Are you a songwriter? Do you want to be a songwriter? I’ve thought a lot about songwriting this past year.
Last spring, I taught a course at Temple University for undergraduate music education majors called collaboration and creativity. One of the assignments was to write a song. For many of my students, it was the first time they had ever written a song before. Ever. When I tell people outside of music ed about this, they are shocked. “Music ed majors don’t have to write songs in college? It’s not part of the curriculum?” When I tell music educators this, they aren’t surprised. So much of our focus in higher education is teaching students to perfect their instruments, to have impeccable technique. Little room is left for creative expression through the art of songwriting.
As I watched these college music majors write and share their songs, their unique contributions to the musical landscape of the class, I witnessed an unfolding. Some songs were silly and funny, others brought the room to tears. In reflecting on the project, many of my students commented on how empowering the process was and how surprised they were at their own unique capabilities when it came to songwriting.
My thoughts on songwriting and the need for more of it in music education were confirmed during an online course I taught just a few months after collaboration and creativity. One of my students, a graduate music education major, chose to write a song as part of her “personal growth project” (a project in which each student sets a musical goal and keeps daily record of their work towards that goal). She asked me, “Do you teach any other classes where I could do more of this sort of thing?” At the time, I didn’t. But, it prompted me to design a course called “Songwriting and Composition for Music Educators” that will be running this summer through Temple University’s online Masters of Music Education program. In preparation for teaching that course, I thought it would make sense to write some songs.
My journey as a songwriter
Unlike many of my students, I grew up writing songs. I talked about this in a blog post before — how I wrote a song when I was in high school that made it into a Broadway show. I don’t consider myself to be the best songwriter, and I cringe at many of the songs I wrote in the past. But, I’ve always seen it as a type of personal expression and something that I always made space for in my life…until I had kids.
Before becoming a parent, writing and performing songs occupied most of my time outside my day job. From the year I graduated college until 2013, I wrote music, recorded music, and toured with my band. I was used to the regular rhythm of writing, revising, and launching music. When my band broke up in 2013 (while I was pregnant with my first child), I vowed to keep writing songs and recording them. I thought I could find a way to do it on my own and continue to foster that creative outlet. This was much harder than I expected. And, even though I was able to carve away some time to write here and there (and even record a short EP), playing original music took a backseat in my life.
The Artist’s Way and painting inspiration
A few months ago, I joined a group of women seeking to incorporate more creativity into their lives. We decided to read The Artist’s Way together and to document our creative journeys in our respective fields. I decided that I wanted to take this opportunity to recapture my identity as a songwriter and to set some big goals — to play a show with my (new) band and to record a single this spring. As a working mom of three, these goals felt nearly impossible but I was energized to work towards them.
One of the women in my group, Ellen Rivedal, wanted to improve as a painter and learn how to make painting a part of her daily life. She had an idea to create a painting every day in the month of November and sell the painting for the price of the date. On November 1st she sold a $1 painting and continued on from there. As she posted her progress and daily work on social media, I was inspired. What if I made the same goal for writing songs? Could I carve out time every day for an entire month to write a song and post it online? I decided I was up for the challenge and made a New Year’s resolution of writing #asongadayinjan.
When I planned this project, I had no idea what January would hold for me and my family. I had no idea that my entire family and I would get the flu, or that I would lose a dear family member. I knew that my husband would be gone for half of the month but didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to be a single parent and still try to write a song every day. Despite the obstacles of the month, I still stuck to my plan to create each day and to show up. Whether it was during my morning commute, my lunch break at school, or after my kids were tucked in bed, I tried to write a song. And, I learned some valuable lessons in the meantime:
- If you show up, something will happen.
There were so many days when I felt like I had nothing creative left in me. I was positive that I wouldn’t be able to write anything new. Once I got an instrument in my hand and started to play, ideas would come. They always came. They weren’t always great (some of the videos were hard for me to post and I judged myself harshly), but they came. You hear the same advice for writers and other creatives- the process of showing up is half the battle. I realized in those moments that if I created solely based on my mood in the moment, I might never create. But, if I scheduled time to show up, ideas would come. I never walked away from a songwriting session feeling like I wasted my time. I always felt nourished, inspired, and grateful for the time I spent.
- We are terrible judges of our own work.
How many times have I heard one of my students say “This song is terrible!” when I think it’s amazing? We are so hyper critical of our own work that collaboration can often draw out what is best in what we do. One night, I spent my songwriting session developing a silly beat on a Casio keyboard and singing a pop melody over top of it. When I went upstairs to watch the video and get ready to post it, I realized how terrible I thought it was. My voice sounded like it was straining, my outfit looked funny, and my awkward dance moves topped the whole thing off. Looking back, all of my criticisms for that song had nothing to do with the song itself. It all had to do with my appearance. The next week at band practice, my guitarist told me he had liked that song the best and worked out a guitar part to go with it. Once I sang the melody over his guitar line and added some other parts, the song came to life. He saw the potential for a song I wrote that I never would have seen if it were left to me.
- Different vehicles provide different outcomes.
During this process, I tried to switch up my instruments that I wrote on. Whether it was ukulele, digital instruments, piano, guitar, or baby toys in our play room, I tried to find different sources of inspiration versus sticking with my main instrument (piano). What I found is that I tend to be more creative when I’m writing on an instrument that is unfamiliar to me. As I explore the instrument itself, I am inspired to develop melodic and harmonic ideas. I noticed this with my college students as well. Some of the most creative songs came from students who were playing guitar or ukulele for the first time.
At the end of January, I was relieved to be finished with the challenge. I was proud of myself, but relieved. I decided to take February off from writing and to use the time to reflect and process the project. The verdict?
I miss it.
I miss the daily rhythm of creating. I miss the way it helped me process emotions, like when my aunt passed away or we got hit with the flu. Writing songs gave me a larger worldview and took me out of the immediate moment that felt hard. Isn’t music magical in that way? I know that it can transport and heal and it had just been so long since I had experienced that firsthand.
Moving forward, I probably won’t write a song every day. But, I will find ways to incorporate it into my weekly rhythm. I have a studio booked for recording that single and a show booked for the release. All in all, this project helped kickstart my performance career back into gear and gave me the courage I needed to recapture that part of my identity. And now, I feel better prepared with tools and ideas to help other teachers this summer.
What about you? Are you a songwriter? Have you tried writing a song a day before? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Here is a video I put together of all of my songs from the month of January.