Why I Write – A Reader’s Story

Not long ago a friend shared with me how she had read a blog post of mine to a family member.  This family member was going through some very difficult circumstances similar to what I described in my blog post and was very encouraged by my words.

That story perfectly describes why I began writing in the first place.  I want others to learn from and be encouraged by my experiences.

Not because I have a better understanding than anyone else of all of the chaos God allows in this world, but because I believe all human experiences are shared experiences.  We are unique individuals who have common experiences.  We are not alone, and that fact is in itself one of the greatest comforts God has given us this side of heaven.

So thank you for reading, and if something I have written is encouraging or helpful to you or a friend, I would love to hear about it.  That’s why I write.

You’re why I write.

Has one of my blog posts made an impact on you in some way?  I would love to hear your story.


[Repost] The Best of 2011-12: What Arcade Fire Can Teach Us About Text Painting

Just over a year ago I began blogging.  This is the fourth of five posts that will be re-posts of the top five blog posts this past year.  Thanks for making this year great by reading what I have written and commenting.  I appreciate it!

This weekend at Lakeshore Community Church we are performing Modern Man by Arcade Fire. Initially I chose this song for the service because the text so clearly depicts a generation struggling to find purpose and direction (check out the review of their album Suburbs, which includes Modern Man, in Relevant Magazine), and the service has to do with commitment and maturity and the link between them.

Here are some of the lyrics:

So I wait in line, I’m a modern man
And the people behind me, they don’t understand
Makes me feel like
Something don’t feel right

Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man
And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man
Makes me feel like
Makes me feel like

And later in the song:

If it’s so right
Then how come you can’t sleep at night
In line for a number but you don’t understand
Like a modern man

Arcade Fire paints a picture of a world where we are going through the motions without knowing why, a world where a generation is lining up behind the previous generation in lock step without any real purpose. Here “modern” becomes more than just a moniker for today; “modern” also defines the current generation – modernity – and the upcoming generation – postmodernity. Everyone in the “postmodern” culture is in danger of simply walking in the footsteps of the “modern” culture without a thought as to why. Every generation through the ages has been in danger of simply doing things “the way they have always been done” without properly questioning and, ultimately, owning ways of life as their own.

Beyond the brilliant poetry, however, is something which only the music can tell. Listening to the song for the first few times I was puzzled by the changes in meter until I started seeing the music itself through one particular line in the song:

Like a record that’s skipping

The entire song is a skipping record. Truly genius. Most of the public will never catch on, I am sure, because it is subtle. The vibe of the music itself, without this consideration, already paints a picture of a grayscale world going through the motions. With this detail, however, Arcade Fire puts themeselves into a higher level of songwriter, employing the time tested technique of text-painting.

During the Renaissance text painting most referred to madrigals, defined as part songs for several voices without instrumental accompaniment, especially English and Italian songs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries “in a free style strongly influenced by the text.” [Thank you, Mac dictionary.] Text painting in this context was blatant: trills for birds, ascending melodies for climbing images, “fa-la-la” sections for fun and “indescribable situations,” etc. Here is a link to the King’s Singers performing Now Is the Month of Maying, by Thomas Morley. Please forgive the atrocious outfits; these guys are the best. Great lyrics:

Each with his bonnie lass
Upon the greeney grass

Hmmmmm. Wonder what that is all about. Probably exactly what you’re thinking. Those salacious songwriters . . .

We digress. Arcade Fire is somewhat more subtle and turns text painting to a higher task of describing the transition from one generation to the next.

Enjoy. You just had a music history lesson. Hopefully you didn’t fall asleep.

How to Make Your Quiet Time Creative

I love quiet time with God, but often I find it helpful to do something creative with my time.  I am a creative person, after all, so why shouldn’t I?


The basics of time with God:

  1. Scheduled – If it’s not on the calendar it won’t happen.
  2. Time – It has to be more than a passing prayer or thought.
  3. Alone – Remove distractions.
  4. Bible – God speaks most often through his Word.
  5. Prayer – Speaking with and listening for God.
  6. Journal – Often it helps to write down your thoughts.

