First Times

By Laura Weiner

One of the more dramatic, fulfilling, and mysterious processes to witness is the birth of a song. The alchemy of blank page to poetry, spoken rhythms to sung melodies, solitary vocal lines to instrumental harmonies, never gets old. In recent weeks, I have participated in two different Decoda songwriting projects: teens and police officers of the Police Athletic League in New York City, and incarcerated men at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. In both settings, we had a mix of first-timers and experienced songwriters. We had an epistolary prompt inspired by “what the world needed to hear” about these populations. We had Decoda musicians writing, playing, singing, arranging, composing, laughing, grooving, fist-bumping, applauding, crying, and listening. And we had songwriters performing for their peers, advocating for themselves, and sounding just really really good.


Of course, it’s nice that both projects had successful concerts with standing ovations and changed perceptions, but the moments I stockpile for many months and years later are those “firsts”- three cops happen upon the perfect rhyme for a chorus and jump up from the table in excitement; a small group finally nails their 4-part vocal harmony after so much rehearsal; the participants gasp when they hear a live string quartet. These moments come fast and furious in songwriting projects, and each crosses a synapse between people in the room. While the task of creating a concert’s worth of original songs looms, I trust in the snug magic of these “first times” and the musical lattice that they build around us.

It’s easy to see these songwriting projects as metaphors- workshops to practice life skills that participants might rely on later. While the skills of songwriting are translatable in many other contexts, I’ve come to believe that writing and sharing a song is no metaphor, it is the truest embodiment of these “life skills.” What is respect but lending another person your pen to complete your lyric. What is collaboration but blending your note with another’s to find balanced harmony. And what is finding your voice but stepping up to the mic in front of your peers and singing exactly like yourself.