Day 85: Lesson on “Six Best Friends”

This lesson was another one that didn’t feel altogether new to me, but I enjoyed being reminded of it. As I’ve mentioned before, most of these lessons have consisted of things that I have thought about or at least been more or less aware of; the difficult part is putting them all into practice and being aware enough to consider all of them during the process of writing a song. So even when I find a lesson that I have thought of, it usually isn’t something that I’m thinking about constantly so it’s useful to be reminded, and always interesting to hear about it from someone else’s perspective. Now, on to the lesson.

This video was called “Six Best Friends.” I admit that the teacher really had me going for a while. He started off telling a story about how an important part of his writing process involves asking six of his best friends what they think. I assumed that these were all people whom he trusted, songwriters who all had different perspectives on the world. I was concerned that I don’t have that many people that I would ask. But it was all misdirection (though not as much as Bernice’s Story, which I’ll get to in a later post). When he said that he was a generous guy and would lend his friends to me, I was suspicious. Clearly, these were not very loyal friends (or he was not a very loyal friend) if it was acceptable to pawn them off on a stranger. And then he revealed his six friends:

  1. Who
  2. What 
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why
  6. How

The entire idea of the video was that you should consider your options, your answers to each question, when you’re writing a song. As I said, this is something I’ve thought about and mentioned in an earlier post where I wanted to make sure that I considered all 5 senses when writing. This is another thing to think about, another way of making a song specific, personal, real, and I think it’s equally important in musical theater and other styles.

The teacher says that when you’re writing a song, you should consider each question. Usually, when I start my writing process, I’m already pretty clear about the who and the what, but I definitely neglect the other questions sometimes. It’s important for the setting to be clear; he considers time of day (morning? evening?) and time of year. If it’s a song about loneliness, maybe it takes place during the summer, an upbeat song that creates ironic distance by being at odds with the emotions of the singer; if it takes place during the winter, maybe the weather is a metaphor for the singer’s feelings. And of course, the song should tell a story. It should weave together details that fill the character and her feelings with life. Specificity is what makes a character real and important. It’s difficult to identify with a character if he’s an archetype.

I feel like I should make a poster of questions I need to ask myself when I’m writing. I already have a bunch from the first few lessons, and I bet this is just the beginning. Something else to consider.

Day 84: Boxes

This was the first lesson that I felt was new to me. This lesson was about the dramatic journey of a song, and even though I’ve thought about and learned a bit about the dramatic journey of other art forms, it was great to hear someone talking about it in relation to songwriting. The teacher describes a three-stanza song in which each stanza is related to the central idea of the song, but each stanza builds on the last. He uses the metaphor of boxes. The first box (stanza) is small and contained. It doesn’t reveal everything at one time, it doesn’t have to. The second box is a bit bigger and contains the first box; that is, it builds on the ideas of the first box and would be empty (less meaningful) without it. As you can guess, the third box contains and builds off of the first and second boxes.

The teacher talks about the pitfalls that are easy to get caught in, like trying to put all of your ideas in the first stanza. I’ve definitely had this happen before. I had an idea that I really liked and knew what the first stanza should include, but couldn’t think of where the rest of the song would go. I imagine that my problem at the time was that I had already arrived at the end of the first stanza. Either I had put too much information in that first section, or I had started too late in the story. In either case, the proportions were off.

The teacher does a really good job of making the fundamentals easy to understand. After he talks through the journey of one song, he summarizes each section with one word. “You”, “I”, then “We”. I think this is a pretty common and basic arc, but at its core, it is an example of tension building from the beginning to the climax in the third section. “Past”, “Present”, and “Future” are the three stanzas of another song he mentions, and I think this one also builds drama from beginning to end.

The organization of the song is something I’ve thought about, but haven’t had any full thoughts to help me pull it all together. I’ve been going by what feels right, and for just starting out, that’s great. But this is definitely a way in which I can improve: when I’m plotting the course of a song, I can think about whether the tension builds throughout and whether each section builds on the last while remaining relevant to the main idea. One of my current stumbling blocks with Just Me has been that I’m not too sure about the structure. I know one place where I can go next, and probably where I want to go, but I’m not sure if that should be the bridge or the final section, and I’m not sure about the second section I wrote. Now that I think about it, the second section seems like it’s less dramatic than the first; it’s taking a step in the wrong direction. I think it probably should talk about the character understanding and wanting to get away herself, because that’s essentially where the story of the song is going and that could be a more dramatic area, but right now I think it probably focuses too much on things external to the character. Maybe it should really talk about understanding the impulse to leave because of home life and deciding to leave, never staying in the same place for too long. I know the song should end with her deciding to leave, and before that, there needs to be a section about getting comfortable and thinking that this is a place where she might stay for a while. I’ll give it some more thought over the next few days and see what I come up with.

