Welcome to an interfaith space

You know what? I’ve evolved in my thinking.

Since writing that last blog post, I’ve come to believe that I’m actually NOT struggling with being an interfaith music minister. I have the best church job and volunteer gig one could hope for with my spiritual profile: I get to make money doing what I love with complete artistic freedom and spiritual connection. That’s not struggling. My struggle is with something else.

My struggle is with talking about it. I struggle with the possibility of being rejected or disbelieved if I say I embrace pagan practice while working as a church musician. 

But as it turns out, I’m not alone. Church musicians are no stranger to the interfaith world – or at least the interdenominational world. Also since last post, I’ve come to meet all sorts of musicians who practice Christianity of one denomination while working in another. Some Jewish vocalists also shared experiences working in Christian churches. Musicians in the Unitarian Universalist tradition also showed up to the conversation. It was heartening to see comments on Facebook from musicians confident to share this kind of balance of duality in their work.

I’m looking forward to a more open conversation with other music ministers, which is really what I’m striving for here. I want to create a conversation space where music ministers can have interfaith conversations. And for that to happen, I can’t be the only one talking.

So if you’re here reading this, welcome! And I’d love to hear more of your experiences. You may end up guest-blogging real quickly. Especially if you have a story to share about being a music minister in an interfaith space.

There’s one rule I want to get out there now: NO PROSTELYTIZING. This is an interfaith space, where all faith systems are equal and valid. We’re here to learn about each other and build understanding. Part of being here is being willing to learn how to navigate an interfaith space, because hardly any of us are raised with the knowledge that such spaces could even exist. It’s okay to be vulnerable here, and willing to learn.

Again, welcome. 

Tagged , , , ,

What does it mean to be an interfaith music minister?

Let me be honest. I struggle.

I struggle with being a pagan working as a music minister in a Christian church. Mostly, I feel very alone. I don’t know of anyone else in a similar position that I can talk with, and it’s frustrating.

When I was younger and mixing with other white, more academic choral directors, the answer to a frustration like this was, “be an actor.” Fake it till you make it. Pretend. You don’t have to be Lutheran to sing a Bach cantata, nor Catholic to sing his B Minor Mass. Heck, Bach himself didn’t have to be Catholic to WRITE the B Minor Mass. Just sing as if you believe in what you’re saying, and that will be enough. The audience will believe you, even if you don’t.

But this can’t be the answer. I am no longer satisfied with singing under pretense.

I have to ask myself what motivates me to do the work I do, what my real intention is with being an interfaith music minister.

First of all, I realize I’m creating this distinction of “interfaith music minister” for myself, because I don’t yet know anyone else describing themselves this way. I do it because making distinctions is an act of will, an act of power that I have cultivated for myself in my pagan practice. And the power I’m creating is balance between directing a church choir and a pagan temple choir. The distinction keeps this balance in focus.

Second, I also realize that the distinction “interfaith” by itself carries a lot of meaning and connotation, and I have to be clear about what I’m expressing with that. In the Christian world, interfaith is a dangerous word, especially in communities that preach an exclusionary gospel, where only cisgender, heterosexual “true” believers go to their idea of heaven. Interfaith conversations do disrupt this picture because, let’s face it — white Christianity has the most political power in the West right now, and white Christians don’t want to lose this power, even though it guarantees their place atop a racist, misogynist, homophobic, exclusionary system. Such power is more important to them than actually living their faith. No wonder the interfaith conversation sounds dangerous.

Fortunately, I don’t work in a church that preaches an exclusionary gospel. When Pastor Susan first hired me years ago, she said “we don’t do hell here,” and it stuck with me. I felt that I could take that as my flag, and feel confident to remain authentic to myself. And the whole church community took that flag too, accepting same-sex marriages and launching racial justice talks. I’ve had a lot to be happy about, being part of this community. It’s because of this that I saw the possibility of having an interfaith conversation with my choir, and I was happy that a first conversation took place, where I actually shared my pagan beliefs and let my singers ask questions.

But that was before the pandemic.

Now that I’ve experienced lockdown, isolation and loss from the pandemic, I’ve had the opportunity to examine — down to the bedrock — my whole career as a musician and my disposition as an interfaith person. What am I actually doing and why? What is my service to the community? What am I communicating?

And I realize that it’s time to start over again — create the distinction “interfaith music minister” from a place of authenticity. That means asking the fundamental question “who am I” and answering it. And since we’re living in a world reeling from social injustices of all kinds, I have to take the question further than I ever have. I can’t just ask who I am artistically. I must ask who am I politically and historically, because the answer to that question shows up more than any other when I’m in community. 

And it shows up in my singing. I can’t deny that. My political, historic, spiritual, and artistic self all show up in my singing and I can no longer be an artist who thinks only a couple of those things are important. They all show forth. No matter if I’m singing in a Christian or pagan setting. I am the same artist in each place, engaging in the interfaith conversation as best I can. This is what being authentic looks like to me.

Doing this work doesn’t alleviate the struggle of being pagan in a Christian world, but it helps me to face it with more confidence, and a stronger sense of identity. And this is an ongoing job, a journey, so this won’t be my last word on it.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

No more Christmas planning in July

It’s late summer, so normally at this time I would be choosing songs for the church choir to sing at Christmas.

Christmas! Can you imagine worrying about that right now? In the middle of the summer we’ve had? My imagination is stretched to the limit. And beyond. And without even thinking about Christmas, because Christmas has been the number one thing NOT on my mind lately.

How can I possibly think about Christmas now?

I used to pride myself on being able to conjure up some Christmas spirit for myself as I would pore over holiday music in the middle of summer. It was a way for me to get excited about the coming choir season. I remember Luther Vandross once said in an interview that he enjoyed recording his Christmas album in the summer, because that was a time he felt compelled to MAKE the Christmas spirit real, and his singing could be all the more authentic.

If I’m being authentic right now, I’d say my concerns are a long way from choir directing; my concerns are about surviving the pandemic, like most typical folks around me. There’s no more room for concerns about choir directing. If anything, choir directing has become something of a threat: The pandemic has rendered singing in groups physically dangerous, and so now I have a deadly weapon in my breath. Meanwhile, the racism pandemic has rendered the classically trained choir director psychically dangerous, a threat to the indigenous, authentic voice we only think we know how to access. I am a typical white Western choral artist, and the patriarchy that upholds the typical white Western choral artist is having its reckoning right now.

I say, bring it on. I’m happy for this.

Earlier in the spring, I had something of an identity crisis, thinking about the future of my profession and what I should be doing. The pandemic has offered some of the most powerful, sweeping answers: Distinguish your identity from your work, and take a critical look at both in terms of your place in humanity and your true will. Yikes! This should be fun.

Which, of course, completely upended my sense of time and space, such that I’m not thinking about Christmas in the summer anymore. Plus, I’m reading Ibrahim Kendi instead of the Episcopal hymnal. I’m setting aside Aristotle for Augusto Boal. I’m throwing out everything I ever believed about my art that made me pretentious, inauthentic, and self-serving. The podium is no longer the pinnacle. There is no more winning, no more striving or competing.


Just recently a voice student of mine said, “There is no competition, because no one can take away what’s yours.” And now I’m constantly thinking about ownership in art – what do I actually own, what do I actually claim as mine, and most importantly, who owns the original? Do I really own my art, or is it appropriated from another culture? Is it authentic, or is it the product of my cultural programming?

More questions keep flowing from these, more questions that strip away pieces of my identity and expose all the PROGRAMS that run me instead.

At the end of the process, I stand like the exposed chassis of an android from space.

This is not supposed to feel good. It’s not supposed to be cool, even though it is. Deprogramming takes away our inner securities. It’s supposed to leave us vulnerable.

Western culture calls conductors to be conquering heroes rather than vulnerable artists, at least in the schools where I was taught. Embrace vulnerability, and you cede power. And it’s all about having power.

But is there no power in vulnerability?

I’d say this is a much better question to focus on right now than, “What Christmas carols do I want to do this year?” Before I do anything with my singers – even just a Zoom call to see how everyone’s doing – I want to make sure I’ve dealt with the right questions, and with my own intentions.

This is a journey.

The Priest and the Witch

Rev. Susan Bock is not just any Episcopal priest. When I met her, she was an alto in the Rackham Symphony Choir with me. She was wonderful to sing with and be around, and I didn’t have to see her behind a pulpit to know what an awesome person she was and what a great friend she would become. 

Then one day she confided in me: she wanted help with the music ministry at her church. She wanted to take it in a new direction, but couldn’t see where. I told her I was interested in sharing ideas and doing what I could. She accepted by inviting me to observe a service at her church. 

Within a few months, I was hired on as music director. I had an interview with her and one of her vestry leaders — who said “That’s okay” as soon as I told her I was a witch.

