Learning the Secrets of Songwriting

February 17, 2016

Kasey Cheydleur

A guitarist is seated by microphones and a music stand
Students from the workshop performed in an open mic night at the Cat in the Cream coffeehouse.
Photo credit: Zachariah Claypole White

This winter term, a small group of fledgling songwriters benefitted from an opportunity to learn from someone intimately acquainted with the music scene, singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche ’03. Musical talent runs in Wainwright Roche’s family; she is the daughter of Grammy-winner Loudon Wainwright III and Suzzy Roche, one-third of the vocal group the Roches, who were a major influence on the early career of the Indigo Girls. Wainwright Roche has released three studio albums, the most recent a collaboration with her half-sister Martha Wainwright. She has also opened for her half-brother, Rufus Wainwright, during his Australian tour.

When Wainwright Roche proposed the idea for the winter-term workshop in June, Associate Dean of Studies Ellen Sayles, who also chairs the Musical Studies Committee, eagerly accepted. For two weeks students met with Wainwright Roche in the campus coffeehouse, the Cat in the Cream, a popular performance space for singer-songwriter performances throughout the academic year. The group met twice each day. For a few hours in the morning, they chatted and engaged in a free-writing exercise with a prompt from Wainwright Roche, and then spent a few hours listening to and critiquing each other’s work. After a break for lunch, the group would reconvene for an hour to listen to what people had written and discuss and study songs they liked.

Second-year Isabel Forden says that she had never written a full song before this workshop, and the experience has helped her better understand the songwriting process. “I’ve learned first and foremost how to write a song, but also that there’s no ‘right’ way to write a song. So basically I learned how to write songs my way, and that's something that's always changing,” she says. Forden says she was considering a musical studies major before the workshop, and that she is now confident that music is something she wants to continue pursuing while at Oberlin. “This has convinced me that music is the right path for me, not only because I've proven to myself that I can write my own stuff, but because it's something that I really love to do,” she says.

Samuel Rueckert, a second-year musical studies major, says he chose to participate in the workshop because it felt like a natural next step after the independent songwriting projects he began last year. He says that while he began songwriting at 16, he never had any formal training. “I thought it might be more productive to work in a group and get feedback from a bunch of people instead of just my dad. I also wanted to see if I could connect and collaborate with other songwriters, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to do so,” he says.

Collaboration and community were key elements of the experience, both during class and afterward. Molly Tucker, a first-year double-degree student, says one of her favorite moments was a jam session outside of formal class time with others from the workshop. “We sat around jamming on our instruments, playing with lyrics and riffs and melodies, diving in and out of rhythm and solos and simply messing around,” she says. “It was really great to be around that organic musical energy and have some time to play around, contributing to and feeding off of raw creative energy. I came out of that session with a few new ideas for a song I was working on and with a wonderful sense of musical community.”

Many of the students said this experience has encouraged them to continue writing songs and think about careers in music after Oberlin. “I have always been interested exploring all the different musical paths open to me during my time at Oberlin and this has opened up another path that excites me,” Tucker says. “Having this time to be inspired by Lucy and my peers and also to learn that I can, indeed, write songs has rekindled dreams that had been lying on the sidelines: dreams of writing music; of collaborating with other songwriters; of making fiddling, writing, and singing a real part of my future life. I still have a lot of figuring out regarding my future to do, but I have a few more songs and connections under my belt that fuel me to keep moving forward.”

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