Thursday, February 5, 2015

Now Would Be an Easy Time to Pull the Plug

I knew I would run into some snags during the course of a year of writing songs. I just didn't expect quite so many of them so early on in the journey. The most recent snag was a brief period of debilitating depression, as some people call it. I think of it as anything from a mental rest to a computer upgrade to a trolling of the depths for creative treasures. There have been times in my life when I have been able to be productive and creative in spite of the fact that there seemed to be very little mental energy for it. This recent trip into the deep blue was not one of them. It took everything I had to even function as normally as possible for the past couple of weeks, even with a fantastic birthday included in the middle of it.

One of the other things that these low periods seem to do is to attempt to communicate to me that something in my life is off. In the midst of such stretches of path, oftentimes everything seems off. I have learned not to quit anything during these times. As the dust begins to settle and things become clearer, I pick up each old idea or activity, acknowledge what is right about it, and then determine weather or not to continue engaging with it. Most things survive and even thrive with a new level of energy and commitment, but occasionally I decide to let go of something that is no longer working in my life.

So, that brings me to this project. In the process of deciding weather or not to continue, I have been asking myself several questions.

Why am I doing it? Sure, I remember the ideas that got me started:

  • To give a grand gift of music to a barbershop community that has given so much to me.
  • To help the barbershop harmony movement by providing new and relevant music that celebrates our style.
  • To write songs that barbershoppers will love to sing.
  • To further establish myself as a prolific writer of good to great songs so that I might somehow create a living by writing songs and teaching others about songwriting.
  • To change the mindset of the barbershop community with regard to the creation of new songs. 
As I reflected on these motivators, the original intended direction of this blog entry changed. I was going to ask some more questions, but as quickly as they formed, so did their answers:
  • Does anyone really care about this project or new songs? Yes. At least 410 people care enough to follow the projects progress on Facebook.
  • Can I really do this? Yes. As long as I continue to dust myself off and continue down the path.
  • So what would happen if I just quit? Perhaps some people would be disappointed, but I think that most people would be understanding. I think that I would be the most disappointed. I also think that I will be the most pleased if I continue, persevere and succeed.
So, I am going to change a couple of things which seems to be getting in the way. I'm removing the "songs that barbershoppers will love to sing" filter. Instead I'm going to write songs that are compelling to me and let anyone else choose which songs are compelling to him or her. I am going to allow the deadlines to be more fluid. I often find having a deadline to be helpful, but over this very long haul, I think it wiser to allow for periods where creative energy is not readily available. I'm also going to allow myself to work on more than one song at a time.

So, onward we go, down this rocky and wondrous path. Thanks again for joining me.

Friday, January 16, 2015

On to Song #3

So, I'm getting way to much practice with being creative and productive under any circumstances. A day after my last debilitating malady had departed, a good old-fashioned cold arrived. Regardless, it is here and I still need to write. So, I feel like Song #3 is going to be a challenge for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, I'll mention that I'm writing it at the request of the Columbia River Chorus of Sweet Adelines, International, the chorus I am quite proud and honored to direct. I held a creative meeting with several of the chorus members earlier last year, and we came up with two great song ideas for competition. The first of the two songs will be this week's project. It will be a nostalgic emotional journey that celebrates and longs for simpler times. One of the challenges will be to keep it short and singable so that Columbia River and other C+/B- level groups can have the most possible success with it.

Another challenge will be deciding on what the focus of the story of the song will be. We don't want to come across as curmudgeons or Luddites. I don't think we want to bash the present at all, but rather appreciate some of the lost gems of the past. Great singers, great songs, classic television shows, charming old technology, and sweet, lost customs.

