Essays-Marissa Lamar

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories. 


Marissa Lamar: Highland Kites, Los Angeles, CA


     "I always had a passion and love for music, and from a young age became obsessed with music that made me think, and made my feel. One of the first CDs I remember playing on repeat as a child was the Tracy Chapman album "Fast Car" that I'd taken from my dad's CD case. 

I spent most of my early 20s doing various types of volunteer work and working all the time. I always maintained that passion for music and writing and had books upon books of stories and poetry but never considered myself a singer, and didn't play an instrument. 


When I was 24 or so I ended getting extremely ill. For years I degenerated, going to various doctors to find out what was wrong with me. I was being cared for full time and was unable to do much of anything. A doctor in L.A. finally tested and diagnosed me with Lyme Disease. I spent a year and a half once diagnosed doing various treatments and recovering. Once recovered I wasn't myself, I felt numb, like I couldn't think, I had been on many medical drugs and felt like  my mind had gone to waste, the life I had prior to getting ill seemed distant and vague. 

I decided that I was going to do what I had always wanted and learn music. So in 2013 I started taking piano lessons and writing songs. Music quite literally brought me back from the dead. I started using my mind again to learn something new, something I loved and it gave me an outlet to turn everything I've experienced into something beautiful. Music helped me let go and it helped me move on. 

I knew from this point on that I had to pursue music, I had to make it my life and help people with my art in the same way art had saved me. 

In 2014 I formed my band, Highland Kites and released our first 7 song EP entitled "So Vicious". Since this time we have done many shows, toured and released our full-length album, "All We Left Behind". We are planning the release of our 3rd album in the summer - and are about to leave on another tour starting in Austin for SXSW. 

My goal as an artist is to help people. I want people to listen to my music and feel understood, I want people to know things can and will get better and that you can always turn your own life around for the better. Our goal as a band is to tour and play live as much as we possibly can, to do volunteer work and benefit concerts for causes we believe in and to just generally contribute to making this world a better place in any way we can with our art."

---Marissa Lamar


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Essays-Honey Whiskey Trio

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories. 

Honey Whiskey Trio-Los Angeles, CA



     "There is a moment in every musician's life when they think about their future and see that music is the path they must choose, for it has chosen them. For some, the memories of this moment are vivid and bright, and others may have taken a bit more time, perhaps several moments. After the decision to make music for the rest of your life is made... along with it comes, of course, the panic.

Courtney, Ann Louise, and I studied music in high school and college, earning degrees in Vocal Performance and Education. Our journeys were different, yet very similar. We had classes, rehearsals, sectionals, performances, exams, recitals, just like every other music major. We were taught when to arrive, what to play, how to sing, how to dress and how to feel for many years. The panic arrives not when you are in the thick of it. It hides itself during hour 3 of rehearsal, and while you're frantically writing an essay, and even when you have fallen asleep on campus. The panic arrives when you have graduated, and you no longer have your schedule planned out for you. The freedom is beautiful and frightening.

We came together at a point in all of our lives where we were experiencing the same feeling. We all dove straight into the workforce, and soon realized that what we missed more than anything, was singing. We missed that feeling you get when you are making music from your body, the original instrument. We missed being able to improvise, blend, and get lost in the sound. Courtney had been writing some vocal arrangements and contacted my to sing through them. After just a few minutes of singing, it was very clear that we needed a third voice. The next week, Ann Louise hosted a gathering at her place where she met Courtney for the first time. We shared an amazing connection in just our first rehearsal, we knew that we found something special.  

While studying at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University Long Beach, we learned invaluable skills on being ensemble singers. Through the top vocal jazz group under the direction of Christine Guter. We learned that there is a unified sound that can be created from the most diverse collection of voices, and that it was our job to serve the music through tapping into that idea of being one voice. We have such different solo voices, and we have all struggled through accepting our own sounds. The human voice is such a versatile instrument, and also a very personal one. You are so deeply connected with your voice, that it's truly difficult to hear something leave your mouth that you aren't in love with. Being a part of Honey Whiskey Trio has shown us that everything that comes from us is contributing to our group sound. All of the little quirks, pops, and crackles in our individual voices brings something real, honest and genuine to our music. We are truly in this together.

The way that we consume, experience and share music has changed so much in just our short lifetimes. Social media platforms bring the artist closer to their listeners, keeping an open dialogue allowing growth. Unfortunately, it also allows artist to become closer with the negative comments as well. We had been welcomed into the performing world by The Harmony Sweepstakes Festival, as well as the Women's A Cappella Association. The performance opportunities gained from just these two organizations have been wonderful, and the a cappella community is incredibly supportive. Yet, there are still the ones that think three females can't possibly be doing everything right. We've heard comments from we need a male voice to really round out the sound all the way to there's nothing interesting about three part harmony. What we must understand, is that everyone has unique tastes in music, and that's one of the wonderful things about being human. You love what you love. The negative comments about what we do has no direct correlation to the effort we've put into each of our musical journeys, the rehearsal and sharing of music we love, and wanting to bring the most honest, genuine versions of ourselves to every performance.

Our goals have come into focus the longer we make music together. It began as a struggle to make music, and now we make music. It became a struggle to accept our voices, and now we couldn't be happier. We now hope to inspire music makers to continue to make music, work through the struggles that a life in music carries, and let their voices be heard."







Essays-Shanna O'Brien

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.

Shanna O'Brien-Bakersfield, CA


     "I was born in LaGrange, Georgia but didn’t live there long because six months after I was born my dad, who was a career Army officer, was transferred to Germany. Mom went on to have 5 kids and I was the oldest. I can’t remember when I didn’t sing.  Growing up we had talent shows in our back yard and Dad always asked me to sing my favorite songs every night at the dinner table --  songs like Berle Ives, “Little White Duke,” “High Hopes” and “Jimmy Crack Corn.”  Music was a part of our everyday life, with Mother singing her favorite hymns while cooking in our busy kitchen to Grandmother whistling her favorite folk songs while she puttered around the house. My Dad was eventually stationed at Ft. Benning, GA and we lived in Columbus.  It was there at the age of 10, that I had a defining moment when I “knew” I was a real singer.  I was a member of our church choir and one Sunday, during the morning service, the Preacher asked me to sing “The Lord’s Prayer.”  I was sweaty and petrified standing at the alter that warm Georgia morning. But when I looked out at the congregation and saw everyone smiling and nodding to each other, I got goose bumps of happiness all over my body.  After I finished singing, I heard the church bells ring and I ran to Mom and Dad and told them I knew what I was supposed to do with my life.  My Dad smiled and told me I did a great job and then he said, “You can sing all the songs you want to Sweetheart – just be sure you learn to type.”  Well that actually turned out to be good advice -- but at the time it felt liked my dreams had been squashed like a bug.

As I grew up, all kinds of music played on our 78 stereo record player – musicals like “Flower Drum Song,” and standards by Peggy Lee, Julie London and Harry Belafonte.  I loved that music -- but really came alive when I first heard Buddy Holly sing, “Oh Boy” and “Rave On” and Brenda Lee sing, “Sweet Nothin’” and “I’m Sorry” on the radio and then along came Elvis, Connie Frances, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Beatles – and I was in musical heaven listening to my little AM radio in my bedroom, learning every song by heart, dancing around the room and singing into my hairbrush microphone.

I married at 19 and soon had two children.  I didn’t want to have children right away but the Viet Nam war was raging and my husband, who had just graduated from college, suddenly became eligible for the draft.  He came to me the morning he received his draft change notification, which said I had to be pregnant within 9 months or he would be drafted.  What choice did I have?  So my son was born within one and a half years of our marriage. I was barely 21.  I still had aspirations of being a singer but knew those dreams would have to be on the back burner for quite some time because of starting a family.


Soon my husband was offered a job in Hawaii where he opened the first TV Guide Magazine office.  While living on the island of Oahu, where my daughter was born, I went to a José Feliciano concert and was lucky enough to sit only a few feet away from the stage. I was so moved by José’s performance that I went straight away and bought a classical guitar that sat around gathering dust until the day I heard “bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air” – the song was “Clouds” by Joni Mitchell.  I did my best to learn that song but the rigors of taking care of two little kids made it quite difficult to have any time to myself for learning songs – much less guitar.

After two years in Hawaii we moved back to the mainland and settled in a little town called Fairfax nestled in the hills of Marin County.  The kids were a little older and not so demanding by then and that’s when I had time to pick up that sweet classical guitar, teach myself a few chords and I started playing songs from my childhood and other folk music for my kids in pre-school, nursery school and 1st through 4th grade when all of a sudden the Bee Gee’s hit.  After that my children thought my songs were just too juvenile for them and I stopped going to their school to play for their classrooms.

One day while I sat in my living room, feeling quite musically rejected by my own children, I closed my eyes and quietly asked what I was supposed to do with myself now that the kids were in school and I had all this free time on my hands.  I “got the message” intuitively that I was supposed to write my own original songs and communicate my thoughts and feelings through them.

I was doing just that one spring morning when the doorbell rang.  I had my guitar in hand when I answered the door and standing there was a young man who introduced himself as Dallas Smith, a Fuller Brush salesman.  I told him I was just too busy writing a song to look at Fuller Brushes and his eyes opened wide. He smiled and said he was really a musician and would love to hear my song.  He was studying flute with Ali Akbar Khan, whom I heard was living in Marin,. Something about Dallas’ gentle demeanor made me trust him and so I invited him onto the porch, I played my song for him and as we talked, found out he was from Columbus Georgia and had gone to the same high school as me but we didn’t know each other back then.  I found that quite amazing!  Out of the blue, someone from Columbus, GA, who went the same high school as me, is at my door.  He asked if he could come back later in the day with his flute and I said yes and “that” was the beginning of my musical journey. 

Dallas got our first real gig at The Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, CA and we went on to play several other venues and music festivals in Marin County.  That was 37 years ago and he and I have recently reconnected through the internet.  I found out that he has a very successful business in Reno where he lives with his wife who plays electric harp.  Their business is called Healing Healthcare Systems and they provide healing music and videos to hospitals.   He is also in a band called Mynta and they tour India and Sweden. Back then Dallas helped me form my first band consisting of tabla, sitar, bass, flute and me on guitar.  After several gigs together, we dissolved due to other demands in each of our lives and he went on to pursue his dreams while I continued raising my children, writing songs and eventually formed my first rock band called “Siren.”  By then I had a Les Paul guitar and a Marshall Stack! Siren was made up of a bass player, lead guitar player, drummer and me.  We were just beginning to build a following by playing College concerts when my drummer passed away from a brain aneurysm in his sleep on the first night of a two night booking at Chico College in Northern California.  That was such a blow.   It devastated me and although the other band members wanted to continue, my heart just wasn’t into it and I went back to sitting in my living room writing songs and stayed busy with my children.


One day a guitar-teacher friend named David Fromer invited me to a house concert where I met a wonderful man named Matt Kramer, who was living in Los Angeles and booking the Troubadour.  Eventually Matt became my manager and we traveled up and down the West Coast touring colleges and doing house concerts.  I also performed at McCabe’s and The Troubadour as well as Westwood Art Faire. During that time my husband was making connections with the management of some of the biggest rock groups in San Francisco like Journey, The Doobie Brothers, The Tubes, Hewey Lewis and the News, Pablo Cruise and The Grateful Dead designing their album covers and hiring the best graphic artists in San Francisco, like Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, to render the art. Eventually the manager of Journey heard one of my songs and asked me to open for Journey at the Old Waldorf Hotel the night Steve Perry joined the band.  Here I was, a folk singer in a long skirt, standing alone in front of 1000 screaming Journey fans,  singing Jimmy Hendrick’s “Fly On My Sweet Angel.”  That took guts!

