Students, genres band together in Canyon Worship
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
New songs spring from every nook and cranny of the recording studio at Grand Canyon University. Center for Worship Arts students, usually in groups of two or three, spend long hours together in the facility’s maze of lounges, production areas and isolation rooms working on words and chords and, often, worshiping God together in their work.
But then creativity is confronted by consternation, and one of them will seek out someone to help with a word. Just one word. Or a guitar riff. Or even …
“We went out there and said, ‘Who’s here? Who has hands? Who can clap? You don’t even need hands! Use something else!’” said senior Kristyn Marie, one of the many artists on 2017 Canyon Worship (available on iTunes here.)
The album is a testament to both the talent and the togetherness of a group that has grown so much in its three-plus years, both in size and accomplishments. But it never would have happened – not like this, not this well – without faith in each other, built on their shared faith in God.
“It’s a whole family of people coming together to make things happen. It couldn’t have happened otherwise,” said senior Desiree Aguilar, who has become one of the group’s stalwarts. “It’s a collection of uniqueness, but all unified in God.”
Said sophomore Courtney Welker, “It was a really cool testament to what the body of Christ can do when they’re on the same page. I believe it wholeheartedly because that’s how people are here. They look for other people to help, and everybody’s really willing to give. It’s never a one-person song; it’s never a one-person album.”
What makes this body of work different from its Canyon Worship predecessors is that it explores so many different genres.
“The blend of southern rock, smooth jazz, pop, gospel and Christian worship is as diverse as the musical influences of the students who wrote them,” said Eric Johnson, Manager of the Recording Studio. “But the quality of the album is in the same league as any Christian music movement of the modern era.”
Johnson’s scouting report of some of the 11 songs, a collaborative effort of the students, Johnson, John McJunkin, Chief Engineer and Coordinator of the recording studio, and guest producers Billy Smiley, a core member of White Heart, and Geoff Hunker, founder and lead singer of Satellites & Sirens:
“Keep Prayin’” – “Sounds like something that you would hear while traveling through a southern bayou along the Mississippi River.”
“Never Gonna Give Up” – “Has a groovy disco vibe that is reminiscent of the resurgence of ’80s funk.”
“Plans” – “Explores the technical elements of song structure akin to a musician’s desire to experiment with alternate ways to play instruments.”
“Foot of the Cross” – “Gets gritty with its classic rock ’n’ roll feel and texture.”
“It is You” – “Sounds like a radio tribute to a modern pop ballad.”
“Only You Satisfy” – “Harkens of church revival and thousands of voices in worship to our Lord.”
The diversity of the songs was no accident.
“GCU has done a really good job of that, just letting us express our individual creativity,” Marie said. “We’re not being forced into any mold. We’re allowed to express ourselves and worship in different ways.”
Said Aguilar, “The idea was, ‘Let them write whatever God has on their heart and see what happens.’ That’s what this record is. It’s not one specific genre, it’s not one specific message. It’s every different facet of God’s kingdom displayed in all the different types of music that are on there – because they give us the freedom to do that.”
Aguilar’s “It is You” typifies the way these songs happen. She was working on some song lyrics for a homework assignment when Jessi Sams, another Worship Arts senior, leaned over, saw the words and liked them.
“Let’s noodle around on the guitar and see what happens,” Sams told her.
They wound up in a stairwell, and less than an hour later, they had a song.
“It’s funny how some songs are like that. Sometimes there are songs that you slave through and there are others that just kind of write themselves,” Sams said.
Sams’ experience with her song on the album, “Through It All,” was exactly the opposite. She started it almost a year and a half earlier, while working on a songwriting project for one of her classes.
“I was just going through some stuff and I was observing people around me who also were going through a lot of hard things at that time,” she said. “I hit a point where I just sat down at the piano and started pouring my heart out to God. The point of the song is to highlight God’s faithfulness through all circumstances.”
Sams also sings “Plans,” written by junior Casey Moreno. And here’s where we come to another example of how the student togetherness works.
“The whole process, it was really mind-boggling,” he said. “I started the song out of a guitar riff that I came up with. I thought, ‘Oh, this sounds cool. I have a song project coming up that I need to have some other songs for, so I’ll write some lyrics and have some things that could make a good song.’
“A few of the bands I listen to that have the same style have female vocalists, and so it was like, ‘Oo, a really nice, pretty female vocalist would be great for this. Who would be a good singer?’ The first person who popped into my head was Jessi.”
Marie used something an instructor said – “Anchor us, weak vessels, we’re really nothing without You, God” – to start writing “Anchor Us.”
“I just thought it was a cool line, so I wrote it down,” she said.
She made it the bridge of her song before discovering that it comes from Hebrews 6:19 – “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain.”
Another star of the Worship Arts program is junior Katie Brown, who has two songs on the album, “King of Always” and “Abide with Me.” “King of Always” came from a poem a friend wrote. “Abide with Me” grew out of a class assignment in which she had to turn a hymn into a modern worship song.
Like the other program veterans, Brown has seen the growth.
“We learn so much in a variety of things. I’ve gained so much knowledge that I can apply throughout my life,” she said.
“I feel like in the past two years I’ve grown more than I ever have. I remember back to coming in as a freshman, and I don’t even recognize who I was. It has been such a great growing experience.”
The flip side of that longstanding experience is Welker, who was a 17-year-old freshman when she wrote “The Prodigal’s Lullaby” and, on a whim, submitted it for the album. “The purpose of this song is to remind us that we can trust Him and we can feel His love and He’ll love us more than we’ll ever, ever know,” she said.
Welker does know this: She’s gratified to have her work published and to be in Worship Arts.
“To think that people hear these songs, it’s crazy to me,” she said. “It’s really exciting to be part of a program that’s growing and to be part of a program that’s seeking God and wanting to honor Him in their pursuits and to be going to school with people that have these humble attitudes, that want to be shaped by Christ and have the talent to succeed but are choosing to submit to God and want to glorify Him rather than glorify themselves.”
That’s the culture that has been created in the recording studio since it opened in September 2015. It has become a welcoming place that feels like home for Worship Arts students.
“It’s just not putting your nose to the grindstone, it’s hanging out with your friends and worshipping together and talking about life and your experiences,” Aguilar said. “It’s a really awesome experience to work with these guys and just worship together and experience life together.”
And clap together. Whatever it takes when someone needs a hand.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.