Category Archives: Songwriting

Songwriting With a Baby On My Knee


IMG_4179My five-month-old baby, Aviva keeps me busy every moment. She also keeps me entertained, inspired, awe-struck, and speechless. I am a songwriter, learning who I am all over again now in the light of having become a mother. Still I am no less a songwriter now than I ever was. So I am learning how to write songs all over again, in tiny increments of time, dipping my toes in the stream of inspiration without the luxury of diving in, splashing around and soaking in it. The stream is still there for me and I have developed a new appreciation for every drop of water that I draw from it, every 10-minute-nap-sized sip. Now with 5 months of practice under my belt, I am by no means an expert, but I thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve learned.

  • 1.) Much of the songwriting process requires no instrument at all. To start, all you need is an open ear, a soft heart and a way to record your ideas (like old-school pen and paper and/or a recording device like an iPhone). I’m learning to listen in silence to find the tune and to think through what I’m really trying to say. I like to start the day with a journal entry while I nurse the baby to check in and see where my heart wants to go. Often my mood and subject of focus will direct me to work on a particular song. While I’m rocking, nursing, diapering, whatever, I can be thinking, dreaming, humming, imagining. . . (always recording each step because my memory is a little looser than it used to be ; )
  • 2.) Singing acapella makes your melody really strong, because you are not burying or masking it with instrumental riffs, chord changes, and musical tricks. When it’s bare you can tell if you really love to sing it. That’s when you know you are on to something great.
  • 3.) Babies love to be sung to. Writing songs is a natural daily occurrence for even the least musically-inclined new mom. There is something instinctual about singing to a baby in those private, cuddly-babbly moments, and there are always reasons to sing: good morning songs (yes, even though it’s 6am), bath-time songs, fifth-outfit-change-of-the-day songs, desperate lullabies, etc. Nonsense words work as good as any real ones and you have the most captive and appreciate audience you will ever have. I’m not saying that the songs you sing about stinky-pants are going to become hits, but the songwriting wheels are greased and rolling. Now you just have to get your mind out of goo-goo-ga-ga and remember what your own heart wants to really say. (see #1)
  • 4.) Great achievements can be accomplished in small increments. (Just look at all the exercise DVDs marketed to busy moms that boast an enviable body in only 10 minutes a day.) It’s the same principle here, really. Flex those songwriting muscles often, stretch your rhyme legs, keep your vocals loose and light. It’s much easier to give yourself 10 minutes for a free-writing exercise than to wait till you have a few hours alone in a quiet room (which may never happen again in your life). Learning to use those small increments wisely is the part that takes discipline and creativity.
  • 5.) Write like it’s your job. Songwriting is often the first thing to be bumped off my to-do list. (If this sounds like you too, I highly recommend the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield) The trick is to keep bringing your mind back to the song throughout the day and not just be distracted by the endless laundry, “urgent” emails and the always-available electronic candy all around (Facebook, television, etc). Do what needs to be done, but keep coming back to the song.
  • 6.) Seek out inspiration for a kick-start. As I mentioned in #2, babies love music. So put on some great music and listen deeply while you dance around with the baby. (this is a good way to get you that enviable body mentioned in #4 too) Listen to songwriters who inspire you to write, and who set the bar high, who blow your mind with great lyrics and make your heart ache with their melodies. Challenge yourself to improve your artistry by surrounding yourself with great art.
  • 7.) Give baby full and focused attention first so she’s happy, then she will be more likely to let you work for a few minutes here and there because she feels secure and loved. (We like to do mommy and baby yoga together which is a win-win because it puts me in the right head-space to write and makes her feel like I am wrapped around her finger, which I am.)

Songwriter moms and dads, please feel free to add your own tips and discoveries in the comments section!

If you’re in the Ann Arbor area and you’d like to explore the songwriting process with me, sign up for my upcoming class – Mondays in March at Oz’s Music Environment.  For info:

“Little Things” Solo in My Backyard (Video Blog #1)


This is the first of what will be a series of video blogs where I break down some of The Ragbirds songs and perform them solo, with stories.  Inspired by “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin I’ve been sharing my own process of the pursuit of happiness in my recent posts.  But for me happiness is intrinsically and inextricably tied to my music.   So to expand on the word pictures I will be painting in my written entries, I will also be overcoming my fear of video cameras to share some songs with you.  Enjoy!

Interlochen Summer Songwriting Class 2012

Erin at Interlochen

Posing by the sign in my Interlochen UNIFORM

When Dick Siegel called me last year to invite me to join him in teaching songwriting at Interlochen I was really honored and taken by surprise.  I had to consider the undertaking carefully before saying yes.  Saying yes meant taking two weeks out of our touring schedule in the middle of prime festival season.  And saying yes also meant taking on a brand new challenge – working (and essentially living) with 32 teenagers to teach them the art that I love the most.  I was never taught to write songs – had never taken a songwriting class or gone on a songwriting retreat.  I had never even read a book about songwriting.  I just did it my whole life. But of all the things I do in my life, songwriting is the thing I cherish the most.  There is no greater feeling than the reward of completing a song.  It almost always comes with a rush of tears and a deep satisfaction (even when it’s not a sad song – although I do cry a lot, to be honest – for example, I cried recently watching Karate Kid and my husband laughed at me!)  The idea of stepping out of my busy world to dive into, analyze, and teach songwriting was so exciting to me.  I wanted to share my songwriting joy with these young students.  So I said yes.

