Posts Tagged 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 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.)

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Melody?

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.

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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.

Listening

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.

Teaching

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.

 Reading

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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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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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.

 

Mariachi-Instruments_black

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Practice Plan for 2016

I heard a TED talk or something that said that if you have a personal goal then the last thing you should do is to tell someone about it. The reason they gave was that the act of telling someone your goal gives your brain the same warm fuzzies that you get from actually accomplishing the goal. As a result, New Year’s resolutions never work because once you share them, then you loose the internal motivation to get them done. That being said, I want to share one of my resolutions in the hopes that this post will sabotage the whole thing.

My resolution is to practice my guitar more and with more purpose. As a professional musician, I play the guitar all the time but I’ve not really practiced in any focused way since college. Here’s the general plan that I’ve come up with to practice about 30 minutes, 4 times a week.

Monday – Reading practice

Tuesday – Transcription

Thursday – Tunes and Repertoire

Friday – Scales & Technique

I started last week by reading through the lessons in William Levitt’s Method Book 1. I’m transcribing Charlie Christian’s solo from Seven Come Eleven. For tunes last week, I worked on memorizing the head to “Seven Come Eleven” and “Freddie The Freeloader.” Then for scales I pulled out a textbook from college, Jerry Bergonzi’s book on Pentatonics. 

If you are a jazz player or any other kind of pro for that matter, this might seem pretty light, but I’m just trying to wade back into this so cut me some slack.

Gee, it felt good to share that with you. Now, where’s my phone? I need to go back to playing Subway Surfers.

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2015 New Songs at New City Fellowship

January

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize – Mavis Staples

Following the tragic and paradigm-shifting events in St Louis, it felt necessary to look back to the Civil Rights movement and the expressions of worship that shaped the theology of righteous protest. “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” or “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” as it’s sometimes called fit the theme. I chose to blend the lyrics of Mahalia Jackson’s recording with the more recent verses from Mavis Staples recording. Jackson’s recording focused on the more transcendent context while Staples’ recording focused on the immanent call for justice.


February  

You Reign – William Murphy

I chose this song because I liked the easy to sing call and response format that invites participation. It was also a popular recording on the Gospel charts which connects with fans who are looking for signs at NCF that we care about current cultural expressions in the community. I did choose (emboldened by my friend Michelle Higgins) to add some more verses. Murphy only composed two verses and then  created variation through key modulations. I added a few more verses to further meditation on the theme of Jesus’ sovereignty. Here they are if you want to use them:

With justice and righteousness, Your kingdom is forever blessed, You reign!

Through the blood of the worthy Lamb, we worship the Son of Man, You reign!


March

Help Me Walk With You – James Ward

My dad wrote this song based on Micah 6:8. There’s an old Maranatha setting of that verse which has been played out since the 90’s. We also sang another setting from the “Compassion Art” project in the ‘00’s called “You Have Shown Us”. However, this new setting was inspired by the music of jazz vocalist, Gregory Porter has some very tasty changes. It’s a keeper.

http://ncfmusic.com/resource/help-me-walk-you/


April

Taste and See – Edwin Hawkins

Michelle Higgins dug up this classic from the Hawkins song book for the 2014 LDR conference. The song touches on so many themes without losing focus so it’s a good opener, communion song, sermon prep, offertory, and more. I opted to leave out the bridge, but every time we sing it, I have doubts about whether that was the right call.


May

10,000 Reasons – Matt Redman

Maybe you’ve heard of this song. Sometimes you have to just play the hit. Especially when it’s got good meaty lyrics. I couldn’t just play it straight though, so we’ve turned it into a Reggae feel, kind of like “Three Little Birds” and we moved the key to E flat.


June

Nkembo Alleluia

My friend, Dieu Teku shared this song with us. “Nkembo” means glory and each verse is about one of the persons of the Trinity. It’s fairly simple to pick up by Americans.


