Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


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Instructor Spotlight: Randy Klein Has a Cool NYC Debut This Month

Multifaceted songwriter, performer, producer and native New Yorker, Randy Klein, has been mentoring emerging songwriters at SongU.com since 2006 when co-creator, Danny Arena, randomly spotted Randy’s name online for winning a prize for one of his jazz compositions. At the time, we were looking for some additional genre-diversity within our coaching faculty, and once we read his extensive bio, we had a gut feeling that Randy could bring exactly what we needed to the table. As it turns out, Randy did have a “flair for feedback” and has since become a well-respected staple of our song feedback and coaching staff.

Adding to his award-winning credits from Emmys to gold records to fellowships and commissions with projects including jazz, musical theatre, soul/R&B, documentary film scores, and PBS children’s TV shows, he now has a World Premiere to look forward to. His composition “Fanfare For Jerusalem” will be performed in New York City by the 400 voice Hazamir Chorale at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center on March 26, 2017.

I asked Randy to answer a few questions about  songwriting and what this newest commission means to him.

When did your music career begin and what were your goals when you first began?

I’m not sure when my music career began because I have never done anything else but music. There are pictures of me as a toddler reaching up to the piano to play. And, as far as goals are concerned, I only wanted to be a good piano player. Songwriting didn’t come into the picture until way later when I was in my late twenties.

What are the most important lessons you learned about the music business since starting out?

To be nice to everyone. Admit when you are wrong. Remember that it ain’t a gig until the check clears!

You have a very exciting project called “Fanfare to Jerusalem” that will be a worldwide debut performed at Lincoln Center in New York City. How did you get this commission? 

The commission for “Fanfare For Jerusalem” came to me because of my relationship to Matthew and Vivian Lazar, the founder and director of the HaZamir Chorale. They are my neighbors and live in my apartment building in NYC. They knew I was a composer and invited me to hear the chorale a year ago at a performance at Carnegie Hall. It was excellent, the sound of 400 voices blew my socks off, and the concert was of a very high musical aesthetic. I ran into Matthew and Vivian in the lobby of our apartment house the next day and told them how much I enjoyed the concert and mentioned that I would love to write for the chorale. They told me that the theme for the next year was to be the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem. I thought about this for a while and then pitched them the idea of composing a piece called Fanfare For Jerusalem. I wrote the main theme and proposed some original text in English. The text was not approved, but the concept and the main theme were. It was suggested that I look at the Psalms of David for text that related to Jerusalem. I did the research and found, using translations in English, four excerpts from the Psalms which I thought would work. These selections were approved.

Was it intimidating to write the lyrics in another language, especially one that doesn’t use the English alphabet?

The only drawback was that I did not speak Hebrew and the Psalms are in Hebrew. Matthew Lazar connected me with an associate who spoke the Psalms into a recorder in Hebrew, including a recording of each word sounded out phonetically. It was from this recording that I wrote Fanfare For Jerusalem.

How long did it take for you to complete it?

It took about 5 weeks of non-stop writing. I would study the pronunciation of a syllable, then a word, and then a phrase and I slowly put music to it. Hebrew is a language with some guttural sounding syllables that don’t sing very well, like ‘o-ha-va-yich’ and ‘b’-chei-leich’. The challenge was to set them and be musical. While, I was composing the music, I was also imagining the 400 voice chorale singing it. So, I was learning the sound of the words, composing and orchestrating for chorale at the same time. I presented the first draft in Matthew and Vivian’s apartment. I had them look at the printed score as I was playing and explaining the piece. The reaction was overwhelming. Vivian sensed that this was a very special piece and said it was going to be in this year’s concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. Matthew was already making musical suggestions to make it better. And, that they had decided to make the piece a commission. To say the least, I was overjoyed! Through Matthew’s suggestions about chorale writing and a series of about 11 rewrites, the piece was tightened up.

You almost make it sound easy, Randy. I’ve done more than 11 rewrites on a 3-minute Country song!

As a writer, I was thrilled because the original structure never changed and except for ‘one mis-stress’, I had set the text correctly. I was able to hear the language as it was spoken and paint it in a musical setting. The final piece is about 6 minutes long. The skill set I used to compose this piece was the same as I use to write songs in English. Listening to the way a lyric speaks, I used my songwriting ear to learn how the lyric in Hebrew spoke and set it to music. Lessons to learn… don’t ever be afraid to pitch a creative idea to someone…music is a universal language….develop your listening skills! And, the cool news is, my collaborator is King David!

