I started taking piano lessons when I was 7 years old. My mom always felt like music was just “in” me. I usually had some song floating through my head and hummed some catchy tune endlessly, but I hated practicing the piano. Lesson days were the worst. Of course, I usually put off practicing my songs all week until the dreaded day. Then I would sit down and frantically practice, trying to get good enough in a half hour to hide the fact that I hadn’t put much effort in all week. Because I was introverted, I hadn’t mastered the art of “distracting conversation” like my sister had. During her lessons, she would regale our teacher with amusing trivia about our week until he finally laughingly motioned his pointer toward the sheet music and regretfully turned her attention back to the task at hand. For me, I had no such weapons in the musical warfare. I would hide in my room watching for his van to appear outside our home, and then listen to the happy chatter of my sister with a rock in the pit of my stomach as I waited as if for some dreadful sentence to be handed down declaring it to be my turn for a lesson.
During my brief two-year venture with the violin, my practice sessions would see me laying on the bed on my back with the violin under my chin, feet up on the wall, squeaking out some ditty and wistfully watching the hands of the clock slowly tick off 30 minutes. My fling with the clarinet lasted four years and was slightly more profitable. Even so, I would usually (and quite conveniently) have to use the bathroom when our band teacher came to work with the clarinet section. Most of the time I was second or third clarinet and spent more time counting rests than actually playing music!
Oh how I despised practicing. One morning, I had given my mom such a hard time about practicing the piano that she disappeared and I found her crying in the bathroom. She told me that it was fine. If I didn’t feel like practicing, I didn’t have to practice. My conscience smote me and, much subdued, I went out to the piano and resumed where I had left off in my music books.
The Turning Point
For six years my negative attitude towards practicing remained unchanged until one day we showed up at our piano lessons, and the teacher had a new book. Apparently, I was advanced enough to begin learning arrangements of church music. They assigned the song “Awesome God.” I went home and practiced for two hours straight without anyone prompting me. I always see that song as the turning point in my attitude and ability. I still didn’t enjoy practicing from the lesson books, but I was willing to do what it took to play the various arrangements of church music and actually enjoyed practicing and mastering the music. How grateful I am to my mom for sticking with it, even when it was probably more difficult for her than it was for me!
The years flew by. My sister and I got jobs playing for a Salvation Army Church and a Baptist Church. I enjoyed poetry, so I dabbled with writing a few songs (two songs to be exact). I took lessons from several different teachers that had various strengths, from technique, to classical music, to improvisation. This was incredibly helpful in becoming more well-rounded as a pianist. But the Lord used one teacher in particular to open doors to opportunities I never would have imagined.
Mrs. Rolene Hanson was a retired concert classical pianist. Her husband was working in our area and my mom wasted no time in scheduling some lessons for me. We worked mostly on technique and classical music. In my mind classical was to music what vegetables are to food. Important and nutritious, but definitely not fruit. We had just finished one of our lessons where I was learning to keep my hand positioned like a turtle shell when she made the comment, “If you ever go to Andrews University, you have to take voice lessons from Stephen Zork. He is the best there is.” I was in high school and hadn’t given much thought to where I was going for college, but the comment lodged in the back of my mind and continued ringing there for years. I decided, if I ever went to Andrews, I would look him up.
I wasn’t much of a singer growing up. My mom mostly homeschooled my sister and I through high school, but she put me in Weimar Academy’s choir. We lived about 10 minutes from the campus and they had choir practice several times a week. It was intimidating to join a group of kids that I didn’t know very well, but I enjoyed the music and choir trips. One thing that always bothered me was that I couldn’t sing as well as some of the other girls. Specifically, Felicia. Oh how I wanted to be like her. Not only was she beautiful, but she also had a pure, floating soprano voice. When we recorded in the studio and the strongest singers got the mics and headphones, she was one of them. I was a self-conscious alto who overthought everything in life, including the notes I was singing. My pitch was not bad. I could tell if I was in tune or not, but the result of my overanalysis was that I never had enough confidence to project my voice. I looked with longing at the other sopranos, wishing I had been born with a voice like theirs. In spite of taking a few voice lessons, I never noticed a significant improvement.
Gradually, I came to believe that some people were just born with a great voice and others were not. Now, any musician could tell you that improvement requires discipline and practice, but obviously singing is different. From the heights of heaven, God looks down at the birth of each new child and either bestows that blessed gift or withholds it. No amount of effort for improvement could change the mind of the One who holds our destinies. Or at least such was my thinking on the subject.