July

Where All the Nations Shall Be Healed – Kirk Ward

This song was composed for the 2015 New City Music Conference. It was well received by our congregation despite the more laid back groove. I had a lot of fun writing this song, and it’s pretty fun to perform if you can hold the pocket together.

http://ncfmusic.com/resource/where-all-nations-shall-be-healed/


August

Tambira Jehovah – Mkhululi ft Joyous Celebration choir

African music, as I’ve come to understand it, is deeply connected to dance. This song simply says, “Come and dance to the Lord.” It’s a challenge to ask Americans (especially those from European cultures) to give into the groove and shake it. However, embracing reconciliation is sometimes more than words and ideas. If dancing is such a powerful expression in African cultures, then loving Africans requires an open attitude toward body movement. (We didn’t perform all of the song on the video. I didn’t roll around on the stage either.)

 Libéré – Maggie Blanchard

There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We are free. We are redeemed. We are heirs. We are justified. This is the message of this song composed in French by Maggie Blanchard, a Haitian singer living in French Canada. How could you not love a song with these words?

Father of Lights – Josh Davis (performed by Nikki Lerner and Bridgeway)

Josh Davis is the founder of Proskaneu Ministry. I love how this song uses multiple languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Swahili) to express thanksgiving. It is based on James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” This song has connected well with our congregation. I have to honestly say that our band sounds great performing it.


October

He Will Supply – Kirk Franklin

We performed this song a while back at one of the LDR conferences and I’ve been looking for a good time to perform it. In October, we were having a “Choir Sunday” and I was torn between a few different songs that we could have added. I sent an email to several Gospel music fans on my team with 4 options and asked them to pick two. They all picked this one. The message is one that we preach often here at NCF, that Jesus calls us to love the world and he has promised to supply everything that we will need to accomplish that calling. Our pastor, Tony Myles really got fired up by this song and exhorted the congregation to continue singing this song. It was a blast!

Dios Manda Lluvia – Ericson Alexander Molano with Marcos Witt

We had a “Spanish Sunday” in October when we were able to teach this song. A new singer, Marcella Lee, shared this song with us. It’s a prayer of invocation asking the Spirit to rain on us with power and to restore us again. Amen!


November

In Jesus Name – Israel Houghton

We’ve only been able to perform this once. I wrote about it a few weeks ago, so go read about it here.


December

Come Again Lord Jesus – Kirk Ward

I wrote this song for Advent and we performed it on our last Choir Sunday of the year. It was a blast and the choir had fun learning it. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to composed music for NCF and to be able see that music become the emotional framework for the people of NCF.

http://ncfmusic.com/resource/come-again-lord-jesus/

Please share any new songs your church learned this year in the comments or if you are from NCF, what was your favorite new song from 2015?

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How might Kingdom values reshape the music marketplace?

Musicians who are in the Kingdom of God are faced with two choices:

A) Make your living off of the benevolent patronage of other Christians (churches and other non-profit arts ministries)

B) Make your living off of the secular marketplace of music consumers (gigs, recordings, jingles, scoring, etc)

I would place the CCM, modern gospel music, and even the “worship” industry into category B. These musicians, even those who are making “worship” recordings, are vocationally producing a product that is designed to compete with other products in the secular market place. I’m not saying that it’s somehow “evil” or “sinful” to sell you product in the market. I am saying that the market place is not the church nor is it the Kingdom. The Kingdom can inhabit (become incarnate) in the market place, but the true worship of God, the fellowship of his people, and the restoration of creation is not achieved by floating in the current of the secular culture that has established the laws of market. This is true of any industry or vocation. We are not just citizens of this world who happen to prefer Jesus to other religious ideas (like I might prefer Star Wars to Star Trek). We are citizens of the Kingdom of God who happen to live and work in this world. Our citizenship in the Kingdom should determine everything else about how we live.

Instead of mastering the laws of the secular market in order to produce a competitive product, what would it look like for Kingdom musicians to actually reform the marketplace by offering an alternate set of laws?  Kingdom musicians could change the nature of how music is produced and consumed in order to restore the relationship of musicians and their communities. 

