Friday, February 20, 2015

Write a song worthy of your love

In my email inbox today, I found a stirring call to action. 

"Write an explosive pop hit!" was the challenge issued by my local songwriters' association.

In a way, it came at just the right time.  Over the last few months, I've been writing a grad school thesis on the spiritual dimensions of contemporary songwriting.

Writing "an explosive pop hit!" isn't one of those dimensions.

Ever since I started writing songs at age 12, I've been convinced that songwriting is a primarily spiritual activity--not a materialistic one. 

Each time I write a song, I am reminded of the beauty and grace inherently found in all music, and in the creativity that takes place continually, in every aspect of life experience.

Each time I write a song, I am challenged to look deep within myself, to embrace what is authentic and life-giving--and to let go of everything that does not serve the song.

When I approach songwriting in this way, I find that I am more awake and honest. 
I'm more accepting of life, with all its imperfections. 

I hope I'm a little more humble, a little more kind.

When I see songwriting as a primarily spiritual task, rather than a commercial one, the emerging song can help me grow and mature. 

Not only as a songwriter..but as a human being.  

The task in front of us is not to write "an explosive pop hit"...

But to write a song worthy of our love. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Solution Inside the Song

In the middle of the writing process, challenges always arise.  A melody won't sit right at first, or a rhyme won't seem to come.

When we remain attentive to whatever we've written so far--even if it's just a chord pattern or a few lines of lyric--we might discover that the solution is already there.  When the most natural or "right" note is played, we are surprised that it was right in front of us all along.

This is true in nature and in other challenges we face in life.  A solution is often readily available, easy to access and enjoyable to carry out.  Often the way to find it is simply to relax with whatever good things we already have, and listen for more of the same.    

Saturday, December 29, 2012


At the end of any given Wednesday night meditation, it's not uncommon for our leader to ask, "How did it go for everyone?  Did anybody struggle?"

There's never a rush to answer.  Maybe nobody wants to admit that they struggled, or maybe they really did just fine, thanks.  In any case, the 45-minute session is over anyway, which is a relief, along with whatever struggling might have occurred.  

Still, Wayne asks about "struggle"--because he knows that it's part of spiritual practice at times.

It's not easy to sit in stillness for long periods, especially if we're new to it.  Sometimes we wonder if we're doing it right, or whether we can keep going.  We may start worrying about the wondering...and struggle happens.

It happens in songwriting too.  We may struggle with the gap between our desire to write a great song, and our ability to write only a fair one.  We may struggle to write lyrics that say something meaningful and that also rhyme.   We may also struggle when we notice a self-critical streak that interferes with the joy of simply making music.

Why do we struggle, we struggle so?

That line, I discovered today, has a lovely lilt to it despite its challenging subject matter.  Intuitively, we know that beautiful things can come out of struggle.  In fact, when it comes to art, tension and resistance is essential.

And yet, it's not fun for most of us.  We want our songwriting experience to be pleasant, harmonious and flowing...and our meditation to be calm and peaceful.  Perhaps our desire for struggle-free anything is what trips us up?

As our leader gently reminds us, struggle is to be expected.  We can explore it without anxiety, instead of denying or avoiding it.  Staying present and focused, we realize that we can hang in there.  We don't have to give up on meditation, or a song, or learning to swim, of making a souffle, or maintaining a relationship.

When we keep showing up, despite the effort it takes, we will come to appreciate both the flow and the struggle...the back and forth that affirms we are alive. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Songwriting and Mood: Two Approaches

The way we see our artistic life can profoundly influence our moods and our sense of well-being.

After working for some time to improve our skills, we may achieve some proficiency.  We may start to collect achievements such as songwriting awards and prestigious bookings.  Our culture teaches us to emphasize these external achievements and we're encouraged to promote ourselves as much as possible. 