Later on I went into the studio with members of Pablo Cruise, The Tubes, Hewey Lewis and The News and Steve Miller Band to make various demos of my songs.  I loved working with such high caliber musicians and top level recording studios.  I recorded at The Record Plant, Wally Heider and Patrick Gleeson’s studio, Different Fur. We created a lot of great music but for various reasons it didn’t “make it.”  The powers listening said they “didn’t hear the hit.”  And sooner or later the bands went out on the road and I was left with great demos and no band – this was a very depressing period for me because I had the drive, ambition and in my opinion the talent – but in the end that wasn’t enough.

Feeling quite defeated by my aspirations to sing rock and roll, I retreated from the business for a while and started studying with a great vocal coach, Judy Davis, who had a studio in Oakland.   In her class, I not only learned how to protect and strengthen my voice, I also trained my voice and ear by singing the great standards like the ones I heard in my living room as a young girl.  Singing the standards was the way Judy taught articulation. The result of that was me performing in a showcase in San Francisco where several managers from Los Angeles came to check out talent.  That’s where I met Chuck Bennett who then became my manager and I started working on a show doing cover tunes like “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters and “I’m Not Leaving Without You” from Dreamgirls.  We took the show to Singapore to the Mandarin Hotel for a month to work out any bugs and after that to the MGM Grand Hotel in Reno.  It was in Reno where I had my first experience with vocal problems.  Performing two shows a night, six nights a week took its toll and I had to have cortisone shots in my throat to take down the swelling.  That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to continue in that direction. The words I “heard” in my living room years before were speaking to me again, “You were meant to communicate through your own original songs.” 

About this time my husband gave me an ultimatum “Give up your music career or give me up.”  So I gave him up and moved to Los Angeles.  This was the most traumatic period of my life.  I found myself emotionally devastated from being separated from my children who chose to stay with their father in Marin County, where all their friends were, and realizing that I had to get a job to pay my bills because my husband hid all our assets and I received no alimony whatsoever after eighteen years of marriage.  I realized I had to put my music on the back burner, again, and there it stayed for a good 10 years.

While working at a company called Medallion TV on Sunset Blvd., I met my next husband who was in the film distribution business.  We would frequently go out to the piano bars at the Cock and Bull and Mirabelle’s on Sunset Blvd.  So, of course, I would end up singing and eventually was offered a steady gig at a restaurant in Santa Monica called The Round Table.  One Saturday I decided to add a saxophone player to my show and went to Santa Monica Music Center to introduce myself to a player I had heard about.  I was told he was playing in a park close by with a jazz trio hired for a children’s park grand opening.  That’s where I met Terry Cano, who was playing keyboards. Terry and I started a relationship – which ended my second marriage.  He supported my dream of making an album of original music and over a period of four years produced my “Timeless” CD in our studio called Bird and Bear Studios in North Hollywood. The songs on “Timeless” were written over a period of many years and my friend, Dallas, performed “Sailin” (the second track) with me at The Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, CA, thirty-seven years prior. Terry and I went on to perform the great standards and swing music for hundreds of casuals, Elks and Moose Clubs, Country Clubs and Retirement homes in Los Angeles and Bakersfield.  

Soon I started performing my originals again at venues like Kulak’s Woodshed, The Talking Stick, The Guitar Merchant, Hallenbeck’s, Vitello’s, the M Bar in Hollywood, The Coffee Gallery and many others.  I became a member of Los Angeles Women in Music and served on the Board for over 5 years.  It was at Kulaks Woodshed where I met percussionist, producer Steve Reid.  We completed my second album, “Focus on the Light,” even though both of us were slowed down a bit by various medical conditions.

Music continues to flow through my heart, mind and spirit and as long as I can sing, I will.  I meet the most wonderful and interesting people.  I do it for the “love of it.” Creating and performing music continues to be a magical journey that fulfills my soul".

---Shanna has moved to Bakersfield, Ca where she sits in with local established players in various venues and has recently formed a band called "Waterfall" with her new love and percussionist, Greg Stanley. They will debut on April 27, 2018 at Bakersfield's Cafe Smitten. Shanna plans to release a new album by the end of 2018 as her music keeps flowing and flowing.

Essays-Skyler Reed

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.

