Write a Song Together Meetup

In September, I hosted a new event at my Meetup group, The Songwriting Supermarket. I invited members to get together and collaborate on writing a song in two hours. Three other talented songwriters showed up, and we had a blast writing and recording a new song, Don’t Fix Me.

Before the session, I asked each member to state their songwriting and instrument playing skills. Together, we had the bases covered in terms of lyrics, chord progressions, guitarists, singers, and one pianist (me).

I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano while Carole suggested an idea for a song that expressed a message of “It’s not up to you to try and fix me or my problems.” She came up with the title “Don’t Fix Me.”

Meanwhile, Layla, guitar in hand, suggested my chord progression was too complex, so we opted for something simpler. As it turned out, the chords we picked ended up being for the chorus. I wrote a slightly more complex chord progression for the verse.

Layla and Bruce came up with great phrases and rhymes, with some critical input from Carole to make sure we kept to the theme. Together they settled on lyrics for two verses and a chorus. Bruce worked out the melodies as I played the piano.

We collectively decided the song also needed a bridge. Since the verse and chorus were both in major keys (starting on the I and IV chord, respectively), I tried the relative minor for the bridge. Bruce jumped in with a melody that fit perfectly to finish the writing off with a short, 4-line bridge.

We recorded two takes on my Zoom recorder, with Bruce on vocals and myself on piano. For a two-hour session, we focused on getting something done, perfect or not. We managed a complete song, chords, melodies, lyrics, and structure all coming together. Kudos to Bruce, Layla, and Carole for a great session!

Winter Without You (with Shari Archinoff)

I met singer-songwriter Shari Archinoff at one of my meetup groups. Shari plays piano, guitar, sings, and lives in the same neighbourhood I grew up in.

The first time we met, I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano. Shari developed lyrics and a melody for a song about moving on from a relationship with a winter theme. We also threw in a little joke about the debate over the naming of Canada’s national bird. We completed a draft of the song in one afternoon.

Something I’ve been playing around with recently is trying to write in different modes. For the verse, I developed a chord progression in C major, but started the progression on D minor (the II chord). The mode reveals its slightly unusual nature when the G major chord turns up in the verse. Normally, if the song were in D minor, the IV chord would be G minor, but using a G major instead keeps the song in the key of C major, even though it doesn’t start with a C major chord.

A couple of weeks later, I had developed a more interesting chord progression for the chorus and some greater melodic interest for the piano verse part. Shari had completely re-written the lyrics with much greater attention to poetics and melody details.

We performed the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup in January. Feedback from the group was largely positive, and we ended up taking a suggestion to transpose the song a whole step higher. We found the higher key resonated a bit better with Shari’s voice.

We recorded the final version in my home studio. Shari added some wonderful melody variations to the final chorus.

It was a joy to work with Shari and we’re hoping to do some more writing together.

Being an introvert and meeting people

I was always labelled the “shy one” or the “quiet one” at family gatherings, and even school group activities and other social functions. Being an impressionable child, I just believed what I was told and didn’t actually do anything about it.

I don’t think I noticed, as I grew older, that I could carry on one-on-one conversations really well, or that I gravitated to very small groups of people; I believe my ideal group size, to this day, is two or three people. Any more than that, and it’s a sliding scale to anxiety.

Several years ago, well, maybe at this point, many years ago, I read The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney.  Marti says, “Introverts are like a rechargeable battery. They need to stop expending energy and rest in order to recharge. Extroverts are like solar panels that need the sun to recharge. Extroverts need to be out and about to refuel.” It’s how we’re wired, so there’s not much you can do to change that. You can, however, accept and embrace and leverage your “introvertedness” to your advantage.

At large parties, I take a few minutes of alone time, step away from the fray and literally recharge. When I engage in the party again, I feel refreshed and ready to talk. I try to engage people one-on-one as much as possible. I accept that I am comfortable spending time alone – it allows me to pursue many things I value, like writing this blog.

Of course, words like “introvert” and “extrovert” make it look like it’s a binary system. The truth is, it’s a scale, or a gradient. No one is fully introverted or extroverted; everyone falls somewhere in the middle, and it also depends on the environment or the activity. You can say you’re strongly introverted or extroverted, for example, or more extroverted in certain situations.

