Songwriting by Kids for Kids – A Recipe and Process for Writing Songs with Kids

Over the last nine years, I have collaborated with around 500 kids K-5, usually twenty at a time, to write over a dozen songs about character education, science and local history. This project has been so rewarding for my soul! I’m putting this article together to outline my process, since I think it’s transferable, and so that more kids and communities can benefit from this fun process.

If you are a music teacher, classroom teacher, principal, administrator, composer, songwriter, musician or an interested parent, I would be happy to discuss any of these ideas in greater detail to figure out how to customize a program that you can bring this process to your local school, or organization.

Two quick things to note: I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily think that my process is particularly original – I expect there are others that are doing similar, worthy projects. I’m sharing what works for me, and pointing out some areas that I think are important. Also, all the benefits that I point to are anecdotal, taken from classroom teachers, music teachers and my observations.

Benefits – Why write songs with kids?

Music, plus a whole lot more In my workshops, I teach more than just musical ideas. I cover basic songwriting, general music concepts, the principles of narrative, how to construct a story, learning about working collaboratively and the creative process. Depending on the topic I have also included discussions on character education, community activism, science and history; where those last two are linked to the Common Core and to the State of California Standards. Yes, it sounds pretty deep, but many of the songs are pretty funny! (Listen to “The Plankton Song”)

Songwriting is empowering There is a wealth of great music written for kids to perform, however when kids are part of the songwriting process, and they get the opportunity to perform material they helped create, they demonstrate a huge sense of pride from literally having their ideas heard. The schools where I have written songs have a special new identity for these creations, even years later – “these are our songs”. (Watch “Kinder Than Necessary”)

Kids work closely with their topic When we write songs together, the students work with the subject matter in a number of ways. It keeps the topic fresh while they take a deep dive into their topic. They first learn about subject matter with their teacher in the classroom, then I discuss the subject matter with the kids during the songwriting process, and together we uncover then the essential elements of the subject matter – these become a main ingredient to the song. Next, they learn the song, which is a repetition of those essential elements, often memorize the song i.e. the main theme and supporting facts of the subject matter. Then they perform the songs, often for other students, and they have the opportunity to teach other kids about what they’ve learned. (Listen to “Symbiotically” from We Are Coral) 

Kids teach kids There are a few points in this project where kids teach other kids, which I find to be amazing. During the lyric writing process, the kids discuss what ideas and elements are the most important for the song. They often recite facts that their teacher has taught them. Kids remember different bits and pieces, and they piece them together to make a whole story, which in turn becomes a song. Poetic, right?

The next kid-teach-kid learning opportunity happens when the kids perform their songs for other grades, younger and older. Most often the younger kids are hearing these ideas for the first time, and the older kids are getting a review or a slightly new take on ideas they’ve learned in previous grades.

Kids have different styles of learning There are always a few kids that are surprise thrivers during my workshops. These are kids that the classroom teachers report as being bored sometimes, or a little hard to reach. Music and songwriting unlocks something in these kids. Somehow, a change comes over some children during the songwriting process. In some cases, the kids might be shy and not overly comfortable with sharing their ideas in class, but somehow music affects them on a different level, and they begin to open up. The power of music should not be under estimated!

 

The Recipe

I have honed my process over a nine year period, with the help and input of some great classroom teachers, a fantastic music teacher, and some open minded kids. I have written character education songs with 1st graders, a nine song coral reef musical with 2nd graders, a local history review with 3rd graders and a song about kindness with a huge collaboration of an entire K-5 elementary school.

In all of the projects I’ve worked on, the common factor is that kids have generated all the ideas for the lyrics. I flip some words around, put them in an order, and help them figure out the main idea, which becomes the chorus. But when I say the kids write the lyrics to these projects, I really mean that they write the lyrics – to me, that is the secret sauce. That part is non-negotiable. I try my best to include as many ideas as possible and to leave whole phrases intact, so they are recognizable when the kids experience the songs.

Here’s my basic recipe. I realize this is a lot to pull together, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to sustain this for so many years. Ingredients for writing songs with kids:

 

1          Engaged classroom teacher – willing to spend the necessary time to see the project through, including to help the kids learn the songs

1          Topic to write about (anything could work, examples are character education, science, history)

1          Chunk of time, agreed upon by the classroom teacher and the music teacher

1          Small funding source to pay for the program

1          Engaged person to write a grant (optional)

1          Supportive administrator like a principal

1          Group of kids – Generally one classroom/group of kids works well to write one song

1          Open-minded songwriter – ability or access to record and deliver drafts and completed songs

1          Dedicated music teacher – willing to teach the songs, sometimes in lieu of learning other songs, or sometimes during classroom time

1          Confirmed performance

 

The Process

I generally like to meet with the kids a few times – once to introduce songwriting, once to gather ideas to write, once to introduce the song. I have been able to keep my classroom times pretty low, partly to keep the grant amounts reasonable.