By the time I was in college, I had lots of experience playing the piano and could read notes well. Even though I was pursuing a Health Science degree, a certain number of music credits were required. I gladly joined the Weimar College Chamber Choir. In spite of my fatalistic outlook on singing, I was able to hold a tune and read notes, the prerequisites being deemed by the choir director a solid member that could help carry my section. My strength was on the keyboard, however, and as most pianist/singers know, there is more of a demand for pianists than for singers. So, even if you enjoy singing more than playing, you usually get relegated to the keyboard because of the absence of other pianists. That was basically the story of my life. I sang harmony in groups, but I rarely sang solos. I would get so nervous that I had a hard time catching my breath and my voice would waver uncertainly.
College of course brought another beautiful, confident, and soprano “Felicia” into my life. I had matured a lot since high school and was well-liked by teachers and students alike, but being an introvert by nature, I longed for the ease with which this new Felicia carried herself. I felt that if I could just sing so beautifully, I would be content. I knew in my heart that I had an issue with comparing myself to others and prayed extensively that the Lord would help me to view things from His eyes. In spite of my prayers, I continued to struggle with feelings of inferiority through college and fought daily to surrender the lies that I needed to be like someone else. The Lord is so, so gracious. Sweet Jesus. He was even using this battle with self to work all things together for good.
My senior year of college was approaching and I had to decide what to do with my life. I was graduating with a B.S. in Health Science. You know, one of those degrees that is good for everything, but also good for nothing on its own. Decisions, decisions! I wrestled, second-guessed, settled on a dozen different options, then changed my mind again. My best friend once told me on the phone, “Asking you your major is like checking on the weather.” It changed every few days. Finally I had narrowed down my choices to three – a doctor, a physical therapist, or a Masters in Public Health.
I was single at the time, and I knew that if I went into the medicine, that would be at least another 6-7 years of schooling and I would be tied down to one location, Loma Linda. If I became a Physical Therapist, it would be 3 years of schooling and I would be tied down in Berrien Springs. But what if I met a guy that was somewhere else? I settled for the third option – a Masters in Public Health. It was an online program that I could do from anywhere. Before my graduation, I met Philip.
My sister introduced us (a story for another time and place) and we began a long-distance relationship. He was a pastor in Michigan, and I (once I graduated from college) was not location-bound. We were serious about our relationship, so it made sense that I move to Michigan. Fortunately, my best friend owned a house in Berrien Springs where Philip was just transitioning to a three-church district. I moved in with her while Philip and I continued dating and getting to know each other.
Beginning My Singing Journey
Berrien Springs is the home of Andrews University, and in the back of my mind, I kept hearing the voice of my piano teacher from 6 years before. “If you ever go to Andrews University, you have to take voice lessons from Stephen Zork. He is the best there is.” I knew I would probably be singing more solos for special music in our churches, so a month after I moved to the area, I decided to look him up. As I browsed the Andrews music faculty website, I noticed with disappointment that there was nothing about him teaching voice lessons. He was the choir director. Another professor taught voice. My mouse hovered over their email addresses as I argued back and forth in my mind. “Maybe I should just message the professor of voice… After all, there is nothing that says that Mr. Zork even takes voice students. He’s probably far too busy to take on a private student. He doesn’t even know who I am… But, Mrs. Hansen didn’t recommend the other guy, I actually have an excuse to ask Mr. Zork. Besides, what’s the worst he could say? If he says no, I can always ask him who he recommends, and then I’ll know that I’m taking from someone good.”
I copied Mr. Zork’s email address. “Dear Mr. Zork, I just moved to Berrien Springs a few weeks ago….” With a prayer and a level of apprehension, I pressed “SEND” and nervously awaited a reply. Within two hours, I received a reply asking me to come in for an audition. I knew that my voice was not solo quality, but I would need to sing for church more since Philip was a pastor of three churches. In the back of my mind, I wanted to sing as well as the Felicias in my life, but I also genuinely wanted to be able to sing to glorify God. I prayed, “Lord, if you will give me a good enough voice to sing solos, I will only sing songs that glorify you the rest of my life.”
My audition for Mr. Zork was nerve-wracking. Here is a first-class choir director that is taking time for me – a nobody. And my greatest aspiration was to sing special music at church. Convincing.
He asked me to sing Amazing Grace, which I breathlessly did in a semi-shaky voice, trying my best to make it sound record-worthy and to stay on pitch. I’m sure if there was one thing I did not exude it was confidence. But he graciously listened, pointed out some areas we can focus on, and set up a time to meet weekly. I’ll never forget what he told me. He said, “you know, I haven’t taken any voice students for 6 years, but this year, for the first time, I decided to take on one or two community students as a mission. How often would you like to meet? Every week? Every other week?” He charged me half of what he normally charged and we began our lessons. I was in awe. Six years before, the Lord had planted the seeds in my mind from Mrs. Hansen’s recommendation, and now, 6 years later, God impressed Mr. Zork to take on a community student on top of his regular work-load. I was starting voice lessons just to sing better for special music, but little did I know, God had so much more in mind!
