Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health

Mental health is so essential to everyone. Taking care of your emotions and discovering yourself to the point of knowing the things that work for you and give you joy is a great feeling. I’m still on my journey, and have a long way to go, but here’s a few things I’ve learned so far.

Second time’s the charm

I find myself saying this truism from time to time: “The second time you try something, it usually works out better.” For myself, this includes marriage.

My first wife was a test case in emotional baggage. Her past was ripe with abuse, family tragedies, and emotional self destruction. My own past couldn’t be more different: loving, stable family life, opportunity, and valuable education. Things started falling apart seven years after we got married (no kids). She started expressing unhappiness, and how I couldn’t fill her emotional needs; incidentally, a revelation that came to her after seeing a therapist herself.

We tried couples therapy for a very short time. Afterwards, I began seeking professional help for myself. I recall my first session, complaining about my wife’s neediness and anger. My therapist turned the tables on me, getting me to see my own responsibility in the relationship. This was my first lesson in cognitive behavioural therapy: introspection, and understanding what I actually had the power to do. This was not easy; it took many sessions, most of which I felt angry at my counselor for not giving me easy answers. I didn’t want to look at my own faults; it was better to put the blame elsewhere. Of course, the truth was that I was equally responsible for the downfall of my first marriage.

I grew up being on the receiving end of care, and while I wasn’t spoiled to the point of always getting my way, I was always supported by family and friends. Hers’ was a life of disappointment after disappointment, always being let down, desperate for someone to take care of her. I too, was eager to be her provider. But I wasn’t up to the task; I didn’t have the skills or the practice to be anyone’s savior. The kicker was that while I so busy trying to be her everything, I didn’t realize that the whole ordeal was making me miserable too. The fellow she cheated on me with made it clear that I wasn’t the guy for her. He’s extroverted (I’m introverted), an enthusiastic smoker and drinker (I’m neither), and party guy (which I am not). I remember talking to my brother about this; he told me flat out, “Sometimes we’re just not able to be what the other person needs.” By 2010, we were divorced.

I think it’s this fear of failure that demotivates many men from seeking emotional support and help. I’m stereotypical in this regard; I wasn’t taught how to deal with my feelings at a young age. For me, I take an intellectual approach to emotional intelligence; tracing the root causes and reasons why I feel the way I do. Where do my insecurities come from? What did being teased and bullied as a child actually do to me? Understanding is the first step toward getting past blaming myself, and getting on to making things better.

Side story

As a bit of an aside, I have a story I love to tell my friends and anyone who’s willing to listen. As I was going through my divorce, someone told me that when any significant relationship breaks down, one person ends up on the high end, and one ends up on the low. I’m convinced I’m on the high.

Sometime after I moved out, I got a message from my soon-t0-be-ex-wife that she had a box of my stuff, and our camping tent, which we agreed I could have. I asked her to please drop it off at my office, as I didn’t want to reveal my home address (petty maybe, but still my prerogative). When she finally got around to dropping my stuff off, I asked her to leave it at the reception desk, since I didn’t care much to see her either. She told me I had to come downstairs to the car, because she has the six-month old in the back.”

I relented and went downstairs to get my box and camping tent, and sure enough, there was an occupied baby seat in the back of the car. When I got back to my desk, I had to do the math. We had been separated for about 18 months. Seems that for all the talk about having kids later, she didn’t waste any time once I was out of the picture. And if the guy she cheated on me with was the father, that’s a big minus, as he was already married with two teenage boys. The patterns of self-destruction she seemed to be so good at were reaching new heights.

Moving on

By this time, I had a better understanding of myself and was acutely aware of how much happier I was to be able to let go of years worth of resentment. By this time, I had vowed to invest more time and energy in myself. I think the idea of being selfish is largely misunderstood. There are two kinds of selfish: the first is deciding to invest in your own happiness, which results in better relationships with others. The other kind of selfish is being greedy and manipulating so that you can only be happy if others around you suffer. Here’s a list of really simple things that I neglected during nine years of marriage, and I knew would make me happier. I followed through with them all:

  1. Live within a 30-minute bike ride to work
  2. Get back into songwriting and music
  3. Be debt-free
  4. Meet new people
  5. Get back into playing tennis

Like any good songwriter, I got a few songs out of my divorce. One hasn’t been fully recorded, although writing this article has certainly got that fire stoked. The other is a song called Brand New Door, and it’s about moving on. My friend Sunny helped me with the vocal track.

