The Right Time

Our set design team did an incredible job with the stage for the production, "The Right Time", held at our local high school.

Our set design team did an incredible job with the stage for the production, “The Right Time”, held at our local high school.

In music, timing is everything. Well, almost everything.

Now I know there are many other things to get right in any song: pitch relationships, dynamics, stylistic devices and textures, not to mention lyrics.

And you’ve got lots of room to improvise with each of these musical facets. If you hit a note that doesn’t quite work – hey, it was a passing tone, a neighbor note!

Now the listener might hear the mistake or not. But even if they do, the ear will forgive it pretty quickly as you move on through the song.

Timing is another matter. If you blow the timing – a rhythm that is way out of place, or even worse, if you insert unlooked-for pauses in the music – it’s really obvious. Sounds like you hesitated because you didn’t quite remember what came next. It felt like you were a moment away from the whole train coming off the tracks.

I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say a song’s timing is a really big deal.

Timing in life, however, while most of it is out of our control, is an even bigger deal.

The Right Time

This past weekend, my church presented “The Right Time”, our Christmas musical production for 2014. But what does Christmas have to do with timing? Well, quite a lot, it turns out.

At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. …God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6,8)

God’s timing is perfect. He sent Emmanuel (which means, ‘God with us’) at the perfect time in all of human history to teach us Who He is, to invite us into a personal relationship with Him, and to be the sufficient, atoning sacrifice for all who receive Him. Emmanuel, that is, Jesus Christ, is Himself the relational Bridge for sinful man to cross and find the holy, almighty God waiting for him.

That’s the big picture.

But day to day, we will face over and over again challenges that stretch us. From strained and broken relationships to deteriorating health, from financial worries to choices of morality. It gets overwhelming.

And on top of those challenges, we have our own imperfections that slap us around: our impatience, our ambition, our ego. Often, we don’t understand why we have to wait for, well, anything. Or why circumstances invade our lives that we never wanted and always arrive at the worst times.

And the best thing for us to do in the face of each of these life stresses is to step back, take a breath, and remind ourselves of the big picture.

Stepping Back

Working with a guitar student the other day, I was tangibly reminded of the need for gaining perspective when we’re under pressure. My student and I were jamming to a prerecorded rhythm track, a band playing an uptempo 12-bar swing blues. Sometimes he would play lead, sometimes I would. Back and forth.

But I watched him struggle a little, trying very hard to remember patterns to play while at the same time hearing all this music on the recording. It was hard for him to focus on his own playing while he heard this cacophony happening at the same time from the speakers.

I watched as he would start to play, then stop, let out a long slow breath, then start again. At first, he was discouraged. But then, as we talked through the process, he felt more freedom to let the background track keep going and not play while he figured out what to do next. He would mentally ‘step back’ enough to gain perspective, to remember where he was on the neck and think how to proceed.

And that’s exactly what we have to do when challenges come our way. Step back, remember the big picture: there is indeed a God who loves each of us so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus, to come and be ‘God with us’, our Emmanuel. To show us who we are and offer us life in Him. Mercy and grace like we’d never experienced before.

I truly hope that each of you feel refreshed and inspired this Christmas. Step out and find that God’s got your back. And He is inviting you to go deeper with Him.

As always, you can leave your comment below or email steve@casetunes.com with any questions or comments. I look forward to hearing from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

Keeping Track of New Ideas May Require New Ideas

Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?

Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?

If you are even slightly a creative type, you have already come face to face with the challenge of keeping track of new ideas.

The new approach that dawned on you when you were out for a walk, but had left the building by the time you returned.

The plot line or song lyric that made perfect sense while you were trying to get to sleep, then had evaporated in the morning.

The fresh color combination, the on-target illustration, the untried design – all of these were crystal clear in your mind’s eye, but somehow slipped away by the time you needed them.

I know the feeling, you have my sympathy!

New ideas will hit me at almost any time, day or night. I may have been musing on some problem, or writing a new song. Something in my travels will strike me as a great idea for a blog post or an ebook, and I’ll need to write it down before I forget it. Because forget it, I most certainly will.

I’ve tried many systems over the years. All of them are good, but they don’t all work for me. I’ve had to experiment to find what does work for me.

For example, if I am writing a song in my head and get to a point where I need to put it into a tangible form, I’ve got a few choices at my disposal:

  1. I can write it down in music notation, complete with staff, measures, notes and lyrics. This, by the way, is by far the most accurate way to write it down. Music notation is an elegant language developed over more than four centuries by musicians who wanted to do exactly what I’m talking about. Yet, if I don’t have staff paper or computer software, I’ll need to start from scratch, drawing 5 long, parallel lines close to each other to create the staff. Takes practice, and I’ve done it often. It is difficult, however, if the paper I have is not full size. (I know the Gettysburg Address was written on a napkin, but he wasn’t composing music, which I believe is a much more difficult proposition.)
  2. I can record it with the voice recorder on my smartphone. Just needs to be transcribed later.
  3. I can write it using my own symbols and numbers to which I assign specific values and meanings. This has probably been the most helpful to me, come to think of it. I’ll use arabic numerals (1,2,3,4, etc.) for scale tones and roman numerals (I,ii, iii, IV, etc.) to represent chords. I’ll use a long horizontal line with a slash at each end with a number over it to represent a group of measures (looks like a multi-measure rest), along with greater than or less than signs (< >) to indicate relative volumes.

And if it’s not music we’re talking about, just keeping a notepad handy can solve the problem. Grab a stack of smallish notepads from your local drugstore and put one in your car, by your bed, in your coat pocket, in your kitchen, by your computer, by your TV… you get the idea. And make sure you also have a pen or pencil in each location.

So once we’ve got the new idea “committed to paper”, so to speak, what do we do with them? You can stick it in your pocket, as long as you have a deliberate time when you will retrieve it. I charge my smartphone at night, so when I plug it in, I also make sure I go through my pockets for anything else that might be important. Skipping this step will result in finding your song idea at the bottom of the washing machine, an inert lump of shrunken wood pulp.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has his “black box”. During the day, whenever a new idea strikes him, he’ll grab any scrap of paper and write it down, then stick it into his “black box”. At regular intervals (weekly, monthly, yearly) he will go through all of the notes he has collected and file them away topically, ready to use for sermon illustrations. I like this idea, it’s really easy on the front end. But the filing it away takes both discipline and a topical framework within which to put the notes.

I’ve found three software tools that have been working really well for me: Shazam, iTunes, and Evernote

When I listen to songs in the car, I will often run across tunes that inspire me and that I don’t want to forget. A couple of taps on my Shazam app, and the program has identified the song, adding it to a growing list of songs I’ve researched. Then, when I’m at my computer (and not driving!), I’ll pull up the list it saved for me, get on iTunes and inexpensively buy the songs. The last step is to put the downloaded songs into an iTunes playlist that reminds me to come back to it. I use “composing inspiration”, or “gems”, or “Christmas” as playlist names, for example.

For pretty much everything else, I use Evernote on my computers and on my phone. I can type in a note, clip it off the web, send emails to it, even voice-record notes and take photos, all saved as “notes” within the program. To each note, I quickly add a tag, like “lyrics”, ToDo Today”, or “home projects”. Any label you find helpful is fine. Later, you can search for all the notes with a particular tag with no further sorting or filing.

Hope these help you stay on top of the ocean of ideas churning through your brain!

What do you do with new ideas? Have you found a system that works for you?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory and next-step musianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case

Inspiration for Christmas

Piano_Guys

I want to share with you some artists who never fail to inspire me. The Piano Guys regularly post their songs on YouTube, have several albums out, and tour widely. Take a few minutes to enjoy their take on We Three Kings, then poke around on their site.

 

The arrangements are unique, as are the settings for their piano/cello duo. Beautifully done, they not only share their significant musical skill, but they have fun! Makes me want to play with them!

I’ll be back with more thoughts on Next-Step Musicianship next week.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship, please leave your comment below, or email me at steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case

The Gift Behind The Talent

 

I originally posted this in May.  But with Black Friday just a few days away and so much effort being put into gift-buying, I’m thinking this might be a good time to look once again at the gifts we already have – the gifts that can’t be bought, just cultivated.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Potting a plant

[RE-POST] This past week, I wanted to re-pot a plant. It was not doing well, I had not done a very good job of taking care of it.

So I asked my wife, Sue, if she would help me with it.

