Sunday, July 27, 2008

SoGospel News Fan Fest

So the first year I came to Nashville and Stamps-Baxter, I stayed a few days extra to explore Music City. On the Saturday night, Tracey Phillips, Joel Lindsey and I went to see a concert of Southern Gospel music at River of Life Church in Smyrna. It was fantastic! I got to see groups I'd only heard about, and I got to hear new groups (or new for me) who didn't travel to Canada. My second year at school, I returned to this concert, and this time I got to see the amazing Karen Peck for the first time.

Well, who knew that three years later, not only would I be living in Nashville, but I would be performing in that same Saturday night show???

I didn't know it at the time, but the SoGospel News Fan Fest is an annual festival designed to celebrate the essential ingredient to Southern Gospel music - the fan! For six nights in July, fans are invited to free concerts featuring the best of the best of Southern Gospel music. The Unthank family (who run bring in the biggest names in the industry, and the church is packed every night.

This year, they decided to feature regional artists like myself on Saturday night, which fit in just perfectly with my Stamps-Baxter schedule. There were seven of us on the program, and we were each given a 15-minute slot. I had the opening slot, which is always a little tough. Most people fit 4 or 5 songs into their 15 minutes, but I really wanted to share some stories and testimony, so I only did 3 songs. I opened with "Neighbour", which got everyone clapping along. I shared my story about attending the concert 3 years ago to talk about God's perfect plan, and used that to segue into "Faith Will Take You Farther". Finally, I spoke about the parable of the ninety and nine, and how I often feel like that little sheep that has wandered. I ended with "Shepherd of the Hills", which got a great response.

The other groups were a mix of soloists, quartets, and a husband-wife duo. One of the soloists, Darlene Chapman, loved my voice and asked if I'd sing at her funeral. I said yes, but not for a long time, please!

Overall, it was just a fantastic night! Great people all around, and good music to boot.

And now, I am sooo ready for a day off...

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Stamps-Baxter - Another Successful Year!

C'est tres late, late, late! What a fantastic and busy day!

Kay and I worked non-stop all day trying to get everything in order for tonight, the end of school, and every little final detail of school. I won't be in tomorrow for packing up cause I need to get ready for tomorrow's River of Life performance, so I really wanted to make sure all my stuff was in order today.

We're having a new video company make the DVD this year, and they've just been fantastic. A few days ago, several of us were interviewed about our experiences at the school. I got to tell the story about how I was called into ministry during the 2005 Closing Program, and I just love telling that story. The team has been shooting B roll the last few days of classrooms, private lessons, etc. We've never had this much care put into our DVD before, so we're all pretty excited about what's going to happen with it all. I sat down today to talk with the owners about maybe doing some videos, etc, of my own music. I don't know that we're in a place financially to make that happen yet, but Gerald and I have such a strong interest in combining film and music, and it was great to actually sit down with someone and discuss my options.

This afternoon, Aaron Minick (my fabulous producer) came in to teach a class on producing an indie CD. It was really well attended, which thrilled me because the class was my idea. Aaron was terrific, and I think he was able to answer a lot of questions for the students. After the class, we had supper together, and it was great to take a few minutes to catch-up and reconnect.

Gerald made me promise to take a little quiet time for myself today, just I wouldn't get overwhelmed with all things I have to do. So, after supper, I took a little walk around campus. It is just so pretty here. Every time I get close to a campus, I started dreaming about getting my Masters degree someday. (Belmont has a Masters of Church Music that's especially tempting.) Then I think about essays, exams, and deadlines, and the dream abruptly ends.

The Closing Program came upon us like a rush. For most of the show, I was able to sit and watch the performances, and it was fantastic. The group singing was incredible, and the soloists and groups were just great. I had to leave the auditorium halfway through the show to help with the scholarship auction. While at the InfoCenter, I was approached by a man who asked if I was Allison Lynn. He then told me that he's been reading my blog since Day 1. I can't even tell you how much that blessed me! The last few years have been incredibly dynamic for me and my family, and it amazes me that others want to share in that journey.

After the show, there were tears and hugs and thank-you's. Several people told me they were reluctant to go home and face the trials they had left there. I reminded them that no one leaves Stamps-Baxter alone. They are now part of a community that crosses states and countries. I know that sounds sentimental, but it's true. I don't think I realized it my first year, but as the years go by, I know it to be truer and truer. We email, we visit, we pray for each other, and we sing together. We are part of an 80 year tradition of Stamps-Baxter students, and that is not something that will pass lightly away.

