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Interview with Deanna Walker, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University
Nashville, TN
By Doak Turner
(more articles from this author)
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The Blair School of Music is part of Vanderbilt University. The songwriting class meets Monday evenings at 7PM and is taught by Deanna Walker and her weekly special guests publishers and professional songwriters.

[Doak Turner] Tell me about your songwriting class.

Deanna Walker I started the program with one adult class, which is the one that we have on Monday nights. I knew from the beginning that the way to go was to ask great writers to come share what they know with us. It's amazing--almost every professional songwriter and publisher I've asked to come to class agreed to give their time to come and speak. One of those people from the early days was Jeffrey Steele, who continues to come back and talk every semester. Jeffrey has had 200 songs cut in the past three years. Rivers Rutherford is also a favorite of the class and teaches his own class at Blair now during some semesters. I still ask pro songwriters that haven't visited yet to speak to the class so that it can stay fresh and interesting.

[Doak Turner] When did your songwriting class start?

Deanna Walker I think it was in 1999. We started with the adult class and then I introduced the college credit classes, which combine songwriting with music theory (which was necessary to meet Vandy's "academic rigor" requirements). I started with one college class, then a couple semesters later we had so many students, we divided it into two sections which then divided into three, and then I started an advanced songwriting class for the college students. I now teach five songwriting classes at Vanderbilt, and then we have the Rivers Rutherford class I mentioned, along with a class taught by Rick Beresford, who also teaches commercial songwriting at Belmont University, and is one of the founding faculty of NSAI Songcamps and the director of the Kerrville Song School.

[Doak Turner] What does Rick teach in his course?

Deanna Walker His course is an interactive, hands-on workshop where the folks in class learn to how to think like professional songwriters. They write songs together in various formats in order to learn how to think about and solve problems in songs as they arise. Rick's taught songwriting privately and through NSAI and Kerrville for many years, and his contention is that the main problem developing songwriters have is that their instincts aren't sharp enough to tell a good idea from a mediocre one, and aren't sharp enough to tell them how to take a great idea and make it fulfill its potential. He felt that if he actually wrote songs with the people in class, that they could deal directly with the issues that the ideas and songs would present, and cover ALL aspects of songwriting in the process.

[Doak Turner] Why should experienced songwriters take your songwriting classes?

Deanna Walker In my Monday night classes, people come to the class who've just started writing songs along with people who've have been writing for a long time--and writing really good songs. The thing is, folks hear each of the speakers and do the exercises and such at their own level. What a beginning writer will hear is different from what a more advanced writer will hear. And you may have heard the same thing said at various times, but one day it may really hit you in a way it never had before. Almost any level of songwriter could take any of these classes and get something out of them.

[Doak Turner] As you think back to the past couple of years, is there anything that just really stands out in what one of the speaker said to your class?

Deanna Walker Tom Douglas, Craig Wiseman, and many hit songwriters have said that when they quit trying to write songs to please their publishers and other people--when they got sick of doing that and decided to write whatever they wanted, magic happened. Craig told the story about having one year left on his songwriting agreement, which meant one more year of free demos from his publisher. He had not had any cuts, was trying to write for the radio and nothing he was writing was getting anywhere. At that point he decided he was going to write whatever he wanted to. He wrote a song called "Ellen" for a girl he knew at the time and apparently the song was quirky and interesting. That was the first song that really made people take notice and say, "Wow, this is really cool writing." I don't know if that song got cut, but it got him some attention and things started picking up. I would say that by now, they've picked up for him about as far as possible!

[Doak Turner] Is there anyone that has taken your class that has had success in the songwriting business?

Deanna Walker Barry Dean, who just got a song on the new Martina McBride CD and another on the new Reba CD, used to visit the class. He lives in Kansas, but would sometimes attend the class when he was visiting Nashville. Now he's one of our favorite guest speakers!!! He took songwriting lessons from Rick and other people in town, always learning as much as he could from the opportunities here. Barry was a speaker last fall and talked about the importance of our class, song camps, and seminars for songwriters.

[Doak Turner] What stands out as far as the publishers that have spoken in your class?

Deanna Walker One of our best publishing experiences ever was with Cliff Audretch of Windswept Publishing. He critiqued everyone's songs and had something useful and helpful to say about each, and was incredibly gracious about sharing his knowledge with the students. I think we have a standing date with him every semester now. We also had AMAZING nights with Chris Oglesby of BMG and Daniel Hill of Cal4.

[Doak Turner] How about feedback from people that have taken your class?

Deanna Walker Everyone raves about the class. They love it. There are people that have been attending for years that started back in 1999. They come back on a regular basis. MANY people say this is the best thing that they have ever done in Nashville for their songwriting. One guy played a song the other night who told me he had been really discouraged, that he had hit a wall and was frustrated that he had learned so much in Nashville, and felt more locked up than ever. This particular songwriter said that the class just gave him the freedom to write again, because we do a lot of free writing, clustering, free-flow things where you are just supposed to write with total freedom and without any self-censorship or criticism. The creative flow is the most important thing and everything else comes after that. If you don't get in the way of the creative thing, it is all good. When you interrupt with too much editing, then you can just really cut yourself off at the knees. There is a place for editing, but the editor in us needs to know that the creator in us needs and deserves to be given the highest priority.

[Doak Turner] Have you seen your students attend your class and start co-writing together?

Deanna Walker Oh yes, it happens all the time. There are people who have attended the class who are like a family, a core unit of people who are very connected to each other. They form lasting friendships and bonds. There is a very friendly supportive vibe in the class that just lets everyone be who they are and welcomes everybody sharing, which opens the door for people to connect with each other.

[Doak Turner] Do you consider your class like graduate school for songwriters?

Deanna Walker Sure, that's a great way to say it. Many people have been out in the world writing songs for years, and sometimes that makes them good or great writers and sometimes it doesn't. You can write songs for a long time and if no one has ever helped you, you may not have ever learned how to say what you want to say in a song. Rick says that he's had clients who've written three or four hundred songs when they've come to him, who are as close to being beginners as those who've only written a handful of songs. Unfortunately, it happens that way sometimes.

[Doak Turner] Why do you think that pro songwriters give their time and knowledge of songwriting to other songwriters?

Deanna Walker The hit songwriters really care about the songwriting community. Yhey really want to give back, and they have 'been there' in the aspiring songwriters shoes. Tom Douglas said in class that he is the perfect example of someone who's just like the folks in our classes. He says he took seminars, workshops, classes--anything he could to learn to write songs from pros, and now he's a hit songwriter who wants to share what he's learned. The hit writers come back to class because they experience how much we appreciate them and how much we want to learn from them. They all seem to really enjoy the experience of sharing in the class.

[Doak Turner] Any other comments about your songwriting class at The Blair School of Music?

Deanna Walker Some people say it is the best kept secret in Nashville, and honestly, I don't know why it isn't better known around town. It's fabulous and it's inexpensive! There are fifteen weeks of classes, with a hit writer or industry person every week, the classes are 7:00-10:00 PM, although some go later. Meanwhile, the Blair school allows people to pay for the semester in installments.

[Doak Turner] How do songwriters contact the school to sign up for the classes?

Deanna Walker Carol Fisher at Blair School of Music 615-322-7651.

[Doak Turner] Thank you Deanna!

Note: I took the class the fall of 2003 and currently attends for the spring semester. It is, as Deanna said, one of the best investments for any songwriter in Nashville and the best-kept secret in town. I strongly urge every aspiring songwriter to attend the class!

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