For my first session, I like to present an introduction to songwriting and songwriting form so the kids get used to me, and we can get used to working together. During this process, I often try to quickly generate some ideas to begin to write a song on the spot. I make an effort here to show them that creativity can be fun and casual – all we need is a little bit of structure.  (During this first session process, this song came together with 1st graders. It was a week before MLK day. We talked about Dr. King for a few minutes, then I asked them about their dreams. (Listen to “I Have A Dream”)

At some point before my next meeting with the kids, I like for the kids to have learned something from their teacher – if it’s history or science-based, they may do some research. If it’s character education, they may read an age-appropriate book.

Often during this classroom learning the teacher takes notes that they bring to this session, so the kids can see. These can be helpful for the kids to review, especially if the learning has been more than two weeks before. What I’m really looking for is for the kids to convey ideas in their own words. While it can be hard sometimes, we always get there!

I’m always glad for the classroom teacher to be present during this session, and if they have any specific notes or directions that the song should take, I always ask for their input. However, it’s crucial that teachers and other adults present participate as little as possible with the idea gathering, other than help with aspects like calling on students. Words from adults can sometimes be more eloquent than necessary –  I honestly think it’s the words from the kids that give these songs their magic. (Listen to “Honesty”)

When I meet with the kids for the second session, we quickly review songwriting form then move forward to work on lyrics. To them, I make it clear that we’re just working on ideas. I try to start with a blank canvas. I also try to just listen and get them to talk, asking questions to learn more about what they know. I sometimes remind them that we’re just looking for ideas, not necessarily perfect lyrics or phrases. I find that if kids, especially in the younger grades try to give what they expect means a clever idea, it often comes out a bit forced. We don’t worry about rhyming, order or anything that might get in the way of their free thought.

Toward the end of this session, I try to make sure we agree as a group about a working main idea, that could work as a chorus. I like to try to demonstrate some music ideas that might work on the spot to allow the kids to have some input on what genre(s) might work for the song. I also try to show demonstrate some ideas that probably wouldn’t work well, maybe playing music against the subject matter (like a sad music for happy lyrics).

Next, I take the ideas into my studio and fashion them into a song. I wish I could better explain how I put lyrics into music! I realize this part of the process is pretty important but I just don’t know how to break it down to explain it… I supposed it’s like trying to describe to someone how to walk – you put one foot in front of the other, and place your weight on your front leg when you do it… but that doesn’t quite describe walking. I’m certain that each musician and songwriter would have their own process here. I suppose that the right songwriter is a rather crucial ingredient for this process to work.

I like to make the songs singable and memorable for the kids, and I try to make sure the kids can sing them, making sure that it’s in their range. In my approach, I write songs that are written and performed by kids – but I don’t write “kid songs” per se (not that there’s anything wrong with those). I have found that kids can handle pretty sophisticated syncopation and harmonic motion. I generally use Pop songs and classic Broadway songs as a reference.

I generally continue to work on the chorus first, but not always. I really try to get all the kids ideas into the song with the aim of keeping the song at around three minutes or less. Once I feel like the song has the right flow, I make a scratch recording and share it with the music teacher for a quick review. Sometimes I make a few tweaks after this process, then I make a better recording, including the piano accompaniment that the classroom teachers can use to teach the song. I will also share the draft lyrics with the classroom teacher to make sure we have all our facts straight, and change anything necessary.

In my third session with the kids, I introduce the song to them. This is generally my favorite part, as they can see the whole process come together. I find it to be really rewarding when they spot their own idea, or their friend’s “you wrote that part!” Once I see whether I need any further tweaks, I create a written music chart for the song so the music teacher can teach it, and so the school can perform it in the future.

At this point, the music teacher and classroom teachers take over the project, teaching the song to the kids. It’s always hard to find time for the kids to learn the song(s), so I find it helpful to at least get a rough idea of when the learning will take place at the beginning of the process so that the teachers can support each other.

Finally the kids perform their precious songs for their parents, and hopefully other kids.

While this process is slightly different every time, it is always rewarding for me to watch the kids collaborate, learn and perform. Do you have questions about how you might incorporate this process into your school or organization? Please let me know if you’d like to learn more about my experiences and to see if together, we can customize a program that works for you.

