Robbie Sherman Explains: My Apprenticeship with my Dad

Not all apprentices receive the Alan Sugar treatment
Robbie Sherman with his father Robert B Sherman in 2002

Robbie Sherman with his father Robert B Sherman in 2002

Would there have been a Love Birds if Robbie Sherman hadn’t first served a life-long apprenticeship with his father, legendary Disney lyricist Robert B Sherman? 


Love Birds creator Robbie Sherman (music, lyrics and book) explains:

My father was a parent, of course, but also a friend, a confidante, and yes, a mentor. I owe him so much. That said, “mentor” is really not the best word to use. With a mentor, one thinks of the “mentee” arriving at the mentor’s home, the mentor makes the mentee some clever coffee, then spends the afternoon imparting advice and guidance. All in all, a rather Socratic evocation.

The Sherman Brothers with Walt Disney

The Sherman Brothers with Walt Disney

But ours was a different sort of relationship. Beside being father and son, I had the unusual advantage of being an “apprentice” to my father, not merely a mentee. There’s a subtle, but important distinction between being an apprentice and being a mentee. An apprentice is constantly present. He learns through service. He experiences the nitty-gritty of his “master’s” creative process. And through this he learns how the master really thinks. Ego can’t play a part in it, at least not as easily. I’ve learned so much through service to my dad. The experience was invaluable.

Noted British historian, Professor Simon Schama once said, “There’s no substitute for ‘being there’.” The apprentice gets to walk in the master’s shoes, even carrying some of the load – because they’re working on the same project. The master can guide the apprentice’s hand. It’s learning through action rather than talk. For me at least, I don’t think it would have been possible to have learned the nuanced lessons needed to be a songwriter without having had that sort of close interaction with someone of my father’s mastery in the craft.

My father and I would often sit and discuss my songs, his songs, the songwriting process. He gave terrifically meaningful critiques – and knowing he was always coming from a place of love, he could be very direct. His critiques were not for the faint of heart, however!

“When you write a song, you put your soul into that song. The music covers the general emotion you’re trying to express while the lyric provides a specificity to that emotion”

When you write a song, you put your soul into that song. The music covers the general emotion you’re trying to express while the lyric provides a specificity to that emotion and, if you’re doing your job right, you’re exposing a piece of yourself in the process. The result becomes a very personal statement. So criticism can be tough to take.

Not all apprentices receive the Alan Sugar treatment

Not all apprentices receive the Alan Sugar treatment

Dad was usually very gentle when giving criticism. Once though, when I was about 12, he listened to a lyric that I’d written, and it must have been pretty poor because he laughed out loud when he heard it. I was very sensitive about this sort of thing then, and it put me off of songwriting for several months. I’m sure he didn’t mean to laugh. Fortunately, though, my desire to write was strong, and when I came back to it, I was much better for it.

Nobody likes to hear that the art he’s created (and in which he’s invested himself) is defective. But as painful as criticism is to hear, it’s those moments that test the mettle of the artist. It’s those moments of honest, tough but loving criticism that are the last, best crucible for real improvement. And, as my grandfather once taught my own father when he was learning the art of songwriting, “If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

“My father is always with me when I write. He’s always in the room…. More than ever, he’s in every song, every line and each word I write.”

Ultimately, the key is to find a truly knowledgeable, wise and benevolent teacher. In my case, that teacher, that master, was readily accessible to me. And just as importantly, I was a willing and eager student – willing to do the real soul-searching work necessary to improve.

I wrote Love Birds after Dad died. Someone asked me the other day what it’s like writing new music without having him around. At first I was afraid I wouldn’t write very well without him being there to run new things by. His very presence demanded me to be at my best.

Quickly I realised, though, that he’s always with me when I write. He’s always in the room. You know, I still ask him whether a line works now; when I’m struggling with something, I think, what would Dad do in this situation? More than ever, he’s in every song, every line and each word I write.

LOVE BIRDS RUNS 12.35PM DAILY 5-31 AUGUST (EXCEPT 19 AUGUST) AT THE PLEASANCE COURTYARD DURING THE 2015 EDINBURGH FRINGE. BOOK TICKETS HERE.


YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY THESE: