Posts Tagged: decorah

Darkness to Light: Burning Bright

By Kristine Jepsen

Decorah’s winter solstice concert, Burning Bright, celebrates 20 years of bringing light in the darkness and giving back to the community. Choir member Kristine Jepsen chats with founding members and directors as they reflect on years past and prepare for this season’s performance.

“Oooh, that one’s my favorite,” fellow alto Emily Neal whispers as we open our binders to “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish tune about toasting one’s friends. We’re sitting in choir rehearsal for Burning Bright, an annual winter concert that brings together singers and instrumentalists in the Decorah area.

Kathy Reed, who co-directs Burning Bright with Otter Dreaming, settles at the keyboard, ready to prompt us, as late-afternoon sun slants in through First United Methodist’s stained-glass windows. We’ve sung this rollicking, bittersweet song before, and that’s all the more reason we want to get it right.

In the deep of this winter, the Burning Bright chorus, along with instrumentalists and youth and children’s choirs, celebrates two decades of offering “light in the darkness.” The concert – two performances, actually – is a handmade gift of obscure carols, folk songs, and sacred world music. Each year, the pieces reflect a theme, and in this anniversary year, it’s “Exultation.” Some pieces honor Christmas, but more centrally, Burning Bright – BB, as members say – is about the winter solstice, the night on which our hours of darkness turn toward light.    

“You said ‘I Am Christmas’ was your favorite song on the concert,” I whisper back, kidding, as the opening accompaniment unfolds. “I know,” Emily says with a happy sigh. “I love them all. For me, this is it. This IS Christmas.” I get what she means.

Burning Bright itself started with just one song – “‘Twas on a Night Like This,” arranged for soprano, harpsichord, and oboe, to the hymn tune of “When Christ Was Born on Earth.” The first-ever performance was called “Songs of Christmas: A Concert for Harpsichord and Voice,” says Decorah business owner Ellen Rockne, the “voice” in question.

A child of the Lutheran singing tradition, Ellen was already a chronic music organizer and accomplished soloist when she moved to Decorah in 1996. She crossed paths with Kathy Reed through their young children’s homeschool activities and soon shared her dream of a winter concert to warm the cold Midwestern nights. Kathy, who is formally trained in musicology and harpsichord performance, felt their synergy immediately.

“I didn’t move here because of the potential to combine these different aspects of my musical life,” says Kathy, who is now an instructor of music at Luther College, “but one day our kids’ group met up and someone mentioned trains, and then someone jumped in and said, ‘Hey! We know some songs about trains!’ and we all spontaneously started singing, and I thought, ‘OK, this is a place where people sing. That’s fun.”

Ellen, by her own admission, sings all the time. “I don’t even know I’m singing, but my now-grown sons say I never stop,” she says. “The disconcerting thing is that as the years pass, I find myself making up little songs about every little thing,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. “The other day, I caught myself singing a tune to the phrase, “Now, here is my tea….”

Otter first got involved with the concert in 2002 as a singer, and joined its administrative ranks soon after, Kathy says. “At dress rehearsal that year, we sang everything end-to-end and realized the concert would be three hours long – a major problem, since we really wanted a two-hour program. At some point, Otter mentioned as tactfully as possible, ‘You know, you could identify a number of pieces – say, 20 – that will fill out the time, more or less, and aim for that each year,’ and I thought, ‘Oh! Now there’s someone we need organizing this thing.’ And he was right: That target number is 19 pieces,” Kathy concludes. “We’ve stuck to it ever since.”

The goal with Burning Bright, Otter and Kathy say, is making the concert accessible both to participants – ranging from professional musicians to debut choristers – and a diverse audience. Often, this means making the sound intentionally less “perfect” and more faithful to a song’s historical roots. “OK!” Kathy says, presiding with a smile over a section of skilled sopranos. “Now that you know your line, let’s make sure it isn’t that ‘pretty’ ever again. I need more ‘hale and hearty’ from the beginning.”

“You mean, lusty?” a choir member pipes up, gambling for a laugh.

“No, no,” says Kathy quickly, in her quietly irreverent way. “I mean….”

“Musty?” another member suggests. “Fusty?”

“Well, I’m not going to say lusty,” Kathy presses with a wry smile, “but, with more vigor.”

If none of these songs or techniques sound familiar, that’s by design. “This is never going to be a concert of familiar carols,” Kathy explains, though often there is one audience sing-along. She prepares pieces for the Burning Bright choir that resonate with her, sometimes arranging songs to fit the group. She did this for the Mary Chapin Carpenter lullaby, “Dreamland” – another piece to be revisited on the 2018 concert – by writing it for men’s voices, instead of a solo woman’s.

“Now Otter,” she continues warmly, “is a composer. He will come across a text he likes and write all four parts for it, or vice versa. He’s also more familiar with world music, bringing in pieces from Africa, from Syria, from musical traditions I’m not as fluent in.”

This is how Burning Bright keeps musicians and audiences coming back: By stitching together a colorful mix of lesser-known music, and welcoming darker themes – fear, grief, loss – along with those of light, hope, and joy.   

“One of the most rewarding and touching things for me,” Otter says, “was performing a short, very personal piece I composed reflecting on the deaths of several friends and family members. I received a thoughtful card from someone who had been in the audience that year, thanking me and telling me how it had helped her to accept her own mother’s death.

“I’ve also been blindsided by emotional reactions to pieces related to my daughter’s arrival in my family and in the community,” he continues. “One Stephen Foster lullaby, ‘Slumber My Darling,’ that Kathy arranged for tenor and bass voices, took me by tearful surprise at the first performance of our concert. I knew it was coming in the second concert and wasn’t expecting the same emotional response, but – surprise, again!”

On a lighter note, Burning Bright members gladly anticipate being caught off-guard by the wit of founding member-singer and sometime-banjo accompanist Dale Kittleson. Known for telling dad jokes when rehearsals get tense, Dale has reportedly encouraged chuckle-inducing costumes and lyrics, such as to the 2017 performance of, “Farewell, my friends, I’m leaving FaceBook…,” a satirical anthem about digital-device dependence. On another concert – without the knowledge of, let alone permission of, the conductors – Dale orchestrated a coup in the bass section. As the song’s verses lilted along, Dale and his cohort stood up and sang their part, “…five for the oxen standing by…” – in their highest falsetto.

“The entire church just erupted in laughter,” Dale says of the packed-to-capacity audience (almost always the case for Burning Bright performances). “I can’t remember who was conducting, but their jaw was on the floor. Then we basses sat down like nothing at all was out of the ordinary, and the sopranos, who followed us in the song, were cracking up, but somehow the beat went on. Now,” he says, with mock seriousness, “in what other group can you pull that off and know, even before you risk it, that your fellow performers will not excommunicate you?

“But that’s all concert stuff – the things the audience sees,” he continues. “Really, I keep coming back for this,” he says, gesturing to the rehearsal that’s just ended, “the privilege of getting together with this group – of catching up with really quality people and working hard on a rich program every year.”

Close to show-time each season, the Burning Bright choir is joined by local instrumentalists – bass, violin, guitar, clarinet, hand drums, recorder, harp, and more. Retired Luther College librarian and professional mandolin player John Goodin was among the first to perform on the concert. He now arranges music for mandolin and writes manuals for Mel Bay Publications – along with scouting out a reel or jig to play on the concert with Decorah violin teacher/performer (and professional vegetable grower) Erik Sessions. Their duet has become a Burning Bright tradition, almost always ending in a blazing, fast-as-they-can-play finale that rouses thunderous applause.

“Here in Decorah, musicians are treated with great respect,” John says, “but the Burning Bright audience is the best. Most years we don’t even know what we will play until the last week or two, so it’s a little bit like stage-diving – where you know that the audience will catch you.”

Proceeds from ticket sales for each Burning Bright concert go to non-profit organizations – usually shedding light on underserved populations at home or abroad. In addition to Decorah Community Food Pantry, the flagship beneficiary each season, choir members nominate and vote on charitable organizations with which they have personal involvement. 2018 beneficiaries are: Neighbors Helping Neighbors of Decorah; Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center; Re-Member of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and The New Hope Jeremiah Project of Cape Town, South Africa.

So it happens that, each midwinter, a concert in the spirit of true community comes together. Performers wear no robes or formal dress – just “jewel-toned” concert attire that might “glow” in the soft light of the chancel. Adult singers steward younger ones, making sure they can see the conductor and be seen by the audience, amidst their shuffle into place, their sly little hands waving to family in the pews. There will be moments, without doubt, when the music makes space for sadness, doubt, or hurt – making the rising aura of peace and joy feel whole and true.

“When I look back and think of the beautiful voices and musical talents that each person has added to the Burning Bright concert, it makes me realize how unique each year is depending on who we are lucky enough to have performing,” says founding singer Betsy Peirce. “Vocal jazz scats, rich trained voices, tuba, and oboe – it’s so fun coming to the first practice each year, discovering new people who add to our tapestry of sound. The love that flows from the choir, to our directors, to the audience and back again is as palpable as it is audible – the joy on their faces as they listen – that makes it worthwhile.”

Like Burning Bright founder Ellen Rockne, Kristine Jepsen grew up in the Lutheran singing tradition and so loves performing on this winter concert. Outside of the alto section, she writes for literary journals and small businesses – more at kristinejepsen.com.

