Sometimes the best way to learn is to go it alone. Sometimes the best way to learn is with help and guidance.
Songwriting, as it turns out, is best learned with a mixture of the two.
Let’s talk about why.
Do You Need to Work with a Songwriting Coach?
It’s a question I get asked a lot as a songwriting coach, and a good one: is working with a songwriting coach essential?
And the short answer to this deeply existential question (for me, at least) is no. It’s definitely not essential.
But a longer answer is no, but it’s definitely a great way to make great progress with your writing. With the right mentor you’ll make much better progress than you would alone. With the right mentor what might take you months to figure out one your own, you might figure out in a session or two with your coach.
And sure, that old saying is true: songwriting can’t be taught, only learned. But an experienced and skilled coach is going to help you learn all that stuff faster and more efficiently. They’re won’t let you avoid making the mistakes that all songwriters make early on – they’re just going to help you make them faster and make sure you learn good lessons from them.
See, if you didn’t know already, making mistakes is the way you really master something. You’ve probably heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s ’10,000 Hours Rule’ – that says the trick to mastering anything is 10,000 hours of practice. Well, let me expand on that with Ed Bell’s lesser-known ’10,000 Mistakes Rule’ – that says the trick to making those 10,000 hours count is to make roughly one big mistake for every hour you spend practicing.
And that’s why coaching can really help. Obviously a coach can’t make those mistakes for you, but – as we’ll see – a good songwriting coach makes going through all those mistakes a much better experience. Meanwhile, they’re going to try fill in the gaps in what you don’t know – and, more importantly, what you don’t know you don’t know – to help you make solid progress towards your goals.
And, by the way, that’s true whether you’re up to 8,000 hours, 1,000 hours or you’ve never written anything yet. There’s a reason Serena Williams still has a tennis coach. There’s a reason enormous companies like Apple, Google and Tesla work with armies of external consultants and advisers. No matter how good you are, a second opinion from an experienced outsider is an essential part of keeping you at your best.
So, in short, if you’re happy with the progress you’re making on your own, you don’t have the time and/or money to dedicate to coaching, and you’re happy to write just to see what comes out, maybe coaching isn’t for you right now.
But if any of these things sound like you –
- You’re serious about taking your skills to the next level – whether that’s because you want to make music for a living or just improve for your own sense of achievement.
- You have the time and cash to take a good shot at working with a mentor.
- You don’t have much formal musical training and want to brush up on some fundamentals.
- You feel stuck or unmotivated with your writing and are ready to try some new challenges.
– it’s probably a great time to start looking for a mentor and investing time and money in taking yourself to the next level. And if you’re the kind of songwriter who wouldn’t think twice about splashing hundreds of dollars on new gear or some new software update but doesn’t spend anything on books, courses or mentoring even a couple of times a year, then yes, I’m talking to you especially.
But once you are ready to take the plunge, what makes a songwriting coach a great one? And how do you decide what kind of songwriting coach is right for you?
First Things First – Figure Out What You’re Looking For
If there’s one big mistake people make in everything from dating, to finding a new job, to finding a great mentor, they worry about what other people think more than what they do.
They think ‘Will she like me?’ before they think ‘Will I like her?’. They think ‘Will they give me the job?’ before they think ‘Is this a job that I want?’. And they think ‘Will this person want to be my mentor?’ before they think ‘Is this person what I’m looking for in a mentor?’.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we live in a remarkable age of unprecedented opportunity and a ridiculous level of choice. Thanks to the Internet, you can get pretty much anything you want from tons of different places – including a great songwriting mentor.
And the way you filter out from all that choice is either just to pick someone at random (not a terrible idea, but not the best) or to narrow the options down based on the specifics of what you’re looking for (generally a better idea).
Do you want to be a hip-hop artist? It’s a good idea to find a mentor who knows about hip-hop. Do you want to improve your music business skills? It’s a good idea to find a mentor who’s experienced in the part of the music business you’re interested in. Right now are you just interested in developing some fundamental songwriting skills? Then it’s a good idea to find a mentor who’s experienced working with people where you are now.
