The importance of being earnest: The evolution of a songwriting method

What’s in a Name?

Every now and then, I type my name into Google to see what pops up. Recently, I found a woman from the Netherlands named Marieke with a business creating products for the home. It was hilarious to click on “About me” and see a completely different person looking back to me. Of course, my name Marieke is a familiar one for those living in Dutch-speaking countries. While it has afforded me many opportunities for character-building and the creation of several ways of explaining how to pronounce it (see my YouTube video, How to pronounce a name with many vowels [i.e. my name], for a visual/audio “tour” of proper pronunciation), it has been interesting to move from a country where no one can handle a name with so may vowels to one where most people seem to think I am of Dutch descent. Despite my continued explanations of the origin of my name as deriving from my grandmother, who was born in Latvia, people from nearly every European country with whom I have crossed paths have claimed the name Marieke as being native to their own culture and country.

Does the original origin of the name matter? Perhaps it does. For me, a member of a long line of Jewish people, I now hold sacred the fact that I honor the life and experiences of a woman I never met (she died before I was born) by sharing her name. The focus of this paper is not to explore origin of a name, however. I have written this brief piece in order to compound the importance of recognizing individual accomplishment, in particular the origin and history of a creative method of songwriting, which began in Rockport, Maine and has since spread across the nation known as the United States and abroad to the country of Belgium.

The Academic Citation (aka, Credit; aka, Recognition)

This morning, I typed my name into the Advanced search tool in Google Scholar to see if anyone had cited papers I have written from my time in academia. Three different citations popped up: a dissertation, which had cited my Master’s thesis; a dissertation, which my dissertation on the topic of self-sustainability; and a capstone paper. I am focusing on the capstone, as it is the most relevant to the title and focus of this paper.

In my many years of participating in the working world, I have learned that it is important to share credit where credit is due. People deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments. Unfortunately, I have learned this the difficult (and painful way) by having my own creative ideas absconded by colleagues and put forward as their own.

Suffice it to say that as a naïve and idealistic fledgling park ranger, I shared with a coworker my ideas for a children’s corner installment at the visitor for the national park where I was working as a seasonal employee. It did not occur to me that this person would take these ideas to our supervisor and present them as her own. It took years for me to finally convince the powers that be that this woman had lied about the origin of the idea (which eventually was submitted in a grant, which was funded in the amount of $10k).

The pain of this betrayal stayed with me. Rather than let it harden me, I continue to give people the benefit of the doubt and trust that they will do the right thing when it comes to recognizing people’s efforts and creative ideas. Ever since that early time in my professional career, I make sure to always give credit to those brilliant minds whose ideas have shaped my own life and work.

The Evolution of a Creative Method

As a songwriter, I work with people from around the world, whose contributions to the music we create make them equal creative partners in the creation of our songs. I employ a method of songwriting called Story-to-Song, wherein a story is shaped into a piece of music. In the life and evolution of Story-to-Song (STS), recognition (or credit) begins by honoring the person who originally came up with the idea of asking a person to share a personal story by means of overcoming a creative block. In the realm of folk music, this idea is not new. However, I share recognition for this specific method within the overarching genre of folk music.

Brooks (2013) came up with a title for a burgeoning form of composition: Autoethnographic Songwriting. I still remember him tentatively sharing the idea with our fellow cohort members in the Prescott College doctoral program in Sustainability Education. I was intrigued. I had never heard of the qualitative research method of Autoethnography, which would come to shape my own research and personal evolution in profound and meaningful ways. It was after I volunteered as a participant to try to present the idea at a gathering of our cohort and faculty that we created a powerful connection that would lead us to begin working together.

The following spring, I invited Brooks to offer a joint presentation at the May Colloquium at Prescott College. I would share a PowerPoint of visual images of Alaska, and we would then invite a member of the audience to share a story inspired by nature, from which we would write a song. After this presentation, we began to actively work together. Brooks explained the method as he had created it thus far, and I shared my own ideas. Our collaborative efforts in the creative realm breathed new and different life and direction to the method. In an IRB document, I suggested we change the name to something more accessible for an audience beyond academia by breaking it down into its component parts. As the method essentially create a song from a story, the name became Story-to-Song (STS).

From these beginnings, we worked together very closely, sharing roles as participant (the storyteller) and guide (the musician overseeing and leading the creative process). Our dissertations – Brooks and Slovin – reflected our individual experiences with the method and subsequent discovers, each through the lens of Autoethnography as the predominant qualitative research method.