Later, when things were packed up, the office staff and a few friends went out for a late night dinner. At some points, I was too tired to even talk, but overall, I'm just so satisfied with the last few weeks.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Stamps-Baxter - Callback Night

This afternoon, I filled in for Teri Reid to teach her afternoon theory class. As tradition stands, the Stamps-Baxter Kids will open tomorrow's Closing Program, so rehearsal was at the top of the schedule. We practiced "Heaven's Jubilee" acapella to learn the words, and then practiced walking on and off the stage in the auditorium. By the afternoon, the kids are always a little fidgety, so my plan was to keep them moving. We all moved outside, and the weather was stunning. To encourage good listening, we lined up in pairs and practiced the song as we walked along the pathways on campus. Occasionally, the group would spread out and we'd need to clump back together, but overall, it worked really well. The singing was good, and we all ended up at the fountain just in time for a little break.

After the break, we started writing a song about our favourite Stamps-Baxter things. Unfortunately, I don't know that I'll get back in the class to help finish the song, but we had a good start. We practiced writing lists and finding the special and funny things about school to put in our song. After class, I compiled some of the items into a rough chorus and a few verses, so we'll see if they're able to work on it tomorrow.

Tonight was Callbacks for the Closing Program. Twenty-three people were chosen from the two nights of acapella auditions, and tonight each soloist or group had to perform their full song as they would in tomorrow's show. Allison Durham Speer asked me to be one of the judges, so the pressure was on. Since I knew everyone auditioning, I felt very invested in everyone's performance and just wanted them all to be fantastic. The Closing Program is a big deal. Not only will the auditorium be completely packed, but every performance will be videotaped and included on a DVD that will travel worldwide via students and You Tube. Having been in the Closing Program myself, I felt the pressure to only choose the best talents, the performers who will stand up to pressure of the performance, and the people who will best represent the school. Luckily, there was a small committee of judges, so the responsibility fell on several shoulders. There were a few missed words, but overall, it was great to see everyone step up their game and present their best. The auditions ran about two hours, and then we deliberated for about thirty minutes before making all the decisions.

It's going to be a great show. I can't believe we've reached this point so quickly! Each year, the time goes too quickly, but this year seems to have gone faster than ever. I've met some amazing people, and some incredible families. And at least I know that, in my position in the office, I'll be able to keep in touch with everyone after this week.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stamps-Baxter - Bluegrass Night

We're getting close to the end of the school. Unbelievable how quickly it's going! A lot of my day was filled with small little office things to help us prepare for the end of the week - organizing scholarship students, making sure everyone has a ride to the airport, making plans for our post mortem and follow up time...

Miss Rosa Nell came to the school today. She's in her 80's, and she still sings and teaches piano. Yes, please, give me some of that! I think I wrote about this my first year at school, but this is one of the things I love about Southern Gospel. There is no age limit on your life in music or ministry! People recognize that your music and your message are only enriched by your life and your experiences, and that includes the experience brought on by a few wrinkles. It's comforting to know that I'm not in a race against time to 'hit big' while I'm young.

The highlight of today was definitely tonight's concert. Tonight, we celebrated the music of bluegrass with Little Roy Lewis, Lizzy Long, Al McCall, and our very own Rebekah Long (yay, Rebekah!). The band took the stage at 7:30 to a somewhat hesitant crowd. I don't think we've ever had an all-bluegrass show before, and I think some people were a little hesitant about what was about to happen. Well, within a few songs, the crowd was clapping along and giving standing ovation after standing ovation. One of the biggest standing O's went to Rebekah on her version of "Wildflowers". Even though she started at the school as a student before working for Ben, this was the first time she had actually sung a solo on the school stage. She totally knocked it out of the park, so it was worth the wait.

Partway through the set, the band brought out a very special guest - Earl Scruggs! He's become an annual visitor to the school's nightly jam session, but I think this was the first time he was a mainstage guest. As expected, he just brought the house down. Even kids who've never watched The Beverley Hillbillies were on their feet clapping and cheering. How do you deny talent like that?

I haven't known how to write about this all week, cause I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but we've been getting tonnes of great feedback all week on the new changes we've made this year. New students are grateful for the new student support, and returning students and faculty appreciate the new approach to organization. It's just so satisfying to see all our hard work paying off in these two weeks.

