Latest Crazy Scheme:
The “Work in Progress” Group

Writers and musician always steal from each other. How many great novels and stories take their titles from music? How many great songs and compositions are inspired by works of literature? (Answer: a metric buttload!)

But strangely, musicians have been slow to pick up on one of best practices of modern writers. I refer to the writers group, a gathering of struggling authors (they all struggle) who share their work in progress with each other, seeking constructive criticism, general encouragement, and a chance to schmooze with their peers.

For years I participated in a novel-writers group here in San Francisco. It was a fantastic experience, and one that made me regret the fact that musicians usually don’t have similar outlets. Sure, you can play your work in progress for friends and family, but that’s not the same as sharing it with other artists who are grappling with similar issues.

Submitting your work for peer critique can be scary. The feedback is occasionally misguided. Egos can intrude. But in my experience, at least, the helpful conversations outweigh hurtful ones by a hundred to one.

A few years ago I tried taking the concept into the classroom, leading a writers-group-style musicians group as a course through UC Berkeley Extension. It was a terrific experience, especially because the 20 or so participants spanned many musical styles and many skill levels. (I would have loved to continue it, but I dropped the ball when I went on tour and never picked it back up.)

Like church services or AA meetings, writers groups tend to follow the same basic format: You submit your work, along with whatever relevant info you’d like to share. (It’s usually helpful to state up front what sort of feedback you’re seeking.) Next, you basically shut up and let everyone else talk. Don’t argue. Don’t justify or explain yourself. Just collect the feedback, thank everyone for their input, and then return to your own private Bat Cave to sift through the advice and decide whether any of it is relevant and helpful.

Now, art isn’t a democratic process — sometimes you stick to your guns, even if seemingly everyone disagrees with your choices. On the other hand, sometimes the group can alert you to problems you weren’t even aware of — or reassure that you’re doing a fine job obtaining the desired effect. Sometimes you get feedback that’s so contradictory as to be useless. Sometimes it’s surprisingly unanimous.  But it’s always interesting — and some of the most interesting perspectives inevitably comes from people who don’t happen to share your own tastes.

You can post clips of recordings you’re working on, techniques you’re trying to master, tones you’re sculpting, or anything else that can be represented via an mp3.

It probably goes without saying that the process only succeeds if participants maintain helpful and friendly attitudes, and keep the feedback 100% constructive.

As an example of how this all works, I went to the “Work in Progress” page and created a new forum post featuring a a track I’m working on with my band, Mental 99. (You can view the post here.) I uploaded an mp3 to my account at Soundcloud, and then pasted the link into my forum post. I included some background info and specified the feedback I was looking for. My expectation would be that participants focus on those areas, but if they’re struck by something I didn’t ask about, be it good or bad, they’ll feel free to discuss that as well. For my part, I won’t argue or rebut comments, even ones that strike me as off-the-wall. I’m there to listen to and absorb a cross-section of reactions.

(You don’t need to use Soundcloud, of course — you can just link to any file-sharing site. But I dig Soundcloud because it works great, looks cool, and boasts lots of nice features, including the ability to input comments directly onto the tracks timeline. And it’s free.)

I’m not going to propose any strict structure here, other than the forum’s one extant rule. (“Be cool.”) But depending how this goes, we may want to add more structure as we proceed.

That’s assuming we do proceed. This is a wild experiment, one that’s probably fraught with zillions of complications I haven’t even considered yet. (I reserve the right to run screaming in panic!) But I figured we could throw it against the wall and see whether it sticks, or just slides down the wall and makes a big ugly mess on the floor.

Does this make sense so far? Does it seem like a useful resource? Let me know — or better yet, try it our for yourself and share your experiences in comments below.



5 comments to Latest Crazy Scheme:
The “Work in Progress” Group

  • Funny you should open you blog with your metric buttload analogy of writers “sharing” each others works.  I studied with Howard Roberts for a number of years and he used to tell me, “if you steal from one person it’s plagiarism.  If you steal from two or more it’s research.”  I’ve been researching for years. 

  • ezcomes

    writers block…and figuring out what is ‘good’ compared to what needs work has always been hard for me…providing it doesn’t turn into a flame-fest…i think this is a great idea…

    i wrote music to a piece that my band finished into a song…but upon first playing it for the guys…the bassist’s first comment…dude that sounds too much like Nickelback, i won’t play that…not exactly what i was going for…but thats where music is malleable…with a small tweak…and adding an octaved guitar part it turned into a tune that he (and all of us) love…

    i will watch and participate with great zeal!

  • So looks like things are just getting started here? My work is mostly improv, so it’s not necessarily composed with intent to add more tracks or finish it. However, I’ve been a concept player for decades and even in bands, I’ve always pushed for happy accidents and oddities that are hard to repeat, simply as a means to have unique performances of relatively fixed material.

    Here’s a semi-recent Lunar Asylum improv that has a well-defined mood, with fairly focused guitar playing on my part? *-)  Any thoughts, comments, flames are all welcome! Hope it’s not too long?

  • danny tooth

    *i think i get what you are doing. if it were 20 years ago we would sit in a room with a couple florescent lights and talk, then have refreshments. alas things have changed so here we are. did i just use alas. i never, and i mean never ever go on sites and type something. i hit the 100 song mark on my fostex 8 track and am not doing a thing with em. my band seems stagnant and i don’t have the will to drag em up another mountain, or across a mine field, as it were. as it were? what is this. so, soundcloud. 2nd person in 4 days that seems to think it’s alright to make an appearance with my songs there. my band might just be happy i sound new and excited about something. or not. i feel like iggy with the early stooges a lot in this band. I think i’ll give it a go. don’t rush me dammit.

  • jim Williamson

    I’m just waiting some thicker skin to grow in, then I’ll post some sounds. 

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