It’s for those who want to know the nitty-gritty details.
If that doesn’t sound like you, then you can skip on over to my professional bio. It’s shorter.
My earliest memory of music… was when I was 3 years old, in my onesie pajamas pounding away on a tinkley toy piano underneath a huge Christmas tree. I remember my mom having a brown wood colored upright piano at the time, and I would put my piano right here next to her’s and play away. I did have another toy piano before that (around 18 months or so), but my first memory of anything was around 3 years old.
Age 18 months
My first piano – 3 yrs old
When I turned 5, my mother started me on Suzuki violin lessons. Being quite the accomplished violinist herself, she taught me. (Suzuki is a method of learning where you start out by playing everything only by ear. The teacher plays it to the student, and the student plays it back. Eventually you learn to read notes). Later that same year, after having some violin lessons under my belt, my mom then began teaching me to play the piano. By that time, my older brother was also taking lessons for both piano and cello (from my mom).
By the time I reached the 2 nd grade, my brother and I were up at 6:00 in the morning taking turns practicing. Michael would be on the piano for 30 minutes while I was in another room practicing violin, and then we would switch so I would get the piano and he would go practice the cello. And by this time, it was always a fight for who got the piano first. My mom had finally accomplished one of her dreams and purchased a 7 foot concert grand piano. It’s amazing how much more motivation one can have when presented with a shiny new big black piano verses an old wooden tinny upright.
At age five
Around 6 or 7 yrs old
After the grueling morning practice sessions, my mom would load us and our instruments into the car and take us to school where we had orchestra rehearsal at 7:30am before school started. My mom was a volunteer for the school music program and so she would help out with string sectionals – which I thought was so cool at the time. There’s nothing more comforting to a 7 year old than to get to go to school and have your mom there.
Now I don’t remember this at the time, but my mother tells me that I was the only 2nd grader in a 6th grade orchestra, and I was also the concert master. That was news to me – I certainly didn’t remember feeling like the youngest person there. Nor do I remember being the “concert master” (which I’m sure at the time was not really a concert master-ish role).
Playing in the school orchestra – 7 yrs old
Eventually there came a point on the piano when I was able to start playing some harder music. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy all of the piano lessons I’d had up to that point, but it was as if all of a sudden playing the piano became really fun! I actually enjoyed what I was playing.
When I was 12 years old I remember watching the old classic movie “Anchors Aweigh” with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. There is a scene in that movie where they sneak into a rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl, and there are about 17 grand pianos on the stage.
All 17 of these pianists were simultaneously playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2. I got so excited and decided I wanted to play that piece of music. After a lot of pleading, I finally convinced my mom to buy the sheet music for me – which didn’t come without her forewarning of how hard of a piece it was.
Okay, and so yes, it was quite difficult to learn. It took me a very long time actually, but I did learn most of it. If you could take a peak at the sheet music now, you would see it all marked with scribbles from a 12 year old. Some of the music was in the key of E# Major (4 sharps), and so I had to write into the music which notes those were.
In a nutshell, it was during this time in my early life when I really started to become more interested in the piano more than the violin.
Around age 9 – playing in a talent show
That’s me, the goofball, with my 3 brothers at Wallowa Lake, Oregon -
probably somewhere around 10 or 11 yrs old. Not sure.
My small high school didn’t have an orchestra program, and so I actually didn’t even pick up the violin for about 4 years. I tried to get involved in some community orchestras, but most of them required us to drive a 2 hour round trip – and we eventually just gave up on those orchestras.
But it wasn’t by default I concentrated on the piano more, it was my own desire.
I practiced a great deal in high school, usually a couple of hours a day. I was heavily into classical music – I wanted to play anything and everything that allowed me to play loud and fast (Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, etc.). As you can imagine, this drove both of my parents a little mad. If you know how loud a piano can carry in a house, especially on a 7 foot concert grand, then you can imagine the headaches my family had. By that time, my mom also had a full studio of piano students, as well as my three brothers taking lessons.
Needless to say, the piano was constantly being played throughout the day.
During some of my teen years, my mother finally got burnt out on teaching me and so she outsourced me to a different piano teacher for a couple of years, which was the first time I had ever taken lessons from someone who was not my own mother.
By the time I had finished high school, I had been the choir accompanist, the school musicals/plays accompanist, participated in talent shows, earned blue ribbons at Solo & Ensemble festivals, was nominated as one of the “most talented” students in the school, and performed a piano solo at my graduation ceremony.
Me performing a solo for Solo & Ensemble, at Portland State University (9th grade, age 14)
High school graduation – age 17
After high schoolgraduation, I left home and went to college in Eastern Idaho – at Brigham Young University.
You are probably wondering why Idaho of all places?
BYU is a university that is supported by my church, and I always wanted to attend a school where I could be comfortable in my values and have a positive college experience. There are three different BYU’s – one in Idaho, Utah, and Hawaii. In retrospect I think I would have rather of gone to Hawaii! But alas, Idaho was the one I got accepted into and it turns out it was a huge blessing in disguise. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience there, despite the extreme cold temperatures and snow.
After arriving there for my first freshman semester, I signed up to take a few music classes just to see what the music program was like. I also brought my violin with me, finally brushed the dust off of it and signed up for the non-auditioned college string orchestra. It was the first time I’d played my violin in about 4 years. I was a tad rusty.
College was amazing to me.
For the first time in my life, aside from my own family, I was around others my age who were very passionate about music.
I had this idea that a college music program was going to be very competitive, and that it would drain the life right out of me. Which… it did in some ways. But for the most part the other students and professors in the piano program were all very supportive. (I can also attribute some of this due to the fact that the school was not a very large university and had the atmosphere of a junior college, with more one-on-one attention from the professors. We would attend each other’s recitals, sit in and give critique when asked for, etc. It only propelled me to practice more and get better and better.)
My second semester in college, I decided to audition on violin for the college’s symphony-orchestra. I made it in and performed with the symphony for the remainder of my schooling there. I often regret losing those 4 years when I didn’t pick up the violin during high school, often cursing myself because I could have been a lot better had I practiced. I did practice hard though to try to catch up, but could definitely see the difference in skill level between the other violinists and myself. And I still did not practice the violin as much as I should have because I was concentrating more on the piano. But it was a very wonderful and very educational experience performing with such a talented group. My conductor, Dr. Kevin Call, even though often unintentionally intimidating me with his vast knowledge and talent, taught me an immense amount about theory and timing. I honestly don’t know of a better way to learn how to count than to play in an ensemble.
My stand partner, Brittany, and I during a concert of Handel’s “Messiah”
Halloween Symphony Concert (1700′s gals) – Mel and I
Other fellow violinists from my college symphony
Performing in the historic Tabernacle on Temple Square with my college symphony
As for piano, I really learned how to fine-tune my skills and actually realized what a sloppy player I had been up until college. I don’t know if sloppy is the right word, but I definitely wasn’t playing as precise, or with as much skill and emotion before then.
I was lucky enough to study with a fabulous teacher, Dr. Stephen Allen, who is still the dean of piano studies at BYU-Idaho. With him, it wasn’t just about the piano, but how you connect with it; your ability to make the piano sing your emotions. He taught me many lessons not just about piano, but about life.
My college piano professor, Dr. Stephen Allen, and I
My average day in college consisted of 8 hours of practicing and playing the piano, and about 5 – 6 hours of classes. Just as I wanted to learn a monster of a piece when I was 12 years old, I set my sights high in college and was determined to be the best that I could be. I entered the school’s concerto competition my last year there, playing one of the hardest pieces of music I’ve ever learned: Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. That piece was literally acrobatics for my fingers. Multiple crossovers, atonal chord structures, glissandos that made my fingers even bleed a couple of times – roughly 40 pages of memorized music. More than anything I ever wanted before, I wanted the chance to solo with the symphony – and that was the prize for the winner of this competition. I went through several rounds of competitions and made it to the finals, competing against just one other pianist.
I ended up 2nd, but I was still very proud of myself for making it that far. It was worth it to hear my professor compliment me by letting me know I was one of the top 2 pianists of the school. I also gained a lot of respect around the music program community at the school after that competition, which was nice. I was bombarded with requests to both perform with and accompany other music majors. For the first time, I had to learn to use the word “no” to opportunities, as I literally did not have enough time to accommodate.
