Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


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Special Event Pitch: Staff Writer for a Day!

Between May 1st and June 30th 2020, SongU.com is running a special event: Staff Writer for a Day.  This is an opportunity to pitch your songs for a chance to see what it would be like to be a staff songwriter which includes getting set up by our guest publisher for a CO-WRITE SESSION with a hit songwriter! 

If you aren’t sure what the term Staff Writer means, you’re not aloneWhen I moved to Nashville in the early 1990’s and got serious about my songwriting, many of my peers were hoping to become a full-time paid songwriter for a music publishing company (aka a staff writer). The concept was so strange to me that I had to wonder if I ever had the chance to be a staff writer, would I even like it? At the time, I questioned whether I would really enjoy writing songs on demand, on a timetable, with a quota, being “set up” on blind co-writing dates, writing to make the creative director at my publishing company happy, and asking their permission to demo songs.

After about four years of engrossing myself in the Music Row experience of constant writing, re-writing, networking, co-writing, over-coming performance fears, sheepishly meeting with ASCAP reps and music publishers who would listen to my songs, and politely or not-so-politely tell me that I wasn’t quite “there” yet, I built a strong catalog of songs. By then, the idea of being a professional songwriter had grown on me. One day, miraculously, I was hired by a little music publishing company called Zamalama Music as their first staff writer (cue the Rocky theme song).

It turned out that this job gave me valuable lessons in how to prepare myself mentally every morning to “show up and write” whether I was feeling creative or not. I made sure to arrive at those blind date co-writes with lots of potential titles and ideas to jump start our meetings. I learned to leave my ego at the door and do what was best for the song. Most importantly, I found an inner confidence that only comes when your songs have been rejected so many times, you can laugh and moooove on! Here’s a picture of the bay window of the Zamalama writers room on Music Row where I eventually co-penned a hit song!

Check out the staff writer experience for yourself:

A SPECIAL EVENT PITCH – STAFF WRITER FOR A DAY! This is your opportunity to be selected by Kirby Smith, Creative Director of WinSongs Music Publishing, for a chance to find out what it’s like to be a professional staff songwriter for a day, including a meeting with Kirby and a CO-WRITING SESSION with hit songwriter, Sandy Ramos! Read about our guests.

For details about how to submit your songs between May 1st – June 30th 2020 for a chance to win STAFF WRITER FOR A DAY! Go to the Pitching area of SongU.com.

2000 ASCAP Awards. Connie Bradley, Kacey Jones, Sharon Lane, me, 


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The Two Biggest Songwriting Mistakes and How to Fix Them

The first lyric I wrote was critiqued by master songwriter educator, Sheila Davis, in 1990 at the Songwriters Guild in NYC. From that moment on, I have enjoyed digging into the nitty-gritty how to make a song “work” and connect to the listener. As a songwriting mentor myself for the last twenty-plus years, I’ve critiqued several hundred original songs-in-progress in multiple styles and genres by songwriters from all over the world. I have even had the privilege of training other music industry professionals on how to successfully offer song feedback. I’ve observed that there are certain craft points that, if not executed correctly, get flagged over and over again by song coaches and mentors.  Here are the two most common:

Big Mistake #1: Trying to put too many ideas into one song.

In order connect emotionally to your audience, it is important for your song to have a “universal idea” such as falling in love, falling out of love, unrequited love, or just about any love-adjacent subject including family life, loss, escape and so on. But here’s the trick – you get to the universal through the SPECIFIC. In other words, the more you can whittle down your big idea into a concise moment or feeling in time or a very specific story that illustrates that idea, the more you will keep your listener engaged, and the more your own personality and “voice” as a writer will come through.

Your Fix

Make sure you can sum up your entire song in ONE simple sentence that starts with “This is a song about…”. If you cannot complete this in a sentence, you probably have too many ideas. It helps to know your title before you write the song. Then, make sure every line in that song leads the listener to the title in some way specifically and emotionally.

