I wonder if they have been able to have a laugh about it in heaven.
Funny how a picture can trigger so many memories. One look and they come flooding back.
This art piece was made by my mother and sister in about 1971. We were living in Dayton, Ohio in an idyllic setting. Our house was in a forest of sugar maples. That fall, my sister got very sick with bronchitis. She was home from school for at least a week. My mother, creative soul that she was, got Barby to get up from her sick bed to help her create this Christmas scene all out of cut felt pieces. I have a memory of watching them using toothpicks to spread the glue on the backs of the little felt pieces. I remember they spent quite a few days working on it so many years ago.
Last night I went over to my sister's house. They had been traveling over the Christmas break, had a surprise Covid extension in London, and finally got to come home. That's why all of their Christmas decorations were still up even though we are well into January now. Anyway, she had this Christmas scene hanging in a place of honor on her living room wall. I hadn't seen it or even thought about it for years.
My mother Carolyn Thompson Lee (1929-2011) loved Christmas. It was her favorite time of the year. Being a musician, she prepared for Christmas for months. She led the Ward Choir, so we heard her previewing the pieces she intended to use starting in September. She taught her 20+ piano students Christmas pieces starting well before December so that they could be ready to perform them in a Christmas recital. She taught her children special Christmas songs 'way in advance so that we'd be ready to sing them on any show that materialized during the season. She usually accompanied at least one community choir, so we heard her practicing all of their Christmas music and a lot of choruses from Handel's Messiah, too. And of course, we started decking the halls for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving.
But, sometimes she went even more overboard. One year she made Christmas aprons for all of her girls plus herself. She even made us perform wearing them. Then, there was that year she made every single person in our family red striped flannel nightgowns and nightshirts to wear for Christmas Eve.
My husband Ellis Bailey (1956-2019) really, really had to be convinced to go along with the program that year. He had a very hard time. And he absolutely put his foot down about being photographed dressed in his nightshirt!
I wonder if they have been able to have a laugh about it in heaven.
Some of my favorite early memories are of Sunday mornings when my mother would put on her LP recording of the Tabernacle Choir singing selections from Handel's Messiah. That was her way of waking up her children and filling our souls with great music and the Spirit. She actually sang on that album, so it was doubly important to her to pass on the love of singing Messiah. To her it was a family legacy.
No one knows for sure just how singing Handel's oratorio became such a family tradition. Certainly, my Grandma and Grandpa Thompson loved singing the "Hallelujah Chorus." Grandma Lora had sung in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when that great chorus had become synonymous with the choir in the early days of Music and the Spoken Word. When four of their children later sang in the Tabernacle choir, they already knew and loved Handel's Messiah.
I remember big family gatherings for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter when the main event (after the meal) was singing. My aunts and uncles loved to sing and they particularly loved singing Messiah together. They sang the choruses, of course, but also sang the solos. Nearly all of them had sung as soloists professionally. It seemed that whenever Messiah was performed locally, they were sought after for solo work. These family sings went on for hours. (It takes that long to sing a major oratorio.) It was tricky crowding all of the singing relatives into the favorite gathering place, my Aunt's small house. (I thought the house would explode from all the people and their very loud singing!)
Fortunately, for us, nowadays, my brother Bob Lee has a much bigger gathering place. His house has room for 30+ singers and a 9 foot Steinway grand piano. He has hosted the Family Messiah Sing for the past 20 years at least. In fact, his family produced a Messiah Sing in San Diego, complete with orchestra, for many years prior to their move to Utah.
Despite the somewhat smaller group of singers this year, we still managed to give it our all. We sang most of the choruses and solos, skipping just a few of the lesser known ones. Bob's son Robert even added a bit of French horn and trumpet to the mix. Because we have singers who really love to sing the solos, we had to have a rule: "sing one and then you're done." Our pianist, Bob's daughter Amy Gabbitas, really gave her all --- in fact she shed blood! About halfway through the evening, her finger started bleeding all over the keys of the piano. But, after a clean-up and a bandaid, she was ready to continue. Now that's true dedication!
We love singing Handel's Messiah together! Now it can be Christmas.
At Christmas time, many families have particular singing traditions. Some go out caroling, some sing during a Christmas Nativity Pageant, some love singing to Christmas songs playing on the radio 24/7. Whatever the method or style, singing at Christmas is a wonderful activity. Whether singing popular seasonal fun songs or sacred choral music, the delight is palpable.
I grew up in a particularly active singing family. I realize now that singing has been in our family's DNA for many, many generations. We have never been content to just sing along with the radio, either. We have got to MAKE the music happen ourselves. And we have done it in many ways over the years. We have sung in small and large ensembles for Church, Community and professional stage shows and recordings, and for small parties as well as huge events. But nothing has fit our style better than to just get together to entertain ourselves. We love REHEARSING. We think it is fun -- audience or not!
My mother was a beautiful singer, talented pianist and all-round musician. She had us children singing practically from the moment of birth. She had a way of insisting we learn songs well -- in-tune, in parts, and get all of the lyrics right -- without us realizing we were doing a hard thing. We just accepted that singing and learning music was what we did. Even when our personalities clashed, she had a way of allowing the music to triumph. We somehow always came out singing well and liking doing it.
She was sneaky in her teaching methods. We sang a lot in the car. Since we had to travel long distances to get anywhere (Texas is big), she used that time as valuable rehearsing time. We'd get our parts down and learn a lot of tricks to tune our vowel molds on the way to places. (This was before my oldest brother got old enough to drive.) We'd sing fun stuff, too. Like special arrangements of Christmas songs that were exclusive arrangements to our family only!
But one of our favorite singing activities was trying to vocally reproduce all of the band parts to Sousa marches and other purely instrumental music. We'd each get assigned an "instrument' such as trumpet, trombone or clarinet and then go for it. Nobody liked getting stuck with the offbeat horn parts, though. (I loved singing the piccolo parts especially on "The Stars and Stripes Forever.") We always had a good time singing in the car!
In 2006, my family (husband and children) joined with a few other families and performed a Family Show for Christmas during the Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitor's Center. One of our favorite songs was "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" done a cappella imitating instruments. It brought back so many memories of singing with my brothers and sisters in our youth. Enjoy!
Over the years, I have tried to fulfill some strange requests. Once people learn that you can compose, you may be asked to come up with unique arrangements. Often, the requests come with certain and quite specific parameters.
Sometimes, the request is to make an arrangement for a group with limited instrumentation. Just a few weeks ago, my daughter asked me to write a number for her family to learn. The children are all learning to play various instruments. Some have played a few years, and others are just beginning. (Very specific parameters!) She told me the song she wanted and said they had a tuba, flute, alto sax, clarinet, trumpet, snare drum, and piano. In order to fill this assignment, I had to research the proper ranges for very beginner players and still create something enjoyable that they could play together. (I learned that there really is no way to balance a single flute against a beginning trumpet. Oh well, they are still having fun playing together in their little family band.)
One year, a friend of mine was working with a very small Church congregation in Baltimore. She was determined, though small as they were, that they could form a choir. So she approached me and asked if I could write eight hymn arrangements for Soprano and Bass (essentially 2-part ladies and gents). But she also stipulated these arrangements must stay within limited vocal ranges, have interesting accompaniments for piano (not too hard, but artistic), and that I should get them to her in two weeks (when she intended to start rehearsals).
No sweat, right?
Looking back, she must have had more confidence in my skills than I had. She believed in me, so I set to work immediately. The hardest parts were to find familiar hymns that had melodies within one octave and then try to come up with new settings that were "not too hard but artistic." I got them to her on schedule and she said her group liked them a lot. (This project was not exactly what I would have chosen to do of my own volition. So, I went on to take a few of these arrangements and fill them out to fit my liking better!)
