School of Song Shares the Magic of Songwriting with the Help of Indie Rock Giants

The founders discuss forming a "cyborg" mind meld with instructors like Adrianne Lenker and Robin Pecknold for online lessons that reach thousands

Photo courtesy of School of Song

BY Alex HudsonPublished Mar 28, 2024

In early 2022, barely a year after launching School of Song, co-founders Blue Sheffer and Steven van Betten found themselves awake until close to dawn, getting deep into the weeds with one of their longtime musical heroes.

"We pretty much stayed up till 4 a.m. every night with Dave Longstreth for a month straight, working on his workshop," van Betten tells Exclaim! with a laugh, recalling the time he spent getting to know the leader of Dirty Projectors. "It was so cool, just getting on his wavelength. I think that speaks to this bigger kind of arc of the workflow, which is, we cyborg with the artists during the duration of their course."

That was one of roughly two dozen such crash courses that Sheffer and van Betten have undertaken with notable songwriters since founding School of Song in the lockdowns of the early pandemic. Longtime musicians and friends since high school, the pair seized upon the sudden omnipresence of Zoom as the perfect platform for large-scale songwriting courses.

They've since hosted multi-week courses from instructors like Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie), Merrill Gabrus (Tune-Yards) and Bartees Strange, reaching many thousands of students around the world. One of their most recent courses, January 2024's session with Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, was their "largest by orders of magnitude," Sheffer says.

"There's this common sentiment that songwriting can't be taught. We're not saying that it can't be taught, but we do feel like it can be learned," offers van Betten of the school's raison d'être. "It's hard to put a framework around the teaching of it because it's so personalized, and it's so specific to the individual. What we're doing that is working at the school is not claiming that we're teaching songwriting, but creating an environment where there's a source of inspiration."

Ultimately, there's only one true way to get better at songwriting — "by doing it," says Sheffer — and School of Song equips students with strategies for starting (and, perhaps even more importantly, finishing) songs.

It's a process that has proven to be as useful for its famous teachers as it is for students. In a 2023 newsletter, Elverum wrote that his course was "a smash success and cracked my brain all the way open."

Lenker found the experience similarly illuminating. "It helped me learn a lot about my own creative process," she tells Exclaim! in a phone call. "I thought it was totally impossible to break it down, and then when I actually started doing it, it was cool to realize that there are so many tools I've gathered along the way that are tangible and practicable. I don't think you can control the magic of the gift of when a song comes through that you love, but I think you can write as a practice all the time and make yourself prepared for when that magic does appear. That was encouraging, because I feel like anybody can do it. It's something we can all access." She adds that she would be open to teaching songwriting again in the future.

The school also offers workshops geared toward specific musical skills — fingerpicking or harmony singing, for example — but its songwriting classes tend to be more holistic, digging into creative processes that range from careful composition (as in the case of Longstreth or Pecknold) to intuitive outpourings (à la Lenker or Elverum).

The school's steady growth has been accelerated by the success of Lenker's workshop, and the founders are now keen to focus on in-person community building. All of the lessons take place online and that isn't changing, but Sheffer and van Betten also emphasize the value of in-person song-sharing sessions, in which students are encouraged to gather IRL following a course. Such meet-ups have taken place in Canadian cities including Vancouver, Toronto, Victoria, Ottawa and Montreal.

"The things that we have seen born out of that are just unbelievable," Sheffer says of the song-sharing sessions. "Really, really moving. People starting bands together and making records together. Becoming best friends and forming communities, just because they're meeting in this fairly vulnerable context."

He continues, "To have community, in as isolating of a practice as songwriting often is, is really awesome. That's something we're definitely investing more into, and figuring out how we can get people connected with other songwriters within their areas."

Latest Coverage