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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…

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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.


Ten Things You Should Never Say To Your Music Teacher

Um, yeah.

The Trombonist's Mouthpiece

Inspired by an excellent post by SamPsychMeds.

We teachers hear lots of different things from our students throughout the day. Some of it brings a big smile to our faces, some of it warms our hearts, and some of it reaffirms why we became teachers. This post is not about those things.

1. Are we playing today? No, we’re not making music in music class today.

2. Can I go down to [insert teacher here]’s class for some extra help? Sure, as long as they send you down here during their class so you can catch up on some of the stuff you missed.

3. I forgot my instrument. That’s cool. I forgot to wear pants today.

4. This piece is dumb. Actually, if you can give me a couple of valid musical reasons for not liking a piece, I might let it slide. Maybe.

5. I can’t make…

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“Little darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter…”

Since I last posted here, there’s been a lot of change and drought and upheaval. The winter was no kinder to my business than it was to most others here in Detroit Metro, where we broke a 100-year-old snow record in the middle of April.

And the tendency I have when going through challenges is to hole up, hit the bunker, and go underground. It seemed the easiest thing to do as the snow kept piling up and the temperatures plunged below zero.

But there were points from January onward where I just couldn’t stand to be inside anymore, and couldn’t afford to stay shut off from the rest of civilization – points where I just had to pull my boots on and get out there because I had music to share.

I had gigs scheduled, an album to sell, contacts to make, rehearsals to schedule. And every time I stepped out the door and into the snow, it was for music.

I couldn’t do everything I planned, and not everything I did was planned. But the will to live and connect finds ways to trump everything, especially where art is concerned, and several of my musical friends felt the same way.

And I found some warm spots as the weather struggled to change:

I was inspired by a voice student I took on who was visually impaired; she was slowly losing her sight but very accepting in the face of it. I made house calls to her because she wanted to discover her voice so she could not only sing but recite poetry. Our work on her breath was amazing; she had more capacity than she believed she had. She inspired me to think about what else was possible in teaching music to people with similar challenges.

I took an opportunity to record ambient music, and I firmly believe that my chants to Shiva had him connect me to a local branch of the Isha Foundation, whose musicians welcomed me into their devotional music ensemble for a fundraiser. And our program opened with a song to Shiva.

And I’ve started to realize, with the help of some friends, that I am a closeted jazz musician. More on THAT next week…

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Standard Rules for a Cold

Alright, singers; time for a self-evaluation!

I just got over a horrid cold that had me on my back for nearly 2 weeks. Near the very end of it, I found a pamphlet on vocal hygiene from Lakeshore Ear, Nose and Throat Center…2 weeks too late, I figured. So I thought it would be good for me to see if I followed the “Standard Rules for a Cold” listed inside:

  1. Get plenty of rest….Check. The recliner was my base camp.
  2. Speak as little as possible. Do not sing if possible….Check. Some days I could hardly make a sound anyway, so singing was right out.
  3. Drink plenty of fluids (water). This reduces fever, avoids vocal fold dehydration and makes the mucous secretions thinner….I could have done better with this: more clear fluids, fewer diuretics, less acidity.
  4. Use a cool mist humidifier as needed….Check. Although I still woke up coughing after midnight. I’m not sure if my mister was misty enough.
  5. As your doctor about nasal care….Did this maybe a little too late. As a professional singer, I should have seen the doctor on my 3rd day of symptoms (rather than my 10th)  just to rule out anything more sinister and to give me a clearer idea of how to proceed with self-care.
  6. If you need to cough, make it breathy….This was impossible, because my coughing spells were as involuntary and sudden as bad hiccups. Dry or phlegmy, it didn’t matter. I think more hydration would have made a difference.
  7. Guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin) can help thin secretions and formulations with Dextromethorphan (DM) can help suppress cough….Check and check. But they didn’t work as well as I hoped.
  8. Avoid cough drops with menthol….Check. As good as it may feel, menthol has a dehydrating effect in the throat. For me, lemon and honey feel just as good, and to open the airways I dab a couple drops of eucalyptus oil right under my nose.

I give myself a C+.

Plus, I’d say it’s better to get sick now than later in the year, when the roads are actually driveable in Michigan and we’re not cowering from the winter storms.

What’s your score?

Don’t give up

Don’t give up.

This is a poem from a fellow songwriter. She’s definitely found a vein to put that shot-in-the-arm for whoever needs it.

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