Well finally the truth can be told about one of my attempts to learn new skills in retirement. In this case, learning about the art and science of songwriting. I got my grade and I passed and I have my statement of achievement to prove it. Coursera songwriting 2013   The Coursera website said to be awarded this statement of achievement you needed a score of 70 – I totaled my scores up a week or so ago, up to and including assignment 5, and had way over 70 so I nearly didn’t submit the last assignment. Turns out just as well I did because now it seems you need 70% to pass, a very different kettle of fish altogether. So as I got 78.3% (one person got 103.4%, I guess they must do things differently in New York) looks like I needed that last assignment. On such small events does the world turn on its axis and the careers of great song writers rise or fall. The big question, though, is whether learning new skills in retirement really is a good thing? Does it ward off the Alzheimers? Judge for yourself.

Certainly my commitment to learning new skills has not been all plain sailing. In my last learning new skills blog I suggested there were one or two issues with putting yourself in the position of being a learner, not least of which is that there are times when I have felt very, very stupid. This is not such a great feeling and when you have to resort to cheating on a multiple choice test as I did, well, that’s nothing to be proud of at all. Not a goal to set yourself for your retirement years.

I did not take the course too seriously. Whether that’s the right attitude for learning new skills in retirement I couldn’t say. Some of my assignment work was frankly, shoddy. Mainly this was to do with the technical side of recording your song and running out of time and ending up with a ‘that will have to do’ effort if I am going to make the assignment deadline. For those of us, and I’m sure there were many, who had never used Audacity (the recording / mixing software) or Songcloud (the on-line site for posting audio files), the technical challenges were significant. A week is not a long time to complete some quite complicated assignments and, when you leave them to the last moment – as I did, – then problems do and did occur.

What I found remarkably difficult in recording was deciding whether to sing and play my instrument at the same time – I found this didn’t give a good balance unless you remembered to stay close to the microphone, this was made difficult because, at the same time, I was trying to look at my lyrics and chord changes on my monitor (I couldn’t print the song out because my printer ran out of ink and I was too cheap to buy replacements and I couldn’t remember my newly written words) – there’s another swearing blog for the future – the cost of printer ink. The recording software allows you to record voice and music on separate tracks but to do this you need headphones, oh never mind). I suppose I resembled the hunchback of Notre Dame, bent over laptop and microphone, squinting sideways at monitor and trying to play guitar or piano (another difficult decision when you’re as restricted in talent as I am). I couldn’t get all the lyrics on the monitor screen but couldn’t stop strumming, or whatever, in order to scroll down the page. I ended up getting my wife to help me scroll down my lyrics. With my singing – which you can hear for yourself when I post the song – this was a painful business for both of us. The recording sounded rubbish. I could go on, and on, but this gives a flavour of the difficulties of this course that were never mentioned in the pre-course publicity. For me it mostly came down to lack of recording skills and not enough time to compensate for this lack. I can only hope that I eventually record a version of the song that I’m proud of because I think the song is potentially not too bad.

One, somewhat predictable (although bizarre) I suppose, consequence of taking this particular course, was that I got my tune stuck in a loop in my head. This happened to me when I used to listen to a lot of music in my teens. Caused me to stop listening to ‘pop’ music and start listening to classical music and jazz – they had less obvious melodies. It also, at the time, caused me to leave my band and stop trying to write crap songs. At the time it really upset me, bloody songs going through my head on a loop in the middle of the night can be vexing – I even went to see a psychiatrist about it (not something I would do today). He asked me if I heard voices or whether it bothered me that a picture on his office wall wasn’t straight. When I told him, no and no, he prescribed tranquilisers and lost interest.

Anyway, hence the hiatus of nearly 50 years in my songwriting ‘career’. Of course you think you’re the only one and I haven’t heard of a label for this ‘condition’. Then a couple of posts from  fellow students brightened me up a bit – Happy Thanksgiving all. I can’t get “Hobo Wind” and “Pieces” out of my head! / And to you John. I can’t get my own flipping song out of my head!! But I’ve just thought of a different style to sing it in which may make me happier! So I’m not the only one. But this was another reason, even now, why my song didn’t get polished to a degree I might have been happier with.

So a hint there of the challenges, but by far the biggest source of angst among fellow students, over 6000 of them, it was suggested, was with the part of the system to do with peer grading. I may have been lucky with my peer reviewers because I felt the grades they gave me, even when low / negative were entirely fair. Unlike some students perhaps those who took umbrage with their peer reviews,

A couple of examples from the discussion forum, which as I told you last time, was very, very active. I am a bit dissatisfied with the concept of other students having so much weight in the grading. I’m just taking this course for ‘fun’, but after reading comments I’m feeling quite upset. Comments are unhelpful and poorly written. I will take a few deep breaths and continue to get what I can out of the course, but I would really prefer folks with better skills at evaluating and communicating to offer their insights.


Please be compassionate in rating your peers!  Many of us just begin to write songs. I read very stringent  rules given by my reviewer… Oh my God,  it was not yet given in the lectures!  Have a heart!

And responses from other posters

Never let the downgraders “kick you out” of a course.  They might cheat you of a certificate but that’s far less important and less useful than learning and enjoying the course materials.
And remember, Coursera is a “do it your way” system.  I sometimes enroll in a course just to participate in the forum – a few people do this course just posting their song each week in the forum for comment, skipping the assignments and the grading issues, no certificate but lots of fun and growth in songwriting. If the grading system becomes too annoying, that’s one way to bypass it!

This review, admittedly the most vicious of all that I saw, wins the prize for most hurtful. I got a seven. All good reviews people loved my song and just this  one person has to be mean : it sounded like someone who was a retard wrote it. Some improvement would be add this clap your hands and make a shiny bucktooth face clap your hands clap your hands like a retard! then go Yay at the end. That’s not normal right?

I’ll finish this blog, which is already far too long, with a much more positive ‘review’ (of my own song by the way).

Aww, what a beautiful song! You could try mixing up the front heavy and back heavy timing a bit for variation, but I love how you’ve quite firmly resolved it at the end. You could have some front heavy teasers through it, hinting at what is to come. Anyway, good work! Hope you enjoyed the course!

So is learning new skills in retirement all it’s cracked up to be? Is the whole point of the experience to put yourself under pressure, to create a little stress even? So your retirement life more closely resembles your career life? Well, the answer will be in whether I elect to take part in more courses in the future. There’s certainly plenty to choose from. It won’t be for a while because the workload has been surprisingly heavy. Watch these pages to see what, if anything I do next. In the meantime, I’ll bring you up-to-date with my wife’s stained glass course, this being her ‘learning new skills’ in retirement venture.

PS It is with great trepidation that I post my song. Hopefully I’ll do it again some time – properly!

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