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Deep Impact

Recently, I was privileged to be one of the judges for Waves of Glory, Wet ‘n Wild’s Battle of the Christian Bands. I LOVE this event because it gives local, unsigned Christian artists the opportunity to perform at a major theme park.

Even before the winner was named (Congratulations – Alma Vertical!), the judges and organizers were discussing how to make next year’s contest even better. We talked about changing the scoring sheet to include, among other things, how the music made us feel. What was its IMPACT?

As a songwriter, I am constantly critiquing my own songs. In addition to the usual checklist, everything from alliteration to song structure, I’ve added some basic, yet revealing questions:

Do I like this song?”

“Do I enjoy singing this song?”

“Does this song move me?

Chances are, if I don’t like singing my song, my listeners won’t enjoy hearing it either.

Now, we know nothing is impossible with God. If He can speak through a donkey, He can minister through a dull song and an uninspired singer.  Yet, what a joy it is to be in tune with the Spirit and to have a song minister to you and through you!

I’ve experienced that difference, both as an artist and as a member of the audience. If the listener is going to be moved by the song, the song needs to move the singer—to have a deep impact in the heart.

Bear with me as I attempt an analogy from science (those who know me, know this is a stretch). As I recall, molecules stay relatively still when they are cold; turn up the heat, and they start moving and bumping into one another. Seems to me, this is how God works through us. He ignites us with a passion that burns deep inside our hearts and moves us to action. As we share our passion, whether through a song or an act of service, others are moved and stirred to action. The chain reaction may be small, our families or communities, or it could be huge, shaking our nation, or changing the world.

What impact will your songs and your ministry have? God knows and time will tell. What you can do is pray. Pray to be a co-creator with God, for His Word to flow through you with passion and power, for songs that will burn in your heart and touch those around you.

And remember, if you want your songs to change the world, they have to change you first. 

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As a budding songwriter, you may be asking yourself a lot of questions. “How do I get my songs heard?” “How do I get gigs?” “How can I protect my songs?” These are all great questions, and we’ve addressed some of them at the FLCSA meetings. One question you should not be asking yourself is, “Should I record my songs?”

Whether you are a band or solo artist who performs your own songs, or a songwriter wanting to promote your songs to other artists who will perform them for you, you need to record your songs.

Perhaps some better questions would be…“How do I record my songs?” “Where should I record my songs?” “How much will it cost?”

Excellent questions!

Let’s start with the first one. How you record your songs depends on why you are recording them. If you are a songwriter wanting to pitch your songs to artists or record companies, you want to record a demo. A demo is a professional quality recording of a song, usually with just piano or guitar and the lead vocal. (Although in recent years the trend is changing to fuller demos [drums, bass, etc.]. These will cost more, so if budget is an issue, keep it simple.)

Where should you record your demo? Again, the answer depends on several factors, budget being one of them. If you go to a local recording studio, you can expect to pay $25 – $75 an hour to record your tracks (tracking). Rates vary for mixing and mastering with some studios charging by the hour and others by the song. Of course price should not be your only consideration. You want to look at the quality of the studio, the equipment and resources available, and the expertise of the recording engineer. Most of this information can be found at the recording studio’s website along with samples of their recording projects, so you can ‘listen for yourself’.

If you are a solo artist or a band who performs your own songs, you will want to record your songs in a way that reflects your live performance. That could mean lots of time in the recording studio laying down tracks for each instrument and the vocals. Most recording studios will allow you to book blocks of times for recording multiple songs. This would be essential if you were to travel to Nashville, for example, to make your recording. With hard work and preparation, in a few days, with a few thousand dollars, a band or artist can produce a professional recording (CD or EP) which they can sell at their concerts or online, and pitch to radio stations in hopes of airplay. A professional quality recording is still the best way to build a following and enable others to listen to your music when they are not at your concert.

If you are strictly a songwriter and do not intend to play or sing on your demo, you can use recording studios anywhere in the world (and you don’t need a travel budget to do it). I had a professional demo recorded of one of my songs at a studio in Nashville. I emailed them a lyric sheet, a lead sheet (which they did not use) and a rough recording of me performing my song (mp3). They produced a professional demo (keyboard and voice) for just under $200.

If you really want to ‘do it yourself’ you can. Technology has improved to such an extent that home recording studios can produce the same high quality recordings as major recording studios. Expect to invest at least a few thousand dollars for a computer (Mac is best), software (like ProTools), mics and other equipment to get started. Having your own studio gives you the flexibility of time to record when you want to for as long as you want to without the meter running. It also requires you to have a high level of musical proficiency and technical expertise so you can perform your own songs and be your own recording engineer.

