What Goes On at a Sovereign Grace Songwriting Retreat?

We had our 10th songwriter retreat this past October. In a previous post I shared some details from our 2010 retreat. Since a couple guys have asked me about these recently, here’s a little more info.

Sovereign Grace is a family of over 90 churches. We’ve been producing albums since around 1984. At first, we were simply getting out songs that Mark Altrogge was writing. Songs like “I Have a Destiny,” “In My Generation,” and “You Sat Down.” We started producing “Song Service Tapes” that went to Sovereign Grace churches and anyone else who was interested. Most of them were recorded in Steve and Vikki Cook’s bedroom. (thank you, Vikki…)

It wasn’t too long before others started contributing songs. After about 17 song service tapes we stepped up the production value and started our Come and Worship series in 1997. We occasionally had songwriters from Sovereign Grace churches submit songs to us, but most were written by Mark, the Cooks, and me. From 1997-2003 we produced 10 Come and Worship albums.

In 2001 I met with 6 songwriters and focused not only on our own writing, but also on developing other writers. Out of that came our songwriter retreats.

Initially, we invited the people in Sovereign Grace churches we knew about who were writing songs. The results were mixed. We’d break up into small groups, each led by Mark, the Cooks, or myself, and invite contributions from everyone in the group. Sometimes the advice would be contradictory. “I love the surprising turns in the melody” vs “People will find that impossible to sing.”  We had a hard time finding the balance between being helpful and being “nice.” We leaned towards letting people work on their own songs rather than encouraging writers to collaborate and maximize their strengths. Some people would get input on a song but had a hard time hearing it any way other than the way they originally wrote it.

I realized we should make the retreats less about training writers and more about actually writing. By 2008 we started inviting our best writers, especially those who had songs on an album or who worked well in a group. We typically include some younger promising writers as well.

Our average retreat is about 20 folks. I shared a lot of the pre-retreat planning in my previous post. In brief, I let the writers know what album(s) we’ll be writing for and give them potential resources (books, messages, articles). Writers are free to post songs before the retreat on a community forum powered by phpBB. People post full songs, half-finished songs, lyrics only, or melodic ideas.

We start on a Wednesday night with dinner, conversation, and prayer. One year I showed portions of “The Pixar Story,” to inspire us towards working as a creative community. The next morning we start with breakfast and a time of worship in song. We then head into the evaluation/writing phase.

Mark, Steve, Vikki, and I sit behind a table (a la American Idol) and give feedback on songs written either before or during the retreat. We have lyrics for each song so we can make notes as the song is performed. We’ll comment on everything we think is strong and everything we think is weak. We’re harder on writers initially than we used to be. Thousands of worship songs are written every year, and we just don’t want to put out more songs that sound like 100 other songs. We don’t always succeed, but that’s our goal. We put a lot of weight on the immediate impact of a song. Sometimes a song, or portion of a song, has a great melody that makes you want to sing. In the past we might encourage a writer to work on the lyrics. Now we’re quicker to direct them to collaborate with someone whose strength is words. That approach has proven much to produce better songs. We typically listen to between 30-40 songs at a retreat. (You can download the full schedule from our last retreat here).

While we’re evaluating songs, everyone else is working on writing by themselves, with someone else, or with a group. It’s not uncommon for two folks to be working on a song and for someone else to show up with ideas that improve it. On Friday night or Saturday morning we start recording basic demos of the songs we think are the best ones. These form the basis of demos we use as we plan for albums. We usually record between 10-15 songs. The time between the retreat and release of an album is about 6-7 months.

If you don’t have a panel of experienced songwriters to evaluate songs, you can still benefit from the input of the people at the retreat. After encouraging what can be encouraged, be ruthless about everything else. It’s good to be clear up front that you want to write great songs, not just good ones. A retreat is the place to be overly nit-picky about things like whether lyrics make sense immediately (they should), whether phrases or melodies are trite or common (they shouldn’t be), whether the song is easy and desirable to sing (it should be), whether verb tenses remain consistent (they should), and whether the song says something biblically true and relevant (it should).

We’ve found the hardest part of songwriting is editing. The longer I write and help others write songs, the more I realize that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to write a great congregational song. No one cares. But you usually know it right away when you hear one. Take the time to write, rewrite, and rewrite again, and the fruit will be well worth the investment or time and labor.(The Cooks and Mark Altrogge recently covered this topic at WorshipGod11. Here’s the MP3 and outline.)

All of this takes work, and a lot of humility. It’s one reason we gather in the mornings for prayer and worship in song. We remind ourselves that we exist for Jesus’ glory, not our own, and that while God doesn’t need more songs to proclaim his greatness in Christ, he delights to give us more. Because in all eternity, there will never be enough.

If you have any other questions or comments about song writing retreats, feel free to leave a comment.


21 Responses to What Goes On at a Sovereign Grace Songwriting Retreat?

  1. Bobby Gilles January 6, 2012 at 4:47 PM #

    Very helpful post, Bob! I’m so thankful for all the resources and the “inside look” you provide.

    On a side note, Kristen and I just watched “The Pixar Story” together the other day, for the same reason you did. I’d highly encourage anyone interested in creative community to watch it as well.

  2. David Santistevan January 6, 2012 at 4:48 PM #

    Thanks for posting this, Bob. This is something that I’m doing more frequently and it’s helpful to hear how you structure it. Who makes the final call on which songs will be included? Is that you or is there a group decision?

    • Bob Kauflin January 6, 2012 at 5:24 PM #

      David, for each album we put together a team of folks who make the final call. Right now that groups includes some of the musicians who play on the album. The songs we record have to get the thumbs up from almost everyone. Sometimes when we’re down to the wire I have to make an executive decision with Steve Cook, but generally the final songs are approved by a group.

  3. Mark Snyder January 6, 2012 at 5:35 PM #

    Hey Bob, thanks for sharing and for the seminar MP3 link. I have taken tons of great stuff from these seminars you guys so freely share. Going to listen now!

  4. Donna January 6, 2012 at 5:39 PM #

    Blessed by all of the hard work and high standards for each song. I continue to pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire songs that will make His name be glorified throughout the earth.

  5. daniel lyle January 6, 2012 at 6:44 PM #

    Hi Bob, I have a question about moving on towards the finished product… My church is going to be recording our first album this spring. We are doing all hymn arrangements. Most of the arrangements will be fresh takes on classic hymns which preserve the original melody and structure of the song. A few of them will be completely new arrangements. The plan is to record this live… I was wondering if you could offer some advice on the process of producing an album recorded in a live context. How does the process differ from a studio production? What are some challenges unique to the process? What suggestions do you have? Are there any knowledge based resources you could direct us towards? Etc… Sorry if this is a little out of context.

    • Bob Kauflin January 6, 2012 at 6:57 PM #

      Hey, Daniel. A few thoughts on a live album in no particular order…

      Plan for plenty of rehearsals in advance where you can not only work on ideas, but get tighter as a band. It’s helpful to be so familiar with the songs that you can enjoy the recording rather than worrying about whether things are going well or not.
      I’d recommend using a click, unless your drummer has never played with one. Really solves the problem of tempo.
      Challenges are related to how good your musicians are. You can fix out of tune vocals somewhat, but not a bad performance. We ended up recording two of the lead vocals from The Gathering over, but all the others were original.
      It can be difficult to get a good congregation sound unless you have a lot of people singing loud. Otherwise, the sound from the front tends to drown them out.
      If you make mistakes that can be heard in the front you may have problems trying to edit them out later. But the advantage of the live recording is the energy and enthusiasm that naturally come through.
      Bleed can be a problem, so make sure your sound isolation is good.
      Depending on the skill of your musicians, I’d concentrate on getting a good performance first, then the emotional epressiveness. Ideally, you want both.
      I’d recommend you email Steve Cook (scook at sovgracemin dot org) who produced The Gathering for us. I’m sure he’ll have better thoughts…

  6. Joshua Blount January 6, 2012 at 7:27 PM #

    I’d be interested to hear about your success rate. How many of the songs produced by this process are breaking into the CCLI top charts? How many songs have legs 1-2 years down the road in the Sovereign Grace family of churches?

    • Bob Kauflin January 6, 2012 at 9:12 PM #

      Josh, as to breaking into the CCLI top charts…I don’t think we’ve ever broken into the CCLI top charts! But that doesn’t keep us from writing. The CCLI charts reflect not only how good a song might be but also how long it’s been around, whose album it’s been on, how it might have been promoted, and a host of other factors, including God wanting a lot of people to sing it! Of course, we wouldn’t complain if more churches were singing our songs, but our aim is to strive to write better songs and these retreats are helping us do that. As for having legs, we’re happy if 3-5 songs on an album are being sung 3 years down the road, and that’s generally been the case.

  7. Chris January 8, 2012 at 1:29 AM #

    This is great – thank you for posting, Bob!

  8. Daniel Lyle January 13, 2012 at 4:47 AM #

    Thanks for your response to my question Bob… It was very helpful! And thanks for referring me to Steve. I really appreciate that!

  9. Lauren Kay January 16, 2012 at 2:07 PM #

    Do you ever collaborate over long distance via the internet?

    • Bob Kauflin January 16, 2012 at 3:33 PM #

      Lauren, absolutely, we’ve collaborated with each other either on Skype or via email.

  10. April April 23, 2012 at 12:10 AM #

    This is really awesome. May God Bless your work.

  11. Brad Dobson January 15, 2013 at 3:04 PM #

    Hi Bob,
    First of all – I attended Aaron Keyes worship school last spring and really enjoyed our video conference with you. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
    Do you allow people outside of the sovereign grace family to attend your retreats? If not, what retreats would you recommend? I have many half written songs and songs that I would like collaboration on. I never seem to get to the finish.

    • Bob Kauflin January 15, 2013 at 4:52 PM #

      Brad, thanks for your encouraging words. Sovereign Grace retreats are just for our writers at this point, and I’m not sure what other options there are. I’d suggest getting with someone in your relational network and collaborating. I’m sure you’ve probably thought of that already… I’d volunteer but have backlog at the moment. Do you write lyrics or tune? Or both?

  12. Brad Dobson January 22, 2013 at 12:03 PM #

    Thanks for your response. I write both lyrics and tunes. I would like to take my songwriting to the next level. I think collaboration would be great, I just haven’t taken that step to approach others yet. Also I am thinking I need some practical instruction as well. Do you know anything about http://www.writeaboutjesus.com/ conferences? I have been to conferences that have song competitions and that doesn’t really appeal to me. If I am going to spend the money I want the event/conference to help move me in the right direction. I see on WorshipGodEast that you have offered courses on Before and After – The Evolution of a Song and What Makes These Songs Great. Thoughts?


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