Christmas Benefit Concert



This year, I will offer for the fourth consecutive year the Voice Lifted Christmas Benefit Concert on Sunday, December 6, 2015 at 2:30 pm.  This event will again benefit the Tamaqua Blue Raider Foundation and the Tamaqua Community Arts Center.  100% of the ticket money will go to these two organizations, with each receiving 50%.  Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door.  You may call 570-818-4135 for advance tickets.

I am excited to announce that guest performers this year will include Mr. Steven Toth (Tamaqua Senior High School principal), Emily Barrett, Tom Flamini, and Barbara Greim.

If you have not attended a Voice Lifted Christmas Benefit Concert in the past, I invite you to experience the event as a way to lift your spirit and to do something for yourself this holiday season that will help you to connect with the deeper meaning of Christmas.  My intention each year is to make this concert a retreat from the busyness of the season, a time to breathe & go within & reflect on who we are and how God is present in each of us and in our world.  The concert will include familiar Christmas songs as well as many unfamiliar pieces that explore our relationship with the Sacred, our human experiences and emotions, and our connection to the past and to the future.  A favorite part of the concert in past years in addition to the music was the improvised sharing of personal stories and messages.  I look forward to opening my heart to the inspiration of the Spirit and seeing how God speaks through music and word in this annual event.

Please be in touch if you have any questions about the event or would like to purchase tickets in advance.

Too Busy


It’s been a while since I’ve blogged.  I’ve been busy.  Too busy…

I recently traveled to a conference in Portland, Oregon.  The conference was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Portland and in the area surrounding the city.  In planning for this trip, I knew I would be very active during my time in Portland, attending conference sessions and seeing as much of the area as possible: the waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge area, Portland’s Chinese Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, the famous Powell’s Bookstore, and more.  Because I knew I’d be tired from the traveling, I thought ahead and cancelled several of my regularly scheduled weekly activities in the days following my return home from this trip.

Arranging for a lighter schedule as I adjusted to the time zone shift, worked on unpacking, and reunited with my cats at home was really a good decision.  As a conscious spiritual being who is on a journey toward health and wholeness, I try to practice good self care.  Sometimes I do well, but other times I put other people’s requests in front of my well-being and end up cutting my sleeping time short as I rush to meet deadlines and help others out.  This was a time when I succeeded in doing what was good for me. But it went beyond that…

Not only did this extra time to get settled back in after my trip allow me to readjust without the stress I had experienced on other occasions on which I “hit the ground running” and jumped right back into it all.  In addition to that, I noticed that I was breathing more freely and feeling less tension in my body.  It was clear that I felt lighter and more joyful…and even more creative and inspired…as I went through my days.  I enjoyed the opportunity to sit for a while with a book or with my journal and go into that introspective and reflective space that I love.  I saw that I was more in touch with my body, and I was making better choices, as my head felt clearer.  I felt more optimistic.  I was more engaged in the activities I was doing.  I took notice of more that was around me, taking in the beauty of the earth springing to life and the ring of a passerby’s laugh.  I even got to take a little extra time and spontaneously accept an invitation from a friend to spend some time together.  Just a few extra hours in my week made a big difference, for sure.

Upon reflecting on these noticings, I knew I would have to use this information to make some changes to my days.  I also probed myself to explore the meaning behind the choices I had made to arrive at such a busy schedule in the first place.  I remembered some sage and powerful words from my spiritual mentor Brene Brown about how we can erroneously equate busyness with self-worth and see exhaustion as a status symbol.

I believe that many of us, especially women, participate in this race for worthiness, believing that it’s not enough to simply be; believing we have to do…buying into that false belief that we have something to prove.  When we don’t trust in our own inherent self worth and goodness, we look outside of ourselves for validation.  It can (temporarily) elevate our self-esteem when we are “in demand” in our jobs or in the community.  I’ve heard many people comment on how good it feels to be needed by their partners or family members.

Similarly, I’ve witnessed friends and family members accept invitations that they really didn’t want to accept, because they felt guilty saying that they’d rather stay at home and do a crossword puzzle or take a relaxing bath.  Peer pressure is alive & well in the adult world, too.  I think of the judgments that some mothers place on other mothers who are not driving their children to Mandarin lessons and baking for the soccer boosters’ fundraiser.  Why do we push each other to go beyond what is reasonable?  What would it be like to instead affirm others’ choices to take good care of themselves, whatever that looks like at any particular time?

It is a process to step back from the mad rush.  It takes practice to get good at saying “no.”  One thing that helps is to remind myself that every time I say “no” to something that I don’t have time for or something that doesn’t absolutely light me up, I am saying “yes” to myself.

I’ll be blogging soon again.  Maybe the next post will be composed as I enjoy a glass of fresh-brewed iced tea while sitting in the sunroom with a cat on my lap…  I am getting better and better at taking it easy!

Beginner’s Mind



“Beginner’s Mind” is a concept in Zen Buddhism that refers to having an open mind, a positive & enthusiastic attitude, and approaching an activity or subject free from preconceptions (as would a beginner who knows nothing about the topic.)  I find it to be a good practice to take this approach as often as possible, in all tasks.  Even if we have quite a lot of experience in a particular area, to approach a task as a beginner:  going in open to new possibilities and discoveries, not holding on to those mess-ups of the past, not expecting any particular outcome.  It can be quite refreshing…and can lead us to have fun, to learn new ways of doing things, to break out of familiar routines, to be creative, to challenge ourselves, and to fall in love again with activities we’ve done time & time again.


I recently decided to learn to play a new instrument.  As an undergraduate music education major, I was required to learn the basics on all of the instruments in the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and string families.  As part of my coursework, I had to be able to play 2 scales and an elementary level song on each instrument.  When I had taken the semester of strings, I particularly enjoyed the violin.  I even took a few lessons on violin over one summer as a college student.  Now, more than ten years later, I have decided that I’d like to study the violin again.  I’ve begun taking lessons with Simon Maurer, who is a spectacularly talented musician and who is an incredible teacher.  He is a founding member of the Gabriel Chamber Ensemble and is also the conductor of Sunday Sinfonia, based out of the Lancaster area.  Simon gave me the invitation to play with this group for the spring 2014 concert season.


Upon receiving this invitation, I was excited but nervous.  I was sounding pretty decent on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and was making progress on “Minuet in G,” but I had serious doubts about my ability to play any of the orchestra music for the second violin section…most importantly to not get in the way of the rest of the (more experienced) players in the orchestra in their process of creating a beautiful sound.  But I knew that I wanted to join in the music-making with Sunday Sinfonia.  It just sounded fun.  And I thought it would be a good challenge for me…musically and spiritually.


With my primary instruments being voice, piano, and organ, I have never played in a marching band or concert band.  I’ve performed as part of small ensembles, but that is a very different experience than being part of a large group led by a conductor.  I knew that playing with an orchestra would offer me a different kind of musical challenge, and I trusted that this challenge would strengthen my musicianship across the board.


I also welcomed the opportunity to be a beginner.  I know, for a fact, that I am the weakest player in the group.  That means that there is so much that I can learn from being around everyone else and attempting to play with them.  Last Sunday, I attended the first rehearsal for this group, and it was a learning experience, for sure.  I was out of my comfort zone.  By the time I figured out where my first few notes were and positioned the bow, the orchestra was already past that place…and then I had to try to figure out where in the score they were…and that wasn’t an easy task, as orchestra music doesn’t have words…and the first violins right next to me were playing different notes and different rhythms, and … !  Deep breaths.  And so much appreciation for this new experience.


Even when I failed, it was a delightful and glorious experience.  I went in knowing that I would not play a flawless anything.  And I was far from flawless;  clueless was more like it, at times.  I went in with the simple goal of fully having this experience:  being in the moment, taking it all in, and growing from it.  I succeeded in doing that!


In addition to the musical and spiritual benefits that this new adventure involves, I also am enjoying the process of getting to know the other members of the orchestra.  It was great to get to meet other musicians and talk during our snack & break time.  At this first rehearsal, I began talking to another violinist about my initial reaction to the rehearsal, and she found it refreshing that I admitted to being flustered and unable to play the majority of the notes in any of the songs.  That led us to talk about the common tendency among musicians (and people in general) to pretend to have it all together, and we also talked about the topic of performance anxiety.  Then I made a connection to vulnerability and fitting in versus belonging, mentioning one of my prime spiritual mentors Brene Brown.  My new friend was very interested in my thoughts on this, and she was even familiar with the work of Brene Brown.  That made me feel, even more, like I was indeed part of a community of fellow musicians and human beings, dedicated to growth.


Part of the practice of beginner’s mind is to release expectations.  In my case with playing the violin, that is pretty easy.  I don’t expect much of myself.  I’m so inexperienced that I don’t really know what to expect.  I’m just trying my best and having fun with the instrument.  With my primary instruments and with other activities at which I have a greater proficiency, I most certainly have expectations for myself, and sometimes those expectations stifle creativity, freeze me, and prevent me from fully enjoying the experience.  Returning to beginner’s mind, I remind myself to let go of those expectations and to simply be engaged in the task and to allow myself to be surprised by whatever directions things go in and whatever progress I make.


I hope to become more accomplished at playing the violin as I continue to take lessons and play as part of Sunday Sinfonia, but I intend to keep my beginner’s mind toward my playing of the violin as well as other activities, approaching each task with that openness and that willingness to start fresh, to explore, and to learn & grow.

~ Copyright © 2014 by Susan M. Featro, Voice Lifted.  All rights reserved.

Daring Greatly

The author whose writing has most inspired me and changed me in this past year is Brené Brown.  Brené Brown (Ph.D., LMSW) is a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.  Her areas of research include shame and vulnerability.  Yes, I did say she was inspiring.  Really!


This past week, Brené was on The Katie Show.  She discussed new book “Daring Greatly.”


My first exposure to Brené Brown was in watching her TED Talk on vulnerability.  Vulnerability was not a new concept for me.  For the past 10 years, my teacher and mentor James Jordan at Westminster Choir College has insisted that choral conductors and all creative artists needed to be vulnerable in order to offer pure and beautiful creations that move people and connect people.


What is vulnerability?  It’s kind of like emotional nakedness.  It’s being open.  Vulnerability is allowing ourselves to be seen…as we are.  Vulnerability is letting go of trying to control how others see us.  It is showing up and being real…allowing ourselves to be exposed in all of our perfection and imperfection…embracing humanness.  Vulnerability is taking risks…saying “I love you” first, letting others see us cry, saying “I don’t know,” and “I’m scared.”  Vulnerability is letting others see how excited we are about an opportunity…with the recognition that we might not get the job or we might not be the one selected after the audition, or that special person might turn us down for a date.  So many times, we choose to avoid vulnerability by “playing it cool” and acting as if it’s not a big deal…pretending it doesn’t really matter if we get the job/get role we auditioned for/get to go on a date with that special someone.


To be vulnerable is to be brave.  We take a risk when we expose ourselves to others.  There is a very real chance that we will be judged, ridiculed, hurt…  Brené acknowledges that being vulnerable takes courage, and we will sometimes experience rejection and hurt.  Yet, it is worth the price, because it is actually more painful to stand outside of our own lives and look in, wanting to engage and participate wholeheartedly…but to hold back, protecting ourselves from the potential dangers we might encounter if we let others see us.  I know:  I have often stood back and not fully engaged with others, not speaking up when I had something to say, not saying how I really felt because I feared others would judge me, not stepping up and taking a leadership role because I still had work to do on myself to become “good enough,” not letting others see how much I care on account of fear that I would be judged as “too sensitive.”  The list goes on.


I have now decided:  I would rather go home and feel the painful feelings that follow harsh judgment by a friend, audience member, critic, family member, or stranger after I have lived authentically and lifted my voice, living out loud…than go home and feel the painful feelings that arise from knowing that I didn’t put myself out there…that I stood in the background and didn’t bring all of me to the world.  I choose to dare greatly.  I know I will have to be brave.


How have you dared greatly in your life?  How do you plan to be brave in your days ahead?