But just because a home studio has the capacity to produce great sound, does not mean everyone can produce top quality recordings at home, anymore than giving everyone canvas and a paint brush will enable them to produce Rembrandts. My advice, “Know yourself”. If you enjoy being involved in the whole process and have the time and capacity to devote to the engineering aspects of music production, go for it. This can be a great choice for bands who may have some members who focus on songwriting and others who prefer the more technical aspects of recording. If you find it frustrating, especially if you are a solo artist and feel it’s taking time away from your songwriting, you will probably be better off working with a recording engineer. And remember, collaboration is a good thing, not just in songwriting, but in all aspects of the music process.

Of course, there is at least one option to record your songs FREE! To learn more, come to the next Florida Christian Songwriters meeting.

As an avid student of the craft of songwriting, I am on a constant quest for insight on how to write better songs. I often ask other songwriters about their methods. Since I believe in the principle of sowing and reaping, I shared at last month’s Florida Christian Songwriters meeting (Jan. 2012) the process I used to write the song I sang at the meeting, “You Love Me”(and gave a shout out to MasterWriter for their great program). I also recognize that God has made each of us unique, and what works for me, may not work for everyone. In fact, I have used many different processes in writing my own songs. Bottom line: there is no ONE RIGHT WAY to write a song.

That being said, if we take songwriting out of the realm of the mysterious, something we do only when inspiration strikes and continue only as long as inspiration lasts, and put it into the realm of the practical, considering it an activity we can do at any time whether inspiration is present or not, we find there are some helpful guidelines for writing a song. In his book, Song Writing – A Complete Guide to the Craft songwriter and songwriting instructor Stephen Citron offers a six step process.

Step one is to create the title idea. In other words, determine what your song is about and narrow down that concept into a catchy title. (See my post – “What’s the Point”) Next, set the title to music. Try to capture the essence of the title in the music. A great example is “Maria” from West Side Story. Notice the emotion and sense of longing created with just three notes. (For you theory buffs, it is an augmented 4th followed by a minor 2nd. The tritone begs to be resolved.) If you missed the fact that you’ve just written your hook, you should read my post, “Hook ‘em, Danno”. Next, complete the lyrics for the first section then set it to music. Now create a second set of lyrics that matches the first with regards to line length, rhythmic stress and rhyme scheme and which further communicates the concept of the song. Examine your song to see if it needs a contrasting section like a bridge. If so, write the lyrics then set them to music. Continue this process until you complete the song.

I would add a seventh step – pray! Since as Christian songwriters we write every song to the glory of God, we should pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as we acknowledge our dependence on God throughout the process. Remember we have nothing that we have not received (I Cor. 4:7), and every good and perfect gift comes from above (James 1:17).

But don’t wait for inspiration to come before you write. That’s like waiting to be inspired to read your Bible or pray or worship God. If we step out in obedience and start to write a new song, we can trust God to faithfully guide us every step of the way.

Then Sings My Soul

I love hymn stories! As a believer I am encouraged by these musical expressions of faith and by the revelations of Divine Providence that often prompted the writing of the great hymns. As a songwriter, I love discovering more about the process and inspiration behind songs of worship as well as hearing the stories of how a song has touched the lives of those who’ve heard it.

Then Sings My Soul Book 3 by Robert J. Morgan is a book of hymn stories and much more. Divided into four sections, the second part is similar to the first two books in the series; a hymn, complete with musical notation on the left page (though some of the sheet music takes two pages in the 3rd book) and the hymn story on the right page. (I’d prefer the pages to be reversed, since I always read the story first so that I have a deeper appreciation for the hymn, and because I find it easier to prop the book open to the right-hand page on the piano). This format makes it an excellent book for personal devotionals. As with the first two books, the hymns are arranged chronologically which is helpful in hearing the stylistic changes in the hymns over the centuries. The indices make this a very helpful resource for hymn reference as well.

Part 3 has expanded hymn stories of six famous hymns. I knew, for example that all did not go well for Mr. Spafford after the writing of his famous hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul”. One resource I’d read mentioned a subsequent breakdown. Mr. Spafford most certainly did not live, “happily ever after” as is implied in the brief account which is usually related. Robert Morgan’s account of further hardships faced by the Spafford Family is more realistic in keeping with the Christian life experience…mountains and valleys, trials and tribulations, stumbling, falling, fainting, yet, God’s unfailing love and mercy ever-present to sustain and keep us until the final day. I am grateful that Mr. Morgan has included “the rest of the stories” here.

