Posts Tagged Worship

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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A question from a college student

Here’s a note that I received from a former youth group member at my church and my response. I thought it might be helpful for other folks to read – or to add any more comments in response to the student’s questions.

…The reason I am messaging you is because I have a question about leading worship services in many languages. I am a part of Resident’s Life this year in my dorm and am the leader of my team of 12 students, one to represent each floor in my dorm. We are in the process of planning an all-dorm worship night which we have done a few of in the past, but this time we are trying to incorporate diversity of languages in singing and in scripture reading, and praying styles. My question for you is how do you do this authentically and in a way that represents real cultures, people, and languages that are members of the community in a way that makes them feel included but also runs logistically smooth to an extent? I don’t want this to be something we just do because we “should” but because it is a real way to be inclusive of the (somewhat) diverse community that we live in- majority white with Spanish and Korean languages being the two other most represented. My team who is leading and in charge of this event is majority white and we are struggling with wanting to incorporate this form of appreciation for diversity in worship and not wanting to overstep or lead something in a way that would be offensive or divisive. If you have any thoughts for me they would be greatly appreciated. I know this sort of thing is extremely difficult and can easily fail but the Lord has put it on my heart to try to incorporate these conversation topics into our efforts to build community in a dorm that is focused on living for Christ and growing in unity and love for one another. Thank you for taking the time to read all of this and please let me know what you think, Thanks so much… 

Thanks for writing and I find it encouraging that you are even asking these questions – you would be surprised how many people just crash into cultural walls without any sensitivity. I would encourage you and maybe your team to check out these videos made by InterVarsity that kind of address the whole idea of diverse worship in a very winsome manner. http://mem.intervarsity.org/mem/diverseworship

The next step would be to get some of the “non-white” folks in the conversation with you so that you are able to ask them for input. This is not just “tokenism” – it’s about relationship and giving away control. Tokenism happens when an all white leadership plans the songs and then asked a non-white person to sing with the team as a “token” of diversity. Reconciliation is about sharing the space and sharing the power. Is there a Hispanic or Korean campus group that you can connected with? Are there any local congregations from these cultures that you can connect with and ask to learn from? These are big steps, but a little step is to maybe just take the song We Fall Down by Chris Tomlin and sing it in several languages – just to affirm that these languages are part of the community.

You are right to not want to overtly offend, but there will be people who are offended (especially from the white mainstream) and there’s kind of no way to avoid that. The kingdom of God breaks down walls of division and that’s going to bother people who take comfort in their own safe spaces. There’s also a good chance you might offend some one who’s not white (maybe they think you are exploiting their culture). That’s to be expected as well. Trust in the Holy Spirit to break down relational barriers through healing worship and not in your ability to plan your way around conflict (speaking from experience).

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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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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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What I learned taking a week off from leading worship

A few weeks ago, I took a weekend off from leading worship. I had a good excuse: I was adopting my foster son into our family forever. The adoption happened on National Adoption Day, on a Saturday morning, so I was not going to be at rehearsal. It was also a good opportunity to sit with my wife and kids through a whole service at our own church to see what it’s like to be one of the congregation. It was not as hard as I expected to be one of the worshipers who is not in control of the music. In fact, I was very thankful afterward for what I experienced because it made me more excited to get back into my job and lead.

Distractions

One thing I learned was that there are a lot of factors that the musicians have no control over that distract our people from the singing. We came in right as the service was starting so I was not exactly focused until the middle of the first song. Then my kids were a big distraction. They ask questions, squirm, make noise, wander off, cry, or just about anything else they can do to occupy my attention. As a music leader, this gave me a renewed sense of peace that those people who seem to not be engaged on Sunday are not necessarily that way because they are unspiritual or I am doing a bad job. It could be just that they are not as prepared, unfettered and focused as the music director gets to be. So I want to give myself and the people I serve some grace because there are a lot of distractions. I also want to be more deliberate about doing what needs to be done to focus attention on the worship process – parents and kids alike.

Mistakes

There were a few mistakes the week I took off. They weren’t major, but they were noticeable. Some mistakes were only known to me because of the inside knowledge I have about song form or whatever. The good news is that despite the mistakes, my participation as one of “the people” was not derailed by a few gaffs from the leaders. I looked at the team that was leading, my friends, and their mistakes were not that important. It was actually endearing to watch as they worked around the problem and came out on the other side without getting mad or breaking down. As a leader, this gave me more peace about the process of preparing for worship. We can mess up! It’s not we should be deliberately negligent to prepare because love and hospitality require that we make an effort to do a good job. However, the fear or failure in performance is not there if you know that you are leading for family, not judges.