Now it’s not really that complicated a process. Thing is, I know that if I do it, the poor plant has a chance of surviving. But Sue is great at this stuff, you should see our backyard gardens!

When she does it, the plant will thrive.

Sue is gifted at many things. She is quite a fine musician, an accomplished decorator, a wonderful cook, just to name a few.

And some time ago, she discovered that planting and cultivating flowers was something she enjoyed.

She has gotten quite good at it, and it’s amazing to me! The colors that burst forth all around the outside of our house in the spring are wonderful. And though the colors change, things keep blooming all through the spring, summer and fall! She is talented at gardening.

But what she is really gifted at is making her surroundings beautiful.

Now to her, it just makes sense. She does whatever is necessary to provide the right conditions, the right soil, the right space, the right color combinations, and so on. To me, it is a wonderful mystery!

But that’s how it feels when we do things that align with our talents. To us, our actions don’t seem like a big deal, there’s no mystery, it just makes sense. And it makes us happy.

The Gift That Drives The Musician

For a musician to know if they are talented or not usually depends on other people. If listeners keep hanging around so that you’ll play one more song, that’s a good sign. And if they listen to a few bars and politely excuse themselves from the room, that’s a different sign!

As they work at their craft, musicians will get better. The music will become more cohesive and colorful, with fewer jarring moments than when they started.

Talent doesn’t have much to do with making music at first. But as time and efforts progress, talent is what takes the mechanical and makes it beautiful.

And then the real gift just might shine through. The gift behind the talent that mystically answers why the musician plays might show up. Because the gifted musician not only plays because she can, but she plays so that people might hear and be blessed by the experience.

Sounds pretty altruistic, doesn’t it? What about the musician’s ego? Don’t they play to inflate their sense of self-worth?

Sometimes. But at the heart of it, if a musician’s goal is to create something beautiful, or significant, or worthy, there has to be someone one the other side of it that appreciates its beauty, its significance, its worthiness. The goal of the musician is to bless someone with their art.

Gifts I Am Thankful For

As for me, I am good with music. I love the medium, I really enjoy playing around with song structure, melodies and harmonies, grooves I haven’t tried before. Even writing lyrics. I work at my craft, learning and honing, writing and practicing.

But what drives me to keep creating, in addition to my own need for self-expression, is the joy of getting other people involved in hearing and playing it. Watching their reactions to my music is fun (usually); but having others learn my songs and play or sing them for an audience – what a trip!

And although my pride is involved, if I am to be totally honest with you, the thing I love to do is to encourage people to find joy in life by using their God-given gifts.

One of my favorite things to do is find people with a little ability and a timid heart and bolster their courage as well as build their skills. Then I step back and watch them fly! Time and time again, I’ve watched this happen, and it brings me joy every time.

Sue loves to plant things and watch them grow. That’s what I love to do with people. Get them out of the familiar, limiting confines of whatever pot they’ve been living in, pour in some fresh dirt, supply the water and fresh air – then watch them turn their face up to the sun and thrive.

What Gift Lies Behind Your Talent?

Gift within a gift

You may know already what you’re good at, where your talent lies. But the real gift is being able to use your talent in the service of others. There is great joy in it on both ends! If you haven’t thought about it much, or if you need some ideas on how to benefit others with your talents, here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • Examine your skills – what are you good at and what have you learned to be good at? Can you imagine it as a skill you would employ with someone or for someone?
  • Examine your interests – what medium do you like to work with? Numbers? Music? Conversation? Wood or metal? Are you a talented cook? Do you love to build things? Who would benefit from your knowledge and expertise in this area?
  • What have you had success at in the past? How have others been touched by your efforts? What good things happened when you operated out of your strengths, doing what you have been hard-wired to do?
  • What do others say you are gifted at? And how might you use your talents in new ways? Ask family and friends, they’ll tell you. Make sure you ask people who will tell you the unvarnished truth, however.

How have you found joy in using your gifts to benefit others, in music or something else? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please leave a comment below, or email any questions to steve@casetunes.com.

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© 2014 Steve Case

Charting A Song: How To Write What You Hear

Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.

Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s time for us to be thinking about what we’ll prepare for the feast. The list of favorite dishes has grown over the years, and some are now not just expected, they are highly anticipated (sometimes with threats involved if we don’t make them…) Though they will be made from different ingredients in different kitchens with different types of expertise applied, they all have their place of honor on our Thanksgiving table.

So here’s my analogy for this week: figuring out how to play a song is like sitting down to the feast. Where do I begin? Is there anything new here I don’t want to miss? And will there be enough food to go around? (This last one is never a problem at our house.)

Starting Your Song Chart

To chart the song you want to learn, that is, to write it down as you listen, start by drawing a forward slash for each beat you hear. Group them in however many beats you hear in a repeating fashion. Are you hearing 3 beats in each measure, or 4, or maybe 6? Write 4 measures this way for each line of the song, then leave another space between the big sections of the song.

And by the way, if you’ve never tried charting a song, let me encourage you to go for it. You’ll experience new understanding and enjoyment of songs you’ve heard, with new appreciation for the artistry behind them. With practice, you’ll get better and better at it. It will take some focused time, but yes, you can learn how to do it!

Components in 4s

The components of a song, particularly a pop song, are predictable. Rare are the exceptions. Now a composer can create whatever she wants, she has that freedom. But if she wants her song to be heard and embraced by her audience, she will have to stay within normal boundaries most of the time. We expect it.

Each song has (are you ready?) a beginning, a middle, and an end (not rocket science). And we feel the most natural connection with a song when its smallest components are based on the number 4. 2s, 3s and 6s are frequently used as well, but 4 is the default. Historically, 4 beats in each measure is even referred to as “common time”. 4 beats to a measure, 4 sub-divisions to each beat (sixteenth notes), 4 measures per sung phrase, 4 phrases in a verse.

We like 4. So as we start to listen critically to a song, that is what we’ll expect. Try tapping your foot on each beat in the song, and see if it doesn’t reflect the number 4 in some way.

Though the sections within the song will each be built in 4s, the composer might play with timing somewhat. Just for variety, a measure with only 2 beats might be inserted somewhere to make lyrics or the melody flow better. Or, in order to keep energy ramping up, the start of one section may actually overlap with the last measure or two of the previous section. Like the end of a chorus going into an instrumental, for example. As the vocalist is singing the last word of the chorus, the instrumental begins, ignoring the fact that the chorus still had two measures to go. Makes you feel like the instrumental couldn’t wait to get started.

The Beginning

The song’s intro that provides the first impression, maybe a preview of what will follow. Here we’ll find the key, the tempo, and the mood. Soon, as the lyrics begin in the first verse, we get a peek under the hood at the content of the song. The groove, if it is not already in motion, starts here.

The verse may present the problem to be solved or the circumstance to be celebrated or grieved. It introduces the characters in the play and the direction the vocalist wants to go in the song. Might be a story, an intense emotion, or a situation.

The first line of the verse should draw the listener into the second line, the second into the third, and so on. Short or long, at the end of the verse, the listener is intrigued. Not committed yet, but curious.

The Middle

A segment less often included but quite effective might be placed right after the verse. It has been labeled in recent years, the “Pre-Chorus”. It’s job is to build more tension and more expectation that will be brought to fruition in the Chorus itself. Usually this will be just a couple of phrases, leaving you hanging.

Finally, after all this preparation, we get to the Chorus. The song title is probably in here, along with the hook (the phrase you just have to sing along with). It will answer the question or flesh out what was hinted at earlier. Now it is very clear why the composer wrote this song. The Chorus will typically sound bigger and fuller, with additional instruments and vocals, even an orchestra to add to the layers of sound.

After you’ve listened through the Verse and the Chorus, what you’ll hear next is probably another verse. It will be similar to the first verse, but now with more emotion, more detail, more angst. That takes us into the next Pre-Chorus and Chorus, followed by an instrumental section that helps the listener to emotionally breathe. A Bridge, which is really another verse, might follow that, with its own variations in the chord pattern and lyric cadence. It leads us right into… you guessed it… another Chorus or two.

The End

The last Chorus might get louder at the end, or it might calm down, returning us once again to the reality of our lives. A short instrumental may follow, wrapping up the song. Or it might leave you hanging. The cheap way (in my humble opinion) to end a song is to fade the recording out. Maybe they want to give the impression the party will just go on and on. Or maybe the artist and producer just couldn’t agree on an ending.

