by Leon Olguin
I thought I would deal with receiving and giving constructive criticism in songwriting groups. Let’s start with preparing to present your songs to group.
First of all, what usually happens at a songwriting group meeting?
A normal NSAI meeting the group will usually start with a songwriting lesson. You may hear a talk about lyric construction, writing a memorable melody, etc.
Then it’s time to listen to new songs, and group critique each song. (The thoughtful songwriter will bring lyric sheets for everyone and a good demo on CD.)
So imagine the group listening to one of your songs. How can you best prepare for this?
Some words of advice:
Make sure the song is as finished as you can make it.
Don’t present a song and then tell the group “I plan to add another verse” or, “I know this needs a bridge.” Add that verse or write that bridge before you bring the song to the group. If you are co-writing, make sure that you and your collaborator are satisfied that you have done is much as you possibly can to complete the song before you present it for critiquing by the songwriting group.
Some brave writers will perform their new songs live, but if at all possible, create a “work tape” of your song.
I realize that nowadays everything is on CD, but I still call them “work tapes.”
A work tape is simply a rough recording of the song, performed as well as possible.
I tell every songwriter with whom I work, “Spend nothing for your work tapes!” Of course, if you need to enlist the aid of someone with a home studio, or someone to sing your song for you or accompany you on guitar or piano, then the right thing to do would be to pay them for their time. Even so, you are definitely not making a “full-blown demo” at this time.
It’s always a little disheartening when a songwriter presents a song to our group in the form of a fully produced (and usually expensive) demo. They’ve obviously spent some serious money, and very often it sounds great, so I feel bad knowing that the song will almost certainly need to be rewritten.
Most serious songwriters have a small home studio set up for recording their work tapes. As part of our work at S.O.L.O. Creative Media, my wife Sheryl and I have guided several songwriters through the conception and building of their home studio.
There’s no need to build an elaborate studio, especially with the compact and versatile equipment available nowadays. It’s beyond the scope of this article to give you all the technical details, but the process is not nearly as complicated as you might think. Obviously, building and operating a full-blown recording studio, or even a midsize project studio, can be expensive and require a great deal of technical knowledge. A home studio setup for the purpose of recording work tapes can be very simple and relatively inexpensive.
Now, when you actually prepare to play your song for the group, here is my number one piece of advice:
Never apologize and never explain.
Don’t apologize for the quality of the recording, or the competency of the performance. You will have done the best you can possibly do, right? And if you don’t consider yourself a good singer or player, you will have enlisted the aid of someone who is.
Don’t apologize for the song itself by saying things like, “I know this needs a lot of work but here it is.”
You’ve done your best to make the song as good as possible, so play it without apology and be prepared to graciously accept whatever criticisms and suggestions may come your way.
Don’t attempt to explain the song. There’s no need to talk about what the song is about, why you wrote it, or what you’re hoping the group will feel when they hear it. No one needs to know at this time what artist you hope will possibly record the song, or what the full arrangement might sound like. Let them hear it as it is.
Make sure that you have lyric sheets for everybody in the group. Encourage everyone to jot down whatever criticisms or suggestions they may have on their copy. They do not need to sign their name!
Next up: what to do if somebody tells you that “your baby is ugly.”
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