Living the Dream

My high school choir director was one of my greatest cheerleaders as I started to pursue my music.  She entered my song “Beam of Hope’ into a songwriting contest, and it won first place in its division.  I was given the honor of performing the song at the local university for a live audience.  I think it was the first time that I played a Steinway grand piano.

A few weeks after the performance, my choir director asked if I would be willing to write a song for my graduating class.  She told me the choir could perform it at the graduation ceremony and that she would help me write harmony parts if I felt the project was beyond my skill level.  I told her I would do my best and set to work on the song.

I spent a great deal of time in my bedroom over the next few weeks.  Mom and Dad moved the keyboard into my room so I could have some privacy.  Writing harmony parts proved to be rather tricky, but it wasn’t long before I presented my choir director with the song “Dream.”  She had me record the song into her computer, and she worked to craft accompaniment and smooth over rough vocal lines. 

One morning during choir practice, she passed out new sheet music to the choir.  I looked down at the music in my hand and realized it was the score for “Dream”!  The notation was basic and even handwritten in places, but it was still my song down on paper.  It was nerve-wracking when the choir began to sing the lyrics and melody I had created.  I wondered if they liked the song… or maybe they thought it was the worst thing they had ever heard.  Either way, I was far too distracted to sing along that morning.  I was too busy soaking up the moment and shaking uncontrollably all at the same time!

Graduation week approached, and I came down with the worst cold ever.  I went to graduation with a wad of tissue stuffed up my robe sleeve.  When it came time for the choir to sing my song, I could barely croak out a note.  Instead of forcing out a sound, I mouthed the lyrics and simply listened.  Tears filled my eyes when I realized they were singing my song!  In the years that followed, I don’t think I have ever been so humbled.  It was then that I decided I loved nothing more than to hear other voices raised in song, and I was simply honored to give my fellow students a song that mirrored this momentous occasion. 


Hazelnut Tree Christmas

Over the past few weeks, I have been talking about some of my experiences relating to my journey through music.  Since this week leads into Christmas, I thought there was no better time to talk about a Christmassy event that I anticipate each year. 

It all started in 2007 at my local coffee shop.  The Hazelnut Tree inBaldwin,Wisconsinhad just stared having live music on Thursday nights, and my friend Laura worked at the establishment.  She asked if I would be willing to fill a slot on the last Thursday night in November, and I said yes.  At first, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.  My only concert performance outside of leading worship services with my family was a single performance at the Crossroads Chapel at the Minnesota State Fair.  The thought of finding enough music to fill two hours was a daunting challenge that I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet. 

But almost immediately, I realized that my performance would fall a week after Thanksgiving, so I was excited to know that I would be able to sing and play Christmas songs.  That Thursday night in late November, we had a full house, and the owner asked me to return to do a concert in the future. 

I performed at the Hazelnut Tree again in later months, but as Christmas approached, I asked to fill a slot— this time in early December.  For the first time, I coined the title “Hazelnut Tree Christmas,” and the event became a tradition of sorts for three years following.  One year, Erica Skog joined me in a few duets and we welcomed a children’s chorus made up of youngsters from the local area.  The next year, Joe Clendenen and Katie Bothum joined me for a few duets, and I premiered some new Christmas favorites.  And then finally, just a few weeks ago, I welcomed Katie Bothum and her friend, Ben Peterson to join me for “Hazelnut Tree Christmas 2011.”

Each year, “Hazelnut Tree Christmas” has been an event I have looked forward to with increasing excitement.  As soon as I book the date, I begin practicing and deciding what kinds of music I will choose and whom I will select to take part in the concert with me.  The Hazelnut Tree Coffeehouse has been an integral part of the process in putting on the concerts, and I couldn’t think of a better venue to host this special event.  Brenda and her staff are beyond helpful, and even with the changes that took place this year, everything went extremely well. 

So as my little “Hazelnut Tree” song says, “Here’s to the Hazelnut Tree— a special place for you and me.”  It is indeed a special place for me, and I think Erica, Joe, Katie, Ben, and the others who have taken part over the years would agree with me.  This Christmas, I am thankful for the opportunity to share my voice and the songs God has given me in a truly “special” venue. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Maybe I’ll see you at “Hazelnut Tree Christmas 2012.”    

Here’s a link to “The Hazelnut Tree” song as I performed it a few years ago.  I’m sorry, but the video is rotated on its side.


