Monday, November 18, 2019

My Favorite Flannel Shirt

Isn't it funny how you remember certain pieces of clothing so clearly? Like in this poem I wrote for my father, the year following his death (over 18 years ago). I normally don't write poems, but for some reason I wrote a few in my journal that year. It was a therapeutic way of processing my grief in that season.

I woke up early this morning thinking about him, Henry Orville Heisey, because today would be his 90th birthday. I pulled out a journal containing some of those post-death poems and decided to share one with you in honor of him. The songwriter in me wants to do a "re-write", but then it wouldn't be in its original form. The day I wrote it I had simply picked up my pen and started writing until I felt like stopping.

My Favorite Shirt

It hangs on the line
my favorite shirt
colors of blue, green and pink
that brought you to life

I wear it often
and snuggle it tight
a small piece of my daddy
I feel like I wear

The blue, cream and gray
of a sweater you wore—
I think now it's Aspen's
I can't be real sure

It made you look healthy
stroked the blue in your eyes
even though your custom
was to wear a tieless shirt underneath

The ugly gray suit
you used to wear
seemed to have been your favorite
though for it, no one else cared

It made you look sickly
the color was drained
but it makes me smile
to remember you in it  

The night of the viewing
I wasn't prepared
to see you look different
in the casket lying there

Everyone else always looks so nice
until it's YOUR daddy
looking cold, dead and still

I think you would have been pretty
if instead you could wear
the pastel colored flannel—
my favorite shirt

But then I couldn't wear it
that soft, warm cover
and I guess it doesn't matter
because I can't even remember
what it was that you did have on

But whether or not
you were dressed in this or that
one thing is for sure
my daddy's in there

for it's not the outside
that I remember best
but what's on the inside
that will never lay to rest

White coat—in those days, he was a chemistry professor.

Black coat—Father of the bride.
My brother, Adriel, taking a picture of my parents. Love that plaid shirt, Daddy!
Ah yes...that navy blue suit (without a tie).

This was after the concert I did to raise funds for my very first CD—Under the Big Blue Sky.
My father gave me the money to have nice invitations made so I could invite my friends.
No one knew I was writing music in those days, so that concert was a big step for me.

I love you Daddy.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Practice Makes You...Prepared For Mistakes.

I've been working on my own piano arrangement of "O Holy Night" since last spring—which simply means I'm inventing my own version of it. There are plenty of great renditions of the song, but I want something that's my own.  

If you're not musical, it's kind of like having your mom bake your favorite birthday cake from scratch. It has a special quality about it. I'm VERY excited (and almost ready) to share my arrangement with the Portraits of White audience. I've added a special ingredient into the mix, but I can't give that away—it's a surprise.

There are so many things about a song that need to be "practiced"; soft, loud, speed, structure, get the idea. That's in addition to deciding the overall "feel" of the piece within each section of the song. Like you, I've probably heard this a thousand times: "Practice Makes Perfect." 

I disagree.

In my opinion, you can practice the wrong thing over and over. I DO think practice can help you prepare for imperfection. But I can only speak for myself.

For instance, in spite of all my hours and hours of practice, things can go awry. 
  • fingers slip off the keys 
  • feet slide off the pedals
  • hands get caught under the lip of a piano key
  • the mic stand (if I'm singing) swings around and hits me in the mouth (yep—that's really happened)
  • my nose begins to run

Anyone have a handkerchief?
Portraits of White 2018
After years of practicing so I could be "perfect" and learning that it just isn't possible, my focus has changed from getting everything "right" to learning how to respond when things go wrong. And THAT has changed so much for me as a performer. 

If you only knew how hard I work to make sure nothing goes wrong... Is there some kind of reward for THAT? Probably not, but I can tell you this, I have had more fun performing in the past decade than any other time in my life because of shifting my focus from perfection to peace, poise...and humor. Just have fun with it!

So last year, when I had a chance to go up on stage with The Piano Guys and play the piano with them at one of their concerts, I actually thought I might be able to do it. Not because I'd be perfect, but because I knew that if I wasn't perfect, we could create a moment out of it.

Here's how it went...

A cellist and I went to see this phenomenal duo. I was a curious to see if a pianist and cellist could keep my attention for two hours. They exceeded my expectations. 

During their concert, they asked if there were any piano players in the audience. They wanted a pianist from the audience to come up on stage and play a song with them and specified that you had to be a jazz pianist who had played in a jazz band. I'm not a jazz pianist and I've never played in a jazz band so I didn't raise my hand. Neither did anyone else. 