 

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter, producer and professional musician. Jerome has worked with over 500 kids to write 15+ songs and counting, including “We Are Coral” a musical about saving the Coral Reef. Jerome creates music for advertising, apps, kid’s video games and TV. Jerome has created music for Originator Kids “Math Tango: Starbase”, Leapfrog and Spinmaster. Jerome has placed his music in major TV shows “The Bachelor” on ABC  and MTV’s “The Challenge”. He runs Freshmade Music, an independent audio studio.

How To Speak Music – 5 Tips For Communicating With A Composer

Speak Music

Pairing music with video is a really exciting process, whether you’re working in animation, advertising, film, television or video games. This step in production usually means that you’re nearing the completion of your project. Perhaps congratulations are in order? Finding the right music for your project is a little tricky, but if you keep a few things in mind and you add a dose of patience, hopefully you’ll get the results you’re looking for.

As a composer and music producer, I interface with a wide variety of folks from a variety of backgrounds who make up my client base. They often have exponentially more experience than I do in art, design, writing and business. They may be a super-talented art director, editor, visionary writer, producer or other type of content creator. No matter what their title is, the job of finding music often falls into the lap of the most creative member or members on the team. In almost every case, everyone on the team has a strong passion for music, and they know from the start exactly what they think will work. Sometimes the hardest part for the team is trying to communicate the musical vision to the person who will be bringing it into fruition. That’s where I come in. 

In this article, I am addressing the process of working with a composer to create custom music. I recognize that working with a music library is also a viable option for many creatives – that is a somewhat different process.

From the beginning of the project, it’s my job to open a clear line of communication about what exactly we all want for the music, to determine who the final decision makers are, and to figure out a way to keep things on track.

In the beginning, it’s often helpful to get very granular details by sharing existing examples and quick, messy custom prototypes to really hone in on the right direction. Many projects move fast, and sometimes projects change in the middle, so getting that communication going is important for any tweaks or adjustments that we decide on to get the music working well, as fast as possible.

Once in awhile during the review process, I’ll get feedback such as “It’s not working” or “I don’t like it.” That’s clearly not enough feedback. If that’s all I get, I have to do my best to draw my client out more. I don’t need them to tell me their hopes, fears and dreams, but I do need to figure out what music is going to work, so I don’t throw out the good parts and then I need to figure out what isn’t working with the music, so I can fix it.

Very often my job is to translate emotional terms, narrative structure and thematic elements into music.

Here are 5 recommendations for communicating with a composer:

  1. Use descriptive language. It’s helpful to use emotional words, and try to tie them in to thematic elements in your project. It’s great to use the language that originally inspired you in the creation of your masterpiece. These ideas can be foundational for the music as well. For instance, if you need the music to build right after the sunrise, or if you need the music to pause when the main character looks away because she’s remembering how much she misses her first pet Sparkles… those are the elements to concentrate on and to communicate about. Sometimes you need the music to track a character’s mood, or you need the music to play against what’s happening on the screen.
  2. Be careful of using musical terms. Musical terms generally have very precise meanings, and if not used correctly, they can be confusing to your composer and muddy up your intention and in turn, your music track. I’ve been in situations where a creative person recommends that they want something raised up an octave, but they really mean just a higher key – or that they want something slower, but they actually mean in a minor key. No worries. It’s my job to translate, so if you’re not sure, it’s OK to say that you’re not sure, we’ll figure it out together.
  3. Try to have specific existing music examples. If my client doesn’t provide examples at the beginning of the project, I frequently put together a quick playlist that we review together. These examples allow us to begin a conversation about genre, instrumentation, tempo, and feel and anything else that might be relevant to the project – and since we’re listening to the same examples, we can generally get the majority of the information that I need to create an audio brief it one doesn’t already exist, and can begin composing. This process is also a great way to begin our clear line of communication.
  4. Be prepared to provide data. No matter what you’re working on, you’ve already worked on it longer than the composer you’re bringing in. You likely have some valuable insights to convey about audience, target markets and your competition or industry. If it’s a commercial, you might have some analytics that you’ve rolled into your process already. If you’re working on TV show or film, you might either have some focus group data or at least some anecdotal ideas that you are drawing from. Your composer doesn’t necessarily need raw data, but giving them a brief summary of this information can be a key insight into why you’re making some of the choices you’re making about music. This data may also inform some of the decisions the composer makes in one direction or another.
  5. Be open. As in any creative process, you may ask for something and realize that once it’s compiled, you don’t like it. No worries! Pairing music to picture is an iterative process. I find it helpful to figure out what is and isn’t working and to move quickly forward from that information. It can be helpful in these situations to focus on the outcome, not necessarily the process. If you’re focusing on narrative, subject matter and how you want a scene to be conveyed, chances are that you’re going to be in the ballpark of finding the right music. And sometimes even small tweaks can make all the difference between what isn’t working too well, and what’s totally working.