I also met my future wife, and suffice to say, I knew from the get go she was a far better fit for me. I vowed to never let resentment build up again, and we’re actually pretty good at talking out our differences. We were married in 2014, which is also the year things started to unravel for me in an unexpected and unceremonious way.

The downward spiral

In late 2013, my fiancé and I were living comfortably together in a rented house in the west end of Toronto. We got a great deal on the place, playing landlord to the upstairs apartment. In less than a year, the owner told us he needed the house back. We were homeless, and ended up moving in with my parents, north of the city. (Incidentally, our first morning at my parents was also my 40th birthday.) My 30-minute bike ride to work was now a 90-minute commute through regional transit, subway and streetcar. This didn’t irk me too much, as I got a lot reading done, and I knew it was only temporary.

In early 2014, we were set to purchase a townhome close to our west-end rental. Everything seemed to be place until, on the day of our home inspection, I lost my job. I had never been fired before. It was sudden, unexpected, and emotionally brutal. I wrote a song about it.

I had no idea why I was let go. The organization I worked for had just undergone an operational and human resource audit. I can only surmise that the consultants told management they were paying me too much for my job. My position morphed into a slightly different one, as I saw on the organization’s website, presumably for a lower salary. There’s nothing quite like quantifying your worth in dollars to take a kick at your self-esteem. Looking for new work proved to be daunting task, as I found myself in a job market where I seemed to have no place.

Eventually, I leveraged a connection I had to land a stable, well-paying permanent position. Of course, there’s a downside. While I have a full-time job, four days a week I spend working by myself at home and one day I week I commute to another city to meet with my co-workers. While working from home is ideal at times (e.g. snowstorm), there are feelings of isolation and loneliness I can’t seem to escape. I know my productivity suffers by not being around the people I’m working with. I’ve tried to find other ways to be productive, by working on personal and freelance projects during lunch breaks and during times I would otherwise be commuting in the city to get to and from an office. As much as I am an introvert, and value time by myself, it’s still a struggle spending many hours on my own.

Finding a balance

So I’ve lost only two items on my “happy” list. I can’t bike to work anymore, and I stopped playing tennis a while back due a knee injury (from playing tennis). That’s not bad. I’ve recently started playing a greater role in my physical health.

I’ve since taken on many music projects, including co-hosting a weekly radio show and podcast, and being in an indie folk-rock band. I’m also meeting great new people through Meetup.com and other venues. I wrote about this a while ago.

I’m happily married. And my mom loves my wife. And my mother-in-law loves me. What more does a guy need?

At times, the future feels very uncertain, particularly with work. I think finding a balance is important, and it varies from person to person. For myself, my hobbies are actually really important to me, and I take them seriously. For everyone, I believe it takes a lot of introspection, and knowing yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t. We tend to spend a lot of time doing things we know aren’t the best for us, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective, and find ways to ensure you’re content with whatever situation you’re in. I’m trying and I hope you are too.


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 1: Physical Health

I’m a creative and intellectual guy first and foremost. I’d much rather be writing songs, playing piano, reading, watching great movies, and learning new things than going for a jog or doing a workout. I feel like this is hard wired in me, so I have to hack my way to engaging in physical activity. Bit by bit, I’m appreciating more and more that it’s as essential to my being as music and other activities. Well, not as essential as music, but hey, I’m learning, and that’s the important thing.

Who’s got my back?

I remember way back in high school, a bunch of us, and by us, I mean my math and science geek friends, mostly non-athlete types, thought it would be an easy credit to continue taking gym class after Grade 9. We had no sense that exercise was good for us; we simply wanted an easy class next to advanced math. I distinctly remember being taught a section on “Wellness.” We thought it was utterly hilarious that there was academia behind making sensible decisions about being active and eating well. After all, we were teenagers, and therefore invincible. Nothing could possible hurt us. We biked to school, we spent lots of time outdoors, and ate mostly home cooking. What was the problem? Certainly my enthusiasms at the time were mostly intellectual and creative; the physical would take care of itself.

