In On the Job Training, Thoughts on Writing

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

“And So We Sing”
(Shawnee Press 35027907)

A song idea can come from just about anywhere. Whether it’s the latest catch phrase sweeping the nation, or a colorful quip from your eccentric aunt Doris, a great hook may land in your lap when you least expect it. But you have to be listening.

LESSON #1:
Smart songwriters are good listeners.
They pay attention to what others are saying.

And So We Sing Cover ArtNot surprisingly, Christian songwriters find a lot of song ideas in words spoken from the pulpit on Sunday morning. A certain Baptist preacher in Nashville once told me he knew he must’ve said something significant when more than a few writers sitting in the pews dove for their pencils simultaneously. In 2009, I heard such a turn of words spoken in a congregational prayer. I confess that while every other head was bowed with eyes closed, I was scribbling on the church bulletin.
That morning at First Baptist Nashville, Dr. Terry York, a professor from Baylor University, was a visitor in the pulpit. The opening sentence of Terry’s prayer struck me as germ of a song. I knew from experience that if I wanted to remember the idea after the worship service was over I had to write it down that very minute.

LESSON #2:
Be ready to write. Inspiration sometimes comes at inconvenient times.
A great idea that is not somehow captured is almost certainly an idea lost.

Dr. Terry YorkTerry is a thoughtful and eloquent guy with a unique perspective: A former U. S. Marine and Doctor of Musical Arts are not an everyday combination. The soldier-turned-teacher prayed deliberately that morning.

“We try, Lord,” he began.

He paused to let that sink in. He continued, in specific language I can no longer recall, to iterate that no matter how hard we strive, God’s grace and mercy are not things we can ever earn – but gifts we need only to accept.

But it was that first sentence that made me reach for the stubby, eraser-less pencil in the rack next to the visitor’s cards and the offering envelopes. I grabbed up my order of service and scribbled down a handful of words in the margin: “And so we try. With all we have to give, we try/To love how Jesus lived and died.”

I’m not sure how much of the song lyric I wrote while sitting there in church. My memory is fuzzy about that. But if I was true to form, I probably had it all but finished before the invitation hymn. (I really wish I had hung on to that church bulletin.)

LESSON #3:
Hang on to your notes and drafts.
Not so much for posterity, but as a teaching reminder as to how your own creative process works, and – hopefully – as evidence of your growth as a writer.

Later at home, I finished the lyric. The result was an AABA form that flowed as one continual thought. (See below.) The title, “And So We Sing,” came from the final A-section. Once done with the lyric, I asked Regi Stone to take a stab at setting the words to music.

Regi Stone

Regi Stone

I will go on the record here saying Regi Stone is so talented it is really quite unfair to the rest of us. He is an incredible singer. He has genuine classical piano chops. He reads music like a machine. And he writes great melodies. The only plausible explanation is that he must somehow be cheating. I figure it’s hard to compete with a guy like that, so better to just collaborate with him instead.

“And So We Sing” was the second or third song Regi and I wrote together. There was very little rewriting to be done after he composed the music. Perhaps I had so thoroughly vetted the words before he ever saw them that they didn’t require much tweaking. And maybe Regi happened to get the tune right the first time. It happens. Whatever the reason, the song didn’t require any significant changes once Regi got his hands on it. So – this next Life Lesson is gonna shock those who know me well as an ardent rewriter…

LESSON #4:
As absolutely crucial as rewriting is to the professional craft of writing,
sometimes you get things right early on.
The trick is recognizing those moments
and trusting your collaborator’s gifts and talents.

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett

Regi’s demo of the song was done in a single take at the piano, singing as he played. I later arranged the piece for SATB voices, lifting ideas for the accompaniment from Regi’s inspired (and totally improvised) piano demo. Shawnee Press released the choral anthem in 2012. More recently, Luke Garrett chose “And So We Sing” to be included in his upcoming CD release. Regi accompanied Luke in the studio and (no surprise) the result from these two marvelous musicians was terrific.

I love Regi’s melody. And I love the message of the lyric. I have every hope the song will last for years.

And none of it would have happened if I had not been listening when Terry York began to pray: “Lord, we try.”

And so we try
With all we have to give. We try
To love how Jesus lived and died.
And though our best is not enough,
He showed us what it means to love.
And so we try.

And so we weep,
So vast our sinful stain. We weep
For causing Him such pain and grief.
For who but we supplied the cross
That Jesus bore at such a cost?
And so we weep.

But all our striving cannot earn,
And all our tears can never buy
The mercy such a love does offer,
The grace that such a love supplies.

And so we sing
The music mercy scored. We sing
All praise to Christ, our Lord and King.
For words alone cannot express
His matchless love and faithfulness.
And so we sing!

Words by Robert Sterling
Music by Regi Stone
© Robert Matthew Sterling Music & Experience Worship Music

 

 

Showing 14 comments
  • Bruce Cokeroft
    Reply

    Wonderful, practical, and applicable messages in this blog offering, Rob, as always! Thanks, my friend.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Thanks, Bruce. Coming from my favorite choral music facilitator of all time, that means a lot.

  • Marty Funderburk
    Reply

    What a song! Love the economy and potency!

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Thanks, Marty! And for my other readers, Marty is no stranger to songwriting himself. In fact, he’s kind of a big deal in the Gospel music world.

  • Greg Nelson
    Reply

    Rob…. The window from whoch you view life and music, is very inspiring. Thanks for taking the time to share it…because. It really is another gift you give us….and one from which we grow, and are blessed to receive. Cheers, buddy.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Thx, Greg. Appreciate a master songwriter taking a minute to read the blog and leave a comment!

  • Bobbi Heastings
    Reply

    So glad I receive your posts. #3 on the list rang my bell. I keep my notes in my pockets, purses, kitchen drawers…and look for them too long after the event. Needless to say they end up in the wash or worse. I REALLY need a better storage system. But now I’m off to find your song and enjoy it! Great post, Robert!

    • rsterling
      Reply

      I’m thinking I may start scanning my notes into my computer. That way I get to keep my notes and not have to keep the paper!

  • your shortest sister
    Reply

    I ended up reading the lyrics out loud – it’s so much more powerful that way – three times. Such powerful words. At times, I do wish that God had passed Mom’s gift of words in even a quarter of the abundance He passed on to you. I know God did NOT give to me the gift of creating music, either the writing of or the performing of. My laughably feeble attempts in Music Theory were, in all honesty, embarrassing. And in the performance of, on my very best day EVER, even mediocre was beyond my capabilities. Oh, well, in the Bible, God says to “make a joyful noise”. He says nothing about sounding like an angel. Certainly, Mom’s love of words made it into my genes. And I did manage to write some great term papers for my college science classes. Sigh, but that is polar opposite to the writing Mom did and you do. So, I will continue to delight in the God-inspired music and lyrics you create.

    I love you, dear brother. Give Cindy a hug for me.
    Lisa

  • Patricia Mock
    Reply

    Love your idea of scanning notes into computer… Now there’s another great idea! Love your post …

  • Linda G.Marcus
    Reply

    What a beautiful Lyric! Thank you so much,too on “Listening”

    • rsterling
      Reply

      You’re welcome. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Randy Vader
    Reply

    Very well said. Instructive – encouraging – challenging – well done.

    • rsterling
      Reply

      Thanks, Randy! I appreciate that a lot.

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