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.