Hit Song Examples:

  • I Will Always Love You written by Dolly Parton
    • This is a song about a woman who is telling a man that although she knows they aren’t meant to stay together, she will always love him anyway.
Example of a single idea about the universal theme of love.
  • Blank Space written by Taylor Swift.
    • This is a song about a woman who thinks of love as a game and is seducing a new lover to play with her.
  • Love written by Kendrick Lamar.
    • This is a song about a man who is finally ready to commit to the woman he loves and is asking her if she loves him too.

Big Mistake #2: Not enough musical, lyrical, and/or production contrast.

Contrast is another way of saying “change it up.” While it’s true that you need a certain amount of repetition in a song to give the listener something to sing along with or dance to, too much repetition becomes boring and the listener will tune out. If the entire three-and-a-half-minute track basically sounds the same – boring. If the melody sits in the same pocket the entire time – boring. If the lyric says the same thing over and over without any new information along the way – what do you think? I know this seems obvious, but it’s very common for the first draft of a song to be a real snooze fest.

Your Fix

Shoot for having three distinct parts to your song for the listener to latch on to. Musically, the tools at your disposal are the melody, the chords, and the rhythm. Make sure at least one of those things changes between each distinct section such as the verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrically, you can contrast the rhyme sounds, the rhyme scheme, the pronoun emphasis (I/You), the rhythm (e.g. long lines vs. short lines), and general or detailed images. In the production, you can create subtle and not-so-subtle transformations in the track with the instruments, the rhythms, the vocals, and so on.

Hit Song Examples:

  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg is one of the most covered songs of all time. Notice in particular the rhythmic contrast of the long lines in the verses that contrasts with the staccato rhythm of the bridge section.
  • Chandelier by Sia. Chandelier has it all when it comes to contrast. Notice in particular, the clear rhythmic changes between the verse, pre-chorus, chorus. Also, note the huge soaring melodic contrast in the chorus, as well as the harmonic (chord) contrast in the bridge. And of course, the way the production builds and breaks down and builds again throughout.
Example of musical and production contrast.

When you listen to songs from now on, see if you can pick out the universal theme as well as the more specific way that the theme is addressed by the songwriter. Ask yourself if the title or hook is clearly explained. Also, listen for musical, lyrical and production contrast throughout the song. Will every song you hear be a perfect example of all of these techniques? Definitely not. But my guess is you will hear them a lot more when you know what you are listening for.


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Your Kind Words are Music to Our Ears!

“Hello, This is a VERY competitive business as you know but it is encouraging to know that a song I wrote “Southern Life” is a ” Maybe” to get pitched for a major artist! Thank you SongU Team!! I know you are busy but wanted to let you know that I have several people pitching my Songs and YOU are by far the most Professional, Kind, efficient group that ALWAYS responds and clearly has a CRAZY work ethic! You know as well as I do that that is what inevitably leads to success! I LOVE IT!”

–Roger Brantley (LA) on 3/13/20

“I was a first time user of the e-classroom and enjoyed being able to participate in the course.”

— Alina V. (FL) on 3/18/20
For Diona DeVincenzi, FDBK 225-Indie, Film-TV, Production Feedback

“Many thanks for filling in, Sara, and also for the great feedback. Listened to the full transcript today and enjoyed it. Nice to see more Scots in Songu. I hope Lisa is OK.”

–Alex H. (Scotland) on 3/20/20
For Sara Light, FDBK 210-Song Feedback

“I’m enjoying getting ideas, feedback and inspiration as with the virus escalating now my co writers and I can’t meet to work on our new stuff so online is definitely a way forward and I’ve had some good food for thought from the coaching reviews and the two on line classes I’ve attended on the songs particularly the ones that need some work. I’ll look forward to another class soon. Kindest regards and stay safe.”

–Jane H. (U.K.) on 3/23/20

“Bob always brings his ‘A’ game. He has a very honest and passionate approach to helping. You can really tell he loves what he does. Even if I don’t agree with him on every point. I can still understand where he is coming from.”

–Shawn F. (NJ) on 3/25/20
For Bob Dellaposta, FDBK 315 Publisher Song Feedback

“Marcia has been one of my “go-tos” for a long time now. Really appreciate her take. I count her as a friend besides. Benn is always there to keep us straight. Sara, Danny, and Martin, the whole SongU community is an avid, major part of my writing track. Thanks so very much guys!!”