Day 83: Lesson enumerating perspectives

The next video for this class is a lesson on perspective. There wasn’t a whole lot that I didn’t already know from having successfully completed middle school, but it was good to be reminded of some of the options I have. The teacher framed each of the main four perspectives in terms of the pronouns we use, which made for a pretty simple explanation. They are (in subject/object form):

  1. He/Her (a narrator telling a story)
  2. I/Her (a character talking from his point of view about someone else)
  3. You/Him (a character talking to someone about someone else)
  4. I/You (a character talking from his point of view to someone else)

It was useful to clarify what some of my options are when I’m writing a song. The real heart of the lesson was delivered at the end, when the teacher said that we should consider the different perspectives when we write. That is, don’t take for granted that the perspective I started writing in is the right one for the song. I’ve gotten a bit used to changing lines and ideas so that the rhyme scheme works, certainly an important part of writing and editing, but I haven’t taken a step back to consider if the foundation of the song is as it should be. In theater, it may be easy to take perspective for granted since it’s pretty clear who is singing and to whom (based on context and who is on stage); if the subject of the song is on stage, there is a good chance that the singer is singing to them. But I can see a lot to be gained by considering other perspectives. A scene might be more powerful or have a completely different function in a scene based on the perspective. So I think there is a lot of potential value in considering other options and that is something I will try to implement into my writing routine. 

Day 82: Tropical Tundra of a Melting Mind

That (^) isn’t supposed to mean anything. I’m just tired of boring titles right now, and I like alliteration (ill-iteration, if you will). 

I’m pretty falling behind. After working so hard last week, I needed a short break from writing and now I’m like 6 days behind. I’m always wracked with guilt when I get behind, so I feel pretty strongly that I want to catch up. With that in mind, I made a decision today that I’ll start doing some stuff that isn’t writing practice, but also isn’t far off.

I signed up for a free songwriting class through coursera.org, but so far I’ve lacked the motivation I’ve needed to make time for it. The class is administered through a series of videos, usually 10-15 minutes long, wherein the teacher talks about a specific topic and the computer asks me a question every so often to make sure that I’m listening. Some of the topics seem obvious and I already think about some of them, but even with the first few basic lessons, I’ve found something useful to take away.

So the decision that I made today is to blog about my reaction to the videos when I watch them. Of course, I still plan to write songs, but doing this will help me have something to write about and it will force me to do the lessons. I think both are worthy side-effects, and I think there is a lot of value in writing about it. If I write about a lesson, I have to think about it and draw conclusions from it. It’s so important to practice, but the whole idea of practicing writing is that eventually, you become self-aware; you’re able to control how you write. Most of what I’ve written seems like it has a mind of its own. The ideas flow in whichever direction they choose, which makes everything really messy and meaningless. So even though it’s not direct writing practice, studying and thinking about it will help me be more deliberate and that sounds pretty great to me.

First Lesson (“Donny and Donna”)

This lesson boiled down to the thesis that a song should always answer three questions:

  1. Who is speaking?
  2. To whom?
  3. Why?

The video didn’t have a whole lot more than the thesis. The teacher presented a couple of examples and explained what the answers were in each example. I think this is a pretty obvious lesson, and probably one that is easy to take for granted. If a song isn’t clear about these things, it isn’t doing its job.

The first two questions are more obvious than the third, I think. A song should give background and have character. I think that’s especially true in musical theater, where if you do it right, different characters speak differently, so each song should both take into account and be very clear about who is singing. I think the second and third questions are tied inextricably with the reason for the song: not just the “why” that’s expressed in the song, but the reason for the song’s existence. If neither the second nor third question is answered, there is no reason for the song to exist. 

Despite being a bit of a no-brainer, this lesson is still an important one to internalize. Perhaps before starting on a song, I should write out the answers to these three questions, and when I’ve finished a draft of a song, ask whether I’ve successfully made the answers to these questions clear. I can think of at least a few where I haven’t done that.

