Teacher Pat Pattison Puts Words in the Mouths of Aspiring Lyricists
by Michael Colton, Washingon Post Staff Writer
After years of teaching the art of songwriting, there are certain word combinations that Pat Pattison can no longer tolerate.
Washington scribes listen with keen desire
as maestro Pattison lights their lyrical fire.
"I hereby swear and affirm," Pattison makes his students repeat,"never again to rhyme 'fire' with 'desire.' "
Marge Calhoun of Alexandria makes the error in her song "Dance With Me Again":
As if the sum of all my wisdom
from holy smoke and dragon fire
Alchemized before your eyes
into a woman you could easily desire.
She is forgiven, though, and applauded for "pushing the envelope" with language. But the song's problem, according to Pattison, is not enough contrast. "The chorus is built the same way as the verses," he tells her, encouraging her to vary meter and line length. "Try unrhyming one of your couplets."
Pattison- whose on name contains a certain playful lyricism- came to a small classroom in the George Mason University law school building in Arlington on Saturday to speak to aspiring musicians from the Songriters Association of Washington. Presiding over the country's only songwriting degree program, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Pattison often speaks to similar groups around the country, critiquing their work and teaching the intricacies of techniques like lyric structure, rhyme scheme and metaphor- the focus of Saturday's seminar.
"You have to overcome trite, overused phrases," says Don Bridges of Centerville, a member of SAW who also attended Pattison's two-day seminar in September. "That's what excites the listener.
"You want them to hear something, and 'Boom!'" says Bridges, who works a day job at the Treasury Department but also writes and performs in Bridges to Bliss, a children's and adult contemporary band. "You want them to say, 'I felt that [emotion], but I've never looked at it that way.'"
Metaphors are important, Pattison says, because good songwriting begins with good writing. "A song has so little time to get its message across, so the more specific and imaged a lyric is, the more effective it is to the audience.
"When you say, 'I can't stop thinking about you,' who cares? You have to say it in an interesting way."
For examples, Pattison cites poets e.e. cummings and John Keats, and also musicians like Joni Mitchell and her song "Urge for Going":
And I woke up today and found
The frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky
And gobbled Summer down.
To help encourage metaphor writing- which Pattison defines as "a collision between two things that don't belong together"- Pattison divides the room in half, ith each side writing down nouns or verbs. Then he combined pairs at random, forcing the class to make surprising connections.
"Diving board" and "vaporize": "A diving board vaporizes stillness."
"Monument" and "chastise": "A monument chastises history."
"Grassland" and "ruminate": "The wind ruminated over the grassland."
Some pairs confounded Pattison, though; even he could not make a metaphor out of "lighthouse" and "transcend." Yet the exercises helped the class to think less literally- to think of a "balcony" not as a "terrace" but as a "tongue," as in "The balcony licked the evening into the room."
"You might not want to use that in a country-western song from Georgia, but it works" says Pattison.
Indeed, many in the class were hoping to sell some of their work in the lucrative publishing market in Nashville, where country stars often record the work of other writers. SAW sponsors open-mic nights and contests, helping members improve their writing, find collaborators, network and learn to protect and sell their compositions.
Julie Whelan, a retired hospital administrator from Sykesville, Md., has signed some of her country songs with Nashville publishers, but has not had anything recorded. On Saturday, Pattison critiqued her song "Love Has Only Hurt Her," a tune about domestic abuse:
She ants to feel safe with him,
stay close next to his heart
But she must always wonder
"When will his anger start?"
Songs about abuse haven't taken in Nashville, Whelan says. "They've been doing alot of nice, happy, everyone's-in-love stuff." But now, she says, "my publisher is looking for more daring subjects."
A Fredricksburg musician with the radio-ready name of Jennings Dulin also played a demo of a country tune called "Highway of Life":
On the highway of life there's a cost
Can't quite put your finger on where you got lost
There's a road map that lies deep in your mind
Stop just to read the signs
Linger too long killing time
You'll lose what you cannot find.
Pattison enjoys the song's structure but notes that the second-person point of view leaves him feeling detached and preached to, and suggests changing it to first- or third-person. He also advises that the phrase "highway of life" should not appear in the first verse, but should debut in the chorus.
"Save it for the wedding night," he says.