Write what you feel, Feel what you write

Winter 2004


Words to live, or build a career by

This article was conceived some months back while making my way around my personal version of Walden Pond, otherwise known as the Arroyo Seco. I originally had the idea to address a topic that many members queried me on. It was a subject that I had a great deal of interest in as I was starting my own career, that is, how to get from point A to point B. It was then that I had an idea. Why limit this issue’ s scope to my window of experience, rather, why not call upon a few of my esteemed advisory board members to pass along some of their thoughts as well? These would not only be words that I would personally be anxious to ponder, but words that would have been the Holy Grail to me when I was first exploring this precipitous career.

Well, what transpired was nothing less than inspirational. Four of the most distinguished individuals in our community were generous enough to share their thoughts with us. No more insightful and moving lyric has been written than Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s to The Way We Were. No more lyrical and moving melody has been composed than Alan Menken’s, A Whole New World, for Aladdin. No more electrifying, gripping and celebrated theme song than Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible, and no scene was ever more ably scored than the sailboat sequence from Violets are Blue composed by Pat Williams. And so it is with great pleasure that I include their wisdom in this issue’s article.

My first entertainment attorney, Denny Bond once recounted a story concerning the venerable actor, Danny Kaye being cornered by an aspiring actress at a Hollywood party and posed the question, “Mr. Kaye, how do you get started in the world of motion pictures?” His somewhat flippant response was, “my dear, if you have to ask you most certainly will never get started.” Now his dismissive attitude concerning launching a career isn’t my style, however I think that too often one expects some hard and fast rules that somehow miss the over-all arc of what we should be about as aspiring composers and lyricists.

No one can say you will meet producer “A”, who recommends you to studio music head “B” who is impressed with your demo reel and hires you to compose music for x number of shows for x number of years at studio C. Nevertheless, that is how it happened for Howard Pearl and myself at Paramount Studios. However, the process is far more telling than the mechanics of the end result to my way of thinking, and in the long term it is twice as valuable. It was interesting that my talented colleagues mirrored my thoughts in the way they addressed my question. As this article evolves, I will share a few of my personal tenets, but let’s go to the top of the class, in alphabetical order, first the SCL’s great friend and ASCAP President, Marilyn Bergman. Ms. Bergman’s lyrics have captivated us all. I continue to marvel at her mastery of her craft. She writes:

“Alan and I are often asked to give words of advice and/or encouragement to “entry level” composers or lyricists. The point we are always sure to make at the outset is that given the difficulties that await (access, rejections, etc.) unlike most endeavors, this choice of one’s life’s work must be because one has no other choice but to write – because one has to. You have to need to express yourself through music or lyrics in spite of the sea of hardships you might be wading into. The rewards – both in pleasure and profit – can be great and certainly can keep you in pursuit. So, in answer to “which comes first, the words or the music?”. I’d say the dedication to the craft.

I’ve always felt that lyrics are not written, they are rewritten. So the ability to be ruthless with your work is vitally important. Often, you must labor through draft after draft to arrive finally at something that seems effortless, with one word appearing to follow another with inevitability. (The blood, sweat and often tears are then worth it.)

As far as any other “advice”: I know of no better words on the subject of lyric writing than the “Notes On Lyrics” contained in Oscar Hammerstein’s book “Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.” (Published by Simon & Schuster, 1949). This book with these amazing 48 pages (to say nothing of the extraordinary lyrics which comprise the book!), has been like a bible to Alan and me. We re-read them every few years just to keep us honest! There are numerous books on writing lyrics, how-to books. Most of them we find wanting (to put it kindly). This short chapter of Hammerstein’s is worth all of them put together and then some in my opinion.”

I concur with Marilyn’s sentiment on having to write. I came from a family of attorneys and educators with no musical pedigree what so ever. Initially starting on a trip to Europe, collaborating on songs with a then unknown, Tom Shapiro, now one of BMI’s most celebrated writer’s, culminating in attending a James Taylor, Carole King concert a few years later in rural Massachusetts, there was never a moment of indecision from those years forward for me about the course my life was going to take.

Alan Menken chose to explore a number of points that he has shared in the past with his students. I know of no other person who has exemplified any more acutely the heights that are attainable with an inexhaustible work ethic and dedication to your craft. Of course few are blessed with Alan’s gift of melody, following in the footsteps of such craftsmen as Richard Rodgers. Mr. Menken writes:

“These are some thoughts I often share with students and young writers. Some may find these thoughts simplistic or ethereal. But they have sustained me throughout my life and career.