It's not surprising that we can become very self-centered as a result!  We might take on an air of entitlement or "special"-ness, thinking that because of our hard work and talent, we deserve to have more attention that others, or a bigger or more appreciative audience than we currently have.  Humility goes out the window.  Resentment kicks in.

To complicate matters,  our high level of sensitivity might cause us to notice those unpleasant dynamics in ourselves (whether we fully admit it or not) and then to feel even worse.  (A good book that explains this vicious cycle is The Mindful Way Through Depression, co-authored by Zen Buddhist mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn.)

A different approach is to see our songwriting as a response to life, an expression of gratitude or a reflection of the greater good of which we are a part.  Many artists throughout history, including William Blake, Vincent Van Gogh and Bach, saw their work as an offering to God...but in today's secular culture, that outlook is less common.  It's an outlook worth cultivating, though, because (unlike the more materialistic outlook) it supports our mental health instead of undermining it.

When we see our songwriting as an act of gratitude or joy, and when we offer it up without expectation, we might notice that our feelings of neediness or disappointment decrease.  We may find ourselves feeling more kind toward ourselves and others, and more accepting of the world as it is.  For many of us, that "world as it is" may not include much material reward for our work.  That doesn't mean we cannot create excellent songs or find great joy in the process.  Some of us might make good money, too.  

Whether or do or don't, we support our own well-being--and the well-being of the Whole--when we view our work through a spiritual lens rather than a materialistic one.  Our songs become servants of love, instead of self-interest. 

Saturday, August 04, 2012

True Worth

In his book "The Art of Power", Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn writes:

When you are filled with understanding and compassion, you have plenty of energy to serve, you are fully alive, very active, and your work, your film, your story, your novel, your poem is an expression of that mind of awakening.  And it brings you great satisfaction to know that your work contains understanding and compassion.  Even if people are not eager to buy it, you don't feel depressed at all, because you know the value of your work.

It's very easy for songwriters to be distracted by external measures of success.  This teaching reminds us that our work's true value has nothing to do with number of CDs sold or number of people in the venue--but instead with aspects of worth that are deeper, and indeed, timeless.  As Thich Nhat Hanh says, what really matters is compassion and and wisdom. 

When such elements of true worth are present in a song, the creator (songwriter) knows it, the Creator (Source of Life) knows it...and the community knows it too.

We recognize this compassion and insight in our own songs and those of others.  In fact, the distinction between songwriter and audience may even start to blur, when we allow love to guide us. 

When that happens, we find ourselves experiencing peace of mind, and deep satisfaction in our creative lives, no matter how much or how little external praise we receive. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The next small step

One of the most valuable aspects of the songwriting process is that it forces us to focus on one thing at a time.  

We must make simple, clear decisions.  Which note sounds best in the melodic sequence we're composing?  Which chord creates the right mood?  Every small choice is important.  

If we lose focus on the next step in the process, we can become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices available.  Also, we can become distracted by our extravagant hopes for the finished product.  Fear and anxiety enter in, undermining the creative process.  

The same is true of life.  Focusing on the next small step is often more productive than contemplating the "big picture"--as important as we may believe it to be.  For anyone inclined to be overwhelmed by the world's problems, any spiritual practice that focuses on the next small step (note, word, breath...) will support emotional and spiritual health.

Steady achievement of small goals can also, in time, add up to bigger accomplishments, such as finished songs that have integrity and insight. 

Whole lives of integrity and insight can only be created the same way.

Monday, July 02, 2012


This may be the single most important element of a song.

It's not so easy as it sounds.  What do you really believe?  What do you want to stand communicate to others?  Unfortunately, this understanding cannot be willed into existence.  It takes time to develop insight.  Songwriting supports the process...and at the same time, it reflects where we much we currently understand.  

A half-baked idea cannot be camouflaged by nice chords or a pretty melody.  At times that can be humbling.

A songwriting friend, commenting on a recent song, said: "It's really cool.  I like it.  But is it true?"

I think I said, "well, yes and no".  That was a clue that there was more work to be done.