In Thoughts on Writing

 

 

Several years ago, at Joseph Martin’s Composer Symposium, I found myself on the critique panel sitting next to a witty fellow, who time and again managed to say what I had planned to say just before I could say it. I thought to myself, “This guy will either become my close friend or my sworn enemy.”

Since then, John Parker and I have written about a dozen pieces together for choral print. I was privileged to be a guest conductor at his church. And we have continued to teach together at seminars (when the sponsors dare to have us both there). More important, we have hung out, shared meals, commiserated over life itself, and grown to be friends.

John is worship leader and choral director at Austin Baptist Church. He is a choral composer, whose music can be found in just about every traditional choral publishing catalogue. He is an educator and clinician, active in the alphabet soup of choral societies: ACDA, TCDA, TMEA, and so forth. But most importantly, for the sake of this blog, John is a terrific lyricist.

 More specifically, John is a craftsman and a dedicated collaborator, who cares more about getting the song right than he does about guarding his ego. That combination makes him a co-writer worth killing for. S, if you ever hear of a fatal dust-up between Joe Martin, Mark Hayes and Ruthie Schram, chances are things got nasty as they argued over who got to write that year’s Christmas cantata with John Parker.

Today I’m chatting with John about a subject that comes up at every composing seminar: collaboration. After that, we shoot the breeze a bit about “less is more,” and self-publishing on the Internet.

RS: I see your name coupled with just about everybody in the choral music world. The fact you write with so many people either indicates you are an effective collaborator, or you simply have low standards. Since I’m one of your collaborators, I’m tempted to go with “low standards.”

John: Ha-ha, Robert – you are not only entertaining to yourself (obviously), but also to one or two others of us out here in Creative-ville.

RS: I’ll have you know, the official readership of this blog is up to seven. We will go viral any day now. But back to the topic at hand: What do you like about collaborating? Anything you dislike about it?

John: I’ve collaborated with more than forty artists on more than 600 choral projects and I find the collaborative process quite satisfying and energizing. Being a fairly social person, I love the relationships and crave the personal interaction.

RS: So, you’re saying you’re needy and insecure. But you’re a writer – so I guess that’s kind of one and the same. Sorry – you just left that out there to swing at. Go on.

John: When collaborators come to the table with mutual respect, total honesty and transparency, something unique takes place: A totally new creative work that neither artist could have accomplished on their own.

RS: You are setting a high bar for the collaborative process. Don’t get me wrong – That’s a good thing. But total honesty can be — uncomfortable.

John: Not everyone is comfortable with the collaborative process. Some achieve better results working alone. To each his or her own. But for me, I’ve learned to “play well with others,” ha-ha.

RS: Speaking as someone who would often just as soon write alone, but who also collaborates, I will attest to the fact that you do “play well with others.” You don’t drag a giant bag of ego into the writing process and start unpacking it at the first sign of disagreement. That makes it a lot easier for the other person to ease up on his (or her) own ego.

John: Thanks, Robert.

RS: There are a lot of ways to collaborate: together in a room, long distance, music first, words first, bit by bit, and so on. I think I know your preferred method. But what is your take on the various approaches to co-writing? Certainly by now, you have encountered just about every possible combo platter on the songwriter’s menu.

John: Yes, there are many ways to collaborate, and I applaud them all – as long as the final result is GREATER than the individual efforts. If the final product is not better than the creators could have achieved alone, then the result is not collaboration, but rather something else. I think the technical term is a MESS!

RS: Clinically, it may also be referred to as a nervous breakdown. But generally speaking, you prefer to start the process with the lyric, don’t you?

John: I prefer to work alone, then the collaborator and I ping-pong the work back and forth until we’re both satisfied.

As for choral music writing, here’s how it typically goes down. 1) Lyricist creates lyric (on assignment or inspiration); 2) Appropriate composer sought out; 3) Interaction and editing process; 4) BOOM! Out pops a cake!

RS: An exploding cake, it would seem from the Sound Effects…

I tell my seminar students there are typical ways that the creative process works, but there are no absolutes. I know for a fact that you can and do write lyrics to existing music – because you’ve done that with me.   But I know it’s not your preference to do it that way. As a lyricist myself, it’s been my experience that writing really good lyrics to an existing melody is the hardest job in songwriting. (In fact, that is the subject of another blog post I’m developing already.) What do you think about that assertion?

John: I agree completely. To me, it’s like completing a 413-square Sudoku puzzle – very difficult to make it all work out properly. The pre-conceived music has certain demands based on rises and falls, stressed and unstressed beats, syllabic stress, etc. It’s like building an airplane that is already flying. It can be done, but it’s problematic.

RS: It’s almost as if the lyricist has to discover the lyric that is hiding in the melody and reveal it. Very difficult to do. But when it’s done right, it’s a thing of beauty and elegance. I know most of Oscar Hammerstein’s collaborations with Richard Rodgers began as melodies seeking lyrics. I think the two of them would place the title phrase ahead of time, but Hammerstein would then write to Rodgers’ tune. And they wrote one or two decent songs.