Even with a project that is more satisfying personally, there still may be distinct parameters to stay within. For example, one Christmas, a Choral Society wanted to use one of my chorals O Tidings of Comfort and Joy SATB in their concert. Would I create an orchestration for it? Certainly, but they could only afford to hire a small compliment of strings and woodwinds along with the piano. So, while not a Symphony Orchestra, it was still a fun project. (More in line with my own interests!)
Usually, I write for chorus or a small ensemble of singers and piano. Occasionally, I have the opportunity to add one or two extra color instruments such as violin, flute or bells. And yet, I wonder what it would be like to write for a big choir with a full Symphonic orchestra...
Clearly, there are some choirs planning to sing their Christmas Concerts this year, after all. We composers have waited with baited breath to see if the Covid restrictions for choirs will ever be lifted. Apparently, some people have decided to push forward anyway because music is such an important part of worship and celebrations.
So it is with great surprise that I have seen an upsurge in sales of my choral music in the last couple of months. One piece that I actually haven't thought about in years was picked up by a large Men's Chorus in England. Oh how I would love to go hear them sing it!
One year we had a wonderful quartet of men in my Ward Choir. All had great solo voices but nevertheless were willing to blend! A good high tenor, a lead Tenor with a lovely ringing quality, a Baritone with no ego, and a deep Bass. I wanted them to have a special song to sing during our Christmas program that year. The program I planned was inspired by an article I had read about the Sacrament. It really needed a special song about the Savior, his mission and Atonement in relation to the Sacrament. I decided to write The Bread of Life especially for these four guys.
Until I read that article "Jesus, the Bread of Life" by Sherrie Johnson (Ensign, Dec. 1998, p. 47) I had not realized the deeper significance of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
"Bethlehem" means the "house of bread." Jesus was born to give Living Water and the sustenance (or bread) of Life Everlasting to all those who believe in Him and follow His commandments. No wonder we take the bread and water in the Sacrament every week to renew our covenants with Him.
My quartet sang very well in that Christmas program years ago. I am hopeful that the British Mens Chorus will sing equally well.
This is the "where" of how another original Christmas Song came about. This time it was while I was in bed!
Sometimes I wake up with melodic ideas in my head. They dance around in my brain until I finally give up hope of doing anything else but write them down. The melody forming in my thoughts that morning was very similar in character to one of the Alfred Burt Carols. I thought I'd better look up that song's melody and lyric to make sure I was not plagiarizing in any way. (Good!) My melody was unique enough. But I really did not know which direction to take the lyric. It could have been a jolly secular Christmas song as easily as it could become a sacred Christmas Carol.
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Enjoy this video of the music to "Ring! Glad Christmas Bells" -the Flute Quartet version. Other versions are SATB, and Solo for High and Low voices.
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I needed some direction. So, I called my sister and asked if I could play something for her. She is a great sounding board. Come to find out, her husband and daughter, both good singers, were also there. They said that they'd be happy to give their opinions, too. After I finished playing the lines I had ready, they all said that it sounded more like a sacred Christmas Carol to them. "Ah ha! I can do that."
Then came the brainstorming. I knew that I wanted to use the title "Ring! Glad Christmas Bells." That would give me plenty of reasons to create parts for handbells. My sister interviewed me as to my ideas for the structure of the piece. "You want an opening that sets the mood and a strong joyful statement. Right? But then, how about a contrasting section where the meat of the message is found?"
We discussed how sometimes songs for Advent (the time leading up to Christmas) have very little in the way of sure doctrine. Sometimes the lyrics are mostly fluff. The words might paint a picture of the silent night when Christ was born or Mary with the baby in the manger, or speak of shepherds and wisemen or even the animals in the stable, but never mention the glorious mission of Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer - to save mankind from sin and to give hope of salvation for those who repent. The lyrics might talk of the angels delivering a joyous message, but not say what the message was.
So, after consulting the scriptures, talks by prophets, prayer and liberal use of a rhyming dictionary, I found the lyrics we thought suited this joyful melody but also contained sure doctrine about the Savior and His holy mission. So, there you have it - another "where" I get inspiration.
