In Life - Debriefed
I just looove group photos, don't you?

I just looove group photos, don’t you?

For the seventh time in the past nine years, I spent the week after Father’s Day at Pine Lake Music in suburban Atlanta, teaching, critiquing, and cajoling the registrants of Joe Martin’s Composer Symposium in the arts of songwriting, choral composition and arranging. The Symposium has become something I genuinely look forward to each year. It has taken on something of a family reunion atmosphere, thanks to the large number of folks who return each year. This year saw a record turnout, and it was encouraging that among all the familiar faces was a large number of first-timers.

While the musical emphasis lands pretty squarely on traditional choral music at the Symposium, we heard a little bit of everything from Christian rock music, salsa music, impressionistic piano music, and music for children’s choirs and hand bells. In fact, right after I bravely  I confessed my general dislike for children’s music and hand bells (C’mon, who reeeally wants to listen to kids and hand bell ringers???), I got a mountain of grief from the crowd when the very next piece was written for (you guessed it) children’s voices AND hand bells.

I couldn’t help but notice the steady improvement in the submissions over the past years. The music we hear from the registrants gets better each year. (It’s not unusual to see two or three pieces from the week weave their way into print, granting their composers a little slice of musical immortality.) Of course, as the submissions improve, our criticism gets tougher – because we believe the music is worth the added effort of all the rewrites.

Something else that encourages me is this: It is not uncommon for registrants to announce before presenting a piece that they have already discovered many of the flaws in their work. “I know what you’re going to say,” they tell me. “I’ve already determined to fix this, or change that, or rewrite this.” The flinty ability to criticize your own music with an unflinching eye is a giant step in any professional’s creative process. And this shows me that the lessons of the past seven years are sinking in.

Many of the registrants at the Symposium have begun to make a little money from their compositions. None of them has broken out into full-time composition, but their passion is occasionally being rewarded monetarily – and that’s okay. Money isn’t the real reason we write music. We do it because we love it. But a little money never hurts.)

Thanks to Joe Martin for having me back year after year. Apparently, I have fooled him into thinking I am invaluable to the success of the event. (They’ve already booked me for next year!) Dawn Young and the folks at Pine Lake were once again terrific in the organization and all the day-to-day details. It was a treat to work with my fellow teachers: Joe Martin, Lee Dengler, Keith Christopher, Heather Sorenson, Pepper Choplin & Dan Forrest.

I hope to see everybody back next year! Until then, all of you buy my book and pretend I’m telling you how to rewrite your song!

Showing 30 comments
  • Clare Toy


    You ARE invaluable to the Symposium, and, furthermore, we love you!

    Thank you for all you do to make our week incredibly fun and instructional.



    • rsterling

      Clare – Well, I’ve got you fooled, too, it looks like. 🙂

  • Ralph Long


    Thanks for your encouraging words to all of us. I really admire your great talents and your willingness to share.


    Ralph Long,
    Rincon, Georgia

    • rsterling

      You’re welcome, Ralph. Glad to be a part of the Symposium.

  • Diane Hannibal

    Thanks you, Robert for your valuable critiques and encouragement. I do have a couple of bites on some things, which I should be working on right now instead of reading and posting on your blog! It is always a treat for us to be there, be encouraged, and get us ready to tackle the next project or, of course, rewrite the current ones. Thanks, again, and see you next year.

    • rsterling

      You’re welcome – and keep up the work. Hope those nibbles turn into big “fish.” Hi to hubby, too.

  • Shayla Blake


    I know we would never write this in a good lyric, but “Our yoda you are!” 🙂 Thanks for pushing us to bring our best to the table!

    • rsterling

      Clever girl are you.

  • Gwyn Williams

    Your words are kind and encouraging. I am always amazed at the way you and Joe always find something positive to say about our compositions, no matter what our song-writing level. It was a special and educational week. I’ve taken your “10,000 hours” to heart. Though I may never fit them into this life, I have set aside a certain amount of “composition time” each day, with the hopes of getting closer to that goal. God bless you for what you do.

    • rsterling

      The 10,000 hours will mount up faster than you know, so long as you work at it steadily. We do this writing thing because we love it. And so – the time will tend to fly by!