Philip and I got married a year after I moved to Berrien Springs. I continued voice lessons, and occasionally the inspiration struck to write a song. A loved one was really struggling with life choices, so I wrote a song about our names being written in the book of life. I “randomly” began reading through the Psalms for devotions, and as I read, music started to flood my mind. Certain Psalms had a cadence that lent themselves to melody, so I started singing them into my voice memos and thought, “maybe someday I’ll have a collection of the Psalms put to music.” One of the things that bothers me about a lot of scripture music is that is often more difficult to learn the melody than it is to just memorize the scripture verse. My goal was to make a clean, simple melody that fit the mood of the passage.
My confidence in composing music grew through the Psalms when the Lord put the next idea onto my heart.
Then came the Sabbath drive that changed my life and catapulted me onto a world stage! Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration. Ahem, I mean, a major exaggeration. My life changed, but I have not made it to a world stage, nor is that my goal!
It was a sunny Sabbath morning. Phil and I had made acquaintance with a lovely couple that was engaged to be married. We had received an invitation to the wedding, but there was no way that Phil could make it since it was during our normal church service. On top of that, the location was a three hour drive from where we lived, making it an almost full day’s trip. I decided to go alone. I had one CD in the car, and only one song on the CD that I really liked. The song was “When Ten Thousand Angels Cried.” I listened to it over… and over… and over. For three hours. As soon as the track finished I would start it again. The words contemplated the angels’ experience watching Jesus die. “Oh it must have looked like rain, when 10,000 angels cried.” Imagine a cloudy, rainy day. Then picture the rain coming from the weeping eyes of angels as they sobbed over the loss of the life of Jesus. The more I listened to it, the more deeply it affected me. I thought, “How cool would it be to write a song like this about the angels’ experience at the crucifixion!” And then I thought, “Why write just one song? Why not write a whole series of songs from the perspectives of different people that were actually there?”
That week I walked into my voice lesson and excitedly announced to Mr. Zork that I had a project I wanted to tackle. He listened as I told him of my dream to write a series of songs on the crucifixion. To me, it was about telling a story. I didn’t just want to include the obvious people like Peter or Mary, I wanted to tell the story from even those that were lost. Men like Caiaphas, Pilate, and Judas had a story to tell as well. What could we learn from their experience?
Mr. Zork listened. When I finished sharing my vision he looked thoughtful. It was a critical moment and I watched closely. Perhaps he would laugh at the audacity of my goal or just casually remark about how it was a great idea and there the dream could die, or at least my motivation would be severely diminished. It was a fragile dream fraught with my own insecurities. I had only written a few songs in my life. I wasn’t a good singer, so even if I wrote the songs, who would sing them? Certainly not I… Even if I wrote them and found someone to sing them, I would also need to make sheet music, record ($$$), and then market the end result. The whole idea was daunting to say the least.
Mr. Zork’s voice broke the silence. “I think it is a great idea and that you should do it.” His expressions and demeanor spoke of genuine belief and confidence in my ability to undertake such a project. I asked him if he would be willing to help guide me through the process and he readily agreed. From that point on, I began writing music and our lesson time morphed from voice lessons to composition lessons where we critiqued my latest songs, tweaked chords and wording, and also worked on my own singing and expression. These lessons were the absolute highlight of my week. Mr. Zork had become more than just a voice teacher or coach. He had become a music mentor. Our discussions helped to form my philosophy of music and worship. I left his office many weeks and immediately called my mom while floating across Andrews University campus, filling her in on the latest progress made and insights gained.
For about 9-10 months I ate, slept, and breathed music. Many nights I had a hard time going to sleep. Poor Philip (by now we were married). Just as we would be drifting off, a bout of inspiration would hit, forcing me to jump up and sing words into the voice memos on my phone before it was lost forever. Other times I tapped out the music on his back as if I was playing the piano or hummed various experimental melodies.
Sometimes my mind felt so taxed as I focused exclusively on the message and music of the crucifixion that I literally felt like I was going crazy and wanted to pull my hair out. Slowly I finished one song after another until I had finished all 11 songs. I practiced and practiced, sang them over and over, and started the tedious process of making sheet music.
I knew I needed to record the songs, but who would sing them? I wracked my brain for potential names. Mr. Zork also thought of a few, but then urged me to sing them myself. “After all,” he reasoned, “you wrote the songs, you should sing them.” I hesitantly agreed, but in order to record the songs, I would need money to pay studio fees. I knew it would cost $4000-$7000 on the conservative end. How do artists raise money for that? Thus began my live concerts. I didn’t know where I would record, or how I would get it done, but I could at least start raising the money.