Part 1 is my favorite—the History of Hymnody. Robert Morgan provides an overview of hymns divided into seven categories: Biblical Hymns, Ancient Hymns, Medieval Hymns, German Hymns, English Hymns, Gospel Songs and American Hymns, and Contemporary Praise and Worship Music. Although it is brief, only 45 pages, it provides a “cause to effect” account of the progression of hymn writing and singing practices, as well as historic parallels to the current “worship wars” we are experiencing in the church today. The inclusion of reference notes makes this even more useful as a framework for personal or group study on the hymns.

Part 4 includes a call to worship—an admonition to all believers to read the hymns; to memorize, ponder, play, sing, proclaim, and quote the hymns. By so doing, we will learn to lean upon the hymns, especially in times of great trial or grief.

Then Sings my Soul Book 3 is inspirational, a great resource! It should be on the desk or coffee table of every God-loving, God-worshiping Christian. I highly recommend it and look forward to using it as a reference for my songwriters’ study group.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

On the Right Track

As we approach the New Year, most of us seem intent on setting goals and making resolutions in hopes they will bring us greater fulfillment and success; so it seemed like a good time to talk about our goals as songwriters. What do you want to accomplish as a songwriter? What are your goals for the songs you have written? Have you ever really thought about your songwriting goals?

First, let’s look at you—the songwriter. What does it mean to be a real songwriter? Do you see yourself as one? I love what Robert Sterling says in his book The Craft of Christian Songwriting: “If you write songs on a regular basis—whether or not you make any money from the effort, whether or not you receive any recognition from others, and whether or not the songs are any good—in my estimation, you are a songwriter.”

So, what kind of songwriter are you, or more importantly, what kind of songwriter do you want to be? One way to know is to determine your audience. Are you writing for yourself, others, God? There is nothing wrong with writing songs just for yourself, for your own enrichment; after all, songwriting is a wonderful form of self-expression and the act itself is immensely beneficial. Writing songs to sing to God is a timeless manner of worship; one the saints and angels will joyfully employ for all eternity! However, if you are writing for a broader, human audience, especially if you are seeking fame or financial gain for your efforts, then you will need to take a serious approach to develop the craft of songwriting. It’s not that God deserves less than our best, it’s just that as a loving parent, He is delighted with our childish attempts in a way others will not appreciate.

This leads us to the second question: what are your goals for your songs? Have you ever really thought about setting goals for individual songs? Do you see yourself performing your song live? Do you want to record it yourself or would you like another artist to record it? Who do you hear singing your song? Will you market your song on iTunes or on your own website? Can you imagine hearing your song on the radio? Can you picture yourself winning a Dove Award for your song? Sound far-fetched, crazy, beyond your wildest dreams? Perhaps, but is it any more crazy than to keep writing songs and have no idea why you’re doing it? Remember, “If you shoot for the stars and miss, at least you’ll hit the moon.” However, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”

So here’s your assignment: Determine your purpose as a songwriter. If you are writing solely for yourself, or as a form of communion with God, then keep it up. If, however, you are writing songs to minister to others or for others to sing to God in corporate praise, then perhaps it is time to set some goals to become the best songwriter you can be. Read books, attend workshops, collaborate with others, master the art of songwriting. Also, take inventory of your songs and decide which ones are worth promoting, then implement a plan to take each song as far as it can go. Let’s start this New Year by getting our songs on the right track.

Let’s Get Together

There is nothing quite as frightening yet potentially rewarding as collaboration. It is scary enough to share your finished song with the world, but to reveal your rough ideas, your unpolished phrases to another person can be incredibly intimidating.

So why do it? Because creativity thrives in a collaborative community. One idea sparks another, which can lead to an entirely new direction for the song than could be realized individually. The fulfillment that comes through teamwork and the opportunity it provides for growth as a songwriter, far outweight the risks.

While it’s true that a solitary songwriter can compose a good song, far more hit songs have been composed by songwriting duos than by individuals (as have most of the great hymns of the church). So why not take a chance and give it a try?

