It’s very easy to slip out of the habit of learning.
Once school has finished, or university or whatever educational establishment you happened to attend, that’s often pretty much it as far as cramming your brain with anything other than ‘life lessons’.
It’s like reading. Many people never read another book in their lives after being freed of the obligation of reading them for school or other educational purposes. Books take time and effort and, in a world ever more crowded with low-energy leisure pastimes (most of them involving a screen), it’s easy to slip out of the habit and never return.
This is true of musicians, and particularly for non-classically trained musicians, which is pretty much everyone playing in rock bands today. Most musicians are self-taught, or largely self-taught after a few guitar lessons at school, and generally remain that way.
It’s the same with songwriting. Most songwriters are self-taught. There ain’t a lot of classes you can go to here that teach you about writing songs anyway. And I’m not sure if most songwriters would even think that you can learn about writing songs in class. The general view – I suspect – is that you write songs and slowly get better at doing it, learning from your mistakes and hoping that the inspiration doesn’t desert you.
I must say that was kinda how I viewed the process. I might even have slipped into the trap of thinking that actual lessons in songwriting might constrict one’s imagination or originality in some way, the same as some ‘play-by-ear’ guitarists who consider that if they learn to read music it might inhibit their natural inspiration, an argument as ridiculous as it is widespread.
But, two years ago, Pat Pattison came to Tauranga for two talks. Actually, I don’t know if you call them talks. Lectures, workshops, masterclasses, whatever… but they were extraordinary. I had a couple of free days so, for no particular reason other than curiosity, went to both, one for songwriters and teachers, one for students.
You won’t have heard of Pat Pattison. I hadn’t. He’s a professor at the Berklee School of Music where he was instrumental in developing their songwriting degree course (the first in the world). He’s written a number of books about songwriting, I have his Writing Better Lyrics on the table next to me right now and I delve into it often. It has a forward by Gillian Welch, once one of his pupils. Another was John Mayer. The guy knows his stuff.
What blew me away most though was the useful, practical, no-bullshit approach he has. This is not lecturing to force rules upon you, this is a performance to help you open your mind to new concepts and ideas that you (in your solitary labour) might not have thought about. I came away in 2010 buzzing with energy and inspiration.
And I fully intend to be there for both his sessions when he returns this month thanks to an initiative by the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic which, in my mind, is doing a fantastic service for the songwriters of Tauranga. This is celebrating New Zealand Music Month in the most useful and practical way I could imagine.
May 16, from 10am-4pm, is a professional development workshop for teachers and musicians, and May 17, from 10am-2.30pm, is a day for music students. The former costs $50, the latter $10. I can’t recommend these highly enough, whether you are a professional or beginner. For expressions of interest, phone Mary Stewart, 07 544 0920 extension 7005 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
And, just quickly, another event that looks like a ‘must-see’. Next Wednesday, May 9, North Carolina bluesman Big Daddy Wilson is playing at the Omokoroa Boat Club. I don’t know much about the guy but he looks like the real deal, big and black and clearly playing the blues. His music has been likened to the kind of blues played by Eric Bibb (Wilson’s good friend and guest on his first album Love Is The Key) and how he’s ended up at the boat club during his brief nationwide tour is a tale in itself.
But it’s a cause for celebration for blues lovers, with tickets costing only $20 ($25 on the door). It should be a blast!