Heather Sorenson burst onto the church choral music scene only a few years ago, but she took no time at all to become regarded as a serious contributor to church music. Her choral anthems are sung everywhere and by everybody. She is an accomplished piano artist, choral clinician, and an in-demand conference speaker.
Here is our recent email chat, in which Heather and I talked about her creative process, the pressures of writing commissioned pieces, and what it’s like to be a woman in a field dominated for by men.
(You can learn more about Heather at her website: heathersorenson.com)
RS: Recently, a lyricist friend of mine asked me, “Who is this Heather Sorenson I keep hearing about?”
Never fear, I told my friend how awesome you are! But this lyricist comes from the evangelical print music world, so your name was somewhat new to her. (For readers that don’t already know – there isn’t nearly as much overlap between the evangelical choral music world and the traditional choral music world as one might think.) More importantly, this particular lyricist, a woman, was intrigued by the fact that you are succeeding in a field long dominated by men – arranging and composing. A lot of my collaborators over the years have been women, but they were all lyricists. None were arrangers or composers.
Heather: Interesting. Composing and arranging music are such natural expressions for me, and yet creating lyrics is something at which I have to work. Exactly the opposite of the scenarios you mentioned above.
In fact, I refused to call myself a composer for a long time because I felt like a fake. I worked and prayed too much over my lyrics to accept the title of composer in good conscience. It seemed so easy for everyone else. I got over that when God slapped my hand a little, and reminded me that working and praying hard were both part of the plan anyway.
RS: That’s a great insight. And to ease your mind, it’s not easy for everyone else. Not by a long shot.
At any rate, from the success of some your pieces for which you wrote the words, I’m thinking maybe the words were always hiding inside you and they just had to find their way out. But there’s no question, successful women writers in church music more often are lyricists than composers. Why do you think that is?
Heather: I have no idea – other than the fact maybe that most women tend to have more words to use, and so maybe writing lyrics is a great outlet to use even a few more?! Which makes sense: I lean a little on the quiet side, so maybe all my words get used up just fine on their own. J
RS: I’m not touching that one. No jokes from me about talkative women. Besides, I can out talk most anybody.
Heather: In all seriousness, when I started to branch out into the evangelical music world a few years ago, a very kind man in the business asked if I really wanted to be doing this, since it is a male-dominated world. At first, it rubbed me wrong just a little. After all, these were the gifts God had given me to use, and these were the doors He was opening for me. I wasn’t trying to force my way into anything. I was just following my path. Now I realize we were both right. It is a male-dominated industry, and I am maneuvering it because these are my God-given skill sets. In fact, at this moment I’m sitting in an airport, headed to a conference that has thirteen clinicians. I am the only woman!
RS: And that is probably the norm for you. Interestingly enough, a lot of the registrants I teach at the Pine Lake Composer Symposium every year are women, and some of them are writing really beautiful music. Lovely tunes. Innovative piano music. Several are being published, so maybe in the coming years you will see more women joining you at the clinician’s table.
But until that time, what are the positives and negatives of being “the girl piano player” at a choral conference?
Heather: There are pros and cons to this! I’ve had men come up to me after a conference to let me know that they expected me to get up there and “not really know what I was talking about.” But after sitting through my session, they decided I knew my stuff after all. (Whew! That’s a relief.)
RS: Allow me to apologize on behalf of all men everywhere. We say dumb things even when we think we are being nice.
Heather: And did I mention that I look twelve?
RS: When you get to be my age, you will appreciate those youthful genes. What about the upside?
Heather: The pros are a little more shallow. A friend asked me today what the dress code was for conference clinicians like the one I’m heading to right now. I told her that since I’m the only woman, I pretty much get to set the standard for my gender. J
Feeling casual that day? Lucky for me, casual is what the lady clinicians will be wearing. Feeling like heels and lipstick? Great – that’s the dress code of the day. For you men, this is an extremely freeing scenario. (Ask your wife.)
RS: Dress code? There are dress codes at choral conferences? I never got that memo. That would explain some of the stares I get…
Heather: Getting back on point, nothing in my life has been normal. And my career/ministry is just another area that my path is a little different as well. So, I take the journey that’s been divinely planned for me and follow my path. Good thing I love it!
RS: Absolutely. Any time I begin to feel overwhelmed with work, or bored with work – I remind myself that I am fortunate to get paid to do something that I was willing to do for free all those years ago.
Okay – new topic: Creativity. The Creative process. One of the most common questions I am asked by beginning writers and non-musicians is some variation of “Where did that piece come from?” “How do you do that?” “What was the inspiration?” That sort of thing.
I’m tempted sometimes to answer, “It just happened.” But there’s more to it than that.
Heather: I get that question all the time, too. My project list is made up of original pieces, arrangements on assignment, and commissioned works. So my approach is a little different for all three of those. For truly original pieces (not commissioned original pieces), I’ve found that inspiration comes usually through experiences I’m navigating in my spiritual journey. A more concrete manifestation of that: I like words, and sometimes as I’m thinking through my spiritual journey, a word phrase will pop into my head that exactly captures that journey. A phrase that might be no more than three words, and yet you could expand it to three pages of life. So, sometimes I will build a whole song around that.
Other times, I sit at the piano and, through no effort on my part, a lyric/melody hook will just pop into my head. These kind of pieces have been very successful – which I don’t mind saying, because honestly those were the pieces that I feel like God just took over. That’s the piece He wanted written that day, it was nowhere on my radar, and yet the song just insisted on being written.
RS: Any specific examples?
Heather: “God of Heaven” was originally supposed to be a contemporary praise song. And my first patriotic assignment turned out to be a baby dedication piece. Sometimes, I just have to get out of the way, and let what’s supposed to happen happen.
RS: You are much more Zen about it than me. If I’m not careful, I may learn something important here.
So, you mentioned writing as an assignment earlier. How does the process differ when Shawnee Press or Hal Leonard gives you an arranging assignment? Obviously, you don’t have to start from an absolutely blank page. You have the song. But what comes next?
Heather: It depends on how new the song is. If the original artist version is still really effective and relevant, you don’t want to mess with it too much. It’s working already. In those cases, I take my cues from the original, and creatively structure it for whichever format I’m assigned. If my assignment is to create a church SATB anthem, then I add parts and a realized accompaniment (as opposed to just a chord chart). There is an art to it, beyond just harmonizing a melody. You have to know how to stack the chords to fit the vibe you want. You have to know which rules to break and which rules to keep. You have to know the sweet spots of the voices in that genre. You have to understand how texture in the accompaniment creates a powerful energy wave. Otherwise, you end up with an arrangement that doesn’t match the vibe of the song. And of course, I put my artistic fingerprint in the piece somewhere J.
RS: I think arranging a popular contemporary song may be the most limiting assignment to get – because of the influence of the artist’s recording. For that reason, I generally prefer arranging older songs, where you have more freedom.
Heather: For older songs and hymn rewrites, my process is basically to take a step back, see what elements might have made the hymn a little well-worn and faded, dust off the gem that’s still there, and then create a new setting for the text to shine again.
RS: What about commissioned music?
Heather: Commissioned pieces are a little different story. In every other case, if someone doesn’t like my song, there are others that do. And if nobody likes it, it’s still an authentic art expression of my life. It’s still real. With a commissioned piece, you almost have to guarantee that your customer will like it. Which is an impossible prediction.
RS: Commissions are a peculiar creative burden. I accept them with great fear and trepidation. So how do you go about determining what to write for the client?
Heather: I ask a lot of questions. I mean, if I am being paid to write a piece to honor someone, it would be nice if they actually liked the piece. That’s a lot of pressure. Often I am hired because they liked another song I wrote. And in their minds, they want another “God of Heaven” or “Raise Your Hands.” Composers don’t duplicate their own songs – it doesn’t work that way.
RS: And yet, sometimes we try – almost always with poor results.
Heather: I try to give them what they want, while staying true to myself as a writer. I have to write in my own style. It’s a trick. I had one commission where the church told me they LOVED my style, went on to list all of the things about my writing that appealed to them, and then proceeded to ask me for a piece that was the exact opposite of my stylistic strengths.
RS: I bet that made for an interesting presentation moment.
Heather: To say the least! Also, a lot of folks don’t realize just how much actual work is involved in a commission. And re-writing. For me – there is a lot of re-writing.
RS: I tell my students that writing is re-writing. If you aren’t re-writing, you aren’t finishing your work. Re-writing is huge – even when it’s small. In fact, sometimes it’s the smallest changes that make the most significant difference. One note, one word – can be the difference between a line being elegant or being clumsy.
And this doesn’t just happen. It is the result of a focused, attentive mind. Inspiration is a wonderful thing. But re-writing is the “perspiration” part of the job.
Heather: Yes. Definitely, it is work. Inspiration doesn’t always just appear. If composers waited for inspiration, most of our songs would never get written. There have been many songs that I just pushed through the mental block for hours until something worked.
RS: So what breaks the mental block for you?
Heather: Deadlines are really good incentives.
RS: Nothing like a deadline to get the creative juices flowing.
Heather: And a lot of times, I wake up in the middle of the night with a completely creative solution to the problem, and then I’d totally rewrite the song the next morning. True story on many occasions.
RS: So, once you’re done, then what?
Heather: I usually let my songs sit a day or two before I hit “send.” The more times I go back and edit, the more successful the song.
RS: I love hearing that. It is powerfully tempting to show off your latest creation while the ink is still wet. Kind of a “Hey, everybody! Check this out!” sort of feeling. But if it’s a good song today, it will still be a good song three days from now.
Heather: Yes! I have an angel on each shoulder at the end of each song. One screams, “SEND IT RIGHT NOW!!” immediately after I write the last note. (This is the angel that needs validation, obviously.) And the other angel whispers, “It needs to marinate for a few days first.” (This is the angel who pays the bills and knows way more about music.) Which one do I listen to? Embarrassingly, it’s a tie. But I’m learning to let the bill-paying angel win a little more.
RS: Wise counsel from that second angel. You are smart to heed it. So – any final thoughts?
Heather: A disclaimer, maybe? I was travelling the whole time we were having this conversation and everything I wrote was done under the influence of Dramamine.
RS: I think you avoided embarrassing yourself. Mostly. Besides, I’m not sure anybody will read this…
Then again – Joe Martin might want to post it on his Facebook page. And then the whole world will know.
My thanks to Heather Sorenson for participating in this chat. She was remarkably lucid and thoughtful despite her drowsiness. Visit her website (heathersorenson.com) and send her a “hello.”