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Columns | Spring 2016

Pro Song

Ten Lessons I Learned the Hard Way About Collaboration

Hello CMN songwriters! Today I want to encourage you to partner up and write songs together. When you co-write, not only do you sharpen your songwriting skills, you also forge new working relationships and reach more ears. In other words, it’s a great way to build bridges! I’ve written with a dozen or more different partners over the years, not to mention legions of elementary school classrooms. The results have run the gamut from fantastic to disastrous. Since standard legal, financial, and how-to advice on co-writing is easy to find (just Google “co-writing a song”), what I offer here are a few lessons I’ve gleaned from personal experience. A quick note to any past co-writers of mine out there: I apologize for not following my own advice when I collaborated with you!

I. You will probably have to work at your partnership.
You know how the Hollywood version of true love is easy? You meet cute, then live happily ever after. But in real life, it turns out that even a great marriage has its ups and downs and takes a lot of effort to maintain. Cultivating a songwriting partnership is like that, too. It might seem like legendary songwriting teams magically click together, with golden hits flowing forth like manna from heaven. Yet with your real-life writing partner, you end up dealing with egos, struggling to communicate difficult ideas, and working outside your comfort zone.

Does it ever just click like magic? Perhaps, but I’m sure it always takes some groundwork to get to that point. Is it worth the effort when your partnership is a struggle? Yes. Your partner provides a different perspective and challenges you in ways you wouldn’t challenge yourself. If you can find a way to work together, you’ll end up creating something beyond what you’re capable of on your own.

On the flip side of that coin, if you try repeatedly and get nothing but frustration, there’s no shame in simply calling it off. Not every pair of writers is compatible.

II. Start fresh.
Don’t bring a piece of writing to the table that you’re already in love with, because it’s bound to be changed. And that’s harder to accept than you think it will be. Everyone who writes about collaboration tells you this, but I still had to learn it the hard way.

III. As they say in improv, “Yes, and!”
When improvisational actors create a story spontaneously in front of a live audience, they get one shot at it. There is no opportunity to make changes. The most basic skill that allows them to succeed time after time is called “yes, and.” Each actor must accept what the others create (yes), then add something relevant of their own (and).

As you begin a new song together, treat your session like an improv performance. Say “yes” to every idea. Build off of one another. Allow that momentum to carry you forward. Save organizing, editing, and polishing for later.

Billy Grisak (left) and Monty Harper. (photo by Lisa Harper)

IV. Agree on how to agree.
Often I collaborate with twenty-eight kids in a classroom, all of us writing a song together. When my students disagree, I ask them to give reasons for their opinions, and then we take a class vote. If the vote is close, as the senior songwriter, I decide the outcome. My students know the process, so it’s usually easy for them to accept the choices we make and move on.

Before you start writing, it helps to agree on how to agree. Maybe one partner gets final say on lyrics, and the other gets final say on melody. Maybe the partner who plans on recording the song first gets final say on everything. Maybe you each get three vetoes. Whatever you agree to will help you move forward when you run into the dreaded Difference of Opinion.

What about agreeing to both agree on everything? That may sound ideal, but it’s challenging to do and may end up scuttling your progress, especially if this is your first attempt at writing together.

V. Accept your partner’s judgment as you would a client’s.
When you find it difficult to accept your partner’s vetoes, shift into the mindset of writing for a client. Be respectful of your client’s wishes and open to changes. I would never tell a client, “This song is perfect!” That determination is up to them.

I recently wrote a song for a statistics professor, and he requested a change that took all the emotional energy out of my first verse. After a bit of internal struggle (my wife, Lisa, may disagree about how “internal” it was), I accepted my client’s wishes. What else could I do? I rewrote the verse, and ended up liking it even better—not because I agreed with my client’s criticism (which was on technical mathematical grounds I barely understood), but because I found a way to communicate the emotion I wanted even more directly.

Your collaborator, like a client, may give some random-seeming reason, or no reason at all, why your brilliant piece of writing doesn’t satisfy. Ask for clarification if needed, but don’t argue. Just respond with a “yes, and” to their “no” and try again. Have faith that your combined talents and infinite creativity will lead you to find an even better solution that you both will love.

VI. Keep evaluation as objective as possible.
You and your partner may agree that you want your song to be “funny” or “awesome” or “beautiful.” But agreeing whether you’ve met such subjective standards may prove difficult. Beauty, after all, is in the ear of the listener. It can be helpful, then, to shift your evaluation toward more objective matters—for example, whether the major third on beat four is surprising, or whether the punch line is clear in verse two.

With my elementary school students, I like to identify a few objective standards we can use to help make group decisions. These might include: “Lyrics should be appropriate for parents and siblings,” and “A song is about one thing.” Students rarely disagree if I ask, “Would your parents want to hear this?” or “Is this relevant to our main idea?”

Discuss objective standards with your partner as they come up. Does your song need to have perfect rhymes? Does your chorus need to be instantly singable? This will help you communicate more clearly and agree more often on what choices work best for your song.

VII. Know your purpose.
On occasion I’ll sit down to write with someone “just to see what happens.” Those sessions are fun and instructive, but they rarely produce a usable finished product.

In contrast, my most successful collaborations have had a clear purpose. Mr. Billy and I set out to write and record a whole CD together (Let’s Get Creative) for the 2009 summer library programs. We agreed to a marketing plan, a theme, and a deadline, and then we churned those songs out together like nobody’s business. Working toward a shared goal beyond just writing a song kept us focused and productive.

VIII. Recognize your partner’s strengths.
The classic co-writing model is for one partner to write lyrics while the other writes melody. But that’s far from the only approach. Maybe one partner is best at choruses, the other at verses. Maybe one partner is best at wildly imaginative ideas, the other at disciplined organization of thought. When Mr. Billy and I made our CD together, we discovered that he is excellent with big-picture thinking while I am excellent with details. We both wrote words and melody, but we also focused our efforts specifically to capitalize on one another’s strengths. Mr. Billy provided many brilliant song titles and concepts; I wrote many drafts of lyrics. He arranged many of the song structures; I made many improvements to prosody.

As you begin to recognize what your partner is best at, step back in that area and let their talent shine.

IX. Respect your partner’s time.
This is another nugget that all the advice-givers will tell you, yet I’m still struggling to learn it—especially when writing with a friend. It’s tempting to goof around and avoid the difficult and emotionally risky work of putting forth ideas. I’ve noticed that one or two wasted sessions will likely kill your collaboration.

Do the work between sessions that you promise to do; arrive to your session on time, well rested and present; and be ready to focus on the task at hand.

X. Commit to continue.
Your final “to-do” of each session is to look at the calendar with your collaborator and set up your next session. Even if you end up changing it later, actually scheduling work will keep you moving forward.

Hopefully I’ve armed you with some new wisdom on how to develop a healthy co-writing relationship. Now go find a partner (I’m always open to a good co-writer myself) and write something excellent together!