You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.
– Merry, The Fellowship of the Ring
Here’s the song I wrote yesterday based on the old folk song “Shanandoah” in this video.
O Lord of earth and heaven
Please look down upon your people
And take away our heavy burden
We have no hope and no salvation
Beside your love and mercy
O Christ our Lord who walked among us
May your kingdom last forever
We gather here in this communion
To taste and see your goodness
Here in your blood and body
O Spirit bind our hearts together
Make us worthy of your calling
With thankful hearts we pause to worship
Now send us out upon our journey
Help us to stand in trials
From my wife’s blog if you haven’t seen it already
As an MK (missionary kid) I crave change. If you don’t believe me, just ask my husband. We have been married now for just under 12 years. The first year of our marriage we moved from Chattanooga, TN to St. Louis, MO and both started new jobs. The second year of our marriage we had our first child. In the third year of our marriage we had our second child. The next year we bought a house. Then we got licensed by the state as an adoptive family, and had a pre-adoptive placement for about 6 months. Then we recovered and got a dog. Then we got licensed as a private adoptive family and had and lost a placement. Then we got chickens and built something tangible together as we recovered. Then we got licensed as a foster placement and had change after change (one time we received a new…
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The creative process is not an assembly line so don’t expect each phase to move mechanically into the next. At any given time, I’m in any one of the phases with a particular idea.
Phase 2: Sketchbook
After you’ve been marinating creative ideas in your research, the next thing to do is to have a kind of sketchbook where you allow pieces of songs to freely flow from you without criticism or judgement. For this stage, I have used a notebook where I write out ideas or a document that I can access at work or at home. For the visual artist, the sketchbook goes with them everywhere so that anytime they see something compelling or they have time to kill they can sketch their ideas in order to access them later.
Another tool for “sketches” could be the voice recorder on your phone. There’s an old myth of the songwriter in a hotel room calling their own answering machine in order to record a song idea. I’m glad that today most of us have a pretty decent recorder with us at all times in our phone. When recording a sketch, it’s best to not attempt a “demo” just yet. You’ll be doing that later on. Just press record and then sing every idea that comes to you as it comes. When I’m in my office, I prefer to use a TASCAM DR-05. It sounds really good, it’s easy to use, and it’s easy to transfer onto the computer.
If you literate in notation, a program like Finale can be a big help. However, sometimes when I try to capture ideas with Finale, I end up getting bogged down in an attempt to create the finished product when I should just be sketching.
Sketches of songs can be a single phrase, a chord progression or a melody. The parts may not have a clear formal structure yet and they may be nowhere close to looking like a song. Don’t force them to be a song yet. Give your ideas a place to live in your sketchbook on their own without asking them to get out there and go to work in the wide world. They will get tested and refined in the next phase, but for the moment, let them stand without judgement. If you expect every thought to become a world-changing musical expression then you become either paralyzed with self-doubt or blinded by an inflated ego. My dad, a gifted songwriter and my mentor, always told me something like 1 out of every 30 songs is a keeper. If you expect to have a lot of ideas that will end up in trash, then it frees you to let go of forcing the process and it gives you a realistic expectations of how often you need to working on the process.
The transfer of an idea from your head onto paper or into a recording has a powerful affect that can sometimes ignite inspiration rapidly. Sometimes, the creative process takes over at this point and within an hour or less you have a fully formed song. This happened to me when I wrote a new setting for Isaac Watts’ text “Jesus My Great High Priest.” My pastor liked the hymn, but I found the musical setting in the hymnal to be lacking. He asked to sing it one day in staff prayer and after that meeting, I went in my office resolved to fix it. Within an hour or two, I had a new melody and chorus for the song that has become one of our church’s most loved songs for worship. That rarely happens, but when it does, it’s usually because I’ve been researching heavily and so my mind is ripe with ideas.
Creativity is not magic. It’s not mysterious or inspired. The Romantics are wrong about artists as isolated, half-mad geniuses. Creativity is a process of applied skills, experiences, knowledge and craft. You might have met someone who claimed that they were just minding their business when a song came to them as a fully formed product as if inscribed by the Holy Spirit onto their brain. That person is not really acknowledging the thought and preparation that went into the moment of creative spark. Writing songs is a creative process that can be repeated and developed like any other skill.
Stage 1: Research
Song writing research takes many forms. It could be listening to a particular style of music for details about song construction or learning to play the songs of a particular artist. I wrote the song “Search Me” after I read that Paul McCartney said “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys was his favorite song of all time. Then I learned to play it and analyzed the chord movement. Research could also be studying scripture in a systematic way to generate ideas. A few years ago, I went through a process of doodling the the Psalms. I would read a Psalm and then draw symbols or phrases. This process was the preparation for writing my song of lament, “Hear My Cry.” Sometimes a deadline or a project objective means that the research phase needs to be very focused on a task, but the best creative research happens more fluidly without a goal in mind, giving your brain and your heart freedom to wander through the information without boundaries. Here are some ideas for research direction:
- Go on YouTube and watch a ton of NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.
