Interview with Composer Carolyn Kardinal – Part 1
She Writes Soulful Songs
with Words of Grace
An Interview with
Composer Carolyn Kardinal
Watchfire Music Composer Carolyn Kardinal is a prolific writer of sacred songs that have been sung widely in churches throughout the United States and abroad. Carolyn is not only a composer, but she is also a truly gifted lyricist. Her songs possess memorable, “sticky” melodies — they leave you humming the tune long after the song is over — and Carolyn’s lyrics contain ideas and images that take you on journeys of the soul, bringing healing inspiration.
I have enjoyed my many conversations with Carolyn over the last year since she first brought her sheet music catalogue to Watchfire Music. Additionally, I have loved the experience of performing Carolyn’s music. The response to her particular songwriting talent is always immediate and filled with testaments of healing and gratitude. Enjoy reading on as Carolyn shares with us her wisdom and experience as a creative artist in Inspirational music.
JW: What is your earliest impression or memory of music?
CK: I grew up in Seattle, but both my parents’ families were in Southern California where we spent our holidays. I remember sitting in the back seat of the old Ford, passing those long boring miles by singing. And on those cold, drizzly, pre-TV, winter nights in Seattle, I recall everyone sitting around listening to classical records. I’d go dancing around the living room on the fast orchestral pieces, or during those beautiful soprano arias, I would sit staring into the coals of the fireplace.
JW: Was there one defining moment that made you choose music as a profession, or did it happen over time as the sum of many smaller moments?
CK: I studied viola from the time I was eight. All during my high school years I was in All State or All Eastern orchestras, and when I graduated I was awarded Most Outstanding Musician. It never occurred to me to be a performer, but when I had to choose a major at the university, music seemed the logical choice. The little church in our town had no soloist, so I auditioned, got the job, and soloed all the way through college when I got my Music Education degree.
JW: Carolyn, you are prolific in your song writing. How do you approach composition and lyric writing? What is your process? Which comes first for you, the lyrics or the music? Or is there some other process at work that brings them together at the same time?
CK: We live in a world of sound. Kids always have some sort of headset over their ears as they walk down the street, young adults crank up their car stereos, and the rest of us turn on the TV for background noise. But my lyrics, and often the music to accompany them, come from a place deep within where there is no distraction, no other sound. To answer your question, most of the time I begin a song with lyrics, but I have also started with the music and occasionally, both a tthe same time.
Writing lyrics, for me, is a quiet process, one that requires lots of alone time –frequently the thoughts happen at night or when I’m driving in the car. If and when an idea comes to be developed, I spend a lot of time trying to shape the lyrics into a meaningful sculpture…I may change lyrics right up till the last moment when I finally decide the music is ready for the public.
The neat thing about being the lyricist as well as the composer is that if a particular word doesn’t fit, I get to change it without having to get permission from someone else. I don’t usually plan out what I’m going to be writing about (unless someone specifically requests a song on a certain subject). Most of my WFM songs began with a poem that was inspired by a particular spiritual experience years ago.
Recently, I ran out of poems and lyric ideas, so I sat uninterrupted for nearly an entire day, reading Scriptures and spiritual articles, closing my eyes and sifting through the inspiring messages within the readings, and just “getting in the zone”.
In my lap was a pad of paper and a pencil that I usually keep on the nightstand to write down ideas that come in the middle of the night. Out of that kind of session come seeds which grow and develop over time. When the song begins with the music, I may just be sitting and strumming the guitar or improvising at the piano and words will come which “fit” the melody or harmonic structure. The music very often comes with words and vice versa.
Sometimes I can be reading from the Bible, and I’ll find myself singing a passage. It’s all about being open-minded to whatever God wants to give me at the time, and being prepared to be the transparency for the message.
JW: Yes! Being the transparency for the message is, to me, a form of prayer — active prayer — active listening, receiving and responding to divine messages that come in those moments. Along these same lines, what is your definition of creativity? How has it been defined in your artistic process?
CK: Creativity is the receptivity of thought to receive new ideas by allowing communion between you and the cosmic flow or divine Source. Everyone is creative in one way or another. For example, I am always amazed that my son-in-law can fix any broken mechanism with the simplest of materials, i.e. a paper clip, duct tape, etc.
For me, creativity demands quiet contemplation and letting go of all the cacophony and pre-conceived notions that clutter the human mind. In essence, it is “letting go and letting God”.
During my emotional teen years, I frequently took out my viola and played whatever I was feeling at the time – no notes, no plan, no imitating of something I had heard along the way, just pure music emanating from whatever source was stirring my soul at the moment. Without clearing one’s thinking to allow the free flow of new ideas, the music/lyrics become mechanical, artificial, synthesized, and the connection that endears the music to us or makes the words inspirational to others is lost.
JW: Carolyn, you are also a singer. How has this informed your process as a lyricist and composer?
CK: I wish I could say I’ve always been aware of the singability of my songs, but being one of those people with a big voice and a wide range, sometimes I forget that not everyone can sing the same way. My lesson was learned a few years back when I took a voice student to a vocal contest. As we were listening to the judge advise various students, she suddenly and rather unkindly said, “a bad soprano can peel the paint off the walls.” That made me realize that songs must be performed in a range which is pleasing to the listener, and the words must be set in such a way as to be singable and to bring out the richness of their meaning.
JW: I sure do agree — not only the setting of the words, but the key and range of the music is a huge determining factor in communicating the ideas of a song.