In his book, The Craft of Christian Songwriting, Robert Sterling shares some ideas on collaborative relationships. First, you should look for a “well-matched co-writer”—someone whose abilities complement your own. Although there are numerous variations on the actual interaction (lyricist and tunesmith, big picture and detailed craftsman, starter and finisher) the relationship should include two key elements—creative chemistry and mutual respect. While listening to a prospective collaborator’s songs, if you think, “I wish I’d written that,” then you have the second ingredient. The only way to determine if you have chemistry is to go on that “first date”. Try to write a song together and see if you hit it off.

Once you’ve found a potential collaborator, there are several steps you can follow to help ensure a successful songwriting session. First, if you don’t know your collaborator well, have a pre-session get together to get to know one another prior to your writing session. It’s easier to be open with a friend than it is with a stranger. When you do meet, come prepared. Bring several ideas with you. This is much easier than starting from scratch. Choose one idea (hopefully one you’re both excited about) and work on it together. Remember, there are no wrong ideas, especially in the brainstorming stage. Be honest, yet kind. If you don’t like your co-writer’s idea, offer an alternative. When your collaborator has a brilliant idea, be sure to tell him so. Be generous with your praise, your ideas, (don’t save the best ones for yourself) and the credit.

So where do you find a collaborator? You can start where you are, in your local church, with other members of your praise team or worship band. You can also find collaborators through your local songwriters guild or Christian Songwriters Association. Of course, your collaborator doesn’t have to live in the same town, or state or country for that matter, thanks to Steve Jobs and Al Gore. You can collaborate with songwriters all over the world without leaving the comfort of your own home.

So go to your local songwriting group, check out original music from artists on sites like Reverbnation, or join an online community like Songwritingfever—let’s get together and write some great music.

The Reason We Sing

Music has always been a part of my life. Whether gathering around the piano to sing Christmas carols, crooning out Patridge Family hits to my electric guitar, or singing oldies with my family driving home from grandpa’s farm; my fondest childhood memories revolve around music. Two years after I accepted Christ, I sang my first duet in church with my brother, and I was hooked. I just knew God wanted me to be in full time ministry!

I tried for years to make that dream a reality, but it didn’t happen. As I look back now, much older and hopefully wiser, I ask myself why. Why did I want to sing and travel in ministry? If I’m really honest with myself, I wanted the fame. Sure, there was an element of service; I’d sing Christian songs and even pray for people after my concert, but at the center of my desire, was my own glory. I wanted to feel special, to be somebody. It was all about me!

As I approach the second half of my journey, how do I answer that question, and how do I change my focus? First of all, I know who I am in Christ. I no longer need the applause of the crowd or the approval of others to feel important. I am secure in God’s love for me. Nothing I do could ever make Him love me more than He does right now, and nothing could ever make Him love me less.

Since I have nothing to gain from music ministry, I can focus fully on what I have to give.

My highest goal is to give glory to God; in the songs I sing, the words I say, my actions, attitudes, and in the love I show to others. It’s all about Him, His greatness, His goodness, His plan, and His purpose! And God is all about people. “For God so loved…that He gave.” Jesus came, “not to be served, but to serve and to give His life…” That’s the manner and the message He gave us to communicate as His ambassadors.

The reason we sing,

The reason we lift our voice,

Is more than just making harmony.

The reason we sing

Is to praise the one who gave His Son to be

The reason we sing.

May I be so bold as to ask, why do you sing? What is your focus? Are you making music for your glory or for the glory of God? Do you seek to love the people you sing for more than you want the people to love you?

Learn from the Best

I recently read a new biography by Rick Marschall entitled Johann Sebastian Bach, which is part of the Christian Encounters Series by Thomas Nelson. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which focused on Bach as a man of faith—the consummate church musician. Marschall calls Bach, “The Fifth Evangelist”.

So many modern sources try to secularize classical music and exclude the religious convictions of history’s great composers. Marschall chose to embrace Bach’s spiritual side and supported his conclusions through Bach’s life choices, his music, and his own statements.

Some of my favorite Bach quotations include the following:

“Music has been mandated by God’s Spirit.”

“The aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God and refreshing the soul.”

“For the glory of the most high God alone, and for my neighbor to learn from.”

“It is my intention to advance the music in the divine service toward its very end and purpose, a regulated church music in honor of God.”

And, in regard to an organ performance, “There is nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time, and the instrument plays itself.”

If anyone had reason to boast of musical talent, it was J. S. Bach. Yet Marschall writes of Bach as a humble man who attributed his gifts to God and considered it his calling to honor God through his music and his life.

