Saturday, December 29, 2007

How I Write - Tommy Walker

Tommy Walker shares insights into how he writes worship songs

As I touched on earlier, I believe the most honest and most helpful method of teaching I can offer in this booklet is to simply describe the process I use in writing a worship song. So, let's get started with a few examples of how songs come to me.

Usually in the morning, following a time of devotions, I'll meditate on one specific thought that has come to me either through the Word or through prayer. Most creative people will tell you they have a specific time of day (or night) when they are the most productive. I suggest that you try to identify the time when you are at your most creative, then make it a point to reserve that time each day just for songwriting. My time happens to be in the morning. I'll pick up my guitar and begin strumming in a musical style that best seems to communicate the thought I'm working with. Then I just begin to worship. I search for a catch phrase [one line], or a "hook," that best describes the thought. If I can find that one line, half the battle is over. Many times the phrase will already be found in scripture.

At this point I'm already starting to think about how I can create music that will enable the average person to sing along and be touched by this one phrase or truth. In other words, I try to keep the melody within an octave and try to keep the rhythmical phrasing of the lyrics consistent and as simple as possible.

When the song starts taking form it's time to ask a couple of important questions. Does the song sound too much like some other song? Is the song too predictable? Even if the answer to these questions is "yes," it isn't necessarily time to give up.

If the song seems to have potential, I'll focus on either changing the melody slightly, changing the rhythm or groove of the song, or both. None of us can escape the fact that frequently a new song is inspired by some other song. There's nothing wrong with that. But when listening to your new song, consciously think about what parts of it sound exactly like the other song, then tweak it so it's different.

For me, this is where the real work usually begins. I've got the basic idea of the music and the lyrical hook of the chorus. Now I have to come up with all the other lyrics that will complete the song. At this point I find it helpful to look up scripture references that go along with the original text or theme, and I'll use my computer thesaurus. My goal is to avoid using the same phrases I used in my last song. This approach always forces me to be creative when writing lyrics.

As I continue getting ideas, I sing and play them into a hand-held digital recorder. I recommend using a small, portable recording device. It's a good way to make sure a fleeting, but great idea doesn't get away. I'm always looking for interesting or new chord progressions that will serve as a fresh sounding bed for the lyrics to rest on. I am also listening for the correct tempo, and the type of groove the drums will play.

When all the basics of the song are in place, when the framework is complete, it's time to listen to it critically. Playing back a song frequently gives me new ideas. Of course there are often times I find myself beginning to dislike what I've done and wondering why I wasted my time. That's when I take a break and come back to the song at a later time. A little time and distance can work wonders for objectivity.

Once I return to a song, if it's pretty much complete and seems to have even a little potential, I play it for a few people whom I can count on for honest feedback. In my case, two of those people include my wife and my pastor. It is extremely important that every writer have an honest, straightforward and objective friend who can serve as a sounding board for new songs, and new song ideas. Ideally it will be someone you can trust; someone you know loves you, someone who wants you to succeed. Of course, it's also a huge plus if your sounding board has a proven ear for a good song. If you're blessed with more than one objective listener, that's even better.

If my new song passes the listening test of my wife and pastor, then I will teach it to the congregation of my church. Most of the time I usually know right away if the song is "the bomb" or just "a bomb." However, I generally try to keep the song in our worship services for two or three weeks in a row. Giving up on a new song too soon might eliminate the opportunity for me to see if it is gradually being accepted and embraced by the congregation.

Tommy Walker has written over forty worship songs that are currently being tracked by CCLI. These include: Mourning Into Dancing, He Knows My Name, That's Why We Praise Him and No Greater Love. Tommy has been the worship Leader at Christian Assembly Church in Los Angeles since 1990. He has produced worship recordings for Integrity Music, Maranatha Music as well as for his church label, Get Down Ministries.

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