Day 81: First attempt at a bridge for Just Me

I wrote some lyrics for the bridge today. I think they’re a good start and they fit the character, but they’re not exactly what I’m looking for. The first reason is that they don’t rhyme even though the rest of the song does. It sounds pretty cool with the music I wrote for it, but I’d like to keep this song clean and balanced, since that’s something that I sometimes struggle with. There’s a lot to say and a lot I could say; it’s hard to know where to stop. The second reason is that I’m thinking that this isn’t exactly where I want to go with the bridge anymore. Now I’m wondering if I should jump to the character’s current situation during the bridge and show her making her decision to flee again. I’m not sure which way I’ll go, but it’s certainly something to consider.

Lyrics

Sometimes it’s all just too much pressure
You feel so small, while everything crowds you out
And it’s times like these when I can’t find recourse
But to pack my things, my memories, and leave it all behind
Hiding out,
From my life,
Everything,
Left behind
Til it’s safe to start again
Until I move on again

Day 80: Editing the second verse of Just Me

Today, I tried to smooth some of the edges in the second verse of Just Me that I wrote for yesterday’s post.  I didn’t change very much, but it feels a lot more solid to me now. There were a few spots that seemed awkward to sing and I was having trouble finding a clear way to restate the idea in a more singable manner, but I brainstormed ideas and found some that worked.

Lyrics

I never did that well in school
It just felt hard to care when everything still hurt
I couldn’t understand. I tried so hard to be
The daughter that a mother wouldn’t desert.

But then senior year, I understood.
My boyfriend always needed to be where I would be
I felt so wedged in
I needed to set myself free
I broke up him then,
Started over again, just me.

Day 79: Working on the second verse of Just Me

I’m working on the second verse of Just Me today. I have a general idea for what should go in each section and I pretty much did what I said I’d do in this section, but I don’t love the lyrics. It just feels to me like something is missing, like it’s personal and specific, but neither personal nor specific enough. Maybe I’ll take another look tomorrow, but for now, here’s what I came up with for verse two:

Lyrics

I never did that well in school
I spent so much time being angry, being hurt
I couldn’t understand. I tried so hard to be
The daughter that a mother wouldn’t desert.

I remember when I understood.
My high school boyfriend worried about where we were going to be
I felt so wedged in
I needed to set myself free
I got rid of him then
And started over again, just me.

Day 78: First verse of Just Me

I’ve been working on Just Me today and really enjoying it. I was having a little trouble, feeling locked into one phrase or idea, but eventually I found a way to relax and simultaneously work through it and let the ideas flow. I’m really liking what I came up with. I feel like this song, so far, has about the right amount of simplicity; it sounds clean, flows easily. It feels like I’m doing something right, and that’s a nice feeling.

About the song: it’s an idea for the musical I’m working on. It’s sung by the female lead, who has a younger sister named Karleigh (“Kar”). I think the other details can be inferred pretty easily from the lyrics. This song sort of comes from the same place as Invisible, but I think I decided that Invisible is sung before she tries to get the male lead’s attention, and this one is sung closer to the end. That’s my current plan, but it’s all in flux.

Lyrics

If I could send a message to my mom,
I’d tell that I miss her, that never went away
I don’t think she’d believe how much I’ve grown,
but I honestly don’t know what she’d say.

When she left, I became the mom.
Dad couldn’t take it, he left it all to me
I put Kar to bed
I made sure that she brushed her teeth
I kept the nightmares away
At the end of the day, just me

Day 77: New idea called Just Me

Today, I practiced piano for a little while and when I was done practicing, I let my mind and hands wander for a little bit. What came out was pretty cool, so I recorded some of it for myself, wrote some lyrics, and recorded it a cleaner version for this blog. The lyrics that I included here (second half of the recording) would probably go at the end of the song. Check it out!

Day 76: Finishing the lead sheet for 23

Day 76: Finishing the lead sheet for 23

Whew! This one took a LONG time, but it was actually pretty rewarding to finish it. I didn’t realize I added a couple of extra beats in the second verse, because I think it happens relatively smoothly. Also, I always think it’s interesting to write out the syncopated rhythms I come up with. They’re a bit challenging (time-consuming) for me to write down, but I think it’s cool because it’s so easy for me to think up and easy to learn when you hear it (or at least, it sounds natural to me), but it’s so convoluted when you see it on the page.

Anyway, I learned a lot from the experience. And with that finished, I had everything I needed for my application to the songwriting workshop, so I submitted that today! Exciting! Wish me luck!