Yes. I made sure in the hiring interview to let Susan know that I wasn’t Christian, that I had left the church years ago and now practiced as a pagan. My open disclosure of my faith did not prevent my hiring; rather it opened up what was to become an extraordinary relationship with Susan. 

About a week later, Susan called me into her office for a conversation. She wanted to ask me why I left the church. She wanted to know how I came to my present place. She asked, “What happened?” And “How did we hurt you?”

These were the right questions. 

Because she didn’t try to be an apologist or an evangelist, because she wasn’t trying to win me back to the flock, I felt comfortable enough to answer those questions with honesty and integrity. She respected my choice to practice within my own chosen faith system. 

Susan also gave me creative freedom in my work. Even when she was in charge of selecting the music, she would allow me final veto and let me interpret things as I will. It helped that we had similar tastes in music, and we shared the same general ideas for ministering to congregations with music. 

But all the things we had in common we enjoyed because no one let their faith get in the way. 

At one point when I helped Susan get a projector to work, she laughed and said, “Your gods are better than mine.” And I never wore my pentacle to church. Instead, I wore a labyrinth medallion from the Episcopal Church online store — just as much a Goddess symbol as anything. Neither of us promoted our faith in each other’s face. Instead, we shared from the heart. And it brought us closer together as people, which is what spiritual life is supposed to do, if you ask me.

This is only the beginning of the story of how I chose to be an interfaith music minister. 

Sounds of the Spirit – Sacred Sounds and Holy Vibrations

The InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit

All sound is vibration. Vibrations at different frequencies make different sounds or pitches. And this week, we experienced the different frequencies on which faith traditions call out to or praise God.

Under the roof of Christ Church Cranbrook, which Rev. Dr. Bill Danaher said was meant to be a house of prayer for all people, we came together in music to share the beauty and meaning of our sacred sounds.

“We can build a community, woven together by empathy, love, compassion, and justice,” said Rev. Dr. Danaher. “When we are engaging in musical offerings, we are pulling them together. Music is meant to pull us together.”

Christopher Wells, the Music Director and Organist at Christ Church Cranbrook helped us understand the mechanism by which the pipe organ creates sound. A wind instrument, originally provided with air manually by bellows, and now electrically, it is played at a console containing 1…

View original post 731 more words

Vocal Warm-Ups You Can Do In The Car

If you’re a singer on your way to a voice lesson, rehearsal, or audition, it’s always good to do a bit of warming up in the car, because there are few things more annoying to music directors than singers wasting time complaining that they’re not warmed up yet when there’s real work to be done, such as theater scenes, big solos and such. It’s especially important to arrive warmed up if you have a voice lesson that’s less than an hour long, because one can easily spend 15 minutes just doing voice exercises, leaving little time to rehearse music.

But the thing about warming up in the car is that there’s always the risk of driving distracted, especially if you have your car stereo or iPod playing. So what kinds of things can you do?

First of all, turn off the music so that your mind can be focused. If you can sing warm-ups to an accompaniment track in the car without getting distracted, God Bless You, but your risk of distraction goes up tremendously. Besides, quickie warm-ups are more about how the voice feels than how it sounds. Sometimes you can start singing full-bore in the car to your favorite song and end up over-working your voice because your attention was divided–it’s easier to ignore your voice if more than 60% of your attention is on the road and you let a recording string your voice along. Then when you get to the studio or rehearsal hall, you’re already half-exhausted.

So there needs to be a balance. The focus should be on feeling loose, free, open, and ready to go when the downbeat comes, and here are some easy exercises to get there:

  1. Shoulder shrugs and circles. Start loosening and relaxing the shoulders and upper torso. A lot of us drive scrunched up over our steering wheels, which isn’t good. You want your torso to feel like it’s in singing mode–open, comfortably high, and relaxed.
  2. Lip trills. Make a motorboat sound with your lips, with and without phonating. Glide the pitch up and down.
  3. Big facial expressions. Do an exaggerated yawn, smile, or other expression to loosen up facial muscles.
  4. Hum and chew. Do these simultaneously. It helps to loosen up the jaw and get you relaxed while phonating.
  5. Breathing. Start to feel the breath low. Obviously, sitting in a car is not conducive to good breathing for singing, but if you’ve spent a little time loosening up, take a moment to just feel where the breath is. Take a few conscious breaths with focus on your abdomen.
  6. Sirens and sighs. Gentle glides on “oo” or your vowel of choice, starting in the head voice and gently sliding down to the lower range, will help to wake up the larynx and get it ready for singing. Do some descending glides first, then follow with some sirens–starting low and gliding up and over the top before coming down again. Feel the resonance in the “mask” or the third-eye area, and get present to it as you sing. Keep the facial muscles and jaw relaxed. It doesn’t need to be crazy-loud, just smooth and easy.

