Yes, that means you, too.
This past Friday evening, I performed some original songs and led a songwriting demonstration in downtown Lowell at an artist maker’s space called Lowell Makes. It was part of a skill share through a local time bank called the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange (MVTE). One skill I can share is helping someone write a song about their own life.
Joy Mosenfelder, the mastermind behind all things MVTE, gave a heartfelt introduction and offered the words that are dreaded by some:
Who would like to volunteer?
Silence, joined by a few quiet rumblings of protest.
I have a terrible voice.
I don’t have a story.
All lines I have heard before. It was simultaneous rumblings from many inner critics.
As a backup, Joy had offered to volunteer, but we both were not so secretly hoping for a brave soul from the audience to volunteer.
Finally, a young man offered to come up to share his story. I could feel the release of tension in the room. A participant had been chosen. Now, folks could relax.
For me, it was just the beginning. My own inner critic was absent, which was unusual. I was raring to go because I knew I only have about 30 minutes or so to get the chorus started, so I just dove right in.
The participant whispered to me, asking what kind of story would make a good song and wondering what kinds of stories I had already written songs about. I told him that any story could work and that the first song I have written was from a story about when I was in preschool.
“How about a song from when you were little?” I asked him.
He liked this idea and proceeded to share a story about moving to Lowell from the Dominican Republic (his precise words were “from Dominican Republic”) when he was 10 years old.
I often feel waves of electricity and compassion sweep over my body as I listen to a participant share their story. Even in my heightened state and with the adrenalin that comes with this kind of energy and being put on the spot in front of an audience, I felt such love and a desire to make sure to create a beautiful chorus for this beautiful person.
In addition to the adrenalin, I was typing the story on an unfamiliar computer. The spacebar kept sticking, and I would periodically shriek when the story document would disappear and be replaced by a Facebook page or some other application. Not the best conditions for a sensitive process, but my participant stayed close and seemed to be holding his own.
Periodically, I turned to look at him and offer words of encouragement, a shoulder squeeze, and a smile to assure him that he was doing a great job. I would ask the audience to clap with me after each phase of the beginning songwriting process.
The audience can be a support for the participant just by being present. Since it is my job as composing guide to protect the participant and help them feel valued and safe, I often ask people in the audience to stay for the duration of the demonstration because the choice to get up and leave—even if it has nothing to do with the participant or the quality of the story or song—may serve to fuel the participant’s inner critic.
In just under 40 minutes, the beginnings of a song came into the world, one with heart and soul and spirit.
We made it through the spoken story, shaping of the story into a poem, a recording of the participant reading through the words, a recording of the participant singing through the words, and a quick draft of a chorus with melody and groove. The participant had a wonderful rhythm and cadence in his voice. It was a beautiful thing to hear. The second I heard a promising arc of notes and groove, I went for it. I repeated the melody in the exact rhythm I had heard from the participant.
“That is great!” he exclaimed. “See, you are the singer, not me.”
“I just repeated exactly what I heard from you!” I responded. “It was all you.”
We sang through the chorus a couple of times. Then, I asked the audience to join in.
Finally, I made a recording of everyone singing the chorus together.
40 minutes, give or take a few.
The beginnings of a song from a powerful story.
Who will help me bring more songs into the world from their own stories?
I hope it will be you.
To listen to the chorus of the song we wrote, visit my soundcloud channel:
To learn more about Lowell Makes and the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, visit these links: