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The Eight Ball in the Corner Pocket
By Jon Nicol - 11/05/2002 - 07:55 PM EST

Not unlike most 18 and 19 year olds, my first year of college was spent pursuing a major in girls with a minor in whatever happened to be taking the place of studying that night: the dollar theater, Denny’s coffee, darts, reruns of “the Simpsons,” Ping-Pong, foosball, cards, shooting pool, etc. By the end of this first year of near-autonomy, my 0.4 GPA only looked good if you suffered from dyslexia. In time, it dawned on me that I was paying over 10 grand to become proficient at hitting plastic balls across green tables and sinking eight balls into corner pockets. (Actually, I think I sunk more cue balls than anything.) But let’s talk about pool for a moment.

Despite the amount time I spent in the Crown College student union, I reached only a level of playing that would most often lose money in a betting situation. I did, however, make it past the level of “slop.” I don’t know what you call it in your neck of the woods, but when someone sinks a random ball as a result of an unplanned shot, we’d call it “slop” (that is, if we were playing with another guy. If a girl made a slop shot, we would tell her, “that was an awesome shot!” and let her take another turn. The things a young heart will do for love…).

In my opinion, a tremendous amount of worship music gets written like “slop” pool: a random shot with only a vague notion of the pocket in which the ball is to be sunk, relying too heavily on luck. Or “inspiration.” Or karma. Or whatever mojo the songwriter is tapping into that day. Don’t get me wrong, inspiration is important. But always keep in mind the “Edisonian” ratio of inspiration to perspiration. A good song may be conceived by inspiration, but it’s born and raised to perfection on sweat.

Though this billiards analogy could be taken a few different directions, I want to focus on the “eight ball in the corner pocket,” i.e. knowing what you’re shooting for and knowing how to sink it. No slop. This is the second self-critiquing question from the Three Rules of Songwriting for Worship: “Does it fit the bag?”

(This article can stand alone, but if you haven't read them yet, feel free to jump back to the first two articles for an overview of the rules, Groovin' in the Bag with Sound Theology, and a more in-depth look at the first rule, Sound Theology: Truth and a Kick in the Teeth.)

The origins of this question, “Does it fit the bag?” came from a music teacher who always wanted us to ask ourselves, “Is what I’m playing fitting in with the style of the music and the demands of the gig?” In other words, I really shouldn’t try a blistering “Van Halen” style finger-tapping solo when I’m playing swing. And throwing a ii-V-I jazz lick into the middle of a Guns-n-Roses tune would probably not fit “the bag.” (I’ve revealed a bit of my eighties heritage. Please know that the therapy has brought me a long way. I no longer wear spandex on stage…)

Hanging with the pool analogy, writing to “fit the bag” is to songwriting what aiming for the pocket is to billiards. Remember that old adage: “If you aim for nothing, you’re bound to hit it.” We’ve all heard songs that hit nothing. Heck, who are we kidding? We’ve all written songs that have hit nothing! After listening to or writing that kind of song, we get a little taste of what the Israelites felt like while wandering around in the desert for 40 years. “Moses, again, why are we only making left turns?”

If we can determine the “bag” for which we’re writing—and make our writing “fit” that bag—our songs have a much better chance at a life beyond our living room walls.

The obvious issue for “fitting the bag” will be the kind of church/congregation for which you are writing and the style of music and worship to which this particular group responds. That’s for you to figure out. Listen to what the congregation listens to. Dissect the music that moves them. Find out what other congregations with similar demographics are doing. Some call this contextualizing. Bottom line: Be a student of the culture of your church or target audience.

This, of course, assumes that you’re writing for a particular church or group. Many of you are simply writing what’s in your heart. That’s great, too. A little of both approaches is probably a good thing. If everything you write is based on what you think people want, you’ll probably stifle your writing and end up sounding three years too late. On the other hand, if you never check out what other people are writing, you could miss a great trend to which you could have contributed much.

I have to admit that when I first began envisioning this article, I thought I would give ideas for writing a song for “this” genre, or “that” style of worship, or “this” particular vein of music. Then reality hit me: You know scads more than I do about the gig or style for which you’re writing. So instead, here are some thoughts to help you make your song deliberate and well aimed, no matter the style or setting.

Is your song vertically or horizontally aimed?

“Vertical” refers to what our finite minds often picture the relationship to be between God and man. God is “up there.” We’re “down here.” Without getting into it too deeply, this analogy is clearly scriptural. Remember, though, that God is not just transcendent—high and lofty, seated upon his throne—but He is also imminent. He is near and desires intimacy with his children. Addressing both of those attributes in worship is fitting and proper and could be considered “vertical:” aimed at God.

