First Critique

(The following is an article recently submitted to the newsletter of the Southwest Virginia Songwriters Association -- SVSA).

It’s an honor and a pleasure to be asked, as one of the newest members of the SVSA, to write an article for the newsletter. I wondered, at first, what I might have to offer to such a knowledgeable audience. But, as is often the case in my life, I find that I’m in the blessed position of being able to leverage my ignorance and inexperience. Surely it’s been years since most of you dear readers have experienced the first time you offered a song to the group for critique. Not so, for me! I stand before you as a newbie; a rookie; a green, wet-behind-the-ears, recently deflowered virgin of the songwriter’s inquisition. And as such, I will now attempt to relate my experience to you.

It was my second visit to the SVSA gathering in the familiar and hallowed basement halls of Trinity United Meth. I arrived a half-hour early, eager to participate, only to realize that I had forgotten my 12 printouts of the lyrics. No worries. I drove back home (Salem!) to get them, and arrived back just in time for David Simpkins’ bumper sticker exercise – which I found fun and useful, but shall remain the subject of another article – but I will say that if the SVSA bumper stickers come out and they’re perforated, well, you missed it.

But wait. I forgot something. See, on my first night, the previous month, I actually brought my guitar, thinking that we’d be performing our songs live. Silly, me. So why don’t we perform the songs? Well, as a newcomer, I can see that there would be advantages and disadvantages to performing the songs live, rather than playing them on some recorded media. I was skeptical at first (as is my way), but I can definitely see the wisdom in the recorded format. It allows the focus to be less on the performer, and more on the song – for both the audience (critics) and the author. I see that. For future reference, though, I’d also like to see a performance workshop.

Anyway, so there I was, with my printouts, and my iPod & iPod speakers (the group is still somewhat old school, I must admit – preferring CDs and <gasp!> cassette tapes). I was, I admit, nervous – despite the fact that there isn’t a less intimidating, more “granola” group of people between here and Santa Cruz (dude, I used to live there).

Now, I won’t say I actually agonized over my choice of song, but I did give it the same considerable thought that I do all my spontaneous decisions. The process of choosing the song, in fact, was probably as therapeutic as working through my “issues” as I actually write my songs. And believe me -- I have some issues.

Should I pick a song that I considered done? Nope. Too risky. What if it got ripped to shreds (shudder)? Too pretentious, as well – I mean, was I just there to try and impress? If I did manage to impress the audience, what would I learn? Nah – no real way to win here.

Should I pick a sappy love song? Again, this felt too emotionally vulnerating (new word -- I like it). After all, I barely knew these guys! Besides, I don’t write too many sappy love songs, so, again, this choice wouldn’t get the most “bang” out of my buck (twenty bucks, actually).

Should I choose a blues song, even though I distinctly remember at least one member of the group explicitly stating he pretty much hated the blues? Well, sorry – that’s mostly what I write, so he and I would both have to get over it. Besides, since blues is much of my repertoire, it doesn’t narrow it down much.

Should I choose a “gimmick” song (I’ve got a few of those). A possibility. I have to admit that I considered this because if the whole evening went badly (how!?), I could always laugh it off with an “oh well what did I expect?” The emotional safety of that kind of detachment did appeal to me.

(See, I told you I have issues).

In the end, I settled on a cheeky little straight-ahead country blues tune called “Communication Blues,” which is all about the hapless author/singer (that would be me) and his trials and tribulations as he tried to communicate with his significant other. I knew it would get a laugh or two (which was safe), I knew the guitar playing was entertaining, and I knew the song wasn’t quite finished somehow, so I really genuinely wanted input.

In the SVSA tradition, the submitter of the song is asked to “set up” the song in some way – to explain what kind of input they’re requesting. I mentioned that the song just seemed a bit “boring” to me, and that I was considering spicing it up with some instrumental, or maybe writing a bridge, or something. I just didn’t know.

Incidentally, I’m proud to say that I resisted the urge to apologize for the performance on the recording. I learned only last month that this is a cardinal sin for a singer-songwriter. See? And you thought I wasn’t paying attention…

OK, so I played the song. People laughed in the places I expected them to laugh, which put me at ease. In retrospect, though, I must still have been a bit nervous, because I now remember not watching people at all as the song played. Strange, that. I should have looked for reactions. Note to self.

Song ends. Applause, applause.

The range of comments I got included all kinds of comments, and lots of kind comments. There were a couple of quippy jokes about how people could relate to the lyrics, and I was told that there were a couple of “barnacles”.
Mostly, though, I got some very useful comments about the structure of the song, which is what I was hoping for. I was particularly encouraged when I was told that the song was not actually “boring” at all, as I had thought. I was told that the verses were out of order by several people, and offered suggestions as to how to fix that. I was offered a suggestion as to how to shorten the song without actually shortening it.

When I got home, I immediately went through the notes that people made and put them to use. I rearranged the verses in a way that I had never considered before, added some impromptu spoken “ad-lib” during one transition to act as a kind of diversion, and cut several bars out of the last verse to “move it along” a bit.

I don’t know if the song is “done” yet, but I’m now much more confident in the song, and this has helped me “let go” a bit and loosen up the performance, including the addition of a rather playful ending. None of this would have occurred to me without the help of my fellow songwriters.

I know that this one song certainly benefited from the experience. I think I also benefited as a songwriter on the whole – specifically by being reminded once again that it’s not good for me to work too much in a vacuum. Songwriting is, for me, a rather introverted endeavor, but in general I’m an extrovert – as I think most songwriters are – meaning that we get our energy from the events and people around us. I was reminded that I need to come down out of my tree at some point in the process. Maybe someday I’ll even co-write a song.

Sometimes I am arrogant enough to think of the songs I write as my children. In this sense, performing those songs in front of a live audience, or even in a recording, is like showing them off. I do that with my actual kids sometimes, I’ll admit. And it doesn’t matter that my kids are always the smartest, or prettiest, or weirdest, or whatever-est kids in the room – even if everyone else thinks the same of their kids. Offering a song to the SVSA group for critique is like letting the kids grow up. They’re pretty much out of your hands at that point, and take on a life of their own – for better or worse.


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