Yes, that’s a great lesson: “Don’t ever be afraid to pitch a creative idea to someone.”  So, what’s the best piece of general advice you can give up and coming songwriters?

This is easy. Write every day, even if you are not inspired. Take an article in the paper and write a song about it. Write a song about ketchup. Just keep your pencil sharp.

What’s on the creative horizen for you?

-A book on songwriting titled, “You Can Write A Song!” (Fall 2017)
-Musicals in various states of completion: The Black Swan, Jubilee, Pandamonium and Speak.
-A piano improvisation project: Ambient Spaces
-Teaching songwriting – ongoing!

Name three of your favorite non-music related activities.

-Sitting in the middle of Greenwood Lake, NY on my 1995 pontoon boat on a warm summer day.
-Freshly brewed coffee.
-Riding my bicycle.

 

For more information and to purchase tickets to the March 26th world premiere of “Fanfare for Jerusalem” go to:  

http://www.metopera.org/Season/2016-17-Misc-Season/Hazamir/


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The Power of Simplicity by Danny Arena

On December 31st, when discussing what our guiding words would be for the new year, I chose the word “joy”, and Danny chose the word “simplify”. So with no further ado, it gives me great joy to offer up one of Danny’s timeless music related articles for songwriters. Read on to find out how to simplify your music. 

-Sara


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The Power of Simplicity – by Danny Arena

As the boundaries of popular forms of music continue to expand, it’s easy to get so caught up in modulations and syncopated rhythms that we can forget the power that a strong, simple melody can have. In my songwriting classes, after covering several new musical techniques, I always make a point of giving an assignment to write something simple musically. 

Simple Isn’t Easy
While a melody may be described as “simple,” the writing of it is usually far from easy. It involves achieving a perfectly natural balance between repetition and change so that the song is easily singable, but not boring. In this column, we’ll look at two of the components that make up a strong, simple melody. We have a tendency to think our own melodies may become dull when a musical phrase is repeated two or three times. As a songwriter full of musical ideas, it’s easy to end up with a song that has too many melodic ideas. In truth, some of the most well-known melodies like, “Yesterday” (Lennon/McCartney) and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (Leigh) rely heavily on repetition. If one of our main goals as a songwriter is to write something that’s easily memorable, then by far the best technique available is the power of repetition.

Using Variation
The downside of repetition is that too much of it can bore the listener. I like to think of it this way:

Suppose you were eating spaghetti with red sauce for dinner four nights in a row. Probably by the time the third or fourth night rolled around, you’d be tired of eating the same exact meal. Now, imagine that you change the meal slightly each night: the first night – spaghetti with red sauce; the second night – Chinese sesame noodles; the third night – lasagna; the fourth night – penne pasta with garlic and olive oil. By making a few changes, the same meal can still be satisfying. It’s like that with your music – a little variation goes a long way

An Example
As an example of the power of repetition with change, let’s take a look at the John Michael Montgomery hit single, “Home To You” written by Arlos Smith and Sara Light (my lovely wife). The verse consists of a total of eight measures, but only two musical ideas, one of which is the following two-measure pattern that starts the song:

Home to You – Example 1a:

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What makes the melody particularly memorable is the fact that this musical idea or motif is immediately repeated two more times (see example 1b below).

By the time the second verse rolls around, the melody is very familiar.

Example 1b:

musicnotes2-powerofsimplicity

From the song, “Home To You” written by Sara Light & Arlos Smith. © 1999 Mamalama Music (ASCAP)/Good Ol Delta Boy Music (SESAC). All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

Although the initial musical idea (in example 1a) is repeated three times in a row, there are several subtle variations employed that help keep us tuned in to the music, allowing the repetition to work its magic without us becoming bored.

Notice the first time the musical idea appears, the chord pattern is a G chord followed by D (with an F# bass). But when the musical idea is repeated, the chord pattern changes and an Em7 chord is substituted for the G, which is then followed by C chord. This small harmonic variation in chord structure the second time allows us to return to the initial chord pattern again (G, D/F#) for the third time with fresh ears. Also, notice that each time the two measure musical pattern repeats, the melody begins the same, but ends a little differently. This is a type of variation commonly known as melodic variation and it is often due to the changing of the chords in the musical motif as in the case here. Finally, notice that rhythm of the melody changes slightly each time the musical phrase is repeated but is close enough to the original musical idea that it still reinforces it.

