Until 1977 I thought of myself as a songwriter. The process of writing a song could take days, weeks, months or longer. It involved the meticulous, persistent, and often obsessive search for the “perfect” melody to match a particular lyric, and the chords to best highlight that particular musical passage in time.
Though I hadn’t received radio airplay with my songs, it was my overwhelming pastime and joy. As a singer/songwriter in the folk/jazz genre, with a particular emphasis on spiritual lyrics, I had a small fan base of people I met through my life as a yoga teacher and visual artist.
Something changed the day I sat down with a friend who was sharing her poetry with me. One poem seemed well-suited as song lyrics, so I picked up my guitar and sang her poem. Not stopping to ask myself: “What is the right note? Which is the right chord?” Simply singing the words written on the page before me, it was over in a moment.
My friend, who had never heard her words sung before, was thrilled by the experience. “I’m a songwriter now!” She exclaimed, and brought forth several of her other poems- which I proceeded to sing in different tempos, keys, chords and melodies. It was an enjoyable and relaxing afternoon - simply allowing songs to be born without the arduous labor of searching for “perfection”.
That evening we went to a party, where she shared what had happened that afternoon. I soon found myself presented with a new poem, written by a friend of hers. There, in the midst of the party, I took out my guitar and once again sang the words of a poem as song lyrics. Much laughter and expressions of amazement ensued, followed by several other party attendees bringing their poems to me. It had now become the focus of energy for much of the evening. Already I was starting to imagine my new career as “the poetry singer”.
Then I turned to someone sitting in a far corner of the room and asked: “Do you have a poem you’d like me to sing?” He shrugged and said: “No, I don’t write poetry.” And I replied, “I understand. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a poem somewhere inside you. Might I see what emerges if I were to sing what I feel?” He smiled and gave me his permission.
At that moment I sang a song, not from words written on a page before me, called “a poem”, but from simply feeling this person and trusting the words which came forth as new lyrics. When the song was over silence filled the room. The fellow for whom I had sung was very quiet, then thanked me, saying it felt good to have a song inspired by his energy.
This incident, occurring 43 years ago, signaled the birth of a new way of songwriting. Both for myself, as well as for countless others who I have helped to “open the door” of their own natural songmaker. (“Songmaking” is what I call this practice, to distinguish it from the art of traditional songwriting.)
My use of this practice continued, creating and recording songs for individuals over the course of decades. Soon I realized that this was not a special gift given only to me, but a natural way of creating inherent in all of us. I noticed children, wherever I went in the world, un-self-consciously creating songs in the moment, all the time. I realized we all did this once, but stopped or blocked the process when criticized, or it seemed silly, or not congruent with the serious side of life or the serious study of music.
To help in reminding kids as they grow up that this spontaneous songmaking process can still be “cool”, I present in elementary schools in America and Europe. I ask the kids to write a poem, and then choose a few of the poems. When I spontaneously sing one of these poems in front of their class, the child who wrote the words is suddenly transformed into a songwriter - and the look of happy achievement on their face is beyond words.
In the process of creating and recording intuitive, spontaneous songs for people I have developed a library of over 5,000 unique songs, categorized by themes such as self-empowerment, self-acceptance, healing, honoring relationships, finding peace, connecting with family and community. As I continue to create songs for individuals, called SongPortraits, or within groups of people, called Honoring Ceremonies, new songs are added to the collection every year. (Anyone can ask for their own SongPortrait or to join an Honoring Ceremony).
Twenty-five years ago I developed SongSourcing, a method giving anyone the guidance and musical support they might need to create their own songs in the moment. Ten years ago, I began filming the award-winning documentary film series which my wife and I produced, In Search of the Great Song, exploring the music that lives in all of us- a series inspired by this same practice.
This year, to further support this approach, I began offering MasterClass on Intuitive SongMaking, both online and offline. MasterClass allows participants to learn the basic tools for including this practice in their personal and professional lives, a practice which can offer a variety of benefits.
There always exists the potential of a new perspective for something we have come to assume is fixed, or will always be the way it was. And how this new perspective has the potential for opening doors to worlds previously unknown.
As long as I saw myself only as a “songwriter”, the prospect of a different way of accessing song, without effort and not needing to take any more time than the singing of the song, was completely hidden from my awareness.
Thus my “leap” into singing the words of a single poem, without worrying about how it would sound and where the next word or melody would go, was all it took to open the door to a new world bringing creative enjoyment, self-acceptance and freedom to so many.
In essence, the state of mind required for spontaneous or intuitive songmaking is similar to the state of awareness helpful for living a life in the present, listening to the energies within and without, being compassionate with others and kind to one’s self. It is at the heart of being human.
What fixed idea might you still hold, and what new world awaits behind it?