The church is one of the last places in our society where large groups of people meet together to sing songs. Despite trying to contextualize for the cultures we are trying to reach, we are still meeting together to sing songs which is one of the most bizarre, antiquated and irrelevant things we could be doing. If we wanted to be contextual in our culture, we should have done away with singing-church in favor of something like shopping-church or gaming-church. Aren’t those the activities practiced in our culture on a daily basis? (Shopping and gaming are cool. Don’t stress.)

Despite the push to be relevant, we haven’t let go of the practice of singing together because it’s a music expression that reflects the values of the Kingdom: healed relationships, shared abundance, and equal access to power. However, instead of taking these values into the marketplace in order to restore the creation, musicians of the Kingdom are often bringing the values of the secular marketplace into our worship spaces (or the “A” category of Christian music patronage).

So what should musicians of the Kingdom be working toward? A couple of changes off the top of my head would be:

Participation vs. elitism  – The Kingdom gives power and meaning to the whole community and not just the elite. This means the pyramid hierarchy of the music industry would be deconstructed in favor of more community and educational based music experiences that encourage as many people as possible to become music making participants.

Creation vs. consumption – Along the same lines, our relationship to music changes from being consumers to creators. We need a D.I.Y. revolution in music to come out of the application of Kingdom vlaues. Composers, educators, and performers should not be aiming at creating products for mass consumption but products for mass creation.

These ideas could start to shake the power structures that make music participation, creation and dissemination only available to the privileged and resourced communities.  New tech has already opened the doors to these changes but instead of embracing these new technologies, the music industry has been fighting them “tooth and nail.” They see these tech developments as a threat to their consolidated power.

More practical jumping off points:

  • New means of sharing and supporting music that are localized and community based
  • New performance venues that support participation and creation
  • Kingdom based paradigms for intellectual property
  • Educational practices that emphasis lifetime music participation and relationships

Share any thoughts you might have in the comments on how  Kingdom values might re-shape the music marketplace?

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Conference Highlights and Thoughts from @NewCityMusic #MusiCon15

I’ve had a few days to rest (play with my kids, talk with my wife, stare at the walls, etc.) and now that I’m back in the office, I’m ready to think a little bit about the conference we just hosted. I want to especially thank Carrie Jones, Michelle Higgins, Adina O’Neal, Lisa St. Pierre, and Sara Ward who did the bulk of the back end logistics to make the whole conference work. simple_graphic

Music

We had some good times playing music together and sharing our worship expressions. This year, there was a much stronger representation of original songs and arrangements. I brought some of my stuff, but there was also the creative work of Michelle Higgins, Michael Kendall, and Matthew Monticchio. New City Music is becoming more and more of a movement of original songs and expressions through the work of the Spirit in our communities. These songs came off to me as much stronger than the “radio” stuff in our times of worship. The open mic time was also full of original songs and ideas. God is moving and working in this generation, y’all.

Teaching

All three of the plenary sessions were fun, moving, and thought provoking. I was not at all the breakouts (i have to rest some time, right?) but I am looking forward to listening to them online. Ruth Naomi Floyd was my personal highlight. Her voice could move mountains. She has incredible control over her instrument making each “clip” of a spiritual that she presented deeply expressive and poignant. Many of the songs she shared, I’d heard before, but I’d never really listened to what the song was saying until she “unpacked it” for us. Edem Dzunu was both hopeful about the power of the gospel to reconcile people, but also didn’t downplay the hard truth that it ain’t easy. It’s always encouraging to know that the struggle that I’m experiencing is not unique to me because there’s something I’m doing wrong, but the struggle is the only path we can walk in order to see the kingdom advance. My dad, James Ward, was his usual entertaining self and I always enjoy his presentations. He’s my mentor so nothing he brought was new to me, but I was thankful that he was able to share about his rehearsal experiences with this larger audience.

Fellowship

I am so thankful for the friendships that are born out of these events. We also grow closer and share more about each other with each passing year. I was especially appreciative of the St Louis community of musicians who stepped up to help. When we hosted in 2011, I felt like I had to “do it all” without much help, but this time, I had a team of friends who had my back and brought gifts that I didn’t even imagine were possible. I was encouraged to see people connecting with each other departing with new connections.

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