Book Review: The Song Writer's Work Shop
Edited by Harvey Rachlin
Published by Writer's Digest Books, 1991

79 pages plus two cassette tapes

Retail $24.95

I keep trying to improve my songwriting skills by reading anything that might teach me something new. There are voluminous instruction manuals pontificating on the artistic nuances of songwriting that we don't need. It's like learning to play an instrument: the instruction part doesn't take long; the majority of time is occupied with practicing the art. This is a short book, but it covers a lot of ground without being superfluous and the accompanying tape is not a verbatim reading of the text, so each one has different things to say.

The book is divided into four sections and each is also the subject of one side of the cassette tapes. The sections are: Janis Ian -- On Songwriting; John Barilla -- Making Demos; James Becher -- Understanding MIDI; and Teri Muench -- The Art of Pitching Songs.

Songwriting is covered by Janis Ian, who wrote "Society's Child," "At Seventeen," "Jesse," and many more. She has been recorded by numerous singers since her start at the age of fourteen. It looks like she kind of got the jump on me. At fourteen about all I was singing was "I See London, I see stars, I see somebody's underdrawers."

Janis covers such topics as: Craft vs. Inspiration; Getting Started; Songwriting Rules; and Hurdles to Overcome. She advises the songwriter to listen to "good" music. If all one listens to is trash, how can one write anything but trash? She also advocates writing words that have clarity and are easily understood. A concert or radio audience will not have lyric sheets with which to follow along.

She delves into the "Dreaded Second Verse" syndrome that we all know so well. As she states, there are some ideas that sound great but have little substance once you get by the first verse. Sometimes these projects have to be abandoned because they are a waste of time, and you could be developing another idea.

And Hey, Jan sounds just like an old friend sitting there in your living room. You feel like offering her a glass of wine or something as she takes us step by step through the creation of "At Seventeen" and dissects the John Vezner and Don Henry song, "Where've You Been?"

She also gives us some songwriting exercises which actually help in creating rhythms and rhymes. One which I find fun is to rent a movie and try to write a title song for it; or compose a new theme song for a favorite TV show. Play like you're a big Hollywood composer, dude!

You can also pick a song you like and write a new melody for it; then use the original melody and write new words. Try writing songs about current news events. Write parodies, they're great fun to do. Writing exercises really do help, and we all have time because we are not always writing a song. Even if you have writer's block, exercises can often bring you out of it.

I liked Janis Ian's contributions in the book and on tape.

John Barilla is a songwriter/producer and recording engineer who is senior editor for "db Magazine" and writes a column on home studio recording. In the "Making Demo" section of the book, he creates some confusion right off by telling us that a simple guitar and vocal demo is ineffective when I have heard more than one publisher say just the opposite. But I guess a guy who's trying to tell me how to run a home studio and make four- or eight-track demos is going to say that, huh.

He recommends that anyone who writes a lot of songs purchase a four-track cassette recorder. And on this agree. You can get a real compatible system for around $400. They are relatively simple to use and will save you money rather quickly. If you can properly operate a VCR, you should be OK with a four-track recorder. If you go to a studio to make your demos, even at a bargain $50 a session, you would spend enough to buy a four-track setup in a hurry. These outfits may not look all that impressive. But they put out work that rivals what major studios put out in the sixties.

The cassette on this section can stand on its own because Barilla takes up through an example demo and you can hear just how it is done. The book part doesn't add much to that.

Teri Muench, who handled "The Art of Pitching Songs" section, was an A&R director and executive producer for RCA Records and has her own publishing company, Muench Music Group. She gives some good hints and tips on that most bewildering and difficult songwriting task.

Ont the cassette she plays out several little vignettes on making phone calls to -- and meetings with -- record company representatives. She gives examples on what to do and what not to do. It reminded me to those cornball, laughable little movies that companies show their employees on telephone etiquette, but this is hopefully a little more useful. I don't know if it is as simple as she demonstrates, but if it is, it is sure worth a try. And since she owns a publishing company, maybe we could start with her to see if she practices what she preaches. What d'ya say, gang?

Here again, the casette is more informative and interesting than the print portion.

James Becher does the section entitled "Understanding MIDI." James is a keyboardist-producer-composer-consultant-columnish, etc. who also operates his own music production company, "Ariel Music Design," in East Northport, N.Y.

Well, James, I understand things a little bit more than I did last week, but that is still a long way from being well versed on the subject. I mean, if I win the lottery maybe I can afford to buy the equipment necessary to make the system work.

To quote, "MIDI is an acronym that stands for musical instrument digital interface." Really! He says that we can make our own orchestra by using as many keyboards, expanders, drum machines, signal processors, wind controllers and thru boxes, not to mention actual instruments, that we want. Thanks, James! Why not just hire the Louisville Orchestra? It probably won't be that much more expensive and you wouldn't have to have a degree from MIT to pull it off.

If you understand all of this computer jargon (and there are probably a lot more people than I realize who went past junior high), then you will probably find the print portion informative. To paraphrase W.C. Fields who once remarked, "I love to look at women, but I wouldn't want to own one," let me say, "I enjoyed listening to the tape on MIDI, but ...." Well, you get the idea.

My overall analysis is this: Push the cassettes; forget the book; cut the price in half and you've got a winner!