The Power of Principles, Part IIby Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, May 2001
Principle 2: The Greer Guideline
I have always chalked it up to "early childhood trauma" -- but I have never wanted to engage in any kind of public musical performance!! I remember so clearly the heart-stopping fear that accompanied all those early piano recitals, and which caused me to decide conclusively that I was not cut out for this kind of performance anxiety. I guess that's why I have chosen the behind-the-scenes role of the songwriter for myself and have always held in reverent and hushed admiration the skills of those who are able to ascend a stage and pull off an impeccable musical performance while even seeming to enjoy it.
For several years I had the pleasure of working and writing with Bruce Greer: one of the most amazingly talented musicians I have ever met. A consummate pianist, Bruce's hands seem to be programmed by an internal computer that causes them to work in perfect unison at times or completely independent of each other -- depending on the music he is peforming. (I have even heard him play two different songs simultaneously -- one with each hand!) His mastery of the instrument is as good as it gets, and it is backed up by a command of music theory and creative sensitivity that make him one of the best composers and arrangers in the Music Industry. He is not only impeccable as a musician, but also has the gift of bringing the audience into the message and emotion of his music.
After one performance in which every member of the audience had been not only dazzled by his skills but deeply moved by his heart, I remarked to him how amazed I was that anyone could physically pull off such a feat -- let alone in front of hundreds of people. His reply is one of those "freeze-frame" moments in my life that I will never forget. Bruce said: "Well, I have tried to master the skill so well that I don't even have to think about the performance. When I am on stage, I want to concentrate on communicating with the people." I have returned to this incredible insight so often over the years that I have now named it the Greer Guideline.
If you have been reading my column for a while, you know that I have often said that writing hit songs is more about communication than it is about either the words or music. Bruce Greer, as well as most of the other great artists I have met, understands this concept either consciously or subconsciously. Whatever your gifts or skills in music may be, -- vocal or instrumental gifts or gifts of writing -- success is not about the gifts or skills themselves. It is not even about performance. It's about building a bridge between your heart and the hearts of others. It's about communicating to people in a way that reaches beyond their rational mental filters, engages their emotions and touches their souls. Music is merely the language of this communication -- nothing more, nothing less. As with any language, it is not an end in itself -- only the vehicle by which we deliver our message. Skilled use of spoken language -- combined with something significant to say -- causes a speaker to fill stadiums. Skilled use of written language -- combined with an incredible plot -- makes a writer a best-selling novelist. And skilled use of music language -- combined with universal truth and engaging stories -- makes HIT SONGS!
Several weeks ago I was asked to judge a performance showcase for the Master Class of one of the leading vocal coaches in the country. The young artists ranged in age from 8 - 35 and were all incredibly gifted. As I filled out the critique sheet and attempted to give point values for the various parts of the performances, I found it difficult to even rate one performance better than another. They were all spectacular! There was one comment, however, that I found myself making again and again. I would simply say, "Your performance was impeccable -- now you must deliver the song to the audience."
Many of the singers performed with their eyes closed -- partially to communicate emotion, but also probably to concentrate on the technicalities of the performance. Most of them were still at a stage in their development where they had to focus all their energies on the particulars of intonation, enunciation and breath control. They had so much to think about that they couldn't focus on connecting with the audience. While I realize that it is literally impossible for a performer to actually see the audience because of the stage lights, it is still the artist's responsibility to make the audience think that he/she is looking straight at them and spontaneously delivering the song to their hearts as well as their ears. This will require that the artist use facial expression, body language and eye contact -- in addition to a great vocal performance -- to bring the emotion of the song to the listeners.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. It requires discipline and practice over the long haul to become so skilled at your music that you don't even have to consciously think about it. Few artists or writers -- no matter how gifted -- will have the tenacity and determination to reach this level. And that is precisely why there are many more "wanna be" musicians than true stars. But it is possible!
Think about when you learned to drive a car -- talk about traumatic -- especially if you (like I did) had a parent teaching you!! You are so nervous. You have to think about every movement -- where is the gas? The brake? Is it up or down for the right turn signal? How do you shift gears without jerking or stalling the car? But, if you really want to be able to drive, you will keep practicing and practicing until you get it! And when you've got it...you've got it! After years of driving you can get into a car and start driving without even thinking about what you are doing. You can accelerate, decelerate, shift gears, make turns and even parallel park -- while at the same time listening to the radio...thinking about what you are going to have for dinner...or even writing a song. Driving has become Second Nature!
While I still have no desire to perform on a stage, I as a songwriter must apply the Greer Guideline to my writing. I must become so skilled at the craft -- such things as song form, hook placement, musical and lyrical cadence, rhyme and melody -- that when I begin to write, I can pull these tools out of my mental songcrafting kit by second nature and concentrate on what is really important -- communicating the emotion of my song to the hearts of people.
The goal is communication. The standard is excellence. The road is discipline. Are you ready to apply the Greer Guideline to your music?
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.