Character is not formed in a vacuum. By putting Bach’s life in historical, geographical, and cultural context, Marschall provides new insights into the influences that shaped the greatest composer of all time. For example, Bach was not merely a Lutheran, he was born in Eisenach, the town of Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, whose writings had a profound impact on Bach’s beliefs. His life began one generation after the Thirty Years’ War at a time when its treaties limited the state and provided greater civil liberties and economic growth, which enabled Bach’s faith, career, and creativity to flourish.

This book is filled with similar examples of providence not only in Bach’s life, but also in his legacy. My favorite is the story of how Baron van Swieten discovered the forgotten music of J. S. Bach, and through publications and concerts, introduced it to the musicians he subsidized…Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Through this dedicated patron the music of Bach has been preserved for all generations and his genius influenced not only the greatest composers of the classical era, but shaped all of Western music.

As a composer, music educator, and church musician myself, I found this book most inspiring.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Hook ‘em Danno

One of the most powerful aspects of music is its memorability, and one of the most effective means of creating memorable music is the hook. A hook is a musical idea that catches the listener’s ear. It is popular music’s equivalent of classical music’s motif.

Recently I had the privilege of hearing an outstanding live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Despite the many deficits in our educational system, I think one would be hard pressed to find an American today who does not recognize those infamous first four notes; G, G, G, Eb. Pretty good for a song written over 200 years ago by a German! Not every listener could name that tune, but they could sure hum along.

Some “hooks” are so outstanding they are not merely easy to remember; they are impossible to forget.

The hook can be a musical idea or a lyrical phrase. The best songs combine both. There are many great secular music examples:  “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye, “Let It Be” by The Beatles, and “Stop in The Name of Love” by The Supremes as well as those from contemporary Christian music: “Rise Again” by Dallas Holm, “Fresh Surrender” by The Archers and “Sing Your Praise To The Lord by Amy Grant (composed by Rich Mullins).

In these songs, not only is the hook both a lyrical and musical phrase, it is the title of the song as well – a triple threat for songwriting success.

By contrast, I helped two young ladies prepare “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus for their school talent show. I really liked the song and thought the lyrics were quite insightful for someone so young. When I looked a little closer, I realized the musical hook was the beginning of the chorus and the title was the last line of the chorus. I’m not suggesting Miley should change her title to “There’s Always Gonna Be Another Mountain” especially since “The Climb” really does capture the theme of her song. (See previous blog entry “What’s the Point?”) What I am pointing out is how challenging it is to write a great hook that is both musical and lyrical, place it at the most prominent point of the song, and make it both the title and the theme of the song.

So how memorable are your songs? If you want them to catch on, to catch the listener’s ear be sure to write a great hook.

 

What’s the Point?

A well-written song, like a good story, communicates a single message. It has a theme, a main idea, a focus. What’s the point of your song? What are you trying to say? Can you sum it up in a line, a word or two? (If so, you may have discovered your title and your hook!)

The shotgun approach may work well for duck hunting, but is not recommended for songwriting. If you’re looking for a hit, the targeted approach has a better chance of scoring a bulls-eye.

I believe composers of praise and worship songs are particularly prone to this error. We worship a God who is vast and unfathomable, but that doesn’t mean our songs should be. Nor should we try to include His incalculable characteristics in a single two-minute praise tune. Better to choose one attribute and elaborate on that.

An example of a song that does this well is Indescribable by Chris Tomlin. The verses recount the wonders of God in nature and build to the title/hook in the chorus—indescribable, which leads to the conclusion, “You are amazing, God” (a great subtitle).

Not every song hits the mark when it comes to focusing on a single point. Here is an example of a song that is “all over the place” in terms of its message.

As Children
by Jeremy Riddle
We ask come Holy Spirit
Come in Your power
Come inhabit our praise
Come now and reign in our lives
Come Holy Spirit
Come like the wind
Come be Lord of our hearts
Come fill Your church once again

Although these are all valid requests, they are very disconnected and undeveloped. They don’t even rhyme. Notice too, that the title appears nowhere in the chorus (it’s actually the first line of the verse). We’ll discuss hooks and their placement in a future entry.

So here’s your first assignment:  Take a fresh look at some of your favorite songs. Do they communicate a single thought or are they lyrically schizophrenic? Make notes of what they do well and where they could be improved. Remember, it is easier to be objective when looking at someone else’s work than it is your own. Next, take a look at your original songs. Do they clearly communicate a single idea? Is that idea your title? Will the listener “get the point”?

Be sure to post your comments and assignments below so we can help point one another in the right direction.