Going to come in a little late tomorrow, with permission - I need the sleep!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Stamps-Baxter - Auditions begin...

I can't believe I'm still up. The time on this blog will be incorrect - it's actually almost one in the morning. I got home at 11pm, but I'm trying to book Ontario dates for our August visit, and this is the only chance I'm getting to do it. (by the way, if you have a church in Southern Ontario and you want a concert in August, I know this great singer from Nashville...)

Today was CD recording day. I spent the morning at the office catching up on Ben Speer Music stuff, but by all accounts, the recording was a great success. They did the whole thing in only 3 hours, which is pretty amazing!

In the afternoon, I visited Teri Reid's class to help her students prepare for their auditions tonight. The class will sing as a group on Friday night, but over half of them also wanted to audition as soloists. We went into the auditorium, grabbed a few mics, and practiced their songs. For most of them, just standing on a stage with a mic in their hand is brand new stuff, so I wanted to give them a chance just to stand there and see how it feels. There was also a lot of nervousness, and I think giving them this chance helped get through some of those nerves.

Our concert tonight was by No Other Name. This trio actually met at the school and moved to Nashville to start their music careers. Ten years later, they're full-time and just got signed with Curb Records. I didn't get to see the whole concert, but you can tell they've been together a while. Their voices are strong individually, and their chemistry and blend is wonderful.

After the concert, we began auditions. The SGMG (Southern Gospel Music Guild) visited us tonight with free pizza and brochures, and even free pizza couldn't draw the students away from the auditions. We're having 3 nights of auditions, so it's all pretty intense. Tonight and tomorrow is round one. The students must perform 60 seconds of any song, acapella (stressful!). If they pass round one, they move on to callbacks on Thursday, where they must perform the song they would want to sing on Friday. I don't know who's auditioning tomorrow, but there were some great people tonight.

At the end of auditions, there was a huge sigh of relief and a mad rush to the pizza tables. Great day, but very, very long!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stamps-Baxter - Week Two Begins

It's hard to believe that after months and months of working on the school, we're now over halfway done. We start auditions for the Closing Program tomorrow night, and then it's all just a race to the finish line.

My day was a mix of of boring officey stuff and very cool and uplifting musical moments. This afternoon, I finally got to sit in on group singing! It's the first time I've been able to do it this year, and it felt soooo good! I was very glad I'm a good sight-reader so I could just jump in on the songs. The recording will happen tomorrow morning and, even though I'm not going to join in on that, I think it's going to be something really special.

I dropped in on Teri Reid's class today and talked with them a bit about auditioning. (Teri teaches the children's class.) I'm going in with them tomorrow for an hour to help them prep for their auditions, so that should be fun.

Our concert tonight was the as-yet-unnamed-quartet of Johnny Minick, Aaron Minick, Mike Allen, and Allison Durham Speer. It was an hour of just big, open throated, awesome Southern Gospel singing. Classic songs, great arrangements, and four singers who clearly love being on stage together. Johnny got to preaching a bit, and he quoted that whole passage from Revelations that talks about John seeing the new Jerusalem. Just a great night!

I stayed in the auditorium to watch a few of the student performance opportunities, and they were great. I love seeing people who've been quiet and a little shy all week get up on that stage and take a risk. I was so proud of them all!

After a while, a group of us wandered down to the Hub for snacks and socializing. It was funny to look over at the computers and realize that that's where this whole blogging thing started. The whole point was just to write something that Mom and Dad and Gerald could read each day and keep up on my adventures. Who knew that three years later, I'd be living in Nashville, working at the school, and still writing my blog? Mysterious ways...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Stamps-Baxter at Grace Nazarene

The weekend at Stamps-Baxter has no mandatory activities, but today brought a special field trip and ministry opportunity.

The worship pastor at Grace Church of the Nazarene is an alumnus of the school, so he invited the entire student body, as a choir, to sing during this morning's worship service. Carpools and the church bus moved almost 200 people from Trevecca to the church this morning. I didn't get a chance to sit in on group singing even once last week, so I sat in the congregation, and that was actually okay. The choir looked and sounded amazing! If we can sound this good on Tuesday's recording session, we're going to have a very special CD this year.

