Spotlight

Shining the spotlight on select publications from Robert Sterling, bringing together the music and the stories behind the music.

Crown Him Lord of All

PraiseSong (Hal Leonard) 00118755

CrownHimLord Cover

In September 2012, I accepted a commission from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, in Marietta, Georgia, to arrange “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” (with the tune CORONATION) in recognition of 25 years of service for a trio of its staff members. Among the three was the church’s music pastor, Mark Cottingham, whom I met years before when writing a previous commission, and then later leading a Composer Weekend event with his choir and orchestra at JFBC.

Commissions are scary, pressure-filled things. It isn’t enough that I like what I write. The people commissioning the work must also like it. In this case, I knew the church and its worship style. They have a large, well-trained choir, and a robust orchestra program (under the direction of Brian Hedrick). They wanted an energetic piece that would appeal to a “blended worship” service that included both hymns and praise choruses.

Of course, the CORONATION hymn tune is a standard AAA form. As the arrangement developed, I altered the end of the stanza to emphasize the words “Crown Him Lord of all.” I also thought the music needed a break from the CORONATION tune, so I composed a chorus, using “Crown Him Lord of All” as the hook. This resulted in creating a Verse/Chorus song form. (I had successfully employed this technique before in an arrangement of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” About that same time, Praise & Worship songwriters were rediscovering the power of hymns, and they, too, were writing new choruses for old hymns.)

In this case, the result was a driving, powerhouse anthem that blended the old hymn tune with a new praise chorus. The choral parts are not difficult, though the rhythms may require a little extra attention for choir members challenged by syncopation. The orchestration is what I affectionately call “orchestra rock.” Much the way George Martin did for the Beatles, I wrote a full orchestra around a rhythm section, giving it a lot of power and energy – appropriate for the theme of the hymn.

The anthem was chosen for publication by Hal Leonard (Thank you, Keith Christopher!) and is a favorite for choirs in churches with blended worship services. It has a full orchestration available as well as stereo Performance Trax.

Click HERE for more information and to purchase.

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God is Good

PraiseSong (Hal Leonard Music) 00118977

GodIsGood Cover

Like almost everybody in my generation (and if you have to ask, you’re too young), I am a fan of the band Earth, Wind & Fire. Great grooves. Killer harmonies. Amazing vocals. Stunning arrangements. And one of my favorite songs of theirs is “That’s the Way of the World.” A few years ago, perhaps out of boredom, I found myself wondering if I could write a song built on the basic feel and harmonic progression of that song.

Now before anybody starts shouting, “Burn the plagiarist at the stake,” and heads to the shed to gather kindling, let me point out:
Chord changes and basic grooves are not protected by copyright. If they were, whoever held the copyright on the 1-6m-4-5 progression would control a third of the copyrights in the universe. And whoever held the 1-5-6m-4 progression would own 75% of all Praise and Worship songs.
I knew if anything useful were to come of the exercise, it would need to be a distinctly new song, melodically and lyrically.
For what it’s worth, using one song as a structural launching pad to write another song is not a new thing.

So I set out to see where this exercise might lead.

I wanted the lyrics to be positive because the music felt so positive. I discovered that the scripture “Praise the Lord for He is good. His love endures forever” would sing smoothly as an almost one-note chant over the changes. After that, I began to develop a melody for a verse while simultaneously working on a lyric that focused on all the good things God has done for us. In the end, the verse lyrics became something of an inventory of how God is good to us:

(verse 1)
Every good and every perfect gift,
Every blessing we have known,
All the sweetness in the song of life,
All the mercy we’ve been shown.

I added a new four-bar channel to turn the corner both lyrically and musically towards the chorus. I allowed the chorus to bring home the point of the song:

God is good. He’s so good to us.
Over and over, time and again.
God is good. He’s so good to us.
Always and ever, love without end,
God is good. He’s so good.
I returned the one-note chant as a turn-around between the chorus and the verses. I altered the changes in the chorus somewhat, using chord substitution to create my own bass line. The final words and melody don’t resemble the EWF at all. So, while fans of EWF may recognize the feel of the song, the end result is something new. The song is not your typical choral song, though it is a lot of fun to sing for a soloist with the choir serving as a large background vocal group.

I was pleased when Keith Christopher, editor for Hal Leonard Music’s contemporary choral line, PraiseSong, chose the song for a choral release. I think it’s a good fit for churches with a hip praise band and a small choir that enjoys singing pop styles. The choral demo recording features David Wise as the soloist. David is a monster talent, who not only sang my original demo of the song, but also premiered the challenging role of Timothy Cratchit in my musical, God Bless Us Every One. The arrangement features a unique “board fade” ending, with the instruments gradually diminishing leaving the vocals to end quietly on their own.

Recently, Luke Garrett and I have been in the studio working on his new solo recording, and “God Is Good” is one the tracks on his upcoming project. So, this song that began as a simple exercise to emulate one of the great bands of the 1970s is finding its own way in the 21st century.

Click HERE for more information and to purchase.

The Joyful Sound

(Shawnee Press 35030418)

JoyfulSound Cover

I admit – I’m not much for medleys. Maybe it’s because just about the time you’re settling in to a song, the medley is on to the next tune. Maybe it’s because medleys too often feel like Overtures. Heck, maybe it’s just all the modulations.

And yet, here I am in my very first “Spotlight” blog post featuring a medley. Who says irony is dead?

“The Joyful Sound” was created at the request of a friend, David Basel, then the worship pastor at Brightmoor Christian Church in Novi, Michigan. David had organized a medley of rousing missions-themed hymns and asked me to arrange and orchestrate them for the church’s annual missions flag parade ceremony. The music would be sung as flags representing nations from all around the world were marched into the sanctuary.

The hymns David chose were all evangelical favorites: “Jesus Saves!” “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” Since the whole point of the arrangement was to accompany a procession of flags, we set everything to a steady march tempo. (Having carried a snare drum in marching bands for some eight years in my youth, I know a little something about marches.) The result was a fun, energetic, barnburner of a medley.

As evidence of my own musical snobbery, when I first pitched the medley for publication to Joe Martin at Shawnee Press, I warned him: “This medley is fun, but it might be considered a little bit corny.” As evidence of Joe’s business savvy, he responded: “We love corny.”

“The Joyful Sound” will appeal to people who love (and miss) the traditional hymns. It boldly proclaims the message of the Great Commission, making it a natural selection for a “missions” emphasis service. The choral arrangement is not difficult and won’t require excessive rehearsal time. A full orchestral accompaniment is available, along with pre-recorded Performance Trax.

As a way of saying thanks to my friend, David Basel, and the wonderful people at Brightmoor Christian Church for all the good work they have sent my way in the past few years, I am donating all my arranger royalties from “The Joyful Sound” to Brightmoor. So, I hope they sell a million of ‘em.

Click HERE for more information and to purchase.

Our Father

Harold Flammer (Hal Leonard) 35028103

Our Father by robert sterling Cover

I’m not sure what possessed me to tackle a setting of arguably the most famous scripture passage in the New Testament. And considering that one of the most revered pieces of sacred music the world over is Albert Mallotte’s flawless setting of these very same scripture verses, the idea of writing new music for the Lord’s Prayer seems even more like tilting at windmills.

But nobody ever accused me of shrinking from a futile endeavor.

Honestly, I love the Lord’s Prayer. I use it as a calming meditation in times of stress, which is to say I quote it to myself frequently. What’s more, there is good reason it is called the Model Prayer: It’s perfect. (No surprise.) As a lyricist, I admire the grace and poetic brevity of its words. I suppose it was all but inevitable that one day I found myself trying to do what so many have done before me: Set it to music.

I quickly found the opening line to be a wonderful meditative statement, and chose to repeat it. As I moved into the following lines (Your kingdom come/Your will be done), I chose to make the words “on earth” more specific, breaking it into three specifics that gradually broaden: hearts, lives, and the world.

I set the following passage (Our daily bread & forgiveness of sins) to the same melody, and then returned to the opening statement – because it doesn’t seem to me we can say “holy is your name” too often. The end result was this:


Our Father in heaven, holy is Your name.
Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done
In each heart, in each life in this world, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day that which we need.
And forgive us as we also forgive.

Our Father in heaven, holy is Your name.

Shield us from temptation. Protect us from evil.
Shield us from temptation. Lord, deliver us.
Lord deliver us!

Yours is the kingdom, the power and glory,
Now and forever! Amen. Amen. Amen.

You can see that as the music and text came together, I reshaped the words of the prayer a bit to fit the music. I did this with great trepidation. I am always wary of paraphrasing scripture, especially the spoken words of Jesus. So, after I completed a draft that I was comfortable with, I had my friend, Gene Wilkes, look over the paraphrased text. Gene is a Bible scholar, holds a PhD in New Testament Greek, and is the president of B. H. Carroll Theological Seminary. He would tell me straight away if I had twisted the intent of the original language. Gene liked the paraphrase and found me to be on theological solid ground.

I went to another friend, Sheldon Curry, for input regarding the music. Not only is Sheldon an excellent choral musician and composer, he had done his own setting of the Lord’s Prayer three decades prior. I figured, at the very least, he wouldn’t mock the foolhardiness of my decision to set the text to music. Ever honest, Sheldon pointed out that the piece was too long, largely because my opening musical statement was too drawn out – to the point of sounding a little self-indulgent.

I teach my writing students to not ask for advice unless they are willing to seriously consider what may follow. As much as I hate to admit it, Sheldon was right. The opening statement could be truncated by half and not lose any of its musical impact. And so, it was.

My first completed draft of “Our Father” was completed in September 2007. It wasn’t until 2011 that the piece found a home in the Shawnee Press (Harold Flammer) catalog. The SATB anthem is not difficult to sing and the traditional music setting is appropriate for any service in which the Lord’s Prayer is appropriate: Which is to say – just about any Sunday of the year. The piano accompaniment has a flowing triplet feel. And there is a full orchestration available, along with stereo Performance Trax.

Luke Garrett recently chose to include “Our Father” on his upcoming recording project. And anybody who knows Luke knows he has great taste! So, there’s an endorsement for you.

I hope you’ll give it a look and a listen. Click HERE for more information and to purchase.

Shepherd of the Stars

GlorySound (Hal Leonard) 35028317

Shepherd of the Stars by Robert Sterling cover

Some songs are born with words and music emerging together in a fit of creativity. Others start as a lyric in search of a melody. “Shepherd of the Stars” was neither. Instead, it began as a melody needing words.

Sometimes I like to simply sit at the piano and improvise a chord progression to see where it leads me. In the case of “Shepherd of the Stars,” when I did this, a melody began to emerge right away – a haunting tune that combined simple linear motion with occasional surprising leaps. As is the case with a lot of my songs that begin music-first, the form that surfaced almost immediately was a classic AABA. No song form is as melody-driven as the AABA. If memory serves, the music was basically finished in a few hours time.

But the lyric – well, that was another matter.

I’m a lyricist – a pretty good one, in fact. People have been known to come to me specifically to write lyrics. And yet on several occasions in my career, I have penned complete tunes for which I could not imagine any sort of lyric. (Conversely, I have also written lyrics for which I couldn’t write a decent melody.) “Shepherd of the Stars,” though it wasn’t called that yet, was for the moment an untitled tune with nothing to say. It was half of a song.

I’ve learned that when half of a song is all I can come up with, I need to find a collaborator to help me with the other half. I know a lot of talented lyricists. In this case, I wanted to try an experiment. I knew a guy who was known for writing music, kind of a Big Deal, in fact. But I had noticed this Big Deal musician was totally under-appreciated for his ability to write lyrics. I decided I wanted this guy to take a stab at the words for my lyric-deprived melody.