So the next time you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio, try to listen for some of those subtle variations in the music. They may be small, but they can make a big difference.

Hope to see you on the charts.

–Danny

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Danny Arena is a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, a Tony-nominated composer, and the co-founder of SongU.com.


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Standing On The Shoulders: A Tribute To My Mentors

“We are standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us
They are saints and they are humans, they are angels, they are friends
We can see beyond the struggles and the troubles and the challenge
When we know that by our efforts things will be better in the end”

-Excerpt from “Standing on the Shoulders” written by Joyce Royce

The poignant song, “Standing on the Shoulders”, was written by a lovely songwriter friend of mine, Joyce Rouse, and recently sung in it’s entirety by another dear songwriter friend, Lisa Silver, at the unveiling celebration of the new Women’s Suffrage Monument in Centennial Park in Nashville, TN. The lyrics were such an appropriate tribute to those women who bravely stood up for women’s right to vote.

kaceyjonesportraitHowever, this lyric took on an even more personal meaning for me earlier this month when my former creative director and publisher at Zamalama Music, Kacey Jones, sadly lost her battle against cancer on September 1st. I felt heartbroken when I heard the news. Kacey was one of the women whose “shoulders  I stood on”, in other words, one of my mentors. She probably didn’t realize it, but she was my “fearlessness” coach. Watching her “go for” whatever she set her mind to, helped teach me to reach further and be braver. On her Facebook page, there are memories and tributes posted from those who knew and loved her from the 1970’s to the present. She was: Kacey, the recording artist, the comedian, the singer-songwriter, the Shameless Hussie, the Sweet Potato Queen, the business woman, publisher, and record promoter, and the list goes on. To me, she was Kacey, the first person to believe in me and my songs enough to hire me as a staff songwriter for the few years that she ran a small indie publishing company between 1999-2001. She guided me toward my first hit song and we celebrated that accomplishment together.

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At the 2000 ASCAP Awards. With Kacey Jones – a rare picture of her short-lived, short haircut – and Sharyn Lane, owner of Zamalama, and me second to the right, accepting an airplay award for “Home to You” recorded by John Michael Montgomery. (Excuse the poor picture quality, it’s been sitting on top of our piano for a long time).

After my stint at Zamalama ended and the company catalog was sold, Kacey and I stayed in touch mostly through emails and Facebook. What I’ve realized through my grieving was that on a day-to-day level, I played a very brief and relatively minor role in Kacey’s diverse and well-lived life, yet her direct impact on my life was enormous. Did she know that?

This led me to think of other women early in my music career who unwittingly have helped shape who I am. They are the ones who showed me (not told me!) how to conduct myself and move forward in this crazy music business. One of the first, Lisa Palas, who in the early 90’s was already a hit songwriter and signed with Reba McEntire’s publishing company, invited me to stay at her home while I was researching a possible move from New Jersey to Nashville, TN. She invited me to tag along with her to cool gatherings and let me know that I would have a friend if I moved here. This taught me that no matter how successful you become, it’s important to keep it real and be kind.

Around that same time, Debbie Hupp, who co-wrote the Kenny Rogers mega-hit song “You Decorated My Life” took the time out of her life to sort through the pros and cons of being a woman in the music business and without mincing words let me know that if I didn’t move to Nashville and try, I’d regret it. She showed me that despite the odds, it’s okay to follow your dreams.

When I actually did make the move to Nashville in 1992, I was quite timid about the whole songwriting thing. Then I was hired by the power-house then-Executive Director of the Nashville Songwriters Association, Pat Rogers, who taught me that being timid was a complete waste of time. She showed me that if you know something has to get done, make it happen even if it means being the tough one. What a great example of business moxie and fortitude which I needed to summon over and over again as I slugged away at the music industry beast.

In my nascent efforts to become a professional songwriter there was one publisher, Karen Conrad, who was running a very successful independent publishing company, BMG, who always returned my phone calls even though I didn’t write for her company or have anything she truly needed or wanted from me. She returned my calls because it was the respectful thing to do, regardless of whether I was on my way up or down the ladder. That show of respect is something I’ve never forgotten and try to emulate in my own business dealings.

