Friday, March 02, 2012

Songwriting, Piano, and Faking It

As a child, I took piano lessons on and off for many years with varying levels of commitment. I was also required to take piano lessons in college. I can still play many of the pieces I learned in the past (Bach, Bartok, Chopin, Schumann, etc.) and love to do so, but I lack patience when it comes to practicing new material and getting it up to speed. I sometimes sightread piano music just for fun, but I rarely have the patience required to polish it, so generally when I sit down to play something, it's something old.

As a voice teacher, I have had to accompany students regularly in lessons, and with the exception of "Caro mio ben" and "Vaga luna", my method has mostly been to "fake" it. The minute I realized that I could just arpeggiate the chords instead of actually learning the music, I was hooked. As a result, I became good at playing piano by ear, subsequently learned to transcribe some of my favorite pop songs so that I could play them myself, and then ended up writing a lot of my own songs.

Apart from about half a dozen exceptions, most of my own songs have been written on notebook paper. So, usually this means that there is one line with the words written on it, above each word the letter name of the note that goes with that word, and each chord change indicated above that and circled. The way I remember how each song goes is generally only by playing it over and over again until I can't forget it, or recording it right away. Otherwise, how would I know how the rhythm of the vocal part is supposed to go, or the particulars of the piano arpeggiation, dynamics, tempo, etc.?

When I first started writing songs, I was pretty pleased with myself. But, in time, I started to bore of them and realized that most of my piano accompaniments sounded the same.

Test Bunny (2006) and I can't hide (2005) are examples of the basic arpeggiation technique. The last one (2005) and Split (2009) are examples of an even more simplified block chord.

For many years I only wrote sparsely because my work schedule was too demanding to allow me much writing time. But, in the last year and a half or so, I've decided to try to tackle this issue more directly. The end result I've been looking for is more variety in my musical output, but enough continuity to maintain a fluid set of music.

My first inspiration for trying something different came in November 2010, when I was given the opportunity to perform "something" at an informal gathering hosted by my former voice student, Karl, who is a singer/songwriter and cellist. In looking through some compositions I had written in my comp for non-majors class in grad school, I found a piece for voice and violin I thought might work. I originally asked my friend Sid if he would sing the violin part (in his beautiful cello-y register), but he suggested I play the violin part myself. I hadn't originally intended for this to be sung and played by the same person, but I liked his idea and I gave it a try. I subsequently decided to write a few more pieces and performed them on a recital later that year. And, after that, I wrote some more.

In this song, I've been wandering, set to the poetry of Emily Bronte, I am indeed playing the violin and singing at the same time. What I learned from this experiment, though, was that I had to use my classical voice in order to project above the violin. Also, that playing the violin and singing at the same time is really, really hard and mostly because my violin chops require a lot more practicing than I actually do. In the end, I was looking to have a fluid set, even if varied, and didn't feel that the interjection of something this classical sounding would really fit with my vision.

In another attempt at variety in November 2011, I collaborated with my good friend Terri on a song written specifically for guitar. I had written one other song for guitar and violin with my cousin Annie and her husband Drew back in 2006 that we unfortunately never recorded, but I remembered it being a lot of fun and a very different sound from the music I normally wrote. I am the one who wrote this new song, but it's really Terri's talent that comes through, as she picked up her guitar and made up a harmony vocal and a lovely accompaniment on the spot. It's also her expertise with recording equipment that makes this the best recording of my music that's ever been made.

This is Come on by (2011) with me on lead vocals and Terri on harmony vocals, guitar, and shaker.

When I got back to New York state, I started fiddling around with Garage Band Loops. I did write some music I like, but it's very jazzy.

Here are Help me baby (2012) and Get Over Here (2012) which were undoubtedly inspired by watching too much Mad Men. They were created with Apple Loops in Garage Band with the addition only of my voice. Again, this was fun, but would require getting together a jazz band to complete legitimately, and it's a totally different genre of music from the other stuff I've written.

After that, I wrote a few more tunes back in my old style, including Making the choice (2012) for which I made a video that I put up on YouTube.

Then, I recorded a couple of piano-accompanied cover songs, including Doing it Wrong by the R&B artist, Drake, and Sideline by the singer/songwriter (and "Renaissance man"), Peter Broderick (sent to me by my friend Scott). These two songs were easy to play and made me realize that there is more I could do to add variety to my songs even at my level of skill.

What's next? Well, I think I need change some of my long-ingrained habits in order to take my songwriting to the next level. If I'm going to write music that's as good as the singer/songwriter-pianists I admire, like Tori Amos and Regina Spektor, for example, I need to be able to play their music as written and stop the incessant opting to simply arpeggiate chords. And, I just plain need to practice more. In 2003, when I submitted a request to sing "Little Green" at the NEC Joni Mitchell Tribute concert, I was rejected because my piano playing sounded clumsy on my audition recording. Luckily, I did get to sing two other songs with other ensembles, but honestly, I would have loved to be able to accompany myself. Maybe giving up "faking it" for a while could do me some good. But, habits are so hard to break.

In the meantime, it looks like my best bet for adding variety to my musical output is in collaborating with other musicians. I wonder if I really need to stick to one genre or if audiences would be more receptive to a variety show of genres than I think they would be. At any rate, I keep plugging. I've been writing songs since I was a young teenager. I doubt if I'll ever stop.


tkempton said...

This is a great post, Pam, and helpful as I reflect on my own song writing process. I've been thinking a lot about your voice and your songs. It's an interesting question for classical singers moving into more casual genres, wondering exactly what makes a "folk sound" that can be learned or practiced. Your recent jazz work is really quite exciting - your voice works so well in that genre, I really hope you keep exploring! I miss you and hope we can make more music together soon. :)

Scott said...

Love this post! I think another thing to ponder is to expand your "faking it" palette. Adding some more patterns and more styles to your faking. And then deploying them at appropriate dramatic moments. For instance, I love your Drake cover, but I feel like you could really push it over the edge if you had well-chosen moments to do something other than block chords (like maybe repeated chords, or lower chords on the piano, and so on). Your voice is captivating enough that I don't think you want to get crazy complicated with the piano parts, but I think just having a larger repertoire of "faking it" styles and using multiple styles within a song would go a LONG way. :)

Pam said...

Thanks, Terri and Scott!

I love the suggestion to widen my "faking it" repertoire, Scott. That is super helpful.

I thought about doing more with the Drake song, but in the end decided I liked the simplicity. I was kind of blown away when I realized how simple it was since I had been listening to the song for a while and really liked it. It would actually take very little for me to make the song exactly the same as the original from what I have done... which is so far out to me. My father has complained about pop music ever since I can remember saying that it's not complex enough and uninteresting. I always used to argue with him that what makes a good pop song (and I'm using the word pop very liberally here) is a combination of good lyrics and heartfelt delivery. But, honestly, now that I give it more thought, I think I really *like* music that is very simple in structure. That's not to say that I don't also like more complicated music, but that there is undeniably a place for very simple music. This isn't really arguing against what you were suggesting, Scott. I was just thinking about that as a larger concept.