On Writing Songs

I’m not just a novelist.  I’m also a song writer.

In the fifty-four years I’ve been playing guitar, I’ve composed close to two hundred songs,  a rock opera, and three or four musical dramas. While none of my songs have enjoyed wide-spread popularity–most of you aren’t familiar with any of them–I’ve been able to use them in prisons, migrant camps, and even occasionally in churches. Plus on mission trips to England, Wales, Romania, and Australia.

But writing a song is so much different from writing a novel that I decided to share my thoughts on the subject. I’m sure every song writer has his or her own methodology, but I doubt that many song writers can see–uh, hear–exactly what the finished work will be like until they actually get there.

That’s true for me.

I used to write as many as six or seven songs a year, but–since becoming a novelist–the number has dropped to one song every year or two. Not for lack of interest. Or even lack of time.

I believe God has very specific expectations  regarding the use of my talents. So it’s no wonder that I can’t simply wake up one day and say, “I want to write a song today.” Instead, I pray that God will lead me to an idea I can’t ignore. And then I wait. Sometimes many months.

I occasionally come up with a song idea that seems potentially worthwhile, but unless that idea comes to me in the form of a definite first line, I’m not even going to jot it down anywhere, much less try to do something with it.

But if I have a first line, I’m apt to feel that song is something God intends for me to write. I have two directions to go in at that point. I can try to complete the lyrics for the first stanza or I can just start singing that line to myself to see what kind of tune comes to mind. That normally works best once I have at least the rough version of the first stanza, however.

Sometimes I come up with what seems like a fairly catchy tune without much effort. Unlike years long past when I had to struggle to write the melody, note by note by note. I’m not apt to write it down yet, though. I’ve found that if that’s the tune God wants me to use, it’s going to come back to me again the next time I need it. I don’t recall ever having “lost” a tune that way.

But once I have the basic melody I start refining the first stanza lyrics and trying to determine where to go from there.

Many of my songs are based on Scripture, however, and that creates a completely different challenge: phrasing the Scripture my own way without doing the Bible an injustice. I’ll never forget sitting on the living room carpet surrounded with three or four different translations of the Bible and taking a word or phrase from one and something else from another. That was for “Let the Whole Earth Ring,” my rendition of Psalm 100.

Sooner or later I enter what I have of the new song thus far into Personal Composer software, which allows me to print professional looking lead sheets (words, melody, and chords). Then I start singing what I have over and over again, often making the tiniest changes to the lyrics. (See the link at the bottom of this page about the free lead sheets available on my website.)

Writing a whole song is apt to take anywhere from two to four weeks, and there’s no telling how many versions I print from Personal Composer in the process.

But alas! writing the song is actually the easy part. Then I have to LEARN it! That requires me to forget each of the discarded bits and pieces that are

Are you creative with words or music? Or in some other way? I know at least one of you is quite creative as a cook. How about leaving a comment and sharing a bit about your special talent?

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Links you might be interested in:

I’ll be back again on Wednesday. If you’d like to receive my posts by email, go to “Follow Blog via Email” at the upper right.

Best regards,
Roger

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This Older Song Writer’s Ultimate Goal

Hopefully, friends reading the title of this blog will pipe up and say, “You’re not old. At sixty-nine, you have many good years left.” I hope they’re right.

But my outlook on music has changed a lot since I started learning to play guitar during the “folk fad” of the 1960s. After moving away from Norfolk, Virginia, where I belonged to a trio, and becoming a soloist, I continued to take music seriously. Even more seriously than before.

I recall telling someone that I wanted to transfer from my junior college to West Virginia University because traditional folk expert Dr. Patrick Gainer–how many people’s names can you still recall fifty years later?–taught there. But I wanted to major in music.

I didn’t. Go to WVU or major in music. Instead, I majored in English at Frostburg State.

I’d written my first song as a theme song for the trio in Norfolk and I wrote a few more songs in the ensuing years. Folk was on its way out–or at least it was being replaced by “folk rock,” something I wasn’t interested in trying. So what was I to write and perform?