- Look up hymns written by Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley and analyze their form, melody, harmony, content, etc.
- Get a Real Book and learn a few classic Standards
- Pick a CD of a style you want to understand better and listen to it over and over and over in your car until you can sing every word and instrumental part by memory. (I did this one summer in college with an Earth Wind and Fire’s Greatest Hits cassette.)
- Read a biography of a musician you love and respect; then go and listen to their influences.
- Read all the annotations for a song you like on Genius.com
- Watch a documentary on film making, writing, visual art or other creative people (My 1st year after college, I used to watch DVDs of “the Simpson’s” with the commentary on to hear the writers and creators discuss their process of making each episode.)
I have been slowly mulling over a couple of blogs I read a month or so ago. These days my thoughts are scattered and interrupted by the nearly constant needs of my small children. It takes time to formulate my random thoughts into cohesive ideas. It takes even more time to find the time to sit down uninterrupted and write them down. So forgive me if they are not fully processed or if nap ends in the middle of my post.
I recently read an article by Dr. John DeGarmo called My Grief Is Real: The Tears of a Foster Parent. As a foster mom I have cried many tears over my kids who moved on. I usually cried those tears the first time we found out they wouldn’t be staying in our family. And God faithfully comforted me each time as we began to work toward helping that…
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Hear this, all peoples! Give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together! My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.
Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.
For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names. Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.
This is the path of those who have foolish confidence; yet after them people approve of their boasts. Selah Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases. For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him. For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed —and though you get praise when you do well for yourself— his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light. Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
Psalm 49:1-20 ESV
Not long ago, I posted about “Courting the Muse.” I that post, I said that I was trying to practice every day. When I wrote that, I had a plan to do some reading, some scales, some tunes, and some solo transcribing. Well, that’s not really worked out. I’m not in a place where I have time to really focus on that many different areas. However, where I ended up has been good because it’s both fun and productive. I have been basically been working on 2 things.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, I’m working on the Double from J.S. Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 1 in B minor at the suggestion of my friend Sean Gilbert. This thing is a beast! By working on this, I’m covering technique, scales, reading, arpeggios (galore!), harmonic development through single note lines, the list goes on… I’m not yet at performance speed and I haven’t even learned the whole thing yet. I’m getting about 2 measures a week. Still, the improvement in my chops is definitely showing. You can download the Partinas here.
On Thursdays and Fridays I’m working on systematically reviewing jazz repertoire. I’m doing this by taking the University of Tennessee Jazz Jury repertoire list and going through all the tunes from that list that appear in the Real Book starting with Level 1. I first play the melody and the changes by myself, and then I turn on a YouTube play along and go with that (it takes 30 seconds to type “[song title] play along” into google to find what you need). When I feel sufficiently comfortable with a tune, I move on to the next. Play alongs are the closest thing to a live set so I’m working toward being able to play tunes (not from memory but with help from the chart) as if I was on a gig. This is helping with reading, scales, licks, changes, comping, repertoire, and more. It’s fun and it’s giving me a workout.
Wednesday is my day off at home and I’m changing diapers. Sometimes, I can sit down and play while my 1 yr old bangs on the guitar and grabs the strings. Saturday and Sunday, I’m playing worship tunes.
I should add that it’s always good to set a 30 minute timer for myself to help encourage me to go ahead an practice even when I’m busy. In reality, once I get started practicing is so rewarding and fun that I need the timer to make me stop.
What I like about this routine (or maybe what has kept me successfully following this routine) is that it’s very simple and fun. Like a good physical exercise routine, the less barriers to getting started and doing it every day the better.
For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us. In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
Psalm 44:6-8 ESV
I’m looking at this popular worship song. It’s got decent lyrics and it has a good emotional vibe. The production quality is good. I was thinking about adding it to our repertoire. What made me change my mind was the total absence of melody. 90% of the song’s melody is the 1 or the 3 of the scale. I am the last guy to complain about the “decline” of worship music due to rock and roll or whatever, but honestly, could you throw in a few more notes into your melody? Even when the form transitions into a bridge, the melody of this song stays on the 3.
This song is in the TOP 5 on the CCLI list.
This isn’t the fault of Pop. You can listen to Adele, John Legend, Sam Smith, Beyonce, Justin Beiber, Katy Perry, etc. and you are still going to find melody. Why is the church so hooked on mediocre music?
Ok, I’m done whining.