Pairing music with video is an exciting process. If you have the chance to collaborate with a composer who is a willing partner and good listener, then there is a high likelihood that the composer will take great care with your project – the same amount of great care that you have taken to get it this far.

I received feedback from a longtime client a few years ago. Every week, when I sent over my full orchestrations and the final mixes of my music synced to picture to the audio director, this was usually cause for a small crowd of people who worked on this project to gather around the audio director’s mixing console and watch it, some watching the whole project for the first time. It was only then, and only once the music was synced that the project felt finished. That, to me, is how I know when we have the right music.

Good luck, and let me know how your experience with of communicating with a composer goes!

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter, producer and professional musician. For 18, Jerome has created music for advertising, apps, and kid’s video games. Jerome has placed his music in major TV shows like “The Bachelor” on ABC  and MTV’s “The Challenge”. Jerome also creates the music for the Happy Tree Friends, a very funny (though very violent) cartoon for adults and mature kids, with a huge cult following. He runs Freshmade Music, an independent audio studio. You can learn more at www.freshmademusic.com.

Seven Steps of Creativity

Creativity can seem elusive. For some people, it’s loaded with fear and superstition. The fear is that just by asking, trying to look the muse directly in the eye, we risk scaring the muse away!

With a little bit of faith in my heart and my fingers firmly crossed, I took some time to examine my creative process. I was somewhat surprised to learn that I go through a similar process each time I complete something creative. In my examination, I broke my creative process down into steps. Here are:

My 7 Steps of Creativity are: the spark, organization, the brainstorm, assessment, execution, revisions, declaring it done.

I realize that there are likely tons of really great ways to approach creativity effectively and there is probably no real magic to the way I personally approach creativity. This just happens to be mine.

I notice that I don’t always use each of these steps in order — sometimes I skip around a little bit, but I do touch on each one at some point. I’ve outlined a brief explanation of each of the 7 Steps below and I’m including some tips on how I try to optimize each one.

How can you use these steps and how can they benefit you? For me, I use this process for writing articles, producing music tracks, writing songs, and collaborating with other creative folks. This process may be helpful for you if you’re working on a large project that you need to tackle but seems daunting, or if you’re trying to figure out the best way to start a project — perhaps you’ve got a temporary case of writer’s block ? And why don’t we just assume that all writer’s block is temporary?

1. The Spark

The Spark is that kernel of an idea that seems to magically enter into your head. Sometimes the spark comes quickly, in the shower or when you’re driving — hopefully not when you’re trying to do both! But sometimes you have to will it into existence. Either way, you want to be ready when your great inspiration arrives. Here’s what I recommend:

Optimize Tip: Create your space

The idea here is that you want to open the creative space in your mind for the spark to come. A free mind is an inviting environment for creative ideas.

Do whatever you need to do, both mentally and physically to make sure your mind is free of distractions. When I have a lingering bill, phone call or email to write, then I take care of it, especially if it means it will free up more room in my brain to be creative. I can be easily distracted from checking my email and checking into social media, so I create some guidelines for myself.

I don’t like to begin work until I have an organized work space. If it would help you to have a clean work area, then set aside some time or put an action plan together about how and when you’re going to clean your space. And if you have to, find somewhere else to work, like your local coffee shop.

A note of caution here — if you find that the “create your space” step is taking more time than you expected (“Oh, my 5th grade class photo… I wonder where Desmond is?”) than be careful that you’re not using this as a reason to procrastinate.

2. Organization

When I was just starting out composing music for film and TV, I would have a tendency to jump the gun and start making stuff way too early in the process — right after getting the spark — without having nearly enough information. I would make a number of assumptions and then be prepared to deliver music based on these assumptions to my clients. As you might imagine, many of my assumptions would be wrong, my music wouldn’t be quite right, and in the very beginning, my ego was a bit bruised. If I had been a little more patient and just asked questions and listened to the answers, I would have been in a much better position.

