Category Archives: Reviews

Coursera Songwriting: A Beginner’s Review

Coursera: Berklee College of Music

Coursera: Berklee College of Music

My wife and I today completed the last assignment in Coursera’s Songwriting course, created in coordination with Berklee College of  Music, and starring Berklee professor Pat Pattison. I would like to offer a brief review from the point of view of a beginning songwriter who aspires to be better.

The Good Parts

Clear Instruction and clearly building topics

I have to admit, I haven’t had a writing class since college. I’ve always had an underlying interest in writing and I appreciate clear, step by step instruction. The class consists of  6 weeks and each week focuses on a particular topic, and includes a series of class videos starring Professor Pattison, a series of quizzes, and a peer-review assignment to see how well you can apply your knowledge. Week one begins with the most basic questions in writing of any kind:

Who is talking?

To whom?


If you can answer these questions, you’re already miles ahead of where you would be otherwise. I find asking these questions will help you find your way through your work without losing your point and your audience. Weeks 2 – 6 add layer upon layer of the technical details of songwriting – how rhymes, numbers of lines, length of lines, phrasing, and melody help create a certain mood in your song. If you can master those skills, you can come up with some truly exceptional music.

Entertaining videos

Maybe it’s my tendency to be sentimental that helps me enjoy watching the videos, but I do truly enjoy watching Professor Pattison explain things. He really does know his topic and is everything you’d expect a rock-n-roll professor to be. Dorky, sarcastic, intellectual, and of course, wearing a leather jacket instead of tweed.

Truly tangible and practical assignments

Every week’s peer-review assignment is completely practical. You’re creating original work almost every week and are learning to analyze it. By the last assignment, you’ve had the opportunity to write several songs in various stages of completion, with at least one complete song by week 6, and you’re able to adjust your existing work to enhance impact.

You get a free sample of Berklee’s full songwriting courses

Professor Pattison and many others teach full 12-week courses online through Berklee College of Music’s online school. The difference is, you pay a substantial amount of money (at the time of this writing, $1,400 per course), and instead of peer review assignments, you get real interaction with a real professor, and can pursue a Master’s Certificate in Songwriting, among other programs.

The Bad Parts

Peer Review Assignments have limited value

Although the course creators obviously make every effort to create peer-review questions that have clear goals, I believe there’s a limited value in having peers who may or may not understand the goals of  the assignments reviewing your work. I found myself scratching my head several times when I would receive a low grade for work I could clearly see met the goals of the assignment. On the other hand, I found that reviewing other peers generally helped me  think more clearly about my work, and the knowledge gained through the videos and simply from doing the assignments has value whether your peers understand it or not. If I’m truly not doing my best work, I’d prefer to have the expert on the topic helping me figure it out, rather than someone who knows just about the same amount as I do, and in some cases considerably less, apparently.

The course only scratches the surface

I guess you could say this about any class, but this course condensed the topic WAY down. Arguably, you could pick up one of Pat Pattison’s books  and may get more out of them, though I think it is fair to say that having some form of interactive assignment helps you learn in a different way than simply reading a book and trying to make yourself follow the assignments inside.


Overall, I loved this course and would recommend it to anyone who’s just starting out as a songwriter. If I were you, I would go to the course page, listed above, and add it to your watch list. I believe they run the class 2-3 times per year. I think I learned plenty, and was able to put out a couple decent songs as a direct result. Once you’re in the class, pay attention to the recommended materials, the song assignments, and keep an eye on due dates so your schedule doesn’t get away from. Once you miss a deadline, you lose points automatically. I already own a copy of Pattison’s book ‘Writing Better Lyrics”, which has chapters corresponding to the course, and I plan to make better use of it going forward.


Books for every worship leader: Walking on Water

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, by Madeleine L'Engle

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, by Madeleine L’Engle

January of 2011, I was in Seattle, Washington for my youngest sister’s wedding. At the time I was in career transition and having just read a couple of books by Dan Allendar, I decided to visit Mars Hill Graduate School and sit in on a class to see if I might have an interest in becoming a professional counselor. The professor was covering “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art” by Madeleine L’Engle (affiliate link). My interest in pursuing study at Mars Hill faded, but the book has remained a source of inspiration for me, to the point that I would recommend it to anyone, but especially to other worship leaders.

I consider it the best, most clearly written work on being a Christian Artist – not to be confused with the watered-down bastardisations that get called “christian art”, “christian literature”, or worst of all “contemporary christian music”. To paraphrase my favorite quote from the book, bad art equals bad theology.

To give fair warning, this book is not written in a very orderly way. “Clearly written” does not mean I walked away knowing they 7 steps to becoming a true Christian Artist. Topics bleed into each other all over the place and sometimes you feel like you’re just having a long conversation. Then again, this is exactly what I love about the book. I’m free to take useful thoughts and apply them at will. I also have to admit, I’m not necessarily a very systematic thinker either. This book is full of inspiration and jumping-off points. I have come back to this book several times since I first read it, and I expect to keep doings so.

This book has helped me start to see a higher vision in leading worship, beyond just leading the Church’s version of a Sunday morning cover band. This book has helped push me and my wife to dream about how we could more effectively lead together, how we could create true works of art in our worship music and worship leading times. I have a clearer vision of myself as a sub-creator – one who creates because I am made in the image of my Creator.

To quote the back cover of the paperback edition:

… as I listen to the silence, I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory. It is what makes me respond to the death of an apple tree, the birth of a puppy, northern lights shaking the sky, by writing stories.

And so I’m excited to know your thoughts too. If you’ve read it, do you agree? Are there other books you would recommend on the topic?

I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Worshiping as Abba’s Child

Abba's Child by Brennan Manning (affiliate link)

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning (affiliate link)

I’ve discovered over the years that my wife is full of good information, but I don’t often listen quickly enough.
I recently started listening to the audio version of Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning (affiliate link), which is one she read in high school.

I’ve been through it twice in the last week now, and I’m sure it’s one I will be going through many times, because I realize that the book speaks to something I clearly don’t live out of easily: my identity as Abba’s child – Daddy’s boy, if you will.

No matter how much I think I’ve taken in the message, I find a hesitancy inside me. The issue, as weird as it sounds in the context of worship, is that I actually don’t love myself very well. I think the idea that finally made it sink in deeper this past week was this: when Jesus tells you to love “the least of these” – i.e., the poor, the unlovable, the broken, etc. – oftentimes the VERY least of these people, and the hardest to really love, is yourself.

I know many people are bound to question the value of self-esteem, which Manning places high value on. Believe me, the negative reviews on Amazon were completely predictable. They denounce it as heresy, humanistic, “New Age”, dangerous, etc. What continues to boggle my mind is how people can be so disconnected from anything that makes them human. These same people consistently tell us to beware of our emotions, as if God screwed up in giving them to us. I see these same types of reviews showing up around any book I’ve found helpful toward bringing emotional healing.

Done ranting for now. Back to the topic…

I’ve noticed something important about self-esteem though. As my wife can attest, I am a very harsh and critical person at times. It may not be obvious on the surface, but I’m actually extremely hard on and critical of myself. I went through counseling and EMDR therapy in the past year and we actually spent a fair amount of time addressing this very issue and I’ve noticed as sharp increase in my ability to be nice to other people and truly love them and accept them right where they are as I’ve been able to love myself and raise my own self-esteem. This shouldn’t be that hard to deal with. After all, part two of what Jesus called the sum of all the law and prophets was to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ve been struck by how inescapable that law is. I don’t know for sure that loving yourself well automatically means you will love others well, but I can say for a fact now that you will never love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself first.

I supposed that’s where I tie this back to leading worship. I haven’t led worship since going through this book yet, but I can feel a difference in my approach to Jesus already. There’s less hesitancy, and more willingness to be really honest with him and with myself. I’m sure there’s more healing to come.