While there was an overlap of interest and fascination with the unfolding of the creative process for each song we worked on together and with other people (a volunteer from a live audience; group work; etc.), Brooks tended to be more interested in the physical mechanics of the evolution of a song. For example, the question of how and why a person sings one note and then another?

My main interest has seemed to lie most profoundly in the emotional experience of these involved in the songwriting process, particularly the possibility for healing and catharsis that can happen in the sharing of a story to people who are actively listing and empathizing; the emotional catharsis that can happen in matching musical notes and a melody to words that hold deep meaning for the person who has shared the story and is being guided to devise a melody; and the healing that can happen in sharing the song with members of an immediate and even global community. As a researcher of the idea of self-sustainability, I am fascinated by the ways the sharing of a story and experiencing the creative process can help a person to experience a shift toward a more balanced existence. Can songwriting lead to self-sustainability?

For example, I have found that people often hold on very tightly to life experiences, particularly those where trauma was involved. Regardless of the subject matter they share in their story, the intensity of emotion tends to refer back to the traumatic event. One person I worked on a song with shared a story about running up a mountain in Alaska. The story events were of her navigating through a wild landscape and finally reaching the top. The emotion came through quite powerfully, born from her spoken words, the notes she sang, the rhythm of the song, and the chorus we created together. The message came through (forgive the cliché) loud and clear:

I am up there all by myself

Happy and free

I always get this feeling

I can’t believe, I can’t believe I made it there/here (anonymous, personal communication, 2013)

A story that was at first about running translated into the empowerment born of individual effort and accomplishment. This woman was moving through separation and divorce from her husband, and running helped her to prove to herself that she was capable on achieving great things all by herself. She was empowered by the experience of summiting a mountain on naught but her own two feet, willpower, and determination. This metaphor translated to her feeling of empowerment in creating a life separate from her husband and succeeding at life on her own and according to her own melody.

Another person with whom Brooks and I worked to create a song, confided to me that the process of writing and sharing that song made possible everything that came after. The sharing of the story was healing in and of itself, but it was the song that allowed this person to communicate to members of her community what she had gone through as a new mother in a way that she felt she would have been able to do in spoken words alone (anonymous, personal communication, 2013).

It is possible that moving through the process of writing and sharing a song helped to create a new foundation from which she could move forward with her life. In spite of living in different places – Brooks in Maine and me in Massachusetts and then Arizona – we continued our creative work together for several years. It was in taking the next step toward going into official business together that the unraveling of our relationship began. To be brief, while we experienced a natural and dynamic collaborative creative relationship, our inner demons and trauma from earlier events in our lives led to a breakdown in our business relationship.

Brooks returned to Maine to continue his work with students in his community, building a community of what he has referred to as “musical sherpas” and bestowing the name Documentary Songwriting to his own unique songwriting path. I held onto the method name, Story-to-Song (STS), and changed my business to Guiding Song/Guiding Story-to-Song, continuing my work in Arizona and now from my home in Belgium, where I work predominantly with refugees seeking asylum in Brussels. I visit the Petit-Château Klein Kasteeltje every week and work in collaboration with poet Sarah Van Hove and the residents of the center to write music from the stories of people seeking a new life in Europe.

I know that in the world of journalism if incorrect information is shared in an article, the article will be reprinted with a note at the end stating specifically the error that was made and correcting the information. I am less versed in how this works in academia, so I wrote this brief piece by way of explanation (and from my own perspective, which I recognize is subjective).

A capstone piece by Wilder (2017) recognized Brooks (2013) as the sole inventor of this songwriting method, sharing Brooks’ unique terminology and stages for the method as he employs it in his current work in Rockport, Maine. I have attempted to correct this information and to provide credit for my own contributions as co-creator in the evolution of the method of songwriting, as well as my own unique terminology and employment of the method in my work in Alaska, Massachusetts, Arizona, and now Belgium. This method has been known as Autoethnographic Songwriting (Brooks, 2013), Story-to-Song (Slovin & Brooks, 2012), Documentary Songwriting (Wilder, 2017), and Guiding Song (Slovin Lewis, 2018).

In the words of Shakespeare (1597), A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. In the end, I believe that the most important message to take away is to know that all beings have a creative voice, profoundly meaningful stories to share, and songs that will help build empathy when shared with a broad audience.

 

 

 

 

References

Wilder, A. (2017). Responsible songwriting: Problems of ethics and negotiation in

collaborative Autoethnographic composition (unpublished Capstone Project).

Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio.

Brooks, M. (2013). Autoethnography of a composer with a new composing method

(Doctoral Dissertation). Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona.

Slovin, M. (2013). Becoming sustainable: An autoethnography in story and song

(Doctoral Dissertation). Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona.

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