Songwriting workshop questions: murder ballads and root vegetables

Chris Jones‘Tis the summer festival and music camp season, and with that comes the workshop season. I thought of it because just today I was listing some of the potential workshops my band members and I might offer at a festival in Washington later this year.

If you’ve ever attended or taught a bluegrass workshop of any kind, you know that the instructor is only part of what makes a workshop a success or failure. Good participation and interesting questions from the attendees are a vital ingredient, otherwise you’re just attending a lecture, or maybe a concert, except with more talking and sloppier dressing style.

Last summer, I offered some suggestions for ways to make yourself a disruptive presence in a workshop by asking questions that would intimidate the instructor or possibly make him or her squirm. After all, there’s nothing like awkwardness and tension to liven up a stale learning environment.

This year, I thought we could take a more constructive approach and turn our attention more specifically to the kind of workshop most in need of new and interesting questions: the songwriting workshop.

Songwriting workshops at their best can be a unique opportunity to get insights into the creative process, and to get practical and useful tips for your own writing. They can so easily be derailed, though, by side issues like sync licensing and song-pitching, or they can devolve into songwriter’s name-dropping sessions (“here’s one that bought me a swimming pool in 1989. I’m still grateful to Howard and David—you know, the Bellamy Brothers—for believing in it”).

What’s needed here, and what in many cases can even save a songwriting workshop about to head down this deadly path, are questions that will really engage the instructor and the students, too. They don’t have to be designed to intimidate or make anyone feel uncomfortable. They should just be ones that make the instructor think outside his or her stock answers. This will in turn stimulate other original questions from students.

Before questions about how to get your song cut by a major artist come up, songwriting workshop questions almost invariable start with the classic: “Which do you write first, the words or the music?” You can help improve a songwriting workshop by just skipping this question entirely, even if you really want to know. You’re only going to get an answer like this, anyway: “Well, it isn’t really in a particular order, though I guess sometimes it’ll be part music, and then some lyrics, then some music, or other times it’ll be some words that have some music that are kind of attached to them, but then I’ll worry about that part later, or I’ll work on the melody right then with some of the words there. I don’t know. I guess it sort of depends.”

You can avoid that kind of evasive answer by asking questions like these, instead:

  • Which kind of song has more soul: one written on a yellow legal pad, one written on an iPad, or one written on a cocktail napkin?
  • Is it okay to use the word “software” in a bluegrass song?
  • Have you ever written a song without the word “the” in it?
  • If you can’t copyright a song title, what’s to prevent you from writing 12 different songs called “Rocky Top” and then turning them into an album?
  • How important is it to write murder ballads out of your own personal experience?
  • Why aren’t there more bluegrass songs about root vegetables?
  • I’ve written a song using the entire melody of another song and most of the words. I’m calling it “Man of Intermittent Sorrow.” Can I be sued for that?
  • I have a song that would be perfect for Taylor Swift. Do you know her well enough to get her to record it? Raymond Fairchild would be my second choice.
  • Which breakfast food would you say is better for providing songwriting inspiration: biscuits and gravy, or fruit loops?
  • I’ve written a touching song about a dog named “Duke” but I’m stuck because I can’t come up with a decent rhyme for “parvo.” Any ideas?
  • Are songwriters really tortured souls, or is that just a persona they adopt to pick up chicks?
  • What time does the banjo workshop start?