Workshop method

In the year-long songwriting workshop, students and community musicians find their voices

Tracie Potochnik, a Rhode Island-based musician and educational justice professional, joined the first songwriting workshop five years ago while working at Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. This year, she and Morgan Johnston – a longtime musician, music therapist and participant – are leading the workshop together.

“I wanted to participate in the workshop after I graduated from Wheaton College,” said Johnston. “I didn’t really know where to go, but I knew songwriting was really important to me. It was gratifying to join the workshop and to feel a sense of community again.

Johnston said the weekly sessions provided him with a welcoming space to bring work in progress and receive friendly and constructive feedback – sometimes from world-renowned guest musicians, such as Rosanne Cash, Tank and the Bangas, Cory Henry and Kishi Bashi. Soon, sharing new song ideas with others became a habit and a necessity for the folk musician.

“A lot of people see songwriting as an activity that people do in isolation, but now I tend to think of workshops as a central part of the songwriting process,” said Johnston. “There is the idea phase, the lyrics phase, the music phase and then the sharing phase. That last part is when a song becomes real.

To participate in the workshop, said Potochnik, participants fill out an application with questions about their musical experience, artistic influences, and perceived strengths and weaknesses. They also submit a recording of an original song. While all of the participants demonstrated songwriting experience, she said, not all of them have performed their own songs in front of other people before.

“We had a number of really talented writers in the studio who told us that they wrote everything in their rooms and never played their songs for anyone,” said Potochnik. “Being able to post something publicly can be scary. I think it’s important to have the support of people who have been through this before and know how difficult it is, and that’s why this experience is so great.