We've all heard stories about how some composers wrote down their songs on anything they could find such as in the margins of newspapers or on scraps of paper or even on napkins at restaurants. Well, I am a believer. This Christmas song was written on the back of an envelope while I was waiting for a delayed flight at the airport one very hot, muggy afternoon in July.
"Lord of All" - SSATB, SAB, SSA, Solo versions for High or Low Voice, and simplified version for children
My Aunt Janie Thompson had quite a way with lyrics. She loved writing clever rhymes for almost any occasion. For example, she wrote a lot of "tribute" songs. For those, she would follow the rhyme scheme of a popular song but tailor the message to fit whatever occasion or person she was creating the tribute song for. When I was first becoming interested in writing songs, she spent a long cross country drive (New York to Los Angeles) educating me about end rhyme, inner rhyme, plays on words, meter, etc. Aunt Janie also taught me about how to create a memorable melody. "Pay attention to the build up and the hook," she would say. "And don't forget the big finish!" I am so grateful to her for taking the time to help a young songwriter learn some tips and tricks. (Enjoy her version of "I've Been Everywhere" on YouTube -- it's a lot of words. I get exhausted listening to it!!!!)
In college, I really didn't have classes in Songwriting 101 or any level. When I was in the Music Department at my university, the professors steered us away from anything that might even hint of commercial applications. (I often wondered if my professors had any clue how to help us actually earn a living in our chosen careers.) My training was in singing and interpreting classical vocal repertoire. But my inclinations tended toward Musical Theater and Pop Music.
So, here I am now, with a classically trained coloratura soprano voice who also happens to write sacred choral music as well as music for Children's Theater. I suppose that is why my songs seem to be a fusion of Classical and Broadway with a hint of Pop thrown in for good measure.
Anyway, I am happy that "Lord of All" has been a popular choice for various singing groups and soloists this most unusual of holiday seasons. Let's hope 2021 is happier!
I am often asked where I get my inspiration to write songs. The question of how I get inspiration or from what source is a better question. But I will attempt to answer just the first question --- WHERE do you get your inspiration?
I can tell you directly that I almost NEVER get inspiration while I am sitting at the piano ready to write. Usually the inspiration comes at the most inconvenient times and in the most inopportune places. Just to name a few, how about in the middle of the night when all of my seven children decided to be sick with stomach flu at the same time, or waiting at the longest stoplight in the history of red lights, or standing in line at the airport waiting for the TSA to check my luggage?
Those particular times and places were when I was not in any way needing to write a song. I was under no contract or deadline, the song just needed to be born, I guess. Who am I to argue with direct spiritual inspiration?
However, I can say that most of my inspiration seems to come when I am out taking walks. I find being in nature to be very conducive to the Spirit. Another place where (and when) I seem to get inspired to write music is during the night when I should be sleeping. My mind seems to come alive at night and regularly keeps me from sleep. I also have a luxurious jetted tub that is a great place to allow inspiration to flood over me (pun intended). The challenge always is trying to remember the ideas given to me long enough to get them written down!
Enjoy these two YouTube VIDEOS as my 2020 Christmas gifts to you!
King of Kings was inspired by the beautiful starlit night at Christmastime with the moon shining over fresh snow my backyard forest in Maryland. It also happened to come in the middle of a stressful night when I was passing the bucket from one kid to the next while they were all sick. I wrote it originally for SSATB chorus and piano with flute and violin. This VIDEO is a cover done as a duet by a talented pair of singers in Nigeria.
King of Kings performed by Ogu Genevieve and Ochei Johnpaul
On a Sacred, Still and Silent Night was begun while I was trying to entertain myself while waiting at an exceedingly long red light one dreary winter day. By the time I got home, ideas were flowing freely. (Supper preparation would just have to wait, I had to write it all down.) Two hours later, the song was sketched out and even had lyrics. A few days later it was sung in Church for our Christmas program.
On a Sacred, Still and Silent Night video of the Bailey/Lee Family Singers
Sometimes what happens behind the scenes is more entertaining that what is captured by the camera.