In reality I could simply read the Bible, speak to and listen for God, and journal every day and probably have a good relationship with God.  Ultimately exclusive time with him and a heart inclined to him are all that are needed.

But if I am honest I sometimes can slip into routine and take God for granted.

Here is where creativity comes in.

Creativity can:

  1. Refresh your interest by breaking routine.
  2. Reframe old truths in new light.
  3. Reveal new truths because your mind is working differently.

Recently I decided I wanted to do something different, something creative.  The verse of the day on my YouVersion app was 1 John 4:18-19 (CEV):

A real love for others will chase those worries away.  The thought of being punished is what makes us afraid.  It shows that we have not really learned to love.  We love because God loved us first.

This verse really struck a chord with me, so I decided to dive into it a bit more.  Here is what I did:

  1. I read the verses in several translations to get a full picture of the verse’s meaning.  I usually read the Amplified Version (AMP), the New International Version (NIV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV, and the English Standard Version (ESV).  Sometimes I also read The Message (MSG) translation.
  2. I wrote out how the verses impacted me in light of what I was experiencing in my life.
  3. I wrote out my conversation, or prayer, with God.  I have found that writing out my prayers can be very illuminating.
  4. I wrote a song based on those verses.  So far I have only two verses and a chorus (it needs a Bridge), but I felt like I was able to put into song form the encouragement I needed that day.

Here are the lyrics:

When I am afraid
I will trust in You
When life is hard
I will trust in You
When feelings fade
I will trust in You
When friends betray
I will trust in You

Your love is deeper
Your love is fuller
Your love has overcome my every fear
All of my worries
All of my trouble
Your love has overcome my every fear

When I am alone
I will trust in You
When I am wrong
I will trust in You
When my words fail
I will trust in You
When hope is gone
I will trust in You 

Your love is deeper
Your love is fuller
Your love has overcome my every fear
All of my worries
All of my trouble
Your love has overcome my every fear

What creative things have you done during your quiet time?

How to Chart a Song

If you have read my blog at all you will know that I am a proponent of notated charts, not of lyrics and chord charts or just a melody with chords over it.

To understand why I believe in notated charts, read my previous posts:

What Kind of Music Charts Should I Use?
6 Ways Notated Charts Can Strengthen Your Church

For this post I am focusing on how to chart a song you have not written.  Writing a chart for your own song is a different story.

Charting a song by another artist requires certain tools:

  1. A good mp3 or recording.  Carefully choosing the mp3 helps your team and helps you.  Find a recording that is high quality and that has the style you are looking for. I talk about the role of recordings here.
  2. A metronome.  I use Frozen Ape on my iPhone, but a simple adjustable tick-tock will do.
  3. Software.  Gone are the days of longhand.  Get Finale.  I am a huge proponent of this software and have been using it since 1991.  Finale enables you to set templates, play your music back, adjust and edit music quickly, and much more.  The learning curve can be steep, but the work is worth it.  If you are in a church or academic institution you can take advantage of a huge discount.
  4. A basic understanding of music theory.  You do not need to be able to analyze symphonies or understand jazz chord structures.  You simply need to be able to identify a chord when you hear it as I, IV, V, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, etc.
  5. A good ear attached to a good mind.  Yeah, here’s the rub.  You can’t use the other tools if you do not have this.  You must be able to listen to a recording and distinguish individual parts, and then you have to be able to notate what you hear.  This takes practice, but you can do it!
  6. Patience and humility.  Your first charts will have lots of mistakes.  Expect it, and be ready to graciously say, “Thanks for pointing that out.  I will fix it,” rather than getting defensive because someone pointed out that you are human.  You will get better and more confident as you do this more and more.

Before we jump in to the details, let me show you the end product.  Here are parts of a completed chart (I’m not posting the whole thing due to copyright concerns, which is another issue altogether).

OK, so once you have gotten the tools at hand and figured out how to use them, here are the steps I follow in writing all of my charts.  Ready?

