Date December 2, 2021
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In yearlong Songwriting Workshop, student and community musicians find their voices

The Brown Arts Institute’s free and open-to-the-public Songwriting Workshop provides a welcoming space for musicians from all walks of life to perform for one another and receive feedback on songs in progress.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Liana Haigis’ latest song opens with a bouncy strumming pattern and lyrics delivered in rapid-fire: “How many weeks should it take to get over a relationship that wasn’t even one from the start?”

“I wrote this song about someone else’s relationship, and I’ve never done that before,” Haigis explained to an audience of Brown students, employees and Providence community members gathered in the University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts on a late November evening. “I’m also starting to experiment with interesting chords, which I never really focused on. My goal for the semester is to become a fancy chord person like you,” she said, pointing to fellow student Linus Lawrence.

Haigis, a second-year student in Brown’s eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education, is shaking up her musical compositions thanks in part to the Brown Arts Institute’s Songwriting Workshop.

Every Tuesday evening throughout the academic year, Haigis meets a cohort of others at Brown and from the Providence community who share an interest in honing their songwriting craft. Members of each year’s cohort come from vastly different backgrounds: some are Brown students aspiring to careers in computer science and playwriting; others are librarians and educators who work on campus; still others work and live in the Providence area and are otherwise unaffiliated with Brown. They come together to discuss the art of writing songs, perform for one another and receive feedback on songs in progress. In May 2022, the 2021-22 cohort members expect to share the fruits of their labor with the public in a showcase concert. The workshop series is free to participants, and come late summer, anyone in the community can apply to be part of it.

“The Songwriting Workshop provides space for songwriters to experiment, collaborate and engage in unexpected ways,” said Sophia LaCava-Bohanan, assistant director for programs at the BAI. “It helps them build confidence in their abilities to share and perform their work, at Brown and beyond.”

Tracie Potochnik, a Rhode Island-based musician and education justice professional, joined the first Songwriting Workshop five years ago while working at Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. This year, she and Morgan Johnston — a musician, music therapist and longtime participant — are leading the workshop together.

“I wanted to join the workshop after I graduated from Wheaton College,” Johnston said. “I didn’t really know where to go, but I knew that songwriting was really important to me. It was fulfilling to join the workshop and feel a sense of community again.”

Johnston said the weekly sessions provided a welcoming space for her to bring works in progress and receive friendly, constructive feedback — sometimes from world-famous visiting musicians, such as Rosanne Cash, Tank and the Bangas, Cory Henry and Kishi Bashi. Soon, sharing new song ideas with others became a habit and a necessity for the folk musician.  

“A lot of people view songwriting as an activity people do in isolation, but now I tend to think of workshops as a pivotal part of the songwriting process,” Johnston said. “There’s the idea phase, the lyric phase, the music phase and then the sharing phase. That last part is when a song becomes real.”

To join the workshop, Potochnik said, participants fill out an application with questions about their musical experience, artistic influences and perceived strengths and weaknesses. They also submit a recording of an original song. Though all of the participants have demonstrated songwriting experience, she said, not all of them have performed their own songs in front of other people before.

“We’ve had a number of really talented writers in the workshop who told us they’d been writing everything in their bedroom and they’d never played their songs for anyone,” Potochnik said. “Being able to put something out there publicly can be scary. I think it’s important to have the support of people who have been through that before and know how hard it is, and that’s why this experience is so great.”

“ I didn’t really know where to go, but I knew that songwriting was really important to me. It was fulfilling to join the workshop and feel a sense of community again. ”

Morgan Johnston Songwriting Workshop co-leader

A five-year tradition

The annual workshop was conceived five years ago by Butch Rovan, then the faculty director of the BAI, and first led by Julian Saporiti, a Brown Ph.D. student in American studies. While growing up in Nashville, Saporiti met and took inspiration from music industry professionals who spanned many genres, generations and walks of life. He wanted to offer members of the Brown and Providence communities a similar experience.

“I was lucky to meet older songwriters who lived completely different lives from myself and could offer me new perspectives and ways of living to consider as a songwriter and as a person,” Saporiti said. “Those people taught me a lot. So when we started the workshop, it made sense to try to make it a diverse space in every sense, with people representing a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and ages.”

