Archive for category Making Music

Songwriting Part 1-B: The Creative Process – Sketchbook

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 1: Research

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.

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Songwriting Part 1-A: The Creative Process – Research

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
  • 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.)

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Super-Basic Practice Routine

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.

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Courting the Muse

In my personal life, I am coming out of a long period of several years of foster care. We are still foster parents, but our current case is moving toward another adoption in a way that has taken a lot of the pressure off. We have also been struggling pretty intensely with being parents of kids from hard places. That struggle has forced me to become a student of trauma, child development, brain chemistry, and more in order to embrace this struggle as the new normal. Graciously, God has blessed us in this trial and He has also blessed me as a songwriter and performer with a number of songs that come from the context of this authentic kingdom journey.

As we come out of this time, I’ve realized that there’s something that was lost along the way that I long to recapture. What I lost was intimacy with the muse of music. I have been playing all this time and doing my job faithfully for the church, but in all the time taken up with the struggle, I’ve not been delighting in and soaking up music as much as I once did. I have decided recently to begin to “court the muse” again in order to restore that joy of performing music that I had. Here’s a list (listicle) of things that I’ve been trying to do to court the muse.

  1. Buying musiccarnegie-hall
  2. Practicing daily
  3. Listening
  4. Teaching
  5. Reading

Buying Music

This is actually hard to do in the world of parenting. I find that I feel guilty about spending the money as well as the time it takes to chose a purchase. Wading through everything that could possibly be purchased on Amazon or iTunes is daunting. It’s not the same to stream music for me. Spotify, Pandora and YouTube are handy but buying a recording involves more commitment for me to take the time to focus on the recording and really digest it. Lately, I’ve been trying to buy a new CD once a month.

Practicing Daily

This has been much harder of course. I’ve also struggled with feelings of guilt that I am being selfish to spend time practicing anything that is not worship songs. However, this guilt is not from the Holy Spirit. Besides, I’ve realized that I waste MUCH more time on social networks and TV that is not productive in the least. So, I am reading, doing scales, playing tunes, transcribing, and all the other things that I learned in college make you a better player. This has been DEEPLY therapeutic and joyful for me. My brain, my emotions, and my body almost buzz with delight after practicing for even just 20 minutes.


A natural outcome of buying new music, but it also takes effort. My car has a 6 CD player and I have kept it loaded with good stuff all the time. I can’t listen to music at home (there’s too much kid and dog noise to even attempt it). But in my car, I crank it up and let it soak in. Again, it’s handy to have a device that plays 10,000 songs on shuffle, but it’s also helpful to focus my listening to one CD and letting every track play instead of skipping to the “singles.” I’ve found that this kind of deeply listening allows me to hear things every time a track repeats that I hadn’t noticed before. Just this morning, I was listening to a song and I noticed that the drummer would leave out the last 8th note in the measure on the high hat every 4 measures. It might be my 20th or 30th time listening to the track.


This requires students obviously. I have a couple of students right now who are starting their journey with the guitar. It’s so exciting to introduce them to music and joy of performing together. Giving them just a few notes that they can play, all of a sudden they are musicians having their first experience with the muse. It’s a rush! Challenging them to work on getting past their technical and cognitive barriers reflects back on me to do the same and to not be content with letting my playing become plateaued.


I love books! Don’t you? Why do we look at our phones or whatever for hours and hours? Books are so much more satisfying. Reading about music has been a good stimulation for wanting to play more. Even just reading good stories or learning about history has the effect on me of wanting to connect with the muse and respond to these ideas with producing something instead of just being a consumer.

In all of this, I want to acknowledge though I’m using the Greek term “muse,” what I mean is that aspect of the Maker that I reflect when I make music. He created the physics of the universe that makes music possible. His word even says that HE sings over me to quiet me with His love. That is what I want to tap into and become intimate with again. The Maker – the WORD – is the muse and I don’t have to strive after Him because he has courted me into a relationship in which music is one of the amazing ways that I can be close with Him and to know His love and joy more deeply.

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Sanctus from Bach’s Mass in B Minor

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

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Happy Birthday, Antonio Carlos Jobim



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Diverse Worship Matters

I deeply appreciate these videos created by InterVarsity’s video production crew, twentyonehundred . They have re-framed the conversation about worship styles to emphasis something that I’ve always believed – that worship should be diverse in style out of love and mutual submission  that looks a lot like sharing a meal together.

These clips could function as a good conversation starter for a team of musicians, pastors, youth leaders, etc who are exploring the idea of diverse worship. It’s also a breath of fresh air in a time when the church is having hard and painful conversations about race and ethnicity. Brothers and sisters in Christ do need to have hard conversations, but they need to happen in the context of relationships that are fueled by gospel-based hospitality.

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Real Book Play-Alongs

Back in my day, we had to bootleg Jaime Aebersold tracks from the school library.

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Mariachi Flor de Toloache

Yesterday, we hid the afternoon doldrums and so I went to turn on some music. I turned on this video, and all of my kids froze and watched this mariachi group in rapt attention. This is music performance in it’s truest and most vibrant form. It completely captivated us.

Assuming that I know everything about music, my wife asked me what the names of these instruments are. I confess I had to look it up. I suppose that I need to add a “vihuela” to my wish list.



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It’s Friday, so Tito Puente

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