I started having back problems in my mid-20s. Spending countless hours in an office, at a computer, no doubt played a critical role. Many visits to the chiropractor later, the pain always returned. I took up yoga and pilates (the “For Dummies” series on DVD were my instructors), which did help, but only when I was working out consistently.

Only this year, I happened to meet a personal trainer, and thought it was time to try something different. Keagan Campbell tailored a program to my specific needs. My only goal was for my back to stop hurting; I had no interest in developing a six-pack or increasing bulk.

I think the big change in my attitude was to accept that I can’t do this myself. For something like physical fitness, I have no expertise. DIY is great for many things, but this isn’t one of them. I need someone to tell me what to do, and that’s perfectly fine.

I’ve learned a lot from Keagan, feel stronger, and visit the chiropractor much less. Both my chiropractor and my wife have told me my posture is better and I look stronger. Keagan’s approach is also learning-based, so I can eventually become self-sufficient.

At the same time, I know that if I push myself too hard, I hurt myself and lose my motivation to continue. The whole “no pain, no gain” mantra just doesn’t apply to me. I had to ensure Keagan developed a program that pushes me, but not too much. Slow and steady wins the race, indeed.

When I do the workouts myself, I usually take in a podcast so I feel like I’m feeding myself intellectually too, and it feels less boring. When Keagan is working with me, we spend rest times talking about Star Wars, so that’s cool too.

Doctor says…

We hear time and time again that men don’t go to their doctor for routine check-ups. I guess the stereotypical reasoning is that we can muscle through anything just fine on our own, and it makes us look weak if we admit something might be wrong. This is clearly a case of guys just making up stuff to try and look better. The fact is, we all age and stuff that’s sometimes out of our control can go wrong.

Besides, for most things, we seek professional help. Auto mechanics, lawyers, contractors, programmers, the list goes on. With all these things, the assets we’re trying to take care of are more expendable and temporary than our own bodies: our cars, our separation agreements, our basement renovations, our digital gadgets. It’s cliché to say it, but also true: you’ve only got one body. And for you smart asses who claim you can get replacements for missing body parts ala Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, most stuff that goes wrong is way more subtle than having your appendages severed, and the replacement is never as good as the original.

I once went in for a physical and both my blood sugar and LDL (bad cholesterol) were a bit off normal. My doctor suggested I made a few minor dietary changes and check back in 6 months. I reduced my red meat and sugar intake (not dramatically), and in 6 months I was back in normal ranges. Is this story more or less embarrassing than having to take pills for the rest of my life because I never had it checked until it was too late?

I am what I eat

I’ve always had a sweet tooth. My mom (and many others) always fed us Indian sweets growing up. I didn’t find out until quite recently that diabetes is rampant in the South Asian community. Couldn’t possibly be all the roti and sweets, could it? I also found out that heart disease is equally bad, and in my genes too. My father had a (mild) heart attack several years ago and his father died quite young from a heart attack.

I’m pretty lucky that I can eat just about anything and not gain too much weight, but even this is not as true as it used to be. Just like my fitness health, I need to take small steps towards improving my eating habits.

In my late 20s, I developed a sensitivity to dairy. It took many rushed visits to the bathroom to figure this out, and in the end, all it took was my doctor saying, “Why don’t you try eliminating dairy for a week and see how you feel?” I think this was one of my first signs that my adult body was aging and changing. I’ve since learned which dairy products work for me, and which don’t.

When my blood sugar and LDL were tagged during a routine blood test, my doctor suggested dietary changes. I took small steps towards better eating; I cut sugary breakfast cereals out and reduced the sugar I take in my tea. When I order a chai latte at Starbucks (not very often) I order it “half sweet” which actually tastes better; more like chai, less like candy. As a couple, we’ve also drastically reduced our consumption of bread and heavy pasta, opting for thinner bread and gluten-free pasta instead. I still indulge the occasional sweet treat, but on average I’ve certainly reduced my consumption of high glycemic foods.

Very recently, I had an unusual day where I had a Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwich (on an English muffin) for breakfast and white pasta for lunch. I felt so lethargic and tired in the afternoon I almost took a nap at work. It’s amazing how different it feels when you fall back into a previous “normal.”


