Fridays with Wayne

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, my goal for this moon cycle is to write, record, and release four new songs. And the next logical question is “how the hell do I do that?” If anybody has a good answer to that question, please let me know. I’ll be sitting in my room watching Girls (the HBO show, not the gender) until I figure it out. Ok bye!

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But seriously folks, most of the modest number of songs that I’ve written, have been a product of pure inspiration. The music flows out naturally and easily, and the lyrics come fully formed as if written in stone. However, this makes for a very inefficient songwriting process. Although my songs have mostly been snapshots of inspired moments, these moments are are few and far between. Using this process of “inspired songwriting,” it has sometimes taken me years to finish a song. It is a very different approach to say “inspiration be damned, I’m going to write and record four songs this month no matter what!” Unfortunately that is exactly what I’ve set out to do, and thus I’ve got to figure out a way to write these songs!

Lucky for me, I am surrounded by brilliant musical minds at NYU and am paying top dollar to be able to ask them asinine questions like “how do I write a good song?” During a show a few weeks ago at the 55 bar, the great guitarist and NYU professor Wayne Krantz told the audience “all you need in a song are two things and an ending.” Like everyone else in the audience, I was amused that someone who plays such creatively advanced music would propose such a simple equation for composition. Yet unlike everyone else in the audience, I get to pick Wayne’s brain every Friday at 3 o’clock (yes i’m bragging) and can unpack his approach to songwriting.

Few would accuse Wayne Krantz of being a pop musician, and yet he claims that he approaches his songs like a pop musician in that everything is either a verse or a chorus. He comes up with a musical idea that he likes and decides if it is a chorus part or a verse part (“is it the comin’ home part, or the storytelling part?”). After he has built either a verse or chorus part, he then uses contrast to create the other part. For example, if the verse part contains mostly short notes, he may change to long notes for the chorus; or if the chorus part is loud and rocking, he might make the verse sound softer and more relaxing; or if the verse part is using mostly one or two notes at a time, he might switch to full chords for the chorus; or any combination of these and other contrasts.

This all seemed simple enough after he explained it to me, so I decided to use this method to write one of my songs. Indeed, one could certainly use this method to write a song, but after I brought in my song for feedback from Wayne, I discovered that he has some other principles he uses to write a good song. In my song the verse material was funky, syncopated, and used just one or two notes at a time. I contrasted this with a more flowing chorus of full, lush chords. Wayne liked it, but one of the things he pointed out was that during my verse section (the storytelling part), I had this two-note chord thing happening which could be heard has a melody, but more would likely would just come off as a vaguely cool guitar thing. He said that most people really just want to listen to a singer, and if they can’t have a singer, they’d like to have a saxophone player playing the singer’s part— it’s a much smaller percentage of people who just want to hear some vaguely cool guitar thing. Thus, as guitarists, we would be wise to play some kind of melody that at least sounds like it could be sung.

The second bit of advice he gave me was to write an ending. I had simply recycled my intro to the song and used it as my ending. He told me that he thinks “the audience kind of appreciates it when you do the extra work— when you’ve put in a little extra detail.” It doesn’t have to be long or intricate, but it is worth it to put in an extra bit of effort and create a definite ending. He told me that when he was in high school, the guys in Steely Dan were considered some of the supreme arbiters of good taste. Thus, years later when Wayne was hired to play guitar for Steely Dan he asked Donald Fagen “what makes something good?” Fagen paused, thought about it, and replied: “the amount of detail that it has in it.” Wayne advising me to write an ending to my song is also him pointing to the larger goal of simply crafting something with a lot of detail.

