The Chicken or the Egg?

We had chickens on our farm and I don’t ever remember having trouble deciding which came first…the chicken or the egg. It was obvious to me. The peeps came first. 

My mother and I would drive the very curvy and hilly Pennsylvania back roads to a little poultry farm near us and pick up boxes of peeps. They’d “peep” all the way home. The sound was comforting to me. Then we’d unload the boxes of the little yellow fuzzy balls into our chicken house. My mother, along with our apricot poodle, Angie, and I would sit in the chicken house and watch them for hours.  It’s one of my favorite memories from childhood.

What do chickens and eggs have to do with Portraits of White, you ask? 

It’s what popped into my mind when I read this week’s fan question. It’s really one of those “chicken or egg” questions.

“Do you pick the musicians and then select the songs and arrangements around those musicians? Or do you select the music arrangements and then find the musicians to fit your needs? 

Thanks to Doug Cook, Eastman School of Music alumni [Performer’s Certificate]—one of the star players of Portraits of White, I can select just about any arrangement I want, because we have such great musicians to draw from. Doug was the first person I approached about playing in my “orchestra” and his musical network consisted of pro musicians throughout South Central Pennsylvania. Since he knew that I wanted to put together an orchestra, he made a very special offer. 

“Would you like me to be the music contractor for your Christmas show?” 

At the time, I didn’t know what a gift Doug was giving me when he offered to do this. I knew anyone he chose would be amazing, so I immediately said, “yes!”

I first met Doug when I was asked to serve as Director of Worship at a local church on a temporary basis. I wanted to continue my path of songwriting and concert ministry, so I said that I’d help as much as I could for a few months. In the end, I ended up taking the permanent position because it was such a joy to serve.  Over that same time, Doug Cook was invited to be the choir director at the same church. 

After years of working with him, I learned that he was a jazz musician. I had heard that he was a very talented musician, but he never mentioned it and I never got to really see what he was capable of when he was directing the choir. Then I heard him play with the Buzz Jones Big Band. I could see (and hear) that he was in his sweet spot when he played his saxophone.

His wife, Amy Cook, is also a professional musician. She is a fabulous cellist and from the very first moment I played piano with her, it felt like we were musical sisters. It was such a delight to work with this husband and wife team in church ministry. Doug and Amy were extremely talented and dependable. 

Amy Cook – Portraits of White 2017 (Photo credit: Brian Gayman)

When I decided to pursue my idea of the Christmas show with an orchestra, Doug and Amy were the first people I asked to be part of the show. And this is when Doug offered to contract the needed musicians. 

Doug “blew everyone away” the very first year of Portraits of White with his saxophone solo. Most of us didn’t really know how talented he was until he picked up his horn on stage! He’s been a crowd favorite ever since. 

Doug Cook – Portraits of White 2017 (Photo credit: Brian Gayman)

Once I learned the ropes of hiring musicians and began building my own relationships with the professional musicians, I began doing the contracting myself, along with the help of Ed Kee, the previous conductor of the show. Being from Nashville, Ed had a solid music business history and mentored me. Between Doug and Ed, I had wonderful mentors.

Ed Kee (Conductor) Portraits of White 2017 (Photo credit: Brian Gayman)

So on to the audience question for this week…

“Do you pick the musicians and then select the songs and arrangements around those musicians? Or do you select the music arrangements and then find the musicians to fit your needs?”

Like I said earlier, that sort of feels like a “which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” question. But it’s an easy answer. The first year, we knew we wanted to produce the music from my Portraits of White album, live, on stage. So we figured out what we’d need instrumentally and then hired the needed musicians—all within a budget, of course. We started small the first year and then kept adding more players over the next several years.

Once we began assembling a quality group of professional musicians from South Central Pennsylvania, I could choose any music I wanted, knowing I had a group of players who could play anything with short notice. Many of them play in local symphonies or have traveled as pro musicians. 

There are really only two things that are limiting about the show….the budget and time. Fortunately, when it comes to selecting music, I can be very creative because of the top-notch musicians we have in Portraits of White.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road Part 2

“How do you pick the songs?” 

That’s such a great question from another Portraits of White fan. In order to answer that, you need to know about a pivotal point in my music journey in 2004, long before Portraits of White existed.

I’m sitting in Franklin, Tennessee at The Factory. It’s my first time in Nashville and I’m eager to learn. I’m here because my record producer [Keith] moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville so he could help music artists. In fact, the night before he and his family packed up the U-haul and hit the road, we finished recording my vocals. Not only did their belongings move to Nashville, I felt like my music career had just moved with them, leaving me behind. I was sure my recording days were over. After all, with the talent that swarms Nashville, why would he want to work with me ever again?

Keith had been such a blessing in my life as the producer of I Still Believe (my 3rd album). He had a passion to find more ways to help the music artists he was working with, so he relocated to Music City. Within six months of moving to Tennessee, he put together an amazing conference of speakers and resources for musicians. Now, here I am at the conference, in the front row, note pad ready. My cup is turned upward, waiting to be filled.

All kinds of speakers, producers, publicists, songwriters, coaches, etc., are there, filling us with incredible inspiration, wisdom and resources. This is the conference where I will meet my future producer Eric Copeland, as well as find a manager. It’s a pivotal point in my music journey. I can feel it. The water is stirring.

Producer, Eric Copeland – Nashville Photo Shoot

It is through these connections that I will eventually meet Ed Kee, the original conductor of Portraits of White, who will help me launch my big dream. Of course, I don’t know that yet.

But of all the amazing information I take in at the conference, the most significant life-changing moment happens when Tom Jackson, Live Music Producer, steps out on the stage.

Ed Kee (conductor), Frances Drost, Tom Jackson (Live Music Producer) – Portraits of White 2015

“Your audience doesn’t come to just hear you sing or play, they come to experience moments”, he says. 

He has my full attention.

“There are three reasons people go to concerts”, he continues.

  • To be captured and engaged. 
  • To experience moments. 
  • To be changed.

Please tell me more, Tom.

I can’t decide whether to take notes or just sit and absorb. Everything he is saying is resonating with me like nothing else I’d ever heard. In all my years of various music lessons on multiple instruments, no one has talked about this angle of performing—at least not that I recall. I sit on the edge of my seat as Tom takes us deeper. 

“Songs create moments. When you create many different moments in your night, people will come back to your merch table and ask for a song by its name or by something they remember about the song. But what they are really asking is… “Where is that song that made me cry? Where is the song that made me laugh? Where is the song that gave me chills?” In other words, “Where is the song that made me feel that way…because I want to feel that way again.” —Tom Jackson, Live Music Method

I have experienced this many times at my table after a concert. A perfect example is my song, Never By Accident. After I tell the story and play the song, inevitably someone will come up to me and ask, “Where’s the accident song?” I smile and point the way to the CD, or iTunes. It doesn’t matter that they can’t remember the exact title. They just know that they want THAT song. They felt something while they were listening and they want to take the feeling home with them.

I love hearing people’s homemade titles of my songs—it’s like they give me a gift; their own interpretation of the song.

One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received came on a survey I sent out after Portraits of White one year. “I laughed, I cried, I sang and I left wanting more.”

Mingling with my audience after Portraits of White 2015

My yellow brick road is paved with songs. Each song is a brick on the journey to the Emerald City. Each song creates some kind of moments. And with those moments in mind, that’s how I choose the songs. I look for different moments. I try to make sure the concert road contains all of the elements needed to pave the way for a great show. That’s my yellow brick road.

Speaking of roads…it seems appropriate to end this post with a journal entry I wrote on my trip home from the Nashville conference in 2004.

“I’m on the plane heading home after the CIA Summit (Christian Independant Artists). I don’t even know where to begin. This weekend was another “God thing.” A pivotal point in my life. When will I ever learn that when God seems to bring a season to an end, it only means that down the road something better will come along and you’ll look back at what you left behind (and though you’re thankful for what you had) you realize that letting go was the absolute best thing! Everything builds on everything else. It all counts, but if you cling to the present season and resist letting go, you’ll miss out on bigger opportunities. 

Just when it felt like I got cut off from my only chance at getting out of Newville, all heaven has broken loose for me. I met SO many great people this weekend.  Producers, evaluators, speakers and other artists who are doing what I do. I know I have a great problem—not how will I ever find anyone else to work with, but which great one should I pursue? 

I learned so much about loving your audience, getting bookings, performing with more passion, giving more to others and finding joy and fulfillment in what I’m doing.

I can feel things stirring in my spirit. I know good things are ahead. I also know that I’ve needed tools to help me take things to the next level.” — Frances Drost, March 7, 2004 Journal

Follow the Yellow Brick Road Part 1

Over eight years ago I started planning my trip to Emerald City—the annual Portraits of White Concert. Not only did I have to travel the yellow brick road, I feel like I’ve had to BUILD the road. Though it’s been extremely satisfying to the artist in me, I’ll confess it’s taken a bit longer and has been harder than I imagined.  

In order to keep my feet firmly planted on the path I put my plans up on my wall to help me stay organized. Details, details, details! A fan who visited my studio wanted to know more about my wall. It’s my yellow brick road. It’s my brain—on paper.

On this particular day, I was sitting in my studio facing the wall. I wasn’t alone. I had invited someone [Sharon] over to look at it with me and help me figure out how to actually DO all that’s on the wall. She is a new acquaintance in my life as a result of an event where I was the performer earlier this spring. From the moment I met her and heard her career story, I could tell she had some wisdom that I could benefit from. After sitting down to have coffee with her, I asked her if she’d mentor me. Fortunately, she immediately said yes!

The Wall

Sitting in my studio, we enjoyed a root beer float together as I shared the history of Portraits of White and my current challenges with Covid and changes in my own energy level. I think we’ve all felt the effects of the pandemic and how it has changed our lives. 

After more than an hour of conversation, her conclusion was clear. She said, “You need to hire someone. The business woman in you is competing with the artist in you. We need to free up the artist so you can BE the artist.” 

“What position would I need to hire, IF I could hire someone?” I asked in response to Sharon’s observation.
“A Manager—or a Communications/Marketing Manager.” 

I’m an independent musician surfing the waves of Covid and I just didn’t see how this could be possible. We put together one amazing Christmas show, but someone has to creatively and consistently tell people about it. One of the most challenging aspects for me is the marketing category, for sure. I juggle the fundraising, music arranging, the hiring of players, as well as overseeing the managing of sound, lighting and set design. At the end of long days, it can be hard to think about marketing.

Thankfully, I have wonderful help from a volunteer assistant, Cheryl Kennedy, in many different areas. Having Cheryl in my life is like having a spreadsheet with a personality. She helps to organize my chaos as she manages volunteer coordination, ticket sales, feeding the musicians, seating charts, mailings and anything else I can give her to do. 

One of best things that came out of that meeting with Sharon is that I’ve been able to come up with my own creative marketing plan. Part of that plan is to create the weekly videos on YouTube, this blog and weekly podcast episodes on the Brand New Me podcast. On the podcast, I share excerpts from my journal. There are always emotions to sort through when you follow the yellow brick road toward your dream and the podcast shares my travels on an emotional level.

These are all part of the bricks that make up the yellow brick road. By the time we get to December, you’ll feel like you’re on the stage with me because you’ve been on the road with me. 

Making it Personal

“I love Christmas! It’s my favorite time of the year.” 

I was sitting in the audience watching my favorite music artist when he said this from stage. I’ve been a life-time fan of his music and I still AM! But a shadow cast itself over me in that moment. Disconnect. 

I personally used to really struggle with Christmas. In fact, as a young woman, I used to dread it. If you’ve been reading my blog, you probably know that it took me years to figure out why. 

I sat in my seat processing my reaction to his statement. I was sorry to not have grown up sharing this artist’s sentiment. It somehow detached me from him. Fortunately, before I let myself feel too sad and isolated, his next statement rescued me from my thoughts that were about to get overly analytical. 

“But I know that not everyone feels that way.”  

Whew….I was relieved. 

“Perhaps you feel like you need a miracle tonight.” He touched the piano keys and started to sing—a beautiful song about miracles. It was just the song for the moment. I felt hope. I started to reconnect with him. He had won my heart. 

He didn’t apologize for his love for Christmas, yet he took a moment to acknowledge that others might not share his view. He created a “moment” for me that I’ll never forget. And that’s the kind of moments that I love about concerts. That’s what makes a concert feel unique to me.

So when a fan of my own Christmas show asked, “How do you make the show personal? What is your thought process?” I had to first think about shows I’ve attended that have felt “personal” to me. What were the elements that made it feel that way? 

After making some notes in my journal, I realized that the connecting elements always took me beyond the music. There was always a sense of getting to know the artist. I don’t want to just hear their music. I want my soul to connect with their soul.

I don’t know the “thought process” of other musicians and their shows, but here’s how I approach mine….

Since I personally create the Portraits of White show from a blank canvas every year, that in itself makes it a very personal show. Like building a house, I lay the foundation, choose the songs, the players, the moments and then I create lots of blueprints for how each piece of the show will look. 

Once those plans are firmly in place, I can start practicing the show musically and creatively. I look for places to insert my own personality into the show, just like you’d choose your own paint colors and furniture for a house you designed.

Every great show includes moments that fit into various categories: intro, musical, fun, message, different, GREAT music, pin-drop, closing, etc….you get the idea. I try to make sure I’ve chosen music that prescribes moments just by the nature of the song itself. From there, I let creativity flow.

As I plan the show, I also allow for spontaneity—which means I take what happens in the moment and go with it. This started mainly because the strangest things would happen to me on stage and instead of getting uptight about it, I would just respond in a quirky kind of way. I found that people respond to my personality best when I am spontaneous. 

Over the years, I’ve started looking for ways, even in conversation off the stage, to be fun and engaging. It’s good practice for when I’m on stage. I also love to find ways to interact with the other players on stage, bringing their personality into the show. This guarantees that even if you attended all of the shows in one weekend, you’d get a different experience every time!

My favorite concerts have been the ones where I felt like I got to know the artist—not just musically, but personally. I’ve been to shows where the music production was incredible, but I never got a glimpse into WHO the artist really is. 

I want my show to be more of a unique experience so I choose music that moves me and then I make it my own and insert my own personality into it. I also look for places to make the stories and songs more personal and real to those who are listening. I want people to enjoy a professionally produced show yet feel as if they’ve had coffee with me in my living room. 

As Tom Jackson says in his book, Live Music Method, “I [the audience] want to be led by someone who is confident, in control and is taking me somewhere interesting. I want them to have a charisma and a compelling attractiveness that inspires.” 

I want to be that kind of performer.

This week’s video.