Behind the Music

Working for a symphony orchestra, I come across a lot of interesting characters. From the musicians who make up the orchestra to the patrons who attend our concerts, the full spectrum of humanity’s quirks are on full display.


But one of my favorite parts of my job is reading and writing about the people who wrote the music we perform today. From Beethoven’s hearing loss to Mozart’s mysterious patron requesting what would be his final Requiem, the real life stories of the composers whose genius birthed the greatest music we’ve ever known is often stranger than fiction.

For example, this past weekend, my orchestra performed a piece called Symphonie fantastique, by French composer Hector Berlioz. While the music itself is beautiful, haunting, and bewitching (especially the final movement), it is the story behind it that is the stuff novels are written from.

In 1827, Berlioz was a 24-year-old struggling composer in Paris. After attending a performance of Hamlet put on by a troupe of traveling English actors, he fell immediately in love with the play’s Ophelia, a beautiful young actress named Harriet Smithson. Berlioz wrote her countless love letters, to the point of filling her dressing room with them, but the actress, frightened of this obsessed stalker’s fan’s attentions, never answered them.


For three years, Berlioz held on to his unrequited passion for a woman he had never met, despite becoming engaged to another young woman who ultimately broke it off (Berlioz actually planned to kill his former fiance and her mother, but got cold feet. That’s a story for ANOTHER day.). The composer eventually found an outlet by writing Symphonie fantastique, the story of a young artist in love with a beautiful woman. The artist attempts to kill himself through opium, instead producing a horrible vision in which the artist kills his beloved and is surrounded by a hideous throng of sorcerers and devils before he awakens (cheery stuff, eh?).

When the work premiered in 1832, Smithson just happened to be in the audience. Upon realizing the piece was written for her, and that Berlioz still loved her, she relented and met the composer the next day. Get this: Smithson and Berlioz ended up getting married a year later. Crazy, right? (FYI, they didn’t live happily ever after, since Berlioz didn’t speak English and Smithson didn’t speak French, and apparently Berlioz eventually realized that worshipping his lady love from afar was much more fun that actually living with her.)


Take another composer, Franz Liszt. Insanely talented as a pianist and composer, Liszt gave concerts across Europe, often four or five a week, and was showered with honors and adulations. A true showman who had a mesmerizing stage presence, Liszt’s audiences adored him. Women fought over silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves that Liszt had worn. Broken piano strings from his concerts were made into bracelets. Swarming fans tried to attain locks of his hair, and even fought over his coffee dregs and cigar stumps. Women fainted and went into hysterics in his presence (kind of like the reception Elvis had in his day).

Medical professionals even coined a term for the hysteria in 1842: “Lisztomania.” Unlike “Beatlemania” of the ’60s, Lisztomania was believed to be an actual contagion, and doctors sought to immunize the public against it. Of course, Liszt was just the rock star of his day, and much like “Bieber Fever,” it died out when his popularity waned.

I just adore learning the stories behind classical masterpieces and the people who created them, much like finding out what inspired my favorite authors to write my favorite books. Since I’m writing a symphonic murder mystery, I’ve considered having a blog on my future website dedicated to anecdotes about composers. I’d love to call it The Decomposing Composer. What do you think?


Takin’ the High Road


In my neck of the woods it’s not often that a girl makes it big in Nashville, but that’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah Davison and her gospel group HighRoad.

As a child Sarah grew up on a farm near the tiny town of Braddyville, Iowa playing music with her dad. After high school Sarah moved to Nashville to study commercial piano performance at Belmont University. In 2010 she formed the vocal group HighRoad whose members give spectacular performances on keyboard, piano, fiddle, acoustic guitar, upright bass, and mandolin. Since then the group has received numerous achievements, including receiving the 2015 AGM (Absolutely Gospel Music) Female Group of the Year award; performing at the Country Music Hall of Fame; Women of Faith conferences, Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri; Singing in the Sun—a six day gathering in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina which includes some of gospel music’s greatest talents; the Gatlinburg Gathering; and many others.

high road roadThe name HighRoad refers to the narrow road we, as Christians, must take to follow Jesus. Through their music the group hopes to give their listeners a message of hope and to encourage them to serve Christ. Watching them perform is an inspiration for everyone to chase their dreams. HighRoad is the perfect example of how hard work, diligence, and faith pays off for those who trust in Jesus.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Sarah many times as I know her family quite well, and I can attest to the fact that they all live their lives in accordance with God’s plan. Sarah makes it evident that she won’t forget her country upbringing, coming back to the family farm regularly to sing in the local Cowboy Church led by her dad (who I must say is also really into music) and even entertaining her grandparents and other residents at a nearby assisted living facility.

HighRoad continues to minister through their music as God unveils His journey for them. This is one group of young ladies I can’t wait to follow as God leads them along His path.

Click here to listen to HighRoad’s hit song “Don’t You Weep for Me.”

Come to the Table

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
Matthew 26:26-30

As I read these verses today, a line jumped out at me that I’ve never noticed before. The focus had always been on the bread and the body, but notice what they did following Jesus’ last supper: they sang a hymn.

When I’m struggling with prayer time, when I’m struggling with drawing nearer to God, music breaks the barrier, be it just listening or singing along, letting the lyrics be my prayer. Nothing reaches deep inside, touches me, as music does.

So I leave you with a song for today, an oldie, but the lyrics will never age: “Come to the Table” by Michael Card.

Musical Memories …

As a musician, I’ve completely enjoyed the Inksper topic these past two weeks, hearing everyone’s music preferences and favorites. And through the comments, I’ve already shared I’m definitely a rock ‘n roll fan, and not at all a country fan. Beyond that, my tastes are rather eclectic. I love orchestras and Skillet and Donny Osmond and Steve Green, and much in between. So, since you know that already, I’m taking a different angle toward music: from my character’s perspective.

Memory Box Secrets

In my new release, Memory Box Secrets, the heroine, Sheila Peterson-Brooks, has a musical past, one that she’s suppressed as music conjures up painful memories for her. Yet it’s music that helps her see her past in a different light, eventually bringing healing.

To answer the Inksper topic question: Is Sheila a little bit country, or a little bit rock ‘n roll? The answer is a definitive rock ‘n roll. She and her husband, Richard, are not country fans at all. Her preferred listening choices are rock and classical music.

One of her favorite songs growing up was “Open Arms” by Journey. All she ever wanted from her parents was to be welcomed–loved–with open arms, something that never happened, so now the song invokes bittersweet memories.

Sheila is also a big piano fan, loving the piano versions of “Fur Elise” “Canon in D” and “Beethoven’s Ninth.” But like “Open Arms”, “Fur Elise” stirs up memories she’d like to keep buried. Yet music has a way of bringing buried memories to the surface, and with that, comes healing.

Question: Are there any songs that stir up memories for you?

Memory Box Secrets (Coming Home Series #2)
Available at Amazon | B&N | BAM

Missing the Beat

Photo Credit: by waider
Photo Credit: by waider

I am a music virgin. Ask any of my family. When a great song comes on the radio I’m oblivious to it. If an old classic song comes on the radio I won’t know what song it is until the chorus. My family knows the song, the artist and what year it came out after the first note.

Don’t get me wrong, I like music. I listen to contemporary Christian, some early to mid 90’s and even some hit 80’s, but very few songs resonate with me. My daughter claims a line from Dirty Dancing (though she’s never seen it), “You’ve got to feel the music.”

“What? I don’t know what that means.”

Yep. That’s me. My body doesn’t want to move to the music. My heart doesn’t want to sing along. I have very little emotional reaction to songs. I think I’m broken.

The only way I truly have a connection to music is if it’s been in a movie. When I can associate it with the moment in Dirty Dancing when “nobody puts Baby in a corner” or that moment when Jenny from 13 going on 30 realizes “love is a battlefield” then I’m all in. Even instrumental music I like if it’s that moment when Harry Potter kills Voldemort or Jurassic Park has finally closed.

Should I be shocked that when I looked through my music 75% of them were soundtracks?

I’ve never been to a concert because they seem to loud. I don’t like “live” versions of music because the crowd ruins the original song. I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I’m sure something is…Tell me what I’m missing!

Music for the Soul

Music is the perfect way to soothe the soul and relax or it can invigorate and make me want to dance, depending on what I choose to listen to.

I’m kind of eclectic when it comes to music. If you check out my CD collection, you’ll find country, soft rock, pop, Christian, and orchestra types like Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. You’ll even find a few nature sound CDs with peaceful background music. I need a full selection to fit my mood of the day.

Some of my favorite songs are secular songs with a spiritual bent—like this one by Big and Rich called “That’s Why I Pray.” I had never watched the video until writing this blog. It’s simply beautiful. Click the title to watch and be ready to feel inspired.

Another favorite is Christian artist Plumb’s “Lord I’m Ready Now.” It is such a breathtaking and moving song.

I have great admiration for these artists, and the many, many others like them who spread the word of God through their music.

God bless them and their songwriters on their musical journeys!

Where Words Fail, Music Speaks

Part of my job as the Public Relations Manager of a symphony orchestra is sending out press releases about our individual concerts. It’s easy to include the relevant information: concert name, date and time, performance venue, conductor, special performers, songs on the program, etc.

What’s a little bit harder is the hook. Why should people come to listen to this music?

It’s not hard to write a release for our concerts featuring pop or rock music: there’s usually a built in audience for those. You don’t have to tell people why they like the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or the music of Queen. They already know how they feel when they listen to them.

It’s a little bit harder to write a piece about classical music. Let’s be honest: beyond Beethoven and Mozart, how many other “classical” composers can you name? Can you name any Baroque or Romantic era composers? Can you name a piece of “classical” music just by listening to it? (Don’t worry, I can’t unless someone has skated to it, or it’s a personal favorite of mine.)

Often I rely on the program notes for these compositions: the background of the composer, what inspired them, what they hope the music expresses for the listener.

Because it’s hard to put into words what music is. What it makes us feel. Why we feel sad, or triumphant, or in love, or the myriad emotions that can course through our hearts in a single song.

Hans Christian Anderson said “where words fail, music speaks.” And even though I’m a writer, and I make my living creating worlds with words, I know that’s true.

That’s why I listen to movie soundtracks or classical music when I’m writing and trying to create a certain mood. Why I listen to Coldplay when I need to mellow out. Why I listen to Big Daddy Weave, Third Day, and Newsboys when I need to surrender my heart in worship. Why I listen to ABBA, dance pop, and the Pitch Perfect soundtrack when I’m working out. Why I listen to Broadway soundtracks when I just need to sing.

Because of how they make me feel that I can’t put into words.

I think that’s how the Beethovens and the Mozarts and the Rachmaninoffs felt. They couldn’t put their thoughts into words, but rather notes. Nowhere is that more evident in Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection,” which my orchestra performed last November. Each movement expresses Mahler’s thoughts on death: at first terrifying, then morose as he looks back on a life lived in pleasure with no thoughts of the eternity beyond. This symphony is beautiful and sad and haunting, but the last movement is, hands down, what makes this my favorite piece I’ve heard recently.

Through the swelling of the music, we hear forgiveness and love. We hear the majesty of God’s throne room. The “resurrection” theme resonates as a chorus of heavenly angels welcome the sinner into a paradise, and brass and clanging bells signal the triumph over death.

It’s spellbinding. I remember feeling the hairs on my arms raise when I heard it, and my throat clogged with emotion as I felt Mahler’s music course through me, not just pass through my eardrums. I was surprised to feel tears in my eyes, and I later found out that many of the musicians performing the piece were fighting tears as well.

It’s hard to describe, because that is the power of music. Where words fail, the music speaks.

(BTW, the video link below is to a 1974 London Symphony Orchestra performance of the Mahler Second Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The link starts close to the end of the last movement, which is the best part, but if you have time, listen to the entire piece sometime.)


Mozart or Math?

Mr. Holland’s Opus is one of favorite movies. It’s a beautiful story of a man who wants to be a famous composer, toiling away on his personal symphony for years, making ends meet by being a band instructor at the local high school. As the decades pass, Mr. Holland teaches students everything from the difference between a treble clef and a bass clef and what it means to play pianissimo, to performing music from the heart. Eventually, he finds he is at the end of his career, as his position is being eliminated, and his students celebrate his legacy by showing him that while he did indeed compose a beautiful piece of music, they, his students, are really his opus.

Mr_Hollands_OpusOne of my favorite lines from the movie comes when Mr. Holland learns that the school district is eliminating the music and arts programs. When questioned, the principal tell him that if he has to make a choice between teaching students reading and writing or music, he chooses the three ‘r’s.

Mr. Holland replies, “Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

While I personally haven’t hear of any school eliminating their arts program entirely, schools are facing the problem of finding a way to fund these programs. Just this month, the school district I live in proposed cuts to the district’s music education budget, which included eliminating several music instructors at the junior high level.

But instead of going quietly into the night, about a hundred parents and students attended the school board hearing, testifying for more than four hours about the advantages that participating in band and learning music had for them. In fact, 20 more students were ready to testify before the board had to call the meeting for the evening.

Thankfully, the school board decided to find their budget cuts elsewhere, and the music programs were saved. For now.

While I agree with Mr. Holland’s principal that basic learning like reading, writing, math and history are incredibly important to education, so is music and the arts. Research has found that learning music facilitates learning other subjects and enhances skills that people, specifically children who learn an instrument at a young age, inevitably use in other areas.

The Children’s Music Workshop has a great article, found here, about 12 Benefits of Music Education, which include language and reasoning development, spatial intelligence, higher test scores. It even has other benefits, such as teaching the rewards of practicing and hard work, learning from mistakes, taking risks and conquering fears. music-wallpapers-free-download

To quote from another movie I love, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating tells his students, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I believe music can fall into that category as well. And if we don’t continue to teach it, to continue to encourage children to be the next Beethoven, or Aaron Copland, or Louie Armstrong, or Joshua Bell, what will there be to read and write about?

A Child of the 70’s – Faaaar Out!

I have loved all the Inksper choices of crooners so far. What a great mix of talent!

My heart throb growing up was John Denver. I’m a child of the 70’s and one of the biggest names in music back then was Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. Well, okay – maybe that was his REAL name. We all knew and loved him as John Denver. I still do!

John DenverHe started as a folk singer and ended up as one of the biggest names in music worldwide. I think either you were (are) a John Denver fan or you weren’t (and probably still aren’t!). What I loved about his music was the often profound messages (especially about the environment) usually wrapped in fun. Okay, so Grandma’s Feather Bed wasn’t exactly profound but it was fun!!

His concern for the environment went far beyond his songs. He lived what he believed, spoke often about conservation issues, and actually walked his talk. But for this teenager, it was songs like Annie’s Song, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Rocky Mountain High (now one of Colorado’s 2 official songs), and my all time favorite, Sunshine on My Shoulders, that touched my heart.

I went to many of his concerts (like every time he came through town), andJohn Denver2 loved the fact that he was married to a Minnesotan for many years (Annie Martell). Somehow that made him a kindred spirit!

He died in 1997 flying his experimental plane, which was a sad way to silence his music and his passion for the environment.

So were you a John Denver fan?


Shannon will be sending a copy of Rodeo Song to one lucky commenter. Every time you leave a comment in the next two weeks, your chances of getting your hands on it will increase. The giveaway ends on Friday, June 20 at midnight, central time, and is open to continental U.S. residents only.







Singing in Asaph’s Choir

As a musician, one thing I love seeing in the Bible is the important role music plays. And it’s not just for worship and praise, but also for times of battle. Music is used to uplift when in sorrow and rejoice in victory. King David was a renowned musician, and his son Solomon is credited with writing over a thousand songs. (1 Kings 4:32).

Even with all the music mentions in the Bible, one name sticks out, Asaph, though little is known about him. He was the son of Berechiah, a descendant of Levi. He was one of three musicians King David placed in charge of singing in the house of Yahway. He also served under King  Solomon. Asaph’s descendants continued to play a musical role throughout the Old Testament.

Perhaps he’s best known for the twelve Psalms he wrote (Psalm 50, and Psalms 73 – 83) . He wrote Psalms that spoke of God’s judgment and mercy. He wrote Psalms of lament, and songs filled with Thanksgiving and praise. Clearly, the man was very passionate. There’s little doubt that he was one of the most gifted musicians–if not the most gifted–in the Bible.

Can you imagine what it would have been like singing in his choir, accompanied with stringed instruments, trumpets, and horns? I picture tears streaming down his face as praises are lifted high. And then I hear his baritone ring above the rest–clear, strong, and passionate. I imagine being overcome with the Holy Spirit singing through him, through us.

Someday that will happen. Some day, when we go Home, maybe we’ll be greeted by an Asaph-directed choir. And he’ll motion for us to join in the singing. I’m getting the chills just thinking about it!


Psalm 81: 1 – 2

For the director of music. According to gittith. Of Asaph


Sing for joy to God our strength;

shout aloud to the God of Jacob!

Begin the music, strike the timbrel,

play the melodious harp and lyre.