Time banks are on the rise, and a skill I am offering to my community is that of songwriting. I offered a songwriting demonstration at the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange Skills Showcase last night in downtown Lowell at the LTC.
It was a work night, but many folks came out to participate.
I played a song in the beginning as people were chatting and eating potluck fixings. Then a couple individuals shared their skills for the audience-personal finance and first aid.
I was the last person to “perform.” At least 6-8 folks came and sat around. One gentleman had the courage to volunteer for the as yet unknown.
I invited the participant to pull up a chair beside me so we were both facing the audience. I explained each step to the participant and then to the audience with the additional context of what I would be doing as the composing guide.
The participant shared his story while I typed. I had introduced the demonstration as an abbreviated Story-to-Song where the participant would share 10 sentences or less. This participant had a story in mind and was on a roll, so I went with it. This story wanted to get out, and I wanted to honor that desire.
The participant described a period of time from his youth when it meant a lot to be chosen to play on a football team at school. The chosen ones were thought of as winners. Those left behind, losers. The desire to be a winner was so strong that the participant woke up before dawn one morning to get to the school to be the first to get the football (this was how the team captain was decided each time). He arrived well before the janitor came to unlock the door.
As the story was winding down, I asked the participant to share what he thought was the message from the story. He told me that he thought this was a story without a message.
My heart went out to this man. I saw one very clear message in this story. One was the desire to belong. Another was the desire to be a winner rather than a loser. Those were messages that I could relate to, having been bullied a lot as a little kid and never being particularly adept as sports.
We went through the Carriage Returns stage. With the computer display projected onto a larger projection screen, members of the audience could follow along with the process as it was happening.The audience watched as I used the enter key to begin shaping the story into a prose structure. I eventually offered for the participant to take the computer onto his lap and hit enter on his own, which he did.
I asked him if he would be comfortable trying a singthrough. I explained to both him and the audience that this was the more difficult of the songwriting stages and one that I tend to struggle with as well. It is not meant to feel comfortable. It is meant to feel rough and awkward. But somewhere within that awkwardness, beauty and clarity emerges in the form of unique strings of notes that I call melodic germs.
And he sang! As is typical, his voice stayed in a comfortable range but periodically offered a string of uniquely patterned notes. I made little asterisks in places that seemed like potential melodic germs.
With time running out, I explained how things would proceed if we had more time-shaping of chorus using words that illustrate the crux of the story and a melodic germ or two to build off of.
I asked the participant for permission to share the melodic germ I had identified, as well as the possible message of the song.
I played the melody back from the recorder and made a quick recording of it with my own voice so as to have it captured on its own. Then, I sang it and had the participant repeat it back to me.
I took out my ukulele, identified the key he was singing in (G minor) and asked him to try singing through the possible chorus while I strummed some probable chords from the G minor scale.
Time up. I thanked the participant and the audience. The audience cheered for the brave volunteer. I stayed and answered questions and checked in with the participant as well.
All in all, a successful and inspiring evening! Also, for me, this experience was yet another tangible example of how important it is to share these stories and show each person who shares and witnesses the process that they are valuable and the stories of their lives have value as well.
The next day, I communicated with the participant about finishing his song. He mentioned some concern about the meaning I had identified in his story.
So now, I realize that I failed to communicate to both participant and audience something important that I have been learning about the songwriting process. With each opportunity to work with on a Story-to-Song, I experience successes, I make mistakes, and I learn.
There are many layers of meaning in a story, as numerous and complex the person to whom that story belongs. My role as composing guide is to work with the participant to find a meaning they are comfortable with and that will hopefully speak to a broad audience. There are some meanings that are more universal than others. The more universal the message, the more people will make a personal connection to the song.
As I wrote in the shaping of the chorus for Amy’s song, there is a process for filtering through all of the possible meanings and choosing one. That is not to say that multiple perspectives could be followed from one story in order to create multiple songs from that one telling. For Amy’s song, Malcolm and I imagined that the notion of wanting to believe in people might be more universal than what it felt like to be a young girl going through a war.
This demonstration was a mere 15 minutes, a very short time to derive meaning that could take hours, weeks, or even months to reflect on and realize. I hope to continue working on this song until the participant feels that it is finished.