Optimize Tip: Gather information by research or listening

Answer who, what, where and when. This is when you’re the project manager; where you identify what you’re doing, how you’re going to do it, who’s responsible for what, what your deadlines are and whether there are any additional resources that you’re going to need. If you’re working with clients, this is the part where you listen to how they understand the project, you ask lots of questions, and you clarify whatever you need to. For many creative projects, it’s often clear in somebody’s head what creative solution will work — if you’re working for that creative person, you want to make sure you get the full creative download on what they’re expecting, so it becomes clear in your head too.

While capturing all of these details may sound stifling, most creative folks thrive on having a structure so they know exactly what they’re working on. I personally love knowing what my deadline is, who my target audience is, who I’m working with, who will be reviewing my work, and what the parameters are for the project.

3. The Brainstorm

The point of the brainstorm section is to get lots of ideas together so that you can choose the best ones. Sometimes my first idea is good, but I’ve noticed that I can push myself to see “What else can I do?” or “How else can I solve this?” In situations where I’ve come up with multiple ideas, I’ve often taken elements from a few different ideas to find the winning solution.

Optimize Tip: Allow yourself to create without judgement

Sometimes when I’m writing a piece of music, I may write three really quick sketches knowing that I’ll assess them at a later time, and honestly not really worry about whether they’re good. This is the time for creating content, not judging it. It’s critical in this stage to turn your editor off so that you can freely express your ideas without the little voice inside you constantly saying “no, that sucks” or “people are never going to like this.”

4. Assessment

This is when you can let the editor in and freely judge the brainstormed ideas. For me, I really appreciate starting the assessment process after I’ve had some space from the initial brainstorming session, whether it’s overnight or after I’ve taken a brief break from creating. This way, I can try to have a fresh perspective, and I can try not to be emotionally attached to any one idea.

Quick note — while the assessment step may take place here, and it may take place again, later in the process.

Optimize Tip: Try to be your own fair, balanced critic

The sooner you can be honest with yourself, the better. If you really like something you’ve created, and you’ve gotten positive feedback from folks who understand what you’re doing, there’s a good chance that some group of folks out in the world will like it too. But if I create something, look at it a few days later, and I’m not in love with it? I give myself permission to to step away and start again, especially if I don’t know how to make changes so that I’ll love it. Sometimes the quicker that you can judge that something won’t work can save valuable creative time to focus on the ideas that you think are worth pursuing. Besides, I always keep all my work — even the discarded ideas because sometime those so-so ideas get revised and turn into great projects.

5. Execution

Optimize Tip: Create fast and cheap prototypes

You want some way to be able to really quickly assess the viability of your idea. Sometimes you can only see a dramatic flaw from a mockup that you can’t see on paper. I record demos and listen. I audition instruments and see how they’re working together. If it’s appropriate, I get feedback from trusted sources. Again, it’s often helpful to allow yourself to experiment, fail and revise in this step.

Optimize Tip: Try 3–5 versions

Put together 5 beginnings. Create 3 endings — quickly, but don’t polish them yet. You want to put only enough energy in to see whether your project is working. If it isn’t, create some more. If it is, and all it needs is polish, then that’s fantastic!

(At this point, I often go back to #4 Assessment)

6. Revisions

If you have an inkling in your gut that you should change a small part of your project, do it and see if you like it better. In the majority of these situations, a small change might take a little more time to fix, but is totally worth it in the end.

Optimize Tip: Revisions can make or break the project

Sometimes it’s easy to blast through the initial creation phase of a project, but I notice that I slow down for the analysis portion. I often find that analyzing projects to figure out how to improve them can take much more time, and can be a much more delicate process. Very often a few very small changes can make a big difference in a project. When I’m working on a music track, I try to listen to reference tracks to make sure I’m getting the mix that I’m trying for. During the brainstorming and execution steps, I may make broad strokes. In this revision step I’m more conscious of working carefully and more skillfully.

7. Completion — Declare it Done

Sometimes you have an external deadline when you have to turn in your work, so that whatever you’re working on can go to the next step. And sometimes, creatively you need a break — you’d like to wrap it up and start something else.

Optimize Tip: Try to get it finished “enough”

There are times when I’ve finished a project because I’ve run out of time. In fact this can sometimes be a blessing. There are projects that come together very quickly — 90% is finished in a day or two, then I take 3 days to try to polish the last 10% (See the Revisions Step above). Be careful with how long you take to complete the final polish. When you think a project might be done — get some feedback if you need to, take a deep breath, do one last check, then pitch it, send it, ship it — whatever needs to happen. Then move on to the next project (and perhaps start again at step #1!).