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

Moving clockwise, each note is a fifth above the last one. A fifth, as we know, is the third note of a major or minor triad (3-note chord), and the fifth note of any major or minor scale. For example, the C-major chord is C-E-G. The G is a fifth above C, and one “hour” past C on the Circle of Fifths. Similarly, an A-major chord is A-C#-E. The E is a fifth above A, and one segment after A on the Circle. This pattern holds true for any starting point on the Circle of Fifths.  And it comes full circle; if you start on C and go up a fifth 12 times, you’ll be back to C.

But the Circle can also be used to represent chords. The outer circle refers to major chords, and the inside circle to their relative minor chords. Remember, the relative minor is always the VI chord in a major key.

For example, in the key of C-major, the 6 major and minor chords are:

I Chord II Chord III Chord IV Chord V Chord VI Chord
C-major D-minor E-minor F-major G-major A-minor

How many songs in C use a variation of these 6 chords? Many popular songs use only 3 or 4 of them. Now look at the Circle of Fifths. The chords touching the C-major are the other five major and minor chords in the key of C major.

Just like the notes, this hold true for whatever key you’re in, or your base starting point on the Circle. In the key of G, all the chords touching the G correspond to the other major and minor chords in that key.

There’s also a great youTube video that explains this well, specifically for guitarists.

Get experimental

Developing a chord pattern based on the six major or minor chords is tried and true. Even if you use the I, IV, and V chords in your verse and chorus, you could try starting with the II, III, or VI chord for your bridge. All the notes you’re using belong to the scale you’re in—i.e. you’re never going out of key.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a seventh chord. That’s the one that sounds bluesy or jazzy. It’s called a seventh chord because it’s a major chord plus a flattened seventh note. That is, the seventh note of the scale is taken down by one half-step or semitone. That note is out of key, technically, and it sounds Phrygian awesome (see? It works).

The point here is that going out of key is cool. It creates musical interest, adds tension and can really open up a song.

So how does this relate to the Circle of Fifths, you must be asking? Say you’re writing a song in the key of C-major, and you’re using the tried and true chords—the ones on the Circle that touch C. If you want to extend a little, say for your bridge, or heck, the third line of your verse, try a chord that’s “two hours away” from C. So, try a D-major, B-minor, Bb-major, or G-minor.  Just like the seventh chord, these chords have one note that’s out of the base key signature or scale. The other two notes of each chord remain grounded in the base key signature.

If you want to experiment further, try the chords that are “three hours away” from your I-chord. Once you start introducing chords that have two notes out of key, things start sounding weirder or more dissonant. The trick here is to stay grounded in your home base. It’s fun to travel to strange and exotic places, but it’s reassuring to come back home soon.

And of course, this holds true right around the clock. You can start on any chord and you’ll have five other chords that are guaranteed to work in consonant harmony with it. Try chords that are 2 or 3 hours away from your base, and things can get interesting.

A fine example

The Beatles were masterful at creating interesting changes in the songs without compromising catchiness. In other words, they did some weird stuff without making it sound weird.

Take A Hard Day’s Night as a fine example. The A part starts with G-major, F-major, and C-major. Even though it starts with a G-major, the section is clearly in the key of C-major. The G and F are either side of C in the Circle of Fifths. It’s very consonant (i.e. not dissonant). The second half, however, things start to shift. They introduce a D-major chord (“things that you do”). The D is “two hours away” from C. They quickly return to the G-C-G pattern they introduced at the top to finish off the section. It’s like you’re walking along the curb of a street, and just for a moment, you step on to the road (maybe into a puddle), then right back on the curb.

In the B section (“when I’m home…”) they shift to a B-minor. This is a great contrast for two reasons: it’s “two hours away” from the base C-major, and it’s the minor flavor (it’s also Paul taking the lead vocal from John). By the end of this section, they’ve returned to the D-major chord that we’ve heard before.

The twists are both subtle and noticeable. There’s no mistaking the B section for anything else when it comes in. They always return to base fairly quickly.

Light a new path to songwriting

I co-wrote a song called Light Your Way with Adi Aman for our band Beige Shelter. We released it in May for Mental Health Awareness month.