Me performing in the Finals of the BYU-I Concerto Competition on Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto
Performing in a 2-piano duet concert with duet partner, Christine.
After I graduated from college , I moved back home to the Seattle area and started my own teaching studio out of my parents’ home. I had around 30 students, and I truly enjoyed that. I did miss performing though. A year later, at 22 years of age, I moved from Washington to Utah and lived there for 4 years, with the hopes of either continuing my education, performing, or just having a good life experience.
Me after my last student recital in Washington, before moving to Utah. I performed a Liszt Piano Concerto for my students at the end of the night.
I auditioned for the Salt Lake City Temple Square Concert Series and was brought on board there – where I performed for them on the piano for 3 years (which was an amazing experience, by the way).
My Grandmother and I – after a performance on Temple Square on an 1870 Steinway
Me at a beautiful 9 foot Steinway that I had the opportunity to regularly
perform on at the Conference Center on Temple Square
I also joined one of the local symphonies and played violin with them for a couple of years. It was while I was a member of that symphony where I had the opportunity of soloing with them, which as I said earlier, I had always wanted to do.
They held a concerto competition, which I entered and ended up being chosen as a winner to solo in a concert with them. I performed Edward MacDowell’s 2nd Piano Concerto. It was one of the most beautiful and energizing musical experiences I have had.
Did I happen mention that I had contracted an odd case of stage-fright during college? I don’t know why because I had been performing my entire life. Maybe it had something to do with playing in front of audiences with rows of judges critiquing your every move on the keyboard, or the feeling that you are like a bug under a microscope being studied by an audience of scientists. Whatever it was that caused it, I caught it and had it bad for a few years even after college.
Me soloing with the Murray Symphony Orchestra on the MacDowell Piano Concerto No. 2
(You can watch this performance on my YouTube channel)
Having stage fright… didn’t stop me from performing, but I was always worried about being up there on stage and forgetting my music, or drawing a blank due to the nervousness. Even sometimes now I can be a nervous wreck before I get up there, but once I am on the stage and play that first note on the piano, I’m home.
I’ve come to learn something about myself – that these “Pre-performance jitters” are largely due to self-doubt that I inflict upon myself. I might be getting ahead of myself here, but it’s taken me years to learn that music is not about competition (like it had been for me through high school and college).
Music is all about beauty, and giving of oneself and one’s gifts to another to appreciate. Which, as I will tell you about in a little bit, is something that only discovered after I found my place in music.
Eventually, I moved back to Seattle and landed a job working for the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall. I was in the education department, and had a very rewarding job of getting to teach young school students about both the piano and violin. I also was lucky enough to meet many other talented musicians and artists. When I knew an artist was coming into town that was performing with the symphony, I would try to make it backstage as much as possible to listen to the rehearsals and attend the concerts. I have met Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, and Itzak Perlman. Also Lang Lang, and Pearl Jam to name a few.
A night shot of Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle (Laura Swimmer, Photographer)
During my time working at the Seattle Symphony, I also had the opportunity to be a performer for the Seattle Composer’s Salon which is held at Benaroya Hall as well. As a gift for participating in a string quartet that performed one of his compositions at this event, I was given a violin as a gift from composer and violin maker, Doug Palmer. You may notice the violin in my photo shoot for my album, as it is a very unique instrument. Instead of a scroll at the head of the fingerboard, there is a fist. Let me tell you, I’ve been an instant hit with the elementary aged kids with that instrument. Especially the boys, as I usually hear “Whoa – that is the coolest violin ever!!” It also draws quite the crowd when I take it into violin shops for adjustments. And the sound on this violin is incredibly rich and deep. I loved it so much that I actually ended up selling my original violin (which I paid a pretty penny for) to a guy in Austria, and ended up keeping my Palmer violin instead. It is also the violin I used for the recording of my album.
I didn’t actually compose my first song until Christmas of 2003.
All of my life people have come up to me after a performance and asked “So do you compose music as well?”
I would half-way chuckle at the question and say “No, not at all.”