Joy

I love my job. I enjoy leading. Taking a week off made me miss my job and want to get back in the saddle. I believe that the Lord has given me gifts and passion and joy to lead the worship songs. It was a special time to be able to sing with my wife and kids, but we all are committed as a family to my role in our church and it brings us joy to be able to do that. Today, I’m in the office getting songs together, preparing charts, contacting volunteers, and it’s just adding to my excitement about being able to sing and play for the Lord again this Sunday. It’s the best job in the world.

 

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Song for Advent: Come Again Lord Jesus

“Advent” is the time of the church calendar when we look for the coming of the Lord Jesus. It has elements of past, present, and future longing for the coming of the Messiah. We read the Messianic passages from the prophets that long for a suffering servant to come, a child who will bring light from darkness. Then we celebrate that Jesus did come as a baby in the time of Caesar Augustus.

In the present, we look for the Messiah to come now in the present into the hearts and lives of broken people, structures, and communities. We cry to the Lord for his Spirit to fill us and to be present in all our thoughts and give us purpose and vision. Then we celebrate that his promise is fulfilled over and over to be the living and ever-present Emmanuel, God with us.

For the future, we look to the coming of the Lord in the full consummation of the story of redemption. All the saints from the past, present, and future, along with the whole universe of creation groans with anticipation that the Lord Jesus will be forever present as the King of Kings in the glorious New City of God. We celebration in Advent that he has always been faithful to his promises and he will not fail to come again.

I wrote this song for Advent that doesn’t have any stable, shepherds, angels, star, or even mention sweet little baby Jesus. However, it does get to the heart of the longing for the Lord Jesus to come again and be our King in the past, present and future.

Come Again Lord Jesus

Come again Lord Jesus
All creation join and sing
Come again Lord Jesus
Come again and be our King
Come again and be our King

To the poor and the forsaken
brokenhearted and alone
Come again and bring us hope
The one true Son of David
Worthy Lamb upon the throne
Come again and bring us peace

As you came before, Jesus come again
Oh, we need you Lord, please come again

To the victim and the prisoner
with no power and no name
Come again and bring us joy
Be the one true Righteous Shepherd
Calling lost sheep to reclaim
Come again and bring us love

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New Song: “In Jesus Name”

Here’s a new song that we are going to learn this weekend at New City Fellowship.

This song was co-written by Israel Houghton and Darlene Zschech. It’s the single from Israel’s latest recording, “Alive in Asia”  but Zschech seems to have released it earlier with a more HIllsong-y rock vibe. 

What I love about this song:

  • Infectious groove and ear-wormish melody
  • Bold proclamation of God’s commitment to his people and his kingdom (Romans 8)

Stuff that I’m not going to worry about:

  • maintaining Houghton’s EDM pop vibe on the recording (because we’re just not that kind of band)
  • maintaining the recording’s unison only vocals (my people harmonize even when I tell them not to)
  • performing all 6 1/2 minutes from the recording

I went through a period of doing a TON of Houghton’s music. It’s always fun and for the most part, theologically solid despite his  connection to Joel Osteen. For me, his songs have been the bridge between CCM style worship and contemporary gospel which is exactly what a multicultural evangelical church needs. If you haven’t incorporated these yet, you should check out his other songs like:

  • You are Good
  • Friend of God
  • Again I Say Rejoice
  • There’s a Lifting of the Hands
  • Jesus At The Center
  • Saved By Grace
  • Who Is Like The Lord
  • Highly Exalted
  • Moving Forward
  • Deeper

Stuff to remember when attempting Houghton’s songs with a congregation:

  • His voice is at it’s best in the alto range and so his recordings are going to pitch the songs accordingly, so either give the melody to the altos or bring the key down at least a whole step – or push it up a 3rd and drop it an octave. Just be careful about losing all the intensity
  • His songs often work well in a white worship setting or a black worship setting (Friend of God is a good example) so if your group is made up of mostly white, rock musicians, you are going to have to work hard not to lose the gospel vibe.
  • His songs are simple and so to make them more interesting, the recordings throw a lot of stuff into the form to constantly change things up. You have freedom to simplify these song forms to make it more “congregational” if you need to, so don’t let all those hip details from the recording make you over-think things.

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October Worship Sets

Oct2015plans

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