This week we’re sharing a blog from our School of Music in Missions leader, Stevie Lujan, on 5 tips for budding songbirds. You can read more of his story and journey through music on his personal website, www.stevielujan.com.
There have been countless times over the past 10 years where I desperately craved input from more skilled musicians and creative song writers. As a young, budding songwriter, often the individuals I have deeply admired are SO skilled and accomplished that the distance between me and them has always been insurmountable – distance in ability, as well as literal space. The opportunity of running into Justin Vernon or Dallas Green for an in depth lesson or even casual jam has still never eventuated.
At this stage, I in no way see myself as a songwriter who has “arrived” at some profound understanding of how this beautiful and vexing phenomena occurs. Stringing lyrics, melodies, rhymes and emotions together to capture that ethereal place between what is seen and what can only truly be felt through music. Despite my own judgement on worthiness in this area, I’ve decided to share just a few key things i’ve learned as I’ve bumbled and bobbled my way through.
Just because you are enthralled by an artist doesn’t mean you are going to sound like them. The greatest songwriters have always been the ones who sing from a place that is true to their own story. Whether that be Dylan, Lennon, Marley or MJ. Be inspired, but don’t strive to duplicate. Tell your story, convey your emotions, write from your own unique and much needed perspective.
2. KNOW YOUR VOICE
Flowing from the last one, make sure you are always journeying towards discovering YOUR vocal/musical range. Just because Timberlake can sing in perfect falsetto 99% of the time, doesn’t mean that you can. Make sure when you are aiming to start a new song that you are singing in the range you are able to sing in. If you aren’t familiar with what actual key tends to work the best for you, don’t be lazy. Do A LOT research and experimenting until you are 100% confident that when you are finally able to put together a strong melody, that you can sing it confidently 9 times out of ten. So often it’s not that the lyrics or melody are weak in a decent song, it’s that the performer is clearly uncomfortable in the key and range they are attempting it in. When you do find that sweet spot, even average lyrics and melodies can be a lot more receptive to the listener. The cool thing is you can always tweak and improve lyrics and melodies. Your voice however is much less likely to drastically change or improve to something it’s not created for.
3. START SMALL
Some of us are attracted to simple ideas naturally. Some of us are drawn to more poetic lyrical landscapes (mewithoutYou is a great example). Some of us are drawn to complex musical scales and diverse time signatures. I tend to find the best songs I’ve written have always started with very small and basic beginnings. Depending on the theme and feel of the song, at times these songs never progress past that very basic foundation. Although, sometimes as the feel and melody become clear and solid, exciting new and unexpected layers of complexity come to life. Much like knowing your voice, don’t be afraid to start with something basic but clear. If that’s well established, you will have license to explore all sorts of out of the box ideas and concepts. Just don’t force yourself to start with the out of the box ideas and concepts, lest the danger those concepts never find a home.
4. PURSUE FEEDBACK
Let’s be honest – sharing a new creation can be a terrifying ordeal for songwriters, especially in the early years of your development. When you finally build the nerve to share that precious new life you’ve put your everything into, the last thing you feel you can take is criticism. I found this area to be one of the most pivotal of the entire list. If you truly desire to draw people in and connect them to what you are writing, YOU MUST SEEK OUT AND TAKE ON CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK. Make sure that feedback is coming from a trusted source. Negative set backs can be extremely difficult to climb back from. In the same breath, don’t settle for the same old generic “Really great stuff… Loved the heart behind that song.” If all your hearing is the same feedback on how amazing you are, you’re either a songwriting prodigy who has no need to improve or grow…. or you need to ask some different types of people for real, honest feedback. This feels so daunting initially, but you will find this to be such a springboard in your growth, your development and your security as a songwriter.
5. NEVER STOP GROWING
It’s tempting to plateau in your skills and even in your drive to improve when you start writing songs that actually work. Thoughts like “Why work on my scales?” or “ I don’t need to warm up my vocals before a set” start to become more and more appealing when you feel that what you’ve done in the past has worked. This is laziness, pure and simple. Often creative types can be stereotyped into overly emotional souls that are driven purely by their feelings. Challenge yourself to be disciplined and devoutly dedicated to your craft. NEVER SETTLE. Don’t romanticize on previous wins purely because you are afraid of the unknown. Study up on new artists, listen to more varieties of styles, study more theory, take another class, learn a NEW instrument – DO SOMETHING! One very practical way I’ve pushed myself in this category is by collaborating with other musicians and songwriters, especially those that are BETTER or more experienced than I am. This pushes you out of your comfort zone and forces you not to cruise on autopilot.
I hope this list is helpful to you. I hope that you don’t give up or settle in creating the music that the world so desperately needs. I’ll leave you with a few little quotes from some songwriting greats.
“SONGWRITERS WRITE THE SONGS, BUT THEY REALLY BELONG TO THE LISTENER.” -JIMMY BUFFETT
“SO MUCH OF THE WORLD IS PLUNGED IN DARKNESS AND CHAOS… SO RING THE BELLS THAT CAN STILL RING. FORGET YOUR PERFECT OFFERING, THERE IS A CRACK IN EVERYTHING, THAT’S HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN.” – LEONARD COHEN
“I’D RATHER BE NINE PEOPLE’S FAVORITE THING THAN A HUNDRED PEOPLES NINTH FAVORITE THING.” – JEFF BOWEN
“FOR A SONGWRITER, YOU DON’T REALLY GO TO SONGWRITING SCHOOL; YOU LEARN BY LISTENING TO TUNES. YOU UNDERSTAND THEM AND TAKE THEM APART AND SEE WHAT THEY’RE MADE OF, AND WONDER IF YOU CAN MAKE ONE TOO.” – TOM WAITS
“WHAT COMES FIRST? THE MELODY, ALWAYS. I’M ROMANTIC ABOUT THE POWER OF MELODIES. I NEVER RECORD THEM RIGHT AWAY, IF I FORGET THEM AND THEY POP UP LATER THEN I KNOW IT’S GOOD. I LET MY SUBCONSCIOUS DO THE EDITING.” – BJORK
“PERFORMING IS THE EASIEST PART OF WHAT I DO. SONGWRITING IS THE HARDEST.” – NEIL DIAMOND
“IT JUST SEEMS LIKE MUSICIANS WANT TO SELL A FEW RECORDS AND PUT OUT A PERFUME LINE, AND I THINK IT’S SO SAD THAT THERE ARE SO MANY MUSICIANS WHO DON’T WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD.” – MOBY