Greetings. I spent last week at Northwestern University at the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project with 14 young and promising songwriters who were chosen to participate in a week long intensive workshop. Hopefully at the end of the week they'd emerge with a deeper understanding of what makes a song remarkable.
The program encompassed music of many genres—musical theatre, pop, hip hop, folk. It’s the program from which Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) emerged, and where the beloved Lari White and Lin Manuel Miranda mentored before me.
I was honored to have been invited to be a master teacher this year along side Andrew Lippa, Stephen Bray and Craig Carnelia although I don't consider myself a master of anything. There are things I do well because I’ve been doing them for a long time and my sensibilities are sound. But the way I see it I take away as much from mentoring as I give.
During the week before my trip, the bios and selfies of these hand-picked writers were merely an overview of who I’d be working with. There was no real personal connection yet. I listened to all the song submissions twice (I take this stuff seriously), so by the time I arrived in Chicago I already knew a little something about them. But not a whole lot.
On night #1 we had some pizza and got acquainted. I matched the faces and names with the selfies. And then in the morning we convened in a black box theatre, sat in a semi circle and got down to business. The piano was tuned. The mics were on. Everyone was receptive. Open. Curious. Eager.
This wasn’t your typical lighthearted fast paced song critique. We discussed motivation, intention, truth, resistance, discovery, philosophy. We talked about hard rhymes vs. soft rhymes. Something I learned was that in musical theatre it’s true rhyme or the highway. But as the spokesperson for pop it was my responsibility to put forth that if you want to be on mainstream radio or pop playlists the soft rhyme is alive and thriving and the true rhyme is almost passé.
I thought it might be mentally exhausting to examine songs for 7 days straight. But actually, the days flew by. Everyone was engaged and committed. Everyone had something unique to offer in their approach to their craft. It wasn't a competition.
It occurred to me that whoever chose these 14 (from close to 200 applicants) must have had a sixth sense of who they were looking for because there wasn’t a writer in the house who didn’t belong. No Prima Donnas or Donalds. Egos checked at door. For a full week I didn’t see anyone take out a cellphone or sneak a text—with the exception of maybe um, yours truly. :(
What I would have given for an opportunity like this when I was coming up in the biz—a week long songwriting sleep-away camp after which, because of the intense and personal nature of the forum, I’d have made new friends for life. And let’s face it, young writers need guidance. Sadly, that's not a publisher’s job any more as there are way fewer places to pitch songs.
On the last night, after only one afternoon of rehearsal the black box theatre was transformed into a sold out house for a culminating concert.
One by one each performer got their 5 minutes in the spotlight. Regina, Adrian, Sydney, Khiyon, Adam, Ibn, Sage, Daphne, Benji, Chris, Jenni, Julian, Morgan and Hana rose to their occasion with pride and excellence. They accompanied each other with background vocals, or an acoustic guitar, a cajón, a cello.
At the end of the show, the teachers joined the group for one of Johnny Mercer’s most notable accomplishments, “Moon River,” which transported me to the backseat of my family's Rambler. I was 7 years old and probably fighting with my sister. My parents ignored us and crooned away, “Two drifters, off to see the world...There's such a lot of world to see," both professing the song was one of the finest ever written. They weren’t musicians. But still they knew.
By the end of the evening I was exhausted and hungry and exhilarated. I realized that all those bios and selfies warmed their way into my heart and were now living, breathing, giving, receiving human beings. I have Johnny Mercer and the Johnny Mercer Foundation to thank for such a rich and humbling experience and for the 14 very special people I will never forget.
I’m back home again drinking my morning coffee and thinking about the past week. I’ve heard it said, “those who can, do; those who can't, teach.” I reject that notion. I’m enjoying “doing” (writing songs) more than ever. I may not be making as much money as I did when physical albums were flying off the shelves but is that how we should measure success?
At this point in my career I have to ask myself ‘where am I useful? How I can give back?’
I feel like I just did.
Thank you for reading my blog! Please feel free to subscribe below. Give a like to my Serial Songwriter Facebook Page, Follow me on Twitter. And Insta! Check out my whole website. Listen to my GRAMMY nominated Audiobook. :) Would you be interested in hosting me in a Living-Room-Live this summer? If so let me know.