Our family is filming a Music Video to submit for a Virtual Concert for Christmas. My vision for the video was to include a children's Nativity Pageant to be interspersed between the parts of the song where the instruments play and the choir sings. I also had the idea to use my grandchildren and grand nieces and nephews with some parents looking on like they would for a Christmas Eve family gathering. "On a Sacred, Still and Silent Night" narrates the story of Christ's birth that first Christmas Night. So, of course, we needed to film at night. Finding a place to film during this time of COVID-19 has been a challenge. So, we ended up using my cozy little family room.
The Videographer said that should work, especially if I set up twinkle lights and Christmas decorations. That meant quickly taking down all of the Halloween decorations and putting up the Christmas tree --- we set it up on HALLOWEEN day!! Believe me, that felt weird.
I am sure my backyard neighbors must think I am crazy! They must have noticed the Christmas tree lit up and wondered why there were big lights shining in our windows from the back patio!
In total, there were 13 children.
The Baby Jesus was played by a little newborn who sometimes obeyed instructions and stayed asleep. But mostly, she cried. Mary and Joseph were a little nervous, but followed instructions better, including smiling on cue. The Donkey brayed and showed how he could kick his hind legs.
The Shepherds had trouble wearing their robes. We had to take away their crooks because they were turning them into light sabres. Those three 6-8 year-old boys were also double cast as the Wisemen. They were incorrigible carrying their gifts of pretend gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Baby Jesus. So glad nothing broke!
The Angels were little beauties, but had trouble keeping on their gold tinsel halos. So, sparkly tinsel got strewn all over everything. I will be vacuuming up tinsel for weeks probably.
Then there were the five 9 month to 4-year-olds who played the Sheep. They scattered themselves everywhere BUT where the cameraman wanted them. I am sure they tried his patience. They tried mine.
Maybe even more entertaining were all of the adults behind the scenes trying to get kids changed into costumes. They were constantly trying to straighten the costumes pieces on the children or encourage them to act appropriately for the scene. It was a bit chaotic and noisy!
I sure hope the camera guy got some good footage and that the video turns out!
Once upon a time, musicians had many avenues to pursue for performance opportunities, especially at Christmas time. Nowadays, because of COVID-19, these opportunities have become scarce. However, I have just been informed about an opportunity to submit a video for a Virtual Christmas Concert sponsored by Temple Square Performances.
My sister found out about this from some of our Tabernacle Choir friends. She got excited and approached me saying, "They are looking especially for composers to submit their original Christmas songs. Who knows, someone out there might have the next 'Silent Night' or 'It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas' and just needs a way to get it heard! Let's round up our family and record one of your songs! They also said that groups are given priority over soloists."
My mind instantly returned to 2006 when my family and a couple of other families performed for the Festival of Lights concert series at the Washington DC Temple Visitors Center. We actually did a family show there each Christmas for five years. I have audio recordings of some of my original songs and arrangements from those shows, but not video. And too bad, because the song I thought we should submit was performed with a dancer who was terrific!
"On a Sacred, Still and Silent Night" for SSATB, Piano, Violin, and Guitar
Anyway, my sister and I brainstormed about what we could do to learn, rehearse, record and create a video using our family in three short weeks! We decided that we would just use family members living close by who are descendants from our parents, Tom and Carolyn Lee - The Lee Family Singers. (Just like in the olden days when our mother had her six children singing all over the place!) We plan to feature our little children in a Nativity Pageant tableau in place of the dancer. Just the older kids and adults will sing and play the instruments.
Apparently, the submissions that are accepted will be edited together to create a Virtual Concert that will take the place of "The Savior of the World" play and the Tabernacle Choir Concert on Temple Square this year. (Can anything really take the place of the Tab Choir Concerts?) These videos will also be part of the "Light the World" campaign online. Submitters will also be encouraged to post and repost these concert links on their own social media accounts.
Well, wish us luck!
My name is Betsy Lee Bailey. I enjoy singing and writing all kinds of music. I have performed and directed or taught music all of my life. This blog is dedicated to all of the people who have been encouraging me to write about my experiences.