  1. Figure out the tempo marking with your metronome and a word or two to describe the style.  For instance, Rock ballad quarter note = 80.  No wussy things like “Prayerfully” or “Hopefully.”  Always use words that a musician can act on.
  2. Figure out the primary time signature (4/4, 3/4, etc.) and key signature.  Both of these can change throughout the piece, but we will discover that as we go.
  3. Set up a grand staff.  The top one should be Vocal and the bottom one should be Rhythm.  I prefer to use a treble clef on the Vocal staff, but a bass clef on the Rhythm staff because I always begin with the bass.  More on that later.  Enter in all of the data (key and time signature, etc.).  In a program like Finale all of this is created for you at the very beginning in the set-up screen.  You enter in all of the values and it plugs them right in.
  4. Now listen to the recording closely all the way through.  Find any places where the time signature changes and notate that on the appropriate measure.  Often pop songs will add or subtract two beats in a 4/4 song for interest.  There are multiple ways to notate this, but just do what makes sense to you.
  5. Next, do the same for the key signature, notating the changes in the appropriate measure.
  6. Enter section numbers/letters/descriptors.  I give each section a letter and name: “A: INTRO,” “B: VERSE 1,” D: BRIDGE,” and so forth to facilitate learning and rehearsal.
  7. Now you should have a complete layout: Vocal and Rhythm staves, time signatures, key signatures, tempo markings, section markings, and the exact number of measures in the song.  If the song has an extended ending you just need to decide how much of that ending you want to include.
  8. Now listen through the recording and notate the bass line.  By bass line I mean the lowest note of the chord, not the bass part.
  9. Next figure out the chords over each bass note and enter them accordingly.
  10. Once the bass line and chords are entered, in Finale you can use the Clef tool and convert the Rhythm staff to the proper styles.  I use slash notation for straightforward, non-syncopated parts; rhythmic notation for parts that are syncopated or require rhythmic precision; and regular notation where I need for a musician to play exact notes.  I also occasionally notate the basic drum pattern at the beginning of a section.
  11. Now notate the melody in the Vocal staff.  If the melody varies from verse to verse, I generally (not always) make a decision to keep the verses identical in deference to the congregation, who needs to learn the song quickly.
  12. Enter lyrics.
  13. By this time you probably have listened to the song a dozen times.  Write in directions you want to give the team at certain points to help them.  Under the Rhythm staff I write in notes such as “fill,” E Gtr solo (electric guitar solo), “piano only,” “pads,” “kick on 2 & 4,” and so forth.  On the Vocal staff I write directions such as “unison 1st x,” “harmony 2nd verse,” and so forth.  These directions can save you tons of rehearsal time.
  14. Finally write the form of the piece in the upper left hand corner of the first page so that the band always has a cheat sheet to the structure.
  15. Now decide if you are going to sing the song in the key of the recording or change it.  A good rule of thumb is that the melody should go no higher than a “D” and no lower than a “D.”  A lot of melodies are rang-ey and break these rules, but the meat and potatoes of the song should be in this range so that the congregation can sing it easily.
  16. As you do the final layout of the music on the page, format the chart so that you have lots of white space, reduce the size of the music to 90%, and try to keep the music on two pages.  In Finale you can print individual Rhythm and Vocal charts.
  17. Print out the charts and read them as you listen to the song to find errors.  Fix them.  Be professional.  No colliding lyrics, lyrics covering chords, repeat signs covering the system above, and so forth.  Every detail can help you save time in rehearsal by giving you clarity.  If you do not have clarity you will waste time fixing it.
  18. Get the charts to your band and go for it.

This is a lot of information on how to chart a song, and there are a lot of subtleties I have not mentioned, but this is my basic process.  I have been developing this process for about 12 years now and I can pump out a basic tune in an hour or two.  At the end of that time period I know the song like the back of my hand and am ready to walk into a rehearsal and work with the band.

I am considering creating some Finale tutorials, so let me know if this has been helpful to you.

Why I Love To Write

True confessions. I have not missed a publishing date in months, and I was not happy about not getting a post out yesterday. My personal goal is to publish every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and I don’t like being inconsistent.

Writing consistently helps me to stay fresh, to think well.

