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Summer 2016 Blog Series: Ten Summer Tips For Budding Songwriters

With summer now fully swinging here in Canada, memories of those sweet, old dog-days I wrote about in last week’s blog are harmonizing with every sound I hear in my yard.

Being awakened at dawn by the scattered notes of songbirds ~ easing into a full-on jazz improv ensemble by daybreak ~ I am reminded of how their music once inspired me to write a song called “Wings Against My Window”.  Heavy afternoon sun stirring the eerily dischorded harmony of cicadas, applauded by swaying poplar trees waving in the breeze, takes me back to my childhood ~ encapsulated in my song “All These Pictures”.  With sunset, orchestras of insects, amphibians and suburban wild-life tune up for their night-time performances ~ all chiming in with their scored parts at the appropriate times.   Regular appreciation of such divinely conducted concerts have directly inspired me, over the years, to create audio soundscapes in several of my recordings  (“Twinkle Twinkle”, “When The World Sings So Dark At Night” and “Rhythm of Surrender”).   More than albums by Bob Dylan, John Denver or Natalie Merchant ~ truly it has always been the music of nature that has provided me with the most lasting soundtrack to my youth.

For me, “Coming of age” as a young musician, was a very sacred and spiritual experience.  My questions about life, love, purpose, past and present were all sifted and sorted out through the songs I was listening to and those I began writing when I was in my late teens.   It has always been my belief that: music is not so much about what we sing or play on an instrument, but more about how well we listen to what is going on around us and then, how well we are able to join in with what we hear.   Without listening and observing our environments, I do not believe we can become very good singers, musicians or writers.

Here are 10 tips for budding songwriters and musicians to consider this summer, while trying to grow musically in the sun.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice.  You will never be able to grow or improve your skills at expressing yourself through song if you do not play or sing daily.   Author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that, 10,000 hours of practice at anything will make you a “professional”.  Personally, I think there is much more to being a master of something than just the number of hours you spent doing it (fodder for another blog perhaps), but there is no doubt that, time spent willingly at any endeavour will familiarize you with it to such a degree that you will be able to do it proficiently.     Build a connection, a friendship, a romantic bond with your musical instrument.  Get to know every aspect of it’s sound and feel.  Care for it, respect it and treat it with dignity.   Keep it in good repair and functionality.  If you are home with it, keep it on a proper stand, in a safe place out of direct sunlight.  One of my mentor’s Danny Thompson once told me, “An instrument in the case, is an instrument that is not being played”, (unless of course you are transporting it or you simply must be separated from it for several days at time.)  If you are going on vacation during summer holidays, get a good case and take your instrument with you so you can practice in your hotel, tent, relative’s house or wherever….but do not go without practicing.    If your instrument requires maintenance, learn that maintenance and either do it yourself or have someone  professional do it for you routinely.   Singers, that means you too!  Remember: your voice is an instrument.  Don’t abuse it with yelling or whispering.  Vocal chords are like reeds, so learn how to care for them, stretch them properly, warm them up before singing too long or too high and use them with care.  Your instrument is an extension of your spirit ~ it is the vehicle through which your feelings may be translated into sound waves and carried to the hearts of others.   If your eyes were unable to focus, you would never wander without your glasses.  In our world, where so few seem to be able to focus on what is meaningful, keep your instrument as safe as a pair of prescription spectacles, and as close at hand.   Some folks even honour their instruments with names ~ my guitars are Cocoa, Cinnamon and Lassie.  My banjo is Toshi, my oud is Fez and my bazouk is Rawda.

2. Perform.  Once you have practiced to the point that you know how to tune up and actually play something well, you may want to seek out environments where you can share your songs with friends or family members.  Venues you may want to consider in your hometown could be: Summer camps, retirement communities or nursing homes (often all three are very open to volunteers coming in to share music).  Open mic nights at local coffee shops (pop into a local cafe or restaurant where live music is offered, inquire about open mic nights and how to get your name on a list for their next program).  Street-corners (stop by your local city hall and find out what the municipal by-laws are regarding street performers ~ if and where they are allowed to play etc.  You may find that your city or town frowns on buskers and has rules against singing on sidewalks, so be respectful of those laws.  Alternatively, you may want to simply play in a public park).  Youtube (The internet can be a great place to start building an audience for you work ~ start a Youtube channel where you offer up new songs to share each week.)  Word of advice though about performing:  Be cautious that you do not force your music onto others or get to demonstrative or egocentric with it.   There is nothing worse than a campfire where some novice minstrel seeking validation pulls out their poorly tuned guitar and simply won’t stop noodling with it while others are trying to talk, tell stories or actually sing together.   Showing off riffs you’ve picked up on Youtube from classic rock tunes won’t “oooo” and “ahhhh” people very long and, after a while, you may have somebody threaten to wrap your guitar’s neck around your neck.   Learn to read people and remember that, the best way to respect yourself and your music is to respect the feelings, time and ears of those who will be hearing it.