  1. If you want to compose, compose. If you want to write lyrics, write lyrics. Make it your first priority; your only priority. Don’t take other jobs thinking they’ll lead to your ultimate career goals. They seldom do.
  2. Think of your composing or writing career as you’d think of the priesthood. It’s a calling. Whether you make $1 or $1,000,000 doesn’t matter. Don’t take jobs for the money. Ironically, in the long run, you’ll end up making more money.
  3. Write what you’re passionate about. Music is not logical or reasonable. It’s a medium for feelings that defy logic and reason. A great song is like falling in love. It should sweep you away, regardless of whether it makes sense or appeals to your literal mind.
  4. At the same time, don’t be afraid to write in a recognizable or derivative form. Music is a vocabulary, as specific as any language. You may think you’re copying the style or even the content of another piece of music or a lyric. Chances are you’re not. Celebrate specific forms, past and present. Your unique voice as a writer comes through more than you know. And when the listener gets what you’re up to, they enjoy it more.
  5. You, as a listener, are most likely what motivated you to become a writer. Use that part of yourself to judge the quality of what you’ve written. If you love it, chances are there’s an audience that will love it too. Don’t give up on your material. Don’t allow second-guessing what others might think to block your creative flow. Be patient and wait to find the listeners who respond to what you write.
  6. We, as creative artists, are mediums. Artistic expression is what we do with the life force that flows through us. Think of music or lyrics like the water that flows from a spigot. We can only turn on the spigot and catch and shape what flows through us. And if you use the force of the stream, the unique personality and power of your creative talent will assert itself. If, however, you dam up the flow or hold back the stream, it damages you and it hurts your art.
  7. Don’t fall so in love with your work that you lose the ability to rewrite or even throw it away entirely and start again. Rewriting is an incredible tool. It either proves you right or leads to a better outcome. In the end, it’s not really about any individual work, it’s about you and your talent.
  8. Think of writing as digging for hidden treasure. Your early work, as good as you may think it is, represents the dirt you clear away to find the gold. If you don’t “dig” a ton of “dirt” you never get to the gold. And the gold is worth the wait.
  9. Writing music and / or lyrics is something many people can do. The difference between a mediocre song and a great one may seem very slight and very subtle. But it’s very real. Don’t become discouraged and allow yourself to compete with other’s material just because it’s “successful”. The only success you want is one that’s uniquely yours and one that will stand the test of time.
  10. A successful song or a successful piece of music reveals itself nearly immediately. Don’t overvalue anything that only reveals itself through repeated exposures. Music and lyrics are meant to be viscerally powerful in the moment; to make you cry or laugh or dream. Anything shy of that is a waste of a very powerful medium.
  11. Collaboration is an absolute necessity for effective writing. Use the “listening” of your collaborators to motivate and shape your writing. Write to please them. Write to surprise them. Write to show off for them. The better they listen, the better you’ll write. Listen to and respect their criticisms. If you disagree, go ahead and write what they suggest anyway. You never know; maybe you’ll prove them wrong and maybe they’ll prove to be right. Either way, you win.
  12. Be aware that you never really know in advance what the result of a writing assignment will be. Often, the most important work comes from assignments you weren’t really excited about. The important thing is to always move on to the next assignment, the next project, the next collaborator, the next idea. And write write write write write.”

Lalo Schifrin has led a celebrated and charmed life, and for good reason. From his early days as one of jazz’s true innovators to his success in television and film, he exemplifies the best of the best. Mr. Schifrin writes:

“The following is my advice to young aspiring composers:

  1. Study formal music composition from its foundations: Harmony, Counterpoint, Fugue, Form, Orchestration and Analysis. Investigate the scores of the great masters
  2. Explore the techniques and procedures of 20th Century music: from the French Impressionists through the national schools of different countries in which composers exploit their traditional music. Also, study those composers who transcended this nationalism and created a universal idiom out of their roots (Bartok, Stravinsky, Ives, Copeland, etc.). Investigate the secrets of 12-tone and Serial music. This is going to prepare you for the post-Webern school in the second half of the 20th Century (Boulez, Berio, Stokausen, etc.). Olivier Messian’s compositions deserve a thorough analysis. Get acquainted with Aleatory procedures, especially of the Polish Schoo
  3. Carefully avoid becoming a diatonic cripple.
  4. Study the different techniques of electronic music.
  5. Become familiar with Minimalism and related schools.
  6. Listen to Jazz, Blues, Rock and the contemporary and alternative tendencies, including Hip Hop.
  7. If you want to become a film composer, get acquainted with plays, operas, and Broadway theater music in order to get a sense of drama, tragedy and comedy. Try to understand the problems of actors and stage directors. When you see feature or television movies, try to analyze the nature of the composer’s contribution, but also become aware of the audiovisual counterpoint. The work of Directors of Photography should not be ignored.
  8. Don’t be afraid of chromaticism. Once again, avoid becoming a diatonic cripple!”

Mr. Schifrin seems to suggest a discipline that I ascribed to early in my career, and should probably re-visit today. I learned from my great teacher, Albert Harris to allocate a portion of every day to a number of tasks. I would schedule two hours a day to dissecting scores, in fact reducing orchestral scores down to three or four lines. That allowed me to get at the spine of the composition or orchestration. His next assignment was to have me compose in the style of whoever’s work I might be perusing, “so if someone were to find this manuscript, they would think it a lost work of Debussy, Gershwin, Tschaikowsky, etc.”

Pat Williams’ has created some of pop and jazz’s most beautiful arrangements. One would be hard pressed to find a greater exponent of mood and texture. He has also composed some of my favorite television themes over the years. I was pleased to be able to include his thoughts in this article. Mr. Williams’ writes:

“In terms of thoughts for an entry level person, the longer I am in this business, the more difficult of a question that becomes, but I’ll give it a stab.

It seems to me that success is part of a process, rather than a goal. The learning process never stops and the composers I most admire all understand that. Viewing one’s career in this light helps to soften the blows of rejection and frustration that we all encounter and it also contributes to a more rewarding and emotionally fulfilling career. I think we can always remember there is the “music business” and then there is the “music” and it’s very important to stay in love with the latter so we can handle the former.”

There is a common thread in Pat, Marilyn and Alan’s ideology that I deeply share. That is, do it for the love of the art and financial reward will most certainly follow. If your goal is to make a lot of money at the expense of our craft, then please, for the sake of your colleagues and those who came before, do it somewhere else. As I wrote in the last article for The Score, ours is a distinguished profession that I feel is at a crossroads. I would hope that all of us could band together as a community. It is only then that can meet our challenges, united in an uncompromising love and passion for what we do.

As far as your own careers, I will make a prediction. Absorb these words of advice, never stop learning and keep a positive outlook and we’ll be hearing from you one of these days as well. I’ll leave you with the great Erol Garner’s words to me many years ago at the St. Regis in New York, “write what you feel and feel what you write.” Good writing to all of you.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XIX, Number Four, Winter 2004]