Songwriting Geeks Love Critiques
by Monty Harper
Let’s talk about that essential, yet often dreaded phase of songwriting—collecting feedback. No, I don’t mean the squeal indicating your mic is too close to the speakers, although a few writers may emit similar sounds when faced with the idea of getting their work critiqued.
It may be especially tempting for us children’s songwriters to depend entirely on our audience for feedback. Kids, after all, are brutally honest, and they don’t hide their reactions. When you sing a song in front of kids, you’ll know whether they find it boring, confusing, hilarious, or energizing.
On the other hand, when a kid tells me, “Those were the best songs I ever heard!” I know this may be coming from someone who just saw their very first live singer, so I take it with a grain of salt. Also, your audience won’t tell you why they react the way they do, or give you any hints about how to improve your song.
So while I pay close attention to audience feedback during shows, I also seek more formal sources of critique to help my songs live up to their full potential.
Critique Doesn’t Mean Criticism
If your experience is typical, you may hold a negative view of critique. A poorly handled critique session can crush your creative spirit. Well-intentioned helpers often give unhelpful responses, ranging from telling you what they think you want to hear, to pushing your song in a direction you don’t want it to go, to offering sharp, unconstructive criticism.
A proper critique, on the other hand, should leave you feeling empowered and excited about improving your song. Regularly engaging with critique is also the fastest way I know of to grow as a songwriter. The good news is it just takes a bit of training to turn any willing helper into an invaluable critique partner.
My Preferred Five Steps
Here are the five steps I like to follow in a critique session, as adapted from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process:
- Your partner listens to your song and reads the lyrics.
- Your partner gives at least two or three affirmations.
- Your partner answers your specific questions.
- Your partner asks you questions about the song.
- Your partner makes suggestions.
Taking these steps in order will help you avoid the pitfalls I described earlier, though you can always jump backwards as needed.
Starting with a positive exchange allows you and your partner to relax into the process. Knowing which parts of your song are appreciated will help you feel more open to changes elsewhere. The affirmations in Step Two are specific, positive comments or neutral observations, with no buts allowed. “I loved it” is too general. “I like the intro, but it could be shorter” is not positive. “I noticed the verses switched to second person,” and “The red wagon makes an excellent, vivid image,” are both helpful affirmations.
In Step Three, ask specifically about any aspect of your song you suspect may not be working. “Does the third line make sense? Can you explain it to me in your own words?” Then if you wish, move on to more general questions. “Were any lyrics confusing? Are there parts of the melody you can still hum?” Politely keep your partner focused on answers to your questions. They’ll get an opportunity to raise their own concerns later, once they’ve gained a better understanding of your goals for the song.
After getting your questions answered, you may feel you’ve gleaned all you need from the session. However, there’s no reason to shy away from Steps Four and Five. If your partner isn’t bursting to speak, give them some time to think. This may be a good moment to review the lyric, or re-sing a portion of the song.
In Step Four, your partner’s questions may start you thinking more deeply about aspects of the song you hadn’t considered. A question like, “Why did you include your dog in verse three?” might help you realize that the dog is just a distraction, or might inspire you to put the dog in verse one instead.
In Step Five, if you’d rather not open yourself up to any old suggestion, you can request that your partner ask permission each time. For example, “May I suggest an alternate approach for the ending?” Then if you really aren’t interested, you can avoid some frustration by declining the offer.
Prepare for Your Session
Before scheduling a session, select a song that represents your best effort, but is new enough that you’re open to making changes. Then get your partner on board with the process. You might share this article, or write up your own version of it, to let them know exactly what you’re asking for and what to expect. Acknowledge that the rules of engagement may feel awkward at first. Let them know the process comes highly recommended, you think it will help you get the most out of their time, and you’ll talk them gently through it.
Before you begin a session, be ready to sing your song or make a simple, clear recording for your partner to react to. Provide lyrics on paper so they can take notes. Write out all the questions you plan to ask. Of course, you can ask additional questions as they come up, but you don’t want to find yourself drawing a blank.
Peers, Songwriting Circles, and Classrooms
While your spouse or best friend can be very helpful, it’s also good to seek diverse opinions from critique partners who bring different skills and perspectives to the table.
A fellow songwriter makes a great critique partner and one to whom you can return the favor. Be aware that some writers may expect to receive songwriting credit if you use words or melody they suggest. Be sure to agree ahead of time whether it’s okay for them to suggest specific changes, and if so, whether they will receive songwriting credit for their contributions.
Your local songwriters’ group may offer another good source of critique. If they haven’t organized around a particular process, you can get your five steps in without imposing them on others. Just request they respond by answering your questions. Let them know your song is for kids so they can evaluate in the proper context. Build as many of the five steps as you want into your list of questions. For example, ask “Were there any bits you particularly noticed or liked?” in order to get some affirmations. When it’s your turn to critique, don’t force your opinion on anyone who doesn’t really want it. Freely give affirmations, but ask permission before making a comment that might lead the writer toward changing their song.
If you know a local teacher, offer to give their students a mini-concert in exchange for some feedback. Most teachers will jump at the chance. The same five-step process works great with kids. Do talk them through it briefly before sharing the song so they can be thinking about affirmations and questions to ask. For younger kids, it can be helpful to use the word “likes” for “affirmations” and “wishes” for “suggestions.”
I once collected feedback from a group of second graders on my song “The Day I Took My Dragon for a Walk.” They giggled to the point of distraction at a line I didn’t think was that funny, so I asked them about it. When I sang, “Kids were running all directions but I only saw their tushes,” I thought it was a clever way of saying kids were running away from me. But the second graders were picturing bare tushes. Needless to say, I revised!
Professional Songwriting Coaches
You can always find someone online willing to take your money for a professional song critique. This can bring a level of scrutiny to your writing that you may not be able to get from your friends or peers. Be sure to vet your options before prying open your pocketbook. Do you actually like the person’s songs? Are they familiar with children’s music? What is their critique process—is it one-sided, or will you be able to ask questions? Can you get a reference from a past client?
I’ve received excellent critiques in the past through SongU.com. And in case you’re wondering, I do offer professional critiques myself.
Sometimes I hear writers express the fear that thinking too critically will take all the magic out of their songwriting. Of course, you should turn off that critical inner voice while writing a first draft, and the free flow of creativity can certainly feel magical. But for me, the real magic kicks in during revisions. No matter how wonderful I think my song is when I first call it finished, I’m always amazed at how much better I like it after a few good rounds of critique.
Gather your courage and ask someone to critique your latest song. I’d love to hear how it works out for you! Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.