I am using the Wayne method and his insightful feedback to help me write these four songs, and I am certainly getting a lot of great ideas by sharing my work with him. Yet the usefulness to me of Wayne’s method is not due to the fact that it is the ultimate right way to write a song, but simply by virtue that it is a way to write a song. It is simply far easier to create something if you have rules, principles, and guidelines for creation. Wayne has been developing these ideas for forty years, and thus I am happy to stand on his shoulders and use them for my purposes— it makes my life easier. And yet, embedded in all of his great advice is a nugget of wisdom he shared that destroys all the others: “The more answers that you accept from others, then the less creative your thing is by definition.” Ultimately yes, I would like to plumb the depths of my own tastes, tendencies, and experiences and come up with my won set of rules and guidelines for creation, yet for now, I’m just trying to write four songs. No reason to reinvent the wheel just yet.

Killing Two Birds

At the dawn of this blog, you’ll remember (well, I remember) that my mission statement was to pursue the art, craft, and critique of music. Throughout my two year span of being a full-time musician, it feels like I have greatly succeeded in my goal of working at the craft of music; I’ve consistently practiced Classical and Jazz guitar, learned an enormous number of songs, played countless gigs, and continually taught private guitar lessons. I feel I’ve failed in the areas of art and critique; I’ve been terribly inconsistent in keeping this blog, and have virtually no original works or recordings to share.

I see clear reasons for this. There is a direct incentive for me to learn songs for gigs, and to teach guitar lessons— this is what people pay me to do (the craft). Conversely, I’ve yet to be commissioned to write my first Symphony (the art), nor have I been approached by any publications to write music reviews (the critique). Practicing the craft of music is essentially the entirety of my job at this point. After I’ve done my job for the day, like many other people I know, I’d rather watch a TV show, drink a beer, or go on a date than try to write a song or an essay. Furthermore, I have a habitual tendency towards learning songs and practicing guitar— these were consistent parts of my former life as a full-time music student from 2009-2013. During this period, I developed no such habits towards recording original music (the art) or expounding my own opinions on music (the critique). Simply put, money talks and habits are hard to break.

My desire to write music is motivated by something more abstract than money or habit. Although I’ve certainly fantasized about getting rich off of my own original music, there is actually no guarantee that I will make any money writing and recording original music. Yet even faced with this possibility, I know that I still want to make music.

My best evidence for this is the fact that my most prolific recording period occurred when I was in high school— a magical time when I wasn’t worried at all about money (my parents had me covered). Weekends and nights I would spend hours on end recording and re-recording parts on my red Fostex 8-track digital recorder for whatever song of mine I was wrapped up in at the moment. I didn’t do this because I thought it was going to make me rich and famous (I barely let anyone hear my songs). I did it because it allowed me to explore and release thoughts and feelings that were deeply personal to me; my songs were typically concerned with girls I liked, frustrations with high school social life, and my semi-secret spiritual yearnings. I remember writing during this period that I was so thankful to have music as an outlet for these difficult and sometimes dark feelings and wishing that everyone could have something similar— I wondered how anyone could be sane without an art to pursue. In addition to the psychological benefits I reaped from it, recording songs also satisfied my basic need to tinker. My recording process was essentially an extension of my childhood fascination with Legos: I would record the foundation of a song (most often guitar and vocals), then add another piece— perhaps a bass-line, then another— a drum track, then another— maybe a guitar solo, then another— a vinyl sample, all the while listening to the work over and over until I was satisfied with the pieces in place. I’d be so wrapped up in these sound-experiments that I would sometimes forget to eat all day.

To be honest, most of the songs I created in high school are not very good (I have the recordings to prove it), yet over the years I’ve also produced enough music that I actually thought was good (and enough is a relatively small amount in this case) to be encouraged to continue writing and recording. Most importantly I still have the burning desire to create and tinker with music that is emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and bodily meaningful to me. If it were not my job to play and teach music, I would still wish to write and record songs. I can sometimes get complacent, thinking that because I am getting paid for musical activities that I am following my adolescent dream of being a musician. Yet the truth is that my deepest aspiration all along has been to write, record, and perform my original music. I am lucky that both my college major and my current job have made me more capable of creating higher quality music, but I won’t at all be satisfied with this fact unless I actually make the music! I don’t need to make money doing it (even though yes I would like to); I simply need to do it.