(CORRECTION: It has been brought to my attention by another of my collaborator’s – Irony of Ironies – that it was Richard Rodgers’ first writing partner, lyricist Lorenz Hart, who preferred to write lyrics to Rodgers’ melodies, not Oscar Hammerstein.  In fact, Hammerstein insisted on writing the lyrics first, and Rodgers then set them to music. This is what happens when you don’t check your memory banks every now and again for accuracy.  btw – Thx, DC2.)

One thing I’ve noticed about writing lyrics to the tune is it tends to make me write leaner lines – because there aren’t notes for any extra, unnecessary words.

John: Leaner is always better. And by the way, Rodgers and Hammerstein were certainly masters of the collaborative craft.

RS: I am often asked at seminars, “How do I find a good collaborator?” I totally understand the frustration, especially if the writer is from an isolated sort of place. I tell them to start where they are with people they know. My mother was my first co-writer! (And we had several songs placed into print, btw.) After that, I tried writing with friends. Chris Machen was my next serious collaborator. We tried co-writing for a record I was producing for him and his wife, Diane. We ended up collaborating for a decade or more.

What would you say to those folks? How did you get started collaborating?

John: I think you’re right on target! Look around you and see who’s already in place. You may be missing opportunities of which you are unaware. Next, I think you need to place yourself around other writers. For me, that place has always been conventions and conferences. I try to go to several each year. Nearly everyone with whom I’ve collaborated through the years, I met at a conference somewhere.

RS: You and I got to know one another at the Composer Symposium in Atlanta.

John: Just about any place a song is looking for a lyric, there is also a lyric looking for a song. Go meet people who write what you need. Invest time and energy in fostering relationships. You’ll not only find great writing companionship, but more than that, great friends for life!

RS: And the music business is all about relationships. We all want to work with people we know and like. Meeting people at conferences is great way to expand your writing universe because conferences are a self-selected group of people with a powerfully shared interest. I tell students at conferences if they hear a piece of music that makes them think, “I wish I had written that,” then go talk to the writer. See if you can plant the seed of a writing relationship.

I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier. You said, “Leaner is always better.” Assuming you were referring to lyrics, and not making a comment about my weight, let’s chase that for a bit. Why is leaner better?

John: The most common problem among young writers is wordiness. Less is almost always more in this business. Unnecessary articles and contractions distract the listener and can reduce the overall beauty and effectiveness of the melody.

RS: It’s so tempting to look at a brilliantly simple lyric (like “Over the Rainbow”) and think, “That must’ve been easy to do.” In fact, the opposite is true. It is very difficult to say something meaningful with only a few syllables. And make it all rhyme!

John: And that’s another common problem: predictable rhyming. If the listener already knows where you’re going, you’ve already lost them, haven’t you?

RS: Yep.

John: A good lyric needs to unwind a little at a time and carry the listener on a journey they didn’t expect to take. Remember, predictability is death! You DO know what a flat line on a heart monitor means, don’t you?

RS: I do love a clever rhyme scheme. Almost to a fault. There have been times I all but trapped myself in the second verse trying to match the twisted rhyme scheme of the first verse. That ever happen to you? Ever been too clever for your own good?

John: YES! Most definitely. Sometimes the temptation is to try to “make it work,” when often we’d be better off to just begin again. But, the mind is a tricky thing. It often won’t let go of thought patterns and directions. Next thing you know you find yourself writing right back into the same corner you just left.

RS: I know that corner very well. It’s a lonely place. Very lonely.

John: At that point I have to take my body and mind somewhere else. Go for a walk, work on something completely different. This works too: Try leaving a project for a week, then come back to it with fresh eyes. When I do, I often immediately see the problem and can easily repair it.

RS: That is solid advice for the novice writer. Even a fifteen-minute break from the work can allow a fresh perspective to break through. Or in my case – a fifteen-year break. I’ve been known to go back to songs that are years old – songs that never landed anywhere – and see if they are worth re-writing. The sad truth – most are not worth the effort. There was a reason they never found a home: They weren’t good enough. But every now and again I’ve run across a snippet of a lyric (or a piece of a tune) that IS salvageable. And the time away from the song allows me a fresh perspective.

So, yes, Dear Readers, heed the master’s advice here. John is right. Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is put the pencil down and go do something else for awhile.

Let’s take one last shift of direction, shall we? You and I both have dipped our toes into the world of self-publishing via the Internet. My reason for doing this was survival. Traditional music publishers are reaching out to an ever-shrinking market. And they had fairly well abandoned two areas that I enjoyed writing in: orchestral music and musical theater. If I wanted to continue to release music that was important to me, I had to be willing to do some of it myself. I didn’t particularly want to make this change – but it became necessary.

What about you? What were your motivations for self-publishing? How have you used the Internet to your musical advantage? What changes do you see headed down the Information Superhighway? (And you can speak to this both as a writer and as a consumer of choral music – since you are also a worship leader in a church.)

John: Advances in digital and computer technology have made it possible for everyone to become a recording artist, author and publisher. It truly is an amazing and interesting landscape out there! Having said that, I don’t believe traditional print music is going away any time soon. To me, as a conductor, there’s still the durability factor. When I purchase music for my ensembles, I rely on the physical durability of a piece of music. That way, when I want to sing a piece of music again ten years from now, my copies are still fresh and fit nicely in the little boxes with the dust lids. There’s also a “collectability” issue for me. I like the colored print, the cover, the artist information on the inside, etc. At present, print on demand music doesn’t give me those same benefits.

As a self-publisher, opportunities abound for the distribution and exposure of my creations. And, the real benefit is doing business without managing huge overhead and maintaining large storage areas for product. What is lacking is a large label imprint and marketing that goes with it. The average consumer may not be so quick to give blanket trust to an unknown publisher. But as in every field, if you’re willing to work really hard at developing a product that meets a real need of your customers, you should be around for a while. Get yourself a Webmaster and throw up a site. It’s easy to do and relatively inexpensive. Like they say, no risk, no reward – know risk, know reward!

RS: We are all learning about risk and reward these days, it seems.

I agree that the mass-marketing capabilities of traditional print publishers, along with their sales forces and administrative services, are wonderful things, especially for the typical writer, who has little or no interest in those aspects of the business. But the opportunities for a new writer to break into the traditional print world have shrunk in recent years. Twenty years ago, a company could more easily risk taking a shot on a newbie writer fresh out of college. These days, not so much. So I think the Internet is a place for a writer to create some exposure and sell some music. Of course, this means developing marketing skills – or hiring someone to do that work. But I believe there is value in the effort.

As for good old printed music durability – I, too, love the feel of a real anthem in my hands. But it won’t be long before we’ll see choirs singing from electronic files on iPads, all synced to turn pages at the proper time. After that, worship leaders will realize they could use all that music storage space to build themselves a nicer office! Then it’s “so long music library.”

Okay – anything you want to add to wrap this up? A clever quip? A final nugget of wisdom? The proverbial floor is yours.

John: Robert, thank you so much for the opportunity to dialogue with you. I hope this has been helpful to your readers. (All seven of them.) As always, I encourage everyone to be life-long creators. The One who made us is obviously the Master Creator, and we are made in His image. So, let’s all keep doing what we were made to do: Create beautiful things to make a better community and world.

Many thanks to JP for taking the time to indulge me in this conversation. You can check out his work online at pinelakemusic.com and at jwpepper.com.

Showing 6 comments
  • Ed Rush
    Reply

    Thanks Robert. Very enjoyable article, and reminder of all the things you have said before at the “Composium.” I especially liked the part about taking a break from something I’m working on and come back to it later. I go to my woodworking shop. It helps me to re-focus, plus when I come out of the shop, I have make something pretty. (Instant gratification). I have been collaborating with Charles McCartha (He did a beautiful job with the song I asked you to critique, “I Wonder.”) Also, I am working with Sara R. Nussel on “Messiah Now Is Here.” I wonder if John Parker is open to considering working with me on a song.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      I’m all for taking a break, Ed. Is it time for lunch yet?

      Glad you and Charles connected on your tune. Charles is doing some really nice work theses days. And i just glanced over a lovely melody that Sara Nussel has written. As for JP – maybe he will drop by and see your comment? Or you may just need to corner him at one of the conferences. 🙂

  • Brad Croushorn
    Reply

    Robert and John,

    Thank you so much for chatting about these things. The topics of self-publishing, the digital future (perhaps with future larger music offices) and your experiences in collaboration are often on my mind. I’d hate, however to gain a larger office simply because of increasing use of digital music files.

    Thanks for help in mentoring novices like me. Your willingness to share on this is so much appreciated. You give me hope…along with heavy and much-needed doses of reality!

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Brad – Thx for the comment. I’m with you: I don’t want to see real printed music go the way of the dinosaur. But not being able to stop the train of technology, I suspect it is inevitable. Maybe not. I’ve been wrong lots of times.

      Glad John & i can be of help – and hope – to you. Keep writing!

  • Patricia Mock
    Reply

    Loved your chat! When you guys speak I never fail to both laugh and learn something of value! I loved the thought of writing text into the melody for purposes of “leaner lyric”…. I do write lyric into classical music but for some reason when I am writing my own melody the lyric flows along with it…. hmmm. I think I’ll try this as a new writing exercise and see where it takes me! Thanks!

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Both JP and I are proponents of “less is more.” Even when your lyrics flow out with the melody (nothing wrong with that, btw), you need to go back and ask yourself, “Do I really need all these words?” Because our spontaneous thinking is rarely as disciplined and organized as a good lyric should be, the answer to that question is almost always, “NO!” Never forget that after Illumination (the creative outpouring phase of writing) comes Verification (the rewriting, cleaning up, and editing phase). Always good to hear from you, Pat.

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