New Songwriting Course a First in Canada

UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 8 | Aug.
7, 2003

Creative writing workshops teach lyrics and libretti

By Erica Smishek

Roll over Beethoven, give my regards to Broadway, and say
hello to UBC, which could quite possibly be the next hotbed
of hit tunes and hit-makers.

Beginning this September, the creative writing program will
offer introductory and advanced classes in the writing of
lyrics, libretti and songs. It’s the first time songwriting
will be taught at a Canadian university.

“The whole philosophy of the creative writing program,
which makes us unique in the world, is our belief in the importance
of training writers in multiple genres,” says program
chair Peggy Thompson. “The new courses help us continue
to grow and reflect the changes in our cultural standards.”

The classes are the brainchild of creative writing professor
and poet George McWhirter, who has pushed for years to bring
songwriting into the academy and make it accessible to a wider

Designed for prospective songwriters, musicians and libretto
writers, the workshops will address all aspects of words as
they relate to and interplay with music. Each course has 12
students, from music or writing backgrounds, chosen on the
strength of their portfolios.

“We’re meeting on a mutual ground of looking at
lyrics,” says Meryn Cadell, who has joined the faculty
to develop and teach the workshops. “We’ll be on
a big learning curve together.”

An acclaimed writer-performer, musician and recording artist,
Cadell has been nominated for Juno, Genie and CASBY (Canadian
Artist Selected by You) awards for her recorded and live performances.
She has toured extensively across North America and recorded
three albums — 6 Blocks, bombazine and angel food for thought,
with its quirky hit “The Sweater.” She was the poet
laureate for Peter Gzowski’s golf tournament for literacy
and has been a frequent guest and performer on CBC Radio.

Students will examine works by major pop, folk, country,
jazz and classical artists and also draw on Cadell’s
own working experience with lyrics to explore certain aspects
of writing and editing.

The workshops will concentrate on developing pieces in all
genres of song, lyrics or libretti composed by students, both
individually and in collaboration with classmates. Rhythm
and precision will be key points of instruction.

“It’s shocking how simple good lyrics can be,”
says Cadell. “You need to look at clarity. A song needn’t
be narrative. In fact it can be entirely abstract. But you
have to have clarity. You need flow and continuity.”

She says good lyricists must be willing to re-write and edit
their material, love what they produce and be able to get
that emotion across to the listener.

“Think about how important music is to our lives,”
says Cadell. “It informs our memory just like smell.
You hear a song and you are immediately transformed back to
that moment in time when you first listened to it.”

While they will focus on creativity, students will also learn
about the business of songwriting.

“Vancouver is a centre for popular music now in a way
it wasn’t 10 or 20 years ago,” says Thompson. “Vancouver
has had a thriving independent music scene for years. The
new writing workshops will be a great complement.”