31 Days of Unexpected Joy: Music (Day 11)

31 Days of Unexpected Joy: Music (Day 11)

sing to the Lord (3)

Music has always been a great source of consolation for me, and a source of unparalleled joy.

It has surrounded and comforted me since I was in my mother’s womb as she practiced piano and sang.

Growing up, music was a big part of my home life, as Mom and Dad would play all sorts of records on our record player – Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, John Denver, The Everley Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Elvis, The Godspell Broadway Recording, The Shaft Soundrack, The Righteous Brothers, Ray Charles, The Supremes. We only listened to the classical station on the radio, and assuredly no popular stations, although my grandmother loved the big band station, and we’d listen to that when she was around, so I got to know Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and the crooners of the 1940s and 50s thanks to her.

Music played a large role in my faith life, as well: Mom and Dad belonged to prayer groups, and they both played guitar and sang with folk groups that played at Mass. “Be Like the Sun,” “Sing to the Mountain,” all sorts of St. Louis Jesuits songs, Rev. Carey Landry, and many more songs filled my internal jukebox. I would often sing with my parents, and sometimes I’d attempt to play tambourine, too, although my coordination skills at the time were slightly, ahem, lacking.

Vintage records, classic big band and jazz, folk music, trips to live classical and patriotic concerts in the park with my grandparents and special outings to musicals at the theater in the next big town north helped shape the soundtrack of my childhood.

Recognizing my interest and talent at an early age, my parents sacrificed a lot so I could begin piano lessons when I was 4 years old. By age 5, I had my own little record player, and went to bed listening to my Suzuki piano record, with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical pieces lulling me to sleep. Sadly, I was never self-disciplined enough to practice consistently, so quit lessons when I was in fifth grade or so, never really having learned to play with two hands very well (I was forever cursed as a “by ear” / Suzuki sort of gal).

Case in point: I remember once, I was probably in sixth grade, I was singing along to a Beatles tape on my walkman as I was cleaning my room. My Mom stopped by my door, looking in with nose wrinkled in distaste, saying, “Heather, that’s not how that song goes,” to which I responded, “Mah-ummm, I am singing the harmony.” Like, duh.

Sr. Andre, the principal and music teacher at my Catholic elementary school, invited me to play keyboard for school Mass beginning in 3rd or 4th grade. I credit her with teaching me how to play many guitar chords on the keyboard without notation.

Around fifth grade came my first exposure to band class. The public school down the road had a band program, and my parents thought I’d enjoy it, so twice a week some classmates and I would walk down to Fir Grove to play instruments with the public school kids. I wanted to play the saxophone, having fallen in love with it via the influence of my parents’ jazz albums and grandma’s big band radio station, but my mom disapproved; she thought it would be better for me to learn the clarinet first. Sadly, some orthodontia apparatus precluded me from jumping right to clarinet, so I started with the flute. An experienced family friend had to help me learn to play at first – I nearly passed out trying to get a single sound out of the thing!

From an early age, I learned that music provided me with several things in short order: an identity – oh, that’s Heather! She can sing/play an instrument/whatever. It provided me with a great sense of self-worth, since it was something that came easily to me, brought me personal satisfaction and joy, and also seemed to please others. Music also provided me with a desperately needed sense of belonging, as being in band or choir meant I’d be part of a smaller peer group from which I could hopefully find friends. I was a pretty awkward kid – brighter academically than many of my peers, yet unable to make lasting connections with classmates. Music was there for me when the birthday invitations didn’t arrive, or when the taunts on the playground became a little too hard to handle, or when things at home were upsetting and stressful.

When we moved away just before 6th grade, I joined choir at my new school pretty quickly to regain that sense of belonging, and was chosen to sing several solos and participate in the school-wide talent show (I sang “The Rainbow Connection” from A Muppet Movie and brought down the house). My musical identity was what made me feel accepted and acceptable – loved and lovable, and so I pursued it with enthusiasm and fervor.

I don’t remember being in band in sixth grade, but I do remember continuing in choir while in junior high school and joining band, as well, yet again providing an instant pool of beloved band geek friends from which I could choose.

One day, our band instructor told us that the school district had received some new instruments, and asked if any of the five bajillion flute players would be interested in switching instruments? I eyeballed the funky-looking bass clarinet with its sleek, long wooden body and goose-like neck with shiny silver bell and knew I’d found my instrument. I hardly ever regretted switching from flute, save for when the sweet piccolo lines in a John Philip Sousa piece came around. My instrument easily weighed at least 10 times what the flute players’ did, but it didn’t matter. I loved it. The bass clarinet was unique, like I fancied myself to be, and it was close enough to saxophone to make me happy and close enough to B-flat clarinet to make my mom happy.

Over the years, I dabbled with the bari sax, baritone, percussion, and B-flat clarinet, but I always returned to bass clarinet. I just couldn’t get over the rich tones it produced with the help of my breath and fingers. There was something about the frequency of sound that kept me practicing and learning and growing as an instrumentalist. I auditioned for and was accepted to many honor bands and clinics and received many awards, including an all-state solo award. It became a fun game to pick out bass clarinet lines in cartoon soundtracks, movie scores, and classical compositions. Incidentally, when I attended an Indigo Girls concert after high school and saw a bass clarinetist prominently featured, I almost lost my mind.

As I grew older, I knew that I always wanted music to remain part of my life, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it.  In high school, I focused on band, but picked up two choirs my senior year just for fun. My parents allowed me to join an Assembly of God youth group because they had better praise and worship music than my Catholic youth group, where hardly anyone sang (tsk, tsk). I loved every minute of it. I tried out for and was accepted to All-State Choir, although I declined as I was also accepted to All-State Band as first chair and thought that would be more beneficial at the time. My choir teacher was really amazing, and encouraged me to pursue my love of music, going so far as to recommend me for a scholarship in college.

How about you, dear reader? Is there a hobby or skill that God has given you that unexpectedly brought you great joy, or did in the past? Are you still doing it? If not, why not? What would happen if you decided to use a talent that God gave you to glorify Him today? What would that look like in your life?

Until tomorrow, God bless y’all!


The Sylvester Band interview – UNCUT!

The Sylvester Band interview – UNCUT!

While many newlyweds spend their first few months experiencing the joys and challenges of married life, Musician Stephen Sylvester and his wife, Afton, were struggling with a surprising and potentially devastating medical diagnosis. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Stephen to chat about life, faith, and Sylvester Band’s campaign to record music borne from that difficult yet inspiring time. While the fabulous Ignitum Today posted the ready-for-his-closeup version of our interview, the following is the uncut, loosely edited “Rolling Stones” -esque (aka LONG) version of our conversation, complete with The Essential Stephen Sylvester, seen at the end. Enjoy!

Sylvester Wedding Photo
Stephen and Afton Sylvester on their wedding day. Photo courtesy of Stephen and Afton Sylvester.

RCM: Okay – so let’s get to know you – the man, the myth, the legend. Who, exactly, is Stephen Sylvester? Where do you come from, and what was your faith life like when you were growing up?

SS: (laughing) Oh, Lord … well, Stephen the Catholic musician started as an Alabama native who grew up listening to his parents sing. I’m the oldest of 10 children, and the Catholic faith and music are probably the two things that my family is most recognized for. I started playing for the youth Mass at my old parish in Mobile, Alabama when I was in high school, and by the time I graduated college and started working, I was an accomplished worship musician.

RCM: So, faith and music was a pretty strong undercurrent during your formative years, huh?

SS: For sure; it was everywhere.

RCM: And, for our readers, maybe you can share a little bit about your family life during those years. I understand you come from a line of ministry-types.

RCM: I sure do! My dad has been a youth minster and music minister for as long as I can remember. I think all of the Sylvester kids were influenced in a positive way by growing up around the Church. It was like our second home. Now that we’re older, both my sister and I work in youth ministry – the whole “apples and trees” thing.

RCM: Absolutely. Must’ve been a good tree! (laughs)

SS: I’d like to think it was. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t perfect, but as I get older, I realize how truly blessed I am to have grown up in a devout Catholic family.

RCM: It must not have been too traumatic, since you’re a) still Catholic and b) serving the Church.

SS: (laughing) I guess not!

RCM: Let’s talk about that – you’re one of those “slash” people, right? I mean, you’re a youth minister-slash-musician? How did that come to pass?

SS: It was sort of forced upon me at first – one of those, “Oh, you play guitar and sing? Here’s a youth Mass you’re now responsible for,” situations. I really enjoy doing both, although it can start to consume your weekends.

RCM: Oh, definitely! My parents were folk musicians at Mass when I was growing up, and I can’t count the hours we spent at church! (laughs) But at a certain point, Stephen, it must have become something you owned – that YOU wanted to do?

SS: It definitely was. I think the first time I really started treating the music as a prayer was while I was leading music for a Sunday night Mass. I just sort of lost myself in praising God, and I found that I could still fully concentrate on what I was doing. After that, I knew I had been given this amazing gift, and I knew it was important for me to continue to share it with everybody.

RCM: Wow, that’s amazing! When was that? Do you remember?

SS: It was during the spring of last year, actually, so not that long ago. I had been leading liturgical music for a while, but it just “clicked” at that point. It wasn’t really easy after that per se – that’s not the right word – but the music felt much more authentic. I didn’t ever feel like I was distracted from Mass by the music I was playing after that; it was more like it helped me enter into the liturgy. And, in turn, I think it helped everyone else do the same thing.

RCM: What a gift! That’s great!

SS: It was a blessing, for sure.

RCM: Well, then, it’s been a remarkable year for you, right? You got married not that long ago, too?

SS: Yeah! My wife and I got hitched on July 19th of last year, and marriage has been wonderful thus far. It’s been a crazy roller coaster, but still wonderful.

RCM: You just celebrated your first anniversary – congratulations!

SS: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yeah; we actually went through some pretty tough stuff at the very beginning.

RCM: Tell me a little bit about that.

SS: Well, about a month after our wedding day, my wife’s parents split up, which was really hard on her, as I’m sure you can imagine. And about a week later, we found out that Afton had leukemia.

RCM: Oh, Lord, have mercy! That’s a whoooole lot for newlyweds to handle on top of getting used to married life! How did you cope? And … is Afton okay now?

SS: I know, right? I’d like to say we prayed a lot, but honestly, it was just a lot of nights comforting each other as we got used to the new normal. Afton cleaned the house from top to bottom when we got home, because that’s her de-stress method, and I wrote songs, which is mine. And now she’s just fine!

Sylvesters recent
Praise God – Afton is doing well, and expecting the first Sylvester baby in late October! Photo courtesy of Stephen and Afton Sylvester.

RCM: Wow!

SS: She’s actually due to have our first baby at the end of October, and her doctors think that there’s a very good chance that she will make basically a full recovery. So, even if she doesn’t go into total remission, she will still have a normal length and quality of life.

RCM: Praise the Lord! That is incredible! You must have had a bunch of prayer warriors going to bat for y’all on the regular, man!

SS: I know for a fact we had, like, a prayer army! We’ve actually heard from a lot of folks that the way we handled the whole situation inspired some people to return to their faith. I didn’t think at the time we were doing anything spectacular, but I guess God was working through us the whole time.

RCM: Amen. Sometimes just walking with one foot in front of the other can be so inspiring to someone else. You just never know.

SS: It’s true!

RCM: So, you said that when all this craziness was happening, you turned to music as a stress reliever. Were you playing, like, Metallica, or Lamentations, or the Book of Job, or what?

SS: (laughs) It was a lot of folk rock and really sad, melancholic stuff at first. That was a literal translation of what I was feeling, which really isn’t a good way to write a song. Then I sort of moved into more of an “honest confessional” style of lyrics, which is what I’ve been sticking with ever since. As far as what I was listening to, it was Mumford and Sons on repeat, pretty much.

RCM: Oh – so you actually starting writing your own stuff at that point? And, Mumford and Sons is rad, by the way. Love them.

SS: Yeah, that was my coping mechanism. And – I know, right? Afton and I went to see them in concert while we were dating. BEST. CONCERT. EVER. (beams)

But yes, writing down what I was feeling became how I would figure out what I was feeling. I’d tried my hand at writing songs before, and they all sucked. But what was coming out of this really difficult experience was actually pretty beautiful.

RCM: Wow – like, God was turning a nightmare situation into something that was beautiful and could glorify Him?

SS: Probably. I wasn’t writing lyrics that were explicitly Christian, but there was definitely a desire in me to communicate hope and beauty with the words.

RCM: Maybe you were clinging to the hope that something beautiful was gonna come out of this whole painful process in the end.

SS: That’s it! I wanted to look back on it and not remember how awful it was, but how much Afton and I have changed for the better since then.