The other part of the book that has struck me is Manning’s focus on the importance of being alone with myself as a regular practice. The truth is, I have to admit, in a very raw place in me, I have to fight a deep, guttural terror when it comes to being truly alone, because that sinful, empty part of myself is pretty sure there’s going to be nothing there. I think Manning called it a form of practical agnosticism. I guess I must not be alone in this terror because most of the negative reviewers also had plenty to say about how worthless meditation and solitude and quiet contemplation are. Anyway, it’s still something for me keep pressing into and working on.

I’ve said all I have to say for now. What about you? Do you think you really love yourself well? Do you really think God loves you like a Daddy loves his child? Really? How would it affect your worship if you did?

What do you really think about Jesus?

Photo by И. Максим

Photo by И. Максим, Creative Commons license

This is probably too obvious to state, but it turns out your view of Jesus shapes how you worship him. I’ve had the benefit of growing up around people who emphasized relationship with Jesus above everything else, and yet I still find subtle ways in which I don’t treat my relationship with Jesus as if it were real. It still sometimes feels like I’m relating to an idea  or a historical figure, not a person I can really know right now.

My wife and I are currently helping to lead a small group, where we’re going through John Eldredge’s “Beautiful Outlaw” (affiliate link). This is not my first time through the book, but I have to admit it has taken several times through to really sink in. It’s like wading into water – it starts out light, almost too shallow, and suddenly you’re in up to your neck. I think the genius of the book is in asking people to step back and consider what they’re reading when they read about Jesus. It took a few times through to appreciate that Christians almost never do this – at least most of them I’ve met. For some reason, people tend to dissect and look for the deeper meaning without considering that they’re reading a real story about a real person. Honestly, you’d be even better off if you would at least read it like you would read a novel and simply take it at face value.

On to the point though. How we think about Jesus matters, and I think it really matters that you remember his humanity. Consider this excerpt from Chapter 5, entitled “The Most Human Face Of All”:

“One of my favorite Christmas meditations comes from this passage by Chesterton (he is speaking of Bethlehem, and what it held in its foothills that fateful night):

The strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.

Savor that passage for a moment. The manger Mary used as a bassinette held something more human than humanity?

Do you think of Jesus as the most human human-being who ever lived? It’s true. The ravages of sin, neglect, abuse, and a thousand addictions have left us all a shadow of what we were meant to be. Jesus is humanity in its truest form. His favorite title for himself was the Son of Man. Not of  God— of man.”

And yet, how often do we think like this in worship time? This seems to be under-emphasized in most of the worship songs I know. This is not to under-emphasize Jesus’ glory, and the fact that he was God and man at the same time, but I think our current culture has swung a little too far in downplaying his humanity, and that fact has deep consequences in our worship. If you don’t believe God actually loved us enough to come down and truly be human – to grow in a womb, be born, go through childhood, and grow into manhood, I’m not sure what we’re doing here. It’s important enough to keep pressing into and contemplating and acting on.

The book goes on to emphasize Jesus’ personality – his playfulness / sense of humor, his fierce intention, his extravagant generosity, disruptive honesty, his scandalous freedom, his cunning, humility, and the one I think I love the most – his trueness. Having covered these topics, Eldredge devotes the rest of the book to what it means to really love Jesus the way he wants to be loved, which as a worship leader, I think is my most important job.

He includes this prayer as a help:

“I renounce every limit I have ever placed on Jesus.

I renounce every limit I have placed on him in my life.

I break all limitations, renounce them, revoke them.

Jesus, forgive me for restraining you in my life.

I give you full permission to be yourself with me. I ask you for you— for the real you.”

He recommends praying that prayer more than once, and I couldn’t agree more. I should be praying it every day, and probably a lot more.

How about you? How do you think of Jesus? Is he near or far? Knowable or unknowable? How do you think he actually wants to be worshiped?