My mother was a composer and that was always her thing. My thing was performing. And especially during college, as a student of classical music I tended to think of myself as a completely separate and different kind of artist than a composer.
Composers wrote the music, I performed it – just like how writers write movie scripts, and actors play the parts. That was how it was, and I really had no desire to change that. There was one instant where I thought I would actually try to sit down and write a song and believe me, it was incredibly pathetic and came out sounding like a sad version of chopsticks. I just accepted the fact that I was not meant to be a composer and really never tried again after that.
At least not until one beautiful night…
It was Christmas time of 2003, and my parents, younger brother, and I went out one evening to attend a benefit concert. The performers were the Grammy award winning duo, Tingstad and Rumbel. It was set in a small intimate hall to a sold-out crowd of around 200 people. Nancy Rumbel played a variety of wind instruments, and Eric Tingstad played his acoustic guitar. They performed several original arrangements of Christmas carols. I grew up listening to Tingstad and Rumbel and though I’ve always enjoyed their music, I was only expecting to hear what I had always heard (which is lovely by the way).
However, sitting there in that concert, I felt mesmerized by their beautiful music.
The music was so simple: just two instruments, yet it had incredible depth of sound. To say the least, I was deeply touched. I remember sitting there in the concert and feeling so inspired. All of my life the music I had played was so complex, so intricate, so demanding. And yet here I was listening to the most simple and beautiful music in the world.
After the concert, I just kept thinking “I want to do that.” I went home that night, sat down at the piano in a candle and Christmas tree lit room and composed my very first song “Old Movie Romance”. A few days later, I composed another song, “Prelude in F”. Well, and then I didn’t compose anything else for a very long time. It was like I was hit with a wave of inspiration that came and left. But it left a good taste in my mouth, that’s for sure.
I knew I might be on to something when I performed the two songs for a few different people at the symphony, and I was highly encouraged to continue with it. At the time, I was also in the early stages of dating my now-husband, Will. I asked him if I could play“Prelude in F” for him, and after I finished he didn’t say a word. I honestly thought it must have been bad.
I was really nervous to play my compositions for other people, because it’s not like I was playing Mozart or Haydn or someone else’s music. If it was bad, then it reflected on me, not on someone else.
After a few moments of silence, he finally said through a broken voice, “That was really good. You really know how to bring the spirit into a room.” I looked up at him and noticed his eyes were glistening. I had never seen him cry before, but whatever I just played on the piano made him do so.
After that experience with Will, I felt inspired to continue composing. Later that year (in 2004), after we’d gotten engaged, I wrote “Will’s Song”, which I later performed for him at our wedding reception (in 2005) as my gift to him.
Will and I on our wedding day – March 2005
After our wedding and honeymoon, we started our blissful newlywed married life off living in Portland, Oregon – where Will had just graduated from PSU with a master’s degree (and was job hunting), and I was teaching piano and also performing (on violin) with the Oregon Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. Again, I was still heavily involved in music, but I still yearned to do more. I wanted to branch off and do my own thing with my music.
I was still new to composing, and certainly did not feel qualified or experienced, but I was learning as I went. A couple of key things I had to figure out on my own were: 1) That composing music is a skill, just like playing the piano is a skill. You have to work at it to become better. 2) Playing music and writing it out in notation are two totally different things. Just because you can do one, does not necessarily mean you can do the other.
I once thought that I could just sit down and crank out a composition from my fingers. Like I said, that early venture ended up with a sad version of watered down chopsticks. I feel blessed that my first composition that one Christmas came to me like it did, but looking back I think it was God’s gift to me letting me know that it was in me somewhere to be able to do this. And I really struggled with writing the music down in the beginning. For the first time I actually had to stop and think about how you would write down certain things. I’m convinced that I actually gained some additional brain cells while learning to notate music. I’ve seen and read music for almost 25 years, but never had to actually think about it and dissect it. It’s like knowing how to use a toaster your whole life, but then trying to take it apart and put it back together.
Will eventually found a job in Seattle, and we moved there (where we have been ever since). I was actually very happy about that, since Seattle was my hometown. After we settled in our new apartment, I quickly got back into composition-mode. I also got my old job back at the Seattle Symphony in the education department, but on a part-time basis, working a few hours here and there when I wanted to.
