As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.
Previously, he had taught high school choral music in Oakland, California. But when we started working together, Tom Fettke was selling pianos and organs out of a store showroom. When we needed to talk business, I had to call him there.
During the early years when he worked such full-time jobs outside music publishing, he sometimes wrote third shift, between late night and early morning hours. That’s how dedicated he was to his writing. When I met him in the summer of 1975, soon after I became music editor at Lillenas Publishing Company, he had already had a Christmas musical published by Lillenas, Love, Joy, Peace, as well as several anthems.
We hit it off from the beginning. Our ideas and personalities were radically different in many ways, but we were both secure enough to be completely honest with each other. That candid communication has taken us through all the years and all the situations since.
At that point, Lillenas was going through a changing of the guard, and by the late ‘70’s, I was not only director but also in charge of product development. Whenever I had an idea or needed a sounding board, Tom was my first stop.
He and I grew up together in the church music publishing business. Tom has always been a superb composer, arranger, and producer. But what made him unique was his avid interest in the behind-the-scenes aspects of publishing. Most writers only wanted to write—forget the business end. Tom was the opposite. He was insatiably curious about the rest of publishing—product development, marketing, song selection, copyright, and more. Thus he was absolutely invaluable to this young publisher who by now had more than he could possibly handle.
Basically, my 38 years in church music publishing have been more interesting, fun, and fruitful because of my close personal and professional friendship with Tom Fettke.
But he has also had a profound influence on my writing. Coming to Lillenas out of the Conservatory, I brought with me a handful of Christian songs, with original words and music. Tom quickly praised the lyrics but asked to be allowed to do his own musical settings. Thus our relationship as composer and lyricist began early and continued through perhaps 100 songs, give or take. A number of my earlier hymns, still in print, were written at his request.
Tom was and is a perfectionist. He would ask for a lyric to fit certain criteria, or I would offer one I had written, and I could count on the fact that he would call me and name multiple spots he wanted “re-examined”—which meant redone. He forced me to be much tougher on myself in every area of lyric writing, but especially when it came to the singability of my words. I learned that I had to be unflinchingly aware of the flow of the sounds of the words, how easy and natural it was to sing those consonants and vowels to those notes, in that context. If I didn’t iron out those problems before I sent him the lyric, he would force me to address them. Over the years, I came to examine the exact motion of the mouth required to say or sing each sound and each syllable. Could that sound be easily and naturally sung to that pitch, at that tempo, in that context? If not, it had to be replaced, no matter what the sense demanded.
That training in Tom’s school of lyric-writing has proven invaluable in my later years as I’ve focused on hymn writing. Hymn writing is like building a ship in a bottle, with every word having to be exactly right in relation to a long list of criteria—denotation, connotation, singability, meter, rhyme, etc. Anything I know about writing singable lyrics was learned under the tutelage of this dear and very exacting friend.
Thank You, good Lord, for Tom Fettke!