To be fair, there have definitely been a few good men out there mentoring me and nudging me forward, not the least of which was my husband, Danny Arena. I’m not embarrassed to use the cliche that he is the wind beneath my wings. We formulated our songwriting dreams together. Moved to Nashville together. Every song I brought into my publishing deal with Kacey Jones had Danny’s name on it as a co-writer, and every songwriting and/or music business success I’ve had, has his mark on it, including our songs in “Urban Cowboy, the Musical” for which we were both nominated for Tonys. Danny taught me take it slow and to keep learning and growing along the way.

 

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Playbill from the 2003 Tony Awards. Danny and I were part of the composing team for Urban Cowboy, the Musical, nominated for Best Original Score. Danny was thrilled that among the nominees that year was one of his composer idols, Michel LeGrand.

Learning along the way was exactly what kept me going when the going got tough, and still does. Losing Kacey has given me a reason to pause and reflect on how much I appreciate all the people I learned from (and continue to) and the positive influences in my life. There are a multitude of other friends, teachers and mentors, both women and men, even serendipitous encounters with helpers whose shoulders were there for me, maybe not always to stand upon, but at least to lean my head on for awhile, and for all of them, I’m grateful.


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Guest Post by Danny Arena – Sharpen Your Music With The Flat Seven

Although I studied violin from the time I was 9 years old, played in youth orchestras throughout my school days and all the way through college, the person who taught me most about music is the today’s guest writer (and my favorite collaborator in songs and in life), Danny Arena. While I memorized scales, key signatures, and fingerings, I missed the big picture. Danny taught me how to regard all the elements of music from the individual notes, to the chords and harmonies, to the rhythms and structures. He explained it all to me in a simple and logical way that made me enjoy listening to all kinds of popular music, and even made me want to try to write it. Here’s an example of the ease with which Danny takes you on a musical journey – Sara Light


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Guest Post by Danny Arena – Sharpen Your Music With The Flat Seven

There are actually seven standard chords that are part of every key in which you may be writing a song. However the seventh chord, in its standard form, is not often found in most songs. But there is a variation of this seven chord called the flat seven (or flatted seventh) chord which does turn up in many hit songs. 

Formation of the Flat Seven Chord 
The flat seven chord is formed by first determining the seventh note of the scale of the key in which you are writing your song. Lower this note by a half-step (also known as “flatting” the note) and you have the flat seven. For example, in the key of C, the flat seven would be a Bb chord. In the key of G, the flat seven chord would be an F major chord.

How It’s Used
The flat seven is generally used in one of two ways. First, the flat seven chord can also be used as a “surprise” chord, where you set the listener up to hear a certain chord, but give them the flat seven chord instead as a “surprise”. This is how Jimmy Webb first popularized the use of the flat seven chord (in fact, the flat seven chord is also known as the Jimmy Webb 7th). The bridge in the Grammy winning song “Beauty and the Beast” (songwriter – Menken/Ashman) uses the flat seven as a surprise chord, as does the classic Vanessa Williams/Brian McKnight #1 hit “Love Is” (songwriter – Tonio K/J. Keller).

Second, it can be used as part of the motif chord progression in a particular section of your song. The bridge in the hit Country song “Money In The Bank” (songwriter – J. Jarrard/M. Sanders/B. DePiero) starts on the flat seven chord and the Faith Hill hit “This Kiss” (songwriter – R. Lerner/B. Chapman/A. Roboff) uses the flat seven chord in the verse chord progression.

An Example
Let’s say you are writing a song in the key of C and have the following chord progression for the verse (1 chord per measure):

C       F     C     F

         Em   Am    F     G


One way to surprise the listener would be to play a flat seven chord (Bb) instead of the F chord in the seventh measure. Another way to surprise the listener would be to play the Bb chord in the 8th measure after the F chord, and use an extra measure for the G chord.

So the next time you’re looking for a little different twist on an old progression or just a different chord to start that chorus or bridge on, don’t overlook the flat seven chord – it’s really pretty sharp (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Hope to see you on the charts.

–Danny

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Danny Arena is a teacher, a Tony-nominated composer, and the co-founder of SongU.com.