Friday, October 21, 2005


It's the end of a very long, very wonderful day. I don't know how I'll ever fit in all into a blog, but here goes:

This morning started at 7:45 when I met my new friends Stacey and Connie O'Hara to share a shuttle to the church. Stacey is a singer-songwriter, and Connie is her Mom and manager. They are great people, and a great example of the kind of people I'm meeting here - friendly, generous, eager to learn, and eager to share.

All of our meals are provided by the workshop, and breakfast was a great time to meet new people. The morning started with a worship time lead by Phil Mehrens. He played piano and sang, and was joined by a harmony singer and a violinist. Beautiful combo! He started with a picture of a planet erupting in space, and brought us to thinking about how large God is. This is a God who can count every hair on my head, yet He also made the planets, suns, and galaxies. As we sang, they ran photos of planets in space. Such a great reminder of the majesty of creation and the Creator.

My first class was lyric writing with Dave Clark. I took his class as Stamps-Baxter this summer, and what a joy to be in his presence again. His approach to songs is so precise, in rhythm and rhyme, yet his approach to finding inspiration is loose and open. I took tonnes of notes, thank God, cause I'm too tired to remember a word of it all right now.

My next class was melody writing with Guy Zabka and Kevin Stokes. This was incredible and so very useful for me. They started with a short lesson on structure, breaking down all the essential components of a song. Then, they talked about how the melody can build and move through each of those components. I found this really useful. More than once, I've looked at a lyric and been overwhelmed with the thought of having to write a melody for the whole thing. This encouraged me to treat each part as special and important. They also talked a lot about filling the song with hooks, both lyrical and musical. To quote them, "the song with the most hooks wins". I would love to have spent more time in this class.

Next was lunch, but meals are not just about sitting and chatting. During meals, we have the Alumni Cafe, where WAJ alumni take a turn to perform one of their own songs. My favourite song was about the singer's little sister, who doesn't have a wedding ring, but she's "Having a baby for Christmas". It was just so full of love. Wonderful!

(At this point, I have to share a blogging thing - I have tried to publish this post three - count 'em 3!!! - times, and each time it has been lost in cyberspace. I'm ready to kick in the screen of this computer, but the Holiday Inn will never welcome me back. What you are about to read is a rewrite, so I don't know if that will make it better or worse. If I lose this entry again, you'll know it cause there won't be any words. Just the sound of me sobbing!)

My first session after lunch was amazing - writing traditional gospel with Maurice Carter and Twila LaBar. I thought this would bring me back to the realm of southern gospel, but traditional gospel is what's also known as "black" gospel. In Canada, we don't have black or white churches, per say. It's just church. So I still can't get comfortable with calling a church black or white, but I guess that's just my learning curve. So, what is traditional gospel? It's what you hear with mass choirs, especially when they have a soloist doing that awesome call and response thing, and then the soloist just wails over it all. It's what's sung by Toronto Mass Choir. The arrangements are often improvised on the spot, and the choir members just focus on their director to see where they're going to go next. This is challenging from a writing standpoint, because how do you structure the thing? I was really intrigued and inspired by this class, and I think I'd like to try writing a traditional gospel song. I don't know who will sing it. Maybe me and Gerald in the living room? We also had a special treat when Maurice sang and Twila accompanied on the piano. We had church in that room!

My next class was about getting critiqued, with Steve Siler and Wayne Haun. It was all about how and when to get critiqued. They talked about how to receive the info you get, and what to do with it after. It was really helpful, and a good preparation for my next class...

My open critique. This is when you sit a room with a group of people and a critiquer (not a word?) and everyone listens to your song and the leader (better word!) gives you feedback on the song. Yes, in front of all those other people! My leader was Rick Shelton, who's a publisher from Daywind, and my song choice was "I am waiting here for you." I was terribly nervous, but I'm really happy I did it. Rick was really positive about the song. He had a few things he suggested that might help tighten the flow of ideas, but overall, his feedback was positive and encouraging. He was really practical, too, because he took the song literally line by line, and gave feedback on each line. He was also impressed when I told him I'd only written about 20 songs, so that was really cool.

Just a few overall things that are coming up in the classes. They are all encouraging us to listen to and study great songs. And many have suggested we study the great American composers of the 20's to 40's, like the Gershwins and Harold Arlen. Baby,I'm already there! One thing I'm having wrap my head around here, is that the focus is on writing a commercially viable song. Something that will get cut by a major artist and can get air-time, perhaps printed in a choral book, etc. We're talking about a faculty of people who make their whole living off the writing and publishing of their songs, so it makes sense that this would be their focus. Still, for someone like me, who has only ever written for myself, this is a really new concept to incorporate.

This evening brought another Alumni Cafe, and Stacey sang a beautiful song called Break Me.

After supper, we had what many people believe to be the highlight of the entire workshop - the Writers in the Round Concert. Each of the clinicians sang one of their own songs, and it was amazing! I couldn't get over the range of songs. There was Steve's very funny "Saul, Saul the Know-it-all". And Marty's epic "Cross Examination", set in a courtroom on judgment Day. Kevin did a Billy Joel-esque song called "Confessions of a Lesser Me", my personal winner for best title. Sue and Chad did a great song called "Broken to Beautiful", inspired by women who've lost their self-confidence due to trials in their lives.

But two songs really stood out for me. One was Belinda Smith's "I don't want my Momma to get old." How many of us can relate to that? It was set in a hospital room, and she is sitting by her mom, waiting for test results. It hit such a deep and personal place for so many of us. Truly wonderful!

The second song to blow my mind was by Joel and Twila, and it's called "Orphans of God". It's just been cut by Avalon. When this song comes out, find it, and buy it. I'm serious. You will want to have this song. In short, it says that we all have pain, but we are all accepted, because there are no orphans of God. I can't really describe it in detail, because I won't do it justice. You know, the last time I spent time with Joel, we were eating deep-fried Twinkies in Nashville. But tonight, I got to see how God is using him to do His work. Just incredible!

We got back to the hotel close to 10 pm. A late night run to Dairy Queen gave us all a little rest. As I'm writing, there is a blues band belting out cover tunes. On my floor, there is a teenage girls' soccer team. They're all nineteen and proud of it.

I'm just praying for sleep.

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