Mission Improbable: Making Some Gospel Music

It’s been a pretty good week so far, thanks to some recent insights I’ve had about my so-called “work life balance”. I’ve been continuing to take notes on Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto, and I’ve been feeling better about making choices that will allow me to relax and be happier with my pace. Up to now, I’ve always labored under the assumption that I needed to work faster, work harder and be optimally competent because I attributed these qualities with “professionalism” and “success”. I also suspect there is some subtle cultural conditioning going on too; even though my parents didn’t force me to study hard or strive to be successful for its own sake, I nevertheless picked up this value through sheer osmosis. It went without saying. My parents and the extended families all have a very highly-developed sense of mission as well, being involved with the Christian community in Taiwan and other academic pursuits. Although I didn’t follow in their footsteps, the idea that there was a higher authority to which I needed to report to. God? Standards? Ideals? Philosophy? I kept seeking it out, craving some kind of closure, until sometime this past Monday. I have come to the conclusion that I will actually be pretty happy seeking things out, because I have been happy doing this. The rest will take care of itself. This is just one of those life lessons, I think, that every person has to learn for themselves. I’ve been told this over and over by people I love and respect, but you know how it goes: it’s just not the same unless the apple falls on your head.

Having come to a kind of inner peace, my daily routine is starting to come back together after having fallen to frequent travel and a veritable parade of wheezy winter coughs. I have started going to the gym again too; I was happy to see that while my muscles are noticeably flabby, cardiovascular endurance is not as degraded. But something else was missing: with my reacquired sense of personal stability, I felt the need to do something non-routine. Something impossible, or at least relatively unexpected. My sense of creative adventure has returned.

I mentioned this to one of my coffee buddies this morning at Starbucks, looking for a suggestion of something that would be IMPOSSIBLE to do. I like impossible tasks because it’s fun to think of ways to whittle ’em down to the realm of probability, winning the no-win scenario, and so forth. Unfortunately, the first thing she said was “GO TO THE MOON”, and though I instantly started thinking about ways to get there, all of them took a lot of years and a lot of money; visiting the moon will have to wait until I make a bazillion dollars or Southwest starts flying there out of Las Vegas (all my “frequent flyer” miles are with them, you see). So that kind of took the wind out of it. However, on the way out I heard some gospel music playing over the cafe loudspeaker, and thought, “Hey, I should write a gospel song! How hard could that be?” Sure, I can’t play an instrument worth beans, can’t read sheet music, and my experience creating music has been limited to editing stock sources for use in “online webinars” for IBM…but why not?

And so, this will be my amateur project. This should be fun.

The Approach

There’s a favorite line I have from the television show The Unit, which is about a team of special forces operatives. What I like about the show is that it’s about the characters and their mental attitude toward getting things done, not about shooting stuff or knifing people in the dark (though they do that pretty well too). In one episode, the wife of one of the officers is trying to work out a moral dilemma, and another member of The Unit relays some advice that the commander had told him in the past:

If you knew the answer, what would it be?

I like that line a LOT, because it’s tricky and if you can master it, it probably is the way to at least get going on finding the solution. In a lot of cases, there is no wrong way to start, and the solution presents itself only after you start looking for it.

In the case of writing Gospel music, I’m in a similar situation. I have an idea what Gospel music is from movies like The Blues Brothers, the occasional episode of American Idol and Ally McBeal. I once saw a volunteer Gospel group perform at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, trying in vain to raise the roof with a pretty introverted crowd. And because I was raised first as a Presbyterian minister’s son, then later grew up on the campus of a theological seminary with a very LOUD music building, I’ve been exposed to a LOT of hymns. On the seminary, walking to and from the school bus stop I’d hear vocalist singing scales over and over again. And when Grandpa (himself also an ordained minister) gave me a full-sized harmonica that I started to play with, I eventually discovered that it could ONLY play nursery school songs and hymns. Every time I would try to toot out something funky or popular, I would find that I was missing some notes. It turns out that my harmonica was made for the key of C Major, which is the key of practically every hymn played in mainline protestant churches. So that’s what I could play. After a while, I sort of gave it up when I started to crave “bluesy notes” and didn’t know that’s what it was. A few times since then I’d tried to figure out how music “worked”, reading up on harmonic relationships between notes and driving my Mom nuts with questions like, “but where do the notes come from?” Mom liked her notes just the way they were printed on the sheet, she did; my continual questions about the theory and the underlying principles of why some chords sounded “good” and other “ech” didn’t get too far with her. This mystery continued into college, when I asked some guitar players some questions about chords, and they started happily tossing around terms like “Minor 7th” and “Diminished 9th”. When I asked them what the numbers meant, they really couldn’t tell me; they just knew how to look up the fingerings and believed such chords were “cool” in some musical aesthetic sense. I eventually figured out that in common use, these terms are largely descriptive of a certain pattern of notes and are used to reference characteristic features of certain genres of music (jazz, for example). The connection I was looking for was technical and emotional: I wanted to map chords to emotions, transitions, and progressions, because that’s how I hear music.

So that’s what I have to work with: an emphasis “feeling” and the ability to “hear” when something sounds right to me. I have a keyboard and the imprint of 18 years of classical church music shaping my idea of what music sounds like, with more recent exposure to mainstream blues, jazz, and popular music.

The elements of my Gospel song, as far as I can figure them, are something like this:

  • Words There’s usually something about Jesus, The Lord, Praising Him, Sweetness, Grace, Salvation, Mercy, Forgiveness, Having Journeyed, Now Seeing, Getting Shown the Way, Being Led, Seeing the Light, Feeling the Love, and the occasional acknowledgment to Joyful Noisemaking. There’s a little story that goes along with it; the classic progression is being a sinner, down and out, or otherwise depressed, but then POW, Jesus or The Lord steps in and the choir has something to get excited about.

  • Music This is where I’m a little shaky on what to do. Ordinarily I would want to make something original but it’s quite probably that anything I come up with is going to sound like something I’ve heard. Compounding the problem is the fact that I can’t actually play the piano. What I can do, however, is press down keys on the keyboard and work out what the progression might be, mapping my notion of how the song progresses emotionally to choose what I want. Then I can work out the interconnects between each chord later. I know, I know…I am such an engineer. I guess this is a good opportunity to learn how to transcribe notes. When I was a kid I did take some piano lessons, but never could really read sheet music as I just pretended to read, relying instead on memorized finger positions.

  • Vocals I can’t sing either, but I guess if I’m writing a song I’ll have to try. I’ll worry about that later.

  • Song Structure I don’t have one in mind, but what usually seems to happen is that you have a verse that goes on for a while, which leads into a refrain that sets the common theme, and then the song repeats. In popular music, there’s usually some kind of change-up (I think this is called “the bridge”) that is in a different key, but I’ll not worry about that.

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p>So that’s the idea. I think I’ll start with Music first, because I just plugged in the keyboard.

Expectations

I expect this to be fun, and to be educational, that’s it. It will probably result in something that’s very derivative and not very “good”, but it’s an experiment; maybe I’ll luck out. I’m also NOT looking for proper instruction or a methodology to learn “the right way” to do this, which is part of the fun. I have a tendency to get stuck in the “optimal instruction” mindset in the first place, so deliberately approaching music in an ad-hoc fashion might help banish my stiff and unfunky mannerisms. May the Good Lord have mercy on me and show me the way! :-)

» On to Part 2