The last time I took a songwriting workshop I told myself I wasn’t going to do any more courses on how to write songs. It isn’t that I don’t learn things, but the biggest lesson I always take home is that I just need to spend more time with my music. There are no tricks for making songs fall out of the sky or sprout from the ground, no shortcuts to a song I would really love to sing.
But then I came across a course offered by the Berklee College of Music through an on-line educational initiative called Coursera. Coursera partners with universities from around the world to make personal and professional development accessible to more people. An incredible range of courses is available – from agriculture to politics to science to songwriting – and they’re all free.
Pat Pattison, author of How to Write Better Lyrics, is the teacher. He is featured in a series of short lectures that focus on one detail of a song. There are simple quizzes embedded into these lectures to help you pay attention. Longer quizzes use the work of established artists (Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, among others) to illustrate song structure and technique.
Pattison acknowledges that when songs just come to us out of the blue, flashes of inspiration, bursts of spontaneous creativity, it is a wonderful thing. But that isn’t the only way to craft a song. Each section has an assignment designed to let us try out a particular technique, developing tools for song composition. Pattison claims at the end of one of his lessons: “And that is the cure for writer’s block.”
One innovative element of the course which I like (but is getting mixed reviews from participants) is peer review. Once you have submitted an assignment, the next step is to critique (as constructively as possible) assignments from 5 or more virtual classmates. I like this strategy as it deepens the experience of the exercise by seeing how other people approached it. I also like that we are interacting with each other, not just with the course platform or even the instructor.
Another place where participants interact is the Forum page. Just in the introductions I counted a couple dozen countries (Australia, Spain, Nicaragua, Phillipines, Russia, Brazil just to name a few) and people ranging from 15-61 years of age. Although there are thousands of people registered in the course, forums help connect people in similar geographical regions, or with similar interests or desire for collaboration. A small Ontario contingent is going to meet for coffee next week.
The last two assignments ask us to write and revise a song using the tools introduced in the course, showing our steps along the way. So if you’ll excuse me I have some homework to do . . .