Creating something can be a pretty messy process. In my mind, I come up with an idea, work on it, then it’s finished. But when I stopped to examine my process, I realized there is a lot more to it. I also realized that I don’t generally bring superstition and fear into my creative process when I’m mindful of following the 7 Steps of Creativity.

If you have any interesting tips to share about your creative process, or if you have any questions or feedback about these 7 Steps, I’d love to hear from you. I’m always fascinated to learn about how other folks approach their creative process. I’m especially interested to see how other folks start and finish creative projects. Go make stuff!

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter, producer and professional musician. For 15 years, Jerome has created music for advertising, apps, and kid’s video games. Jerome has placed his music in major TV shows on NBC. ABC and Fox. Jerome also creates the music for the Happy Tree Friends, a very funny (though very violent) cartoon for adults and mature kids, with a huge cult following. He runs Freshmade Music, an independent audio studio. You can learn more at www.freshmademusic.com.

My Job’s Most Important Skill

The most important skill in my job is listening, though perhaps not the way you may be thinking if you know me. I run an independent audio production studio called Freshmade Music, so I rely on my ears for my job. What I’m referring to here is listening to what other humans are saying. I’m talking about communication; really understanding what my clients and potential clients are looking for, where we can bounce ideas back and forth so that not only do I understand what they’re saying – and here’s the kicker – they trust me. Because if you’re in a business relationship of any kind, and you’re really listening and understanding what your role is, and you’re able to deliver and excel effectively in your role, you begin to gain trust. This is especially important fast-paced environments, like the industries I work on, when I’m creating music for advertising, apps, games and TV.

I’ll explain more. But first we have to talk about burritos. My daughter really likes burritos, so we order them to-go from her favorite taqueria once a week. She really likes what she likes, but she really doesn’t like what she doesn’t like. Who doesn’t? I don’t blame her.  When she wasn’t really old enough to place her own order, I’d order for her. Sometimes I would place our order too quickly while trying to keep the rest of my family’s order together in my head and screw up her order. I’d either forget to specify which kind of beans she wanted, or forget to tell the restaurant that she wanted the regular size, not the smaller kids size, because she likes to eat half today and save the other half for another meal. How would the taqueria know that? They wouldn’t! There were times when she got the wrong order, and she would get upset. Mean Daddy. (As I said, it was my fault – at least like 90% of the time). Where was the error? Was this a bad burrito? No. Was this suddenly a bad restaurant? No. This was quite simply a communication breakdown. I didn’t stop and take the appropriate amount of time that I needed to place the order correctly, thus she didn’t receive what she wanted.

Here’s another example, this one from my work experience. When I was just starting out, a client explained the germ of an idea to me. At this early point, I was so excited! I immediately committed my first error when I assumed that the most important thing I could do was to prove to them that I could read their mind and show them how great my music was. Good intention, but wrong decision. What I didn’t understand in this early project, is that I failed to slow down and take in enough information to even begin producing music that the client might like. I should have asked more questions about genre, music function, target audience, instrumentation, and more. This in turn would have sparked a more in-depth conversation with my client. But no, I just started creating music that I thought was perfect, and thought that the client would just love it. Well… that early experience was eye-opening. I couldn’t believe that my client didn’t like the cool music I put together! But I quickly realized, the music was fine; it just wasn’t the right music. More importantly, I hadn’t taken time to communicate with my client, so we weren’t really collaborating yet. I didn’t have any buy-in.

It took me a few more projects to realize that if you have full buy-in from them team you’re working with, especially in a creative industry like mine, you’re much more likely to stay on the team for more iterations and to see the project through to its end. Luckily my client was patient and stuck with me. My first draft wasn’t for naught – this track led to a very productive conversation with the client and she allowed me to submit more music that was much closer to what we both thought would work, and after a few tweaks my final music was approved.

Do you have any tips or experiences you’d like to share? Please share them with me at  info@freshmademusic.com.

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter, producer and professional musician. For 15 years, Jerome has created music for advertising, apps, kid’s video games and has placed his music in major TV shows like Gordon Ramsey’s “The F-Word” and “The Bachelor”. Jerome also creates the music for the Happy Tree Friends, a very funny (though very violent) cartoon for adults and mature kids, with a huge cult following. He runs Freshmade Music, an independent audio studio. You can learn more at www.freshmademusic.com.

