Boundaries and Creativity

Apr 30, 2020
Some friends of mine have just started a new songwriting group. I've done live song groups before – this new one, in fact, is inspired by Jack Hardy's long-running Houston street song meetings, which several of us used to attend in New York. I've done remote song games before, too – I participated for some time in one run by Austin songwriter Matt The Electrician, and of course there's February Album Writing Month, which I've been doing for nearly a decade now.

This new one, dubbed the Underground Songwriters' meeting, is being held, of course, via Zoom, in all its buggy, intermittent glory. But the advantage is, we all get to see each other, not just post mp3s – we've been playing down our new songs live for each other each Monday night. It's pretty great to hear everything hot off the presses, nearly a dozen songs in just over two hours. Also, this group is into the critique, especially in terms of lyrics, so it's not about getting a high five just for showing up. And the lyrics are the part I want a close read on anyway – the music, I can always fiddle with, but are the words *working*? So I particularly dig that people will ask whether you considered this word or that, notice when a metaphor is out of whack, or observe when the chronology seems to wander. Among other things, it makes me work that much harder before bringing something in. In a much smaller song group I helped run when I first moved to Austin, I wrote a lot of songs an hour or two before we got together. Sometimes that worked great, and it was always a good feeling just to *make* something, but knowing the kind of scrutiny afoot in this new group, I have gone through several drafts on the way to presenting my song the past couple of Monday nights.

Plus, I get to hear some of my favorite songwriters in this group – people who, as they're playing their song, I'm thinking "damn, that is some great writing" – or often, just "Damn!" I find myself laughing and shaking my head a lot; luckily we put ourselves on mute when someone else has the mic. Also, it's illuminating to see how even the best writers sound like themselves; now, as much as I might admire a particular song, I realize the most useful reaction is to write the best songs *I* can, knowing they will have their own stamp on them as well.

It's a core belief of mine that boundaries and creativity go hand in hand, whether you're talking about deadlines and composition, form and improvisation or time and practicing. This week's video is really in two parts: in the first half of the lesson, I show you some ways to combine major and minor pentatonic sounds over an alternating bass in D. But in the second half, I discuss one of my favorite ideas: practicing improvisation. Specifically, I take the licks in the first half of the lesson and show you some ways to expand your improvising vocabulary by systematically swapping in new licks every couple of bars. It's a simple approach that can dramatically increase your pool of ideas and solve the problem of feeling like you're stuck playing the same things over and over.

You can check it out here:

Practicing Improvisation (With Pentatonic Scales)

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More soon,


P.S. I'll be streaming a live performance on Facebook this afternoon, at 4pm CST. I know Facebook is not everyone's jam, so I may try something on Youtube next week as well. But for now, here's the link for this afternoon:

David Hamburger – Live And Disorganized III