Fight or Flight

Song Workshops: Fight, Flight, or… Write?

Taking an original song to a songwriters’ workshop, for discussion and critique, is guaranteed to give most writers anxiety. Is my song bad? Can it be fixed? What does that guy know anyway? Where’s my Mommy? It’s enough to trigger the classic “fight or flight” response in any human being.

So let’s talk about workshopping – why it’s a good idea, how to approach it, what to take away from it – so that we can hopefully do away with “fight” and “flight”, and instead walk away with something constructive – “write”.

What Am I Doing Here?

Why would anyone voluntarily subject themselves and their work to the judgement of another human being? The answer is simple – to learn how to become better at what you do.

Contrary to expectations, a songwriting workshop is typically a very friendly, generous place. Hopefully, the person (or persons) giving opinion/suggestions/advice is an effective communicator, and is also capable of usefully examining the song for its strengths and its opportunities. That person is trusted to offer realistic and helpful observations, drawing upon their own experience within the craft of songwriting and the business of music. Assuming that all to be true, it’s easy to appreciate what benefit a songwriter can receive from participating.

It’s true – once in a while, the mentor offering observations will not be capable of making such realistic, helpful, or even meaningful observations. Not everyone is capable of examining a song objectively, and you might be catching a mentor on a bad day, in a bad mood, or nursing a hangover. It’s entirely possible that the mentor’s suggestions simply do not agree with your intentions for the song. And, let’s address the elephant in the room – if you don’t like the mentor or their music, you may be biased against their advice. It’s your job, as the songwriter, to listen and decide which observations are helpful to you, and which ones you can respectfully set aside. Just remember – the best chance for your song to be strong, is to consider the opinions of other people, because their experience as a listener is something you lack as the writer, and it’s crucial for your understanding of where your song may still need some changes.

What Am I Looking For?

This is your chance to understand how your song is landing in a listener’s ear. Do you achieve the desired emotional response in your listener? Do they lose interest at any point in the song? And most of all, can you pick up some helpful tips on what to do next?

Sometimes, you know that your song just isn’t reaching its potential, but you can’t improve on it for one reason or another:

  • You honestly don’t know what’s missing
  • You’re too close to the song to be objective about it
  • You’re exhausted

Getting a 2nd (or 3rd, or 4th…) opinion is crucial in helping you crawl back to the writing table and improve upon what you’ve created.

Look for useful takeaway advice that agrees with your intentions for the song:

  • WHAT is happening (good or bad) in the song
  • WHY is it a good or a bad thing
  • HOW could it be changed to function better in the song

You Have Nothing to Lose

One of two things will happen as a result of workshopping your song with a mentor. Either you will come away with useful advice that can help you improve your song, or you won’t.

Either way – and this applies to all re-writing activities – you will never lose the song you’ve already written. If you decide to try changing it, but you don’t love the changes, the old version is still yours.

What Is The Workshop Expecting From Me?

Yes, this seems like a strange question, but it is essential to go into this process with a mature understanding that YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING. We’re all on a journey of improvement, but we’re all at a different point on that same journey. Appreciating where you are on your journey is an incredibly useful tool for your improvement.

I still remember my first songwriting workshop. I brought a song that I thought was great, and my family loved it, too (always beware opinions from those who already love you). The panel of professional songwriters, however, were much less impressed, and one panelist in particular came across as bored, even offended at the song’s inadequacy. I took the feedback too personally, filtering it through my emotions rather than my intellect. I decided that I would never take another song to another stupid workshop.

Ah, the good old days. How young and unprepared I was.

I did, however, attend further workshops (though it was literally years before I started doing so again), and learned how to get the most out of them. I fondly remember another song workshop, to which I brought another “great” song. The panelists generously discussed how they were curious to hear how the lyrics they saw on my lyric sheet would be delivered, and how they liked my melodies and harmonies, but all three panelists agreed on one fundamental observation – they had absolutely no idea what the song was about. I had a “light bulb” moment, realizing just how much of the story was missing from the song. To me, the song was compelling, because I knew the complete story. Without the panelists’ observations, I could never have seen what was missing for them.

Bottom line – go into a songwriting workshop with an open mind. You don’t have all the answers, and your mentors are an invaluable resource.

Fighting or Flight’ing

There will always be songwriters at a workshop, who are not ready to take an objective look at their song. These people will tell others “just write what you feel, don’t listen to what anyone else says”. That’s a very friendly piece of advice, and it’s completely useless to anyone wishing to take their songwriting seriously. So don’t be that guy. If you don’t believe in the value of workshopping, that’s your prerogative. Go home. Or, if you insist on staying, then shut up and stay out of the way. Others are there for a reason.

And though it will be difficult and somewhat terrifying, don’t shy away from the opportunity. The mentor(s) are there to be helpful, to point out opportunities for you to become a stronger songwriter. The meek might inherit the Earth, but they won’t get any benefit from a songwriters’ workshop. Stand up and show ’em what you’ve got!

It’s A Wrap

Please, if you’re a songwriter looking to write better and better songs, please give songwriting workshops a try (look, I even said “please” twice). Just remember:

  • DON’T FIGHT – don’t be “that guy” who wants to argue in response to every piece of a mentor’s observation
  • DON’T TAKE FLIGHT – don’t retreat from the chance to take your writing seriously and write great songs
  • WRITE – this is about doing what you love to do, and doing it in a way that means more, to more people. Choose this option!

If you like what you read above, maybe you'd like to work with Allister at Tilted White Shed? Reach out through the Contact Us page.

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