I was sitting there with my legs and feet shaking, thinking to myself—MAN...I WANT to go up there and take this opportunity but I'm not a jazz pianist and I've never played in a jazz band, though I can play by ear and improvise. I  feel like jazz is a whole different world and they were making it clear that you needed to have experience in that world.

As if she knew what I was thinking, my cellist friend leaned over and said, "YOU could do that!!" She's been on stage with me since the beginning of Portraits of White and knows I'm not a jazz pianist, but I was honored that she believed in me. That's all I needed...a word of affirmation. I decided that if no one stepped up, I would. 

At the prospect of "making something up on the fly" with The Piano Guys, I now felt like my whole body was an earthquake. But I was determined to take a chance and I quickly decided it would be worth the experience just to play with them. I was willing to make a fool of myself (if that happened) because I've learned that these kinds of moments are usually the ones people remember the most, even if I wish it weren't so.

As I was processing all this (in milliseconds), a young man raised his hand and was called to the stage. He was a jazz pianist for sure and he almost stole the show.

They were having a blast on stage and I was having an epiphany in my seat. I realized that though it does take hours of practice to develop proficiency at anything, (so yes, you MUST put in the practice time), the sooner you begin to practice being okay with imperfection, the sooner you will experience (and radiate) absolute delight, even when things don't go "perfectly".

I left that concert feeling so grateful for all the years of "mishaps" on the stage. They've led me to a place where I was willing to jump up on stage and do something fun, even if I failed. 

The inner work to reach this freedom takes as much practice as the outer work of playing the piano.

Yep....I say practice makes you....prepared for mistakes.

P.S. If you've never heard of The Piano Guys, visit their website and watch their videos or better yet, support live music, buy a ticket and go see them.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Music Music in the Hall, Who's the Finest of Them All?

"You're not using any music so that means you have a gift!", the older gentleman said as he walked by the piano today. We chatted for a few moments and he was on his way. He didn't know that I had a stack of music in my bag. I just happened to be playing without written music when he walked by.

Piano music from my piano lesson days (1978) with my teacher's handwritten notes.
Every week I play the piano in the hospital lobby at PennState Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and it's still one of my favorite places to play. I've been doing this 'gig' for years now and my choice of music varies every week—from my own compositions to hymns to classical pieces. Sometimes I follow written music and sometimes I play by ear. I'm grateful that I can do both. 

Though I started playing the piano by ear when I was two or three, in sixth grade my mother found a piano teacher for me and I began taking lessons. It seemed like my first piano teacher enjoyed the entertainment as I played by ear, but my second piano teacher wasn't there for entertainment. She soon discovered that I could play a song if she played it for me and if she didn't play it for me first, I struggled to learn it. Once she realized what was happening, I was forced to learn to read. To this day, I still do better if I've heard a song first, but I am SO glad I can read music and I have that teacher to thank!

This past August, Kirstin Myers and I formed a piano/oboe duo we call "Double Keyed" and we're enjoying the musical camaraderie of playing together. Kirstin has been a part of my annual Portraits of White concert every December, and I was excited when we were able to work together beyond the holiday concert. And oh, by the way, we play from written music. 

I love the novelty of the oboe and it's inspiring to watch people's reactions. This opportunity would not be possible if my piano teacher had not insisted that I learn to read music. 

"Double Keyed" (Frances & Kirstin) @ PennState Health.

Sometimes I feel as if there can be a subtle air of pride among some musicians who "don't read music" or "never had a lesson". Even the audience "oohs and aahs" when someone announces they are self-taught, especially after they've dazzled us with their abilities. 

I admit, it IS a very special thing to be able to sit down without any sheet music and just play. I could sense the "awe" from the gentleman today who commented on the fact that I wasn't using music, but I pondered this all afternoon and decided to encourage people who want to play music not to be afraid or ashamed to get training. I sure wish I had more music education! I'm no Liberace, but there are opportunities that have come my way that would never have happened if I couldn't read music.

It almost feels as absurd as bragging that you are able to create imaginary stories in your head without being able to read. That's creative, but you're missing out on a whole world of possibilities when you can read a book and I believe the same is true when you can read music. You open yourself up to playing great music that others have composed for our enjoyment. Why not learn to play their music?

I suppose the moral of this story is obvious, but just in case it's not, I just want to say that you're not a lesser musician if you have to read something on the written page. You can move people with your music and that's what really matters.

