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My Roots: How I Got To Here

The shining moments that set me on a path to music were these:

  • My piano teacher's living room in Chattanooga, where I named intervals by their sound with my eyes tight shut

  • My mom's dining room table on a Sunday afternoon, where the college kids who came for lunch were doing their homework: listening to Handel's Messiah with score in hand. They let me follow along.

  • The discovery of Bach's Magnificat when my church's choir director chose it for a Christmas program and I got to join in.

  • The other-worldly experience of collaborative performance in the pit band for the kids' musical. I was in my teens and the other musicians were the real deal. It was my first whiff of tradecraft and it made me soar.

  • That moment when I walked into the sanctuary of a the huge church across the street from work and saw the new organist (recently back from a Fulbright Scholar's year in Germany) practicing. His feet flowed and I was mesmerized.

  • The holy terror of performing Franck's B Minor Chorale for John Ferguson in front of a choir loft full of church musicians, and the things he said about me.

  • That one rehearsal at a conference, when Eric Nelson sat for a moment by his conductor's stand and recited from memory George Herbert's "Love Bade Me Welcome."

I went to college with all the seriousness of a graduate student, and then some. Over the years since my audition interview (when I shrugged about perfect pitch, naive to the reality that it's uncommon) I've grown more playful and more aware of the world around me. But I haven't lost the rock solid confidence that I'm a musician, all the way.

I received my Bachelor of Music degree at St. Olaf College--a mid-sized, over-priced liberal arts school of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in the farmlands south of Minneapolis, Minnesota. If you know it, it's because you are a choir nerd or you watch Golden Girls. My first semester I charted out what classes I would take each term so I could fit in every possible music course. The most magical moment of those four years was playing the organ part in Respighi's Pines of Rome with the orchestra. I graduated with honors and distinction, having gorged myself on composition classes, instrumental methods, sacred music, all the conducting I could take, private lessons in organ and voice and piano, daily chapel, and a few classes outside the department that ended up shaping me more than any music class: modern dance, public speaking, Epistles of Paul, Victorian literature.

Things got complicated at the end: I traded my dreams of graduate studies at Emory University (with the aforementioned Eric Nelson) for the attention of a certain boy, and we were married at the start of my final semester. I gave my senior recital at the last possible moment and by the skin of my teeth, because halfway through my preparations my music bag was stolen out of my car and I had to start from scratch--all my marked scores gone. To make matters worse, I had mono. The end result was that when I walked away with my diploma I didn't have the stomach for music again for a long time.

After half a dozen years married to a music grad student I couldn't bear the void I felt, so when our three kids were grown enough to go to school and my husband's doctoral coursework was complete, I started a graduate program of my own right where I already was: at the Jacobs School of Music, a world class conservatory program at Indiana University. It wasn't quite what I hoped it would be since the Covid pandemic began halfway through my second semester, but I made the best of it. I had a teaching fellowship in the theory department, and took coursework in conducting while studying with a private organ teacher. That first semester (and the solo recital I gave 18 months later when I was 7 months pregnant with Number Four) was the happiest I've ever been in my life. I don't have a graduate degree; only a Performer Diploma. But that program was the right fit for me because I got to spread my attention across all the fields that interest me. I hope someday to work towards a Doctor of Music, but time will tell.

Some of my happiest and proudest moments as a full-grown musician are these:

  • Leading worship for a week at Southwark Cathedral in London with a group of students in 2014 and performing on a student recital at G. F. Handel's church.

  • Transcribing Bach's Mache Dich aria from the St. Matthew Passion to perform for a local fundraiser with a dear friend.

  • Walking out of my conducting final exam to leave for the airport en route to California for the premiere of my own composition.

  • Every day I got to show up to teach undergraduate theory.

  • Playing continuo for the performance of a 17th-century Magnificat setting for women's voices, written by a nun named Chiara Cozzolani.

  • Singing From Behind the Caravan by Abbie Betinis with the Voces Celestes singers.

  • Every single moment of every single organ lesson with Christopher Young.

  • That one major scale we sang to begin the first day of Ear Training for Choral Conductors in August 2021--the first ensemble singing any of us had experienced in six months.

  • Watching a live-streamed mass from my kitchen desk this winter as a priest in Dublin prepared for communion while the Notre Dame Magnificat Choir sang my new English setting of Ave Maria.

  • The summer a few years back when my little boy was (as he would tell you) "ear-wormed" with a melody I wrote for a poem about a dog.

All of this stacks up, and I feel immensely grateful for my life and my work. My work these days includes planning worship, playing organ, and directing choir for the Lutheran congregation that hired me as Precentor in December 2019, playing weddings, singing in recording sessions, and composing as much as I can in the cracks. It's everything I always wanted to do when I grew up, and I'm happy.

The final two hymns in the batch I chose for the launch of Join My Song come from the hymnal I use at my church job. The video, from January 1, 2023, includes my reflections at the turning of the year. Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you don't want to miss any new videos. A new hymn will arrive each Sunday.

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