collaborating

Collaborating and communicating with non-musicians

At different stages of your career, you may find yourself collaborating with musically inexperienced partners. These tips can help you engage in constructive communication with non-musical collaborators.

Whether you’re tweaking your new pop ballad for placement in an indie film, discussing your next release with an interested label exec, doing an interview with a local culture podcast, or writing a new song on commission, your indie music career can require you to talk about the nuts and bolts of songwriting, at length, in constructive and collaborative ways.

As exciting as such opportunities can be, they can also be a challenge, especially if your collaborator has no musical background or experience — or shared musical vocabulary — to work with.

I regularly work with people who don’t know the difference between tempo and time signature, tremolo and transposition, timpani and tonic, and who have zero clue how songs, productions, arrangements, and performances come together. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem; in fact, many of these people have been wonderfully creative, professional, and inspiring. Yet the language and experience gap is an issue that I have to regularly address.

Say the movie director who adores your music and wants your song in the opening credits asks for a version that’s “more Lady Gaga, more purple, and less fuzzy.” How do you translate that guidance into actual changes that will make the project a success?

As vague as that kind of direction initially seems, there are strategies that can increase your chances of communicating effectively so you can do a great job on your project — no matter how much, or little, your collaborator knows about the guts and mechanics of making music.

Take the aforementioned feedback, which could mean a million different things. Your job as a commissioned music maker is to drill down, find out what exactly your collaborator is trying to say with each suggestion, and decide how to apply that feedback to your process. Let’s break it down.

“Lady Gaga”

Ask your collaborator exactly what he or she finds inspiring about Lady Gaga’s work and how that applies to the project you’re working on. Is it the huge dance beats or the overall sexy/quirky/raw attitude? Is it Gaga’s vocal style or the propulsion of certain tracks? Has your collaborator heard “Edge of Glory,” and no other Gaga tracks, and fallen in love with that song’s wailing sax solo? Ask questions to guide your collaborator towards specificity. Any details or elaboration you extract will help turn a hazy, overly general piece of feedback into concrete ideas you can incorporate into your work.

“Purple”

This one is a challenge. Is this a reference to the song “Purple Haze” or something/anything by Prince or Deep Purple? Your collaborator may be referencing such work without even realizing it, so asking can help convert this feedback from maddeningly vague to workably specific.

If it turns out that your collaborator, in fact, loves Jimi Hendrix’s fuzz tone on “Purple Haze” and would like to hear that on your track, but doesn’t have the musical vocabulary to say so flat out, asking the right questions can make that clear. Similarly, it’s always a good idea to ask for listening examples. If you truly have no idea what your collaborator means by “purple,” ask for a list of songs that embody purple to his or her ears. Listen for what those tracks have in common and continue to gently interrogate to make sure you’re hearing the same things.

“Fuzzy”

This is potentially an easier one to work with. If you have lots of distortion in your song, try playing a version that has full grit and one that has none to see if that’s what your collaborator is trying to reference. Perhaps you have lots of reverb on your epic drum parts and that’s something your collaborator wants toned down but just doesn’t have the musical vocabulary, or the trained ear, to articulate. Again, A/B-ing different versions with different amounts of reverb can help you pinpoint exactly what your collaborator is trying to say.

Be patient through all of this. It can be frustrating to get non-specific feedback that you initially have no idea what to do with, but try to take the time, ask the questions, and get the specifics that will help you get your project to the finish line.

It never hurts to imagine yourself in your collaborator’s shoes, placing yourself in a scenario where you have to give constructive feedback but you don’t “speak the language.” Whether it’s interpretive dance, modern sculpture, Japanese calligraphy, or any other art form where you have little experience and technical vocabulary, think about what sorts of questions or exercises would help you share your thoughts and feedback in a constructive way. Then apply that perspective to your situation with your collaborator.

As you work through any communications roadblocks, don’t be afraid to educate. If your collaborator keeps talking about making the song faster or slower but you suspect he actually means making the arrangement more or less dense while keeping the tempo exactly the same, try to find a polite way to point out the difference. Finally, trust your gut. The more you can get your collaborator to talk about what she wants and doesn’t want, what she thinks will make the project fly and what will sink it, the more your creative choices will be guided by that information, no matter how musically articulate (or not) the direction may be.

Do you have stories or tips on how to work constructively with collaborators who don’t have strong musical experience or vocabularies? Tell us in the comments below.


Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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