Monday, July 26, 2010

Stirring the Creative Pot 2

OK, I’ve told you how to get ideas to come to you is to just keep writing. “But I don’t know what to write about!”

No? How about writing about not knowing what to write about?

Here’s a technique that can be adapted to many things, but I’ll start by explaining it from a lyrics point of view. All you need is a pen or pencil and some paper, and a bit of quiet time. If you can set a timer for 15 – 20 minutes, so much the better.

Then, start writing about anything at all. ANYTHING. And – (here’s the catch) – don’t stop writing. I don’t care if you write “I don’t know what to write is this woman nuts there isn’t anything in my head to write about and if there were it couldn’t get in because I’m writing about not knowing what to write about is this writers block I’ll bet even Mark Twain had writers block and….”

I’m willing to bet that you will get very bored with writing about “I have nothing to write about” after a few minutes and your unconscious mind will start to throw out suggestions of more interesting things to write about – and so by all means, start writing about that.

You can use this same technique with an instrument. Pick up your instrument and start playing – but not a “known song.” In other words, “noodle.” Again, keep noodling for a while. (Chances are you already do this.) If you find yourself playing a theme or hook that you’d like to use in a song, just make a note of it so you won’t forget, and keep going. This works for vocals – just sing syllables, sounds, lalalafaladozaladazap…

Final, important step: Don’t judge what you just did. You might have found something that has promise; keep track of it. You might have the start of a song, and the next part might be just around the corner, or it could be a couple of years in the future. It doesn’t matter; stick the idea in a file where you keep such ideas. You can always come back to it later. Don’t worry, if the rest of the song is ready to appear, it WILL find you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

But…what if what I write is garbage?

Well, that’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? I usually get frustrated with my own songs, so I know how THAT feels.

Keep this very important thing in mind: Not every song (or song fragment) that you write will be what you consider good. Nor will every song you write even be finished.

If you dismiss it before you’ve halfway written it, however, you’re not giving it (or yourself) a chance at all.

The critic/editor inside of our heads is our own worst enemy – far, far more vicious than Simon Cromwell could ever be. This Critic is going to be screaming its head off when you head down this road.

Know what?

The louder it screams, the closer you are to reaching a new and better level in your songwriting.

Unfortunately, this Critic causes the abandonment of many a fine song, and the disillusionment of many a songwriter. Write in spite of it.

Know these very important facts:

There are many, many songs inside of you; an infinite amount.

Some are better than others. You will write all kinds – great ones, sucky ones, mediocre ones, and Oh-my-God-where-did-THAT-come-from?

You will have good days (and weeks and months) and bad days (and weeks and months). Just keep writing.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way (and many other wonderful books on creativity), puts it this way: “Just show up at the page.” If heeded, this single concept will help you tremendously.

Another concept that she discusses in her books is that God is the Ultimate Artist – and artists love other artists. God didn’t make just a few flowers; God said “Wheeee! This is fun!!! Let’s make MORE!” and got started with pansies, tulips, roses, buttercups, lilies, and….well….you get the picture.

The Creative Source is endless. It is always there to be tapped. The more you write, the wider your own creative channel becomes – and the more songs you will be writing. Some may be the roses, some may be the ragweed.

Judge not. Write on.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stirring the Creative Pot 1

Where do these ideas come from? What’s the story?

Take a look and listen to songs you know (and what you like). For some, songwriting is telling a story in a song. That’s how I see it – yes, there are people and companies creating rhythms and dance mixes and grooves and so on. Sometimes they tell a story – a very, very simple one.

I don’t think that every piece of music, every song, must have lyrics. Have a listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, for instance. There’s a story there, and it moves me to tears though I’ve been listening to it for decades. My interpretation of the story might be different from yours, but there is a story there.

Rod Stewart said “every picture tells a story, don’t it?” (Well, he wasn’t the first, but that’s besides the point). Every song tells a story. It might not be a traditional “folk song story,” but it’s still a story, and very often the story is told with an economy of words, and an economy of chords. Etta James sang “I Would Rather Go Blind” in a two-chord progression (I – ii) (which is C – D minor if you’re in C) and mopped the floor with us. “I would rather go blind…than to see you walk away from me.”

Next time you listen to a song, ask yourself “what’s the story here?” It may seem obvious, but thinking about it gets you to thinking about song construction.