Download the chord/lyric sheet here.

The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all remain in the E-major key with no dissonant chords. The pre-chorus introduces the F#m chord which wasn’t used in the verse. For the guitar solo section and bridge, we flipped over by “3 hours” to the C#-major chord. By the end of the bridge, we’re back on B-major which is perfectly consonant with returning to E-major for the final choruses. Sometimes when you step far away from your base key signature, it can be tricky to get back to base.

Writing with purpose

I don’t deny that sometimes you just stumble upon some magical moment when you’re writing; you don’t know why it works, but it sounds cool and different, and you go with it. For myself, I’ve been trying to embrace my intuition for writing more recently. Knowing about the theory doesn’t destroy your intuition; in fact, I think it strengthens it. If you practice writing with purpose enough, you’ll begin to forget the reasons you make excellent snap decisions, but you’ll make better ones and feel more confident that they’re right. Keep on writing.

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.

Do you write songs from the heart or from the head?

Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises.  Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess.  “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.”  The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.”  This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.

Most songwriters and musicians know the history of the Beatles.  In the early 60’s, before they were famous, they played for hours every night in clubs in Hamburg, Germany.  They learned their chops, got better at harmonizing together and playing tightly together.  Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers, describes this as the 10,000 hours rule: practice anything for 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert.  The Beatles played more shows in a few short years than many contemporary bands play in their entire career.  Gladwell uses evidence-based examples to show that the most successful people are those who put in the time.

In another book, Blink, Gladwell champions the subconscious mind as a powerful decision maker, and how little information can be beneficial in making positive, snap decisions.  He cites such examples as fine art experts who can spot a forgery at a glance (and can’t explain how they know they’re looking at a forgery) and orchestras who hold blind auditions to reduce conscious biases.

So let’s bring this back to our central question.  It may be possible that songwriters who feel they channel their songs from some outward source, may in fact be so well practiced they make decisions in a “blink” and rely more heavily on their subconscious experience to guide their songwriting decisions.  “That chord progression just felt right.”  On the other hand, some songwriters are deliberate and conscious in their writing, and know the reasons their songs work the way they do.

I recall clearly learning to play the drums many years ago.  I started with simple rhythms on a single drum, and practiced many hours to coordinate my hands and feet on a drumkit.  The moment I could successfully coordinate kick drum and snare hits with a running cymbal rhythm, something in me clicked and I’ve never forgotten how to do it, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve last played a drumkit.  These days, I don’t think about it – I just follow my subconscious to feel the beat and play along.  If I’m playing in an unusual time signature, like 5/4 or 7/4, I need to engage more of my conscious mind.

I think the same applies to songwriting.  As songwriters, we can rely on our ability to “blink” and know if a songwriting or performance decision is the right one.  However, we can also study more conscious tools of songwriting to change things up, overcome writer’s block, and think outside the boxes we have created ourselves through our experience.

For myself, how do I answer the question of do I write from the heart or the head?  Historically, I’ve been a head-dominated writer, but lately I’ve been “consciously” relying more on my snap judgements, and perhaps surprisingly, they’re mostly right.  So, like everyone else, I’m somewhere in the middle.

Let us know how you look at your own process.  Do you write from the heart or the head, or both?

Song Talk Radio articles

I’m a regular contributor to Song Talk Radio’s blog and newsletter, with writing original content on topics of interest to our songwriter audience.

Check out my articles at the Song Talk Radio website.

What does it mean to be an “amateur” songwriter?

On Song Talk Radio we have a wonderful variety of guests and songwriters, and one way to group them is whether they are professional or amateur songwriters. Often, when we refer to amateur, there’s a negative connotation that implies a less polished, unsophisticated, or otherwise lesser craft. When we talk about being professional, it implies a polished, well-considered, or elevated craft.

However, if we consider the word amateur and its inherent meaning, there’s a better way to look at it.  Amateur is derived from the Latin amatorem, which means “lover of.” So, if you love writing songs, you’re an amateur. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing. Surely, many guests on Song Talk Radio, both amateur and professional, are superb songwriters.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Those songwriters who have devoted their careers, either full-time or part-time, to songwriting and performing, tend to have more polished and carefully considered songs. But consider if this is because they are “professionals” and earn money from their songs, or because they have made a decision to approach their craft with commitment, seriousness, and time.