CK: As I gain experience as a composer, I’m trying to be more mindful of the following things: 1. vocal ranges without losing the integrity of the melody; 2. distortions that occur in high registers with vowel and consonant production; and 3. the phrasing or breathing places within the piece.
Most recently I have learned to extend my introductions to allow time for the singer to get settled before starting to sing. After all, no one needs a jackrabbit to start to an inspirational piece! I always test my songs by singing them myself before I publish them. Of course, I still like to blast away on those top notes — there’s nothing like a “power” song to bring on the goose bumps.
JW: The goose bump factor is definitely important! Handling a power song with ease and skill takes preparation and experience, which you have a lot of. You have worked as a singer, instrumentalist and of course you are an educator. Please tell us a little about your work as a teacher — you not only teach public elementary school and private piano but you are a voice coach as well.
CK: It is and always has been my greatest joy to encourage students to develop their musicianship by enabling their own creative process and musical skills. During the 25 years I have been in public schools, I have taught general music, orchestra, choir, and served as high school vocal coach for the top choirs at our local high school.
Private teaching is, in a way, an extension of public school teaching for me. It allows for polishing the performer without the massive all school performance productions that are expected 2-3 times a year. Over the past 10 years I have taught private students in voice, piano, and stringed instruments and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.
JW: What are some of the similarities and differences in teaching in these various “venues?”
CK: First of all, performance is all about being the transparency for the music and allowing the spirit of the piece to flow through you as the performer so that the listener may be touched on a more meaningful level. All music students need to be taught the mechanics of sound production, of rhythm, melody, harmony, form, reading music, etc.
Although each of these “venues” has a different way of approaching those mechanics, my entire approach to teaching general music or any instrument includes helping students develop their own “ear” for music, not just decoding and performing something someone else has written, but actually teaching students first to imitate by ear, then to create and improvise their own music.
JW: Your approach sounds so inspiring and creative!
CK: Teaching voice is a bit different, since tone production varies from one individual to the next. The voice coach’s job is a bit more challenging than that of an instrumental teacher, because the efficacy of any suggestion depends upon the student’s perception of their own performance.
Good voice teaching is all about communicating effectively. And that communication greatly depends upon the coach’s skill and understanding of what is present and what is lacking in the student’s voice. Since every one is different, this becomes a learning process not only for student but also for teacher.
JW: I have found that to be true in my experience — both as a student and as a teacher. I have come to believe that the teacher and student must first and foremost have a “soul-connection.” I think that really boils down to what you said — effective communication and understanding between teacher and student.
Carolyn, how does teaching relate to your creative process?
CK: I have learned much from my students, but what is really wonderful is when a novice piano student who isn’t saturated with musical rules creates a piece of music which loosens the fetters of my preconceived concepts of melody, rhythm, harmony, or phrasing. As one of my mentors once said, “In music, there are no rules!” How freeing that concept is!
This concludes of Part 1 of Carolyn’s interview.
HERE AND NOW
by Carolyn Kardinal Right where I am, God is. Heʼs in this very place.
Tenderly, Heʼs holding me in his loving embrace. Where eʼer I go Heʼs with me, blessing me with His grace.
I cannot feel lack or loss when God is ﬁlling all space. I praise and glorify Him; Our God is good alone.
With peace and inspiration He makes His presence known.
God is All, and each moment, I reﬂect all that is His.
Every healing proves here and now is where God is. Right when the senses tell me thereʼs danger, and I should fear,
I turn away and simply say, “I know that God is here.” Each moment is a blessing, whatever may appear.
In the spiritual reality, I am safe in God right here. No guilt-ﬁlled past, no worry-ﬁlled tomorrows,
No fear, no failure, no suffering, no sorrows:
God is here, here and now for all to see
He unfolds Himself as each of us eternally. Neither time nor space, nor age, nor place can betray the rights of man.
No there, no then, but here and now, itʼs our right to understand. I praise and glorify Him; Our God is good alone.
With peace and inspiration He makes His presence known.
God is All, and each moment, I reﬂect all that is His.
Every healing proves here and now is where God is. Right where I am, God is, here and now.
About Carolyn Kardinal
Carolyn Kardinal’s musical roots are planted firmly in classical music, having studied with composer Alexander Lee Frick, a former student of Samuel Barber. She also studied voice with Maestro Franco Iglesias. After obtaining a degree in Music Education, Carolyn began her career as a teacher. She also taught herself guitar and piano, and began writing songs and musical plays for her students to perform.
Eventually combining all of her talents, Carolyn turned to writing sacred songs which she performed and recorded, and has since made numerous CDs. As these CDs were distributed around the country and abroad, Carolyn began receiving reports that her lyrics and music were having a healing effect on many listeners. Performers and audience members alike continue to find her songs to be fresh and inspiring.
Ms. Kardinal makes her home in Gresham, Oregon where she is active as a public school music teacher, a private piano teacher and voice coach.
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Entry filed under: church music, Inspiration, inspirational Music, inspirational Sheet Music, Inspiratus Interviews, Poetry, Spiritual Thinkers. Tags: Alexander Lee Frick, Carolyn Kardinal, Christian Inspirational music, composer, Digital Sheet Music, Digital Sheet Music Store, Hear and Now, inspirational Music, Inspiratus, Julia Wade, lyricist, lyrics, Maestro Franco Iglesias, Samuel Barber, songwriter, songwriting, Watchfire Music, WFM.