–Brad Y. (NY) on 3/26/20
For Marcia Ramirez, FDBK 140 Song Feedback

“Always awesome!”

–Ricki B. (WI) on 3/27/20
Nancy Peacock & Queenie Mullinex, FDBK 330 Sync Licensing Production Feedback

“I wanted to share with you a copy of the note I recently sent to the UK Songwriting Contest: A big ‘thank you’ to the UKSC for the wonderful prize of a free trial membership to songu.com. Not only have I learned A LOT by participating in a variety of their online courses and seminars, but I have taken advantage of their pitching opportunities as well… and good news!… one of my songs was recently picked up by a publisher! Needless to say, I’m thrilled!”

–Elizabeth Roberts (U.K.) on 3/28/20


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Dear SongU, Can We Talk About Pitch Submission Deadlines?

I’d like to share a SongU member inquiry that recently landed in my inbox: “Dear Songu, can we talk about extensions for deadlines on pitch submissions on songu? How do they occur? What kind of relationships do you have, that ever cause to allow this? What actually happens? Thank you kindly.” – J. (Vancouver, B.C. Canada)

Dear J.,

What a great question! Let me explain the process we use at SongU.com. To get the leads and submission deadlines for our Street Pitches, I communicate directly with several song pluggers, music publishers and licensing agents that are out there “on the street” making appointments with the artists, record labels, and such to find out who is looking for songs, what kinds of songs they want or need, and when they will be in the studio recording.

After you’ve been working in the industry for a while, you learn that most artists search for songs over a period of time from a couple of months to even a year or more. It is often a moving target as the artists  find songs they like, target songs they hope to find to fill out the album, or “change direction” from what they thought they originally wanted.

Based on the information our pitch guests relay to me each month, I post the Street pitch leads and submission deadlines. Then, a few days before the deadlines (which generally fall either mid-month or end of month), I send out an email asking if they want to extend any listings or send new ones. Here is an example of an email I received this week:

Good Morning Sara!

Sorry I’m just getting back to you.  Let’s keep Mark Wills and Chris Golden active through the end of May if that’s o.k. as they continue to be very engaged in receiving and listening to songs.  We can pull Hannah Dasher on the 15th, but I may re-list Hannah in a few weeks IF she is still looking for songs.  They’re assessing what they have at this time.  I’ll get with you later today with fresh pitch opps.

Have a wonderful day 🙂

DG

Thanks for taking the time to check in with us and find out more. I hope this explanation helps clarify.

Best wishes,
Sara
————————————————————————-
Sara Light, Co-Founder & President
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“Wherever you are, we bring the music industry to YOU”


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Writing About Current Events From a Different Perspective

“With history piling up so fast, almost every day is the anniversary of something awful.” – Writer & Artist, Joe Brainard

Recently, while cleaning out my closet, I happened upon a small book of Daily Meditations given to me by a friend a long time ago called The Promise of a New Day (copyright 1983). The book goes through each day of the year and offers a quote and a short spiritual reflection.  I hadn’t opened this book in well over a decade, but last week I found myself turning to the February 7th meditation which begins with the quote at the top of this page. 

At first I was surprised to read this quote from the 1980’s that felt so relevant for today’s world. But then I realized that in every decade, at every point in history change is inevitable, and with change comes discomfort, fear, anger, and as the quote says, “the anniversary of something awful.” Joe Brainard died in 1994 of AIDS. Can we take a moment of pause to reflect on how incredibly scary and sad that time in our history was until, thank goodness, we found a treatment for HIV?  Our amazing scientific and medical community created an antidote to something horrific.

Obviously, as writers and artists, we have a responsibility to reflect the trouble in the world around us as songwriters like Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan did in the 1960’s. But can’t we also create an antidote to the daily assault of awful news? If history is comprised of times of trouble, war, disease, hunger, and hate, isn’t it just as important to highlight the love, compassion, simple moments of trust, help, hope, and success?