I’m old enough to clearly remember a time before the internet. It sucked. The internet is an introvert’s playground. While some of what we do online is technically for the world to see, many of the social interactions are one-on-one. At the very least, as an introvert, you have time to consider, edit, or save and come back to, anything you post. Except on twitter, which is something I still don’t fully get.

Meetup.com is a great place to bring together the online and offline worlds. There’s a meetup group for quite literally every interest imaginable. (OK, so I haven’t looked up “ritual dancing barefoot in the forest with unicorns” yet.) I was first introduced to meetup.com by someone I was chatting with on an online dating site, before online dating was as mainstream as it is now.

So, one truth about introverts is that we despise small talk. We’re much better at, and enjoy, meaty, meaningful conversations. Get philosophical, go on a rant about life, the universe, and everything – we’re game. Part of the challenge, particularly with a new acquaintance, is getting past the small talk. Usually it helps when you’ve already got a common interest.

The first meetup groups I joined were for songwriting and photography. Right off the bat, I could easily engage anyone in a conversation.

Ironically, this was harder at the “Introvert Social” meetup (yes, it exists, and it’s gigantic, perfect for introverts #sarcasm). The first Introvert Social meeting I went to was at a pub (not the quietest, but pretty good for introverts) with about 12 other people, and I was the most talkative one there. That’s never happened before, or since. The trouble here, of course, is that everyone is introverted, so no one wants to start a conversation in a large group. Plus, there’s no common interest except for being introverted, and introverts don’t want to talk about that unless it’s a group therapy session ;). For myself, I started engaging with only the two or so people around me, and before I knew it, I was ranting about something, and the whole table was listening.

Suffice to say, meetup is still a great place to meet others and make new friends. Through meetup, I went with a group of 30 photographers to Cuba for a week, and also became a host of a songwriting radio show. I’ve made new friends, and even improved my own skills in my areas of interest.

I have found that for myself, I’m less of an introvert when engaging in an activity that I’m passionate about, and can talk about with confidence. Another truth about introverts is that we don’t like public speaking, and would rather write our thoughts out. But I’ve started presenting workshops on songwriting and home recording, two things I know a lot about and can talk on for 90 minutes. Naturally, I plan the crap out of them with power point and notes, so there’s little spontaneity, but I manage to cover everything I need to.

My experience on Song Talk Radio is similar; I rely more on scripting parts of the show than my co-hosts. I’m also drumming for a band started by a music production client of mine. This is a safe place for me, even though it may seem ironic that the “shy guy” is pounding away in a rock band (at least I’m not singing lead vocals).

When I worked for a non-profit organization, my job was largely behind the scenes, managing the website, doing layouts for newsletters and e-mail blasts, and writing articles. Sounds like the ideal job for an introvert. Once a year, though, my introversion got pushed a bit. During the organization’s annual conference, part of my responsibility was to engage the conference delegates and take their photos for a large-screen slideshow at the banquet dinner. We referred to these photos as “happy snaps.”

Now, walking up to strangers with a big camera and asking them to smile for a photo is not ideal for an introvert. At first, I had a hard time approaching people. Then I realized that the engagement was so temporal as to make it kind of fun and fascinating. I would ask, take a quick photo or two, say thank you, that’s a lovely photo, and move on. This was as close as I was ever going to get to any of our members, and that was an amusing thought. After the first couple of years doing this, I even had members ask me to take their photos because they enjoyed seeing their friend’s smiling faces at last year’s banquet.

So all in all, I feel I’ve carved out a nice space for myself as an introvert. It’s a long process, with lots of trial and error, but like most things, the more you practice it, the better you get at it. You begin to predict what choices are going to work for you, and how to prepare for the situations where you’re not at your best. Large family gatherings can still be an energy drain for me, but I’ve got enough me-friendly things going on to keep me happy, energized, and confident.

