In On the Job Training, Thoughts on Writing

Lessons learned from a life in music.
(#7 in a series of posts)

“God Be With Us/God Go With Us”

 

Every song we write is an expedition in craft. We start with an idea. Then we whittle and cajole our words and music until they vaguely resemble a song. And then we rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite again.

If we share this creative path with a fellow writer, the expedition becomes a collaboration: an experience in give and take, push and pull, back and forth, until both writers are satisfied with the result. For where ever two or more are gathered and they write a song, there is collaboration.

And should we be fortunate enough to see our song materialize as a published piece of choral music, we must then cooperate with a whole company of people, who will shepherd our composition through a maze of editing and marketing to reach the end user – the choirs that will sing the song in churches, school auditoriums and concert halls.

Though I’ve trod this ground hundreds of times, it never ceases to impress me how well the process works, considering the sheer number of moving parts involved. Every one of my published choral pieces went through some variation of this process. But rarely have I so fully experienced each of these stages – craft, collaboration and cooperation – as I did with the song “God Be With Us/God Go With Us.” (Shawnee Press – Harold Flammer 35028938) Its very existence is a microcosm of the entire choral music publishing world.35028938

“God Be With Us” began as a choral composition, words and music, by Hyun Kook, a vibrant composer from South Korea. Its original title, translated from Korean, was “Holy Spirit, Abide in Me.” Hyun composes part-time and is relatively new to the American choral music world. His day gig is a little more impressive than most: He is a physician and research pharmacologist at Chonnam National University Medical School in Gwangju, Korea. In his spare time, he composes music.

In my spare time, I watch TV.

I met Hyun a few years ago at the Joseph Martin/Pine Lake Composer Symposium. His talent was evident to all in attendance, and several of his pieces drew the attention of publishers. The problem was: Most of his texts were in Korean. He needed English lyricists. I took several of his compositions home to see what I could come up with. “God Be With Us,” as the song came to be called, is the second collaboration of mine with Hyun.

Hyun and I faced two barriers as collaborators. First there was the language barrier. (Hyun speaks perfect English and I don’t.) Then there is the distance barrier. Thanks to the Internet, working with a writer in another zip code, or even another time zone, is a pretty common thing. But I’m in Tennessee, and Hyun is in South Korea – on the other side of the world. With the 14-hour time difference and our busy schedules (Hyun striking blows against disease and me watching Law & Order reruns), we could only compare notes via email once every 24 hours or so. This makes for a somewhat casual writing experience. But that was okay with me. I don’t like the pressure of a collaborator sitting in the room with me, waiting for me to be brilliant. I prefer to work apart. I need the space. With Hyun in Korea I had all the space I could possibly want.

LESSON #1:
Don’t let physical or cultural distance be a barrier to collaboration.
Sometimes they serve a positive purpose!

            Hyun’s music was a well-constructed verse/chorus song. The melody was lovely and languid. Hyun’s original title fit the mood of the music well: “Holy Spirit, abide in me.” I spent hours listening to his melody, absorbing it, and allowing it to speak to me. The Korean words on the demo recording sounded nothing at all like English, which freed me to imagine the English words hiding inside his music. In time, the title became “God be with us.”

I wrote two verses and a single chorus that fit Hyun’s music like a glove. When writing words to an existing melody, my goal is always to create a lyric that sounds as if the melody was written to fit the words. The first verse beseeched God to be with us when we worship. The second called on Him to stay with us in the darkness of night. The first complete draft was very near to being the finished version. Or so I thought.

Both verses contained a pair of internal double-syllable rhymes that mirrored Hyuns’ melody. (I was quite proud of myself for that little feat of artistry.) But it later struck me that four double-syllable rhymes in the span of two relatively brief verses sounded clever. And you don’t wanna sound clever when singing a serious choral anthem about the presence of God. As much as it pained me, the second draft did away with the double rhymes.