As I continued to write more and more music…
I started getting requests to record my compositions and give them to people. I also received requests to perform my compositions at house parties, small concerts, etc. I only had a Kawai CN-270 keyboard at the time (which fit perfectly in our tiny newlywed apartment, by the way). Will was able to figure out how to run an audio cable from my keyboard to our computer and record my songs. No midi whatsoever, and nothing fancy at all. These were very rough and humble recordings on my part, and I was just figuring things out as I went.
I certainly never started out on this venture with the notion of “I’m going to record albums and share my music with the world someday.”
But as time went on and as I wrote more and more music, many people would come up to me and say, “I would love it if you would record a couple of songs down and just burn it to a CD for me so I can listen to it in my car”,or “I want to play your music for my grandchild to inspire them to practice more.” There has always seemed to be a higher purpose with this, and I’ve been blessed and lead in directions that brought me to the point of doing this what I now do with music.
Towards the end of 2005, I decided that I would record an album. My mother just happened to be recording her debut album as well and so I was fortunate enough to sit in with her on many studio sessions. Her album was being produced by Paul Speer, Grammy Award nominated artist and producer, and also enlisted a talented group of artists such as Nancy Rumbel herself (remember, the artist(s) who inspired me to compose in the first place).
I learned a great deal by watching these professionals, both on the engineering side as well as the recording side. I attended many of my mom’s recording sessions and felt like a wide-eyed child. I took many mental notes, did a lot of research on my own about what I would need to have a home studio of my own.
I eventually traded that audio cord that ran from my keyboard to my computer, for a MIDI cord. I also got a 2nd keyboard (a Kurzweil PC88) that had some advanced features that I would need in order to use the more advanced studio softwares that I had purchased. I was also fortunate to come across Zak Dewey, a talented studio engineer and artist, who helped me with the making of my entire album for recording to mixing. After many hours recording in the studio (both his and mine), mixing, writing orchestra parts, vocals, etc…the album “Key of Sea” was born.
Me at Zak Dewey’s studio mixing a song.
This debut album was basically a collection of the best songs I had written up to that point. It was raw, it was honest, and it was just me.
At that point, simply making that CD was a huge accomplishment for me. It was one of those things I wanted to do just to be able to say I had done it. Had it been a few years prior, I would have laughed if someone were to tell me that I would be releasing a CD, let alone all of it being my own compositions.
Me on the beach near Seattle, getting some shots taken for the
artwork for Key of Sea. (Above: Will, me, and Erika Nisbet. Below: Will and I)
Since the release of Key of Sea, I have continually been amazed (and astonished) at the positive response it has received by so many fans and other artists. Many of the songs from that album have gone on to win awards, accolades, be included in films, used for dance competitions, wedding music – just to name a few things. I have also been so lucky to meet so many other talented artists as well.
Apparently I found my place in music.
After that album release, I wrote many single tracks as I continued to discover my own sound and style. I wrote the song “Fly Away”, which honestly was one of the easier songs I had written to that point, and yet has gained so much In popularity I am continually completely blown away. Nothing will cease to amaze me. That song went from being used in a few random indie films, to winning three 1 st places prizes on ourstage.com, a 1 st place prize in the Swan Lake Moving Image and Music Awards, to being used as the promo song for the 2009 World Volleyball Championships on NBC Universal Sports (you can watch the nbc promo here).
The year after my CD release was full of concerts and collaborations. I performed to a sold-out show in Bellevue, Salt Lake City, Idaho Falls, as well as in my hometown of Seattle (and got to perform at my old stomping grounds at Benaroya Hall).
My concert in Bellevue, WA (CD launch concert) – April of 2007
My Dad (Ron Southworth) at my CD launch concert
Me at my favorite piano, a 10 foot Fazioli, after my Salt Lake City Concert – Nov of 2007
Me during my Seattle concert at Benaroya Hall – Dec of 2007
And then shortly thereafter I took a much needed hiatus because…In June of 2008, Will and I had our first child – a little redheaded baby boy whom we named Preston.