Either way – how successful you and your mentor are together is all about what you want and need being matched with what they have and can give. That’s true in dating, jobs, learning, everything.
You’ll have a much better time figuring out who is or isn’t a good fit for you if you’ve decided what that actually is. Figure out the three to five bullet points that summarize the most important things you’d like to get from coaching. Then keep ‘em handy while you start looking.
Next – See Who’s a Good Fit, But Keep an Open Mind
Tons of great songwriters advertise their teaching or mentoring services, like I do – for us it’s a great way to earn a bit of cash on the side, mix up the work we do and pay it forward by passing on our hard-learned lessons to other people who can use them.
You can find out about plenty of these coaches and teachers through nothing more than a Google search. You can find them on YouTube, in songwriting magazines, and – of course – you can often get great recommendations by word of mouth.
So do your research. See who’s out there. See who might be a good fit for the things you’re looking for.
In a moment, we’ll look at some traits I think make a good mentor in anything, but since we’re talking about mentoring in songwriting, there’s something important I’m embarrassed to say but often needs to be said.
Are you ready?
No, your coach doesn’t need to be famous.
No, your coach doesn’t need to be a multi-platinum hit songwriter.
No, your coach doesn’t need to be mates with Adele, Ed Sheeran and Miley Cyrus and be able to tell you stories about some shit they did at Bono’s birthday party this one time.
There are reasons those things can help you – which we’ll talk about in a moment – but let’s have a quick reality check first.
You wouldn’t only hire an electrician who’d done light fittings at Buckingham Palace. And you wouldn’t only go to a doctor who had her own TV show. And you wouldn’t only listen to your high school physics teacher because he’d discovered a new element.
So sure, if the only kind of personal songwriting mentor you’d work with is Paul McCartney, Kanye West or Taylor Swift, by all means give it a go. But I’ve heard they’re pretty busy, and honestly, you probably don’t need (or want) that kind of mentoring right now.
Because, in all seriousness, one of the most important things I’ve learned as both a student and coach is that someone’s skill in something has virtually nothing to do with their skill at explaining that skill to other people. They’re totally separate things. That’s why you get first-rate artists who are average teachers. And first-rate teachers who are average artists.
And yes, there are first-rate artists who are first-rate teachers, but they’re still two separate skills. To be a great artist you have to practice being an artist. To be a great teacher you have to practice being a teacher. And honestly, there aren’t that many people that get tons of practice at both.
Of course, there are some totally valid reasons to work with a mentor who has name recognition. Like if they’re a big deal in the field you’re trying to break into – i.e. you actually admire them for their work, not their one-sentence résumé. Like if doing one-offs with a big-name writer will help you feel inspired and more confident. Like if working with a well-known artist will get you a great testimonial or two you can use to publicize your music.
But if you’re still pretty new to songwriting, or you’re still figuring out your craft and finding your voice, it’s almost always going to be better to find a mentor who you can work with over a handful of sessions, than a big name who you might have to pay a small fortune to for even a one-off power consultation.
Great. Glad we got that out of the way.
Now, assuming you’ve got a few options for a potential songwriting coach or mentor, let’s talk about a few qualities that make a mentor great in any field.
First, you want a mentor that makes you a better version of you, not a better version of him or her. This sounds so simple and so obvious, but it always surprises me how often this doesn’t happen.
In other words, your mentor should challenge you, but if you feel hand on heart that they’re pushing you in a direction that doesn’t align with where you want to go as an artist, run for the hills and don’t look back. Seriously. Just like any relationship where you aren’t supported and accepted for who you are, that kind of mentoring always does more damage than good in the long run. You’re not short of options. Find someone who’s a better fit.
Second, you want a mentor that focuses on ideas and fundamentals, who helps you understand not just do. Sure, you could make one or two songs really great by working on them with a mentor, but you probably don’t want to rely on that as your creative process for the rest of your life.