LESSON #2:
Don’t be afraid to remove the cleverest, best-crafted line in a song if it doesn’t serve the song well.
Have the confidence to believe you can come up with another – even better – line.

            At that point, we had a finished composition, though not a finished arrangement. Hyun was open to my ideas about the arrangement. Together, we made some changes in the accompaniment and removed a modulation. I adjusted some of the voice writing, aiming it more squarely at the American choral market. And then we submitted the piece to our friend, Joe Martin, at Shawnee Press.

Joe is one of my favorite choral editors. (Joe – I have to say “one of” so my other editors don’t get jealous. But you know you’re really my favorite.) His creativity as a composer carries over into his editing and his marketing, a real plus for the writers fortunate to be in the Shawnee Press catalog. And Joe’s creativity took “God Be With Us” is a direction I would have never thought to go. Knowing the ever-present need for choral preludes and benedictions, Joe asked if Hyun and I would consider making the piece fulfill a double-purpose: Use the existing first verse and chorus as a prelude: “God Be With Us.” Then write a different second verse and an altered chorus to become “God Go With Us.” Together, they create a single piece that could bookend a worship service.

My response? “Why didn’t I think of that???”

LESSON #3:
Not every change a publisher suggests is a good thing. But some are.
Learn to recognize the good ideas and be humble enough to take advantage of them.

As is often the case, just when you think you’re finished writing, there is rewriting yet to be done. I had to craft an entirely new second verse from the point-of-view of worshippers leaving the church and going out into the world, followed by a chorus that now said, “God go with us.” In addition, and again at Joe’s suggestion, Hyun and I crafted a four-fold “Amen” to conclude the benediction version. The end result works quite well. What’s more, it is a useful piece of music, filling a real need for preludes and benedictions.

Hyun and I were willing to change our work to fit a need. Joe was able to think beyond the words and music on the page to see a different potential. If not for willing hearts and creative thinking, “God Be With Us/God Go With Us” would have never happened.

Showing 4 comments
  • Deborah Craig-Claar
    Reply

    Great blog, Rob. And a fascinating journey, well told (as always). It’s a reminder how many different “collaborators” there often are to a song’s eventual outcome. I’ll add an additional individual to the line: the one who finally performs the song.

    I remember one of the first songs I was lucky enough to see published: a choral piece for communion I co-wrote with the very talented John Purifoy entitled “We Will Remember You.” Many years after its release, I was contacted by a gentleman with a unique request; he wanted to change a handful of words in the piece and use it as a solo for a memorial service. I was initially skeptical, but his choices were well chosen. And because my original lyrics did not reference specifics (the bread, the cup, etc.) the transition was surprisingly effective. I gave permission (I was so grateful to be asked – that’s not always the case), and figured that was the end of the story. But over the years, I have heard from a number of churches who have used this piece for other memorial services – using, of course, the altered lyrics. Somehow word got out about the revised version. (Maybe we need to add social media to the list of collaborators as well!) In fact, I was at a conference a number of years ago and was introduced to a music minister who said, “Oh, you wrote that really nice funeral song.”

    As Oscar Hammerstein once wrote, “A song’s not a song till you sing it…” And ultimately it may be the singer who controls a song’s ultimate legacy.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Deborah – Thanks for the comment. You are absolutely right. Music doesn’t come to life until it is performed. I will always owe a debt of gratitude to the choirs, soloists, artists and orchestras that choose to perform the music I write. They are my musical voices.

  • Josh Metzger
    Reply

    I love stories of how pieces come to be, especially if they don’t end up the way they started. Fascinating!

    • rsterling
      Reply

      They don’t call it the “creative process” for nothing. Whether we’re talking about songwriting, arranging, orchestrating, script writing, screenwriting, composing – or whatever – all writing is a process. And regardless our intentions, some creative ideas have a will of their own. occasionally, all we can do as writers is hang on tight and see where the process takes us.

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