The Singing Professor: Songwriting 101 at UB

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courtesy of UB University Relations
courtesy of UB University Relations/photo by JJ Chrystal

If University of Baltimore Professor Roger Friskey’s brisk attitude and winning grin remind you of Robert Preston in the film classic The Music Man, in which, of course, Preston’s charming band leader character only pretends to teach teens to play their expensive instruments, cease the comparisons at cosmetic ones. Yes, Friskey’s teaching a brand-new songwriting class as part of the summer schedule at UB; true, Friskey encourages anyone and everyone to register, even those without a hint of musical training or ability. But the guitar-strumming, Renaissance businessman, who typically lectures on persuasive and public relations writing for the university, isn’t promising to turn his students into pop stars or producers overnight. He’s just saying all are welcome to join the lively workshop discussion of songwriting technique and the seminar chat about the fast-changing face of the music industry. And all are encouraged to compose at their level.

“At UB we have many poets and many other students who just love music,” Friskey says. “In the class [which is cross-listed in the English and Integrated Arts departments], we’ll explore song lyrics in many different genres. Non-musicians will write some lyrics of their own, and I’ll help set those lyrics to music. I think of Leonard Cohen: great lyrics, but the music isn’t all that memorable. The overall effect, though, is powerful.”

Friskey, who spent years as a TV reporter and, later, as a corporate communications specialist and lobbyist with a major oil company, currently mans his own consulting firm on the side, Roger Friskey & Associates Communications LLC. But music has always been a big part of his diverse portfolio. He plays finger-style guitar, sometimes using a pick, sometimes not, and counts among his early influences Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and many others. Three tunes he considers songwriting classics: Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”; Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears”; Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.”

“Growing up in Chicago, I was around a lot of great players so I was able to soak up a lot of acoustic guitar chops,” Friskey says. “At Colorado College I played quite a bit, and during the year I spent at a French university, I traveled around playing and singing with a charming partner named Anne Brunet. My one claim to fame was opening for Joan Baez when she visited Colorado College.”

In more recent claim-to-fame news, Friskey has been celebrated for his end-of-term classroom serenade series at UB, a new tradition that sounds like a lot of fun.

“A few years ago I played for class (after evaluations were done), and it’s become something of a ritual students expect,” Friskey says. “Student especially like ‘A Dying UB Alum’s Request’ and ‘You’ll Always Come Back to Baltimore’ (‘…Living in Baltimore is like living with somebody who hates you enough to burn your easy chair; try a hundred times to quit it, but you’re still here’).”

When his songwriting students aren’t analyzing song lyrics, experimenting with composition, or learning about the internet-tangled music business in 2013, they’ll meet local musicians tapped by Friskey to stage in-class performances. Makes the notion of summer school sound cooler than we ever thought it could. And infused with creative possibility — maybe even a kind of magic.

“In my own experience, the best songs I wrote seemed to simply appear,” Friskey notes. “And when I deliberately tried to write something, it never quite worked as well. All in all, the process, if you could call it that, is mysterious and magical.”

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