3. Record.  Hone your sound and skills by recording your rehearsals at home on a cassette, micro cassette, iPhone, computer or some such similar recording device.  Hearing a play-back of yourself, you may be better able to hear mistakes that you make when you play, so you may work harder at correcting them.   Recording rehearsals is also a great way of gauging you progress over time.   It helps you capture creative ideas ~ seeds that could grow into songs ~ preserving them so they do not slip away from your mind.  Once you get a new song you love under your fingers, then you may want to use programs like Garageband to actually record demos or final masters that you upload on-line or transfer to CD for distribution to others.  Though this is the 21st century, I still use an old-school micro-cassette recorded to capture song ideas and sketches.    For demos, I use Garageband.

4. Summer Soundtrack.  Allow other music to inspire you this summer.  Seek out a small handful of new CDs by a few artists you like, or randomly get hold of some albums by artists you have never heard of, then allow those songs to underscore your summer.  Give them a chance to grow on you like summer berries, by using them as “background music” while you are cooking, napping, driving or whatever.    Many years ago, a passionate music-loving friend of mine took me out to a record store with the purpose of broaden my scope of musical appreciation.  He challenged me, “Just go through the bins until you find an album cover that speaks to you.”   So I began flipping through several boxes of dog-eared old vinyl records, seeking something that would jump out at me.  In those days, it was commonplace to find milk crates full of used LPs under the main, raised bins of more popular albums at record shops…sometimes those bargain bins would entice you with sales of only 25 cents per album!  Suddenly, I came upon a lovely and mysterious cover that indeed triggered my interest.  Purchasing the album to taking home, that night I set the record to spin and was immediately captivated.  That LP not only went on to become one of the official soundtracks of my early twenties, but the artist, Laura Nyro, went on to be one of my favourite musicians of all time.   One of her songs inspired me to write “Sing Children of The World”.   Who will provide the soundtrack to your summer of 2016?

5. Keep a Journal of observations.  When it comes to writing you own songs, I am a strong advocate of keeping a daily, handwritten journal.  Carry it with you everywhere so you may easily jot down ideas or observation that could make great fodder for songs or poems at a later time.   That journal will also become a wonderful memory book of your summer: something to look back on one day with fondness…or embarrassment.

6. Start a handwritten songbook.  Build your collection of songs to learn, or songs you have already mastered, by starting a personal song-book.   Your song-book will serve as a musical well of material for future campfire or living-room singalongs and, like your journal, will also be a historical document, reminding you of this unique summer.  Handwrite the lyrics ~ transcribing them from a recording or your own memory, but don’t cheat by simply looking them up on-line then printing them out for a binder or (horror of horrors!) keeping them on your iPhone.   There is something wonderful to be said for the lost art of “handwriting” in these strange times of crazy thumbs on mobile devices.    Handwriting documents has been proven to increase one’s memorization skills, as you hands and eyes actually experience the action of creating words on a page.   Your mind recalls the act of writing, while simultaneously recalling what your eyes watched you write.    With a handwritten songbook, you create a journal of your summer’s favourite songs.   Two or three songs a week, written into your book, means 20 or 25 songs you may reference later and perhaps enjoy playing for years to come.   How cool would it be if your children, or grandchildren had a handwritten songbook you made during your youth?

7. Learn a new song each week.  As a means of keeping daily practice time fresh, exciting and challenging ~ aim to learn a new song each week during the summer months.  Then, each week, also review the songs from the weeks before.   By the end of August you will be able to play a small concert of about eight songs ~ that is about 25 minutes worth of music!   Come autumn, when you are back to school or university and you hear about a campus arts night, talent show or open-mic program, you will easily be able to commit as an artist ~ offering a fifteen minute set of some well rehearsed songs.