RCM: Well, again, praise God, and you’re even a Dad, too! Congrats, man!

SS: Thank you!

RCM: But … whatever shall become of those songs? I heard a rumor that you’re doing something, like, BIG with them.

SS: (laughs) Well, over the summer, I felt really compelled to record the songs I had written. And almost as if to confirm that I should, some friends of mine who are amazing musicians jumped on board to help make it happen.

RCM: That is so cool! Did it almost feel like a Holy Spirit thing? I mean, with everyone being on board so quickly?

SS: It really did, and I sort of asked God to let me know if now was a good time. On paper, it really doesn’t seem like it, but everything falling into place so quickly seemed to me to be a pretty clear sign.

RCM: As a busy person with lots of distractions, I love it when the signs are clear. Love it. So, when do you begin recording, or have you already?

SS: Not yet; we have to raise some money first. We wanted to do this thing right, so we’re going to a legit studio in Fairhope, Alabama, and we’re going to have everything professionally mixed and mastered. The total cost is going to be about $7,000.

RCM: Aha. Yes. It does take money, doesn’t it? (laughs)

SS: Yup; that’s the catch. We started a crowdfunding campaign to help, though. And it seems like a lot of people want to help.

RCM: Very cool! Maybe you can tell our readers about some of the incentives – and do you have a deadline? What’s the website? Man – I am just full of questions – I am excited for this album!

SS: Okay – if you go to kickstarter.com and search for Sylvester Band it’s the first thing that come up. The incentives range from a digital single to stickers to a copy of the finished album to a house concert; it just depends on how much you want to donate. And the campaign is only going until October 1st, so we have to raise the full 7K before then, or else the project gets halted for awhile.

RCM: Ooh! So people need to get on it, then, yeah?

SS: Please! I’ve been bombarding social media all week asking for folks to share the link to the Kickstarter [campaign]. That’s what will really help us, getting the word out. And, of course, prayers! Those help!

RCM: Awesome! What do you think listeners have to look forward to? How would you describe Sylvester Band’s sound?

SS: Well, I think we have a message of truth and beauty that is not explicitly Christian, so we have the potential to reach a much broader audience than just Christian music listeners, although I’m sure everyone will enjoy our sound. We’re a mix of roots rock, bluegrass, folk, and 60’s R & B, plus some blues influence. We actually have a demo up on soundcloud that is a hint of what we sound like. You can check it out here: https://soundcloud.com/sylvesterbandofficial

RCM: Okay, when the record is done, what are the plans? A concert? A tour? World domination?

SS: World domination, but don’t blow our cover!

RCM: Crud. Sorry! (laughing)

SS: (Laughs) We’re planning some local concerts for now. If we suddenly explode into popularity, then we will definitely tour the parts of the U.S. where folks want us to come. One of the potential extra things we will do if we raise more than our 7K goal is to do a release party here in Fairhope.

RCM: That sounds like fun. For those who don’t know, where, exactly, is Fairhope?

SS: It’s nearly the southernmost part of Alabama, on the Eastern side of Mobile Bay. My whole family lives there.

RCM: Ah.

SS: The main thing is that we will make the EP available on formats like iTunes and Spotify so everybody can hear us. We really want everybody to hear us!

RCM: Well, I think everybody should hear you, too, for what it’s worth.

SS: Thank you! I really appreciate that. I hope people decide to support us both because they like the message and they dig the music

RCM: Amen. Music with a message. I like it. Will folks be able to dance to it? Or play spoons to the beat? (laughs)

SS: Ha! Well, we’ve got some variety. It’s about half dance songs and half folky, bluesy numbers. It’s definitely like nothing anyone’s heard before.

RCM: Let’s get everybody over to the Kickstarter to make this puppy happen!

SS: Let’s do it!

RCM: Thank you so much for your time, Stephen, and for what you’re doing to build up the Kingdom of God. Blessings to you and your family!

SS: And thank you for interviewing me, Heather! It was a pleasure talking to you, and may God bless your family as well.

Stephen Sylvester headshot


Age: 24.

Status: Married!

Occupation: Youth Minister / Sylvester Band frontman.

Favorite Color: Green.

Favorite Sports Team: Crimson Tide football – RTR, baby!

What is your quest? To seek the Holy Grail.

