More Religious?

What makes you feel like something is religious? Is it something you feel, see, taste or refrain from tasting? Is it something you wear? 

When you feel like you’ve had a religious experience, what were your surroundings? Nature? Cement?  People? Music? Silence?

You must be wondering where I’m going with this. This week’s Portraits of White fan question was very thought-provoking. I’ve been chewing on it all summer.  

“Do you ever consider making Portraits of White more religious?”

I remember the first time I experienced someone who was obviously NOT religious—at least, not in the way I was raised.

I am 20 years old and I am working at Domino’s Pizza as a delivery driver in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, just outside the city of Tulsa. I am attending a two year Bible School program and need a job to help support myself for the next two years. 

It’s a fun job! In the winter, I do donuts in the parking lot in my little blue Mazda, when it snows. I eat plenty of great pizza—between deliveries, of course. I probably won’t stay at this job for long because it just doesn’t make sense (or cents) with the wear and tear on my car. But it’s all I can find for now. Not only will I learn the geography of Broken Arrow, I’m’ about to be introduced to the “world.”

My boss’s language was, well…let’s just say it was quite colorful. Though the words that I heard coming out of his mouth shocked me, I could tell that it was more than just his words that were different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I remember thinking to myself, “I thought you could tell if someone was religious by what they are wearing, but now I think I see that there’s more to it than just what you can see about someone.”

I had been raised in a very sheltered atmosphere at home, church and school. I was never aloud to say filler words like, “rats” or “darn.”  It just wasn’t proper or godly. I tried saying “rats” a few times, but my mother always scolded me. I didn’t like rats anyway, so it was no big deal to stop using the word.

As I grew into womanhood, I made sure I “looked” the part of being a religious person because it was easy to meet the standards. I knew clearly where the lines were. Well, mostly. I was never sure how long the dress should be, or whether I should wear my hair up or down. I just wanted to be perfect and loved. We certainly didn’t accessorize, though for some reason, a simple decorative pin might be ok from time to time. I didn’t really question the standards. I did what was recommended. I even tried to do above and beyond the expectations, just to be sure.

I certainly tried to make sure my heart was good too. It took me a long time to understand that there is so much more to living a God-life than the things you can see, taste, wear or say. In fact, some of the toughest times in my adult years came from conversations with my mother. She saw the world in black and white and sometimes I wanted to add some color—to my lips and my eyes. I liked fancy outfits and hair. 

In Oklahoma, I began to understand that I viewed God in black and white. It makes sense since that’s how I grew up. But, He was rather hard to please, in my opinion. I couldn’t have said this specifically back then because I was very busy and studious about trying to be perfect. I had always tried be perfect for Him, so He would love me. 

It’s taken me years to untangle myself from some of that thinking and to understand who God really is. I don’t have Him figured out yet and I’m old enough to know now that I never will. So I try to live with a much more open hand and heart, extending grace and compassion to others. I even wish I could meet my first “worldly” boss from Domino’s. I’d like a chance to understand his journey and what was really going on inside his heart, beyond his words. Instead of such quick deduction about him, I wish I could have taken the time to actually get to know him.

So back to Portraits of White. What would make it “feel” like a more religious program? Do I ever consider making it more religious? I just don’t know what “more religious” would look like. 

I write songs about my life. Snow. Sleigh rides. Miracles. God. Christmas. Loneliness. Death. I honestly don’t know how to compartmentalize my life. It’s all mixed into one big pot. All I know to do is offer up what is currently going on in my heart and life each year. I start with a blank page at the beginning of the planning stage and start writing according to what I sense I want to do in my heart. Everything I say, sing and write is an overflow of my heart. 

So you’re likely going to hear some sad songs and happy songs. You’ll probably laugh a little and might even cry. I want you to walk away feeling alive and inspired. I want you to know that some of the feelings you might experience during the holidays are normal and you’re not alone. 

I prefer to offer my gift and my heart to you. If you walk away feeling as if you’ve had a religious experience, I would be thrilled. But only you can know what that means for you.

If I Weren’t the One in Charge

“Planning a Christmas show sounds like fun. I don’t see how that can be called WORK!” 

That’s what my dental hygienist said to me as I tried to get comfortable in the dentist chair. Are the words comfortable and dentist chair compatible?  It was time to finish up my crown but I wasn’t feeling very royal. After all, in a few moments, they’d be shooting my gums with novocaine and I’d be laying flat on my back with dental tools forced into my mouth. Plus, because of COVID, they would be framing my face with a plastic trampoline-like gizmo for protection from all the flying stuff. Man oh man. Where does it end?

I don’t know about your dentist office, but where I go they always ask what I’ll be doing the rest of the day. I suppose it provides distraction. I usually say something about practicing the piano or planning a Christmas show. But since no one ever seems to know what to say in response to that, especially when it’s January or July, I decided to say something generic. “I’ll be heading in to work,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.

The young, new hygienist wasn’t buying the generic answer. She wanted to know what I actually DO at my work. It was only July, but I was in the thick of planning my December Portraits of White concert. So I gave in and told her that’s what I’d be doing. Which led to her comment….”Planning a Christmas show sounds like fun. I don’t see how that can be called WORK!” 

I smiled and went along with her. Because, truth be told, it IS delightful to dream up a big show and make it happen….in theory. When I started to explain the process; budget spreadsheets, venue details, ticket prices, sponsorship letters, hiring musicians, designing postcards, posters, website updates, creating music arrangements, etc. she became quite engaged and expressed genuine interest in the show. “My mother and sister would love it,” she said. I put on my marketing hat and encouraged her to definitely make it a girls’ night out.

I’ve heard it before: “It must be so much fun to plan a Christmas show.” I try to respond with a resounding “YES, it IS!” 

I should go back to the office, stop in for a quick hello and give her a postcard, now that I have something to show for my work. 

Portraits of White 2021 postcard front
Portraits of White 2021 postcard back

So the question I intend to answer from a fan this week is an interesting contrast to the perception that it’s fun. It shows that this fan understands that there are mountains to climb, streams to ford and rainbows to follow when you’re “living the dream.” 

The question was, “What do you like least about Portraits of White?” It really is a funny question. You’d think that when you’re living the dream you wouldn’t have anything to dislike about it. 

In a nutshell, I’ve had to learn to wear many hats. I remember when a publicist once said to me, “You have to think like a marketer and take off your artist hat.” They were right.

As a songwriter, it seemed most appropriate to change the lyrics of the song “If I Only Had a Brain” in the Wizard of Oz to “If I Weren’t the One in Charge” to answer this question honestly. So I put on my songwriting hat.

I’d be tanning in Orlando
playing jazz piano
A self-discovered star
I’m sure I’d be famous
and delivered from insaneness
If I weren’t the one in charge

Perhaps I’d make more money
Now wouldn’t that be yummy
I’d need a bodyguard
I’d probably own an island
I’d be rich like Barbara Streisand
If I weren’t the one in charge

Oh I could close the shop at five
Or spend the day at my chateau
I could figure out a way to make it snow
Then show up late for my own show

Oh I wouldn’t have to juggleOh I wouldn’t have to juggle
The Portraits of White puzzle
Or practice the guitar
I’d sleep through the morning

But my life would be SO boring
If I weren’t the one in charge

Facing the Spooks

“Does planning a show of this magnitude give you anxiety? What is your biggest worry when planning Portraits of White?” What a great set of questions from a fan!

How about this for an answer?

I am mindlessly sticking my hand in the peanut chocolate M&M bag and stuffing my mouth with various colors of the delightful candy. I don’t know when I started developing such a fondness for these little temptations. My husband and I ration them out. If Tom gets five, I get five. We even try to keep the colors the same in each pile.

Somehow, over the past year, we’ve departed from that tradition. I’m probably the one to blame for this lack of equality in distribution. On this particular day, to which I’m currently referring, I am actually eating this candy without even realizing it. Doesn’t matter what color or how many…I just eat.

In frustration, I sit down on the green chair in my living room to take a moment and reflect on why I’m doing this, again. I know the pattern. Something about my life feels out of control so I do something that I can control. I turn to food. I eat. It’s the only area where I feel as if I am “in control”—which is quite self-delusional. Yet, somehow, I believe it’s true. I can control what I put into my mouth. But in this moment, I eat uncontrollably. You probably know the feeling. 

I talk myself through it and remind myself that it’s Portraits of White season. Things get kind of stressful right about now and sort of “spooky” (in keeping with the Wizard of Oz theme). This year, it’s a little above and beyond the normal spookiness because of COVID. Like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz when he sees the big owls with glowing eyes in the haunted forest, I want to run the opposite direction. The Tin Man and Scarecrow have to literally pick him up, turn him around and carry him. I could use some “carrying” right about now.

There are a lot of things that can make me want to turn back. It can be the tiniest thing, but usually it’s a combo. The music arrangements are pouring into my email box. I’m trying to organize all of the parts for the musicians, suggest changes to the arrangers, check the notations, create demos, memorize songs, practice the piano, keep my voice in shape, stay away from colds and viruses, think about how to make the whole show cohesive and meaningful… I’m also trying to follow up with businesses regarding sponsorships. Are they willing to support the show again this year? How much? If so, can they send in their logo/ad soon so we have it in time to print the programs?

By December, I’ll be fine. It’s just this in-between stage that can be rough. So, if one M&M equals one spook, perhaps eating them one by one is the answer. Or not.

Back to the original questions. “Does planning a show of this magnitude give you anxiety? What is your biggest worry when planning?” Normally, I’d say it’s SNOW that’s my biggest worry.

This year, you can add COVID to the list of concerns.

When it comes to facing fears, I think you can break “spooks” into two general categories:

1) Inside things (Your soul)

I have found that some of my biggest fears are actually within me. I’ve done a ton of soul-work around my inside fears and it’s paying off. I love the growth I’ve experienced because I’ve paid attention to them. 

I used to try and stuff my fears, or just ignore them completely. Doing something as courageous as putting on a Christmas show brought me face to face with some of my biggest fears, like fear of rejection. I found myself afraid that people wouldn’t come. Duh. We started in 2014 and people have been coming EVERY year. 

An even bigger challenge in the beginning had to do with facing intimidation. Questions like, “who do you think you are?” would wake me up in the middle of the night.

These days, I find that facing these fears head on works better than stuffing and ignoring. And oh, by the way, I’ve learned that as soon as I deal with one fear, there will be another one that pops up. It’s the nature of being a dreamer. Your heart knows what it wants to do, but your brain simply freaks out. 

The other spook category has to do with:

2) Outside things (The circumstances)

In this category, there are circumstances that are absolutely beyond my control and unfortunately, they can really raise quite a ruckus in my brain.

Things like…the WEATHER! Snow. Ice. Blizzards.


Pandemic. CDC restrictions. 

Here are a few steps I take to help me deal with the inside and outside spooks:

  • Identify the fear. (What am I afraid of, specifically?)
  • Say it out loud. (There’s just something powerful about naming it, out loud.)
  • I ask myself, what is the worst thing that could happen? (If my fear would come true, what would that look like?)
  • Could I be ok with that? (This can seem like you’re giving in, but personally, I have found the greatest peace comes when I release control and choose to be ok with whatever the outcome might be.)

Do you remember the phrase, “Let not your heart be troubled?” It always reminds me that heart trouble is a choice. At least, this kind of heart trouble. Ouch. That’s challenging, isn’t it? However, I believe that like anything else, it just takes practice. Sometimes I just have to say, “heart, we’re not going to be troubled about this!” 
Using techniques such as praying, journalling, singing, quietness, reflection and confession can all be effective in facing the spooks. It’s also nice if you have some friends who can pick you up and carry you through the spooky places.

This week’s video.

YOU Are My Friends on the Yellow Brick Road

For most of my career, I viewed myself as a musician—in the music business. In the past few years, I’ve changed my mind. Or at least made room for a broader perspective. As a songwriter, I don’t just write and perform music. I help give voice to what others might be feeling but find themselves unable (or afraid) to express it. There is an exchange that happens between artist and fan. It’s a beautiful thing. I no longer see myself as just a musician in the music business. I believe I’m in the people business.

My live music producer planted this seed years ago when he challenged my thinking about why musicians get nervous when performing. “The enemy of love is self-consciousness,” he said. What he was saying was resonating with me. 

If a person really analyzes why they get nervous (about anything they might do in front of people) it’s usually because you’re afraid of what others will think. Therefore, you are focused on how you feel and not on how the audience (or the other person) might be feeling.  

It’s taken years for this to take hold in my life, but it has happened! I feel the difference. I rarely get nervous anymore and if I do, I start thinking about YOU. I ask myself some questions about you. Things like: What frame of mind will you be in? What will you have just experienced at home? Will you have just received a life-changing phone call? What are you carrying in your soul these days? What are your current struggles?

It works every time. If I start to feel nervous, I change my mind. I stop thinking about me and I start thinking about you.

In fact, I started to find that if I talk to my audience one on one before a concert, I actually feel at complete peace when I get on stage because we’ve already connected on a personal level. It’s very satisfying.

As the Director of Worship at various churches for sixteen years, I started practicing this concept of one on one interaction before and after the services I directed. It was challenging at times because I had a lot of responsibility on the platform that I needed to focus on, but the more I took time to interact with people, the more my confidence (and ease) grew. Now, when someone tells me I’m an extrovert, I smile because I know a secret. I’m actually an introvert, but I’ve learned to love my audience in practical ways, which leads some people to think I’m an extrovert.

When a Portraits of White fan asked “What is the most rewarding part of doing Portraits of White,” it didn’t take me long to come up with an answer. Sure, I love practicing and I love the first note of the concert when you, the audience, are seated and we are ready for the train to leave the station. We’re off to see the wizard and we’ve locked arms. You are my friends on the yellow brick road for the next couple of hours. That’s definitely a special part of doing the show.

I also love the last note of the evening, because at this point, I know my dream has become reality and nothing has stopped it. I will make my way out to the lobby to greet as many of you as I can. I’ll soak in your smiles, tears, laughter and comments. I’ve prepared an evening of inspirational music and you’ve blessed me by coming. We’ve exchanged Christmas gifts and I feel happy. 

In this week’s video, I “sang” my answer to the fan question—to the tune of “My Favorite Things” by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II. 

“Lots of musicians and long rows of people
Spotlights and snowflakes
and moments of giggles
Lacy white dresses and eighty-eight keys
These are a few of my favorite things

Seeing your faces after it’s over
Reading your emails and handwritten letters
Knowing the joy all the music will bring
These are a few of my favorite things”

Are You Rusty?

“You don’t need to practice do you?”  

It feels more like a statement than a question and it comes from a laborer who has spent years perfecting his craft in woodworking and fixing up kitchens. We stand in the middle of my kitchen as he works and he’s curious about the fact that I’m preparing for a Christmas show in the middle of June.

I stand there, wondering how to explain something that seems like it should be common sense. Isn’t that like assuming an athlete doesn’t need to consistently exercise? Or asking the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz why he needs oil? 

But, I think to myself, perhaps people who don’t play instruments really think that musicians don’t have to practice. So I try to explain that there is more to practicing than just “running through a song.” Keeping my fingers agile, my brain sharp and my vocal chords strong are only a part of the drill.

“How much time do you put into practicing?” Now that’s an easier question to answer and it came from another Portraits of White fan. 

The short answer is “as much time as possible.” I usually try to set aside a few hours each day to practice. I shut off my electronics and dig in. I find that a few hours of concentrated, uninterrupted practice time is better than trying to “fit it in” between all of the other tasks that go with running a business. Practice is oil that prevents rustiness. Even just a little bit of time, consistently, on a daily basis can help keep anyone keep their skill set sharp, no matter what life-work you’ve chosen. For a musician, practicing is key. Pun intended.

One of my core values is well-being, in all areas of my life.

Practice — musical health

Exercise — physical

Journalling/Writing — emotional 

Praying/Reading — spiritual

Listening to positive messages — mental

Conversation — relational

What about your life? Do you know what keeps you running smoothly physically, mentally, spiritually? 

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.

What Really Matters, Dorothy?

“Why did you start the show?” [Portraits of White]

“You said you want it to be a personal experience. Why does that matter to you?”

These two questions from a fan of Portraits of White are probably the most special to me of all the questions I’ve been asked.

Beyond the fancy dresses, wonderful musicians, spotlights and set design, there IS a very passionate longing in my heart when it comes to this beloved Christmas show. Basically…

How we experience Christmas matters to me. We all have a longing to find our “home,” especially during the holidays. 

“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.” — L. Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)

For years, I struggled with the holidays, emotionally. Thankfully, I had a physical home, but there was a sadness that seemed to plague me at Christmas. 

In fact, I almost gave up on Christmas. Frankly, I secretly dreaded the holidays. Fortunately, Christmas didn’t give up on me. The more I share my own story, the more I seem to encounter others who have felt this way too…or perhaps, still do. My solution to this “problem” was to create a grand Christmas concert experience where people could come together and enjoy a professional show with a home-town feel. 

Portraits of White had its debut in 2014 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with a SOLD OUT show. It has become a holiday favorite for many people who return every year for another dose of a meaningful musical experience.

One of the big reasons I had such an aversion to Christmas was because as a young girl, our family tragically lost two brothers and I never learned how to process the grief our family experienced. It always seemed especially tough at Christmas.

My brother, Nathan, drowned in our farm pond a few days after his second birthday, and another brother, Doug, (age 26) was killed in a tractor accident on a farm where he worked. He had a wife, two young daughters and three younger siblings. I was seven when the Pastor came to our farmhouse to tell my mother she lost her first-born son. That front-porch scene is forever etched in my mind.

As I got older, my struggle with sadness during the holidays only grew stronger. So in 1999, I decided to “skip Christmas” and ask God to reveal why I had such a hard time with the holiday season. Where was this “joy” the little baby in a manger was supposed to bring?

Months of quiet reflection that year began to reveal deep-seated, unprocessed grief. As I unwrapped this concealed package of heaviness, I was surprised to discover how far down I could stuff something in my little soul only to have it show up later in life in seemingly unrelated ways. But grief is a root that produces shoots of unwanted growth in so many areas if left unattended.

Through tears, quietness, prayer, and a re-examining of the original Nativity story, I started a healing journey. I found unusual solace in the fact that there were threads of sorrow in the story of the Christ-child. I had never noticed that until I viewed it through my own window of sadness. Once I identified the grief, then it seemed that joy was able to start growing, even if it was as slow as an oak tree.

As a songwriter, I guess it’s a natural progression to write songs as you process life (and death). So I started writing songs about my journey around the holidays and grief. Later, the story turned into an album—an audio journal of sorts. On the flip side of sadness, I also have a quirky side and a child-like love for snow that shows up in my songwriting. So the title track of my Christmas album, Portraits of White, seemed like the best title for my thoughts reflecting the winter seasons of my life, both the sad and the fun.

In fact, I wrote the title track while I was driving to Shippensburg, PA on Route 997 (yes, I do write while I drive—oops!) The fluffy snow was blowing and drifting across the road and painting “portraits of white” throughout the Cumberland Valley. The playful song reflects my life-time fascination with snow. Just like the dormant seeds that sprout after the blanket of cold winter snow has lifted, life sprung from the long, hard winter of my disenchantment with Christmas, and I found hope. I think this might also be why I loved snow. It always turned the dark barren winters into portraits of white…long before it was ever a song title in my mind.

With a vision to share my story and music with others who may have been touched by loss, I stepped out to follow my dream of putting together a professional concert each December. This year will be the eighth year for this BIG dream and every year is creatively different! In 2020, I had to get REAL creative when we all had to stay home. So I created a DVD and called it Portraits of White—At Home. 

Portraits of White 2019

Along with other professional musicians from the South Central Pennsylvania region, we always combine humor, stories and inspiring music to offer hope during the holidays. This event has become a highlight of the Christmas season for many people.

Every year, the creative team I put together makes a special effort to ensure that the music for Portraits of White is unique and entertaining; working hard to maintain the nostalgic feel of Christmas while presenting music in a unique way that is new and creative but still leaves you with the warm, fuzzy Christmas feeling you expect during the holidays.

I love offering hope over the holidays by sharing stories, humor and great music. This concert contains all of those elements and more!

So there you have it…the long answer.