Songwriter U: How Do You Get Better?

Written by Judy Stakee

Videos by American Songwriter

The 10,000 Hours Rule is a theory that postulates that 10,000 hours of work experience is required to obtain mastery of any skill. It was first discussed in a 1993 report by Florida State University researcher Anders Ericsson who studied German violin students and noted that long hours of deliberate practice helped them graduate from proficiency to virtuosity. Later popularized by Malcon Gladwell in his book Outliers, the 10,000 Hours Rule provides us with a framework for the betterment of our own songcraft. 

The collective imagination views art making as a divinely bestowed gift. But, for those of us called to be art makers, we are required to dispel this myth. Instead, we must examine songwriting as a skill that we can develop via deliberate practice. Once we accept that betterment is possible we can look at ways to implement a deliberate practice routine in our own lives. 

For eight years, I have produced songwriting retreats that help burgeoning talent develop routines for the betterment of their craft. My retreats are carefully planned in order to create an optimal learning environment.

We rise early for yoga in order to align our minds, bodies, and souls. A morning vocal lesson follows in order to stretch our vocal cords properly. Next, writers are broken up into groups of three for co-writing sessions during which I interject with feedback. Afterward, we sit for a critique session in which we analyze flaws in songs and determine how to improve them. Our day is rounded out by the performances of the songs from that day’s co-writes. 

We repeat this process over the course of several days. By the end of the retreat, songwriters have gained so much: a framework for daily practice, a new community with whom they can co-write, and the skills to determine if their songs are hitting the right notes.

Photos by Emily Magers Photography.

Outside of hyper-focused retreat spaces, songwriters can find other meaningful ways of implementing deliberate practice. Perhaps the most productive method is a one-on-one study with a teacher who’s feedback you value. Sometimes we need the perspective of a teacher to overcome plateaus in our development. Private tutelage should be prioritized.

In the absence of independent study due to financial or schedule constraints, songwriters have several options. Analyzing one’s favorite records and determining what songwriting devices make a song tick is meaningful. Your analysis might help you discover the power of alliteration, repetition, metaphor, autobiographical storytelling, or new chord progressions. After careful study, you can implement these concepts into your own work and watch as your songs flourish.

Co-writing regularly is, of course, a powerful way to deepen your understanding of your craft. We learn from others as we co-write, working new methods into our craft and unworking flaws in our creative process. It is important to note that many of the music industry’s highest-selling records are made in a space of collaboration. Learning how to collaborate effectively is therefore essential.

The goal for all of us is the same: become a great songwriter. Concentrated study, private tutelage, and deliberately penning songs are the trifecta of activities that will help you gain mastery over songwriting. Seek out time for those 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and be awed by your own growth.  

For more information and to sign up for Judy’s TN Retreats click HERE.

Main photo courtesy Judy Stakee

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