As a Christian, that question wasn’t hard to answer. I would write Christian songs and use them whenever and wherever I could. Over the years I’ve had opportunities to sing in prisons, nursing homes, migrant camps, and even churches. My own church and other churches as well.

I also wrote half a dozen or so musical dramas, four of which were performed one or more times.

Throughout the first twenty or thirty years of my song writing, I had several goals. I was realistic enough to know I would never become a popular, well-known Christian singer myself, but I very badly wanted some of my songs to get published and–who knows?–maybe some popular, well-known Christian singer would use one or more of them.

Do you remember the first Christian youth musical Good News? It was written and compiled by Bob Oldenburg and began an explosion of other youth musicals. I met Bob at the conference center where I was working one summer and actually got to do a couple of songs on closed circuit TV for the youth one week. Bob asked me to send him a copy of that music. He was getting ready to work on his second musical and thought he might be able to use one of my songs.

Wow!

Unfortunately he wasn’t able to. That was just one of many disappointments in trying to get my songs into the hands of someone who saw their value and would make good use of them.

Years later, I chanced to correspond with someone who had a good publishing friend in Nashville. He had me send a CD–okay, I admit it, it was a cassette tape back then–and he forwarded it to his friend. Nothing came of it. Not even useful feedback. Or any kind of feedback at all.

I kept writing and singing wherever I could. I recorded many of my songs at home and gave cassette tapes to friends I thought were non-Christians. The funny things is I had a Jewish friend in Australia who shared those tapes with her American boss. No telling who ended up listening to some of my music.

In 1991 I went on my first mission trip, and I’ve been on numerous other trips since then–to Australia, England, Wales, Romania, and Nicaragua. And I’ve been able to use my music there.

Now I’m pretty much limited to two musical outlets: Singing in our church’s nursing home ministry. I have to give those old folks credit. They love my songs! The other is the youngest children’s choir at church. Their director periodically teaches them one of my songs and I play guitar for them to sing with in church.

I also post many of my recordings on my website, RogerBruner.com.

But what is my ultimate goal? Other than pleasing God, Who I believe is the biggest fan of my songs.

Don’t laugh. Not where I can hear you, anyhow. I would love to have one song–I’m not greedy; one will do–published in the Baptist hymnbook. Or some other hymnbook or collection of songs that are going to be around for a while.

Like many other songs in collections like those, it might not get noticed by a large number of people, but at least it would be “out there” where God could lead the people He wants to use my song to find it.

That way it will become part of the legacy I leave behind.

What about you? Have you pursued a goal that’s slipped further and further away? Have you altered your goal and changed the way you’ve gone about pursuing it? How about sharing in a comment?

~*~

Links you might be interested in:

I’ll be back again on Sunday. If you’d like to receive my posts by email, go to “Follow Blog via Email” at the upper right.

Best regards,
Roger

Ebenezers Coffee House

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 If you didn’t read my post from this past Sunday about our interest in the National Community Church and the Ebenezers Coffee House they own and operate, you might want to go back and do that now.

That’s a fine-looking building in the first two pictures above. You’d never know it was an abandoned crack house at the time Pastor Mark Batterson saw it on his prayer walk around Capitol Hill and felt drawn to it. His church didn’t own any property and–despite years of praying over it–it was a while before God opened the right doors for purchasing and renovating it. For the complete story, I highly recommend one of Mark’s books. I’m currently finishing reading Draw the Circle — The 40 Day Prayer Challenge.

My wife and I had only two time-specific agendas for our long weekend vacation in Washington, D.C. The first was to visit one of the theater-locations of Mark’s church (the church is made up of seven theater locations) on Sunday morning. The other was to visit Ebenezers Coffee House on Saturday night.

We had learned from their website that a local folk singer, Michelle Lockey, would be performing from 7:00 to 8:00 that evening. We took the Metro from our hotel and wasted some time trying to follow the directions from Union Station to Ebenezer; it turned out that the coffee house was much easier to find than the directions indicated. Nonetheless, we arrived in plenty of time to grab a table–as well as a cookie each, plus the Mark Batterson book I mentioned earlier.

We hadn’t been there long when Michelle arrived, toting Taylor guitar and Luna ukelele in gig bags, along with two stands and a box of CDs.

