“Get the Music Right” - A Reflection on the Art of Songwriting

John Paciga


September 29, 2021

During my second semester at Yale, I took a musical theater composition class  with some of the most talented writers and musicians I’ve ever met. To be completely  honest, I felt way out of my league. I was one of two freshman, and most everyone else  was a junior or senior who had written (or was writing) a full musical. I had always  dreamed of writing a show of my own, and I almost started one at the end of my first  year. But the feedback I often received in the composition class was that my songs fit  more clearly into a pop idiom than a musical theater one. In fact, I recorded and  released three of the songs I workshopped in that class on my third album, self described as “piano pop/rock.” So, I came away from the class with the conviction that musical theater writing was simply not for me.  

After the end of my freshman year, I barely wrote more than a song or two for  months, partly because I was working on recording the album, partly because I didn’t  really know who I was as a songwriter anymore. I had stories and experiences and  ideas that I struggled to fit into three minutes, and I always felt guilty when my phone’s  timer app clocked in at 4:00 or 5:00 after playing through a song draft. It seemed as  though my songs were without a home - too harmonically rich to be pop yet lacking the  full narrative complexity of musical theater. I’ve always prided myself on occupying that  niche, but at the same time it’s incredibly difficult to carve out that space when, as  Spotify curators have often told me, “the track is great” but it “doesn’t fit into my  playlist’s genre.”

Having had these experiences, I was unsurprised that much of the feedback I  received in my junior year popular songwriting class was that there seemed to be  characters and an overarching plot behind many of my songs. At the beginning of the  semester I was, I have to say, a little reluctant to take those notes. For a long time I had  shied away from musical theater in light of my freshman year composition class, and  was set on sticking to pop writing. But, as this concept of musical theater writing came  up time after time this semester, I started to wonder whether I was trying to suppress a  defining characteristic of my writing style that I should really be leaning into. It was only  recently when I started to envision how many of my recent songs could be woven into  a cohesive storyline that extends beyond a series of vignettes. Now, I’m contemplating  tackling that big, scary dream: writing a musical.

As I enter the tail-end of my college career, I’m feeling the pressure to formulate  some sort of grand What Happens After I Graduate Plan. I’ve contemplated law school,  medical school, graduate programs for audio engineering or music business, and  everything in between. But something always brings me back to my piano, to  songwriting. There have been moments when I honestly felt so close to walking away  from it and trying to find something more “stable,” but at the end of the day, that’s not  really who I am.  

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my biggest musical  inspirations, Ben Folds, at a book signing/meet-and-greet he hosted before putting on  a tremendous show at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. I asked him a question about how he balances his creative process with self-marketing and the business related aspects of his career. To paraphrase, he said: “Get the music right, and the rest will fall in line.” I think that simple yet profound message has reverberated through the  Zoom rooms I’ve inhabited for much of this past year. I have to say, I’ve often felt  frustrated that I haven’t gotten the music “right” after recording and releasing three  albums, but now, I simply see every song as a lesson to be applied to the next. In fact,  I hope I will never have written my greatest song so that I will always be headed for  something bigger, better, and more profound. Whether it’s pop, rock, musical theater,  or something in between, I’m excited to see where my craft takes me in the years to  come.

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With immense gratitude, the Promly Team.

John Paciga

John is a student at Yale, and he is a singer, songwriter and actor. Check out his website johnpaciga.com!