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“He struggled. He scratched out… If you look at those sketches… you see the agonies that this man went through… And what has finally appeared as the finished product looks as though it was simply phoned in from God. That’s what’s so incredible. He wrecked himself…trying to do this, trying to achieve this very inevitability. That’s the word for it. Every note that comes is inevitable. It could have been no other.”
(Leonard Bernstein, on Beethoven)

There are few things in this world other than death and taxes that are inevitable. Regardless how certain the outcome may seem, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. (Or until the fat lady sings, whichever comes first.) Whether it’s a Staubach-to-Pearson “Hail Mary” pass in the final seconds of the game, or your decision to take the proverbial road-less-travelled, there are always options, good and bad, for how just about anything might turn out. And sometimes the options have options.

This is especially true in songwriting – a craft in which nothing is inevitable. Each note set down in a melody offers choices of what note should follow. Every rhyme in the lyric has multiple possibilities (unless you’re still trying to rhyme orange, in which case you should stop). Every step in the composing journey brings the composer to a new fork in the road. Sometimes several forks in the road. Composing is about making choices: Which note comes next? Which word is the right next word? When will we break for lunch?

But here’s the thing: Despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of possible outcomes for any given song, when we do our job really well the finished composition will appear to not only be effortless, but inevitable. Ironic, isn’t it? The harder you work, the more choices you consider, the more you sweat the details, the more inevitable and God-given the result will seem to be.

So I ask you to consider: How hard do we work on our melodies and on our lyrics? How many of the myriad possibilities do we seriously consider before we settle on the notes and words we put down on paper? Because the appearance of inevitability is a deception. It requires a lot of work to make it look easy. Are we willing to toil over our notes and syllables until our song sounds as if it were phoned in from God?

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to hope that one day someone as brilliant as Leonard Bernstein might say one of my songs is so perfect that every note was inevitable – that it could have been no other.

Until then, I’ll just have to keep working at my craft.

Showing 3 comments
  • Your shortest sister
    Reply

    What would be inevitable is the laughter and groans that would ensue were I to try my hand at what you do, for what you do is surely God-inspired. I can’t even begin to imagine where the amazing music you create comes from other than God. Heaven knows my feeble attempts at writing even a musical phrase in music theory were, at best, laughable. God grants each of us gifts, and while I have yet to figure out what gifts He’s given me (I wish someone would inform me!), yours were so obvious from a young age. That you chose songwriting as a career was inevitable. I love you, big brother! Thank you for writing such inspired, wonderful music!

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Thanks, lil’ sis. So why weren’t you this sweet to me when we were kids??? 🙂

      • your shortest sister
        Reply

        LOL…You know very well that I pretty much worshiped the ground you walked on. I wanted to be just like you. It wasn’t until my senior year in college that I came to the conclusion that on my best day ever, the highest I could aspire to was mediocre. Now, I still don’t know what gift(s) God has given me, but, right now, it is NOT singing. At one point, that was very hard to accept, but I’m perfectly fine with it now. I figure when God calls me home, I’ll be singing more beautifully than I could ever imagine possible.

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