I wanted Joe Martin.

Joe had published my work at Shawnee Press for some time. We had become friends through years of teaching together at his Composer Symposiums. But we had never written together. In many ways, we are something of a yin and yang. Joe is outgoing. I am more reserved. Joe is a natural performer. I prefer to be behind the scenes. Joe is a world-class pianist and I can barely play chopsticks. Let’s face it: This would be a match made in heaven!

Joe heard the tune and liked it. Because he stays insanely busy, the writing got stretched over more than a year. But it did get written, and Joe did a wonderful job capturing the moodiness of my melody with his words. I did a choral arrangement, to which Joe offered some salient input, and the end result is the anthem you can listen to here. It is useful for advent, epiphany and most general services. I wrote an evocative, lush orchestral accompaniment featuring woodwinds and strings, in addition to the piano accompaniment. You can see more about the choral anthem at HalLeonard.com.

“Shepherd of the Stars” is not ever likely to become a huge choral hit. It is special sort of piece that stands apart from the crowd. I know I will be proud of it for years to come.

One of the hardest tasks in songwriting is to write a lyric for an existing tune that sounds completely natural – inevitable, even. I think Joe nailed it.

Click HERE for more information and to purchase.

Softly & Tenderly

Daybreak Music (Hal Leonard) 00151696

softly and tenderly by robert sterling

Growing up a faithful Texas Southern Baptist, I have attended approximately 100 million worship services in my lifetime. If that number seems high, keep in mind that in addition to Sunday morning church, it also includes Sunday night services, Wednesday night prayer meetings, tent revivals, and youth retreats. So, 100 million is a fairly conservative estimate. At the conclusion of every single one of these services, without fail, an invitation was offered: to either join the church fellowship, accept Jesus into my heart, dedicate my life to missions, rededicate my life to the Lord, or some combination of those options. (In my guilt-ridden teens, I did a lot of rededicating – to the point my wise pastor basically pulled me aside and told me, “You’re covered, Robert.”)

Now – each and every one of these times of invitation was accompanied by an invitational hymn. No exceptions. I can only assume that was an immutable law, written down somewhere in the Southern Baptist Book of How We Do Things, because no time of invitation was ever unaccompanied. Ever. There was always an invitational hymn. Always.

Hands down, the Number One invitation hymn was “Just As I Am.” We sang it so often every stanza was seared into our collective memories. I suspect many Baptist children learned the first stanza while still in their mothers’ wombs. “Just As I Am” has a nice tune and straightforward, heart-felt lyrics. From a purely functional standpoint, I suppose no hymn ever filled the invitational slot any better.

But my preferred invitation hymn was always “Softly and Tenderly.” Written by Will Thompson in 1880, it was only slightly newer than “Just As I Am.” But the words sounded more contemporary, avoiding the archaic use of thee and thy. And its melody was prettier, and less hymn-like. “Softly and Tenderly” sounded more like a real song to me. My mother, a church soloist, was also fond of “Softly and Tenderly.” So much so, that in 1979, when she had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sing with her favorite pianist, Kurt Kaiser, one of the songs she chose was “Softly and Tenderly.” Kurt’s improvised arrangement, made up right on the spot, was a brilliant balance of delicate longing and soulful earnestness.

Last year, I began an orchestral arrangement of “Softly and Tenderly” for my Platinum Orchestra Series. I hadn’t gotten very deep into the orchestration when I began to hear it as a choral piece. In no time, a new vocal arrangement emerged, with the impressionistic orchestration serving as its accompaniment. Though the harmonies are fresh and lush, the choral parts are not at all difficult to sing. The expressive piano accompaniment hints at the cinematic colors hidden in the available orchestration. Though the hymn is typically in 6/8 time, I chose to set in in 6/4 to better elicit a flowing, relaxed performance.

In addition to the obvious use at a time of invitation, “Softly and Tenderly” also fits nicely in a service of commitment and in the Lenten season.

Click HERE for more information and to purchase..