A Year of Building

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At the start of this year, I named 2015 as a year of building.  While 2014 involved much letting go, getting rid of excess belongings, ending some relationships and shifting others, and releasing ideas and beliefs that no longer served me, this new year has then been an opportunity for me to continue more of the same and to allow newness into my life where space had been created.  I have felt stronger, more open, and very ready.

While the cold winter was still with us, I committed to an agreement with a contractor to have a house built.  I am enjoying the process now of making many decisions (siding, stone, roof, doors, door handles, flooring, lighting, kitchen cabinets, toilets!, and more), and I am enjoying the process of seeing my new home being built from the ground up.

I have come to know a consummate professional and a truly wonderful human being in Curtis Bailey, and his workers who are on site are hard-working and phenomenal builders in their skill and in their care and attention to detail.  Both my parents and friends have supported me and helped me in making choices and plans.  I am filled with gratitude for all who are making it possible for me to be able to move into this future home that I have envisioned.

It has been fascinating for me to witness my home being created from first a small hole in the ground to then a large hole, and then a foundation, then the framing, and now roofing, some doors and windows, staircases, and more…  It’s exciting!

And so it is with our lives.  As I’ve identified other areas in my life in which I’ve wanted to build, I’ve followed the same process.  A hole was dug;  the hole increased in size.  The foundation was carefully laid.  I framed the structure and then covered it and began to work on the details.  All along, I was constantly reviewing what was done and evaluating my next steps.  All along, I have been making conscious choices, consulting my heart, and allowing my intuition & creativity & love to lead the way.

I will continue building.  I will continue growing.  I will continue to move in my life with passion.  I know I carry my home in my heart, and this physical manifestation of a place to call my own serves as a concrete visual representation of what can evolve when hope meets intention and expresses itself fully, acknowledging fear but not letting fear lead to stagnation, asking for help and support – because life is a shared path of give & take, and journeying forward with trust that life is truly a beautiful way to explore and build and come into the deepest union with our higher selves.

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Voice Lifted in the New Year

As we transition from 2014 to 2015, I look back on my Voice Lifted journey in this past year and look ahead to where I hope to take my music making in the upcoming year.

My Christmas Benefit Concert on Sunday, December 7th was a success.  It was a great experience to perform in the newly remodeled Tamaqua Community Arts Center.  I was delighted to connect with the wonderful audience who came out that day, and I am thrilled that the event provided support to the Tamaqua Blue Raider Foundation as well as the Community Arts Center.  I look forward to seeing these two organizations continue to serve our community in the coming year.

2014 brought the release of my second album Voice Lifted at Christmas.  This album is now available for sale online (download or CD) at this link.  My first CD Voice Lifted is also available here.  Downloads of the music from my Christmas CD are also available at Amazon.  Additionally, Voice Lifted at Christmas is available in streaming format on Spotify.  

In 2014, I greatly enjoyed many performances at private events, community events, and at churches.  I am excited to continue these in 2015.  For those who like to plan ahead, I am announcing the date for my 2015 Christmas Benefit Concert at the Tamaqua Community Arts Center – Sunday, December 6th, 2015.  I will be announcing other public performances throughout the year, but I wanted to get that date out right away, as I have loved hearing that some people are now making my benefit concert an annual Christmas tradition.

I also plan on additional performances in the new year with my music partner Tom Flamini.  Right now, we are preparing for a February 8, 2015 performance at Providence Place in Pottsville.

In the upcoming year, I also plan to continue blogging.  I plan to do that with more regularity, as I know that writing is a wonderful source of creative expression for me, and I enjoy sharing my journey with others on the path.  Additionally, many ideas are floating around my mind for live performances and recording possibilities.

For me personally, 2014 was a year that brought many challenges and much growth, and I see 2015 as a building year.  I believe that there will be much opportunity to take all of the lessons of 2014, allow myself to start at the place at which I am, and create much from the bottom up in this new year with faith and trust as the foundations.  Many of those around me have expressed similar feelings about 2014 being a year that involved much tearing down, shaking up of things, a lot of confusion, “a year that brought us to our knees,” and a year that was like a roller coaster ride.  I am envisioning and holding 2015 as a building year for myself and for those around me, for anyone who chooses to embrace this intention.

New Year’s Blessings to all of you and to those with whom your share your hearts and your lives.


Recommitment to Love




To the man I witnessed on my walk, screaming at his dog and picking him up by his neck in anger after the dog had run ahead of him out the door…


It really bothered me when I witnessed you yell in such anger at your pet and then chase after him and pick him up by his neck.  As I took a walk yesterday with my friend, I was walking with a heavy heart.  I had just spent some quiet time with my cat Song who only has a short time left with my family.  She has an oral tumor.  I had just cleaned out the clear drainage from her eye that moistened her nose bridge & turned to God with a tear in my eye and prayed that Song would not suffer and that we would make the decisions that were best for her.  I had just knelt down to pet Song and felt barely able to stand up again, as my whole body felt shaky in allowing myself to feel the fear about what comes next.  I noticed I was barely breathing as I stood face to face with the frailty and fragility of life.


I tell you this not to make you sad.  I tell you this to urge you to celebrate.  Celebrate yourself, and celebrate your dog.  Celebrate your time together.  Celebrate even his misbehaviors, because they are signs of life.  When he runs excitedly out the door, forgetting that he’s supposed to wait for you, overcome by the excitement of a beautiful, sunny day, fresh air, and people passing by, call him back and run after him with love in your heart, and then hug him.  Hug him, and let him know you care.  Let him know your life is better, because he’s with you.  Let him know you’ll be with him until the end and will cradle his head as he takes his last breaths, remembering the times you played together and holding close to your heart that still frame of his furry face, reconnecting with that sweet feeling of walking in the door and knowing someone missed you and could not contain his excitement that you were home again.


I am not a judgmental person.  I do not wish to criticize your ability to parent your dog, and I do not intend to chastise you as a person.  I freely and willingly admit that I have been overwhelmed by life at many points, frustrated when others didn’t listen to me, tired of stuff going wrong again and again.  I have screamed, said things I didn’t mean, and have hurt people whom I care about.  I’ve been at my wit’s end.  I’ve made choices that have been rooted in fear and resentment.  I have approached tender hearts with violent words that raged and wounded.  I’ve been broken and breathless after life threw incredible twists my way.  And eventually, I returned to love.  Thankfully, I returned to love.


My letter here is an invitation and a reminder.  Please take some time today and look in the eyes of those you love – humans and pets.  Simply and quietly say, “I love you.”  Say anything else that’s on your heart.  Breathe together.  Enjoy the sensations as you stroke your lover’s skin or pet your best friend’s fur, and know this moment is a gift that will not always be available to you.  Vow to hug more often.  Slow down and make time for walks outside and playful exchanges.  Remember to laugh at silly things.  Appreciate.  Wag more and bark less.  Purr more and hiss less.  Forgive.  Allow for mistakes – on others’ part and on your part.  And if you are a person who prays, please offer up a prayer for my cat Song and for me and for every pet who is facing health challenges and approaches his or her final days.  Send some positive energy out to those pet parents who are taking their dogs for that final walk and loading their cats into a carrier to get that lethal injection because the suffering has grown too unbearable and there is no cure.  And I will think of you in a wave of compassion and bless you and your dog.  Thank you for reading this, and thank you for inspiring my reflection and my recommitment to love across the board.


Copyright © 2014 by Susan M. Featro, Voice Lifted.  All Rights Reserved.


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.

Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zones

I have mentioned InterPlay before in my blogging.  I am grateful for the opportunity I have every week to participate in an InterPlay class at Wellspring Holistic Center in Stroudsburg, PA.  InterPlay is an active, creative way of tapping into the wisdom of the body through improvised movement, storytelling, and dance.  The group of people who come together to participate in our InterPlay classes is truly a family – a perfectly imperfect circle of men and women who are committed to supporting each other in personal growth through embracing play and vulnerability.


Our topic of exploration at class for the past two weeks has been stepping out of our comfort zone.  We have participated in powerful and moving explorations through movement, through story, and through song;  these have been full of tears and laughter and heartfelt sharing that was spontaneous and creative and rich in wisdom and beauty.


One thing I know for sure is that it’s not easy to step outside of one’s comfort zone.  I struggle with doing this, fearing that I will not be a success, fearing judgment and ridicule by others, and fearing rejection and abandonment.  Those are major risks!  Yet, I know that if I don’t step out of my comfort zone, I will miss out on many experiences that could be very rewarding and truly awesome…and I could end up “in a rut” if I don’t take those risks.  I know that…but/and I hesitate to step out of my comfort zone.  I have great desire and strong intentions…yet I often find myself in the position of…not quite…not ready yet.  And then I get very frustrated with myself.


A step outside of one’s comfort zone is a step into a new territory where learning and growth can occur.  If we take too wide of a step, it can be a shock to our system, and we might even prevent ourselves from taking future risks if we are consumed by panic as we experience the completely unfamiliar, but a reasonably incremental step out of our comfort zones is good for our bodyspirits.

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So the last two InterPlay classes were an important time for me to explore and process all of this, and I continue to work and play with it.  There are many ways, big and small, that I can step out of my comfort zone that would make a difference in the world…for others and for myself.  If I attend a meeting and don’t speak up, I have short-changed the group from my ideas and input…and I also leave with the feeling that I haven’t really given my all.  I don’t want to do that again.


That’s just one example.  There are many places in my life where I will focus on stepping out of my comfort zone as I move forward and take the wisdom from these InterPlay explorations with me.  Now it’s your turn:  What is out of your comfort zone?  What things do you hold back from doing?  Would you like to step out of your comfort zone?  How do you plan to go about this?  Please share in the comments below!


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?

To Teach and to Learn


Susan - Back to School Photo - to Teach and to Learn

Yes, even as the teacher, I still get my picture taken on the first day of school. The first day of school is a special beginning, and I want to reflect in this post on my role as a teacher…and a learner.


I am a teacher of English as a Second Language.  I am also a teacher of music who gives lessons out of my home.  I’m also considered a teacher when I lead choirs and when I present at academic conferences.  Most frequently, I am a teacher as I go about my day-to-day activities, interacting with family, friends, and those whom I meet as I journey through my days.  At the same time, I am a student.


I do not take either of these roles lightly.  I think it is an amazing opportunity, privilege, responsibility, and gift to learn from each other.  It is a beautiful exchange:  to teach and to learn, to share.


There is so much that we can learn from each other, and we each have much to share, to offer, to teach.  We teach by example, as well as through our words.  We learn by being open and receptive as we connect with others and as we engage fully in life.


Life is constantly presenting us with lessons.  Some of these lessons come to us at a comfortable pace and are enjoyable for us, as we discover and grow;  other lessons are hard and painful.  If we don’t learn the lesson the first time, we can be assured that it will be repeated for us…until we master it.  …Kind of like Outcome-Based Education, which became popular in the 1990’s.


I am committed to teaching and learning.  I always strive to be a good teacher and a good student.  I know it is important for me to lift my voice and share myself with others.  It is, likewise, important for me to listen and learn from others who surround me.  The coexistence of these two roles provides a balance, and that is what it is to live and to learn.  Thank you for joining me in the classroom of life.