Filling In The Blanks

Now that you’ve got all the beats and measures plotted out, it’s time to go back and fill in the chords. Some of my earlier posts on how to figure out the key, on naming intervals, and on how emotion can be crafted within the song may be helpful. Again, with practice and time you can get pretty good at this. And it is my hope that you do!

What has your experience been when you’ve tried to chart a song? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about song charting, rhythm, music theory and next-step musicianship to steve@casetunes.com. And if you’d like to keep up to date with CaseTunes, sign up to receive updates and weekly posts in your email inbox!

© 2014 Steve Case

What’s In Your Closet?

shirt in my closetHere’s a subject I admit I know little about. And yet it affects my ability to lead worship every single time I step onstage. Every Saturday night, you’ll find me once again poking my head into my closet, wondering what to wear for Sunday morning. I’ve learned over the years if I really get stuck (doesn’t happen as often as it used to), I can ask Sue.

“So what do you think, sweetie, does this go with that?”

“Oh, no.”

“How about this one?”

“Probably okay.”

“Well, what about this one?”

“Let me help you, dear.”

Other than jeans, I don’t buy my own clothes anymore. Sue has done a wonderful job stocking my closet with clothes that usually keep me out of trouble.

Dress For The Gig

Before you walk onstage, whatever the venue, you really should have given some attention to how you look. Street clothes are okay if you’re trying to present an “every man” image but they can also communicate apathy. Like you just don’t care about who you’re playing for.

The eye is naturally drawn to both the best-dressed and worst-dressed people in the room. If you’re leading worship and someone else on the team has raised the fashion bar, people in the room may experience tension over who they should focus on. I’m not one to get really worried about it, but I do believe it’s true. Take it up a notch just to be safe. But only one notch.

Dress For The People

Dave, a friend of mine, is a traditional church kind of guy. Enjoys singing hymns, wears his suit and tie every Sunday. When I asked him why at one point, he said dressing more formally was a sign of respect for the people he would see at church. And respecting the people was one of the ways he would show respect to God.

I agree.

Now, I don’t wear a suit and tie unless its a wedding or a funeral. And (fortunately) we hold pretty informal Sunday services at our church. But I still want to respect those I’m around. So I’ll pay attention to how people dress for our services, then I’ll take it up just a little.

Negotiables For Worship Leading

Jeans or khakis? Street clothes or business casual? Collar or no collar? Plaid, stripes, patterns, colors – these all matter because our clothing choices may set up unintentional reflex responses from service attenders.

I used to be oblivious to this, until Mark, an artist friend, informed me.

“How does this look?” I would ask, inviting his response to my choice of shirt and sweater. I think the shirt had a small checked pattern and the sweater had a stripe or two.

“It’s okay with me,” he would say. “But it will drive my wife a little insane.” Not in a good way, either.

Apparently what I wore had been the topic of conversation in their house on at least one previous occasion. Not really the outcome I’m working toward in the services. I have since paid more attention to how I look, and when in doubt, I’ll ask those more knowledgeable than I.

Non-negotiables For Worship Leading

There are some standards of dress that we as worship leaders do need to adhere to. These are about modesty and propriety. I realize that even these standards leave some room for interpretation. We don’t want clothing choices that distract, and that includes, of course too much skin.

Don’t let tops get too low nor skirts too high. The tighter your clothes fit, the more uncomfortable you’ll make some folks. And yet, if they are too baggy, it looks like you don’t care. We don’t want holes where there shouldn’t be holes, and we don’t want to see what’s underneath.

There, I’ve said it. Here come the emails…

And as an acknowledgment of how life is unfair, women will need to think about dressing up one level above the guys. When they wear the same thing, my wife tells me the women look like they have taken less care than the men. This is totally a perception thing, but it will most certainly affect worship leading.

The Heart Of The Matter

Now that I’ve come across way more like my parents than I ever thought I would, let me just say this: at the heart of these decisions is the desire to help people know they are cared for, and their opinion matters. I’m not walking onstage to prove anything or boost my ego. I want to worship God, and He told me to love people. If how I dress onstage impacts them for better or worse, I need to pay attention.

Have you found that what you wear influences the way you are perceived? You can leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about dressing for the gig or next-step musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case