Writing the perfect song

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Fri Sep 25 11:48am

For just over two years, before I started with Toronto Downtown Jazz, I had the privilege of managing a local children's choir. It was a fantastic experience - as the sole administrative staff for an organization of 120 choristers, I got to work on my managerial chops; but I also got to see the effect on the choristers of singing together, and learning from the inspirational artistic staff (headed up by the incredible Zimfira Poloz). And so when it was time to encourage my kids to take up some extra-curricular music, I wanted their first experience to be in a choir - now in their second year of singing, they're having an absolute blast: it's such a pleasure to sense their excitement as they exit their rehearsals each week.

One of the songs our daughter is singing is "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman - a song and a movie I didn't really know prior to her rehearsal last week. When she brought home the music we took a look together and I was immediately drawn in by the lyrics and the melody. And when we watched a video of a performance of the song a few days later, I found myself truly moved. But why? What is it about this song that was able to connect with me on such an emotional level?

Well - I thought I'd take my zero years of songwriting and producing experience and do a quick exploration. (I.e. - this will be far from an academic analysis.)

Let's be honest - there are established tools of the trade which hook listeners to a song, and "This is Me" uses them wisely. Simple harmonies, with lots of major triads, and no dissonance. A catchy and rhythmic melody. Relatable lyrics about being yourself against all odds. The use of solo voice versus full chorus. A song which starts simply and continues to build all the way to the end. They wanted an anthem, and they created an anthem. I should be clear - I'm not trying to take anything away from the song. It takes a particular skill set to create music in this way, and I think they nailed it.

But let's forget all of that for a moment. Let's talk about this video:

I have as much context for this performance as is provided in the video itself: between the preamble (go to the very beginning of the video if that's of interest) and the on-screen text, it seems this is one of the first public performances of the song, and that the go-ahead on the film depended in part on whatever is happening in the session captured by this video. So it seems the pressure is on. And when Keala starts singing, it's clear that this is an emotional moment.

For me, there are a few key moments in this video which resonate - moments which demonstrate why live music moves me as it does, can bring the lump to my throat, and continues to inspire me.

The first happens around 1:50, when she decides to step out from behind the music stand. Suddenly the performance is elevated. She's working on a different level of connection, away from the relative protection of the stand - she's able to dance, move with and react to the other musicians. And then just before the male soloist starts at around 2:20, she looks at him and motions with her hand: "give me everything you have."

I'm not sure I can adequately describe that feeling. As a bandleader, I so often look to the incredible musicians I get to work with, and ask them to "bring it" - find the full emotion of the moment, play with the maximum intensity. And when they respond, it's energizing - for me, for them, and for the audience: we all feel it. And here in this video, he responds to her invitation - and the feeling in the room is palpable. Look at the smiles on their faces - the way they can't stand still. Look at the pianist! By 2:50, it's a party. At 4:25, everyone is one their feet. And by the end, I think everyone realizes what has just transpired.

And this is what I miss. This is what I want to get back to. The full-on, full-house, full-emotion experience of music. As a bandleader, as a musician, as a programmer, as an audience member. We'll take what we can for now, but when it's time to gather again en masse? Let's make sure we do it up large, and make it last.

Please share your favourite "impossible to truly describe" musical moments, from whatever side of the stage you experienced it - I'm willing to bet we could all use them right now.