Lessons from The Lion—a Master Class with Benjamin Scheuer

By Simon Hodgson

“Songwriting is a game of what you leave out,” says Benjamin Scheuer. “As Hemingway said, you write the 3 percent of the iceberg, but you’ve got to know the 97 percent that’s underwater.” Today singer-songwriter Scheuer took a break from his award-winning show The Lion (playing at The Strand Theater until May 1) to present a master class in songwriting at A.C.T.’s 30 Grant Avenue offices. Listening to the songs of five young performers—Danielle Frimer, Matt Herrero, Sydney Kistler, Andrew Fridae, and Lauren Hart—he offered technical advice ranging from melody to rhyme, structure to story.
Benjamin Scheuer working with Matt Herrero in an A.C.T. master class. Photo by Ken Savage.

“Danielle, tell us about this song,” Scheuer said after Frimer (a graduate from the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program) finished her poignant number, “The Guy Who Plays Guitar at Mission BART.” When she confessed that she thought the song was “on the sad side” and that she wanted to “get a few more colors in there,” he suggested that great art can sometimes come from a dark perspective. Then he leapt up to the piano to play a few bars from Oklahoma—“People Will Say We’re In Love”—to illustrate how lyrics can offset a jaunty tune.

Throughout the master class, Scheuer drew on a panoply of sources to illustrate his points. He used William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to show how to start a story in the middle. He cited Eminem for lyric construction and reusing words in different contexts. He drew from Paul Simon and Indigo Girls, Greek three-act structure and Bob Dylan.

Whether it was about the specificity of images, the importance of song titles, the use of rhyme, or the variation in verbs, Scheuer was full of insight and incisive suggestions. By way of introduction, he said he had learned from some great teachers and wanted to pass this on to others. If the full house in the rehearsal room today is anything to go by, dozens of Bay Area songwriters will be using those tips and techniques soon. Many thanks to everyone who showed up, and to Benjamin Scheuer for the class!

The Lion is playing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through May 1. Don’t miss this incredible one-man musical! Buy tickets here.

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