Also consider the advantages of being an amateur writer. You don’t have to answer to anyone, or consider if your songs are “radio-friendly.” You can take risks, be experimental, and pretty much do as you please. (Another caveat – yes, there are commercial songwriters who can and do pretty much as they please and still sell records.)

The bottom line is if you love what you’re doing, you’re an amateur. You can still put in the time and commitment to polish your craft, and above all, embrace your amateur status with passion, integrity and creativity. Keep on writing.

One Great Mistake

This song resulted from a webinar with songwriting coach Alex Forbes. Alex presented a method for writing, and attendees were supposed to follow her step-by-step instructions to formulate their own song.

Her method centered around taking a stand on something you believe in, have a deep thought about, or a topic or phrase upon which you have something meaningful to say. For me, the idea I found compelling was that as we go through our lives, everything has to be right just to be content, but if you make one grave error, your life can change in an instant. An accident, a bad decision, or saying the wrong thing in a high-profile public context were some examples I wanted to use.

Alex’s next step was to formulate a title that encapsulated your central idea.  For me, it was “One Great Mistake.”

She then continued with tips on marrying the main lyric (chorus) with a melody that brings out the meaning of the words in the best way. Song form was discussed, as well as the idea of daring to suck as a songwriter. Meaning, write, write and write.  Be prolific.  Finish songs. Many of them will suck, and that’s OK – you’re learning something with each one.

Suffice to say, following a prescriptive method such as this tends to churn out fairly conventional song structures. Focusing on the clarity of expressing your idea makes for a very straight forward lyric and delivery. At least that’s what I found.

After writing the lyric, the music came to me fairly easily.  I knew I wanted to make the music just as straight forward as the lyric, which for me, meant a straight up the middle rocker. I also talked about this song on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

Download the full album for free.

Walk your whole damn life
Never give it a second thought
But take just one misstep
And you’re bedridden for months

It’s become second nature
You take the wheel most every day
But one distraction later
Twisted metal, body decay

One great mistake
That’s all it takes
You gotta be careful
To not bend, twist or break

Meet the girl of your dreams
Maybe your dreams were wrong
Spend your life in regret
It doesn’t have to be so long

It’s a game of subtle speech
Be careful what you say
You can fold under the pressure
And kiss your future away

But that’s the way we’re made
It’s a delicate precarious balance
Don’t take it for granted
Falter once and all will vanish

I Am

It’s been more than 25 years since I started writing music, and over 10 that I’ve been writing songs with my own lyrics. This is my very first published song for which I did my own singing (thank goodness for pitch correction).

I Am started out as the lyrics to accompany the music I had written for Brand New Door.  After mulling over feedback I received at a songwriter’s meetup group, I decided to rip apart the lyrics and music and create two new songs instead.

I took a different approach to writing the melody for I Am.  Normally, I would develop a melody on keyboard, then hand it off to a singer to finish off the track. This time, I laid down the music bed and developed a melody by simply singing whatever came to me. I intended to provide a “real” singer with my scratch track to base their performance on. However, my friend Sunny (who song Brand New Door for me) convinced me that my phrasing and tenor fit the song better than his, and more importantly, that he could pitch correct my performance for me.

So I gave the vocal another shot, and as it turned out, my new track required fewer corrections than my scratch track. Kudos to me! Sunny sent me the corrected version, and I added a touch of vocoding and synthesized harmony.

The lyric is a critical take on religion and spirituality, with a west vs. east structure.  I figure if I’m going to sing my own songs, may as well start off with something light ;).

Download the full album for free.

I am ethereal
Without matter and formless
At once essential
And vague omnipresence

I’m all the unknown
And all false certainty
A captor to your thoughts
A source of fear and doubt

Between subject and object
Between matter and form
Between the earth and sky
Should we accept the norm?

I am the observer
To all your bias
I’m the divider
To body and mind

I am the passion and the poet
I convey all breath and being
I perceive and I conceive
A world of emptiness

Between something and nothing
Between the ego and id
Between nature and nurture
Is your self well hid?