I’m going to throw this out as a challenge to see if anyone will correct me: I have it on good authority (Bill Heffernan of Gate 403 fame) that Fat Alberts Coffeehouse is the longest running open stage in North America. Starting out in a church basement in 1967, this weekly open stage has been at the United Steelworkers Union Building on Cecil Street for about 10 years now. Some of the musicians in attendance had stories to tell of the event as it unfolded over 30 years ago which added personal perspective to the club’s longevity.
All levels are welcome and all genres (including classical guitar, blues, spoken word, covers, original tunes). The atmosphere is relaxed and supportive. Tony, on sound, and Mary, our MC, made sure everything moves along quickly & smoothly, with minimal down time between performers. In addition to vocal mics and instrument plug-ins, there is also a keyboard for performers to use. Part way through the evening there is a half hour feature set. This week’s feature performer was Glen Hornblast who entertained us with stories and original tunes.
[Fat Albert’s Coffee House, 25 Cecil Street, Toronto; every Wednesday 8-11pm, sign up after 7:00; $2 cover, coffee & tea available]
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 . . .