TuneSmithing


One Easter when I was a kid, my folks bought 'us kids' a baby chicken (dyed pink), a baby rabbit, and a baby duck. The rabbit bit the chicken, which died, and the rabbit escaped. The duckling survived, but having no mother duck to teach it how to properly duck, it took lessons from the family dog, who, being a dog, taught it to bark, chase kids, and loyally follow me around. We eventually had to fence this duck in because he'd chase bicycles and cars. Later, we bought a second duck to keep the first one company, but the original wouldn't have anything to do with the late-comer, who eventually moved into the duck community in the city park. Years later, the original duck was killed by a rampaging dog.

I mention this duck because I've been deeply considering what it is that I do, and as usual, this reflection leaves me feeling like an odd duck.

Like my duck, I imprinted early on a medium of expression that few would equate to my later career(s). My first love was not cars or bikes or anything motorized or mechanical, but music. Specifically, creating music. Songwriting. Tunesmithing. Yea, I hated transcribing it. Never could read it worth a damn. Didn't much care for interpreting anyone else's, either. But I did revel in creating it. Silly or serious, I have pretty much always been a songwriter.

Because of this, I have an odd-duck sense of form and style that remains mysterious, even to me. I am an unrepentantly brutal critic and a very reluctant fan. There aren't more than a handful of songwriters I respect, and these for their lyrics more than their melodies. For me, melody is Musak™, the lyric makes the tune.

A well-crafted lyric is my personal model for coherence. A well-crafted lyric tells the story, guides the listener, and brings purpose to otherwise meaningless melody. When I first started hanging around projects, I noticed something missing. To my ear, it seemed as though the project leaders and planners and sponsors over-focused on performing music and missed crafting the song. The results sounded more like garage band jams than thoughtful renderings, and the words and the music never seemed to match for me. I'd try to explain what was missing, but even to me, my descriptions sounded like so much odd-duck quacking.

What is this felt sense? How can I explain? If you've never written a song, never stitched a lyric to dress a melody, it's a craft. Whether it's an art or not, I can't say, but it is a craft. As a craft, it's guided by some rules of thumb, some principles, and more felt-sense than specific technique. The most common question people who don't write songs ask me has always been: Which comes first, the melody or the words? My usual response: depends.

Depends upon what? Usually (I said usually) upon inspiration. Whatever comes, comes. It's not so much about what comes first as it is about what whatever comes comes into. (huh?) How receptive and accepting am I in that moment. That makes all the difference. The craft of songwriting is all about making silk purses out of sows ears.

Interestingly, so is the craft of project work. So is the craft of life.

Odd ducklings that we all are, we each imprinted early upon some primary means for expressing ourselves in the world. Whatever that might be doesn't matter. What matters is that we each figure out how to use what we've got to do what we want, what we need to do. For some, this will entail teaching others to do it the way you do it. For others, it will more revolve around you remembering to remind yourself that you do best doing it different than the way other ducks might do it. No need to explain or reform, just quack like the duck you know you are.

As a songwriter, I long ago abandoned the notion that I needed to write like Frank Loesser or Dave Frishberg, both true masters. I can be informed by their rules of thumb and leverage a bit of their wisdom, without mimicking their style, form, or substance. I don't write show tunes, or haven't so far. (Dave Frishberg has an eloquent word or two to say about Songwriting.)

In business as well as in life, the desire to mimic style seems imperative under the don't re-invent the wheel doctrine. But this seems a bad metaphor in general. It's not the wheel we're "re-inventing," but the terrain. We have no choice but to reinvent the terrain. Sitting down to rewrite Loesser's Baby It's Cold Outside won't satisfy anyone. Mustering a revival might. But for many, many, many efforts, nothing can adequately sit in for original tunes, melody expressing how it is here and lyrics clearly, compellingly telling the story. Infecting everyone within ear shot to tap their feet in nearly perfect unison.

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