Some of you may want to argue with me, but I feel songs that aren’t speaking directly to God or about His attributes can still be “worship songs.” Often these kinds of songs are meant to “edify the body” of believers or connect with the seeker through a story or account of God’s work in humanity. Hence, horizontal—person to person. Let’s do a “for instance” here:

I’m not a big Ray Boltz fan, but he’s written some emotionally moving songs. Going back a few years, he penned a song called “Thank You.” The song told the story of a dream. In this dream, he saw a friend in heaven. People who had been helped in some way by this friend approached him in heaven and told him how his seemingly small contributions changed their lives. “Little things that you had done, sacrifices made, unnoticed on the earth, in heaven now proclaimed.” Though this song is clearly horizontal, God is nonetheless exalted by the message and the emotion of the song.

So decide to whom your song will be directed, and keep it aimed that way throughout.

Who will be “presenting” your song?
When presenting live worship music, you’ve got four distinct possibilities: a choir, an ensemble, a soloist, or the congregation. For the first three, depending on the caliber of the soloist or group, the song can be much more elaborate and complex than one written for congregational use. Of course, this is all relative. If you’re at a church that is fluent with the classic hymns of the faith written over the last four centuries, you are used to complex harmonies and melodies that span over an octave—sometimes in the same measure…

If you’re aiming for the corner pocket of the average congregation, here are two elements to keep in mind: “singability” and predictability.

Singability
If it takes a Sandi Patty or a Mariah Carey or a Larnelle Harris to sing it, save it for the soloist or choir. Quick exercise: try singing “Be Thou My Vision” or “Jesus Loves Me.” “Be Thou My Vision” is more complex than “Jesus Loves Me,” but most people can easily sing these melodies (provided they are played in a comfortable key). Both these melodies are based almost solely on pentatonic (five-note) scales. Pentatonic scales are also called “folk” scales; they’ve been used in music by the common people long before some music theory geek decided to classify them and notate them on five lines.

If you want the congregation to sing your songs, remember who a big part of the congregation is—the average Joe who may love to sing (especially in the shower and in the car), but is not Charlotte Church.

Predictability
I played a newly penned song for the full-time worship leader at my church to get his opinion and input. His reply: “It’s, dare I say, predictable….” I knew exactly what he meant, because that’s what I was aiming for. I wanted to write a song that could be sung even if every demon from audio-visual hell descended on the PowerPoint and video projector. An element of predictability is key to any popular song. If a song continually goes someplace unexpected and never back to the familiar, it won’t be easy to remember or learn.

I have yet to revisit that song to see if it’s “too” predictable. That brings me to important point that I feel I need to make. There’s a fine line between constructive predictability and lazy/elementary/sloppy writing. Let me demonstrate:
Lord, we praise Your Name
We will never be the ________.
You are the great King
We lift our voices and _______.

So if you filled in the blanks with “same” and “sing” respectively, you too can be a lousy songwriter. Let’s face it, we’re all a few lazy moments away from penning a crummy tune that we try to pass off as legit just because it rhymes and it’s “Christian.” For years, too many secular songwriters have been packaging garbage in the silk wrappings of incredibly well written songs. It’s sad that we as Christian songwriters too often settle for wrapping our “pearl of great price” in the songwriting equivalent of a used Kleenex.

That just got way heavier than I intended this article to go, but it needs to be said. I need to hear it. We all need to hear it.

And finally,
Are you “shooting for the hook”?

A good pool player (here again, not me) plans each turn at least two or three shots in advance. He/she may have a choice of several viable shots, but they take the shot that will set up him/her for chance to sink another ball. Each shot is deliberate, purposeful, planned, and focused.

When you’re writing a song, be it a worship song or a song about washing cars, everything in the song needs to point to and support the main idea, which is usually summed up in the lyrical hook. Let me give you an example:

I heard a song on Christian radio a few years ago that made me wonder what the writers were shooting for. The song was sung (and co-penned) by Kathy Troccoli. (Troccoli is an incredible talent with an amazing voice, so this critical look at one of her songs is not to discredit her as an artist by any stretch of the imagination.) The song is called “Parade.” It’s an upbeat praise song with an infectious groove to it. The hook of the song is “Reign on my parade.” It’s a clever metaphor, but the cleverness stops there. The few times I caught this song on the radio, I found myself really grooving with the beginning of the chorus, but scratching my head as the second verse began. Absolutely nothing in either verse sets up an idea of a “parade,” let alone God “reigning on” it. Musically, this song hit the “corner pocket,” no doubt about it. However, the hook felt disconnected. This metaphor didn’t “fit” the rest of the rest of the lyrics. It seems like someone had this great idea for a hook or song title, but it was never developed--only inserted.

“Does your writing fit the bag?” Determine the bag—the purpose, the reason, the motivation for creating a song a certain way. Then make it fit. Always keep the hook in your crosshairs. If you find the verses are developing in a different direction, either scrap the verses or find a new hook. It will help keep you shooting towards the intended pocket. And keep in mind who your audience and presenters are. Know what works for them and write with that in mind. But remember to keep a balance. Leave room for inspiration.

Like I said earlier, if we can determine the “bag” for which we are writing—and make our writing “fit” that bag—our songs have a much better chance at a life beyond our living room walls.

See you next month!
--Jon


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