8. Catch live music.  Seek and ye shall find.  There are people everywhere itching to share their music with others, you must simply seek them out.  Watching, listening and experiencing live music is a powerful way of learning how to appreciate the art of expression and how to relate with an audience.  Hunt out venues in your area where people ~ human beings ~ perform music LIVE.   I am not talking about DJ’s mashing up tunes in a night-club with their laptop…I am not taking about Karaoke bars…I am not talking about singers at community events performing to backing tracks (or worse, lip-syncing to a pre-recorded CD!), I am talking about going somewhere to sit and experience another human being or group of living breathing people, sing, play and express their music to you in real-time.  Simply watch, listen and learn.  The musical genre of the performers is not important.   Jazz, blues, folk, rock, spiritual, classical….it doesn’t matter.  All will teach you something.   So you enjoy listening to hip-hop?  Fine, but when you see an elderly person at a farmer’s market playing a traditional Chinese instrument live in front of you, or you come across a busker with a cello, violin, kazoo or mbira ~ stop and share that moment with them.  Try not to be too picky or snobby about what genre of music you think is “best” or most “cool”.  Music is a language and a form of communication in and of itself, so learn it by listening to it ~ with all it’s accents ~ and you will be much better able to speak it with others yourself one day, in your own unique accent.   You will find free live music in parks, cafes, at festivals and in places worship.   Get out of your comfort zone and find out when your local Sikh Gurdwaras or Hindu Temples have services or gatherings and ask if you may sit in to respectfully listen.  Do the same with local Churches on a Sunday morning to hear powerful hymns, pipe organs or piano soloists.  Synagogues and Mosques as well…  Saturday Shabbat gatherings or Thursday evening Sufi gatherings of thikr.   Song is everywhere!  Sometimes you must just put your “ear to the ground”, as they say, and feel for it’s vibrations in areas of community where you might not usually think to go.  A place of worship you are unfamiliar with may seem like a strange or uncomfortable location to enjoy live music, but believe me ~ from a technical perspective, you may learn more in a serene spiritual environment, than in a loud, crowded bar or night-club where beer on tap is more of a draw than the band on the stage ~ no matter how talented they may be.   That said, if you think you can handle the energy and social distractions of a nightclub or pub, rock on!  Consult local news papers to find listings for where you can catch live music on weekends.  The more you go out to enjoy live music as a respectful listener, the more you will appreciate the importance of your own practice time and the better you will be able to understand how music of any genre fosters communication between people.

9. Take your music to nature and sing outdoors.  In an effort to make your practice time more memorable, you may want to consider taking your voice or chosen instrument outdoors to a forest, riverside, beach or even just your own back-garden to practice.   Being indoors all the time, one often hears their musical expression in the same way ~ with sound bouncing around a hollow,  familiar room or soaking into the pillows, rugs and  bookshelves that clutter a practice space.   Outdoors, you may be surprised at how differently your instrument sounds to you or how different you feel while playing.   Suddenly you will have an audience of birds, insects, trees and wildlife.   You may even feel shy at first to play or sing out ~ as if you are suddenly naked, small and vulnerable in such new territory.   Consider the experiment akin to musical skinny-dipping, only without the fear of being arrested for indecent exposure. 😉   Pianists, you will have trouble  with this exercise unless you can toy with some sort of piano related instrument that is more portable ~ a hammer dulcimer perhaps or a small battery operated keyboard?

10. Find a musical friend to jam with each week.  Jamming with someone else who is also learning a new instrument ~ or even the same instrument as you ~ is a great way to grow musically.  Learning with others, we are often challenged or better motivated to try new things and keep practicing independently between meetings.  People also hear music in different ways and express it differently.  The techniques a friend uses on their guitar may be different from yours, and visa-versa.   Thus, bouncing ideas, tips, guitar licks and new chords off of each other, you may be amazed at how quickly you tighten your skills.   Perhaps you have a co-worker, friend, sibling, cousin or neighbour who has also wanted to better themselves musically, but like you, has found it hard staying committed to daily practice.  You may find that a consistent schedule of rehearsing with someone else this summer is just the thing you need to really start developing as a musician.   Many great musical duos and bands started this way ~ high school acquaintances just teaming up to play some songs, only to find that a creative bond quickly formed… leading to the formation of a band!   The Beatles, U2, Green Day, Rush and even Simon & Garfukle got started just jamming together in their teens.    You may not need to look any further than you own family!  Maybe each family member in your home can pick up an instrument this summer and start learning songs together.