Over the 20-plus years I’ve worked as a professional musician, my experiences in songwriting sessions (predominantly with my band Moist) have run the gamut from exhilarating to infuriating. I suspect that other songwriters and composers – whether they work alone or with others – have experienced a similar range of emotion.
One of the most interesting projects I’ve been asked to work on lately was as a facilitator for corporate songwriting events run jointly by Rock The Stars (RTS) and SongDivision. In doing so, I found that writing with people who have little to no musical training offers benefits that, frankly, surprised and inspired me.
A little background: Rock The Stars (RTS) is a Canadian company based in Toronto and San Francisco that Jeff Pearce (Managing Director for Canada and Moist’s founding bass player) has worked with in a wide range of settings, conducting approximately 300 events for participants ranging in number from six to 600. SongDivision is a global company with offices the U.S., Brazil, Singapore, Australia, and the U.K. They serve Canada in partnership with Rock the Stars (RTS) and run events with capacity from 10 to 10,000 people.
I found that writing with people who have little to no musical training offers benefits that, frankly, surprised and inspired me.
RTS has multiple programs where participants write lyrics, play instruments and play and perform the songs they’ve written. “Our flagship program is getting people to form groups and play multiple songs,” says Pearce, adding that SongDivision concentrates more on large groups collaborating on a single song.
Both Pearce and SongDivision’s Music Director, Nashville, James “Roto” Rotundi, admit that convincing an audience made up of people with limited, if any, musical background to write and perform a song requires tact. “We reassure them that music is collaborative,” says Rotundi. “No one is asked to sing alone.” And both companies use a series of small steps to essentially remove the participant’s inhibitions, one by one.
At the outset there are some jitters, but once the process is explained, even with initially reserved crowds, “apprehension gives way to a level of enthusiasm and teamwork that consistently amazes and delights both the clients and ourselves,” says Rotundi.
“We’re teaching rudimentary skills,” Pearce adds. “We might have multiple guitar players playing one string each, a keyboard player playing with one finger and a drummer playing a ‘row, you bastards’ beat, so it sounds like a band.”
To be honest, during the first RTS/SongDivision collaboration I worked on, I found the prospect of writing a song with 150 people, and getting it stage-ready in about an hour-and-a-half, a bit daunting. But seeing the light switch on in participants’ eyes as they realize they can be musical, creative, and stretch their personal boundaries was incredibly inspirational. As familiar as I am with collaborating to get a tune written and ready to perform, it reminded me how necessary it is to constantly expand my own boundaries in order to progress as a musician, performer and songwriter.
The events are far more interactive than a typical concert. By writing and performing, the audience becomes an integral part of the band. “It’s rewarding to see the energy this kind of creative exchange produces,” Rotundi says. “It’s made me a better performer, more attuned to the people I play for. And the lesson that songwriting is largely a matter of sitting down and getting to work – rather than waiting for some flash of inspiration – is one that cannot be repeated often enough.”
By adulthood – whether you’re a songwriter or not – chances are your sense of wonder has taken a bit of a beating; doing this type of gig recalls, for me, the power of music, and the reasons I wanted to write music in the first place.
It’s a reminder that Pearce takes into his own work. “When you start writing you haven’t learned ‘the rules’ – what can and can’t be done in songwriting,” he says. “And, in some cases, I think the biggest detriment to a songwriter is learning those rules. People writing a song for the first time break the rules because they don’t know they exist. That reminds me, as a songwriter, that doing so can help make a song special.”
Writing a song with people who normally would consider that well out of their wheelhouse – and a song that, by necessity, is written according to a specific formula and largely about a company, corporate culture or range of products – might initially not seem terribly inspiring. The response from every musician I’ve spoken to who’s been involved in this type of gig, however, is that they came out of it not only inspired by helping someone else expand their creative capacity, but with a greater desire to expand their own.
Jeff Pearce is a founding member, former bass player and principal songwriter for Moist. He’s also collaborated with a variety of other artists as a producer/songwriter and is the founder of Rock Star Live.
James Rotundi is the leader of Nashville’s Roto’s Magic Act, and guitarist for New York City hard rock quartet Hundred Hounds. He’s also worked with the French electro band Air, Mike Patton’s Mr. Bungle, The Grassy Knoll, and collaborated with members of Pearl Jam, Santana, Faith No More, Jellyfish and the ?Saturday Night Live Band among others.