As a songwriting exercise, try making a list of the little things that have kept you motivated, inspired, happy, or brought you peace of mind, during these difficult times. Kissing your loved one good night, scratching your dog’s tummy, taking a walk near a stream, sipping on a hot cup of coffee, holding open a door for a stranger and exchanging a smile. Keep a section in your “title book” or idea journal specifically for a daily dose of positivity. See if you can practice a heightened awareness for the the good things that we often take for granted like a compliment from a friend, being in the fast line at the grocery store, having enough gas in your car, birds chirping when you open your door, or a warm coat when it’s cold outside. Write it all down.  These specifics will inform your lyric with a universal theme of gratitude and  provide a different perspective on our current events. Bring this perspective into your next song.

 


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Finding Time to Write

“Who will free me from hurry, flurry, the feeling of a crowd pushing behind me, of being hustled and crushed? How can I regain even for a minute the feeling of ample leisure I had during my early, my creative years? Then I seldom felt fussed, or hurried. There was time for work, for play, for love, the confidence that if a task was not done at the appointed time, I easily could fit it into another hour. I used to take leisure for granted, as I did time itself.” 

— Bernard Berenson, Sunset and Twilight, from the Diaries of 1947-1958

I am finding that the older I get, the more difficult it is to feel unencumbered. I do not have the same sense I did in my 20’s and 30’s of having the time or energy to follow my muse, explore my own interests, or even rest my mind.  The tasks that I commit to now, even the ones I voluntarily choose, come with a sense of heaviness;  How will I fit that in to my schedule? What do I prioritize today? If I do THIS, it’ll take away from THAT.

I’m beginning 2018 pretty well. I’m back to starting most days with a yoga video and green tea BEFORE I check my schedule, answer my emails and walk my dog. I’m even on a streak with my Headspace meditation app and I’m finally able to turn off my brain at night and get some deep sleep. And, check this out, I’m writing a blog entry (an activity that I enjoy, but usually fits into the “how will I fit that into my schedule today?” category).

Some of the lessons I find that are working for me this year that I haven’t tried in the past are:

  • Doing a little bit consistently can be as satisfying as going “all in”.  This is a good one for songwriters. If you only have a couple of minutes to work on a song today, do that. Don’t wait until you have half a day to devote to writing a whole new song. If you think one new title today call that your day’s work and let yourself feel accomplished.
  • Good is good enough.  Perfection isn’t a mandatory requirement. Just get the job done the best you can in the time you have and move on. Don’t berate yourself for not doing something exactly the way you imagined.  This frees up a lot of time.
  • Deadlines are often flexible.  I have been noticing that a lot of the people around me also feel crunched for time. Because of that, they often are more than happy to move around appointments and extend deadlines. They, too, have a million other things they can fit into that slot.  Flexibility reduces stress.
  • Take a break from social media. Yikes, lately, I have been seeing so many articles about the addictive (aka drug-like) qualities of those pings and likes and notifications. It wasn’t a coincidence that on my birthday this year, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the sweet notes and well-wishes throughout the day on Facebook, I also left my notebook with my favorite recipes on a shelf in the grocery store (never to be recovered), threw my dog’s leash out with the trash and generally walked around with fog-brain as if I were hung-over.  This week, I resisted the urge to post a cute picture of my daughter hugging our dog in the unusually snowy day in Nashville. That meant that I also missed seeing all the  photos of my friends’ kids. But the payoff was additional time and FOCUS.
  • “The only way past it, is through it.”   This is my new mantra every time my procrastination instinct kicks in. I got this one from an interview by Gretchen Rubin of writer Greer Hendricks .

Wishing you all contentment and time to explore your muse in the new year!

 


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November. How Do You Feel?

“The days are long, but the years are short.” – Gretchen Rubin

It’s the first of November and sleigh bells ring…are you listening? I walked into the local bagel shop this morning and heard Winter Wonderland streaming through the speakers. I caught myself humming it all day long. The song itself makes me feel festive, but the idea that November marks the official commencement of the holiday season and the beginning of the end of the current year, well, that makes me feel a little…I dunno. Relieved? Accomplished? Anxious? Hopeful?

