Monday, 3 November 2014

Major Project Reflection

I thought I would take some time to reflect on my major project, which is a Song Writing MOOC I am taking through Berklee.

The class started about a month ago and so far I have really enjoyed it! Up until this week, it has mainly been a creative writing style course dealing mostly with lyrics. The past week and this week have started to introduce music (ie. melodies and harmonies) into the class. The reason I wanted to focus on this class was I wanted to improve my abilities as a song writer. Music has always come easily to me, but the lyrics have always been challenging. It is difficult for me express myself in words as they either come out not quite what I wanted to say or too cliché. I am very aware of this and I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to learn something not only new, but for personal enjoyment. I do teach song writing in my classes at work, but I took this class more for reasons of wanting to learn something new rather than something useful for my classroom (although so much I what I have learned does apply to the classes I teach).

In a perfect world, I would love to travel to Berklee to study. In the real world, I would need to leave my family, quit my job and grow a money tree in order for this to happen (yes, there must be money trees in my alternate real world). I would want to travel to Berklee in Massachusetts as their music school is world-class and I would love to immerse myself in their knowledge. What I love about this class is that I feel that I am getting the best of both worlds; I can live and work in my hometown and still get a quality education. This is the appeal of this MOOC and hopefully future MOOCs I might enroll in. My 85 year old grandfather, who passed away last year, for years had taken world history courses by listening to tapes of lectures. I don't know what institution he went through, but essentially it was a similar format to what I am doing. He took the classes because he was interested in the topic and was able to learn new things well into his 80's from his home. I hope to follow in his footsteps and continue my learning based on interest for years to come.

The format is the week's lessons are posted on a Monday and you have a week to work through several video lecture, mini-assignments and quizzes. At the end of the week the assignment is posted and the next set of lectures/ assignments for the next week is given. You have until Thursday (3-4 days) to complete the assignment and then you have 3 days to mark and critique a minimum 5 other classmate's work. You assign them a mark based on a set criteria and give feedback. I am still waiting to hear the feedback from the first assignment,  but so far I like the structure. Pat, the instructor, is very wise and has very good advice. I have not received a mark on my first song writing assignment, but the course has several quizzes in each week and I am scoring near 100% on all of them. If I make a mistake I can go back and re-write the quiz, but for the most part I have been scoring 100% on my first attempts. The course is set-up very logical and what I tend to do is watch the videos several times before I write the test. Like Angus said in his blog this week, I too struggle in traditional school settings. I need a great deal of repetition for something to sink in. In addition, I need a great deal of repetition for something to sink in.
On the other hand, I have enjoyed following Carmen Holota's progress on guitar as that is an area more in my comfort zone. I have shared some tips with her and hopefully they have helped her. I feel her pain as it is more difficult to pick up a new skill for me at this point in my life. I really appreciate her sticking with it as sometimes the results are not immediate and it can be discouraging.

While most of the content has been areas I am familiar with, there have been some interesting aspects I never considered before. Pat talks about Aristotle's theory of Prosody. Prosody is where everything is balanced and works together in a work of art. In a song, the lyrics should be appropriate, the music should match the emotion of the lyric and the performance should deliver a convincing take. When all these elements work together then you start to have a song that is meaningful. There are several areas that create balance or imbalance, depending on what you are looking for. For example, even numbers of lines of text generally create balance while odd numbers of lines create imbalance. This is effective as either you want feeling of arrival (like the chorus of a song) or imbalance to reflect an emotion or to move the song forward from verse to verse. The content thus far has focused on:
week one: the idea of a song, your main idea and supporting ideas, balance and imbalance
week two: line length
week three: rhyme and rhythm
week four: making it move (I don't know what this means yet as it was just posted today)

I would love to be in an actual class with Pat and the other students. There is a blog and discussion area for the class, but it is not the same. This has been a challenge as you deal with isolation. I don't feel that so much in the EC & I class as I feel I know many of the students through either actually knowing them (through work or previous classes) or through their reflections. I don't know or can really relate to anyone in my MOOC. When you are creating songs it is very personal and there is something "impersonal" about some on-line classes such as mine. I am a little intimidated submitting my work as I have no idea what sort of judgements strangers will say about my work.

What works for me is playing the videos repeatedly over the course of maybe five days. I will sometimes have the lecture on while I am working on another thing or sometimes take notes as I listen. After repeated listening I go back and take the quizzes. A couple things that I find helpful is I can change the speed of the video (ex. 1.25, 1.5, 2 times as fast works great when I want to just review the video) and I usually put on the captions to see the text that he is speaking. I don't know why this helps, but it does for me.

What I hope to accomplish and eventually share with others are songs that I write. I released my debut album in the summer and I am starting writing songs for the follow-up.
Last night I sat down a revisited a couple songs I have been working on for awhile, but was never happy with the lyrics. I tried applying some of the techniques Pat has taught me and already the songs are greatly improved. I hope to share these soon, but I want to try working them out a bit more. As a writer and musician I appreciate craftsmanship and that is what I strive to do (write really well-crafted pop music). This is no different than a blogger, academic or anyone who writes. We all strive for prosody! 

Great writing is usually great editing and I take my time to work on my songs, edit and get them to a point where I am happy with them. I appreciate Twitter as you have very limited characters to say something. I try not to be careless and I take my time in crafting new songs. However, there is no formula to do it. What I do know is in order for me to be creative I need to recharge and relax. As soon as there is a deadline or a pressure, my creativity usually runs dry. I have found several ways to overcome that and I will continue to do so as I work on my craft.

Here is a screenshot from my class. Here is professor Pat Pattison giving a lecture on song writing.

A question I have for others is, "Are you surprised by what you have learned so far? Has it met your expectations or has there been some aspect that has happened you never considered would happen?" For me, I am surprised by how much new material I have learned. Pat is a great teacher and he has really demystified something that always seemed out of reach for me, which is creating quality lyrics.

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