Transitioning into motherhood after 31 years of not being a mom, was, definitely exciting, beautiful, but also challenging. I had found it difficult to write music while I was pregnant, or perform for that matter. (I did do concerts up until I was about 4 and ½ months pregnant and then stopped after that.) And trying to find the time to do any music with a newborn in the house was also difficult.
Trying to find some time to practice while being a new mother
My little maestro, when he was around 7 months old
My family (Will, Preston (age 1), and I) – June 2009
Funny enough though, eventually it was out of that period and transition in my life where I was able to create again. After many sleepless nights with my newborn son, I was outside taking him for a walk in the stroller and the idea came to me that I could do a lullaby album. I’d already been making up little songs on the piano for Preston to sleep to. After a long brainstorming session with myself and a jogging stroller, I got on my cell phone and called my mom and asked if she wanted to do the album with me.
About a year later, in the Fall of 2009, my mother and I jointly released a lullaby album, called The Lullaby Album (I know, creative name right?). This time, we had a roster of very talented musicians collaborating with us, including the producing/engineering skills of Paul Speer once again, pianist/orchestrator Jace Vek, and vocalists Jillian Aversa (Goldin) and Lori Cunningham.
The album has been received very well! It has received the highest of positive praise and reviews from critics so far, and has also been included on Kathy Parson’s “Top 20 of 2009″ list (Kathy is a well known reviwer of piano music). It also qualified for nominations for the NAR (New Age Reporter) Awards for Best Instrumental/Classical categories, among others.
I hope that the music has found a special place in the hearts of many parents and children out there. I know it will always have a place in my heart, as does the period in my life does when I wrote the music. My mother and I produced that album with the intent that adults would enjoy it too. As a new mom, I found that there were far too many “kid albums” with highly annoying sounds and jingles that were not very condusive for parents to listen to. Hence the reason why we made this album in 2 formats – one that is just solo piano for the kids (simple, easy to tune into), and another cd that is all orchestrated and has much more dynamic power to it (for the adults).
In 2010, while pregnant with our second son, I finished my first film score for a short film called “Minuet”. I finished the score just 2 weeks before I went into labor. It was certainly not an easy task, but well worth it. We welcomed our 2nd son, Taylor, in August of 2010. Afterwhich I was not-so-privledged to spend another week in the hospital from having pregnancy-induced pancreatitis and eclampsia. And that was after just having had a C-section as well. I can tell you that I will never take my good health for granted ever again.
And if life with one kid wasn’t already busy enough – adding a second one to the mix has made it even more exciting. As I am currently updating this bio (Dec 2012), Taylor is 2 years old, and Preston is now four (I need an updated photo)…
So we are pretty much up to the here and now…
Life as a mom and a recording artist/composer definitely keeps me plenty busy. Over the past four years, I had started writing songs and putting them to the side with the intent of one day releasing an album of my very best work. I just released that album finally – it’s called “Illumination”.
It does take me longer to record than a lot of other artists that I know (with having two little ones), but I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s. And the growth I experience in my music as I let time perculate my ideas is just the key ingredient which I feel makes my music a feeling of accomplishment for me.
I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about each of the songs from Illumination, called “Diary of a Song”. So if you would like to know more about the music on that album, you can check those posts out here.
Along with releasing my new album, following my nomination last year for the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, I was also nominated this year for THREE different nominations (“Best Classical”, “Best Contemporary Instrumental”, and “Best Film Score”) for the 2012 HMMA’s. I ended up winning “Best Original Score”.
2012 has been an exciting year for my music. New album, concerts, events, and more. I have also received nominations for:
Album of the Year – Reviews New Age (Spain)
Album of the Year – Classical Crossover UK
Top Female Artist of the Year – Classical Crossover UK
Indie Artist of the Year – Classical Crossover UK
WINNER – Top Album – Piano Heaven UK
I’m not sure what 2013 will bring yet, but I can only hope many more opportunities to share my music with the world.
Thanks for reading. I realize you could have spent the last ten minutes doing a number of other things other than reading this incredibly long bio, and you truly deserve a gold star. I’m really grateful to you and anyone who has spent ten minutes on me in some way. I do treasure it and appreciate all the love and support I receive.