What NOT To Do When Writing Songs For Your Christmas Production This Year
Over the years, I’ve had dozens of musicals sent to me which were an original Christmas production at some church. Upon listening to them, my first reaction was to feel sorry for the poor audience who had to sit through forced rhymes, cryptic lyrics and mangled syntax. The fact is that most people who write songs, never seriously study the craft of songwriting. They mimic what they hear on the radio or try to copy some similar song with no real grasp of the fundamentals of songwriting. (The same thing holds true for praise and worship songs foisted on unsuspecting congregations – but that’s for someone else’s worship blog).
Writing a song without understanding the fundamental craft of songwriting is like looking at a beautifully constructed house and saying “I can build one of those”, when you know nothing about structural support, how to use a miter saw, or which type of fastener to use on the joists. You can just jump in and might get something that resembles a house, but the quality would be questionable at best.
So where do you begin? The first place to start is with the idea or approach. Some ideas are not worth writing. Above all, don’t state the obvious. Don’t let the song describe what the scene was just about. You’ll bore your audience. They want to get inside the character and feel what the character is feeling. You’ve got to look for ways to get beneath the surface. Get down to the emotional level – without being sappy of course. One of my favorite examples of this idea is found in Disney’s musical film, “Newsies”, where one of the newsies, who is an orphan, watches as the other kids go home to their families while he has to spend the night on the street. Sitting there alone, he sings this song to himself. (Here you need to see the lyrics and hear the song:
The sheer craft in this song is amazing. It works on so many emotional levels. The kid is lonely, but instead of saying “I’m lonely” or “I wish I had a family to go home to”, he says it in the subtext without actually saying it
. “Aren’t you glad nobody’s waiting up for you?” (Subtext: He really wishes someone cared enough about him to wait up for him.) He’s finding his purpose and fulfillment in his dream of going to Santa Fe. This is what I mean by finding an emotional level or statement in a song. You don’t have to use subtext to get there, but you should get down to the heart of the matter. Once the kids left and he was all alone, the audience was aware of his situation, so for him to sing about being lonely or wanting a family would be just stating the obvious.
Unfortunately, it’s the obvious that most amateur writers choose to write about, most likely because they haven’t been trained to look beyond the obvious as a part of the songwriting craft. They built their musical “house” without any craftsmanship and, though it looks like a song and sounds like a song, it is very uninteresting and unappealing with nothing to emotionally connect the stage character to the audience.
Find a solid idea or approach first – one that connects emotionally with the character. Your song will be much better when you do.