After my last post, I received quite the flurry of responses, most of them positive, some of them critical. Some people were quite offended, feeling that I had attacked their personal view of what worship is. What a massive subject—the definition of worship! It inspires tremendous passion. Most pastors would agree that nothing can tear a congregation apart faster than disagreements over worship styles. I’ve experienced the agony of worship wars too many times.
I’d like to reiterate that the primary goal of my last blog was to encourage specifically those who are attempting to write modern hymns. I was not trying to pass judgement on contemporary worship choruses (though I have plenty to say on the subject), nor was I turning my nose up at simple choruses and worship songs. I have written and recorded plenty of both, and intend to do more in the future.
The discussion prompted me to think about how the critical process has been instilled in me and has become vital to me as a song writer. I’ll start with a quote from one of my favorite authors of the last century, Flannery O’Connor. This quote is from one of her lectures to college students, aspiring writers:
Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
I experienced a dramatic stifling as a musician when I was 21 years old. I flew out to the east coast to audition for graduate schools in piano performance. I had worked hard for several years and knew my pieces well. I was practicing Chopin Ballade #3 one night at the Juilliard School (a friend let me in), nervous about my audition at Stony Brook the next day. Suddenly I heard the same piece coming out of a practice room down the hall. The person playing was a fantastic pianist—technique to burn; gorgeous, mature tone; deep, thoughtful musicianship. I recognized instantly that at my very best, I would never be capable of playing Chopin as well as this person. Thoroughly intimidated, I walked down the hall and peeked into the practice room. Seated at the piano was a young girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old.
The lesson for me was huge and devastating. In an instant, I became acutely and painfully aware of the limitations of my gifts as a pianist. I was not a world-class pianist (as I had secretly entertained in my mind). I was merely a good pianist—better than average, but by no means gifted enough to compete in the classical world I longed to be part of. I fell into a depression that lasted two years as I began to sort out more honestly what musical talents I had been given, and which talents I had not been given. I look back on the whole experience and recognize God’s hand of mercy on my life.
It was also Providence that brought me a few years later as a young song writer to the classrooms of Elaine Rubenstein and Peter Morrison, two poets who taught writing workshops at Irvine Valley College in the late ’80s and through the ’90s. The workshop was, for me, at first, a fairly brutal weekly event. Each student wrote a poem within the framework of whatever we were studying that week—a catalogue poem, the Art of Tea, the Navajo creation story, a psalm, or a beatitude. At the following session, we read our poem aloud in front of the class. Critique was provided by the students and the teacher. You weren’t allowed to defend yourself or argue back—just to take it all in. I was often discouraged to realize that a week’s worth of writing had rendered perhaps only one keeper line, or worse, a rhythmless poem riddled with clichés and sentimentality.
As I write these two stories down, I’m reminded of the important, sometimes predominant role negativity has played in the creation of my songs: so much stripping away, so much tearing apart before I can get to the heart of what I’m trying to communicate.
There are songs I wrote years ago that I’m still proud of today. They caused me a lot of sweat and agony, struggling over single words for days or weeks, pacing up and down the length of our driveway at night, driving my wife nuts. And there are songs I wrote and recorded that I now find cringe-worthy. I would have been better off starting over from scratch, or filing them into the nearest paper shredder.
All these years later, I still send most of what I write to Peter and Elaine for critique and guidance. They have keen eyes and ears, and they’re excellent teachers. They’re beautifully and eloquently honest. The process of getting to the heart of the matter still isn’t easy for me, but I’ve learned to welcome it.