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Creating Church Music: You've Got To Feel It


It's Good Friday, so let's stay with the theme of Easter celebrations. Today, we hear from a woman whose life changed when she volunteered to help plan a simple Easter program for her church in Memphis, Tenn. Earnestine Rodgers Robinson had no musical training, but perhaps by divine intervention, her decision to volunteer actually set her on the path to a career composing classical music.

So as Christians commemorate the death of Christ today, let's hear a bit of her first oratorical, which could be played in a church on this day. This is the title song from "The Crucifixion," which had its world premiere in 1997.


EARNESTINE RODGERS ROBINSON: (Singing) They put on his head a crown of thorns. (Unintelligible). Oh, how they mocked him. They crucified the king of the Jews. They crucified the king of the Jews. They crucified the son of God.

HEADLEE: Ms. Robinson has now written about how her life spanned from the Jim Crow south to Carnegie Hall. Her memoir is called "Driven by Faith: A Memoir of Faith, Family and Finding Purpose," and she joins me now to tell us more about her life.

And welcome to TELL ME MORE.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

HEADLEE: So tell us about that moment when you were, I guess, looking at the passage, John 3:16. That's what you were looking at.

ROBINSON: Yes, yes.

HEADLEE: And the melody first came to you. What was that like?

ROBINSON: Really, I was astonished. I couldn't believe it. I stopped and sat for a while, trying to figure out what was happening to me and why was this happening to me? It was all so strange and, when I couldn't get any understanding as to what was happening to me, I just went on to the next verse, the 17th verse, and planning to read it and the same thing happened. I sang the verse instead of reading it.

Now, I'm completely dumbfounded. I closed my bible and told the children, let's go to the rehearsal and, once I got to the church, I told the musician - I said, you want to know what happened to me? And I sang the melody that I had heard and he said, that's a pretty melody. Why don't you write a song? I said, you don't understand. I don't write music. In fact, I don't even play a musical instrument. I don't know why this was given to me. He said, well, if God has given you two scriptures, I think he can give you a whole song.

HEADLEE: And so you wrote that very first song for your Easter celebration and then more melodies came for you or you sat down to write? What happened then?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I was challenged and, since it was the Easter season, I wanted to write more about his crucifixion. I wanted songs to complement everything in the program and no one could help me. Now, I can write whatever song I want to accompany any poem or narrative or skit and that, I rejoice over.

But I wanted to tell more stories about the passion of Christ and this is what led me to write one song and another song and song after song.

HEADLEE: Until you ended up writing an oritorial called "The Crucifixion."


HEADLEE: And we're going to hear a little bit more of it here. This is a clip of "Hallelujah, Christ Arose."


HEADLEE: Just to explain for those who don't recognize the term oritorial, it's a composition for voices and usually orchestra - it can be piano - that tells a story, a sacred story. It's not staged like an opera, but it's telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, which it sounds like is exactly the vehicle that you needed to tell the story of the crucifixion.

ROBINSON: Yes. At first, I had just a vocal and, after the vocal was performed in Portland, Oregon, the person who conducted it became conducting residence at Carnegie Hall and he called me one day and said, you know, we are going to do a Dr. Martin Luther King commemorative concert at Carnegie Hall and we would like to use your music. I was floored. I could not believe it. Writing the songs, I just wrote them for my church and now they're telling me it's going to be at Carnegie Hall. Of course, I was blown away.

HEADLEE: How do you write the music? Who puts the notes on the page? If you don't read music or play an instrument, how does that actually happen?

ROBINSON: I don't play a musical instrument, but I did learn to read music in high school, so I could read music, but I don't compose that way. I write my material down. I write in the form of a poem or a narrative and then I ask God to give me a melody. I take the story and I feel the story and, as you feel the story, then you want to sing the feeling that you get. You want to sing that out.

And, being a mathematician, I call that balancing an equation. When I can sing out of my mouth what I'm feeling in my spirit and when I can get the two balanced equally, then I know that I have completed this song. You've got to feel it. A song ought to - you ought to be able to hear it and feel it and you ought to be able to read it and feel it and, when the two can come together, then you've got (unintelligible).

HEADLEE: So you must have been listening to music for a good part of your life. What's the benefits or maybe the downside to not having formal musical training?

ROBINSON: Well, I've been asked this before and I say, you know what? I'm free. I'm just writing a song expressing what I feel. It comes out that way, but I'm free. I'm free. I'm not structured, trying to do it a certain way. It just so happened that it came out well because they say I have jazz, I have gospel and I have classical, but I start out to write a song to try to sing what I feel and tell the story. Why, they're really happy for me.

HEADLEE: It almost sounds as though you wouldn't want to get formal musical training at this point, that you wouldn't want to take a composition class.

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I had one of the professors at university because I sing all my music and then, when I have it done, I record it and I arrange all of my music. And he said, you need to come over here and let me show you how to put this down.

HEADLEE: How to write it. How to write the actual notes on the...

ROBINSON: Right. How to put the notes down. And my husband, who was a classical pianist - he told me, you don't want to do that. If you go and do that, you're going to write and sound just like them. Right now, your music is different and you've got something different. Stay on track with that.

HEADLEE: And you wrote - you've written a memoir now about your faith and your family and finding your purpose. Do you feel - I mean, you've been - you've done many things in addition to being a mother and a mathematician. Does it - do you feel as though it ends up that music is your purpose?

ROBINSON: Yes. I definitely think so. But I didn't get the fulfillment from that that I get from writing this music, so I really feel that writing the music is my calling.

HEADLEE: Would you write music that wasn't meant for church, that wasn't inspired by the bible?

ROBINSON: Oh, I have written music that's not meant for church. I wrote a song for my youngest son for a talent show and he won first place. I told him, don't tell anybody your mother wrote it. Just sing it. And that's what he did. He won first place, so I write country gospel. I mean, I write what I feel, whatever I want to write, love ballads, whatever.

HEADLEE: So what is your next piece? What can be expected next from Earnestine Rodgers Robinson?

ROBINSON: I have just completed "The Ten Commandments." I haven't had it orchestrated yet, but I did - I was approached by the conductor that first did it at Carnegie Hall. Now, he wants to do this piece at the Lincoln Center, but I have to have it scored, so that's what my next venture is.

HEADLEE: Earnestine Rodgers Robinson's new book is called "Driven by Faith: A Memoir of Faith, Family and Finding Purpose." She was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Thank you so much and good luck.

ROBINSON: Thank you.


HEADLEE: And now we'd like to offer a correction. On Tuesday's program, we discussed the shadow economy. This includes informal work arrangements, cash only jobs and other economic activity that's beneath the radar. The conversation may have left the impression that Kimberly Hansing was part of the so-called shadow economy. We want to clarify. This is not the case. Our thanks again to Ms. Hansing for sharing her story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.