The Songwriting Workshop is one of multiple BAI programs and initiatives forging strong connections between the Brown and greater Providence communities, LaCava-Bohanan noted. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BAI has awarded $2,000 Artist Development Grants to 15 Rhode Island creators, helping to fund thought-provoking performances, creative public workshops and even shedding light on little-known local history through exhibitions. And throughout the year, the BAI welcomes Rhode Island artists to College Hill to lead workshops, teach and create films, plays and exhibitions alongside students.

Songwriting workshops touch on a wide variety of topics, and no two weeks are structured exactly the same, Potochnik and Johnston said. Some weeks revolve around a particular theme, with matching take-home assignments and discussion topics. One week in October, participants took a stab at writing songs using only two chords; the instructors shared a playlist of two-chord songs, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys, to demonstrate how other elements such as rhyme scheme, rhythm and tempo can communicate emotions and ideas just as well as chord changes. At another session in November, participants discussed the components of good storytelling and paired up to sketch out stories based on images Potochnik and Johnston handed them. Their optional homework for the following week: Write a song inspired by a character in an existing song — such as the titular antagonist in Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

...[W]hen we started the workshop, it made sense to try to make it a diverse space in every sense, with people representing a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and ages.

Julian Saporiti Brown Ph.D. student
Julian Saporiti playing guitar

On a recent fall evening, Songwriting Workshop participants gathered to discuss the theme of the week: musical biography. Potochnik set the tone by putting on a playlist of biographical songs — “Slow Burn” by Kacey Musgraves, “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman — as everyone filtered into a studio classroom. Then they paired up, sharing prepared lists of eight songs that told the story of their lives in chronological order. They cited Bob Dylan and Gorillaz, mentioned deep cuts from the “Hamilton” soundtrack, invoked the theme song from a 1998 children’s TV series, and dropped names of traditional classics such as “Shenandoah.”

“This was emo; this was sad; this was February of seventh grade,” one participant said as she shared personal memories associated with “Adam’s Song” by Blink-182.

Then, Haigis and other participants took turns performing songs they’d written recently. First-year student Andrew Kim shared “The Tallest Person in the World,” where an unnamed narrator dreams of escaping life’s difficult realities by literally outgrowing them — only to realize it can get lonely at the top, too. W.S. Monroe, a senior scholarly resources librarian at Brown, shared a folk-tinged a cappella ode to Rhode Island and its famous clam chowder. Once public health conditions improve, Monroe said, he plans to bring the song to the Quahog Quire, a group of folk music enthusiasts who gather for monthly pub singalongs.

“A lot of times, when I write a song, it can take five to 10 years because I’m such a perfectionist,” Monroe said. “The workshops give me an incentive to break out of that habit. I have a reason to finish songs that have been years in the making, and I’m able to make them even better through the feedback I get from others.”

A community enterprise

Potochnik and Johnston stressed that the workshops are more than a source of inspiration and support for individuals — they’re also a creative engine for the whole community. Workshop participants often go on to perform their songs at Providence-area venues, enriching the local arts scene. In the past, the participants have partnered with the Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design and the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown, writing songs inspired by objects in those spaces and sharing their creations in public presentations.

The Songwriting Workshop has even paved the way for innovative scholarship. In the workshop’s early days, Saporiti brought in several of his own works in progress, some tied to his musical dissertation project “No-No Boy.” The project has since received national praise for bringing attention to hidden histories of the Asian American experience through folk-inspired song.

“Music has the power to build empathy,” Potochnik said. “It opens people up to places and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise know about, which in turn helps foster an understanding and respect for others.”

It also has the power to build community: According to Potochnik and Johnston, an international network of workshop alumni still meet regularly over Zoom to chat, swap stories about music and share songs with one another. Among them are Andrew Guirleo, who co-wrote a musical about Charles Darwin while studying at Brown and taking part in the workshops; Jonathan Nogueira, a financial systems specialist at the University; and Lily Porter-Wright, a professional singer-songwriter who stayed in Providence after graduating from Brown in 2020.

That the Songwriting Workshop continues to make a positive impact on participants’ lives even after they’ve moved on, Potochnik said, is significant. It demonstrates that, for many, forging creative connections can help turn a onetime pursuit into a lifelong passion — one that sharpens skills and potentially even fosters some self-discovery.

“What music allows me to do,” Ro Reddick, a Brown master’s student in playwriting, shared with the group, “is to feel like a full person in front of other people.”