So, my idea is to evoke some of the sounds we loved, but to still keep the harmonies pretty solid barbershop. I might do this with rhythm or sub-rhythm, and I might skate along the edge with regard to harmonic language. I want to weave in the names, but very cleverly, using melodic fragments associated with the various artists. Another challenge will be to pick a wide enough period of time that most of our singers and audience will remember or at least know of.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Songwriting is a Game of Recovery

My dad, Dr. Leonard Olguin, often applied a version of the above aphorism to various human endeavors. He would say, "Hearts is a game of recovery," or "Driving is a game of recovery," usually when things were looking particularly bleak. So, I got a rough start with this project, finishing the first song already a day behind schedule. Well, perhaps my songwriting chops are getting warmed up or perhaps my greatly improving physical condition has cleared up my brain, but whatever the case, I just finished writing Song #2, three days AHEAD of schedule!

What I'm finding particularly interesting about the process of this project is that the songs have been very persistent in their calling to me. They have gotten smart about it. They always ask me to simply come and spend some time with them. No big goals. No pressure. Next thing I know, I've finished another "A" or I've worked out the harmony and melody for the "B." I had hoped to go to bed tonight with a solid first draft of the three "A" sections. I was there by 7:00. I took a break and took a stab at the "B." The lyrics flowed out pretty sweetly. Working out the music to the "B" took some time and effort, but there was no agony, no self-doubt. By 10:00, the song was finished.

One of my goals for the project is to get people to start thinking differently about creativity, songs and songwriting. For this song, I invited the folks following on Facebook to contribute some rhyming pairs of things that they liked. The response was rich and bountiful. I used one of the pairs for the wind-up of the "B!" I especially love when people are willing to play along!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Song #1 In the Can!

What happened to me during the first week of this project was something I thought would probably happen at some point along the journey. I mean, who doesn't get sick at least once during the course of an entire year? I just didn't think that it would happen during the FIRST week of the project or that it would involve quite so many trips to to doctor's office, so few hours of continuous sleep, and so much discomfort. But it was all fuel for the song. One stanza in particular seemed quite apropos.

Bring on the voyage,
One more trip 'round the sun
If I fall at the start
I'll dig down in my heart,
Find the courage to get up and run!

At the moment, I'm very happy with the song. I hope that someone else will step forward to arrange it. Heck I wish someone would record a brilliant piano arrangement for me, too. I may yet write a short intro/verse for it, or I may leave that to the arranger. My favorite part, you ask? Well, I like the overall feel of the song, but I do particularly love the lyric at the deceptive cadence at the end.

Bring on the sunshine
Bring on the rain
Bring on the smooth and the rocky terrain
Bring on the passion, the pleasure and . . . even the pain.

So, I'm just one day behind. Not bad, all things considered. On to song #2!

Here is a link to a rough recording of song #1, "Bring On the New Year!"

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Art Sometimes Narrates Life

There's a delicate challenge when one is trying to write songs that most barbershoppers will enjoy singing. I think it's important to keep the "most" part in mind. When I wrote the tags, I wrote some that I knew only the most accomplished barbershop musicians would be able to enjoy. I also wrote many simpler ones that those same musicians would probably find less interesting. One advantage of songs, however, is that arrangements with varying degrees of difficulty can be created so that a wider net of inclusiveness can be cast.

Some song element choices, however, will leave some folks behind. Take the Stephen Sondheim/Andrew Lloyd Webber split. Some people admire and appreciate both, but many are solidly in one camp or the other for various reasons: lyric complexity, melodic complexity, choice of source material, and such. In my life I've written several songs that few barbershoppers will never hear because of certain song element choices I made, mostly lyric and story choices, but occasionally musical ones as well. For this project, however, I'm determined to alienate as few singers as possible with each song.

All that said, these songs still need to come from MY heart or else they will surely not be any good at all. This brings us to the point of this post. Song #1, "Bring On the New Year" is an invitation for Life to bring on everything it has, whether judged good or bad or somewhere in between. So, rather fittingly or ironically, my 2015 began with an intense urinary tract infection, which is just now beginning to clear up. I remember a few days ago, finding a line for the song which said something about sorrow and pain at the precise moment when the "ice pick" jabbed itself into me once again. It was almost as if my muse were asking me if I was quite sure I really wanted to say that. Of course, for me, the answer was "yes."