If you’re like me the last couple of months of the year are bittersweet. On the positive side, I can look forward to a little time off from work and school, a few days to sleep in, some shiny new stuff for the house, a chance to see friends and family. On the other hand, I’m running out of time to clean out the closet and bring those old clothes to Good Will. I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t even start the book I was planning to write this year. I’ll notice that the extra pound or two or ten that I was sure I’d work off are still there and my bike is still gathering dust in the garage. Above all, the next two months will be a time of reflection. A time to remind myself to practice gratitude.

As the year is winding down and the new year is almost here, how do you feel? What’s the first word that comes to your mind? Feel free to share it in the comments area.


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As the Waters Rise…

Watching the images this week of the devastation that Hurricane Harvey wreaked on the greater Houston, Texas area –  the stranded families being rescued from their submerged homes, the floating cars, the highways under water, the neighborhoods turned into islands – has stirred in me the powerful memories of living through the great flood of 2010 in Nashville, TN.  Besides the obvious disbelief we all felt as the rivers and streams crested and overflowed all around us, in the end the real story was how friends, neighbors and complete strangers came together to help each other in any and every way they could. Somehow, no matter what else we believed politically, religiously, or any other “-ly” didn’t matter during that time of crisis. Instead, the spirit of American volunteerism, neighborliness, and fortitude completely took over. I see this spirit rising for Houston right now and feel reassured.

(Photo May 2010, Sara and Danny assisting volunteers remove dry wall that had been damaged by flood water from the home of one of our local elementary school teachers.)

It seems like the right time to repost the heartfelt article, SongU.com co-founder and CEO, Danny Arena,  wrote that was originally published in Music Row Magazine on May 6, 2010…The names have changed but the idea remains.

Our City

I have been asked by friends, family and SongU.com members from around the world how they can help those in TN affected by the flood. I realize it’s hard to completely understand the magnitude of what happened here. I live here and I can’t comprehend it. This was a historical record rainfall for Nashville and middle TN. We had more rain than we’ve ever had since they began tracking rainfall. We topped the state’s record for rainfall in the entire month of May before sundown on May 2nd. We had about 40% of Seattle’s annual rainfall in less than 2 days. If this was snow, we would have had the equivalent of 13 feet of snow in less than 48 hours. This is not a once-in-a-while kind of flood. No, this one’s in the record books. It’s a once-every-hundred-or-two-hundred-years kind of flood.

The devastation is so widespread, it’s unbelievable. You would probably have to submerge my entire home state of NJ in water to cover as much area as this flood has covered in TN. While a few of these areas are flood prone, the majority are not and a large portion of the people affected do not have flood insurance. Just to give you a better picture of my little world, I could easily draw a one-hour radius from my house and barely scratch the surface of people affected. Across the road from our development, one of our daughter’s elementary school teachers lost everything in the flood. Just up the street at the Fieldstone Farms development, they were rescuing people in boats – one house in Fieldstone caught fire and blew up. Drive south for about 30 minutes, you would get to my friend Dale and Carol’s farm which is home to the annual Blackberry Jam Festival where Michael McDonald played a couple of years ago. Their entire first floor of their house was submerged in water. It took a group of four of us about 3 hours just to clean the mud out of one bathroom in their house.  Drive west about 40 minutes and you’ll get to Bellevue, an area I lived in when I first moved to Nashville. Entire neighborhoods are underwater. Our friend Gary and Robin’s house managed to escape with about a foot of water, but the rest of their cul-de-sac was submerged. Cars were floating upside down on the road in front of the nearby Belle Meade Kroger. Two people died when their car turned over. Two others drowned behind the Belle Meade Kroger. Head northeast about 40 minutes to Hermitage and you’d get to my friend Denise’s house. The water level is at the top of her garage — she needs a boat just to reach her house. Head north another 30-40 minutes to Goodlettsville and Hendersonville and you’ll find the houses of some of my students and faculty at the college where I teach that were destroyed due to the flood.