Skyler Reed-Atlanta, GA

     "Music has been an influence on my life since childhood. I was automatically drawn to it, and having a musical mother only added to my passion. I have always felt a deep connection with R&B music, and the classics from this genre have been the theme songs to my life. I was never really interested in much else besides music, so when it came time to decide on a career, the decision was evident. I’ve always been a big dreamer and a chaser of what some may perceive as far fetched.

 I was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware for the first nine years of my life, and I remember my mother playing many records from impactful singers like, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill. A pivotal moment in my childhood was the when my mother sang a Whitney Houston song to me. I knew that singing was what I had to do. As a child, I enjoyed performing at family functions, which evolved into school functions throughout my teen years.

My mother unfortunately passed when I was nine years old. The only way I knew how to deal with that was through music. I was taken in by my aunt and uncle, and was given a journal to express myself. I ended up writing my first song and winning a poetry slam in the seventh grade. My intention was not to make people cry, but I realized at that moment that I could impact the world through my lyrics. I continue to write, as a form of therapy, and with the desire to somehow help people get through their situations.


When college time came around, I decided to major in vocal performance at Virginia State University. I studied Classical music, which was a great way to learn proper technique. I then had to decide exactly what I wanted to pursue, because I have a background in several genres of music. I decided to go with my first love, R&B, because it’s soulful, has elements of Hip-Hop music, and I am free when I sing it. I get to write my own words, and sing melodies I choose, as opposed to singing notes written on a page and telling stories of composers.

Being an artist, period, is challenging. The competition is at an all time high, and they are continuously flowing in. This makes booking gigs and growing a fan base difficult. This also makes for a lot of false relationships and trickery. I have been in situations where I worked with people I thought had my best interest in mind. It turned out they were speaking false truths, and using me for their own gain. It’s hard to create genuine relationships and a proactive network this way, so I have learned to be very picky with whom I associate myself. I’ve also learned how important it is to do my research, and not go into a situation blind.

I have self-managed my career as well as playing almost every other role an artist needs.  I only outsource for things I clearly can’t do, like producing a beat and engineering my sessions. I like being self reliant, and I think being this way in the beginning stages of my career is beneficial. I’m learning what each position takes. I’m fascinated with how the music business runs, and I pride myself in being more than just a singer.

Being an artist is one of the bigger pieces to a giant puzzle of dreams I have. I love the challenge of constantly growing, and the fulfillment I get. I’ve never been more driven about something in my life. I hope to inspire and heal the world through my music. I believe everyone has a purpose, and I want to encourage people to pursue it. You really only have one life." 

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Essays-Cynthia Brando

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.

Cynthia Brando-Los Angeles, CA

Busking on the Santa Monica pier.

Busking on the Santa Monica pier.

     Four years ago I moved to Los Angeles with $450, a temporary place to stay and no job or connections. For whatever reason, now was my time, and I was filled with an overflowing energy to finally pursue a dream I had obsessively thought about for my whole adult life-music. I gave away most of my belongings that I had collected for seven years of living a life where I had established roots for the first time. Those roots were in Humboldt Co., in Northern California. I had spent most of my 30’s there; healing from the damage of deep depression and anxiety that I had suffered throughout my 20’s; damage that caused me to not pursue much of anything to its completion. My 30’s were more productive and was a time of getting a degree, starting meditation and Buddhist study and continuing my music in my secluded space in nature.  It was then that I started to perform out a little bit, but was still too terrified to really put myself out there. It wasn’t until the end of my time in Humboldt that I started to play out more, when I realized that I wanted to possibly leave and pursue music more professionally. I left behind a best friend, my tango and meditation community and my easy going existence. I packed up my Jeep with my cat, my small musical collection, some clothes, family heirlooms and some other items of importance. I had no idea what was in store for me-I had never even visited Los Angeles. When I arrived, I sprung right into action. I was elated when I received some responses online from music related sources I reached out to; and was left feeling naïve when nothing transpired, but I persisted. I got a couple of gigs and learned about the “pay to play” system of the city, where an artist agrees to a contract of selling a specific amount of tickets, and pays out of pocket if they don’t reach the quota. I was stunned by this, and would have none of it, but I managed to talk my way into getting gigs at a pay to play venue, the House of Blues, as a “fill in” performer when someone would cancel their gig. I “friended” random people on Facebook that lived in Los Angeles and had a musical instrument in their profile. I started to make some connections this way, and would eventually meet these people in person and form friendships. I started to go to music industry talks and events, and out to hear live music, mostly local singer songwriters. I got a low paying job at a group home as a fill in person, and later a steady 30 hour a week job in the school system which allowed me to get my own place-a very small and perfect studio behind a house.

House of Blues.jpg

     As I reflect back on my 30's in Northern Ca, before moving to Los Angeles, and the beautiful time of healing; I remember often feeling like I still wasn’t ready to take on the world. I continued to suffer a lot from depression, but was more functional. I accomplished much-like going back to school and graduating, but then I would sink back into seclusion. I also did a lot with my music, but nothing would happen. My life began to shift slowly and slowly until I had focused on my healing for enough years that I started to break out of my shell around my mid 30's. I had a new found energy that came from a strange mixture of deep sorrow and ambition. I always had great regrets about my lack of pursuit with music, which I always knew I wanted to do. I also was not very good; even though I had been playing and writing songs for many years. I never had training, and didn’t really know approaches to help me gain a perspective of my musical deficiencies and how to improve, but I practiced a lot, and got stronger-my music did end up improving to the point where I thought it might be good enough to do something with; unfortunately, I was in my late 30’s, which in my mind, seemed kind of late to be pursuing such an incredibly difficult career. Still, I didn’t care-I figured I wouldn’t know until I tried. Success at my age meant something very different than my thoughts about success in my 20’s. It meant navigating within the scope of my own unique path and not someone else's. It meant surviving in Los Angeles under difficult circumstances, which I did. It meant being involved in all sorts of musical activities, such as; playing gigs, street performing, running my own music magazine and concert series and ample studio time-I am currently in the recording studio working on two projects. These are just some of the things I am involved in that I had only once dreamed about-and I’m happy. This is success to me right now. I am not fully making a living off of my music-but I’m working on it, and I haven’t had to leave L.A. yet-and that is all that matters. I still think about the future and have my worries and fears as I now am in my 40’s. Sometimes they debilitate me for a day, but only a day. My life is trying and I’m tired all of the time, but I don’t let that get me down. I could give up music and get a more conventional job and have all of my worries disappear, but I wouldn’t be happy-I would be miserable. I’m still an able bodied individual full of ideas and an abundance of creativity. Until that runs out-this is right where I want to be.


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Essays-Donna Lynn Caskey

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.

Donna Lynn Caskey-Ventura, CA


     Music was a carefree part of my life as a young child. My sisters tell me I was truly a music fan from infancy- dancing in the play pen whenever someone would sing, crack out an instrument, or a song would come on tv. My family put a toy piano outside my crib that I would play through the bars with my hands or feet depending on which way I was turned. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and there was music throughout the house. Though my two brothers, the eldest, had moved out before I was born, they’d come visit and play guitar, banjo, fiddle. I remember sisters playing violin, viola, flute, piccolo, marching bells, piano, and singing when I was little. Whether they played instruments or not, all my siblings had the radio on and shared recordings of artists they liked with me. I remember singing along with Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul & Mary records using my sister Kathy’s curling iron as a microphone. I loved playing piano, singing, and making up songs.


     Music was such a natural, normal part of everyday life at first, but I started to get self-conscious about it when I began school. Though my family was encouraging in many ways, my temperament was such that I took the slightest teasing and criticism from siblings, my mother, classmates, and teachers to heart and very hard over the years. For example, I remember singing to myself on the school bus on the way to kindergarten, and being aghast when a likely well-meaning sister told me not to because people were going to think I was “weird.” Oh no! Weird?! I worried people wouldn’t like me or want to be my friend.

     I started a new school in 5th grade, and it seemed like I was taunted relentlessly about everything- how I looked, dressed, acted, where I lived, what my father did for a living, the fact I was alive and breathing. The other kids also made fun of me for singing in music class, so I stopped. Then they teased me for not singing. Now I realize it was probably because I was the new kid, the outsider, and not at all personal, but I didn’t have that insight at age ten. I remember feeling extremely anxious, self-conscious, uptight. I got very quiet, wanting to go unnoticed in hopes of avoiding more criticism. I remember feeling afraid to sing in front of people anymore. Singing leaked out at times, anyway. I thought I was humming under my breath, unheard while we were working math problems at our desks in middle school algebra. Then the teacher asked, “who is doing that horrible singing?” A chorus of classmates answered, “Donna!!!” Feeling humiliated, I renewed my personal vows of silence.

     Then there was my experience with piano. I loved playing songs I made up as I went along when I was very little, my mom felt I had a “nice touch” on the instrument, as she put it, so she signed me up for the very lessons she would’ve loved to have as a child given her own musical tastes and talents, but a piano never mind instruction were luxuries her parents could far from afford in Depression-era rural Virginia. I soon discovered I had trouble reading musical notation, however. I could hear that the kid whose lesson was before mine was moving through the exercise books more quickly than I, so I therefore came to the conclusions at the ripe old age of seven that my teacher didn’t like me and I was “bad” at music, after all, despite my love for it. Trying to translate musical notation into what I was supposed to do with my fingers let alone practicing felt like a chore and a punishment. Before long, my mom said she’d be better off throwing money out the car window than to keep paying for lessons, so I quit. I tried piano again later at what I mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of thirteen. I witnessed tiny, seeming prodigies play circles around me at recitals whereas my nervous, clammy hands slipped and fumbled on the keys. I again became the victim of my own false assumptions- this time the beliefs that I clearly needed to have started playing as a fetus in order to have a hope of being “good,” and that I just wasn’t born with an innate talent for beloved music. So I resigned myself to singing along with my favorite recordings while no one was around to hear me. I sang in large choirs at school where I felt somewhat hidden and safe. I compulsively made mix tapes of songs that caught my ear and touched my heart and shared them with friends, family, acquaintances. 

     Though I felt discouraged musically, I did have a knack for visual art and writing that was acknowledged in school, and I had more confidence in those more solitary, less performance-oriented mediums that allowed me to share with people indirectly, without need of being seen or heard. Those became my primary modes of creative expression growing up and as a young adult.

     I headed off to college in the Blue Ridge thanks in large part to art scholarships. I had heard and been around old-time and bluegrass music my whole life to some degree, but I absolutely fell in love with it in the mountains. I was a regular attendee at the local fiddle and banjo club and would hang around the periphery of jam sessions to listen and soak it up. I fell in love with the banjo in particular and found myself getting weepy at the sight and sound of them. I was even dreaming about banjos. 

Photography by Jay Heninger.

Photography by Jay Heninger.

     Around that time, I went to a Mike Seeger concert at an intimate venue, and his stories and approach gave me hope that music might be accessible to me, after all. He played multiple instruments including banjo by ear rather than by notation. He shared beautiful, soulful songs he learned from untrained players who made music as part of their everyday lives. I was heartened by the notion that folk music belongs to everyone, and that everyone can make some kind of music- even, maybe, dare I believe, by me. My explorations of old-time and folk rekindled that carefree, playful, matter-of-fact spirit with which I approached music as a child. Inspired, I soon bought myself a banjo as a college graduation present. My life was so unsettled, it was another couple of years before I actually started learning to play in earnest. By ear. At what I, once again, mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of 24. It turned out I had a knack for banjo. Plunking out those first songs within a matter of days, weeks, and months felt like sheer magic and a dream come true. Within three months, I started writing songs, singing solo in public, and playing shows. I was off and running, learning how to play, write songs, perform, and sing all at once and as I went. I’m still at it nearly fifteen years and soon to be two albums of original songs later, and it still feels like magic. 

     Sometimes I forget the magic when the latest incarnations of self-doubt, mistaken beliefs, and fear come calling in new and various disguises. Yet when I’m in the midst of writing or playing a song for the love, wonder, and joy of it, I can again reconnect with that pure sense of music I first experienced as a young child.

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