Emma's Revolution, and my own.
Over the weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to take a songwriting workshop with Emma's Revolution, the musical duo composed of Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow. These are two fantastically badass human beings, who have performed for the Dalai Lama and been praised by Pete Seeger--what credentials can outshine those?
As for me, I hadn't written a song in half a year, and my real songwriting peak is now two years behind me. I find that the joint composition of lyrics and melody adds not one layer to the traditional writing process, but about ten. It triggers my perfectionist artistic tendencies and stretches them to an absurd extreme, absorbing hours and hours of my time to produce a solid verse or chorus. Luckily, I find those hours intensely enjoyable, but a lot of other life obligations slip out of view while I'm writing my newest song. It's probably healthy that I took a multi-year break.
So when my sister-in-law, Louise--who runs Clapping Hands Farm (pictured above) and organized this workshop to take place there--called and invited me to attend for free, it was like falling back into a bad and beautiful habit. I stowed my guitar in the trunk of my car, frantically started rehearsing the lyrics to every song I've ever written, and headed over, ready for my work to get ripped apart.
What ensued instead first surprised, then enchanted, and finally enlightened me. There were no instruments at this workshop. There was no rigorous production and revision process. There was no sense of comparison between artists, and certainly no feeling of competition. What it reminded me of was--funnily enough--the way I used to run my own classrooms, for the years in which I taught spoken word poetry in Philadelphia public schools. I was lucky then: I taught in many different classrooms each week, and didn't have to bother with disciplining students, or enforcing lunchroom etiquette, or getting them ready for state exams. I had the luxury of only focusing on the liberation of my students' artistic selves. It's been nearly two years now since that career ended for me, or at least went on lengthy pause. Being back in the more traditional educational environment of an MFA program--rigorous and necessary in a very different way--I had forgotten the way classrooms can feel when they're solely focused on the generation of creativity, all pretense of academia set aside.
With Emma's Revolution, we were told to sing our name and a thing we liked. "Sa-ra," I intoned, "fall days." The group echoed this back to me, once in unison, and again with harmonies. On the next go-around-the-circle, we were told to sing something challenging. "I'm scared to sing in front of you," one woman candidly sang. "I love you, but I'm mad," I sang, recalling a recent argument with my boyfriend. We all laughed when the final member of the circle, a man who hosts school groups at an outdoor nature experience, sang theatrically, "Four thousand fourth-graders!"
Then we were told, very simply, to continue singing. To walk around and continue our songs. To then come back, and share, and go off again, and that was it, the rest of the day. I heard dozens of beautiful fragments of song; I soaked up the green trees and the sun and the feeling of total creative freedom, a taste I didn't even know I'd been craving. When the workshop ended, I had two verses and a chorus--hardly a complete song. I hadn't gotten the kind of "feedback" I'd gotten in expecting, the kind that says, This line is good, and this one's got to go. I hadn't even touched my guitar.
But over the course of those three hours, I had unlearned all those expectations. I'd totally set aside my rigid goal to write a whole song today. I was just glad to have been there, in that circle, my whole world briefly upturned, singing.