In On the Job Training

Lessons learned from a life in music.

(#10 in a series of posts)

“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Composing commissioned music – writing to suit a particular situation or to fulfill the creative vision of another person – is part and parcel of a composer’s life. The early years of my career were filled writing music for radio, TV, and short films – all of which was commissioned work. I’ve also written my share of commissioned choral music, most often to honor a specific person or commemorate a particular moment in a church’s life.

After all that experience creating commissioned music, you might think it would be easy for me. But it’s not. And I alone am to blame for that.

The problem is, when I take on a commission, I get so concerned with making the client happy that I fail to enjoy the process myself. I forget they hired me because they like my work, and I start trying to read the client’s mind. (That’s not a good thing, by the way.) Before long, I find myself mired in doubt. While working on a recent commission, I found myself traipsing down this all-too-familiar path of self-doubt, and had to stop, clear my head, and remind myself to enjoy the work.

LESSON #1: Have fun and enjoy the work.
If you aren’t feeling good about what you are writing,
chances you won’t feel good about the end result.

 

This particular commission came from Jon Duncan, director of Worship and Music Ministries at the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. The piece was to honor the many years of service of Dr. Robert White, Executive Director. I was asked to arrange Dr. White’s favorite hymn, the venerable “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” There are already hundreds of arrangements of this hymn. The expectation would be that I should top them all with my arrangement. The premier would be at the annual Georgia Baptist Convention before a room packed with preachers and music ministers, sung by the Jubal Chorus (a choir of 250+) and Orchestra. No pressure, right?

 

 

LESSON #2: Relax, take a deep breath, and remind yourself of Lesson #1, above.

A commission for such an occasion almost demands for the arranger to “go big or go home.” (For more about the “Big Finish” here’s a blog.) You’d have to be crazy to not do a big ending. Well, call me crazy. Because the more I lived with lyrics, the more they struck me as words of humble thankfulness, not grand exhortation. So, in spite of the obvious choice to go big, bigger, biggest, and knowing the good folks in Georgia were expecting a big ending, I swam upstream and wrote a piece that treated the final strains of “Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me” as an awestruck whisper, marveling at the undeserved faithfulness of God.

As you might imagine, I had to first convince myself this was the right thing to do. After all, my desire to make the client happy was screaming at me to end Big. But my every musical instinct said to end it quietly.

I listened to my instincts.

LESSON #3: Trust your creative instincts. They reflect the authentic “you.”

When taking on a commission, it is important to know for whom you are crafting the music. Why? Because you want them to succeed.

It does no one any good for you to write far above, or far below, the capabilities of the performing musicians. Fortunately, I had worked previously with the Jubal Chorus. I knew just how good they are. (They are very good.) However, I also knew they would have limited time to rehearse. So, I took extra care to ensure the voice leading in the arrangement’s complex harmonies was logical and melodically interesting. I exploited the choir’s ability to sing the softest pianissimo and the loudest fortissimo. And I avoided any of the trappings of pop music (such as a rhythm section) because I knew the conductor, Jon Duncan, to be especially effective with tempos that ebb and flow.

LESSON #4: Write to the strengths of the premier performers. Help them succeed.

The premier performance of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was a big success. I can’t thank Jon Duncan and the Jubal Chorus enough for the opportunity to write for an occasion so important in the life of Georgia Baptists. The arrangement turned out well, and was among the initial releases in my new choral catalog, at robertsterlingmusic.com. You can listen to the demo recording (done in Nashville) here at the site.

If you’ve got questions about commissioned works or comments about this blog, I’d love to hear from you in the Comments.

Showing 8 comments
  • John
    Reply

    An excellent article, Mr. Sterling! Good words to heed. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experiences.

    John P.

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Thx, JP. I appreciate the kind words. Hope all is well at easychoirmusic.com!

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Thx, JP. As always, I appreciate your friendship and your support. We are in this weird, wacky world together, you and I.

  • Your Shortest Sister
    Reply

    Oh. My. Word. That is gorgeous. I want to sing that so very much. But, I’ll have to wait till God calls me home in order to sing at all. The alto line is almost completely too high for me.My highest note nowadays is typically middle C. My lowest is an octave or ninth lower than that. Still…I have no doubt I’ll listen to that arrangement many times. When God does calls me home, there’ll be no nodes on my vocal cords to keep me from singing. Something to REALLY look forward to.

  • Jeff
    Reply

    Great read and encouraging insight

  • Frances Drost
    Reply

    Thanks for your honesty. It’s encouraging to know a writer and arranger of your caliber still has their moments.

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Every professional songwriter I know has their moments. Trust me. Most of us are a bundle of doubts, masquerading as a confident creator.

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