It's possible that not all barbershop singers will buy into the message of this song. Some may want rainbows and unicorns every day, but not me. Of course, one really cool thing about these songs is that people CAN change the lyrics, without permission or payment! People are welcome to invite the kind of New Year that THEY envision. Heck, I'd probably even help them. Let's see, what rhymes with "unicorns?"

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Oh yeah, I almost forgot for a moment; I'm a freaking songwriter!

When people ask me what I do I usually tell them at first that I'm a musician. Usually the next thing they want to know is what instruments I play. After apologizing for my piano and ukulele playing, I point out that I'm primarily a singer. They often nod with a sense of condolence at this point. I usually feel obliged to next add that I am also a conductor, composer and teacher. And then finally, and usually somewhat sheepishly, I tell them that I am a songwriter. It's not that I'm trying to impress people with all those other titles , but starting out with "songwriter" is quite often a conversation killer. It's sort of sad, because truly I feel that my most special vocational purpose in the world is to write songs and teach others how to do the same. Ah well.

Another thing that often happens is that when people actually hear me or one of my groups perform one of my songs. they say with this look of surprise and astonishment, "That was a really good song! You wrote that?" My inner voice replies, I'm sorry, did I say before that I was a writer of crap songs? But instead I smile and say, "Thank you. Yes, I did write that song." I don't say this last bit to puff myself up, but to illustrate the general attitude of the public toward songwriters. If people think of songwriters at all, they may assume that all of the good ones are already dead, or that any song worth hearing gets played on radio or at least at Trader Joe's.

So back to the real point of this post. It's the end of the fourth day of the first week of this really long project, and I've got the first draft of the chorus of song #1 in the can. A lot could happen to it between now and a final version. A stanza could be cut and pasted somewhere else in the overall form of the song or it could be cut all together if something stronger emerges. I envision a mid-length verse of some sort, and since the chorus is fairly short and not too story-dense, probably two full choruses. Hmmm? Just now I'm thinking about maybe a good old fashioned bridge. So for now, here is a taste of the lyrics. Interestingly, this is the first time I've ever shared a song in process, and I'm a little nervous. Oh well. Here we go!

(first A)
Bring on the New Year
And the promise it holds
Every step of the race
Let me face it with fearlessness
As it unfolds.

Bring on the Journey
With each valley and hill
Every mountain so tall
I will conquer them all
Least I hope that I will.

(second A)
Bring on the feelings
Let my heart overflow
Elation and sorrow
And maybe tomorrow a helping of woe

Bring on the revelers
Bring on the cheer
We’ve got wine, Martinelli’s
And nothing to fear
So as long as there’s pretzels and beer

Bring on the New Year.

(Take THAT, bladder infection!)

The tune is kind of Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman with lots of wonderfully held notes for some brilliant arranger(s) to play with. Anyway, it feels like a very good start to me, especially considering the physical challenges (no uninterrupted sleep since Dec 30!)  I've been up against.

Thanks so much for coming along!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Stumbling Out of the Starting Gate

The first challenge of this journey will apparently be to see how creative and productive I can be while dealing with a very uncomfortable infection. I can often be only mildly affected by physical discomfort, but I also know what it's like to have my brain taken hostage by some nasty malady. I do believe I am through the worst at this point. I have been enjoying enough prolonged periods of comfort that I have been able to find some time and energy to work on this first song.

The working title is "Bring On the New Year." It's a cut time up tune something along the lines of Jerry Herman's "It's Today." The story will be about inviting all of life to come with this next trip around the sun. I've got some ideas about the general shape of the melody, and have a sense of how the 'A' will feel. I want the harmony to be distinctive and inspiring, with maybe even a modulation within the 'A' section. I've done a good bit of brain draining on story and lyrics, playing with lots of metaphor.

So, this is what the end of the beginning of a week feels like. I'd like to go to bed tonight with much more in the can. I've given myself permission to allow the deadlines to be fluid, but I sure don't want to start off behind. Okay, back to work!