Only a little over a year ago, I began teaching my friend and poet, Amy Shapiro, about the art and craft of creating lyrics. Generally, poets struggle with songwriting because even though poems and lyrics look similar on the page, poems usually make terrible lyrics and lyrics are usually terrible poems. This is because a poem is designed to stand on its own. But a lyric is designed to be half a message, the other half delivered by the music it's married to.
I worked with Amy daily as she wrote lyric after lyric, sometimes one a day. And she never wanted to hear how good something was. She only wanted to hear how she could make it better. It's a difficult relationship because genuine trust has to be built up, and the new writer has to endure a great deal of disappointment as the lyric they are sure is the greatest thing since sliced bread ends up getting a thumbs down. Or the one they tossed off easily ends up being the one that gets the most praise.
It can truly be maddening because one of the first lessons you have to learn is how to discern the good from the bad. I write bad lyrics all the time, but they don't escape the confines of this apartment. And they don't upset me. I know another will come along.
Anyway, after only a few months of intense training, she submitted to the heralded BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in New York and was immediately accepted. Now, at the end of her first year, I'm so proud to announce that she won one of the the 9th BMI Foundation Jerry Harrington Awards for Creative Excellence. (One is awarded to each level of class. She's in the first year).
Above: Pictured (l-r): Librettist, Susan Murray; artistic coordinator of the Workshop and co-moderator of First and Second Year groups, Pat Cook; Advanced student, Stephen Sislen; First year student, Amy Lynn Shapiro; co-moderator of First and Second Year groups, Rick Freyer. Not pictured is Second Year student, Raymond Bkhour, who is currently in the Broadway show Chicago.
I would love to take credit, of course, but the real credit belongs to Amy, who focused and worked her butt off to get to this point. I'm a proud papa, to say the least.
And I want to make a note here. I don't teach people how to write "theater" songs any more than I teach them how to write "pop" songs or any other style or genre. For me, when someone approaches me to learn how to write lyrics, I focus on the transcendent things that cannot really be found in a book and which stand outside genre.
I don't have a set plan. I don't have a curriculum. It's all instinct. I dig into the aspiring songwriter's heart and make them listen to their own inner voice where concepts and meaning are found. We focus on storytelling and digging beneath an obvious subject to get to something deeper and more resonating. This technique can be applied to theater or pop music or any other kind of songwriting.
The technical aspects, such as form and function, rhyming schemes and patterns are things we more or less pick up along the way. (Those things you CAN learn in books).
It always makes me happy when a songwriter hears something special that I might have to give, and then inculcates that and brings it to the next level.
I used to watch the great songwriting teacher, Nik Venet, do essentially the same thing. The one thing a songwriter will never say to me is, "Well, it's as good as anything on the radio." Because that's irrelevant. What matters to me is whether the student is uncovering the things that make him or her unique.
You see, there are tens of thousands of songwriters who can construct a lyric. But what separates the good from the great is each person's own individual voice. Good or bad, it's the one thing you bring to the table that no one else can: Your own voice.
In my own songwriting, people love my work or they hate it or they're indifferent to it, but they always know "it's a Steve song." And that's why I've endured. And when I mentor a new student, it sometimes can be disturbing to them because I make them dig way deeper than any psychiatrist, but they will learn that they have a voice, and they will learn to express it.
Congratulations to Amy and to the other recipients. This is only the beginning for them all.