I couldn't do Portraits of White if it weren't for the professional musicians on stage with me. We don't get much rehearsal time and it's crucial that they can play what's on the page with accuracy and expression. They've spent years mastering their instrument and the payoff comes when you hear them play together.

So here's to all the music teachers in the world...thanks for teaching us to read!!

And HERE's a special video with a message from my piano teacher, Donna Houser, who made sure I could read. Now she and her husband bring a group of friends to my December concert every year. I hope I make her proud. 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Faltering Sparrow

"Why don't you sing 'His Eye is on the Sparrow' for us tonight?"

The man making the request was the past international president of the organization where I was doing the music for a three-day conference. I knew he was probably joking, but in case he was serious, I began to rethink my special song choice for the closing banquet of the event.

Since I only had a few moments to brush up on an old song, I sat down at the piano and played it through, just to double check the key. (I preferred to sound like a pretty songbird and not a squawking chicken or screeching hawk, so choosing the right key is important). I remember one time I started in on "I Surrender All" and it was so high people might have surrendered just to get me to stop singing!!

Ah yes. I had plenty of range to spare and could even modulate from the starting key into a few others just for added effect. I typed out the words on my iPad to be sure I'd remember them but made no chord notations. Surely I'd be fine. I usually forget lyrics more often than notes.

When it came time for the performance, I was soaring along through the colorful chords and even letting the sparrow flutter a bit above the trees when all of a sudden, she faltered...

I couldn't for the life of me remember what key I was in and where I needed to go next.

Some mistakes can be easily covered up and most people don't even know, but every now and then you fail big. Another musician friend of mine always says, "if you're going to mess up, make it big."

There's really nothing else to do in these moments (at least from my experience) but to stop and have fun with it. Let the sparrow fall a bit! After all, the song says his eye is on the sparrow, right? So big deal if she flies into a branch and loses her memory momentarily. At least God is watching me do it. ;-)

"Well folks, I have absolutely no idea what key I'm in or where I'm supposed to be", I said to the crowd — with a grin.

Thinking about what to do next, I said, "I think the sparrow just fell out of the tree".

We all laughed and suddenly, I remembered what key I was in, resumed playing, changed key again and finished up the last chorus in a way that salvaged anything I might have messed up before — at least I hope it came across that way.

"I sing because I'm happy
I sing because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow
and I know He watches me."

even if I falter...

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sports Bikes, Wheelies, Jesus and Pianos

"I was popping a wheelie on my sports bike and noticed another rider beside me doing the same thing—on his bike. Suddenly, I found myself transported from the mountain trail to the water and there I was, popping a wheelie while riding on top of the water. This is so cool, I thought, and THEN I saw the mysterious rider popping a wheelie on HIS bike—on top of the water right beside me. I was like, MAN oh MAN, who is that other rider? Look at us...we're riding on top of the water! I looked over and it was Jesus. (Everyone laughed). No kidding! Jesus was riding a sports bike beside me, racing across the surface of the water."

"Dad always has dreams like that," she said to the rest of the group hiking on the trail. "Was I in the dream at all?", said a woman I presumed to be his wife. I chuckled to myself. They didn't know I could hear them.

I'm the worship leader and guest musician for the week here at Spruce Lake Retreat in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and I was hiking the Spruce Mountain early this morning. When I arrived at the top, a group of people had already beat me there. I guess I'm not the only insane person who rises early and hikes through mountains. It's a hike I always take when I'm here. The scenic overlook at the top is spectacular and the hike is just as exhilarating. This morning I saw an orange salamander and a Baltimore Oriole, but no bear. Probably a good thing, though I'll confess, I really want to see bear cubs. (I published this blog on Wednesday morning and headed up to the top of the mountain for the second day in a row and wouldn't you know, I was looking out over the valley and right below me I heard crackling and popping...and out came a little black bear cub.  I quietly sat down on the rock and watched eagerly. Then, a cinnamon colored bear appeared and started climbing a fallen tree. I sat in amazement...and awe.  I also determined in that moment that I would go back to camp the same way I went up.  If I would have gone down the way I was supposed to, I would have encountered the bears. No need to create issues for myself.)

I contemplated the story I had just heard about Jesus popping wheelies. I love that image. In the past, I've been guilty of  thinking that Jesus would only be found in a lofty cathedral, or a monastery, praying and fasting regularly. I've heard many messages that have tried to convince me that Jesus liked to have fun, play with kids and wasn't all serious and mild. Though I guess they help to chisel away at the myths I've had about Jesus, there's nothing like a dream to dispel the notions of who we think God is and what He's like.

I remember one time I was instructed by a speaker to close my eyes and picture myself in a safe place—a peaceful place. Normally, I dread when people make me do that. I can't seem to still my thoughts long enough to picture any thing, let alone a safe place. But in that moment, my brain went immediately to the piano bench. The piano is a safe place for me. It's peaceful. Playing the ivories feels as natural as breathing and I'm at home when I'm I'm now picturing myself at the piano. Whew...what a relief.

But then the speaker instructed us to picture Jesus in that place. Now that's extra hard for me to do. I don't know just is. I've tried these exercises before and it becomes such a complicated process I freak out and can't do it. If you can't relate to this, I'm sorry. I'm sure there are a few who can. I'm just writing my thoughts here, so you don't have to keep reading if you don't want to. ;-)

Suddenly, I "sensed" Jesus in such a powerful and unusual way, unlike any other time I can recall in my life. He was sitting on the piano bench beside me and as I began to play, He inhabited me and it was as if we were one. I've never had an experience like that before or since. I often think about it when I'm playing the piano.

We, (I was now part of the group), continued down the mountain as my thoughts turned from Jesus popping wheelies in this man's dreams to Jesus residing in me when I play the piano. (I don't even know if residing is the right word). These things are hard to explain in human words. I know that He lives in us, but to experience Him moving from the bench into my being was very unusual.

All I can say is, I believe Jesus was in his dream popping wheelies and I believe Jesus plays the piano through me when I play. It's experiences like these that help break down our ridiculous myths about who Jesus is and what He's like. I welcome them and I was refreshed not only by the crisp morning air, the stream rushing down the mountain slopes, but this man's dream that I happened to hear being shared with his family this morning.

This is the view from the top of the mountain. I copied it from the website of Spruce Lake Retreat.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Compliments are like cash. Everyone could use more.

I was trying to find a way to tell my husband what I needed last fall. (It can get especially stressful during the fall months heading into my Portraits of White show.) I know word pictures can sometimes communicate more clearly what I am feeling so I began pondering how I could describe the deficit I was experiencing. That's when this phrase popped into my head.

Compliments are like cash. Everyone could use more.

A few months ago a young woman (a complete stranger) at the local deli gave me a compliment. It was genuine and I walked away feeling "rich". I put the "cash" in my emotional bank and felt like I could buy the world. I was reminded of how easy it is to make someone feel special, just by taking a moment to notice them and compliment them.

I'm not writing this to ask for compliments. I'm writing it to sort through my feelings as my life becomes more public AND because I think the world would be a better place if we would compliment each other more.

The deli lady started it. I want to continue sharing the gift she gave me. I've started trying to compliment people more often. I've even started writing a few letters...yes, handwritten letters. It feels luxurious.

Why was I feeling the need to find a word picture in the first place? After all, Tom and I are celebrating thirty years of marriage this year and you'd think we'd have this all figured out by now. But pursuing a dream (like Portraits of White) has a way of altering the dreamer and it often affects the people closest to you. Like it or not, everyone living with a dreamer has to learn to navigate unique challenges. I haven't found many who have written about things like this—at least, not yet. So I decided to pull back the curtains and give you a peek.

My husband has always been so supportive of what I do, so the new territory we travel sometimes feels surprising to both of us, which has led to some of the challenges I alluded to earlier.

He often says, "I'm proud of you."

I used to soak that statement in. I didn't need any explanation. It filled up my emotional bank. But in this new stage of life, I want to know specifics. What exactly is he proud of? This can lead to some tension as I try to explain this concept and why I need examples. I don't even know what I need, exactly. So we're working at this together.

I've identified several factors contributing to the rising communication challenges, at least in our home. I'm calling them catalysts for upheaval. If you're a dreamer or you live with one, maybe this will help shed some light on your own path.

Catalysts for Upheaval:

1) Public life increases the need for privacy.

I have carved out a career/ministry by sharing my life with the world through songwriting, concerts, blogging and social media. But doing an annual Christmas show has created some serious upheaval in my soul. As I shared on a podcast episode, the more public my life becomes, the more I crave privacy and solitude.

