10 Suggestions for a Songwriting Retreat
A while back, a songwriter friend asked me an intriguing question. It wasn’t invasive, negative, or leading—it was a genuine question. “Do we really need any more worship songs in the world? Do I have anything to contribute, really?” It’s a great question, and the answer is, “Yes!” Even though millions of songs have been written about Christ, his way, and his kingdom, there’s never a point where we reach a cap on how many songs there should be. For writers, even though we write about the same unchanging truths of God, we write them with our own voice and story. And since God loves the praises of his people, he never tires of hearing new songs that edify and magnify him.
Psalm 98:1 says, “O sing to the Lord a new song, For He has done wonderful things.” God’s “wonderful things” are endless, so we have an endless amount of things to write about.
There are several things that keep us from writing new songs—fear, insecurity, laziness, and lack of discipline to name a few. But perhaps the most prevalent, and ironically the easiest to overcome, is simply not carving out time for cowriting. At Austin Stone Worship, we have found that cowriting is one of the things that fuels creativity, builds unity, and always produces the end product: songs.
Cowriting requires intentionality, scheduling, and a whole lot of humility. So, here are 10 suggestions for planning and hosting a songwriting day or retreat.
1. Put it on the calendar
We all know that unless we schedule something, chances are it won’t stumble onto our calendars. Pick a day, or several in a row, and schedule it. At ASW, we try to schedule one to two songwriting retreats a year (that honestly doesn’t seem enough!), and a weekly routine of cowriting with team members. If you don’t put it on the calendar, it won’t happen.
2. Go away
There’s something healthy and good about getting away from the busyness of life. We are constantly bombarded with tweets, messages, emails, alerts, and other digital distractions. The average attention span lasts eight seconds, and usually this is because we are addicted to all of our digital alerts! Songwriting retreats are best when they have an element of “going away.” Whether it’s a day you host at your own house with the internet shut off or slumming at a friend’s cabin in the woods—go away.
3. Invite writers
Not everyone is a writer, and that’s OK. Invite a few people who are sincerely devoted to the discipline of songwriting. A few weeks ago, I invited all of our worship leaders at Austin Stone Worship for a three-day songwriting retreat. It was amazing to have the whole team there, and it was one of the most fruitful and unifying things we’ve done as a team. Every person on our team happens to love writing, but don’t feel discouraged if you only know a few people who love to write. Find the ones that do, and pull them in.
4. Create space
We typically go into the beautiful hill country and set up several rooms for writing in one of our friend’s ranch houses. One room may have a grand piano, another may have a keyboard, while two or three others just have guitars laying around. For creativity to catch like fire, always have spaces available where people can wander in and out, pick up an instrument, and start writing.
5. Start each day with the thing you’re doing
If you’re going to write worship songs to be sung by your church to Jesus, let me give you a quick word of advice. Start by actually worshipping Jesus together! Pick a time and begin by simply praying, worshipping through song, and studying the Scripture. Hands-down, my favorite times during songwriting retreats are the two hours in the mornings we spend reading, singing, and praying.
6. Ditch the schedule
Spontaneity is scary for everyone, but we’ve found that if we just open up the entire day for writing, it’s better than trying to schedule little blocks of “group sessions.” Immediately after worship and prayer, the rest of the day is wide open for cowriting with whomever you find yourself in a room with. When that song is finished or needs to be set down for a while, go for a walk, move around, and find another cowriter to start a song with. We’ve found this sort of non-schedule actually helps foster more songs instead of less.
Too many times, cowriting sessions start with “trying to write a song.” Instead, take some time to listen—to each other, to the Lord, and to His Word. Assume the posture of, “Heaven, speak. I’ll listen.” Before you put a pencil to paper, listen. You might be surprised to hear songs stirring long before you start writing them. Many times, our cowriting starts with thirty minutes of just playing some chords, singing prayers, or singing Psalms straight from the Bible. Something someone prayed in the morning prayer and worship time may turn into a chorus or bridge. A verse of Scripture may stick out from a previous quiet time with the Lord. Listen before you write.
8. Be generous with hospitality
It doesn’t cost a lot of money to show hospitality, so as you plan songwriting days and retreats, don’t forget to show hospitality. Make sure there is no reason to leave the retreat to go get anything! We bring all of our groceries with us to make sure that once we are “away,” we truly are. Make journals for everyone, bring plenty of pens and pencils, bring your people’s favorite drinks and snacks, plan good meals, build a fire pit, laugh a lot. Hospitality goes a long way in fostering togetherness and downplaying competition and insecurity.
9. Use the Word as your template
If worship songs aren’t rooted in the Scriptures, they are flimsy and fickle. They may have the best pop-hook and the catchiest groove, but if they don’t have the gospel in them, who cares!? Songwriters who write for the church have nothing to give their people if they aren’t consumed with the Word of God. Every lyric should flow from the Word of God and be criticized by the Word of God. Start your songwriting retreat by centering on the Word. During our most recent songwriting retreat, we spent the entire time writing on the themes of 1 Peter, as our entire church is in that book for nearly a year. Let it be your guide. It’s the best one you got!
Sounds corny, but trust me. At the end of your songwriting day or retreat, share what’s been written. Typically, we meet together on the last night, sit around a piano with guitars, and take turns singing the songs we wrote. Besides songshare being an absolute blast, it’s also incredibly encouraging. We get to cheer each other on, and applaud the Lord for giving us songs to sing.
There’s room for a billion more songs to be sung to Jesus by his people. I hope these simple and practical suggestions are helpful as you foster a culture of songwriting in your own church.
May heaven speak, and you listen!
Aaron Ivey (@aaronivey) is the Pastor of Worship at The Austin Stone Community Church. Aaron lives in Austin with his wife Jamie, and four children: Cayden, Deacon, Amos and Story.