In On the Job Training, Thoughts on Writing

Lessons learned from a life in music.

(#6 in a series of posts) 

“Jesus Paid It All”

My best-known choral work is undoubtedly my arrangement of the Public Domain hymn “Jesus Paid It All,” by Elvina Hall and John Grape. (GlorySound Music #35011517) I get more compliments on that piece than any other I’ve written. It is standard repertoire for countless churches and a lot of Christian university choirs. I wrote the arrangement for Shawnee Press in 1985, as part of a series of hymn arrangements. I would guesstimate the anthem in its various voicings has sold some half million copies to date.

Jesus Paid It All - Choral Anthem

Jesus Paid It All – Choral Anthem

When you write music for a living, and you’ve written something wildly successful, it makes sense to occasionally stop and ask: What makes that piece so popular?

In the case of “Jesus Paid It All,” I certainly can’t take credit for the arrangement’s greatest strength: the hymn itself. Hall’s lyric is heart wrenching and confessional. Grape’s perfectly simple melody captures the flow of the words in a mere one-octave range. Because the hymn is so strong to begin with, even a bad arrangement of “Jesus Paid It All” will sound pretty good.

LESSON #1:
To write inspired arrangements, start with great source material.

I think it’s safe to say the vocal writing accounts for some of the arrangement’s popularity. The choral arrangement is not easy, but it is not absurdly difficult, either. It follows a familiar arc: The choir begins in unison. It gradually expands into more complex vocal parts, and peaks in a lush, cascading a capella moment. Finally, it returns to unison for a pianissimo close.

Though there is nothing groundbreaking about the vocal parts, they are crafted to be individually interesting because (and this important) altos, tenors and basses want to sing interesting parts just as much as do the sopranos. As a result, I think “Jesus Paid It All” is popular with individual choir members because they enjoy singing their parts. And it never hurts the sales of an anthem if the choir enjoys singing it.

LESSON #2:
Don’t forget about the lower voices in your part writing.
Give them a melody worth singing.

But I suspect the real draw of “Jesus Paid It All” is the piano accompaniment. It is fluidly romantic and fairly challenging. And pianists love to play it. Or so they tell me. I wouldn’t know – because I am not a pianist and I cannot play the accompaniment. I cannot tell you how many times people have expressed astonishment at that fact. They assume that to write that piano part I must be able to play it. But I can’t. Trust me.

This is an important point for emerging composers to understand: Being able to play an instrument is not a prerequisite to writing for the instrument. (If it were, an orchestrator would need to be proficient on every instrument in the orchestra!) If you understand the reasonable technical limits of any instrument or voice, and if you can hear the instrument in your head, you should be able to write it down.

For a composer/arranger, the ability to hear the music in your head is crucial. Otherwise, you are limited to writing only those notes you fumble upon at the piano. Or, assuming you are a proficient pianist, you may find your hands leading the writing process rather than your ear. That may well lead to writing music your hands feel comfortable playing, but that is inappropriate for another instrument to play. In my long-ago days as a timpanist, I was subjected to some timpani parts written by orchestrators who clearly believed the timpani were capable of chromatic scales. (They aren’t.)

This ability to hear before you write comes easily to some, and not so easily to others. I testify that I am one of those others for whom the ability took years to develop. It continues to develop for me, in fact. And for we non-pianists who have to write piano accompaniments, I acknowledge that writing a memorable piano part can be painstaking. But it can be done. And the more you do it, the easier it will become. The trick is to rely on your ear, not your hands.

LESSON #3:
Hear it first. Then write it down.

In my teaching sessions, I talk a lot about the importance of perspiration over inspiration. Inspiration is great – but I think it is often overrated. Still, as I think back on the creation of “Jesus Paid It All,” I have little doubt that the piano motif that anchors the whole piece did come as an inspiration. To this day I can’t recall where it came from. It just happened. But I also know I worked very hard to make the accompaniment lay under the hands well. I worked just as hard to find the right harmonies for the tune. And I sweated bullets over the vocal parts. I spent three or four solid days working on that arrangement, which was time well spent.

But here is the hilarious part. A few years ago, on 25th anniversary of the arrangement’s release, I dug back into it and found a handful of things that needed change. As hard as I worked on it in the beginning, twenty-five years later there were improvements I could make. With Shawnee’s blessing, I made about a dozen tiny changes. To the casual listener, and even to many musicians, the changes are imperceptible. But the piece is a little more elegant now, and a little easier to sing. I think I can finally leave it alone.

LESSON #4:
Writing is re-writing. Even if it takes 25 years.

Now, if I could only write another piece as popular as “Jesus Paid It All”…

Showing 4 comments
  • Ed Rush
    Reply

    Thanks for the lessons Robert. Looking forward to seeing you at the symposium.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      You bet, Ed.

  • Josh Metzger
    Reply

    Thanks for this one, Robert. I too cannot play what I write, in general. Some people think I just don’t want to play for them, when I really would if only I could. Also, my first published anthem went into print nearly 20 years after I started writing it, and I still have half of it I can use for something else (a long B-section that was cut).

    • rsterling
      Reply

      I know that feeling. Some people think I’m playing “hard to get” when I say I don’t play well. If they ever hear me, then they’ll believe!

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