The first year we were building the runway as the plane was coming down, trying to stay one step ahead, figuring out tricky schedules and planning fun activities between creating lesson plans to keep groups of 8 teens interested and engaged for one-and-a-half-hour long classes.  Lessons we would repeat 4x every day, for a total of 6 teaching hours daily.  It took every moment of my time and the mingled exhaustion and satisfaction after a day of hard work was a great feeling.  The atmosphere we were able to create among the talented teens who joined the program was remarkable.  Ask any one of them and you will hear the sentiment echoed about the feeling of community and non-competitive support that nurtured their growth.  Long-term bonds and collaborations were formed and memories that will empower and shape their futures.

When I say “talented” I have to quantify – these aren’t the well-intentioned teens that you see bending guitar strings in a local café and say “Hey, he/she’s pretty good for a teenager”.  These kids are mind-blowingly impressive.  They are from all over the country (a few are from other countries too!), and they had to audition with original songs via video amongst stiff competition just to get accepted.  They are all so far ahead of the game with hearts and minds open to see how much further they have to go.  And I had the luck of listening to, guiding and encouraging them.

This year so many more elements were already in place and I at least had some frame of reference to know what to expect, so it wasn’t such a shock.  I could repeat the lessons that worked really well and come up with new ones with an understanding of their tastes, inclinations and attention spans.

The first day we discussed our expectations and I explained that each day we would start the class with listening.  As a songwriter, developing your listening skills (we talked about the keen observational skills of a ninja) is crucial for being able to understand and thereby reflect the world in song.

Here is the playlist of songs I played for them to start each class:

Following the song and a discussion of observations, we did vocalizing exercises and I gave them some breathing exercises to practice.  The breathing helped with both their singing and their ability to focus, so it had a bit of an agenda attached ; )  For the meat of the class, we went through a variety of exercises to strengthen their songwriting.  I found it convenient to break the lessons into categories, inspired by the teaching of Carrie Cole.  “Skill (most of our lessons fell into this category), SOUL (finding your unique voice and expressing your authentic self) and Savvy (starting a music career with understanding of the current music business)”

(Check out Carrie Cole’s Vocal Program “The Singer’s Gift”, which has revolutionized my own vocal technique and which I recommended to all of my Interlochen students)

One thing we did in my class was to write a complete song with all 8 people in each group collaborating together on it.  This was a great experiment and I was really impressed by the resulting songs.  For another lesson I prepared a Prezi Songwriting Checklist to analyze their newly born songs, which we discussed in great detail, including examples for each point.  Here is the outline if you are interested.

There were four teachers and we had regular meetings to discuss the lessons and work together to create a diverse and stimulating experience for the students.  The other teachers were sweet and wonderful (Dick Siegel, Whit Hill, and Dan Hazlett) and it was effortlessly symbiotic.  Often Whit would do a movement or “soundscaping” exercise (she’s a dancer), which would lead into a lesson I would teach in more detail, and then Dan would reflect on that point in a creative writing exercise. (not necessarily in that order)  Dick’s class was the heart of the program because he gave out song prompts that the students had to fulfill (basically a song every 2 days) and they performed these songs in front of their classes, discussing, encouraging and critiquing the songs and performances.  Each song was recorded on performance day.

On the last day of classes I taught about the practice of “Personal Futuring”, inspired by the Zingerman’s training that my best friend passed on to me.  It’s an exercise in understanding what you really want in life, writing it out as a story and then breaking it down into specific goals.  This focus fit in perfectly with the theme of Dan Hazlett’s class – “ASK for what you want, then keep your eyes open to see it arrive because it might not look like what you asked for.”  The process goes like this:

  1. Reflect on the last two years and write down everything that comes to mind that is something you have accomplished, big or small – anything you are proud of.  Include awards and accolades as well as the un-praised small personal changes that no one else may ever recognize.  Obstacles overcome, habits broken, goals achieved, growth in music, healing of relationships, private triumphs.

(This gives you a sense of momentum and empowerment as well as a sense of timing.  You can see what is possible to accomplish in just two years’ time.)

  1. Read that list out loud (of course, only share as much as you want to, but speaking your accomplishments out loud has a really powerful effect)
  2. Write a story that takes place two years from right now.  Using the present tense, describe the scene you find yourself in, assuming everything has gone perfectly well.  Be very specific and use sensory detail.  Where are you?  Who is with you?  How do you feel? Do you have a car, a job, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a band, a website, a prized award, a CD of original songs?  Are you going to school? Do you have a degree already?  Any gigs or exciting prospects lined up?  What have you overcome?  How have you grown?
  3. Read this story out loud, even if it’s only to your self.  Maybe trust a friend enough to share this story with them.  (in class, most students read their stories but some chose not to)
  4. Analyzation: Use your story to make observations about the things that are important to you.  Are there any surprises?  Is there anything that occupies your time right now that doesn’t even show up in your story?  Maybe those kinds of things aren’t worth wasting time on now, if they aren’t truly important to you.  This can be a helpful way to realize what to start saying “no” to, so you can focus on achieving your true goals.
  5. Lastly, make a bullet list of every point that does show up in your story and define these things as GOALS.  For each one, break down the process you would have to go through to get from here to there.  These are ACTION STEPS.  Start now.  Keep this list in a visible place, so you can stay focused on achieving your goals.

I loved seeing this exercise in action and it went exactly how I hoped it would, inspiring and clarifying their visions.

The truth is, I believed every single story.  I saw the details of each vision along with the reader as if the story was already real.  The possibilities seemed limitless as we lifted up these hopes and dreams together in this supportive atmosphere.  I believe that these students can do every single thing their hearts set out to do.  And I can’t wait to see their stories unfold in real time.