Archive for the ‘Tending The Fire’ Category

Review of Nitya Thomas’ new CD/Interview with Nitya

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

Review of Nitya Thomas’ CD, Awakenings

Awakenings_500pxBy Amy Duncan

For her debut CD, Nitya Thomas offers three songs that were obviously chosen with great care and love.

The first is a popular hymn from the Christian Science hymnal based on the traditional Irish melody that we know as “Danny Boy,” with words by Rosa M. Turner. Nitya enters humming gently over a lovely, delicate electric piano intro, and we’re immediately captivated by her disarming sincerity, exquisite phrasing, and most of all by the purity and warmth of her voice. Peter Link’s backgrounds are subtle, gently supporting and building just enough as the melody builds…never too much.

The second song, “My Grateful Spirit Sings,” with music and lyrics by Sally DeFord, has Link setting the stage with another deft, tasteful intro—this time with acoustic piano and brass—and then Nitya’s voice enters, singing the uplifting lyrics with comforting simplicity, riding gently over orchestral backgrounds that accompany beautifully the rising and falling of the melody.

The third and final song—a brand new setting for the well-loved Psalm 23—marks Nitya’s Thomas debut as a composer, and we hope to hear more from her. With its gorgeous, soaring melody, it’s plain that this composition flowed straight from the heart, as Nitya herself comments in the liner notes. Link expertly underpins it all with a background of piano and lush strings.

Awakenings is an album to listen to over and over…to savor. When you hear it, you’ll want more. Nitya Thomas’ voice is a one to be reckoned with—it’s not only gorgeous, but her singing is uplifting, effortless, disarmingly unaffected, and sincere—you can tell she means every word. Her pitch is spot on, her diction impeccable—overall, a sheer pleasure to listen to.

You can listen to samples and buy Nitya’s CD here:

Interview with Nitya Thomas

Nitya at First Church of Christ Scientist, New York

Nitya at First Church of Christ Scientist, New York

So Nitya, you were born in India, right?

Yes, I was born in Bangalore, India, and lived there till the age of 17, when I left home for college. Since then I have studied, lived and worked in the U.K. (London), in the US (in Philadelphia and now New York) and also in Mumbai (India). My family is still based in India, and I visit them every chance I get!

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes I do, although I am the first one from my family who has had the opportunity to study music seriously. My dad is a wonderful guitarist and singer and is a well-known musician in my home-town. I have tremendous respect for his musicianship, because he never had formal lessons, and pretty much learnt everything by ear. My mother studied the piano, and played the organ in church for many years. So I definitely grew up with a lot of music, both sacred and secular.

When did you first become interested in music?

My parents started me off learning the piano when I was six years old, and I took to it very naturally. I also was very often picked to sing solos in both my church and school choirs, as well as to lead smaller ensembles. I always loved singing in harmony, and was always the one who would be asked to sing with the harmony sections that were not strong enough, whether that was alto or soprano! I was primarily a pianist growing up, however. It is very common in India to follow the curriculum of the Royal School of Music, UK, and so I did all their exams concurrently with my schooling and passed all of them with distinction. My piano practice always came before all else, even my studies! Later on in my teens I started taking voice lessons as well, although it was hard to find a teacher in my city who was able to teach vocal technique.

I understand that you had a career in finance. Tell me about that.

When it came time to go off to college, despite all my achievement and dedication to studying the piano, I wasn’t quite ready to focus solely on music as a career. It’s hard for me to really know why, although a large part was probably due to the fact that this is not at all the norm in my country, particularly at that time. Also, as I was very keen to study abroad, and considering this required a substantial financial investment, I was not sure that music was the right field for me at the time. I ended up majoring in Math and Economics and graduated from the London School of Economics. With this background, it was quite natural to find a job in the finance world. My intention was to spend a few years getting some experience and earning some money to repay my student loans. I ended up staying for 4.5 years, and by then, I was very sure that I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. I ended up taking a year off, and it was during this time that I was led to re-start my musical studies.

Tell me about how you came to the US, and why.

During that year off after leaving the finance world, I applied for a few summer programs in music here in the USA, and ended up doing a Summer Vocal Institute at the Manhattan School of Music. I really enjoyed the program, and decided to apply for a full-time undergraduate program once I finished the summer. So the next year, I came back to New York City, to begin my studies at Mannes College of Music.

How did you meet Peter Link and Julia Wade?

I love telling this story! It was Julia that I first got to know. I had been listening to Julia and Peter’s music for quite a few years, and was already a big fan. I finally got a chance to hear Julia sing in Boston, at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the same summer that I was in the US to study voice. I remember going up and introducing myself and having a little chat – I was super excited to meet her in person, as I was such a fan! I was amazed at how humble and friendly she was. We became Facebook friends, and when I returned to New York to study at Mannes, I got in touch with her, and showed up at a Watchfire Music Listening room concert and we connected once more. I eventually got to know Peter through my friendship with Julia.

And now you work for Watchfire Music…tell me how that came about.

While studying at Mannes, I was part of a Women’s Leadership Program at my residence hall (International House, New York). As part of this program, we needed to find a mentor for ourselves. I just knew that Julia would be the perfect mentor for me. I wrote and asked her, and was thrilled when she said that she would be able to help. During this year of mentoring, I learned a lot, and Julia also got to know my skills and interests. After the program, it turned out that they were looking for somebody to do some part-time work at Watchfire, and it was really the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about this world. I started out just one day a week, and gradually over a period of time, my hours increased, until I was much more involved in the business. Every time I think back on this story, I am just so grateful for this fit of the skills that they needed and those that I was able to provide, and vice versa.

When did you first become interested in Christian Science, and how did you find out about it?

I first heard about Christian Science in my early teens through a family friend who was a Christian Scientist. I also attended a Sunday School camp in Mumbai, India quite early on, and remember thinking how wonderful the people that I met there were! Something about the atmosphere really struck me. Over the years, my aunt, who is a Christian Science practitioner, would often share with me ideas that I found very helpful. There was no church in my city in India, so the first time I attended a Christian Science church was when I went abroad for college. I managed to get a little time in Sunday School as well. The more I learnt about Christian Science, the more it just felt right and intuitive to me. It was like coming home to what I already knew deep down somewhere. All the many questions I’d had about God throughout my childhood were finally being answered in a way that felt peaceful and right. I started attending church very regularly, and was led to take class with a teacher in London. Years later I became a member of the Mother church in Boston.

How has being a student of Christian Science affected your musical aspirations and career?

I think Christian Science definitely played a key role in my decision to study music so much later in life. Humanly speaking, this would not seem like the most rational decision to make—giving up a lucrative career that I had invested in, to go into a world where I would need to begin again from scratch. It was my understanding of Christian Science that enabled me to really listen and pray about my purpose—to give up any sense of fear, and follow where I felt I was being divinely led. It was not easy, particularly in the beginning. I had many people (including teachers) asking me why I was doing this, and telling me that it did not make much sense, which was very disheartening. But every step of the way, despite all the hurdles, there was just something within me that knew this was the right thing to do. Also very importantly, from Christian Science, I have gained the understanding that my abilities are simply the expression of God’s infinite ability, and therefore cannot be limited by age, experience, bad habits, personality, education etc. I’m so deeply grateful for this understanding—it really has really been the foundation of all of my growth and progress in this field.

You are now the soloist at First Church of Christ, Scientist in New York City. How do you think this experience is helping you, or will help you, both spiritually and in your musical career?

It has just been such a wonderful experience at First Church so far, and I am so grateful to the members of this Church for giving me this opportunity. It is such a beautiful and sacred space, and I am so happy every Sunday to be there and to be a part of the service. The position definitely required me to step up right from day one—singing in such a large reverberant space is not without its challenges! But it has been an amazing experience to learn how to do this more effectively and to grow into this role. I am still learning, but very grateful for the progress

I am very fortunate to work with a highly talented, experienced and very supportive organist, Ron Berresford, who makes the whole process such a joy. I’ve also always really enjoyed doing the spiritual study involved in picking out solos—this is one of my favourite parts of the job.

This is your first recording. What was it like for you, preparing for it and then actually recording your CD?

Yes, this was my first experience in the studio, and it did take a lot of learning and preparation. Having worked almost entirely in the acoustic space for the past 4 years, I was very apprehensive of working with mikes. Luckily for me, I had one of the best teachers in the business! Peter Link was very encouraging and worked tirelessly with me to navigate this steep learning curve. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to figure it out, and there was a lot of learning that happened “on the job” so to speak, but thanks to him, the whole experience was really wonderful, and I can’t wait to work more in the studio and get even more comfortable in there!

What plans do you have now that your first CD has been released?

One of my favourite parts of this whole process was getting to work on my own composition, Psalm 23. It was really a thrill to go through the whole process of writing, and then recording it for the first time, and finally getting to hear the finished product. I hope to write more sacred songs over the rest of the year and work with Peter on getting this material recorded and out there!

I heard that you have thought of yourself as shy. How have you been able to overcome this?

I wouldn’t say shy, as much as introverted. I grew up being quite internally focused, and so being in the limelight is not always the easiest thing for me. I find what really helps is being able to really focus on the idea that I’m communicating. It’s then that I lose my sense of self, and therefore self-consciousness, and am able to be much more free. It’s a process I’m still working on and Peter and Julia have been so helpful in this regard. On their advice, I have been taking acting lessons for the past year, in the Meisner technique. This technique places a strong emphasis on really being in the moment, and being truthful to the situation. It has helped me tremendously in my performing. Getting to perform every Sunday in church, has been and continues to be a great discipline and practice for me.

Besides music, what are your favorite things in life…what do you like to do in your spare time?

Hmm, I don’t have a lot of spare time at the moment—I’m so deeply involved in the things that I am working on! I find that now that I’m doing what I love, I don’t necessarily need a lot else. But living in New York city, whenever I do have some spare time, I like to get out into the open and do something active. I love to run by the Hudson river or in Central Park. I am also a huge fan of salsa dancing, and attend classes quite often. As much as I can, I try to make use of living in this amazing city by attending as many performances as I possibly can—whether that is acting, dancing, music or anything else—there is just such a wealth of things happening here!Studio Session nitya-4800 small











Amy Duncan’s Interview with Noah Marlowe

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

photoMiracle Of Faith – A Trilogy, is an inspirational suite for orchestra and voices produced and composed by Peter Link with lyrics by Dora Redman and Link. It’s based on the story of Jesus and the loaves and fishes from the Bible, and features three characters: Mary Magdalene, sung by Julia Wade; Thomas the disciple, sung by Peter Link; and a young boy, sung by 12-year old Broadway star Noah Marlowe.

Noah made his Broadway debut at the age of ten as Michael Banks in Disney’s Mary Poppins, and has been busy ever since with other stage roles. He was thrilled to originate the role of young Harvey Milk in June, 2013, in Andrew Lippa’s operatic musical, I Am Harvey Milk, and is currently performing at the Lincoln Center Theater in Act One, a play written and directed by James Lapine from the autobiography by Moss Hart.

I recently interviewed Noah on Skype about his experiences recording Miracle of Faith, and invited him to share his thoughts about his career and life as well.

So Noah, have you always enjoyed singing?

When I was little I’d always sing with my sister in the car…we’d always sing Seussical, the musical, together.

Have you had any musical training? I know you don’t read music, but how about vocal lessons?

I’ve had four or five years of vocal training, which started when I was around seven or eight.

Do you think it’s important to know how to read music, or is it enough to have a good ear?

I think that reading music is a really good skill, but in the projects that I’ve done, I haven’t found it necessary because they’ve always just taught me the music, so I haven’t had to learn how to read it.

So you must have a really good ear, then!

Noah drinking "Butterbeer" (cream soda) at Harry Potter World

Noah drinking “Butterbeer” (cream soda) at Harry Potter World

Yes, I try…thanks!

You made your Broadway debut in Mary Poppins when you were ten. Did you do any performing in public before that?

I’d done some regional work before that, but not anything of that caliber and prestigiousness.

Actors and singers often say they perform differently each night because the audiences change. Is that true for you?

Yeah, I think it’s very true. The audiences respond differently every night, and so do the performers. What I find really interesting is that with lines that aren’t even funny, people laugh—audiences have their own way of taking in what’s going on, so I feel like the actors often change their performances due to the audience’s reaction.

I bet you can feel the audience’s vibe the minute you walk out onto the stage.

The first time I was in front of an audience, right when I got out there, I was like, I want to do this for a living. Once you feel the audience’s presence like that, it’s just really amazing.

I see that you’ve studied dance. Have you done any dancing in your performances?

We’ve done a lot of choreography, kind of like jazz, but not any tapping or ballet or that kind of stuff. But in Mary Poppins, for instance, there was a lot of choreography.

Let’s talk about Miracle Of Faith, the project you did with Peter Link. What did you think when your dad told you about the job?

It sounded really interesting, and I looked up Peter, and I was just amazed at how much he did. And at the first appointment I had with Peter I knew that this was going to be an amazing project.

And what about when you saw what it involved? You’d never recorded in a studio before and you don’t read music…how did you feel about that?

It seemed like a challenge, but I knew that Peter and everyone would help me through it. He always emphasized getting into the character, which was really helpful in terms of learning the song. Peter’s a great guy, he’s really nice.

It’s a long song, too! How did you go about memorizing it?

In the recording booth, there was a music stand just in case I needed to look at it. But I knew about 95% of it, because we went over it every night, constantly saying the lines and continuing to go over them. Eventually when you familiarize yourself with it so much, it just kind of gets into your bones.

There’s hardly any information about this boy with the basket of fish and bread in the Bible story. As an actor, how did you prepare for the character?

Well, the lyrics did a lot of that for me—they were very informative and I thought they were very good, and as you get into the character you find the story. So once you get into the character, you just kind of make these acting choices. And Peter did so much, and he helped me so much with making this character what it is, with forming this character for myself.

I listened to the recording, and thought it was magnificent. I kept thinking it would be great if it could be staged—did you feel that, too?

Yes, it was a very powerful album and I thought it was great—that’s very funny you should say that, because I was thinking that before! (laughs)

What about your school? What happens when you’re touring?

Normally I go to public school, but when I was touring, unfortunately they didn’t provide the tutors, so we got a lot of work from our school and did that. But I’m doing a show at Lincoln Center right now, and during the rehearsal process they provided tutors—multiple tutors for the different subjects. There are only two kids in the show.

What do the kids you go to school with think about your career?

I don’t really think that they take notice, I mean I don’t really go around talking about it. When I leave school they notice, but they don’t really have any interest in this field, so…

Getting away from music for a bit, what do you like to do in your free time?

I love to read—I read all the time. I always have a book in my hand. I loved The DaVinci Code, and I’m reading a book right now that I really like a lot called Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. He’s a famous author, and it’s just a really good book about an author and his mentor.

Have you ever wanted to be a writer?

Uh, yeah! Just seeing the process really fascinates me, and I think it would be really fun to write some day.

What else do you do in your free time?

I play video games on my computer and on some of the consoles that I have at my house. When it’s nice out I like to go biking, and, uh… I guess that’s kind of it!

What do you think the best thing is about living in New York?

You don’t really see it where I live, but I love New York because you get to meet so many different people—so many different types of people. And it’s really amazing getting to know all these people. Especially in this business, you get to make your own family in the cast, which is one of the reasons it’s so hard to close a show. I keep in touch with some of them…a lot of them have a lot that they’re doing, but I do keep in touch with them.

Do you think you’ll want to do what you’re doing now when you grow up?

I definitely want to do this. It’s so much fun, and you just feel like you can escape from the world when you’re on that stage, doing what you’re doing. It’s really great, so I think I want to do that when I get older, also.

So you really enjoyed the experience of singing in the studio and recording. Would you like to do more of that?

Yeah, it was so much fun with Peter, and it’s just a great experience recording songs, so I’d love to do that again.

Noah’s website:

You can listen to and purchase Miracle of Faith here:











Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

GirlPlayingPianoI had thought of myself as an “artsy type” from quite an early age. I loved music, drawing, painting, reading, and so on, and wasn’t fond of things like sports and mathematics.

I had a friend in junior high school who to me epitomized what it meant to be “artsy.” Even her name, Damaris Low, sounded artsy to me. Both of her parents were artists, and Dandy, as she was called, was very different from the other kids at school. Back then, in the fifties, most of the girls had medium to short hair, usually permed, but Dandy had long, silky blond hair that she wore in a tightly pulled back pony tail that hung below her waist. She wore circular skirts, ballet slippers and tights. Tights! Nobody wore tights back then, especially under a skirt! She was such an original, and since I felt pretty different myself, it seemed to me that we had a lot in common.

One day after school I went to Dandy’s house for a sleepover. Her parents had gone out somewhere, so she was there by herself. Her mother had left her a casserole in a pyrex dish with instructions to heat it up in the oven so we could have dinner. Dandy put the pan in the oven, and when it was ready, she reached in to pull it out as she was rattling on about one of her favorite artists. But her hands slipped, and it fell to floor. The pyrex dish broke into pieces. She called her mother in tears. I don’t remember what the outcome was, but I do remember that I thought, “How could she be so careless and distracted?” And as I think of this today, I realized that I reacted exactly as my mother — a practical, pragmatic non-artsy woman — would have. Was I really artsy after all?

Then there was the time when Dandy challenged me to try to interpret a painting. She knew a lot about art and I didn’t know much, although I thought I had an “eye.” I looked at the painting, which consisted mostly of what looked like a bunch of matchsticks in cross-like shapes. I had no idea what it meant, so I sort of hemmed and hawed, and she finally said in exasperation, “It’s a CEMETERY, silly!” At that moment I didn’t feel artsy at all. I felt dumb.Apple-Confirms-Next-Logic-Pro-Release-2

As the years went by, I started to realize that, in spite of being a musician and having a great affinity for the arts, I also had a rather stubborn practical streak. I was sure that I was more like my father, who was definitely an artsy type, but I had to admit that I also seemed to have inherited my mother’s practicality and pragmatism. Carrying what seemed to be these opposites around inside of me actually drove me nuts for years. It always seemed to me that my practical side interfered with my artistic expression, and that my artistic side made some people view me as a “loose cannon.”

But much later in life I discovered that being a musician actually involved a lot of grunt work that demanded practicality and attention to detail. It wasn’t just about being creative all the time, with my head happily in the clouds. Composing music, for instance, involved getting the stuff down on paper, or later on into the software notation program, where there were endless details that had to be fiddled with. Then there was the business of promoting oneself, which rarely involved anything particularly creative. I discovered that to be a musician, unless you had a secretary or a manager, you had to be down to earth and practical as well as creative and intuitive.

I remembered when I was a kid that I used to help my mother with work she’d bring home from her office. One day I was busily filing cards into a little metal box, and I said to her, “You know what, Ma? I want to be a secretary when I grow up!” Only a few years later, I forgot about that and decided I wanted to be a jazz pianist.

But now I’m glad to have that balance in my life. Instead of tearing my hair out because I’m not a “pure” artist, I’m grateful, because I honestly think that both creativity and practicality have an important place in the lives of artists and musicians today, especially in this new era where we are more responsible than ever for promoting and preparing our own work—that’s where the practical side comes in very handy.

Note: If you’re a musician or composer of inspirational music and would like to submit your songs to Watchfire Music, we’d love to hear from you. Please write Amy Duncan at

Interview with pianist Deborah Offenhauser

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

D. OffenhauserIt would be hard to find anyone as dynamic as pianist Deborah Offenhauser—she’s a performer and teacher who has done everything from Broadway shows to playing at resorts to accompanying famous groups like The Four Lads, The Moody Blues and the Coasters. And she does it all with great joie de vivre and humor. Here’s our interview with Deb, as her friends call her:

Tell me about your earliest beginnings. When did you first start playing the piano?

I started piano lessons around age 6. My first piano teacher gave lessons in our home to my older brothers. I was too young to take lessons then, or so the teacher thought. But I begged brother “Timmie” to teach me whatever he learned that week. Once when Mrs. Fisher came inside the house, she said, “Oh, that’s so sweet. Timmie is practicing his piano before his lesson.” But it was me instead, so she relented and gave me piano lessons. Meanwhile, my Dad noticed that friends of mine that took from another teacher were playing more musically, so he switched me to Mrs. Edith Buckhalter. She auditioned me at the tender age of 7, and at first refused to take me, because my fingers weren’t curved and I already had many bad habits. Fortunately, she relented, and so began my proper musical education.

Tell me about your early piano studies. Did you enjoy them?

Mrs. Buckhalter had one commandment: “Only the classics shalt thou play.” I enjoyed everything I was given….theory, scales, chord progressions, early Hanon studies, then Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. But Dad would sneak home ragtime and movie themes that HE wanted to hear, so actually, I had a rather eclectic education in that sense! My CD “Dizzy Fingers” is dedicated to my dad, because it has such fun music that he always liked to hear me play, like “12th Street Rag” and “In the Mood,” which I use in my Show Concerts.

Have you ever studied another instrument or sung?

Oh, boy, you just do NOT want to hear me sing! Even the cat runs away if I sing in the shower! However, I did enjoy playing the violin during my school years. Later, in college, I turned that into “fiddle” playing, and also taught myself the 5-string banjo, guitar and mandolin.

You’re certainly enjoying a wide-ranging career. How did your musical tastes become so eclectic?

As I mentioned, I had a definite grounding in the classics, attending symphonies at a young age, and because of also playing violin, I was in youth symphonies. But simple little things, like your dad offering to do your turn at washing dishes in exchange for playing George Shearing and Peter Nero transcriptions helped broaden my tastes. Then, of course, you find out somewhere in your early teens about those novel creatures called “boys.” They weren’t impressed with my Chopin waltzes, but DID enjoy my ragtime, Carol King, and other rock band music. Ya gotta please your audience!

Tell me about your first album, “Nashville Bound.”

My boyfriend from years ago was a guitar aficionado, and one of his idols was “Little” Jimmy Dempsey, who was a Nashville sessions player, and was the guitarist in film scores such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” & “Harper Valley P.T.A.” When Jimmy heard some of my music (a jazz trio recording), he called on the phone and said, in his wonderful Kentucky accent, “Darlin’, if you ever want to make a country record, I’ll produce it for you.” Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse! So off I went to record 10 classic country hits in the Everly Brothers studio, complete with a Nashville backing band. I got some connections to radio stations in America and in 14 European countries, and this was in the days when there were individually owned stations, and no internet or satellite radio existed.

Deb at age six

Deb at age six

You’re also a teacher. What do you like best about teaching?

Passing on knowledge about a subject dear to my heart (expressing Soul through music) brings great joy to me. I love to see shiny young faces that are eager to learn how to make music by reading notes, clapping rhythms, improvising and composing. It takes great patience and great love, for both the child and the music.

What do you find most challenging about it?

The challenging part is mostly in tailoring the music lessons to the child’s needs. It’s not enough to keep showing a concept the same way if the student is just not getting it. You have to listen for a new way to express the concept, while knowing that each child CAN understand and apply what you’re showing them. However, my greatest challenge is when I have a music student that just doesn’t want to be there—period. It’s infrequent, but it can be a painful experience on both sides of the piano bench! I always look for the good in each student, and try to bring that out, even if music isn’t the predominant vehicle. Sometimes I am a therapist, counselor and advisor, as students of all ages may need a listening ear that particular half hour of time.

I understand that you teach your students from pieces you’ve composed yourself? Tell me about that.

While I employ wonderful methodology books by several publishers, I find that utilizing my own compositions on occasion can enhance the musical experience. If a particular student is struggling with a rhythm consistently, the student can really master the concept if you’ve composed something just for them. Often I utilize elements from that child’s life (their dog’s name; what grade they’re in) and create a piece that motivates them to practice something much harder than they would have otherwise.  But many times an idea just comes to me, and I go from there, hence pieces like “Party Monster,” which has lyrics dealing with “goo and slime” and other monster-like niceties!

What other teaching methods do you use? Do you teach various styles, including playing by ear?

The teaching methodology books I use for children have an accompanying CD, so the children learn their pieces, and then must play along correctly with the CD’s slower, and then “performance” tempo versions. This helps piano students learn to play as an ensemble, as some of the CD tracks might have an accompanying string quartet, or a jazz band, along with hearing their piano part being played. Because practicing piano can be a lonely vigil, having these accompanying tracks makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves. My “Viva Mexico” collection, geared for 1st and 2nd year students, has a piano accompaniment that makes the “single note” student parts just sparkle. As far as teaching various styles, my main focus is learning “the basics,” which includes the theory behind what the students are playing, along with learning to read notes and rhythms correctly. But, children do learn in their first lessons to play by ear, to transpose, and even to compose!

How about playing in hotels and resorts…do you ever run into people who don’t listen, talk loudly when you’re playing, or blow smoke in your face? If so, does it bother you, and how do you handle it?

“Hey!! People never listen, always talk loudly and blow smoke in your face in hotels and resorts! They rarely come to hear ME play!” I always have to laugh with a question like this, because as a child, I was always trotted out at bridge club parties to “play something.” Because the piano was in another room, I was partially hidden, which made me more comfortable. But I requested that all of the adults “have to talk while I’m playing” or I wouldn’t play for them. I guess my performance anxiety at that young age was comforted by this ploy. That thinking as an adult has made me totally comfortable playing in resorts and hotels, which I’ve done across the country. In high school, I got a job one summer playing Friday nights for 3 hours at a country club. I was ecstatic, because I was being paid $5 an hour, and babysitting only paid 75 cents an hour at that time. Wow…..playing piano for big money? Count me IN!! I was allowed to bring my piano lamp and play from the music (everything my dad had ever bought for me to play for HIM while washing dishes). But one evening came a big electric storm and BOOM—the lights went out in the middle of a piece! Fortunately, I remembered what key I was playing in and put a cadence in so I could stop playing. I didn’t know what to do next, but I realized I needed to memorize some music! Later, I knew I needed to be able to improvise and took a year of jazz lessons in my 20’s. That really opened up doors in my thinking and career.

Early in my playing career, I started out by getting bar gigs (I grew up in a blue collar GM town in Michigan….lots of factories and lots of bars). Smoke was part of the territory, and it didn’t take me long to get out of that atmosphere. I remember thanking God for the opportunity to perform my music, but if my experience was to be in bars with smoke, and having to fend off tipsy patrons, thank you, I’ll just do something else with my life.  I was shortly thereafter lifted from the smoky bar scene, and landed a wonderful job playing in a brand new Hyatt hotel with a gorgeous open air atrium. No smoke, better pay, and I worked during the daytime!

The scariest thing that happened was when I was playing with a trio for New Year’s Eve at the Naples Ritz Carlton in Florida. A lady who had obviously had several drinks already leaned over to request something and ended up slamming the piano lid right down on my hands while I was playing!  Of course, my only option was to fake a smile and go “ouch,” while the lady continued her requests, blithely unaware of what she’d done. I decided I could be really angry with her and nurse my hands throughout the evening with continuing pain OR I could toss it off my plate and continue playing, knowing that I could “pray and play and come out OK.” Which is what happened. No after effects. Only a story to tell years later.  Of course, there are funny things that happen along the way, like when clients come up to request something. You play it for them in the next 5 minutes or so. They return 15 minutes later and ask why you haven’t played their request. Or, along the way, a different client comes up to request the very song you just played 10 minutes earlier. These were all great lessons in public relations!

Another interesting story is when I was playing classical music at the Ritz for tea time. A handsome gentleman in a suit walked up very slowly to the piano and extended his hand, so I guess he expected me to shake it, which I did (while continuing to play left-handed whatever Mozart piece I was doing). I added in a quick cadence and chatted with him, thinking he was from the local population, and was on an outing for the day.  After my shift, the wait staff was all in a buzz—had I seen Muhammed Ali? Hoot, hoot! I hadn’t recognized him while I was focusing on Mozart! I’m grateful to say that I was told that he had sat and listened to my music for over an hour, and returned to do the same the next day.

It must have been fun to play behind groups like The Four Lads, The Moody Blues and the Coasters. Any special stories about that?

It’s always fun and always a learning experience to back big name artists. As I type, I’m in the middle of a month long tour backing a wonderful vocalist, formerly with The Lettermen. When he’s not on cruise ships, he does the occasional “land tour.” For this tour, I get to hear his wonderful stories of traveling around the world with The Lettermen, plus cruise ship adventure stories. And, there are always technical things to learn along the way, like combining live musicians with “click tracks” and so forth. While backing The Moody Blues (I was part of a 60 piece orchestra), I had fun pretending that the 12,000 people in the arena were cheering for ME. What a grin! Another story concerns a wonderful vocal group (to remain unnamed!) that showed up without any music or charts. They said, “Oh, you know our music.” Well, we mostly did, or could fake it, but there were a few songs we just weren’t sure of. The group also didn’t know what keys they sang in, so the rehearsal was quite something. They hadn’t even typed up a set list for the band, so I finally located some copy paper and extra pencils for the band. We jotted down the songs and the keys. It ended up being a fun night, but that also included a 30 minute delay, because the headliners had decided to drive to their hotel after the sound check and rehearsal and return to the performance venue during rush hour, not allowing for the heavy traffic. Sigh…

How about playing for Broadway shows—have you ever found the repetition boring?

Playing for Broadway Shows…..yes, it definitely CAN lure you into the boredom side of things. But, one must always look on every performance as a unique expression for that particular audience. I always look for something new in the music, whether it’s in my part or the rest of the orchestra’s. Sometimes a particular song gives you goosebumps, because everyone from the stage into the pit is really “in sync” and feeling their parts. It’s almost a religious experience when that happens!

How do you approach an arrangement for a song…let’s say a well-known one from the Great American Songbook that just about everyone knows…what do you do to help give it a new spin or make it stand out?

With well-covered melodies, it’s nice to treat them with unusual keys, which, for a pianist, forces you to think differently, because your hands have to move “outside the box” into less familiar territory. Often, while transposing a song or piece, I’ll make mistakes that I then decide I like rather well. So, I can incorporate them into my arrangement and build on them. Changing the harmonies here and there brighten up a melody. Same with the rhythm being tweaked a bit, and of course, the melody straying a little here, a little there. I love taking familiar hymns and jazzing them up a bit. I’ve done that when I’ve been playing in public, and have church friends coming to listen to me. It’s my way to checking to see if they’re actually paying attention to my piano playing!

On a more serious note, I have to say I really enjoyed taking “Londonderry Air” (from my “Sweetest Sounds” CD) and treating it differently from the hymn version I grew up with. The average person thinks I’m playing a version of “O Danny Boy,” but for me, I am singing the hymn while I play, and being really uplifted. You never know who’s going to be inspired by your music. My piece used on the ABC Hit TV Show “Desperate Housewives” (“Billy Boy,” also from my “Sweetest Sounds” CD) was written for, guess what, a guy named Bill from Chicago. To me, it’ll always be a love song, but for TV, it can have many other uses. My “Butterflies” tune (on my “Butterflies” CD) was written with nature in mind, lilting and uplifting the thought. The Weather Channel ended up using it for their spring time weather forecast one day. What fun!

What have been your most and least enjoyable gigs?

Let me start with….. The least favorite now are the ones where I have to sit in the full desert sun dressed in black, hauling my equipment in 100+ degree heat, playing “Here Comes The Bride.” I’ve found that many brides are NOT rational creatures when planning outdoor weddings! But all of my professional level gigs are enjoyable, because usually I’m getting at least 2 out of my 3 requirements for doing gigs: “Good Hang, Good Music, Good Bread.”

My most meaningful, and important gig is as organist for my weekly Sunday morning church service. No matter how late I am playing the night before, I know I have to be “firing on all burners” for Sunday morning, because I have to prepare 10 minutes of classical organ preludes, 3 minutes of a classical offertory, 5 minutes of a classical postlude, plus rehearse a solo with the vocalist that morning. The pay doesn’t compare to what I earn doing pop music at big venues, but “the hang” is THE BEST and the music is always meant to inspire and heal those that attend the service. As with any occupation with those motivations in mind, I seem to be the one most blessed, for which I am very thankful.

What are you plans for the future?

My future plans include getting into a showcase in Nashville with a big agency, so that my Show Concert, already booked here in my region of the country, can get into other Performing Arts Centers across the country. I also have on my Bucket List getting onto a cruise ship with my act.  But, meanwhile, I will continue to compose sacred vocal solos for the church, teach piano, and compose more educational books, like the one I’m currently revising for teaching “Older Beginner” piano students. Always something new to do, and I’m just glad Life is eternal, because I’m going to need every minute of it to express all of the wonderful things coming into my experience each day! Could I ask for a few clones, though, to help me out? So much to do…

Here’s Deborah’s Watchfire Music page:





Soul Music – the great communicator

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

Reposted from the November 13, 2103 issue of Times Colonist – British Colombia


logan-mcmenamie“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”  Plato

Have you ever thought about what makes a hit song?  How some songs just connect with a lot of people. How somewhere in the music or lyrics a connection is made deep within not just a few people, but a lot of people? Some songs take a while to become a hit whereas others become one overnight. Some songs last forever while others are only popular for a short time. In all of them there is a connection that touches people and moves them.

“Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.”  Leonard Bernstein

Is there a connection between what we experience in music and our spirituality? Are there times when there are experiences that make a connection deep within us? Music reflects our joy or sadness, our pain and our healing. It reflects the full gamut of our emotional life. We use music in worship to move us to a place deep within and without, to give us an experience of the divine. When have you been moved or lifted to a new reality by a song or a piece of music? When have you made a connection to another person through a piece of music?

Music has both a positive and a negative component, like everything in life. A piece of music can bring people into situations of love or romance. Likewise a piece of music can rally a people to war or acts of violence. Nationalistic fervor flows through songs and anthems. Romance and love shape, deepen and touch the heart of lovers, poets and composers.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”  Leonard Bernstein

Is it possible for music to reach deep within us as humans and bring us to discover our humanity? In his book The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway tells the story of how one day a sniper had Vedran Smailovic, a local cellist, in his sights but did not not fire because he was listening to the music as well, and was moved by his heroism.

The connection of music deep within each of us is something quite profound. It touches something eternal that no other experience can: something deep inside us that takes us back to our primeval roots; a connection from our past that still connects us today as human beings.

On BBC TV there used to be a program called Top of the Pops. It played the charts each week counting down the top ten to number one. I was always amazed that along with the popular groups that had hits the list could also include anything from Opera to Bagpipes. It was the songs that touched the nation at any given time. That program reflected how a piece of music could cross age, culture and religion, proving that music can draw and touch us all.

“Music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is.”   Malcolm Arnold

As Dean of Columbia and rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Logan McMenamie fulfils roles in both the parish (the congregation) and the diocese (the wider Anglican community spanning Vancouver Island).

Interview with Simon Clark

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

simonclarkSimon Clark is a British based composer, organist and pianist. He trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and now divides his time between composing and playing the organ at many churches of several denominations in London. As well as writing sacred solos and inspirational piano music, Simon is a composer of orchestral music and has written a number of large scale works including symphonies and concertos. Here’s Simon in a Watchfire Music email interview:

I’ve read your bio on your website, and it seems you were quite the musical prodigy. At what age did your interest in music begin?

I can recall being interested in music from a very young age even though I had no formal training at that stage. I remember, even at the age of five, watching a sunset and singing incredible melodies to myself, all from my own imagination. Even then I had the realisation that one could be such a thing as a composer, and that one could orchestrate these melodies for an entire symphony orchestra.

What were some of your very first experiences with music? Did you start right in with lessons, or experiment on your own?

What happened next, at the age of nine, is that I began to take dance lessons. The wonderful ballet music of Tchaikovsky was particularly inspiring to me at that stage, and spurred me on to take up the clarinet and the piano at the age of eleven.

Tell me when and how you became interested in composing.

Within a year I was composing as well as playing—and a year on from that I had written copious short works for orchestra as well as some instrumental sonatas. However, I was still completely self-taught as a composer. Formal training did not come until later when I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

I understand that prior to the age of sixteen, you had already composed four symphonies, two flute sonatas and a string quartet, and a number of choral works. This is amazing! How did you learn how to do this? me 2(3)

I listened to music pretty much all the time during my teenage years. Here in the UK we have a wonderful classical music radio station, BBC Radio 3. This formed the bedrock of my musical education. I also read a number of helpful books. One was in the “How to” series—How to Compose Music. This was followed by Gordon Jacob’s book on orchestration and then Walter Piston’s book on counterpoint.

How did you become recognized and start having your music published?

I was lucky enough to be taken on as an in-house composer at Kevin Mayhew Publishers at the very early age of fifteen and I have published my music with them ever since. In recent years I have been taken on by Jackman Music, based in Utah. But of course, the internet has changed everything and it is such a wonderful opportunity to self-publish and bring one’s work directly to an audience without the need for printing and distribution. However, this is hopeless without promotion. That’s what is so good about Watchfire Music. It’s such an opportunity to self publish and the same time be promoted by people who really know what they’re doing!

What do you think are the most important qualities for a music teacher to have?

Firstly, the ability to see each student as an individual, with his or her own path of musical discovery. Secondly, a sound knowledge of one’s subject, including music theory to a high level. Thirdly, but no less importantly—patience!

Tell me about your approach to teaching music theory.

Learning music theory is an important part of learning an instrument here in the UK because you have to pass a Grade 5 Music Theory exam in order to progress to grades 6 – 8 on your chosen instrument. My approach is to include music theory even in the lessons of beginners and to continue to incorporate this in the lessons thereafter.

How about your own teachers? In what ways have they influenced you?

I have been lucky enough in my life to have received the help and advice of some wonderful teachers. Each one of them had their own special gifts to offer. Some taught me the value of hard work and diligence in practice; others had words of encouragement and inspiration. What is good is that so much of what I have received I am now able to pass on in my own teaching.

Tell me about the composers and musicians who have inspired/influenced you.

I love the Scandinavian masters—Sibelius and Grieg. Their music is so atmospheric and you can really escape to an entirely different musical landscape as you listen.

What styles of music interest you?

I love classical music in its broadest sense but I also love pop music, particularly that of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

What is your definition of inspirational music?

Quite frankly, I don’t think I ever listen to music that isn’t inspiring to me in some way. But I suppose that when we use the term here at Watchfire Music we mean music which has a spiritual message which inspires, or simply instrumental music which causes us to reflect and ponder.

Tell me a little about your daily life and work schedule.

My work is split between teaching the piano (which I love doing), playing the organ professionally, and composing.

How about your free time? What do you like to do?

I love spending time with my loyal dog—a welsh terrier called Leo. I also have to be honest and admit that I enjoy watching television. I think that people are very often afraid to admit that they do so in case they look like a philistine! I also enjoy foreign travel, particularly on cruise liners!

If you weren’t a musician/composer, is there any other field you would have chosen as a career?

I’m not sure that I really chose to be a musician—I think it chose me! I have to say that I really can’t imagine doing anything else!

Check out Simon Clark’s composer and artists pages on Watchfire Music here:

We need music to survive

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

By Karl Paulnack

Karl Paulnack is a pianist and director of the music division at the Boston Conservatory. This essay is adapted from a welcome speech he gave to incoming freshman.

Boston – One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not value me as a musician. I remember my mother’s reaction when I announced my decision to study music instead of medicine: “You’re wasting your SAT scores!” My parents love music, but at the time they were unclear about its value.

The confusion is understandable: We put music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper. But music often has little to do with entertainment. Quite the opposite.

The ancient Greeks had a fascinating way of articulating how music works. In their quadrivium – geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music – astronomy and music are two sides of the same coin. Astronomy describes relationships between observable, external, permanent objects.

Music illuminates relationships between invisible, internal, transient objects. I imagine us having internal planets, constellations of complicated thoughts and feelings. Music finds the invisible pieces inside our hearts and souls and helps describe the position of things inside us, like a telescope that looks in rather than out.

In June 1940, French composer Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There, he finished a quartet for piano, cello, violin, and clarinet, and performed it, with three other imprisoned musicians, for the inmates and guards of that camp. The piece (“Quartet for the End of Time”) is arguably one of the greatest successes in the history of music.

Given what we have since learned about life under Nazi occupation, why would anyone write music there? If you’re just trying to stay alive, why bother with music? And yet – even from concentration camps themselves, we have surviving evidence of poetry, music, and visual art – many people made art. Why?

Art must be, somehow, essential for life. In fact, art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are; art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a resident of Manhattan. Later that day I reached a new understanding of my art. Given the day’s events, the idea of playing the piano seemed absurd, disrespectful, and pointless. Amid ambulances, firefighters, and fighter jets, I heard an inner voice ask: “Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment?”

Then I saw how we survived. The first group activity in my neighborhood that night was singing. People sang. They sang around firehouses; they sang “We Shall Overcome,” “America the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner”; they sang songs learned in elementary school, which some hadn’t sung since then.

Within days, we gathered at Lincoln Center for the Brahms Requiem. Along with firefighters and fighter jets, artists were “first responders” in this disaster, too. The military secured our airspace, but musicians led the recovery. In measuring the revival of New York, the return of Broadway – another art form – was as significant a milestone as the reopening of the stock markets.

I now understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment.” It’s not a luxury, something we fund from budget leftovers. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of things, a way to express feelings when we have no words, a way to understand things with our hearts when we cannot grasp them with our minds. Music is the language we choose when we are speechless.

Imagine a graduation with absolutely no music – or a wedding, a presidential inauguration, or a service celebrating the life and death of a close friend – imagine these with no music whatsoever. What’s missing – entertainment? Hardly.

What’s missing is the capacity to meaningfully experience these events, as though eating great food without tasting it. Music functions as a container for experience – it augments capacity to grasp complex things. Without music, the events of our lives slip like water through cupped hands. Music increases our capacity to hold life experiences, to celebrate them, to survive them.

The performance I think of as my most important concert took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town. I was playing with a dear friend of mine, a violinist. We began with Aaron Copland’s “Sonata,” which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young pilot who was shot down during the war.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. After we finished, we mentioned that the piece was dedicated to a downed pilot. The man became so disturbed he had to leave the auditorium, but showed up backstage afterward, tears and all, to explain himself.

He told us that during World War II, as a pilot, he was in an aerial combat situation where one of his team’s planes was hit. He watched his friend bail out and his parachute open. But the Japanese planes returned and machine-gunned across the parachute chords, separating the parachute from the pilot. He then watched his friend drop away into the ocean, lost. He said he had not thought about that for years, but during that first piece of music we played, this memory returned to him so vividly that it was as though he was reliving it.

How did Copland manage to capture that picture of internal planets so clearly?

People walk into concert halls as they walk into emergency rooms, in need of healing. They may bring a broken body to a hospital, but they often bring with them to the concert a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again depends partly on how well musicians do their craft.

A musician is more of a paramedic than an entertainer. I’m not interested in entertaining you; I’m interested in keeping you alive. Fully alive. We’re a lot like cardiac surgeons; we hold people’s hearts in our hands every day. We just use different instruments.

What should we expect from young people who choose a future in music? Frankly, I expect them to save the planet.

If there is a future wave of wellness, of harmony, of peace, an end to war, mutual understanding, equality, fairness, I don’t expect it to come from a government, a military force, or a corporation.

If there is a future of peace for humankind, if we are to have an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.

As we did in the Nazi camps and on the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.


Please check our website for beautiful Christmas music from WFM artists and composers!


Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

photo 2Lily Oyer, Watchfire Music’s youngest recording artist at age 15, has been singing her entire life. Blessed with a lovely, pure voice, since the age of six Lily has been singing professionally before audiences of all sizes, from intimate gatherings to large crowds. In 2008, she recorded a demo album of favorite popular songs which led to a trip to New York to be seen by Disney producers, and in 2010 she released her first inspirational album, Up to Thee. She and her mother, Laurie Oyer, collaborated on some of the songs for the CD, and Laurie arranged them and accompanied Lily at the piano.

In 2011, Lily won “Outstanding Vocal Soloist” at the ABC Solo and Ensemble Festival. She continues to perform regularly at retirement homes, schools, churches, parties, and at coffee houses with her guitar. She also has her own YouTube channel with 1,576 subscribers and 535,967 views since 2009. Her O Holy Night Christmas video received over 2,100 views in just 16 weeks. Lily has her own website ( and fan club (, where she has established an international base of fans from ages 2-92.


You’ve done a lot of performing and recording for someone so young. What do you like most about it?

I am so grateful and blessed to have had the opportunity to start so young! I think starting at such a young age helped me gain such a huge appreciation for performing and just music in general. I love being able to collaborate with young musicians like myself and also older and more experienced musicians. 

You also perform secular music, right? For instance, when you sing in coffee houses, do you usually sing secular music, or do you sometimes sing sacred music as well?

When I sing at the local coffee house I sing either pop or r&b, usually not sacred songs.

Do you play any instruments besides the guitar?

I taught myself how to play the piano (kind of), but I usually have my wonderful mother accompany me on the piano!

How would you describe your voice?

I would describe my voice as very diverse and versatile. I sing all kinds of music and have grown up listening to different genres, so I’m familiar with all types. My range depends on the song choice. If you give me a song—I will sing it! photo 1

What do you enjoy most about performing?

I enjoy being able to reach people through the lyrics or a beautiful melody. I love being able to express myself and the qualities that God gives us through singing. Seeing the audience’s faces make me feel like I am making a connection which is awesome because I get to do what I love and see people enjoy it!

Have you thought of doing musical theater?

Actually, when I was younger I was very very involved with musical theater. At age 10 I was invited to New York to audition for the part of Jane in Mary Poppins on Broadway, which was an amazing experience. Around the same time I had been taking classes and participating in workshops at Stages Performing Arts Academy. I have a huge passion for it. 

What kind of singing other than what you’re doing now would you like to do?

It’s a work in progress but I would love to write my own songs about life, love, and personal experiences and create another CD. 

What music do you like to listen to?

I listen to Ariana Grande, the Glee Cast, Sara Bareilles, basically any artist that has a good song out. 

What do the kids at school think about your singing? Do you ever encounter envy and jealousy?

Hmm good question. The kids at my school love my passion for singing and constantly ask me to sing for them or compliment me which lifts me up to know that they are supportive! I think every artist, musician, or aspiring performer comes across jealousy or envy, which I have prayed about. 

Do you like to compose?

I love to compose music, but it’s different than what you would think! While writing “Up To Thee” with my mother, a melody would come into my head and I would tell my mom to play it on the piano. While doing this process, we would work together to create a song with a pattern, and a strong tune. 

How would you like to see your career develop?

Well, I am a person of many interests, so I can see my career developing by creating a CD, or auditioning for musicals, or TV shows like “The Voice,” but I’m not quite sure as of right now.

Do you have plans to go to college? If so, will you study voice/music?

Being only a sophomore I’m not sure what I’ll study in college. If I am going to study voice/music in college it won’t be my major. I would like to study music in college but not major in it because I feel like singing is something I take very seriously but also is just my passion/hobby. I am interested in other areas in addition to music, so I might pursue something else.

What do you like to do besides sing?

I love to act, dance, play sports like volleyball and soccer, hike, raft on the Arkansas River at Adventure Unlimited Ranches, and spend time with my family.

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Check out Lily’s page on Watchfire Music here:

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