If you have a good chance to do some singing singing at this point, feel free to do so, but within your observable constraints. By the time you get to your destination, you should feel opened up and ready to sing for real and make your music director very pleased with you.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The next difference makers need to step up NOW.

I’m writing this on Martin Luther King day, but this applies to any day, of course. This just happens to be the now-moment in which I’m committing this to typed words.

If you’ve ever had the thought of making a difference in the world on the size and scale of what Dr. King had done in his lifetime, the time to do it is now.

If you’ve ever had the desire to create something that speaks love and peace to the world, whether it’s in art, science, politics, business, or whatever professional sphere you find yourself in, the time to do it is now.

If you’ve wanted to make a difference socially, whether it’s in your community, in the schools, in your house of worship, or even just in your own family, the time to do it is now.

If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of being the next Martin Luther King, the next Gandhi, the next Mandela, the time is now.

If you’ve wanted to get over your fears, your self-hatred, your doubts, or your ego, the time to do it is yesterday.

You’ve waited long enough for this.

And I’m going to speak directly to musicians: If you are inspired by your art and want to excel not just in making good music but in making good music make a difference, the time to do it is now.

And I will elaborate by saying: You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be cute. You don’t have to have an image or identity. In fact, let those things go. Just dig into your art and crank it out.

I’m currently reading a biography of Bob Dylan, who is revered as a songster not because he had the qualities of an American Idol, but because his music made a difference for people.

You may not like his voice, but listen to what he’s saying and you will hear why his music speaks.

Now is your time to say something. Now is MY time to say something, and I’m busy in my home studio writing it right now.

I can’t wait to see and hear what the inspired people have come up with at this unique point in history.

And let me speak specifically to people in my demographic, women over 35, because this is something that motivates me and I don’t want to keep it to myself:

Now is the time to live your epic life. Reject every notion that society will not market you, or market to you. That is not your identity. That is not your art. Live an epic life, such that when Hollywood gets around to writing your biopic, they will have to confront the fact that you are a woman over 35 who moved the world. They will be forced to cast a powerful, over-35 actress to play your role.

And she will shine BECAUSE YOU DO.

I reiterate: Here we are! At the beginning of 2017 we are standing at a precipice in history, and a lot of us are afraid. We still have racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia and climate change. Don’t like those things? Do something.

Martin Luther King did something, but today isn’t important because of what he did; it’s important because of what we are about to do.


Back to Breath, or whatever that most fundamental thing is

If you do only one thing for your voice today, breathe.

Breathe, which is the same one thing I would advise for your soul, body, or mind, if I had anything to say about those things.

Relating to the breath powerfully makes so many things possible, it’s useless for me to explain. It seems the wisdom is everywhere. And yet, not.

I’m reminded of Detroit Red Wing Dylan Larkin, who so impressed the hockey world with his debut game in the NHL in 2015 that the press wanted to know what his secret was right there in the locker room after that game.

He told them that when he struggles on the ice, and he’s not passing, shooting, or scoring enough, he returns to his most fundamental skill: “Skate as hard as I can.”

That really stuck with me. It made me think there’s got to be an analogy for this wisdom in every profession, including music. What is that most basic thing? What fundamental thing do you return to when you struggle for peak performance?

For singers, it’s got to be breathing.

Countless challenges in singing can be dealt with by first monitoring the breath. Go to the seat of your breath and ask questions. Is the breath free? Am I holding tension somewhere it shouldn’t be? How low am I feeling it in the torso? Am I putting restriction anywhere in the vocal tract?

Do I even know what a good singing breath should feel like?

Monitor the breath not just while singing, but whenever you think of it. Deal with breathing as if there were no agenda beyond itself. Breathing connects singing to the rest of life, and the rest of humanity.

If you do only one thing for your voice today, breathe.

If you do only one thing for your universe today, breathe.


The Usual New Year Greeting and WAIT THERE’S MORE!

