Porchside Chats: An Interview with RWC’s ‘Dr. Jeff Byers Fellowship for Musicians’ Fellow, Mark Burrows

Mark Burrows is a writer, composer, and educator whose works are published by many major houses.  His choral pieces, musicals, and music education resources top numerous best-seller lists. Mark received his undergraduate degree in music education from Southern Methodist University, and his graduate degree in conducting from Texas Christian University.  He is currently Director of Children’s Ministries at FUMC, Fort Worth and lives in Texas with his wife, Nina, and their two daughters, Emma and Grace.

In 2022, he was awarded the Dr. Jeff Byers Fellowship for Musicians, and we were happy to host him for his one-week residency in August 2023. We caught up with him at the end of his stay to hear about his experience at RWC, his appreciation for Jeff, and the ways in which he hopes to make a positive impact on the world with his music.

1.  You received a 1-week residency at RWC as the first recipient of The Dr. Jeff Byers Fellowship for Musicians. What made you want to apply for the fellowship and what did winning mean to you?  

The thought of getting to spend a week away in solitude, working on a project without all the very real have-tos of life was SO appealing.

At first, I was just so surprised to have received the fellowship. I learned the good news during a particularly busy season and the knowledge that I was going to get to stay in an idyllic setting and write music for a week – it got me through a lot of other busy seasons this past year.

And I have to say it meant, and means, a great deal to me to be connected through this fellowship to Jeff Byers. I’ve heard so many great stories about this loving, generous, kind, talented man. His energy permeates the very walls of this place. I am beyond grateful to the Byers Family for creating this fellowship to honor the memory of their loved one. And I feel humbled and blessed to have been able to spend a week sitting at the desk where Jeff sat.

2. One of the many things we appreciated about your submission was your passion for music not just in how it brings you life, but how it contributes to the care and well-being of others. Can you share a little more about your motivation to compose and write songs?

When I was younger, I guess I kind of thought of music as my way to “make it” in the world. A real turning point for me was when I stopped trying to write music that would “stand the test of time” and simply write for THIS time, for the people and events around me. A musician is supposed to be a good listener. With my own creative work, I try to listen to the world around me. What does the world need? What do people need, and how can I utilize what I do to respond to those needs?

3. When did you first get involved in music? When did you know it was going to be more than just a hobby?

I grew up in a small town in rural West Texas. Music, or any of the arts, as anything other than a hobby really wasn’t on many people’s radar. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my junior year in high school that I came home and told my parents – It’s music. I think I’m supposed to do this.

4. A creative life requires a certain amount of balance. How do you achieve this when working at home, and how was your time at RWC different? 

Wow!!! As different as night and day. At home, I get up every morning at 4:30 am. If I’m lucky, I can get 90 minutes to 2 hours of writing in before it’s time to look to the day ahead – my work as a children’s minister, what I’m going to cook for dinner, and most importantly, being a husband and father.

Here at RWC, I still got up at 4:30, but there was never anything that all-of-a-sudden needed my attention. I was able to keep writing.

5. How did you structure your days here at RWC? Did you create a new routine, or was every day a little different? Did staying in the Granary impact your work?

Yes and yes.

Truth be told, I was a little nervous. I felt a little like the dog who chases after the car and one day catches it, only to wonder, “So NOW what?”

I had always pined for long stretches of uninterrupted time to write. What would I do when I finally had all that time? Would my attention span hold up? Would I have the mental stamina?

So I implemented a routine starting Day One.

My typical day looked like this:

4:30 – Wake up and make coffee

5:00-8:00 – Work – I’m a morning person so this was my most productive time of day for developing new ideas. Mostly sitting at the piano keyboard.

8:00-8:30 – A short break for breakfast, touch base with family.

8:30-11:30 – Work – Developing ideas more, going to the computer and inputting music into Finale ( a notation software)

11:30-12:15 – A short walk (it’s a lot of sitting over a piano or computer so the walking was crucial for my back). Then a snack lunch.

12:15-3:45 – Work. Later in the afternoon I would start to fade, so I made sure to have portions of the project that were at different levels of completion before I even arrived. I would work on the almost-done parts of the project as a way to stay loose and fresh as possible.

4:00-5:30 – Long walk

5:30-6:00 – Journaling

6:00-7:15 — Make dinner and sit.

7:15-8:00 — Tea and read poetry.

8:00 – Lights out. (Again, I’m definitely a morning person!)

Staying in the Granary was great for this quasi-monastic schedule. I was by myself while other writers were in the farmhouse. There’s a fine line between solitude and loneliness, and I’m sure I crossed that line a few times. But I LOVED my time in the Granary and the trade-offs were worth it. For example, I didn’t have to worry so much about quiet hours from 7:00am to 5:00 pm since I was in my own building. I could start playing the piano at 5:00 am and it didn’t disturb anyone else!

6. Our tagline at RWC is “We believe in the power of words,” and the same can absolutely be said for music. Do you feel that your creative work has power and purpose? How does that power manifest itself for you? Why do you create? What is your inspiration? How do you hope to impact others?

That’s a huge question. I guess the main purpose(s) are three “E” words – Encouragement, Empowerment, Empathy. Sometimes (often) something bad will happen to a person or an entire group of people. In those times I’ll find myself saddened, but often angry as well. Now, I could take to social media, go scorched earth and scream. But…

One of the reasons the arts are such an amazing gift is that they offer us constructive, rather than destructive, ways to express our deepest feelings and truest selves. So, when hard things happen, I try not to go into the situation looking for who to hate or blame, but who to LOVE. Who needs love right now, and what can I do through my work to show that love, to empower them, to encourage them to keep going, or simply to help them know they aren’t alone?

7. What advice do you have for other musicians who are interested in a residency?

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I did.

I worried that I was going to be wasteful and disrespectful of the gift if I didn’t come back from RWC with something tangible to show for it.  

Well, what I have to show for my time is not a finished product. That is still a ways off.

BUT I got to spend a whole week digging into ideas. One morning I spent three hours playing the same eight measures over and over trying to find, not simply the first solution, but the BEST solution – something I just wouldn’t have time for otherwise. I got to take steps forward every day and move a project a little further along. I got to sit and hear the sound of my own inner voice. I got to hear (and occasionally write down) new melodies that were often elusive during my normal work schedule. But I couldn’t force them. I had to leave space for them to come. I eased off a little on the inner need to BE PRODUCTIVE, and ideas came.

8. Time for some fun facts! Choose your favorite – or feel free to add a third option: 

Computer / Pen and Notebook

A notebook for sure. I carry a journal with me everywhere I go and feel incomplete without it. I have about 60 journals filled with everything from song lyrics to scripture to soup recipes. And a pencil – I make too many mistakes to be trusted with a pen.

Coffee / Tea

Inside / Outside, but living in Texas makes the summers very challenging for outside time

Morning / Evening

Glass half empty / Glass half full / That depends on what’s in the glass. If it’s cold water, half full. If it’s a glass of venomous spiders…half empty please.

Organized / Messy / Less messy than I appear on the outside

Desk / Comfy Chair

Vinyl Records / Digital Streaming, but only because I don’t need another hobby and if I start collecting vinyl, I’m going to need to find an additional source of income.

Introvert / Extrovert

Something old / Something new / Both. I crave new experiences but need enough tradition in my life to keep me grounded