I love to encourage people by being real, but then I feel the need to retreat. I become fragile inside the walls of my home and in my soul. This unfolding revelation has been a rude awakening. I wasn't expecting this to happen! No one warned me about this.

2) "Feedback is the breakfast of champions."—Ken Blanchard.

Another factor in my changing inner landscape comes from the implications of Blanchard's quote—a quote that I have embraced wholeheartedly.

I love a good "breakfast" and I want to be a champion in everything I do. Therefore, I eat a lot of "breakfast". But I also need a place to be loved and complimented just for who I am, whether I improve or not. I want that place to be in my home and with my family. I guess we all need a safe place.

3) Reality of aging.

Has anyone else noticed that as you age, you receive less compliments? (Goodness, this is being really honest). I mentioned this one day to some friends and they commented (sort of jokingly), "Well what are people supposed to say to an older person? Nice wrinkles?! Nice bags under your eyes? You look good bald!?"

Another person said, "I don't think people realize that YOU still need compliments. You seem so secure and successful."

Oh my...if you only knew. I guess I'm just "out there" enough to try anything! But that doesn't mean I'm above fragility.

So now what?

That's when I came up with this analogy: "Compliments are like cash and everyone can always use more cash." It stuck—at least, in my mind. It gave me a creative way to explain what I need to my husband. And the truth is, we could all use a compliment now and then. I'm trying to be more generous these days.

Maybe this will inspire you to give away some "cash". After all, what could be a greater investment than depositing "cash" in the soul of another human being?

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The In-Between.

"To go TO something, you must go THROUGH something."—Bob Hazlett

It was January 7, 2018 when I heard this phrase from the guest speaker, Bob Hazlett. I could tell that I was going to need my kleenexes when he started to speak. I grabbed my pen and little travel notebook where I write song ideas, shopping lists, to-do lists and inspiring messages from speakers. I couldn't write fast enough, in between blowing my nose. His words stirred my creativity and began to replenish my happy but greatly depleted soul.

January tends to be a month of trying to find ways to fill up my empty soul. It's an In-Between month for meIt used to feel like a "new year" season, but not anymore. No resolutions or goals for the new year. Just recovery and tying up loose ends from my December concert, Portraits of White.

Since I started the concert experience over six years ago, I feel as if I've gone from having a daily routine to "seasonal" routines. The change has been both subtle and surprising and I'm still trying to adapt. The show is over but there are accounting books to finish up, surveys to read and consider, thank you notes to be written to so many people who help make the show a success and next thing you know, it's time to start planning the show again and I wonder how I'm ever going to do it again. Eventually, new ideas present themselves. Until then, it's a lot of waiting.

It was in this state of mind that I sat in my seat absorbing every word from the speaker. The thoughts I share here are not Bob's words exactly, but the essence of what he shared and how my soul received them. He spoke them over a year ago but I could tell even then that they were for me—somewhere down the road. As is often the case with "words" I hear, they might not be for the current moment but are futuristic. In this case, one year later, they are exactly what I needed for this month, this year.

There are three potential things we experience in the In-Between stages and it seems we often have to go THROUGH these to get TO the next thing.

1) Uncertainty
  • Certainty of the last season is taken away. Now you have a choice; experience fear or hope. 
2) The Unknown
  • The greatest creativity comes from the place where you have questions you would have never thought to ask.
  • If you want to see a new thing, you have to stop looking at the old—old relationships, old pain. (I would add that there IS a time to look at the old, but only enough to understand, heal and move forward.)
3) The Unfamiliar
  • It's more of a feeling than an experience. For example, Peter—the guy who walked on water in the Bible—was used to boats, water and storms, but he had never walked on water before.
A few other random phrases he shared:
  • If you want to see new things, sing a new song. (I've been asking what the "new song" is for this year's show. It might not be literal, but I'm staying open to all possibilities and every now and then an idea twinkles in the darkness.)
  • Voo Ja De - when you see a familiar thing in a new way.
  • You may feel boredom—it's God wanting to move you forward.
  • Think of the In-Between as discovering "old things done in a new way".
  • A helpful prayer during this season would be: "Show me what I need to know about You in this new season."
My record producer, Eric Copeland, wrote a great song years ago that I pull out every now and then to remind me that In-Between isn't always a bad place to be.

So if you're going THROUGH something that's uncertain, unknown or unfamiliar, take comfort that it can potentially lead you TO something new. It's the In-Between stage that can be disconcerting, but it's worth pressing through it.

Click HERE to listen to "In Between Dreams"