There’s SO much I could share right now as I start up this blog again, and a lot of it is truly awesome, but I won’t bog down my New Year’s greeting to you by blabbing about all I’ve learned during my teaching hiatus (yet).

This year is about now.

The has come for me to embrace teaching again, and I’ve responded by joining up with a great little music school in Detroit that I respect and want to grow: Brush Park Conservatory.

The Brush Park Conservatory is located on the 2nd floor of the International Institute in Detroit—right in the museum district, one of Detroit’s major cultural centers.

What I love about the space is that my studio is huge! Singers don’t have to feel like they’re singing into a shoebox; they can learn to breathe and sing expansively and freely, as if they were in a performance space. And there’s real room to stretch in and move around for warmups and physical exercises.

The school also has an alliance with style consultant Lucretia Nelson of Savoir Faire Detroit. She’s worked with public figures, models and performers on how to deploy one’s personal style with etiquette and class. Now, who wouldn’t want that for singers? I want that for myself! And she’s going to be offering workshops and instruction right alongside us.

In a few short weeks, we’ll be launching a new website and revealing more of the awesome things we’re doing, so if you’re a subscriber to this blog, you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

Until then, contact Brush Park by phone at 313-263-2727 if you want a consultation for lessons.

Or you can stroll down to the International Institute, whose address is 111 E Kirby St, Detroit, MI 48202.

I’ll be teaching lessons in adult (high school age and above) voice and beginning piano for much of the week there—Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

And my teaching goals are the same as they always were: cause singers to be great, develop healthy vocal habits, break through performance anxiety, support the amateur as well as the professional, and have the art of singing be accessible to those who are committed to it.

So, call Brush Park at 313-263-2727. Or you can just as easily message me or say hi in the comments, if singing is on your current list of to-dos.

See you next week, right here.

A letter to my first piano teacher

Dear teacher,

Yes, it’s me – the one who didn’t practice, who couldn’t sit still, and who was always lagging behind her sister in overall progress. The one who quit piano lessons…and then started again, and quit again, and started again, and quit again….finally for good.

I’m here to say thank you.

More than that: I’m a musician now.

As in, a professional musician. A professional keyboard player and singer. I also direct choir and compose music too. And I’m even just now learning to transpose church songs by sight! Bet you never saw that coming.

Neither did I.

I have to say thank you, because none of this was possible without you. All those little drills and scales and endless Czerny knock-off pieces from John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano did their work. Even if I didn’t do mine.

I was a restless child, and parts of me have never recovered from that. I was frustrated and bored. I hated being admonished by my mother to practice when I didn’t want to, even though I also wanted to be a better player than I was.

When I quit piano, I actually took up guitar for a year and some. Until junior high, when I had to pick a wind instrument for band. Then I played clarinet. And by the time I quit clarinet (because I was bullied by another clarinetist), I had made it to first chair. I was actually pretty good!

And then singing found me in high school. Choir just enraptured me, and that’s where I stayed for much of my young adult life.

Now that I’m further developing myself on keyboard, I find myself wishing I had been more patient when I was your young student. I wish I would have practiced more. I wish I’d found a way to fall in love with the instrument at that age. I wish I’d created my own reason and motivation for playing, so that it wouldn’t be about pleasing adults.

But your magic worked. No matter what I thought of it, it worked. Every new musical adventure I tried, no one has ever had to go over the basics of reading music with me. And when I started studying music in college, learning about harmonic structures and phrasing, it was a breeze because it felt like I was just learning a language for things I already knew by instinct.

You had released that in me when you showed me where middle C was.

And if I hadn’t chosen music as a profession? Well, that’s something I can hardly imagine, given my love for making music. But let’s say I chose another discipline that fascinated me in college – say, anthropology. I’m sure I would still have a reason to thank you and credit you for teaching me what the mastery of a few basic things in childhood can do for the complex work of adult life.

Thank you for giving that to me. Thank you for being patient with me. Thank you for not pushing me, or laying the guilt on when things went bad, or flattering me to death when things went well. Thank you for not using me to further your own ends. Thank you for being on such good terms with my Mom, too – that always helps.

Thank you for teaching me the language of music, without which I’d be nowhere. It’s one thing to have a deep love for something, and quite another to know its language and embody it. That’s what you showed me. That makes the difference.

And it doesn’t matter that I didn’t “get it” when I was sitting on your piano bench and my feet couldn’t reach the pedals. I get it now.

Just so you know, your lessons never left me.


%d bloggers like this: