Ruth Oratorio: Meet the Team

I recently re-discovered this picture from early this year:

Sarah, Renee, and I went to see a Hildegard Von Bingen concert at the National Cathedral, which also featured several female composers. We even got a chance to ask Susan Botti, one of the composers, a question at a Q & A, where she talked about being a women in the composing and classical music industries. In addition to a breathtaking choral concert, we explored the cathedral, towers, stared into the twinkling lights all over DC to pick out landmarks, and talked about composing and music and hopes and dreams.

Fast forward several months to a little cafe in rural Maryland, where I sat across from a wise colleague asking her advice and discussing the oratorio translation that had been sitting in a drawer all of these years, she asked me, “if you set the date and had a venue, could you make it happen?” While I initially thought such rational protestations as I don’t have an orchestra lying around! I realized it actually all boiled down to “if I have Sarah and Renee, I can.” What followed that weekend were some quick texts along the lines of “can you meet for coffee right now?” followed by a “I know this sounds nuts but….” conversation. Both of them knew about the translation I had been working on and, lucky for me, both willingly hopped aboard this wild ride of bringing César Franck’s Ruth to life in the span of a summer.

Renee has the voice of an angel and I knew immediately I wanted her to be Ruth. Sarah is a brilliant pianist, music theory whiz, and composer. I knew that she could take the simple orchestral reduction we were working from and make it sound glorious. I also knew that she would have wherewithal to make adjustments and improvisations where needed to adapt for our purposes. Even though we have since added some more instrumentation, I still just call her my orchestra.

With a quorum of three, we added to our numbers: the amazing Kelly, who came in as choral conductor, taught the choir their music and led rehearsals while on chemo, the small ensemble choir that nearly doubled in size over the course of the summer,

our incredibly talented Naomi and Orpah, as well as additional soloists, a woodwind quartet, cellist, etc. etc. etc.

So if someone saw our little poster, they might wonder who is putting on this production.

There’s no symphony, choral society or organization listed. We are simply a collaboration of musicians that represent many organizations all over the DC area. This group of individuals also represent many different chapters of music from my life: from the dear family friend who taught me to read music when she was my piano teacher to friends I currently sing in choir with now, co-workers, co-workers of friends, friends I did musical theater with in high school and the list goes on. We represent the collaboration, team work and shared passion of telling this beautiful story with Franck’s exquisite composition.

The Renaissance of “Ruth”

This post is an announcement I have dreamed of making for three years. I’ve spent hours at my desk with a score and a pencil, with a vision that seemed so distant, and all of a sudden the notes on the score have voices, and the vision has a venue, a date, and a time. So before we get to that let’s throw it back to the beginning…


Meet César Franck, called by his adoring students “Papa Franck”, hence now posthumously called Papa Franck by me as well. I first encountered Franck in choir when we sang his beautiful setting of Psalm 150 at the end of the choir year, and then I left for grad school, which that summer was one of the terms I spent in Vermont. I couldn’t shake that song from my head, and I used to run through the glorious Vermont mountaintops with the unlikely running playlist of Franck providing a soaring backdrop.

I also discovered the music library at the college and determined to make a side project of reading several composer biographies. Remembering several intriguing anecdotes and stories our conductor had told us in choir, I picked up a Franck biography.

In that biography I discovered that Franck had written an oratorio on the book of Ruth. I’ve always loved that story, and since it’s thematically connected to my novel, I was curious to see what his take on the story was. I found that it is very obscure and is almost never performed. I found the score in the public domain, as well as a recording that a university in France had done some years back. I listened to it along with reading the score in French and absolutely fell in love with the music and the beauty of the French poetry. There is so much richness to the story, the characters, the hope after grieving, and even how the last song connects the book to the rest of the Bible and points to the “Marvelous Descendant” that would spring from the marriage of Ruth and Boaz down the road (Christmas to be precise). I kept thinking that someone should translate this piece, as it might be able to draw a wider English-speaking audience. I’m not sure exactly when or why, but several months after picking up the biography, that thinking shifted from “someone should translate this” to “I should translate this.” So that’s what I did.

It was not an easy process–transforming sung French into sung English feels a bit like the cliché “square peg into a round hole,” pulled by accuracy, poetry, singability, and rhythm. And yet the more I labored over the score, the more deeply I grew to love the piece and its composer–and the more firmly I believed in the need to share it.

A year ago I visited Franck’s grave and the church where he was an organist.

At the time it seemed so distant that this project would ever see a life beyond my desk.

Yet, within a year, I would be sitting across from the theater department head at the school where I teach, when she encouraged me to bring the project to life and offered me the space to make it happen.

In the weeks that followed, an incredible team fell into place as well. We represent a collaboration of musicians from a variety of DC/MD/VA organizations. I have always assumed that I would have to hand it off to someone, or get it published first, but to be able to bring it to life with musician friends from all stages of my life has been a beautiful experience and way better.

I look forward to sharing more about the process and progress in the weeks to come, but in the meantime…save the date for September 15 at 2pm at the Multiz theater, Glenelg Country School. I can’t wait for you to meet this little oratorio. She’s come a long way, and she’s pretty special.

Same Spires New Studies

“Are you coming to the UK on holiday or business?” Asked the border patrol guy.

“I’m taking a class.” I said.


My jet-lagged brain scrambled, In? In what? What’s a class? I don’t know–don’t be mad at me! “Here!” I said and handed him the letter of acceptance from Oxford, because apparently choral composing was too hard to say or remember.

Surprisingly, they let me in the country, and it’s a good thing, because there followed two of the most enriching and enjoyable weeks of all my travels.

I landed a few days before I had to be in Oxford to spend some time in London. I arrived to my hotel around 4pm and since it was a Friday night in London, I decided to go out into the city. I discovered St. Martin-in-the-Fields had a Vivaldi’s Four Season’s concert within a few hours so I hopped back on the tube and headed to Trafalger Square.

I was super jet-lagged, and so I just sat there with the weird combination of tears running down my face because it’s so beautiful and head nodding because I’m about to fall asleep.

The next day I spent the morning walking all around central London and decided to do some serious damage at the discount tickets booth. I saw two shows. The first was a one-man show with the magical Andrew Scott.

It was in a bare, empty stage, house lights on with just him in street clothes. He was even standing there wordlessly as we entered the theater. I was drawn to it because of the reviews saying what an emotional punch it packed, and I was intrigued both as an Andrew Scott fan and as a writer, what kind of 30-minute theater could hold this kind of weight. I think I’m still processing the brilliance of that show, both in writing and performance.

And in the spirit of “now for something completely different” I saw 42nd Street, which got increasingly gargantuan and ridiculous in the absolute best way possible. Such a fun show!

The next day I attended this beautiful church:

(recommended by one of my pastors back home) and then packed up to head to Oxford.

The sight of the Oxford Tube Bus and that journey out of London, into the rolling pastures of Oxfordshire always feel like a kind of homecoming. It’s been two years since I graduated but I managed to find a way back both of the subsequent summers.

While my previous studies at Oxford were in literature, this was my first taste of Oxford’s music education. The class took place at St. Stephen’s, a small almost abbey-like campus that our professor described as “platform nine and three quarters” because you knock on the door of a very unassuming neighborhood and and enter a beautiful ecclesiastical world complete with cloisters, courtyards, gardens and three chapels.

The choral composition class took place alongside a choral singing class and was structured so that the composition students participated in all the choral singing sessions as well, which was an added benefit I didn’t anticipate when I applied. I kept going back and forth which one to take and in the end I got to do both! Our days started with breakfast at 8 and our last rehearsal let out at 9:45 at night. We had choir rehearsal most of the morning and early afternoon, then the five of us had composing seminars, and the evenings were a mixture of rehearsals, workshopping the pieces we were composing and even conducting. The schedule was full and every minute was glorious. The added benefit of the packed schedule was the quick bonding that took place over the course of the week. It was an exceptionally quality group to spend the week with for sure.

Our professor held that golden combination of brilliant and kind, and he was tremendously helpful and generous with his time. He also brought in a stellar line-up of guest conductors and composers to work with us. Between them they had experience rich in Oxford history, the BBC, the royal weddings, and even worked with composers like William Walton. They had incredible stories and anecdotes, and at the same time were so helpful and approachable.

At the end of the week we made a recording of some highlights of the repertoire, and I know that when that is released, the songs will be such a treasure and hold so many memories that have since faded.

After leaving Oxford, I went up north to a little town called Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria. For reasons too cumbersome to unpack at the moment, this town features heavily in my novel, and I wanted to spend some time there. They have a few tourist attractions there, but for the most part it’s the kind of town that I could guarantee that walking down the street they would notice I wasn’t from there. Most visitors seemed to be also from the north of England there on a day trip. I loved being immersed in the culture of that town, away from hordes on busses and American tourists.

One of the highlights of that visit was the train ride back that took my right through the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. Jane Eyre Country! I could see why so many novels take place there. I would go back there and write for a few weeks if I could.

Immediately upon getting back, I went straight into work on a project that has been many years in the making and is at last coming to see the light of day. Stay tuned…

Guest Post: RCE Blog

I wrote a guest post on the Romanian Christian Enterprises blog, on the topic of the power and grace to be found when women one another.

Check it out here!

Since my visit there in 2014, the organization has been one close to my heart. While they primarily focus on rescuing and providing homes and education for orphans with special needs, their reach extends to many more who are marginalized in Romanian society, from the extremely impoverished to abandoned and traumatized children. Their mission, simply put, is to “Make Mercy Happen”, which is a guiding principal that would enrich all of our lives.

The Vase in my Podium

I was sitting in a staff Christmas party when the news of Sandy Hook broke in the form of a text. I immediately took to Twitter and then CNN, and slowly the laughter and raucous banter of a faculty newly released into winter break faded into a surreal backdrop. Hands shaking, I glanced down the hallway and allowed my imagination to travel down the corridor to the now-vacant classrooms. The faces of the students filled my mind. Earlier in that day they had been squirrely and squirmy, eager for the break. But I, just as eager, and full of holiday cheer, had taken it in stride. With the news of the school shooting looming in front of me, however, all I knew is that I wanted to be back in that classroom with them, and the thought of them scattered for two weeks of break filled me anxiety, not relief. I waited for a lull in the festivities, and then handed my phone to my boss, who happened to be sitting at the table next to me. He scrolled through the news, and then closed his eyes in a deep heaviness and pain as he handed me back my phone. As the party died down, he informed the staff and faculty, and we said a prayer.

As we dispersed into a now-somber afternoon, I returned to my classroom to take down the Christmas decorations. I dismembered the tree that we had taken a class period to decorate some weeks earlier. I had played Bing Crosby, and I supplied them with far too much sugar, to the chagrin of my colleagues. All December the tree had cast a warm glow about it, and the students loved to pull their desks around it in a semi-circle for class discussions and reading together.


The room began to look naked without the festive trimmings–but even more exposed and unsafe in light of the news from Connecticut. I stood at my usual vantage point for teaching and stared at the door to the classroom. Through tears I noticed the row of desks that stood between the door and me. On any day those desks were filled with tiny people for whom I would do anything to keep safe. Furiously I leapt into action. I dragged the gnarly podium, which I had taken to calling the “bully pulpit,” across the floor with a scrape, and turning every desk, slowly reoriented the entire room so that they were facing me, and I stood between them and the door. Trembling with a mixture of fear, rage, and helplessness I played the imaginary scenario in my head, of “harm” in some form bursting through the door. What realistically could be done? I spotted a vase on the shelf that I had used those first few weeks of school when I had my act together to keep fresh flowers on my desk. It was the object in the room the best size to hold, to throw, and even to smash in a moment of desperation. I took the vase and stashed it in the top of the podium, all the while hating the impotence of knowing that nothing I could do would ultimately be able to keep evil out of my classroom if the situation arose.

327628_547559160628_7831535_oI was the same age as my students the first time the idea of an active shooter in a school setting entered my world. The day of the Columbine tragedy, I remember spending hours glued to the news, watching the students run out of the building with hands raised. I learned the victim’s names, studying them in newspapers and magazines. The horror of it all was tempered by the fact that we had no prior category for it. A scenario like this seemed like such an anomaly.

School shootings are no longer an anomaly, and I am no longer a student. As a teacher, this occurrence is intensified by the love and fierce protectiveness we feel for our students. With each report comes a chilling feeling of helplessness, and then a new round of thinking and planning ahead. Then there’s social media and the knowledge that our students aren’t limited to the filter of the evening news like I was during Columbine. They can pull up Twitter and hear the gunshots and the screams, watch swat teams burst into a classroom with guns drawn, and even see bloody bodies in the background. Sights that would only traumatize a select few before the internet, are now being disseminated on a mass scale to the un-shielded eyes of our students.

After the Florida shooting I took some time at the beginning of class to ask students how they were doing. One student said he was worried about society becoming desensitized to it. He said, “It feels like it just keeps happening, and no one does anything about it.” I think maybe I had expected to come in that day and try to offer words of comfort to a shocked and distressed classroom, but to find them calmly coming to terms with a world in which the adults in charge have been unable to protect them was reality far more disturbing.IMG_6258.JPG

All the Single Ladies, Circa 1940

Image result for 1940s women

This weekend a friend mentioned to me a song she had heard about from her grandmother, describing life in World War II for the women back home and the corresponding dearth of men. We immediately did some eager Google searching, not because a dearth of men is relatable in any way but because, you know, academics. The gem that we found is below.

And so I share it as a special shout out to my single sisters, not because it pertains to the experience of the single woman in her thirties, but because of academics and 1940s musicology and World War II and stuff.

They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old

They’re either too young, or too old
They’re either too gray or too grassy green
The pickings are poor and the crop is lean
What’s good is in the army
What’s left will never harm me
They’re either too old or too young
So, darling, you’ll never get stung
Tomorrow I’ll go hiking with that Eagle Scout unless
I get a call from grandpa for a snappy game of chess
I’ll never, never fail ya
While you are in Australia
Or off among the Rooshians
And flying over Egypt
Your heart will never be gypped
And when you get to India
I’ll still be what I’ve been to ya
I’ve looked the field over
And lo and behold
They’re either too young or too old
They’re either too bald or too bold
I’m down to the wheelchair and bassinet
My heart just refuses to get upset
I simply can’t compel it to
With no Marine to tell it to
I’m either their first breath of spring
Or else, I’m their last little fling
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup
I either have to hold him off
Or have to hold him up
The battle is on, but the fortress will hold
They’re either too young or too old
Songwriters: Arthur Schwartz / Frank Loesser
They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc


Sunday October 22 was Reid’s birthday. The day of, I went to my parent’s house, and we celebrated with a nice meal and a little fall farm outing. The day before, though, I was out of sorts. Some years it hits me more than others. I turned to the one of the most significant avenues of healing over these last few years: music, sacred music in particular. I couldn’t shake the lyrics of one hymn, and so I dove into it headlong that afternoon and wrote a simple arrangement for ukulele and violin. I recorded it later with my composing software playback as the electronic sounding violin and me playing the ukulele. High tech recording, clearly.  The quality is terrible, but I’m sharing it below anyway because it somehow placated the unsettled feeling that hung over that weekend.

I’m also sharing the lyrics to the entire hymn. I pulled out three verses for this arrangement, but all five of them are rich, particularly in those moments when the darkness deepens.

Abide with Me

Lyrics by Henry Francis Lyte

1 Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

2 Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Lord who changes not, abide with me.

3 I need your presence every passing hour.
What but your grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like yourself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

4 I fear no foe with you at hand to bless,
though ills have weight, and tears their bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, your victory?
I triumph still, if you abide with me.

5 Hold now your Word before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

The 5 Weirdest Things I Associate with Grieving the Death of my Brother

Grief is super weird. And so is the month of October, at least for me.

On the one hand, the incredibly basic autumn-loving pumpkin-everything-consuming side of me has always been in love with the weather and the overall aesthetic. October is my late brother’s birthday month, which is always a strange mix of wistful and fond and missing him. There’s also a much darker side which is remembering October 2009 specifically.

My grandfather died in April 2009, followed by the one-two punch of my brother in 2009 at the age of 22. I went back to work almost right away after the funeral, a fast paced-job at a mega church. I kind of coasted on adrenaline for the next few months, and right about the time October hit I began to fall into a deep depression. Or maybe depression is the wrong word–probably it was just the normal grief I had been pushing aside final would not be held back any more.

At that point I hadn’t gotten any help or counseling and because of a number of factors that I won’t get into, there was no freedom or flexibility to start grieving then. I know there were people that cared about me, but in my day-to-day reality I found myself completely alone on the front lines of grief and despair. There are few things more isolating than walking through a sea of happy-clappy carrying a black hole inside. Plus, I wasn’t really on speaking terms with God by that point either, and which also scared me. October is when I went into survival mode, making every effort keep the darkness at bay long enough to drag myself to work.

Survival mode is ugly, and I found comfort in many unexpected places. I share this because some people imagine grief in a kind of one-size-fits all scene that belongs on a Hallmark channel movie where someone says “it’s cancer” while soft music plays. Grief is not that. And no one grieves the same. And people who grieve need the freedom to grieve in their own timeline. And you can’t put it on people who grieve to reach out to you for help, because half the time standing up and putting their pants on in the morning is the biggest victory of the day.
So buckle up…. we’re revisiting the pit that was the Autumn 2009, and it’s about to get weird.

5. My High School Musical Pandora Station

Yep. A far departure from my normal indie-folk playlist, the High School Musical station featured heavily Disney Channel stars like Hannah Montana, occasionally throwing in some classic Disney as well. It was just upbeat and soulless enough to be the perfect musical anesthetic to plug into my ears moments after arriving at work, and basically for any block of time that I did not need to interact with people.

4. The WB Show Angel

This was another extreme departure for me. I generally don’t like Sci-Fi or those monster/vampire shows. I think I watched the pilot because I like David Boreanaz from Bones, but something clicked, and I binged that show before binging was a thing. When I ran out of online episodes I bought DVD sets. I think there was something about a strong, protector figure who was unable to die that made me feel strangely safe in my tail-spin.

3. Hip Hop Dance

The temple of dance that was Studio 310 is much larger story, but signing up for hip hop through Montgomery County Recreation center led me to Studio 310 just over a month after my brother died. My dance background had been ballet as a child and teen, followed by tap and jazz in college, with a smattering of musical theater throughout. Hip hop loosened me up, empowered me, and connected me with an amazing community of strong women that would eventually become dear friends over the years.


2. Late Night Comedy

Jimmy Fallon, old school SNL, Chelsea Handler, the latter being another off-brand choice. Anything and everything that would make me laugh. In hindsight as a writer, I see this as a helpful and formative time, because while I don’t have aspirations to be a comedy writer, it reconnected me to a writerly side of my brain that had been dormant. I also understand more full how people find comedy in the midst of pain.

1. Tim Keller’s post- September 11 Sermon

One day around that time I went nuts and took off work and drove to New York to visit a dear friend. That trip was healing on many levels, but at one point she casually mentioned a sermon she had heard at her church by her pastor, Tim Keller. It was on something practical like money or friendships or I probably wouldn’t have listened to it, but after hearing it when I returned home I looked around his website for other sermons. It had been years since I had heard a sermon without an earpiece in my ear for work, and there was something genuine and thoughtful in his sermon that made me trust him. I found his sermon from the Sunday after Sept 11, and gave it a listen mostly out of curiosity, and the entire service was included, hymns, liturgy and all. Let’s be honest that was probably my gateway drug to becoming a Presbyterian, also a story for another time.
He preached on the story of Lazarus dying where Jesus famously weeps, just before raising Lazarus from the dead. He described Lazarus’s sister who falls at the feet of Jesus weeping and she says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” And I recognized myself. If there were ever a character in the Bible I could relate to, it was the face-planted weeping one demanding to know where Jesus was when her brother died. And the glorious moments that came after is that she could look up into the face of Jesus to see him also weeping. Not asking why she doesn’t have it together. Not throwing “God works all things for good” in her face. But weeping at her pain.

And that’s why #1 on this list was a game changer.

Hanging with the Big Kids

I was in college when I first began to hear about academic medieval conferences. My medieval studies professor would sometimes disappear to present a paper, and then return with tales like how apparently Terry Jones (yes of Monty Python fame, but also medieval scholar) could drink them all under the table.

It’s been ten years since that wee undergrad listened to these tales over my heavily glossed Middle English Chaucer textbook, but I can now say that I have experienced my first taste of medievalist academia in the conference setting.

I traveled two weekends ago to Halifax Nova Scotia to attend the Atlantic Medievalists Association Conference. The line up of paper topics and presentations was a rich mix of art, music, literature and history, which made it not only a fascinating entrance into the medieval conference world but perfect professional development for my integrated humanities class.

Just the day before I left, I had taught on Gregorian chant, and the focus of the conference was the Salzinnes Antiphonal, a newly restored illuminated choir book of chant. The work itself was on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and the opening evening the conference attendees (about 30-40 in total) got a tour of the exhibit guided by some of the very people who had led the restoration.

img_4076Attendees were a mix of post-docs, professors, students, chant scholars and musicologists, but all so kind and willing to chat with a mere high-school teacher with a master degree .

The next day there were four panels, each consisting of around three papers, basically a 20-minute lecture or presentation each. The topics ranged from female reading practices in the Middle Ages, the political implications of some Old French poetry (beautifully read aloud),  manuscript marginalia, Middle English poetry, and much to do with early sacred music.

By the end of the day my brain felt full, but pleasantly so. The day had been the academic equivalent of a multi-course meal. The conference culminated in the restored manuscript from the gallery being performed at the Basilica, the first time in many hundreds of years.


In addition to the conference, the other amazing aspect of the trip was getting to experience Nova Scotia with this gal, my cousin Jessica.


She is one of the strongest, remarkable people I have ever known and just the best in general. We have been planning international travel together since we were small kids, and this trip we finally made it happen. She explored on her own during the conference, and then we met up afterwards to take on the beautiful city of Halifax.

And find all the tasty foods.

Splendid weekend for a business trip, and an excellent first dip in the academic pond that is medieval conferences.


Here’s Hildegard

Right now this picture is a decent representation of my life:

Image result for medieval women writing
She is probably lesson planning and recording grades rather than writing because summer is over, but the medieval part is also appropriate because the 10th grade Humanities has now crossed into the [other] most wonderful time of the year: The Medieval Unit.
Literature, language, history, music, all the art I learned about over the summer…it’s a beautiful thing. So in honor of crossing over into my unabashedly favorite subject to teach, I’m going to introduce you to one of my new favorites. Hildegard of Bingen (sometime von Bingen)
Image result for hildegard of bingen
I stumbled across her while lesson planning. I think I had heard the name before, but not really investigated until this week. This gal was pretty remarkable, and I think that  women in particular of all beliefs and persuasions can take inspiration from, whether Christian or unaffiliated, Catholic or Protestant, Presbyterian or happy-clappy, etc. (Note: This means that we don’t miss the big idea by picking apart the nuances her many volumes of theological writing or getting hung up about the fact that she saw visions.) Here are the deets:
She was a Benedictine Prioress from Germany. Highly educated, she was a prolific writer who wrote not only the aforementioned theology, but biographies and scientific writings, both medical and natural history. She was also a botanist and subsequently a pharmacologist, due to her vast knowledge of plants and herbs combined with tending the sick.
She also composed beautiful music, a significant contributor to the canon of Gregorian chant. Here is one of her many compositions.
She was widely respected, often considered the expert in her many fields, such that even high-ranking men would ask her advice and council. In choosing to be a nun and devoting her life to service of God, she wasn’t choosing to shun the rest of life. Rather, she used her life of service to God to tackle life by the horns.
Devotion to God = tending a garden? Hildegard will study biology to the point of expertise
Devotion to God = caring for the sick? Hildegard will build on those garden skills, and become a medicinal pioneer
Devotion to God = music? Hildegard will compose over 70 pieces and become one of the most famous composers in the genre
You see where this is going? Let’s hear it for our gal Hildy.
Image result for hildegard of bingen