Faders – Career Ideas: 5 Tips for Creative People Who Excel at Multiple Things

Over the last few years I’ve attended a couple audio and music industry conferences where I’ve participated in panels discussing careers and networking. Here is a question that has come up a few times…

Allen (who’s name I have changed) asks: “I’m a musician, engineer, producer, sound designer and songwriter. I’ve had a job assisting an engineer for a couple years, but I’m not sure I want to keep doing it. I think it might take a couple more years until I’m sitting in the engineer chair, but I don’t know if I want to wait that long. I think I may want to do something that feels more creative. What should I do? How can I do all of those things?”

My answer… yes and maybe! My favorite analogy is that of a mixing board with faders. In Allen’s case, there are 5 things that he wants to do – and let’s assume he does them all well. First things first – we need to take a step back and recognize that he’s done something well enough to convince someone else to pay him to be an engineering assistant, and presumably he’s paying his bills with a job, that is at least related to what he wants to do. Good job, Allen!

With our fader analogy, we’re going to assign each of the things Allen wants to do to a fader. Our goal is to bring up all the faders, and make it sound good. Sometimes Allen might bring a few faders up and leave a few down. It’s possible that he never has them all up at the same time. Right now, you could say that the engineering “fader” is mostly all the way up, and all the others are down – but as Allen has expressed, this is not exactly what he wants to do.

Would it be possible for Allen to bring the producing fader up a bit? Can Allen focus more on producing during the evening and weekends, while he keeps his current job? Does he have after-hours access to the studio? Can he bring artists or other projects in during these times?

What about some of Allen’s other interests? Does he have buddies that he’s in a band with, and can he bring them into the studio? Does he have friends making records elsewhere? Do any of them need songs or musicians? That could cover being a musician, engineer, producer and songwriter.

While Allen might be impatient to make a career switch, we should recognize that his experience as an engineer will be an asset to any other project he enters into. Also, it’s important to note, that since Allen is already otherwise making his living, it’s not essential that he make money from these other activities right away. It’s more important to build his network, credits and track record. For example, it would likely be better for Allen to have produced, engineered and mixed three of his friends bands – and for those to sound awesome, then for him to hold out for too much money and not have produced anyone, thus not having anything for prospective clients to check out.

Which is not to say that Allen should work totally for free (ever!), even for friends. In this era of KickStarter and PledgeMusic, it’s possible for a band to raise some amount of money. Perhaps someone in the band can trade you for professional services like helping to put together a website or helping with PR.

While you may not share Allen’s specific skill set, hopefully you can see what I mean with the fader analogy. I have many creative friends who do quite a few different things really well. Some have decided to focus on one career path and then switch somewhere along the line; others have figured out a way to be more multi-disciplined. Please let me know if you have any comments or have an ideas that have worked for you.

Here are my 5 Tips for Creative People Who Excel at Multiple Things:
1. Pay your rent. You need to be able to cover living expenses, food, etc. If this means taking a day job – do it. For the vast majority of us, we’re much more functional creative humans if we don’t have to worry about day-to-day expenses and where we’re going to sleep at night. Also, make sure you have a solid plan of how to push your creative self forward if it ends up being on the evenings and weekends. Taking care of yourself first isn’t an original idea; it’s basically taken from “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. To learn more about that, check out: http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

2. Become a master. Start with one skill that you’re already good at and try to master it. Get help from someone who already does this better than you, whether it’s a formal teacher, a mentor or some learning materials.

3. Choose wisely. There are lots of parts of the recording, audio and music industries that don’t pay the bills, and they can be extremely competitive. Some of these areas feel like a lottery (in fact your chances might be better in some lotteries!). If there is a specific area of the industry that you’re serious about pursuing, make sure you are realistic about your chances, and make alternate plans in case your dream doesn’t bring money in, or doesn’t bring in money right away.

4. Plan for the long game. If you’re planning to be a full-time creative person, especially if you’re living in an expensive creative city, I recommend start with 2 years of living expenses and assuming that you will earn $0 from your creative work.

5. Be flexible. Sometimes a job in your industry that ends up bringing you financial gain or recognition is not the area that you set out to work in. If you end up with a specialty, don’t fight it!

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter and audio producer. He’s also an educator, engineer, writer and professional musician! He usually has only one of his faders all the way up! He is best known as the composer for the Happy Tree Friends. Since 2005, Jerome has scored the music for this animated Internet sensation, recognized as the most-viewed web series of all time, with over 2 billion video views. You can learn more about him at www.freshmademusic.com.

West Coast Songwriters Conference

General’s Quarter’s, Fort Mason
San Francisco, California

September 26 & 27

For more information:
https://www.facebook.com/events/705182576279828/
http://www.westcoastsongwriters.org/conference

I’ll be moderating 2 events at this year’s West Coast Songwriter’s conference.

