New classes teach lyrical approach to penning songs – 2004

By Joanna Horowitz, The Seattle Times, 31 July 2004

There is a giant board on the north side of the Songcraft room, one of Experience Music Project’s newest exhibits. Words haphazardly cover the surface like a blown-up version of the magnetic poetry seen on dorm-room fridges all over the country.

The mission here: Make lyrics from the jumble. Visitors have left snapshots of songs, “I got a light in a deep well/it’s about to deny me of longer soul” or “Rock away the tears.”

If these are the start of a great new song, who knows, but what’s good or bad is subjective, said Jon Auer, former frontman of The Posies. Auer, along with Seattle musicians Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger and Christy McWilson from country-rock band The Picketts, will teach part of a six-month EMP/University of Washington songwriting-certificate program, which starts in October.

Anyone who can play an instrument well enough to record a song, UW student or not, can apply for the program.

“There’s really no one correct way to do anything,” Auer said. “All I can really hope is they’ll find something in there that is of use to them.”

Organizers at UW Extension and EMP are pretty sure the 20 students selected for the program will find plenty of worthwhile content. In order to give students the broadest knowledge base possible, they hired three very different musicians as instructors, and each will teach about a different aspect of song writing and musical creation.

Nelson, who is also an associate editor of The Stranger, will lead the first two-month class on the basics on songwriting, in which students will learn how to build a song and find their muse. McWilson’s second session will focus on songwriting history, as well as developing a personal style. Auer will teach arranging and producing songs.

Students will work in the studio and finally have the option to perform their original work live at EMP. All three sessions will meet Wednesday evenings at the music museum.

“EMP has always stressed as part of its mission that its goal is to inspire people to play music,” said Eric Weisbard, senior program manager in EMP’s education department. “We have great songwriters in Seattle. It seemed like a natural place to launch this.”

Weisbard said this isn’t the first time musicians have taught at EMP. They’ve brought in singer/songwriters for the Teacher’s Institute and Pop Conference. But the collaboration between the university and EMP, with a program taught by established musicians who have never been teachers before, is a first.

Auer isn’t sure what to expect.

“It feels a little bit like going skydiving for the first time,” he said, “but that’s not a bad thing.”

The deadline for applications is Sept. 10. Carol Nicolay, program manager for arts and media for UW Extension, said she has already received five applications, each with a recording of an original or a song in a style the applicant would like to emulate.

“I have been getting some very interesting CDs,” Nicolay said. ” From grunge to hard rock and everything in between.”

The UW School of Music has been involved by helping to establish the curriculum, Nicolay said. The music department offers classes in composing and some in popular music, but nothing that combines the two.

The songwriting course is one of more than 100 certificate programs offered by UW Extension. Tuition for the program, which ends in May, is $1,605.

“I hope they think it will be money well spent,” Auer said. “There are many ways to learn these things, but the best way to figure it out is to get someone who has actually done it.”