Sometimes I’ve decided to write a song about a certain topic, and sometimes the song idea just hits me and it pours out. The thing about songwriting is that there’s no real “right” or “wrong” way to get started. There are certain things in crafting the song that make it more accessible to listeners, and I’ll be covering those over time as well. But for now, listen for the stories in the songs you like, and keep writing your own.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

That Ancient Chinese Ritual...tu-ning.

Groan. Sorry. Bad musician joke. There’s tons of info online about how to tune your guitar…but every once in a while, someone asks me about it. (There are also tons of bad musician jokes online as well.) So, here are some tips and resources….

First of all…there are a lot of different tunings. Yep. And no, you don’t have to learn ‘em. After you’ve been playing for a bit, you can have fun exploring them (and that’s great fuel for songwriting…hey, isn’t that what this blog is supposed to be about?). But for now, start with EADGBE. Standard tuning. You can stay there as long as you like. You can either hike on down to your Locally Owned Music Store (or, lacking that, your local mega-mart might have something along these lines) and purchase a pitch pipe (cheapie, but does the job) or an electronic tuner (more costly, requires batteries, also does the job.) Got a piano or electronic keyboard handy? You have a tuner. Start with E below middle C, then A, then D (right above middle C), G, B, and the next E.

Or, included in the price of your monthly DSL or cable, find an online guitar tuner! , , ,
To name a few. There are many great sites out there to get you going! This blog is to be about songwriting and creativity, and I’ve spent several posts writing about making guitar playing easier for a beginner (or “re-beginner.”)

The reason for that…if you have to fight with the tools of songwriting, it interferes with the creative process. And while you don’t need a guitar to write music (your instrument might be piano, or violin, or voice, or banjo, or hurdy-gurdy, or whatever), it is always a good thing to have additional instruments, even if you just “play around” with them. This is because it nudges your brain in a slightly different direction.

Brain nudges. Might be time to take a break from the guitar info and foray into the world of Brain Nudges and Stirring the Creative Pot.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Capo: Putting the squeeze on it

Capo: A capo, or, rarely, capo tasto (from Italian capo, "head" and tasto, "tie or fret") is a clamp-like device used on the neck of a stringed instrument to shorten the strings, hence raising the pitch. (

Wikipedia says it well, but they don’t mention that capos can be your best friend when you are learning to play (and beyond). (Actually, the Italians said it first, and no one can talk about music the way Italians can! Accelerando, mio tesoro! Or something like that.)

So far, I’ve talked about string gauge and action (or string height). The more tension in the strings, the more pressure required to press ‘em down accurately (so that you get a clear sound)…and after a bit, the more pain - until you get used to it.

A capo is one more tool that can bring the strings closer to the fretboard. You can do this whether or not you had the action lowered.

Just one thing…you’ll notice that the capo raises the pitch when you use it. That’s its primary purpose. Each fret = one-half step; capo 1 (capo at the first fret) will raise a C to a D#; capo 2 (at the second fret) will raise a C to a D. (If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry about it right now. Whatever you do, don’t stop playing!)

Now…if you really want to Be Kind To Your Fingers, get some light electric strings on your acoustic guitar, have someone lower the action (or not), tune the strings DOWN one-half step and then capo at the first fret. Your guitar will probably sound a bit weird, but you will be able to play for quite a while without pain!

Seriously, you probably WON’T need to do ALL of that. But you can if you need to! The long and short of it is…do whatever you have to do to make it easy to play if you are just starting out (or if you haven’t played in a while, and have, as a friend of mine says, “soft fingers.”)

Tuning. Ah, yes, tuning. Until next time --

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Action, Baby, Action (or making it work so it doesn't hurt 2)

You might hear someone talk about the “action” in reference to a guitar. No, it’s not how fast someone can play demi-semi-quavers, or 64th notes. Simply put, it refers to how close (or how far) the strings are to the fretboard.

And once again…this is a “personal preference” thing, taking into account an individual’s style of playing, string gauge preference, and even things like “am I gonna play slide guitar on this thing or what?” (A guitar set up for slide playing is going to have a higher action – i. e., the strings will be higher up, or farther away, from the fretboard.)

Here’s where buying that guitar from your locally-owned music store makes a difference. A guitar tech can easily “lower the action” on your guitar by gently filing down the slots on the nut of the guitar. (Contrary to popular blues jam belief, the “nut” is NOT the player. It’s that little slip of – well, nut – that has slots that hold the strings in place. It’s at the base of the headstock.)

DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. (Unless, of course, you’re a guitar tech guru, in which case, you wouldn’t need this blog entry anyway.) They are teensy weensy files with itsy bitsy teeth. And it's a delicate process!

Huh? You bought your guitar at…ah. OK. Hm. Or it was a gift. (Gift is good, you can claim innocence when you go into the music store and ask for help. They will often have mercy on you, figuring you might become a customer if you learn to play…)

Now…if for some reason you can’t or won’t do that (your ex-wife married the store owner), you can still purchase a capo. Ah, capos. More on that in the next post….

Monday, July 12, 2010

Making it work so it doesn’t hurt: Guitars

I had a guitar when I was 14. My grandparents loved to travel, and would take road trips to El Paso and come back with treasures galore – silver jewelry, leather handbags, etc. On one visit, they brought me a guitar! I was in heaven!

I was also taking piano lessons at the time, twice a week, so that pretty effectively squelched the thought of guitar lessons. No matter, I thought, I have songbooks that have guitar chord diagrams.

Now, this guitar had The Strings From Hell. You know, the kind that slice your fingertips to ribbons. So, after some months of fighting it, I gave up.

Do you know how many times I have heard a variation on this story from someone? I’ve heard it 3 times just this past week! There are an awful lot of lonely guitars out there, and just as many frustrated musicians-at-heart who feel like “well, music’s just not for me.” ARGH!

There are things you can do to make it easier to play – other than buying a new guitar. You see, if it hurts, you won’t play it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Wal Mart guitar or a Martin guitar; you won’t play it.

“We bought her/him a guitar for Christmas, but s/he never plays it!” If you’re saying that about your child, ask your child if it hurts. Or maybe it’s you who wants to play, but it hurts. Good news: There are several things you can do to make it easier.

The String’s the Thing. I’m going to assume that your guitar is an acoustic (hollow body, no amp needed). Most people start with an acoustic.

Guitar strings come in gauges ranging from extra-light to heavy. They also come in “Acoustic” and “Electric” variety. There are many other variations as well, such as steel, bronze, bronze wound, micro-treated, phosphor bronze, etc. Don’t worry about these right now.

Why different gauges? Different tastes, and the type and gauge make a difference in the tone. But if you don’t learn how to play first, what the heck difference does TONE make?

(In my mind’s ear, I now hear a chorus of guitar-slingers gasp and faint over my last statement. Sacrificing sacred tone? Oh, NO! Yeah, right, get over yourself.)

In general, we refer to string gauges in terms of light, extra light, etc. or as “tens,” “elevens,” and so on. That number refers to the gauge of the first (lightest gauge) string (each string will be of a different gauge).

Right now, I’m looking at a set of “Custom Light” (Phosphor Bronze) for acoustic, 1st string is .011. I also have a set of “Extra Light Gauge” 80/20 Bronze Wound for acoustic, and the 1st string is .010.

To make life simple, we can refer to these as “acoustic, elevens” and “acoustic, tens.” The lower the number, the thinner the string, the lighter the gauge. Again, don’t worry about the “bronze wound” or “phosphor bronze.”

Of course, if you go into your locally owned music store and ask for “acoustic tens” they might think you know a lot about this and say something like “coated or not?” At this point, you shrug, try and look cool, and buy the lightest gauge at the cheapest price. Once you are playing more, you can join the guitar-slinger-string-discussions on coated strings, but for now, don’t worry about it.

GET THE LIGHTEST GAUGE. Don’t assume that “starter guitar” is really set up for beginning players.

In fact, you can get ELECTRIC strings for your acoustic guitar. Why? Because electric strings come in even lighter gauges, and will be even easier on your fingers. Ahhhh, relief.

You might hear “you’re gonna mess up the neck” or “it’s not gonna sound right.” However, this is a temporary thing. Having electric strings on your acoustic for a few months before you move up to light gauge acoustic strings is not going to damage your guitar. If it's a rare vintage breed that's finicky, I’d suggest you switch to another instrument for learning and have a good, trustworthy guitar tech give that baby a tune-up.

As for tone, yes, it will sound a bit more “twangly,” but you are doing this in order to make learning easy. So what?

You could get a set of electric extra lights (or super lights) which would be nines. (The lightest gauge string in the set is .009). Put these on your acoustic guitar and your fingers will love you. Tone be damned, you’ll be playing.

