The stories people share seem to take hold of me. They haunt me as I begin the process of creating a song. Just a few days ago, I asked a coworker if she would share a story about Lowell.
She shared a fairly dark story of going into an abandoned building that was slated to be knocked down soon thereafter. After I had typed the story verbatim, I asked if she might be willing to sing. She was mortified.
“I can’t sing. I have a terrible voice!” she told me.
I told her that of course she I would never force her to sing but that her voice could offer the strongest possible melody for the song. I explained the process, that the initial singthrough was meant to feel rough and awkward, and that it was my job to find the beginnings of melodies in the notes recorded.
She looked at me like I was crazy, so I didn’t push it.
Trying to find a melody to honor another person’s story is challenging, even with a singthrough that holds notes that have come from the depths of that individual. Honoring the comfort level of the participant is even more important. Having participated as an STS volunteer before learning the method, I know firsthand how very vulnerable it feels to try to sing the words of a personal story.
My first time participating in STS was part of a fellow cohort member’s research demonstration at a colloquium gathering for the Prescott College Sustainability Education doctoral program in October 2011. The storytelling and songwriting took place in front of an audience of peers and faculty. Talk about scary! I had to hide behind a pillow to finally get up the nerve to sing.
So after the storytelling, I worked with my coworker’s story, shaping words spoken into lyrics and trying to find the message that would become the chorus. Later the same day, I tried some probable chords and melodies. Everything I sang and played felt dark.
There is nothing wrong with a sad song. I joke that my Jewish heritage has given me a propensity for minor, melancholy melodies.
It is fairly easy to write something sad, especially when composing in a minor key. It is more difficult to create a chord progression and melody that has an uplifting rhythm, feels good to sing, and has an element of hope within the sadness.
At this point, I was at a plateau. So, I did what I always do when I get stuck. I called my research partner.
“Malcolm,” I said. “I’m stuck. I like the melody I have found, but it is too sad. I want to share a sad story, but I don’t want to make people weep.
And Malcolm did what he does so well. He asked questions. He suggested we return to the original story and find other elements that could be shaped into a song with a different storyline and message.
I followed his advice and went back to the musical drawing board. I reshaped verses and chorus. We sent emails back and forth. Then, I called it a day.
The next morning, I woke up with the melody and words from the original chorus I had started. What was it doing there in my head? I thought we had changed the song?
I promptly ignored it and carried on with my day. By nightfall, it was there again, and this time I was humming along out loud!
I went to sleep.
The next morning, there it was again. This time, I let it stay. I hummed the chorus over and over in my head for hours. I listened while driving to Walden Pond. I listened while walking around the pond and while swimming in the water.
I tried different variations on the melody. I tried changing lyrics. All in the effort of creating a chorus with hope.
I tried, but I could not find the words or notes I was looking for. Finally, I gave up and went to sleep.
I lay in bed tossing and turning for an hour. My mind moved from thought to thought. Somehow, a rhythm slipped itself into the trajectory. Too tired to get my ipod, I recorded what I heard on my cell phone.
The next morning, I listened. What I heard was muffled and sounded vaguely like I had been intoxicated when I made the recording. Thankfully, I had emailed possible lyric changes to myself, and I remembered a boom-chicka strum.
I worked with the lyrics, moved verses around, and tried the new groove. I tried different note patterns with the strumming pattern. I heard a melody. I recorded it.
The following is the first cut of my coworker’s song.