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Laying the Groundwork
By Mike Roberts - 02/12/2004 - 07:39 PM EST

You've probably heard this cliche a million times, but here goes: no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. The reason this has even become a cliche is because it rings so true with so many people. What it illustrates is the simple fact that words alone don't cut it. Like Paul Harvey points out, there's always "the rest of the story."

Writing a column on communication presents a challenge to me. If I fail to communicate properly, then not only did I not get an idea across, but my integrity for writing about communication is shot because I obviously failed to do what I'm writing about. Believe me, I don’t think I’m the final say on communication, but I have had some unique experiences that have enabled me to see how communication or the lack thereof affects the process of songwriting. So, here I go bravely with my first installment of "Can We Talk: Communication Skills for Songwriters."

One area of communication that seems key to me (and I invite your response to this) is the area of communicating ideas to other musicians. This is especially true when it involves a songwriter trying to express him- or herself to a musician who plays an instrument he or she doesn't play. Being a multi-instrumentalist myself, I've had the luxury of always being able to express my ideas with some degree of clarity to another musician or band member, simply because I understood the instrument. And I'm not only talking about the theoretical side of things but also the street terms, the touchy-feely issues, the ego issues and the references to other great musicians in that particular field. Unlike me, however, a number of songwriters do not play more than one instrument, and quite a few don't play any at all—at least not proficiently.

Now, I'm not down on songwriters that have limited instrumental skills. To the contrary, I think songwriting in and of itself is it's own "instrument." As much as I have done musically speaking over the last twenty years, to this day lyrics just are not my strength AT ALL. There are certain lyricists I listen to that make me feel the same way I did the first time I ever noticed the electric guitar (which was Neal Schon's playing on “Any Way You Want It” in the movie Caddyshack... I was only 10 but those are still some great riffs!). The lyrical artist taps into something that I don't know if I'll ever tap into. Yet again, many of them couldn’t have done it without the backing of a band or a skilled musical collaborator to help turn their ideas into reality. That process of bridging two worlds seems to be one of the greatest ongoing challenges, and it is that process that is the overriding theme of this column.

Now let me return to the first thing I said about words not being enough. We all know that two different people could say the exact same words but in two different contexts and get two entirely different results. Context is the soil in which the seeds of words take root and spring up into either beautiful, life-giving foliage or nasty, destructive weeds. If I can summarize what I think are the basic ground rules of effective communication, I would say that it revolves around a humble self-awareness, mutual respect, understood assumptions and a commitment to dialogue. To me, these issues underlie all attempts to express ourselves to others. Here’s a little more explanation:

HUMBLE SELF-AWARENESS: This says “I know who I am.” We need to be in touch with our skills as well as our limitations, and we need to be okay with them and open about them. The best approach is to exploit our strengths and shore up our weaknesses, and doing that requires a little help from our friends and a good dose of humility. We shouldn’t be shy about our strengths, but we shouldn’t be arrogant either. Someone once said that the largest room in the world is room for improvement. How many musicians have you known that you couldn’t stand to be around because they were so full of themselves?

MUTUAL RESPECT: This simply says “I respect your dignity.” Everyone deserves at least a basic degree of human respect, no matter who or what they are. By honoring the dignity of others regardless of how we ourselves are treated, we earn the respect of others because they see us as honest, fair and just. They will come to know that who we are when they’re around is the same person we are when they’re not around. For that, they will implicitly trust and respect us. An example of this is when we offer a well-deserved criticism to another artist. Criticism is an ongoing part of our artistic lives, but if it is not prefaced with respect to another's talents, efforts and personal ego, then it may not be taken as sincere and constructivly as it was intended. This in turn can make all the difference in the world as to whether the other person feels empowered to grow to the next level because of our words, or whether they feel crushed under the weight of their present inadequacies.

CLEAR ASSUMPTIONS: This says “Here’s how I’m looking at this.” In order to not make an ASS out of U and ME we’re told not to ASSUME. But to the contrary, there are things we consistently have to assume until we can be sure of the facts. The trick is making sure everyone knows what those assumptions are so they can operate under the same ones or present their disagreement if they know them to be faulty. A singer/songwriter friend of mine was in a band that folded after six months. When I asked about the circumstances, I learned that he was the only one in the band that had goals beyond the local club scene. He wanted to write, record and pursue big interests in the band’s music—yet no one else thought originality was that important. The sad part is that they were together for six months before everyone’s basic assumptions came to the surface and they realized that they were not headed in the same direction.

COMMITMENT TO DIALOGUE: This says “We can work it out.” If we know our strengths and weaknesses and we feel they complement each other, if we maintain a healthy sense of mutual respect, and if we’re all on the same page with our assumptions, then the only thing left to do is simply dialogue—excessively, lavishly, repetitively—until we come to terms, no matter how much time that process may require. It could happen in an instant, it could take hours, it could take days. The good news is that it will happen. And once it does, all the dialogue that took place in the mean time has served to intertwine our understandings and glue us together for a long-term, successful artistic relationship. Ulitmately that is what we all want... I assume.

Great songs by great bands and great songwriting teams didn’t just happen because a label said “write us a hit.” Communication is the fertile soil that produces these kinds of songs and long-standing unions. This makes me think of long-time songwriting partners Elton John and Bernie Taubin. However, when communication falls apart, the death of those unions or songwriting machines is inevitable, no matter how strong the talent was within. Just look at the Police.

In Songwriting for Dummies, Jim Peterik and his co-authors make note that “collaborative songwriting is as much about the chemistry between people as it is about individual talent.” And I would simply add that communication is the catalyst that brings that chemistry about.

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