You want a mentor who’s going to take the time to make sure you’re growing as an artist, not just swoop in and fix the things you’re not great at yet.
Third – and related – you want a mentor who scares you, just a bit. This is one of the reasons you should keep an open mind when seeing how a potential mentor fits against what you decided you’re looking for.
Einstein supposedly said “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” And that means a good mentor isn’t going to answer your questions in the way you were expecting – they’re going to answer it with a higher level of thinking to help raise your level of thinking. That scares most people. But it’s how we grow.
It’s fun to have your ego stroked a bit, but a coach who only ever tells you you’re the greatest isn’t helping you grow, they’re wasting your time.
Finally, you want a coach who encourages you to make mistakes but persevere. There are plenty of well-meaning mentors who’ll try and give you step-by-step instructions or programs that are designed to help you avoid making mistakes or find some secret shortcut to greatness. And that’s great if your only goal is to always feel good about what you’re doing.
The trouble is, that’s not how you make real progress. You know this already: you have to do your 10,000 hours of 10,000 mistakes. Which means the best kind of mentor is going to a) encourage you to make those mistakes, and b) encourage you to push through those mistakes because that’s the only way to grow.
And remember, it takes a while to build a good relationship with a new coach or mentor. The better you get to know each other, the better they get at mentoring you in the way that’s best for you, and the better you get at working with them too. So if in doubt, the best thing you can do is give a new mentor a shot – try a session or two and see what happens. No decent mentor – and no grown adult – is going to take it personally if you say after a couple of sessions ‘Thanks for your help but this isn’t a great fit for me.’
But whether it takes you a few tries to find a mentor you really like or you hit it off on the first go, building those kinds of relationships so they’re there when you need them is a really important part of succeeding as an artist. That’s true whether you’re looking for regular mentoring or drop-in sessions once a month or twice a year.
But assuming you’ve found a songwriting coach or mentor who’s a great fit, if it’s true that songwriting can’t be taught, only learned, we also better talk about what you can do to get the most out of your time with your new coach or mentor.
How to Get the Most Out of Working with a Songwriting Coach
First and most of all, when you work with a coach or mentor it’s important to keep your expectations realistic. We live in a world of crazy convenience, but there’s no overnight shipping on your growth as a songwriter. I know. Convenience sells. ‘This one crazy trick’ sells. ‘INSTANTLY’, ‘NOW’, ‘RIGHT AWAY’ sells. But, as any songwriting coach who genuinely cares about your growth as an artist will tell you, true growth takes time.
But there’s good news: true growth takes time, but it really lasts. It becomes part of who you are and how you think, and part of everything you create in the future. Which is why investing in your growth as an artist is so important, but never instant.
Second of all: the more proactive you are, the more you’ll get out of working with a coach or mentor. Just like no personal trainer can make you fitter by talking to you, you have to do the work. You have to do the training to get better.
So ask good questions. Do great work between sessions. Bring ideas to your sessions. Do things your way. Take responsibility for your own growth. Stop looking for your coach’s approval and instead start looking for self-approval, while your coach helps you figure out what that means to you.
Expect your coach to help point the way and keep you on track, but don’t expect them to do the work for you. They’re the compass, they don’t row the boat.
Finally though, do expect working with a songwriting coach or mentor to be an amazing journey of ups and downs, fresh challenges and a lot of you realizing ‘Hey, I never knew I could do that’. And do expect it to be something you’ll look back on and think ‘Why didn’t I do it earlier?’
As a songwriting coach it’s our job to throw out ideas that just might catalyze some breakthrough or realization. And sometimes, that’s not how it goes. But when it does, boy, there’s no feeling like watching a songwriter have some massive epiphany about something they’ve been mulling over for weeks. And there’s no feeling like watching songwriters grow in confidence and artistry session after session.
And even if there are far more moments that aren’t breakthroughs than the moments that are, knowing that the next one could come at any moment is what makes the process so exciting and so worthwhile – for everyone involved.