And last week I did it; I completed a song for the first time in over four months. Furthermore, I’m going to share it with the internet world— something I truly haven’t done since I had a myspace page in high school. I’m not putting this work in the public space because I think it is particularly special (it’s not bad, but it’s not great); I’m putting it out there to hold myself accountable to my goal of writing, recording, and sharing my music. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the school of thought that would have aspiring artists only share their best work. My strategy is to share music as it comes and as I create it, despite it being less than perfect. With the knowledge that my music is available to the public,I hope to be pushed by a constant sense of “I can do better than that last song” to continue to write and refine my work. Furthermore, as an artist you never fully know what your audience will respond to— a track of mine that I think isn’t particularly good may end up being meaningful to someone else listening to it (or vice-versa). I certainly have my tastes and opinions about music, but I can’t pretend to be the ultimate judge of what is good (even regarding my own work); musical taste is about as subjective and personal as it gets. So right now I think I just want to try to throw a bunch of darts at the board and see what sticks.

So perhaps you’ve picked up on the fact that I am killing two birds with one stone with this blog post. My two failed musical missions (the art and critique of music) are now being resumed. I’ve shared a song (the art), and I’ve written about it (the critique). I should note that I am using critique in a very loose way for my purposes. I am not talking about a formal academic critique or music reviews. I reserve the right to do those things if I wish, but when I say the word critique in the context of this blog, I am really talking about simply writing about anything pertaining to music, and most often pertaining to my own musical life. I wish to use writing as a tool to explore and expand my musical life; perpetual writing prompts for myself are “what am I doing with music?” and “why am I doing it?”. Similar to my logic for sharing my recorded songs, I believe that sharing my musical life via writing will hold me publicly accountable to doing meaningful musical work.

I’ve recently picked up a small collection of Henry David Thoreau’s writings entitled “On Nature and Man.” In the section on aspiration, I read the following:

“Do a little more of that work which you have sometime confessed to be good, which you feel that society and your justest judge rightly demands of you. Do what you reprove yourself for not doing. Know that you are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with yourself without reason. Let me say to you and to myself in one breath, cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.”

Writing words and music are truly what I reprove myself for not doing. When I am doing it, I am happier, and my whole world feels more complete; when I am not doing it, I feel I am missing something, and almost everything else feels either subtly or overtly like a distraction. Given my long history of not doing these things, I am honestly a bit skeptical that I will indeed continue to write music and keep a blog. Yet I know that I desire it more than anything right now and I know that I have the ability to do it. I pray that acknowledging these facts will push me towards doing what I know that I need to do— and if you see me in the street, feel free to give me a little push in that direction as well.

So everybody, this is my blog and so I can present myself however I want. The temptation is to conveniently omit all my warts and ulterior motives. But I don’t think doing this will ultimately help either myself or my readers as much as if I am being completely honest. Throughout this blog-post I’ve naturally been showing myself to be pretty noble in my pursuit of music, and indeed everything I’ve written above is true— part of me loves music in an utterly pure way. Yet I’d be lying if I said there weren’t vain and superficial reasons that I do what I do. Part of the reason I want to write music is that I think it is a cool thing to do, and I want to be a cool guy. My ego loves the identity of musical artist and I want you to love me for it too. The same is true for writing about music. I certainly care about what I write, but I also think it is cool that I write and love getting complimented by people who have enjoyed my writing. Being a musician, an artist, or a writer all fit perfectly with what I consider to be an attractive image, and perhaps even more dangerously, they seem to fit many other people’s idea of what is cool and attractive. If I am not careful and self-aware, I know that I can begin to love the image more than the substance (we’ve seen it happen before). The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. So again, if you see me in the street, and catch an all-too-princely pep in my step, feel free to tear me down a few notches with a swift verbal jab— not out of hate, but out of love for what I really am: just some dude.