What are you listening to right now? Right now, Gungor. It’s kind of spacey for my taste, but I enjoy it. Wait, did you mean right this second?

Like, what is on your ipod? Ooh. Well I dig this band called Jamestown Revival. They’re modern poets, and great performers to boot

What’s your favorite dessert? Single Malt Scotch. Just kidding, just kidding. Butter Pecan Ice Cream.

Is that Blue Bell or something else? There is only one ice cream brand worth my time, and that’s Blue Bell.

What’s the best part about being from / living in the South? The food! The food is better here than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited, in my opinion. My wife is an amazing cook!

What was the last good movie you saw?  The Railway Man with Colin Firth. [It] made me cry.

If you could see any performer, past or present, LIVE, who would it be and why? Guns ‘n’ Roses original lineup. They were the last stadium-filling American rock band, and it would be amazing.

Wow! Didn’t see that coming. (Laughs) I have a reaaalllly wide range of musical tastes.

Best way to relax? Playing my guitar at the beach with a cold one and good friends.

And, finally, who’s your go-to Saint when times get tough? St. John Vianney. He’s my confirmation saint and was a huge part of my spiritual formation when I was a teenager.

Broken Together

Broken Together

Over the course of our 14 years together, my husband and I have endured many extraordinarily low valleys and some very high mountain-top experiences. Two imperfect souls bound together for life is not all sunshine and roses, my friends, but neither is it all grief-stricken lament! Somewhere, and completely by the grace of God, in the middle of the hardest days, we find joy. Somewhere in the muck we choose to forgive 70 x 7 and continue down this path to holiness we’re on. We again pick up our crosses with as much love as we can muster and follow Him.

No song about marriage has ever struck me more deeply to the core than this haunting piece by contemporary Christian artists Casting Crowns. Grab your box of Kleenex, friends, because this song takes no prisoners.

Broken Together by Casting Crowns

What do you think about when you look at me
I know we’re not the fairy tale you dreamed we’d be
You wore the veil, you walked the aisle, you took my hand
And we dove into a mystery

How I wish we could go back to simpler times
Before all our scars and all our secrets were in the light
Now on this hallowed ground, we’ve drawn the battle lines
Will we make it through the night?

It’s going to take much more than promises this time
Only God can change our minds

Maybe you and I were never meant to be complete
Could we just be broken together
If you can bring your shattered dreams and I’ll bring mine
Could healing still be spoken and save us
The only way we’ll last forever is broken together

How it must have been so lonely by my side
We were building kingdoms and chasing dreams and left love behind
I’m praying God will help our broken hearts align
And we won’t give up the fight

It’s going to take much more than promises this time
Only God can change our minds

Maybe you and I were never meant to be complete
Could we just be broken together
If you can bring your shattered dreams and I’ll bring mine
Could healing still be spoken and save us
The only way we’ll last forever is broken together

Maybe you and I were never meant to be complete
Could we just be broken together
If you can bring your shattered dreams and I’ll bring mine
Could healing still be spoken and save us
The only way we’ll last forever is broken together


Published by
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

New must-see video from Musician Danielle Rose

New must-see video from Musician Danielle Rose

Grab your tissue box, dear friends, because this hauntingly gorgeous new video from Catholic singer-songwriter Danielle Rose will tug, pull, and yank at your heartstrings and then configure them in super-funky ways you didn’t quite know were possible.

So enthralled was I whilst watching this morning that I burned the toast. Twice.

No matter.

What is worthy of your consideration is the China Little Flower organization, whose care for the abandoned and forsaken children in China is lovingly documented in Danielle’s video. From their website:

“Our Projects include: 1. Hospice care for orphans; 2. Group educational foster care; 3. Special Care for infants; 4. Long-term care for severely disabled children; 5. Special causes Hospice … In our hospice program we provide comfort, love, and care to orphaned children who are dying.”

Allllllll the tears.

Care for unwanted children through adoption and foster care is very close to my heart, and I hope to post more about it in this space soon. Meanwhile, please prayerfully consider supporting the necessary work of China Little Flower as you ponder Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s beautiful words as sung by Danielle:

“How can you say there are too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers in the garden of God.”

We can make a difference, friends. We truly can.

God bless y’all.

UPDATED to add this behind-the-scenes clip about making the video because so. much. joy. !! Shout out to Spirit Juice Studios for another excellent production!