Can songwriting be taught? Bob Wiseman doesn’t think so.
This may seem like a strange admission from someone who taught Popular Music Songwriting in the Don Wright Faculty of Music this term, but this kind of honesty is precisely what Wiseman bought to his students – that, and a lifetime of experience.
Wiseman’s resume is long. He’s been a fixture on Canada’s popular music scene for 35 years: Musician. Songwriter. Composer. Producer. Director. Actor. Teacher. And not necessarily in that order.
An improvisational pianist by trade, Wiseman played piano, organ and accordion as a founding member of Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees Blue Rodeo from 1984-92 – a stint that included the band’s first four studio albums and earned five Juno Awards.
His 1989 solo album, In Her Dream: Bob Wiseman Sings Wrench Tuttle, was ranked by Chart Magazine among the Top 100 Canadian Albums of All Time. In addition to a slew of his own recordings, he lists Ron Sexsmith, Barenaked Ladies, Daniel Lanois, Feist and The Lowest of the Low among artists with whom he’s collaborated. He regularly composes music for film, television and theatre.
And at Western, he teaches.
“I really have enjoyed designing this syllabus from the point of view of being an artist – a touring artist and a performing artist,” Wiseman said. “I’ve worked in film and I’ve worked in production. I’ve also been a young person at music school and not felt stimulated.”
With that in mind, Wiseman set about designing a course that brought his class together to not only analyze and discuss the art of songwriting, but share and perform their own compositions.
“A big part of it for me is to have an open stage. Separate from being intellectual about songwriting, actually performing for people will do something for the songwriter – if that’s what you are. That’s what’s fun about this class,” Wiseman said.
Wiseman’s students took turns at the front of the class playing the guitar, the piano, singing. Some preferred to share recorded and produced music they made in studio or at home. The styles of music shared ran the gamut – from pop and folk, to R&B and electronic. Wiseman was game to listen and appreciate all of it.
“There are teachers who would say, ‘No, that’s not a good song’ or ‘That’s not a hit’ – and that’s redonkulous,” Wiseman said.
“If anything, what I want people to realize is the validity of their songwriting. Playing in front of people is how you become a songwriter. Ultimately, you teach yourself. You can give a kid driving lessons, but once they have a licence and are on the road they’re going to learn a bunch of things by doing it and make some mistakes while you’re not there.”
Among the various songwriting assignments and essays, Wiseman tried to help students access their own creativity and adopt some useful habits. “I’m trying to impress upon them that I am a songwriter and all the people I produced, worked with or have known who are songwriters have some things in common.”
One of these things includes keeping a journal.
“That’s the first thing I ask. They have to write every day,” Wiseman said.
“As a great songwriter that I knew, Sam Larkin, once said, ‘It’s about quantity not quality.’ Of course, it’s about quality, but what he meant was that you can’t expect to lay a golden egg every time. But part of laying a golden egg is being able to recognize it. Leonard Cohen talks about that, too – overwriting.”
Wiseman has been teaching for six years. First, at Centennial College and now at Western.
While he always strives to leverage his experience, he’s there to help his students facilitate their own ideas, not to pontificate about his own work or work that he admires.
“I don’t really go there as a teacher. I try to keep me out of this activity, because it’s more useful for a student to focus on them. So, I never play my songs. I don’t go on about who I think is so amazing.
“The first year I taught, I walked in thinking I was going to do that and that’s part of what I was going to enjoy,” he laughed. “And I realized right away that people didn’t know my references and didn’t care.
“I realized that if I was going to be good that this, I was going to have to figure out what turns them on. So, I started to learn what they liked. That’s part of the job of being the teacher – being able to speak a language that’s understandable. If someone is engaged, they will be engaged by hearing you speak their language. I’m more interested in finding out who they think is amazing.”
To that end, Wiseman begins his class by asking students to share what he calls a ‘song story,’ bringing a song to class and explaining why it has profoundly affected them, elicited emotions or changed their lives.
Wiseman also brings the real world into the classroom.
“It’s nice for students to be able to talk to people in the business, too. A lot of young people in music schools have these dreams and instead they encounter things about theory and harmony and music history – which is fine, but (speaking to people in the business) is sometimes an interesting awakening for them.”
This term, Wiseman invited several music industry guests to speak with students and answer their questions via Skype. These included artists such as Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene and Foo Fighters’ Rami Jaffee. Recently, Chris Taylor, Global President of Music at recording, management and publishing company Entertainment One, joined the class from Los Angeles to discuss the song publishing side of the business and his work with artists such as Drake, Nelly Furtado, Avril Lavigne and Arkells.
“I can feel the buzz for some of the students to have some of these people in the classroom,” Wiseman said. Giving students a realistic picture of what a career in music entails is important to him.
“It’s like a small opening in a wall that several million people are trying to fit through. If you still want to do it, great. But, just so you know, those are the rules. In the music business, there’s basically a few wealthy people and no middle class. Those who are not part of those wealthy people are living at the poverty line.”
Wiseman knows firsthand the difficulty of making ends meet on a musician’s pay. “There’s a real intelligent reason why the parents of a lot of musicians are like, ‘No! Don’t do it.’
“I moved to Toronto from Winnipeg to study improvisational piano music at York. That’s all I wanted to do. I did really well, but then I couldn’t believe how much money I owed after one year with my student loan. I also realized that there wasn’t much of an audience for what I do on the piano. And so, I didn’t continue and didn’t get a degree.”
After working for a time in social services, Wiseman happened into a lifechanging experience.
“As it turns out, I met the guys in Blue Rodeo who were friends with my oldest brother. They were friends in New York and moved back to Toronto and my brother told Greg Keelor that he could move into the house where I lived. And there was a piano there and he and Jim (Cuddy) heard me play and they got really excited and kind of decided that I would be their keyboard player,” Wiseman recalled.
“I’d never been in a band. And suddenly I could play all these places that were intimidating, and I didn’t have any money to get into, because I was now in the band. That was amazing.
“To my parents, that didn’t mean anything until Blue Rodeo took off. Once we were on the Junos and things like that, my parents were great. They were bragging about it. But, in the beginning they were freaked out.”
In the 27 years since he moved on from Blue Rodeo, Wiseman has worked hard to diversify his career.
“Many years ago, a writer I admired said something about how much more difficult it is to destroy something that’s complex, than something that is simple. And I took that to heart as a musician trying to make a living. I realized that if I was only just the piano guy doing nutty piano music, there’s many more reasons I could be destroyed. So, that’s my evil plan – to have fingers in many different pies. That’s why I produce records, I do music for film and TV, I write songs, I tour, and I teach.”
As much as Wiseman makes an effort to open his students’ eyes to the business of songwriting, he is also careful to carve out space where art can be created for its own sake.
“The music business is about capitalism. It has nothing to do with music,” he reflected.
“When you’re thinking through the filter of capitalism, people have very definite opinions about what is good. It has to do with what made money. I don’t care about that line of thought myself. There are things that blow my mind that didn’t sell anything.
“If we remove economics, there’s a rich, stimulating, spiritual, profoundly healthy mental life available in making art and specifically in songwriting. There’s a lot of healing one can do for themselves and there’s a lot of – you know – exercise one can do for their life and their heart just through this one activity.”
And that’s where Wiseman hopes to ultimately lead his class of aspiring songwriters.
“I like to remind people they have a superpower being a musician. These places where we teach music – almost everywhere – also want to teach how you make money from it. But I’m more interested in the superpower and not losing sight of the fact that you can see through walls.”