In addition, you can use a capo on the guitar, and / or have a guitar tech lower the action.

Huh? OK, that’ll be the next post.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Learning an instrument

I wrote my first “real” song when I was in the 8th grade, but there were many attempts before that. Somewhere in the attic I have an old manuscript book with earlier scribblings. I think of that sometimes, when I see the Louisiana Kids performing, or talk to an adult who says “I always wanted to learn to play the ---.”

We have this crazy idea as a society that learning music is reserved for children and teens. Learning to play a musical instrument does take discipline and practice, and most adults are overloaded enough as it is – who has time? So, parents squelch their own desires in order to provide their children with opportunity to learn. I have 2 teenagers – so I know full well how this works.

Truth of the matter is, it’s never too late. I love the idea that there are more opportunities than ever for children and teens to learn music. When I was growing up, I was blessed to have parents who took my constant begging for piano lessons seriously. Had it not been for that, I would have had no musical training at all, for my school had no music or chorus program, and there were no such things as library-sponsored classes or singing groups like Louisiana Kids.

Now it’s different. There are opportunities out there for children and teens. In spite of budget cuts that affect the arts, there is STILL a lot out there.

But what about adults – and young adults? What of the adult who wants to go back to playing music – or start playing, or begin writing music? There are opportunities out there – perhaps not as many as for children and teens, but they ARE there. We are our own greatest roadblock.

“I don’t have time.” “I’m too old.” “I tried learning --- once; it was a disaster!” “When we sang in school, my teacher told me to shut up and just move my mouth.”

Keep this in mind: No one is asking you to play like a concert pianist. And even a little bit of musical training and knowledge goes a long way.

No time? Little slivers of time are OK. Do what you can. Music should be enjoyable.

Too old? You’re never too old to learn something new, unless you think you are!

Tried learning an instrument before? Maybe your teacher’s teaching style didn’t fit your learning needs. Maybe the instrument wasn’t comfortable for you.

Your teacher told you WHAT? Shame on that teacher! Chances are, the song being sung wasn’t in a good key for you, and it felt too high or too low. Or several kids around you were a little off-key, and those different pitch cues ARE confusing.

No matter what your age, if you want to learn (or advance) musical ability, go for it. Some advice for ANYONE who wants to learn to play: Make sure the instrument is something you WANT to learn, and make sure it’s the right “fit.” That’s a subject for SEVERAL blog entries, so I’ll stop here, and continue on that subject next.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Song for All Seasons...of Life.

Don’t worry about it being perfect. Just write. Sure, there will be random thoughts, stuff-that-sounds-like-garbage, and things you’ll read over and think “I can’t believe I wrote that, that’s horrible.” But there will also be some gems. A line or two here and there, seeds for a song. Sometimes, a whole song. Don’t worry about all of that; just write.

I shared that idea with a group of teens and tweens a couple of days ago at a songwriting workshop that my writing/music partner, Joshua (aka “Bubba”) and I presented at the East Branch of the Terrebonne Parish Library in Houma, Louisiana. This concept is something I learned from author/creative mentor Julia Cameron (whom I’ve never met) and from author/creative mentor Deacon Diane Moore (who is a cherished friend and gifted author). It’s something I know to my bones to be true.

So after a couple of years of the idea of this songwriting blog bumping my consciousness, I finally decided to heed my own advice.

Why didn’t I do it sooner? Let’s see....

There are already such things out there.
Can I keep up with it?
What will I write about?
Will I run out of ideas?
What if it’s stuff-that-sounds-like-garbage?

Hmm. You know, those are the same questions I hear when people talk about writing songs. Since this is meant to be a songwriting blog, I’ll allow my Wiser Inner Songwriter answer them.

There are already such SONGS out there.

There are indeed. And the world always has room for more. God didn’t stop creating flowers just because God came up with some roses and tulips; God said “Wheee! This is fun!” and kept on going.

Can I keep up with it?
Who knows? Does it matter? Do what you can.

What will I write about?
Start writing and the ideas will show up. Sometimes you even write about having nothing to write about…and that’s something to write about.

Will I run out of ideas?
Well…my husband says I never run out of ideas. I pull them out of the ether, so to speak, from the Creative Source, so to speak, and THAT supply is endless. I might run out, but that Source never will.

What if it’s stuff-that-sounds-like-garbage?
Then, write a song about garbage.

So there we have it. Let’s see where this goes.