myself as well as others are information that you don't always have to pay for. We are always around to offer suggestions and usually will give you some different perspectives. That is the cool thing about Nashville and people who try to promote that way of thinking. We are all the same around here and try to understand each other.

So if you have something to ask or comment on, be sure you put it out there. Personally I would suggest you join threads on JPF or Songramp as well as the NSAI site and try to get as many opinions as you can. And then if you can make it to town, be sure to look us up. We are generally around and always glad to give a hand up.

MAB
Hey Marc! Just remember that was my line! ICON MAN! LOL! My older brother is Marc Alan, I always thought he was a 1 in a million! I live in Nashville. You actually met my parents at an Indie Connect event, Stan and Elva. I know you meet lots of people, so! I got the lowdown on MAB (in a very good way). I'm in NM at the moment but will be back in Nashville soon. I know I really need coaching from the ICONS and I'm all for it; just know that there are youngsters like me ready, willing and able but just a little short on $$ at the moment. We know it makes the world go 'round. Plus, it's really scary out there with all the changes in the music business. I'm trying to learn all I can so, I read and read anything and everything you guys say and do the best I can in the meantime waiting for the time when I can hook up. Thanks for writing to little ole people like me. Amy
Amy,

I remember your folks, they were very cute. I do that workshop every first and third Monday of the month. Your Dad reminded me of my own. My Dad and I went to every workshop and seminar we could. They are great people. Wish you were here this weekend, we have the Doak Turner Third Sunday party. That is a great time to get to know people. The other is the writer's nights were tons of writers are out trying to do it every single night.

Keep in touch and let us know what you need. Will always be happy to help.
MAB
Yeah I miss Doak's; he was great about taking me around and showing me Nashville when I first got to town. Everyone's been very nice. I was very intimidated by the talented people there. I will keep in touch, thank you. Amy
Get a room, you guys... lol.
Rand
Only at your house. Hey, that was pretty fun at the Listening Room the other night. It was like California invasion. Gunner Nelson, You, McLintock, Paul Jefferson, I felt like i should get out my laid back California accent. Like DUUUUDDDE!!!!!

MAB

Rand, excellent post. I am one who tends to scoff at the idea of a songwriting coach, but the way you defend it gives me pause. I am very skeptical by nature, especially when someone in this field tells me, "well, you have some talent, but I want you to completely rewrite your best tune, even changing the subject, (if i wanted that i'd have made it a different subject in the first place) and by the way, it will cost this much for me to tell you how to do that and it's a 6 month commitment". If enough people tell you that, you begin to become suspicious unless you are a child or an idiot (not saying children are idiots!).

 I am not uneducated in American pop songcraft (master's in jazz studies, have played and studied a few hundred standards i guess) so it is difficult for me to trust people's opinions who I perceive to just be out to make a buck off me, and without being able to see what they're really after because of the vagueness which to me seems inherent in the job description, and more importantly, how that achieves the end goal, getting a song to market. I will admit that the idea of a mainstream hit is pretty far out of my mind, not a big fan of that segment of the market, so trying to turn something of mine into that, which seems to be the only goal of a coach, (that and getting a songwriting credit for themselves) is hard for me to get on board with and therefore probably takes me out of this whole discussion. Anyway, I do thank you for the post, just wish I knew how to trust people in this field, don't know if that'll ever happen without a real relationship in place first, so I suppose I should stick to bass and save my stuff for myself.

I fully expect to get slaughtered by the way, so fire away, I'll never work for free in this town again i suppose;)

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