The folks working the coffee house made a brave attempt to set up the sound equipment, which had never failed them before. Unfortunately, it failed this time, so Michelle would have to perform without amplification. I can tell you from my own experience that doing that when you’re not used to singing and playing without a PA is tough, but she was very gracious about it.

She was all set well before 7:00, so I took advantage of the opportunity to introduce myself and tell her jokingly that we had come all the way from Richmond, Virginia, just to hear her. And to explain that was actually partially true. I enjoyed talking with her, but finally returned to our table.

Time for Michelle to start, but there were only a few customers hanging around. Somebody had moved a couple of comfy chairs to maybe five or ten feet directly in front of Michelle, so Kathleen and I took them. Great spot for pictures.

I can’t say enough good about Michelle’s performance. Her songs were terrific, and so was her singing. Although guitar was her primary instrument, she did several songs with her ukelele. I have to admit that gave me a whole new appreciation for ukeleles, which I had never cared much for before.

By the way, that one weird-looking picture–I love it!–was her whistling during part of one song.

After her performance, she was gracious enough to let me share one of my songs with her.

And I learned that Michelle is far more than just a folk singer. She’s also a good song writer and has written music for movies and TV. And she’s won some important awards. Quite a list of accomplishments.

I won’t say anymore except to add that we came home with her four CDs–and they’ve kept playing on our stereo ever since. Check out her website for more information. And to say that Ebenezers Coffee House was everything we expected and more.

What about you? Do you have a favorite place to go and hang out–with or without entertainment? How about sharing a comment?

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I’ll be back again on Sunday. If you’d like to receive my posts by email, go to “Follow Blog via Email” at the upper right.

“On Aging Gracelessly” is only one of my two blogs. I post lyrics of the Christian songs I’ve written over the last fifty years on  “As I Come Singing.” Check it out HERE if you’re interested.  Free lead sheets (tune, words, and chords) are available for many of them. View the list HERE.

If you enjoy my writing, you’ll find a number of things to read on my website. Also music to listen to and music-related videos to watch.

My newest novel, The Devil and Pastor Gus, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Family Christian Stores. Go HERE for links to those places.

Best regards,
Roger

Small World?

If you didn’t like my post about Stan Kesler on Sunday, you’ll probably want to pass on this post. But if you like this one and missed the one about Stan, you’ll definitely want to go back and read it. (That’s the one about “My Favorite In-Law-In-Law”.)

Some years ago I worked—but not closely—with a lady in another department. Her name was Sharon.

I’ll never forget the story I heard her tell.

Sharon was living in Memphis and working as a babysitter for a song writer. She didn’t say who.

One evening she’d come over to babysit. While the song writer was getting ready to go out, somebody rang the doorbell, and Sharon went to answer the door.

Can you imagine her shock when she realized Elvis was standing on the other side of the door? He was dressed in all black with the collar of his shirt flipped up and hair in his eyes.  He’d come to pick up some music .  She made him stand on the front porch while she called her employer to verify that and to get her senses back.  Elvis was so impressed that she’d made him stay on the porch that he invited her to dinner at Graceland.  She was picked up in a pink Cadillac.  After dinner, they looked at photo albums in the music room.

What a special memory.

When I first heard that story, I didn’t hear  the details. But when I met Stan Kesler, I couldn’t help thinking about that story. It never occurred to me that he might have been that song writer, and I didn’t think to ask him. That would have made for a very small world, wouldn’t it?

Today I received confirmation that Stan Kesler, my favorite in-law-in-law, WAS that song writer.

Now I truly believe in this being a small world–and not just because of the Internet.

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Do you have a favorite “small world” story? We’d love to hear it. Just leave a comment.

I’ll be back again on Sunday. If you’d like to receive my posts by email, just go to “Follow Blog via Email” at the upper right.

By the way, “On Aging Gracelessly” isn’t my only blog. I use “As I Come Singing”check it out here—to post lyrics of the Christian songs I’ve written over the last fifty years. Free lead sheets (tune, words, and chords) are available for many of them. Check here to see the list.

Best regards,
Roger