The choir sang selections from this year's new songbook, "Heaven's Jubilee". The book is a celebration of the music of Dad Speer and the Speer Family, so you know the songs are great. Allison Durham Speer was in the audience, so the pastor pulled her up for a song. She did a beautiful and heart-felt rendition of "What a Day That Will Be", that concluded with the whole congregation singing along.

After the service, we were treated to an elaborate spread of spaghetti, sweet tea, and Southern hospitality. The whole morning was a great success, and rumour has it we're already booked again for next year.

On a personal note, I had a beautiful experience earlier this morning. I put Dante outside on his leash and he started barking. I assumed he was barking at another dog, so I stepped outside to bring him back in. And that's when I saw them - two deer walking in the grass. They had no antlers and looked young. It was so quiet, and even though they saw us, they didn't move or get startled. They sniffed the air and seemed to be enjoying the soft air and sunshine. After a minute, they slowly walked across the grass and back into the woods. The whole experience was full of peace, and I found myself very happy to be living outside the concrete jungle.

Stamps-Baxter - Week One

I've never been so reprimanded in my life. Not only have I received emails about my lacking of blogging this week, but I actually had students call me out. Oh well, can't argue about people actually wanting to read what I write.

I could list the obvious reasons - long days, short nights, too much work, too little time - but they wouldn't tell the real story, and I've been too honest, too long to start changing now. Just before school started last week, I got a call from my parents saying that our 15-year-old family dog, Desi, wasn't doing well. As a matter of fact, he had gotten very sick very quickly, and they were very worried about where things might be heading. That was just the first call. Each night this week, I would come home from a 14 hour work day, and call Toronto for a long and teary phone call about Desi. On Wednesday night, I got the call I was dreading the most. Things were bad and weren't going to get any better. The decision was for the best. The appointment was made for Friday morning. I cried and cried, not just for our beautiful Desi, but also for my parents, and for my overwhelming homesickness. Distances never seem farther than when your loved ones are in pain.

Needless to say, blogging fell on the back burner. I would come home full of excitement about the school, but after those phone calls, I just couldn't bring that excitement back. Now, I'm sure there are non-dog people reading this right now thinking, "This is the dumbest blog ever," and that's fine. Dog people know what I'm talking about. Desi was an incredible piece of God's creation, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that we were so blessed to have him in our lives. It still doesn't seem real to me to describe him in the past tense, and I know the real shock will come the next time I visit Mom and Dad's house and I'm only greeted by human voices. It hurts just to think about it. But tonight, I am so thankful for 15 years of wagging tails, happy barks, and unconditional love. Praise God for all creatures - especially those that are both great and small.

This past week really has been extraordinary in wonderful ways too, and I don't want to let the day end without making note of a few highlights:

Our students have been settling in nicely, and there's a wonderful spirit in the air. Returning students are noticing some of the changes we've made, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Yay, office team!

We've had great concerts by Monument Quartet, Stephen Hill, and the Chuck Wagon Gang. The student Performance Opportunities has also had some incredible moments with great performances by new and returning students.

On Tuesday, I joined Rebekah for the first bluegrass jam session of the week. All students are invited to bring their instrument and play along. I would never pick up my guitar in that kind of situation, so I pulled out my set of keys in a lame attempt at making a rhythm section. We stayed outside til 11:00, and it was pretty fun. Ben eventually came along and played bass, so Rebekah played guitar and I sang harmony. We had about 8 other instrumentalists join us, about a dozen singers, and another 20 people just hanging out. All very cool indeed!

On Thursday, I joined Brian Speer and his private sound system students for a field trip to Aaron and Johnny Minick's new studio on Music Row. It's a little imperfect now, but it's going to be awesome when it's all set up.

On Friday, Bill Gaither visited with the students for an hour and a half, talking about songwriting, ministry, and music. He was fantastic, and finished with his incredible story of "hanging up his dream in the closet".

Friday also had 2 very cool highlights: First, I taught with Allison Durham Speer! Last year, I watched the students auditioning for the Closing Program, and got very frustrated with the mistakes they were making. So today, I taught Audition Techniques. I started with a primer of audition basics, and we moved on to mock auditions. I will completely admit that standing in front of that crowd to teach was much more intimidating that standing in front of them to sing. But the response to the class was overwhelmingly good from both staff and students, so that felt pretty awesome!

And second, tonight was our 20th Anniversary Concert, and I sang! The whole show was wonderful. Ben spoke about the history of the singing school, and Shawn Degenhart gave a presentation on the history of the Speer Family. We had some great performances by faculty members, and I sang "Do You Wanna Be My Neighbour in Gloryland". Here's where things got interesting: As I'm singing, I hear everybody laughing. I turned around to see Mike Allen and Steve Speer (Ben's son) waltzing across the back of the stage. It was surreal and hilarious. I just kept singing, and tried very hard not to laugh too much. After I left the stage, Allison told me that, back in the day, groups would often walk out on stage while their buddies were singing, trying to upstage them. Frankly, I'm honoured that they trusted me enough to do something like that, knowing that I wouldn't fall apart and would just keep on going. Of course, I wouldn't want it on every song...

The week was also full of those small, innumerable, magical moments that can only be found at Stamps-Baxter. If this school was a full-time program, I would sign up as a permanent student. It was such an honour to sing last night in the same room where I received my calling into full-time ministry. God has a plan that is perfect and unexpected, and I'm so glad He's delivered me to this place.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Stamps-Baxter - Registration & Day 1

I have to combine yesterday's Registration and Day 1 because I got home waaaaay too late last night to make much sense of anything - and to be honest, tonight's not much better.

Yesterday's Registration was a great success. We really revamped everything this year, and it's been months and months of work. But yesterday's results were worth every second of organizing, brainstorming, and conference calling. The average registration time was cut at least in half, and the new layout made it much easier to socialize when you were through, which is really the highlight of Registration for most people.

I already felt like I knew a lot of the new students because we had emailed or spoken on the phone so often. I started trying to guess who people were before they introduced themselves. I was successful a few times, but I stopped before I gave anyone the impression I was some weird Southern Gospel wanna-be psychic.

This morning started early with a 7 am staff and faculty meeting. (Yes, that's Seven A.M.), followed by student orientation. Traditionally, we've had orientation on Registration night, which means traditionally, we have to repeat everything again on Monday morning. Moving orientation to Monday was definitely a good idea, and it set everything off on the right foot.

I actually didn't get any classroom time at all today. I'll be working every day, but I do plan on attending a few of the afternoon seminars when I can. We basically spent the whole day helping new students, organizing the InfoCenter (formally known as the product table), and trying to work the rented photocopier. Not particularly glamourous, but all good because the students are having fun, and that's all I want. ... Okay, I want a little fun too!

And tonight I got it: Buddy Greene was our opening concert! As usual, he was brilliant and entertaining and honest and great. After the concert, he taught our first ever harmonica class. He had a huge crowd, and I honestly expect everyone to work a harmonica solo into their songs by tomorrow.

Must sleep! I haven't had more than 5 hours sleep per night for over a week. But I have say: It is sooo good to be back at SB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Twas the night before Stamps-Baxter...

The time on this post is completely inaccurate. It's actually 1:15 in the morning, and I'm really wondering why I'm still awake. Today, I worked a 13 and a half hour day for the school, then came home and worked another few hours trying to book dates for our August Ontario visit, and tomorrow morning I have an 8 am breakfast meeting for the staff of the school. Arg!

So, here's where things are at with me: All this week, I've been averaging 10 hour days working for the Stamps-Baxter singing school. Ben has brought on Kay Honour as the School Administrator, and she's fabulous! She's from BC, so we now have 2 Canadians in the office!

Tomorrow is Registration day. Starting 7:15 tomorrow morning, students will start to arrive from across the States and around the world. We have students coming from Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Romania, and Australia. Being in the office, I've communicated with all of them in some way or another, and it'll be great to put faces to voices and emails.

I'm praying tonight for safe travels for all, and for strength and energy for the staff! It's going to be a loooong day...

Thursday, July 03, 2008

My Interview with Sue Smith

My new article for has been posted. This month, I interviewed songwriter Sue Smith. Besides being an incredible writer, Sue also runs the amazing Write About Jesus.

You can read the article here.

The whole website has been revamped, and it looks awesome!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Happy Canada Day!

This is the one day of the year when Canadians are completely unashamed to wear red and white, wave flags, and scream "I am Canadian" while walking down the street. This is the day we gather to gorge ourselves on poutine, Beaver Tails, and Timbits. This is the day we realize that, despite our varied backgrounds and histories, we are all Canadians, all neighbours, all family.

Can you tell who's homesick today???

HAPPY CANADA DAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!