I’ve often had the question asked of me, “So when did you know you were supposed to be a musician?”  That question is easy to answer, and I knew that I was called to music ministry when I was fourteen years old.  For about three years, I had been writing simple songs with friends but nothing truly serious until I was inspired to write “Jesus is your Friend.” 

It was my first “real” song and I wanted to share it with everyone.  My family was doing a concert and hymn sing at a local church one night, and as we were wrapping up cables and putting the equipment away, I struck up a conversation with my grandma who had come to see the concert that night.  I told her about my new song, and she said she would love to hear it some time.  She saw that the keyboard hadn’t been put away yet, so she asked if I could play the song right then.  I was a little nervous, but I sat down to play anyway.  The whole room became silent, and it was then that I realized that everyone was listening.  My stomach fluttered and my hands got clammy, but I smiled and kept playing. 

When the song was over, everyone applauded, and I realized in that moment that maybe my song was okay… even good.  A gentleman from the congregation came up to me and praised me for a job well done, saying again and again that he just couldn’t get enough of my voice.  From that moment on, I referred to him as “Roger: my biggest fan.”

At age fourteen, I really didn’t have a concept of music ministry, but I knew what it meant to sing, and I knew I liked it.  That evening served as validation of my talents, and I haven’t stopped singing and playing since!

Full Circle

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to become officially employed.  For several years, I had been self-employed, moving forward in my music and writing careers, never dreaming that an actual paycheck and the opportunity to work side-by-side with co-workers could ever exist.  But now, I hold the position of Music and Worship Director at First Reformed Church in Baldwin, Wisconsin.  I grew up in this church, and it has truly been an honor to begin serving the people I have grown to love over the years.  Although I have been volunteering in this position for quite some time, there is something exciting about saying that things are official now. 

In celebration of my employment, I have prepared another series for “Cassie Contemplates…”  Over the next few weeks, I will recount various experiences in my musical journey, culminating with how my employment at FRC came about.  I hope you enjoy coming along with me on my journey to finding my place in music ministry. 

Here is Musical Moment #1.

In July, 2010, I attended a conference and competition in Nashville, Tennessee called Immerse.  During my time in Music City, I was encouraged to think about the moments that have shaped me musically over the years and have made me the musician I am today.  I would like to share these experiences with you, and the first is a story from my childhood. 

In third grade, I co-wrote a song with a friend on the school bus.  At that time, I don’t think either of us recognized that we were writing a song, however.  We were just making something up to pass the time on our way to and from school.  It wasn’t until I was eleven that I wrote my first real song and it was with two of my best friends.

Margie, Dani, and I loved music, and when we were together, you could often find us gathered around the piano singing our hearts out.  One morning, we were sitting in Margie and Dani’s living room when we started to sing something we had never heard before.  We found ourselves writing a song, and we called it “Oh, Lord, You are my Rock.”  I remember Dani looking through some papers— maybe even it was the dictionary— and coming up with all of these official-sounding words like “tribulation” and “salvation.”  We were impressed with our enhanced lyrics and we were quite proud of ourselves.  We sang the song at church, and it was incredible sharing our creation with others.  But when Dani and Margie moved away about a year later, the song was forgotten and shelved for several years. 

My freshman year in college, I took a class called Methods of Bible Study, and our final exam was to present to the class a creative expression of a Scriptural passage.  I immediately knew I wanted to write a song based on Scripture, so I went back to my dorm room to search through the Bible for something inspiring. 

I was disappointed when nothing sparked my creativity that day, so I set the project aside.  The following Sunday, I came home from church and opened up my Bible.  The pastor’s sermon had made some good points that morning and I wanted to study further.  It was then that I was led to Psalm 18.  The words seemed to leap off the page, and in an instant, I jumped off of my lofted bed and ran to my keyboard.  The words to “Oh, Lord, You are my Rock” were directly mirrored in the Scripture passage, and I was amazed at how closely we had adhered to the text as we wrote our song as children. 

What my friends and I had written was a simple chorus with a piano-driven instrumental bridge.  In a matter of moments, I had crafted a verse and vocal bridge to compliment where we had started.  Later that week, I presented the song to my Methods of Bible Study class, and the story of how the song had come together was a hit.  I was beyond excited that God had used a simple song from my childhood and brought it to completion as an adult. 

My earliest songwriting endeavor came full circle, and it is an experience I will never forget.