Concerts brought me my next challenge. My voice was improving and I was getting better at singing. I had honed the piano parts for each song, but I still struggled playing and singing together. I complained to my sister, “I need my own personal accompanist to travel with me.” She was not only unimpressed, but also quite unsympathetic. She perkily responded, “You just need to practice singing and playing together more.” Ugh. Easy for someone to say who hasn’t done it… But I knew she was right. Besides, as Mr. Zork pointed out, there were benefits of singing and playing together. Stage presence is a beast of its own. No one thinks about it until someone up front is struggling, and then, everyone gets nervous. If I were to stand and sing, I would have to master stage presence. We’re talking spending hours in front of a mirror analyzing my expressions and movements. Since I was stuck behind the piano, I didn’t have to figure out what to do with my hands, or how to turn or walk intentionally on the stage. Also, I found it was almost better to multitask singing and playing, otherwise I had a tendency to overanalyze my voice as I sang, which was counterproductive to a satisfactory outcome!
Around this time, another opportunity arose. Some close family friends decided to make a documentary on the reformation with my husband as the narrator. They asked if I would be willing to do some simple background music – just the piano or something. Looking at how the Lord had blessed and guided in my songwriting expedition so far, and seeing that I had actually accomplished my goal of writing a series of songs on the crucifixion, I agreed. I was drawn to making music tell a story in and of itself. Even without words, music is so powerful that you can understand the message the composer seeks to convey. I was ready to tackle a new challenge – film scoring.
I volunteered my time on the condition that the music software I needed would be provided. We bought the necessary computer, keyboard, digital music libraries, and software to run it all. It was a daunting task. The documentary would be 2 hours in length and it takes 8 hours to make 1-2 minutes of film music. It would take at least 500-1,000 hours to finish the project. I had never orchestrated instruments before, and learned some fascinating things. For example, the clarinet has the biggest range of any of the orchestral wind instruments (coming from someone who chose to learn it because it was pretty, I knew there had to be at least one other good reason to play it!).
My sessions with Mr. Zork had gone from voice lessons, to songwriting lessons, to film-scoring lessons and I was loving it! Film scoring was the greatest challenge yet. I watched the same section of the documentary over and over, trying to feel the emotions of the story and put those feelings into sound waves. Not everyone on our production team always agreed with the best sound palettes for various stories, so it was a delicate balance of staying true to the message of the film and also producing a product that we all agreed on. As I was in the throes of working on the documentary, we received a call that was to open the next door for my music.
I still had no definite plans for recording my Were You There – Songs from the Crucifixion album. I had managed to raise about $2,000 dollars toward the project, but was having a difficult time figuring out where to record. I knew of a few recording studios within two hours of Berrien Springs that other friends had recorded at, but hadn’t gotten the best reviews on them. I knew I had one shot to make this album, but how did one go about choosing the best studio?
It was almost autumn and the leaves were just beginning to turn their beautiful shades of red and gold. Philip had finished several projects around our house that had turned it into our own little slice of paradise when we got a call asking us to interview with another church. A month later, we found ourselves moving to Lansing to pastor a church there – two years after I had started writing all my music.
We quickly wrapped up the Light Unshackled documentary and settled into our new home in the heart or Michigan. This was my opportunity and I knew it. I pulled out my computer, typed in “recording studios near me,” and hit enter. Several options popped up. Let’s see, Crack House Recording Studio, maybe not… Elm Street, they look nice, on the more affordable side, Glenn Brown Productions, looks like a good selection of equipment… I contacted several places and finally settled on Glenn Brown Productions. Compared to the other studios, he seemed to get what I wanted to do and offered lots of ideas on how to accomplish it – something I desperately needed since I had no idea where to start. Besides that, his rates were on the more expensive side, and I had been told that in recording, “you get what you pay for.” Sure enough, Glenn had the mic I had my heart set on (Neumann u87), as well as all the connections to local musicians, piano stores for a concert grand piano, and wisdom that echoed everything Mr. Zork had recommended for recording.
I knew I didn’t have enough money to record everything, but decided to move forward with what I had and trusted that in time, the Lord would provide the rest (I might just have to schedule a dozen more concerts!). Sure enough, a donor stepped in and offered to cover everything above what I had already raised from concerts.
Over the past two years, I have finally been able to wrap up the recording for my album. All I need to do is make physical CDs to sell. Through this process, I have seen the Lord work over and over. He has used a little comment here, an opportunity there to guide me step by step. By the world’s standards, I have in no way arrived anywhere. I’m not famous and there are always people out there with a better voice. But what God has taught me through my experience with music is that when He puts a burden on our hearts and we step forward in faith to do what He has given us a heart to do, He will give us the abilities, opportunities, and finances we need just when we need them.