  • Jeff

    Well said! Hope to be returning after a 4 year hiatus from the Symposium

    • rsterling

      Look forward to seeing you next year.

  • Cindy Ovokaitys

    Hi Robert, I think you hit the nail on the mark when you mentioned submissions are getting better! I concur. Of course, after being a part of this, it is hard not to hear voices in our heads when we write. (Voices of you, Joseph, and other clinicians of the past. They haunt us!) You are a valuable part of the teaching team! Thank you for all of your assistance! You, along with the others, are very appreciated! To God be all glory – Cindy

    • rsterling

      Thanks for the kind words, C.

  • Eric Vaught

    This was my first year – i wasnt sure what to expect – i learned i didnt know alot – but i am excited about all the information that was shared both from the panel and from the other attenders. Thank you for being willing to share what you have learned so thAt I can be a better composer and musician

    • rsterling

      Glad that you came – and gladder still the week was a benefit to you.

  • Melissa Hickman

    Mr. Sterling,
    I too, have come home with a whole new perspective and “bag of tools” to use, as I endeavor to learn the craft of choral writing. I want to thank you for your time, instruction, and encouragement. I am eager to see how much progress I can make this year.

    Best Wishes,

    • rsterling

      Melissa – Your welcome for the help – and thanks for the kind words. And enough with the “Mr. Sterling.” It’s Robert. Or Your Highness. Whatever works for you. 🙂

  • Jill Friedersdorf

    Mr. Sterling,
    I had to laugh as I read your post. I was able to attend this symposium several years ago and brought a piece for – yes – children’s choir. That year J. Paul Williams and Brent Adams were in attendance as clinicians as well as you and Joseph Martin. To my amazement, the piece was even selected as most creative for the year.
    I received good suggestions and I was able to make positive changes to the piece. Quiet Sea was published the next year in Unison and SSA and has been performed by many State Festival and Honor Choir s. It was even selected to be in the ACDA Convention’s Reading List for Community and Children’s choirs. I have no doubt that the suggestions from the Symposium helped make the piece more appealing.

    I am fortunate to have had a few more pieces published – Colla Voce Music as well as Hal Leonard. But you will find them under the “Children’s Choir” section!

    God bless,

  • Stephanie Taylor

    I have always enjoyed you being at the Composium. It took me a couple of years to decide I was ready to have a one-on-one with you, though. 😉 Now if I could only figure out what that scribble was you made on measure 34……

    • rsterling

      Stephanie – I probably couldn’t decipher my scribbling, either. So – just assume it’s a huge compliment. 🙂

  • Pat Thompson

    Thanks for your part in making the Symposium a unique learning experience. Thanks also for your feedback and (ouch !)directness.
    (Even if you don’t like hand bells)

    Pat Thompson

  • Pat Thompson

    Hi Robert,
    Thanks for sharing your expertise in composition at the Symposium. I appreciate your feedback. This was the best year so far,
    with all the talent and information from the panel, as well as the level of writing from participants. I plan to focus on music theory this year and keep writing!


    • rsterling

      You’re welcome, Pat. Keep writing!

  • Pat Mock

    I will be forever grateful for the way the Composer’s Symposium has changed by life and writing. I so look forward to the “tribal experience” each year . Mean while, I continue to write with the sound of “panel voices” in my ear, the instruction from “Jesus’ Chairs” before my eyes … and the anticipation of “someone’s” red pen as a real and present danger! Thank you for the investment you and Joe are making! ps: my apologies for any extra words in my post:)

    • rsterling

      Thanks, Pat.

  • Dwayne Wylds

    Thanks for the encouragement. It was a wonderful week. Learned a lot. Will always keep at it like a long train runnin’. You were right it was The Captain and Me.

    • rsterling

      You’re welcome! Truly glad the week was helpful to you. And isn’t amazing that i can remember the title of a Doobie Bros. record from 1973, but I can’t remember what i had for breakfast?

    • Dwayne Wylds

      what day is this? 1973 I had pancakes and eggs…

  • Cathy DeRousse

    “Your Highness,”

    The Symposium was very helpful (fun, too); I have been thinking about your comments as I worked on text and music this week. I will pray for your attitude about handbells and children’s choirs. 🙂

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