Canyon Worship Night brings album to life
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Rick D’Elia
GCU News Bureau
To fully appreciate what an accomplishment it was for the student artists to perform their songs so adeptly Thursday at Canyon Worship Night, you have to understand the journey.
It began for many of them when they simply wrote a song for a class.
Then they were awestruck when it was chosen for Canyon Worship 2021, the latest album from Grand Canyon University’s Worship Arts program.
Then they went through the process of recording the song, with the assistance of producers Geoff Hunker and Dave Willey. Talk about an education.
“The fun part is the more you put into a song, you get to see each of the students add things between sessions,” Willey said after Thursday’s performances, the culminating event of GCU’s Day of Giving. “Most of these were turned in as just a vocal or a vocal with guitar. When it starts to click and they get to see their song come alive, now all of a sudden there’s instrumentation and string arrangements and a whole band added.
“It’s cool for us to get to work on the project, but for them to get to see their song really take on a life of its own, it’s fun to watch.”
Then there was the poise they displayed Thursday night for Willey and a receptive audience on the Quad. But Willey did more than just watch the concert. He also played the drums, just as he did for many of the songs on the album.
This was no easy feat – he also had another rehearsal Thursday and had to play the songs from memory, using a cheat sheet to remind himself of spots that might trip him up.
“Fortunately, all of the students bring such personality to the songs, that helps as far as the memorization is concerned because each of them has a unique sound,” he said.
The unique sounds are once again gaining traction on Spotify and other music apps.
Dr. Randall Downs, Worship Arts Coordinator for the College of Theology, said three songs from Canyon Worship 2021 – “Take Up My Cross” by Amanda Riffe, “All I Want” by Madison Russell and “By Grace Through Faith” by Austin Bratton – already have earned more than 150,000 listens in the first month and a half since the album was released.
That’s about half the listens Canyon Worship 2020 received in a full year, and the total listens across five years of these albums is just short of 1 million.
As for Thursday night, Downs said, “It was incredible. The team did such a good job – the backdrop, the stage, the sound.” (See a slideshow here.)
The key word is team. The GCU Recording Studio and Event Services staffs set up the stage and the lighting, and a team from Spiritual Life produced the sound. That was gratifying to Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology.
“It has become a community event,” he said. “You’ve got students who are just trying to express their love for the Lord, they’re trying to encourage one another, and it’s becoming the sort of thing where you have connections to the people who produced the album and the Recording Studio and Spiritual Life teams are involved.”
It was a special day for the College of Theology in another way: It raised $8,460.67, more than any other college, for its programs on Day of Giving. But Hiles wasn’t focused on being No. 1 – the students occupy that spot.
“We’re going to take the money that has been given to us and just hand it off to students,” he said. “In the videos, we asked for prayers as much as money. We said, ‘The students need you to encourage them, support them and certainly pray for them.’ We’re thankful for the small donors who bring their prayers as much as the large donors who bring a lot of money.”
One of the targets for that money is the Center for Worship Arts. That means more resources for what students are doing in the Recording Studio with the help of Hunker and Willey. But Willey doesn’t look at it as a one-way street.
“Very early on, we figured out that we were going to get a lot more out of the experience,” he said. “Instead of just taking a song and doing our thing with it, we’re trying to take the student on a journey of what it looks like to take a song from just a demo to a full recording with full instrumentation.
“It’s more fun if you get to teach along the way. We get to impart what little knowledge we have. We’ve been doing this for a minute, but we didn’t start doing music like this. We had to grow in this ourselves and have had many people along the way who have helped us.”
Willey had another enticing thought about what could happen down the road: He and Hunker also hope they are creating future producers.
“Maybe one of these days somebody will take over for us, and I would love it if it were a student,” he said.
All in all, it was a perfect way to wrap up a day in which 2,092 donors pledged $206,837 overall to GCU programs. Hiles was happy to see students involved in the celebration.
“To be part of Day of Giving, the students now know that they’re part of something that’s bigger than them,” he said. “I’m thrilled to see them in the spotlight for one night where everybody can see the kinds of things that are happening in the classroom.”
And that’s part of the journey, too.
GCU Today: The music of Canyon Worship is all grown up