Somewhere in the center of all this is downtown Nashville. The Country Music Hall of Fame, the Schermerhorn Center, Broadway and Second Avenue all flooded. The Titans Stadium where my seven-year old daughter, Mia, ran the Country Kids Marathon a week ago was flooded up to the level of the first row of seats in the stadium. Other historic landmarks that are synonymous with Nashville are badly flooded and damaged, including Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry. It is going to take a lot of time and resources for Nashville and all the areas affected by this catastrophic flood to recover. Here are some ways you can help:

Donate money. You can donate to the middle TN Red Cross online at http://www.middletennredcross.org. If you’re a texter, you can text REDCROSS to 90999 on your cell and a $10 donation will be sent to the middle TN Red Cross through your cell phone provider.

Donate stuff. People lost everything. While you can’t replace possessions with sentimental value, you can give someone a shirt to wear or sneakers for their kids or towels or rags so they can clean the mud out of their bathtub. Check out the clothing drive for middle TN residents at: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/event.php?eid=113883681985618&ref=ts or the cleaning supply drive at http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/event.php?eid=111188545589696

Participate in clean up crews. If you live within driving distance and have the time or skills and want to help cleanup and rebuild, go to Hands-On-Nashville at http://www.hon.org They need volunteers immediately.

Donate food. Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle TN is continuing to provide a central distribution center for companies, groups, and individuals to help provide food for Middle Tennessee’s affected families. Check it out at: http://www.secondharvestmidtn.org/

Plan to visit. Nashville is a great city that has many businesses and jobs that depend on tourism. Come see us. Plan your next family summer vacation or next year’s business conference here. Check out the Nashville Chamber of Commerce for more information at http://www.nashvillechamber.com/Homepage.aspx

Spread the word. Others may not necessarily realize how bad we were hit because of the way the media industry and news organizations work. People are going to need assistance down here for a long time in order to rebuild their lives and restore our historical landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry, Opryland Hotel, Country Music Hall of Fame and historic Second Avenue.

I love Nashville. It’s a big name city that has a small town feel. Contrary to its sequined, cowboy hat and boots image, Nashville is an incredibly diverse city where the music industry, universities, and lifestyle brings together people from all walks of life, whether they’re writing a song or watching a TN Titans or UT football game. We have one other thing in common – we love our city. If you’ve seen some of the videos and pictures that have been posted, you can probably see why we are referred to as the “Volunteer State.” When the time calls for it, we simply roll up our sleeves and get down to it because there is work to be done.

And there is much work to be done. One of my friends who works at one of the major media outlets in the New York-Metropolitan area relayed to me that Nashville hasn’t been getting a lot of national coverage because our story lacks the “hook” of some of the other currently hot issues like the oil spill and the bomb in Times Square. I get that. I’m a longtime songwriter who certainly understands the power of a “hook”. Truthfully, even if we had our “15 minutes” of full-court press media coverage, it wouldn’t begin to touch how many months or years this recovery is going to take. And it could never cover how many lives have been affected. So spread the word and pass it on. From donations to positive energy and prayers, it is all welcome and needed. This is my city and these are my friends and neighbors.


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Natural Influences in June

“There is nothing more musical than a sunset – Claude Debussy”  

Debussy asserts that musicians “read but too little from the book of Nature.” What sights, sounds, or places in nature do you find musical? Share your thoughts in the comment area.

Thanks to @liveloveFranklin for this photo of my hometown


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May the Month of May Make Your Creativity Blossom

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust

Each May, I watch in awe as the flowering trees, shrubs and perennials that bloom in abundance here in middle Tennessee magically transform the landscape. Spring renewal – it really does seem to make everyone and everything in life just a little more tolerable. Unfortunately, I do not have a green thumb, but I’m trying (again) to plant and nuture a flower garden in the corner of my yard. I’m finding the task to be very inspiring, sometimes a little frustrating (where’d all those Canna bulbs I planted go?) and hard -yet rewarding- work. It’s pretty much the same way I can describe songwriting as a matter of fact. 

In what ways will you let your creativity blossom this month? Do you have specific goals or are you going to let your muse guide you? Please share your thoughts in the comment area.