Sometimes I just think better on (virtual) paper.

Ever feel like that?

Writing for you makes me think about others.

Writing regularly forces me to stretch.

I need wrap my mind around issues and ideas rather than just tacitly believing things without truly testing my thoughts. If I have to write action points for someone else, I have to make certain what I am writing makes sense.

So thank you for making me a better writer and thinker, and for helping to stay others-focused.

I love you for it.

What does writing do for you?

The Best Way to Kill a Creative Genius

Tell him there is “nothing new under the sun,” as Solomon says.

If you grew up in church you may have heard this phrase quoted many times like it is the words of Christ. It’s not.

In fact, Solomon was quite possibly depressed when he wrote it. When was the last time you allowed a depressed person guide your life?

This quote got to me throughout my life until recently. I grew up in church and I believe the Bible to be God’s Word, so everything in it must be something to live by, right?

Wrong. Some things are simply true accounts of what happened for us to learn from. This quote from Solomon is a case in point.

The quote comes from Ecclesiastes, where Solomon struggles to find the meaning of life. He finds it 12 chapters after this quote.

Last fall, at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, one of the speakers spoke at length about all of the things since Solomon that HAVE been new.

Like the resurrection.
Like Jesus walking on water.
Like computers.
Like the fact that I am writing this post on an iPhone.

After a bit it begins to sound ridiculous that I ever took this quote to heart as anything more than a true description of a soul struggling through dark days.

I’ve been there, and it sure feels like nothing special is going on when I’m there.

But there are special things going on.

Like the book you are writing.
Like the new song you are writing for your church.
Like the new backgrounds you are creating for the new series at your church.

Like your life. It’s never been lived before, and you get to bring it to life.

There is something new under the sun, so don’t let the depressed and negative people in your life distract you. In fact, don’t let them in your life at all. They’re not worth it.

Go do something new just to spite them.

Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it, Solomon.

What new thing are you going to do today?

Excerpts from Flying for the Window

Today, for something a little different, I want to share two poems with you from the collection Flying for the Window, written by Charles Coté.  Charles lives in Rochester, NY, where he practices as a clinical social worker.  This collection is his first published collection, poems about his son Charlie, who died of a malignant melanoma in 2005 at the age of 18, right after graduating from high school and while the front man for a popular Rochester-area band, Fivestar Riot.

More importantly, Charlie, as I call him, is a dear friend and has been my guide and counselor for the past several years through my own challenging times.  Often we talked about poetry, and he coached me on my writing.  Flying for the Window is available on Amazon, or you can find the book on Charles’ blog.  I post these poems with his consent.

Here are two selections.

On the Car Radio

Every song a melody
you didn’t write,
played by those
I didn’t lose.
Take this moment
for instance:
wherever I go,
you aren’t here either.

I love this poem.  From the first reading it’s pungency and brevity hit me like a ton of bricks.  The turn at the end is magnificent.  This poem speaks so well of how I felt about my own loss.

Sitting in His Empty Room

Three years I watched his body
waste away, radiation burning the hair
off half his head until he shaved the rest.
So no one would gawk at the scar and ask
questions, he wore a knitted skull cap
and a drooping smile on the left side
after the surgeon removed his parotid gland.
Still, he lit up the room with that smile, and dark
brown eyes, eyes like no one else in the family.
Picture a high school gym filled with classmates,
a red carpet, his girlfriend holding his right arm,
black velvet crown on his glad head,
a poster child for the happy, raucous
cheers from the crowd.  Later that evening,
a show at Water Street Music Hall, his band
Fivestar Riot opening for Dysplastic Revulsion,
he’s still wearing the same crown, the homecoming
king’s cape, singing Better, his best song.
That was a year before he died.
See me now, sitting at the foot of his bed
the night he left us, asking, Are you scared?
No, he says, the knitted skull cap
tossed on the wheel chair, Just curious
about what’s next.

I am touched by the recollection of a parent, and I think about sitting on my boys’ bed and the kinds of answers they give to my questions – often very unexpected answers, like this one: “No, just curious about what’s next.”

How do these poems speak to you?