Songwriter’s Meetup

In addition to being a co-organizer and co-host of the the Songwriter’s Meetup in Toronto, I also participate by presenting my own songs to the group and getting their feedback. There’s nothing quite like getting constructive feedback from fellow songwriters that’s always supportive and encouraging. The group experience never fails in inspiring me to improve my own songwriting, as well as meeting the extraordinarily talented songwriters in the room. There’s also great opportunities for collaborations between members beyond the meetups.

The group recently surpassed 1,000 members and I’m proud to be part of its growth over the last few years.

The photo was taken by one of the members, who, like me, is a budding photographer as well as a songwriter. Thanks Alexander for the great capture!

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Havana, Cuba trip

Organized as a Meetup.com group for photographers, we made the conscious choice to stay in the old part of Havana instead of a resort. Havana had been, and continues to, go through a massive transformation as the old city becomes gentrified and joins the global community. Often you’d see a crumbling old building next door to a brand new, Starbucks type cafe.

The best thing about going with a group of 30 photographers? “Who wants to get up at 5 a.m. and take some sunrise photos?” Five hands go up.

According to the locals, the classic cars are kept with great pride by the owners, often restoring the exterior while replacing the engine with a modern one.

We also took a day trip to Vinales, a small town in the lush, green countryside outside Havana.

The Havana of yesterday is quickly disappearing, and it was a great opportunity to capture it in photos before it’s gone forever.

Songwriter’s Showcase Event

I hosted a showcase event for our Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group today at the Central Bar. It was a great experience, and I got to see many great performances. In addition to announcing the performers, I also photographed and sound recorded the event to share with the individual performers.

Live mixing was handled by Phil, and Bruce helped out with some stage management. Belinda (our lead organizer) brought members from her other groups to populate the audience, and took some great photos too.

This event was unique in that almost all the songs performed were originals.

Orchid Show

I had the opportunity to join a group of photographers for a special shoot. We arranged to enter the show before it was open to the public, and we were permitted to use tripods.

The group gave pointers before the event to use a middle f-stop (f5.6 or f8)  to ensure you get the entire orchid in focus, and make sure you have a soft or black background. Use of the tripod and remote trigger was essential to eliminate any camera shake and get the sharpest possible images.

Toronto Zombiewalk 2012

I’d never heard of the annual Zombiewalk, but what a feast for a photographer! While the zombies are busy shambling around and eating brains, they’re also very eager to have their photos taken. This is rightly so, since the creativity they put into their makeup and costumes is remarkable.

I took a tip from the photographer’s meetup I was part of and underexposed each photo to give them a creepier look. I also put them through HDR (high dynamic range) photo processing, even though that’s intended for combining bracketed exposures, to give the final photos a grittier effect.

My favourites include the girl with the different coloured eyes, the surgeon zombie, and the pregnant nun with the zombie baby (sick, I know, but that’s kinda the point, so, well done).

I also made a little video:

Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup Group

Today I attended another roundtable session of my favourite meetup.com group – Songwriter’s Cafe Toronto. The group normally meets once a month where members present a song they have written, either live or recorded. The group then engages in  friendly, constructive feedback for the writer. Some members come only to listen, which is welcomed. Criticism is generally positive, with many suggestions for improvement. Genres vary widely from pop, folk, rock, electronic, rap, instrumental, spoken word, and others.

This round I presented an instrumental piece in which my objective was to keep things simple and restrained without being boring. The feedback was very positive, and as often is the case with my instrumental pieces, members say how it evokes a very particular scene in an imagined movie.

It’s truly amazing to be in a group of such talented musicians and writers, and be able to discuss the creative process in a critical and respectful manner.

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Kensington Market Winter Solstice Parade

A photo meetup group led me to an annual parade unlike any other I’ve ever seen in Toronto. The Winter Solstice parade takes place on December 21, they shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. To celebrate the coming of longer days, the parade culminated in a large fire and fire performers.

The night time photoshoot came with its own set of challenges. I couldn’t use a tripod and long exposures, because the subjects were constantly moving. The only option here was to use a large aperture and high ISO to gather as much light as possible and avoid the blur of longer exposures. Using spot metering or centre-weighted metering helps too, the ensure the exposure is set for your subject.

I took over 400 pictures, the vast majority of which were rejected for blurriness or bad focus. Here are some of the best photos I took that evening.