The first is a speed-networking event with the guests and attendees of the event. This should be a fun and chaotic way to meet and network with tons of folks in a short period of time.

The second is a panel “Streaming Unraveled”. We’re discussing where the music industry is in regards to streaming and distributing music. We’re going to showcase some of the the powerful tools that artists and songwriters can use to get their music out, reach their crowd, and get onto the path of making some money.

Five Tips To Help You Reach Deadline Zen

Deadlines: Inspiration or Impediment?

As a creative professional, I rely on deadlines as motivation and inspiration. Sometimes they can be a bright shimmer of heavenly light, beaming angelically from the end of the day Friday. Other times, they are a hot, scary, stress-inducing firebrand, pushing you to sprint, not walk; a motivational kick in the… pants! Either way, since deadlines are inevitable, I’ve come to see them as a tool.

“I am one of those people who thrive on deadlines, nothing brings on inspiration more readily than desperation.” – Harry Shearer

DSC_0385Some Context
I’m a composer for TV, video games and cartoons. I generally deliver a finished music file that gets placed immediately into project. If it’s a TV show, it may be broadcast the day after I deliver my file. If it’s a video game, it will immediately get implemented into the game, and entered into an extensive testing process. In both of these cases, my deadlines matter – someone is waiting for me to finish my part, so the project can move forward to next step. There is both carrot and stick associated to this; I often get paid at deadline milestones, but I’m also generally concerned (afraid?) about my deadline, as I don’t want to be the source of a bottleneck.

Five Tips to Deadline Zen
I’ve put together a handful of tips that I use to keep my work on schedule. While you may not find any of these exactly revolutionary, I find it helpful to be reminded of these ideas from time to time.

1) Break down the large project into little bits. Take one first step. Make sure you understand the big picture. If you’ve had a conversation with your client or collaborator, and you know where you’re going, then you’re ready to break the work into a smaller piece, and get cracking.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

2) Make sure you’re organized. When you’re working quickly, you can’t take time to fix your process. If you find this to be an issue, take time to work through this in the future when you don’t have a deadline.

I notice when I work really fast, I can be very creative, but I have a higher likelihood of letting small details slide, and a higher likelihood of being paranoid about whether that small details might slide! If you’re organized, these small details can have a better chance of falling into place.

“The thing that would most improve my life is 27 hours in a day. I could meet all my deadlines.” – Yoko Ono

3) Choose the right people to work with. Beware of the “Toxic Collaborator”! There are folks who think they only thrive on tight deadlines, those who never meet deadlines and those who just unfortunately aren’t very organized. There is a high likelihood that you might come across these people as colleagues, team members or clients, and sometimes you just don’t have a choice. (It’s possible that you are one of these people. It’s OK! You’re working on that, right?) It’s best to know the situation up front, so you can be prepared. It may be helpful to plan ahead by putting some extra organizational tools into place or setting some internal deadlines that occur prior to the client deliverable. Sometimes these folks are very creative, and you really don’t want to stifle that creativity, but you do need to effectively manage the project so that everything happens when it needs to.

4) Know what you’re getting into. “Is it always like this?” I like to put my deadlines into perspective. There are whole industries that have built-in, always crazy, run-around-like-a-chicken-with-your-head-cut-off deadlines like nightly TV shows, technology products and the stock market. Handling these sorts of deadlines is often the whole point of the job. If you can thrive under this sort of pressure, that’s awesome – just make sure you know what you’re getting into.

5) Plan ahead. I love being involved in planning meetings at the beginning of a project, when creative, administrative and scheduling expectations are set out. This can be a great opportunity to have some input into what’s possible in regards to timing. This is the time to get the deadlines right. I prefer building in small milestones, so my clients are incrementally checking my work as we go, instead of one big reveal at the end. For instance, it can often be better to devise four small deadlines (and perhaps incremental payments associated to that) rather than one big deadline.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams

If any of these tips are interesting to you, try implementing them one at a time, if you’re aren’t already working this way. As you get back to work, I hope you’re able to reach maximum deadline Zen!

Do you have any experiences or other tips that you’d like to share about deadlines? I’d love to hear from you at info@freshmademusic.com.

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter and professional musician.  He is best known as the composer for the Happy Tree Friends. Since 2005, Jerome has scored the music for this animated Internet sensation, recognized as the most-viewed web series of all time, with over 2 billion video views. He has delivered his music on or ahead of his deadlines for the last 15 years. You can learn more about him at www.freshmademusic.com.