—————————————

Beneficiaries of Burning Bright Concerts Through the Year

Decorah Community Food Pantry
Decorah Public Library Youth Programs
Decorah Volunteer Fire Department
Domestic and Sexual Abuse Resource Center
Decorah Power
NAMI NE Iowa (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
Partners in Health, Haiti
Heart River of Hope, Mandan, North Dakota
Thistle Farm & Magdalene Residence, Tennessee
Project Care
Path to Citizenship
Thunder Rode Therapeutic Riding
Mother Health International’s Uganda Ambulance Fund
Decorah Community Free Medical Clinic
The Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center
Rushford Flood Relief Fund
Winneshiek Farmers’ Market Association
Postville Community Support
St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Hispanic Ministry Program, Postville, Iowa
Greater Area Pantry, Calmar, Iowa
Sunrise Foundation, Nicaragua
Postville Children’s Health Fund
Decorah Diversity Appreciation Team
People for Animal Welfare (PAW) of Northeast Iowa
Decorah Community Education and Arts Center

Exultation: Celebrating 20 Years of Burning Bright – a concert to benefit:

Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 4pm and 7 pm

First Methodist Church
302 W Broadway St
Decorah, IA 52101

Advance tickets recommended – available at Oneota Community Food Co-op .

Read the Summer 2018 Inspire(d)!

Lots of fun things to look forward to in the Summer 2018 Inspire(d):

4-H • Dunning’s Spring bridge / Stonemason Ted Wilson • Viroqua’s Growing for Good • Adventures in the Driftless • Summer “Fill Your” Bucket List • Wabasha’s LARK Toys • Sum of Your Business: WW Homestead Dairy, Paper Butterflies, & More!

A note from Aryn:

Thinking back on my childhood, summer was all about adventures. Oftentimes, those adventures were just exploring the woods in my backyard or going down to the nearby creek with my cousins to squish cold mud between our toes.

So there’s nothing that brings me more joy than watching my kid run around our backyard, barefoot, hiding behind ferns and playing silly made-up games with her friends, or climbing up the rocks at Dunning’s Spring in Decorah. (Read Kristine Jepsen’s story about the new Dunning’s Spring bridge, and stonemason Ted Wilson on page 42 – it is fascinating!)

This is the stuff of summer, you guys!

Need a little inspiration to get you started? You clearly came to the right place! Check out our Summer Fill Your Bucket List, and some great events you might want to add to your Adventure Calendar this season (ever heard of the Catgut Paddle? It looks awesome!). Adventuring Ideas start on page 34, plus there’s a nice round up of resources available for exploring our little corner of the Driftless (pg 64), compiled by recent Luther grad Elizabeth Bonin.

CLICK HERE to read the Summer 2018 issue of Inspire(d) Magazine!

I know one adventure we’re adding to our list for sure: LARK Toys in Wabasha, Minnesota. How is it that I’ve never been to this giant (seriously, it’s 21,000 square feet!) toy store? Reading Maggie Sonnek’s story about how the current owners took on this “Willy Wonka-style” job – and how it connects to a slower pace of life – was truly beautiful (pg. 55).

Another big part of my childhood summer was 4-H. At the end of the school year, I would pick a pattern with my mom, and together we’d sew a project (inevitably we’d run right up on the fair deadline in July – an early sign of my aversion to deadlines?). I would often submit a photograph or another craft too, or maybe even do a presentation (I got to go to Cattle Congress as a junior member!). I remember painting awesome trash cans with our 4-H club name (the Cherry Valley Chums) for the Allamakee County Fair and working the food booth with fellow members.

(Sidenote: I totally could have entered something crafty with the Paper Butterflies Project Roxie and I put together on page 21.)

So yes: Fair time was the best! I think the Einck kids featured in this issue of Inspire(d) think the same thing (pg. 14)! Sara Friedl-Putnam tagged along with these three Decorah siblings as they took care of some of the animals they’re showing at the Winneshiek County Fair – from chickens to dogs to sheep to goats! Going through the livestock barns (and the 4-H building) is one of my favorite parts of the fair, and it was fun to get the background on what it takes to get there, and learn some of the history behind my beloved 4-H organization as well (pg. 14).

We’ve got lots of other great stories woven throughout this issue too – Growing for Good in Viroqua, Wisconsin (pg. 26), WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon (pg. 51), a wonderful probituary, and more.

We hope you have a great summer, friends, and that this magazine helps inspires you to get out adventuring!

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

CLICK HERE to read the Summer 2018 issue of Inspire(d) Magazine!

21 Ways to Kick the Winter Blues!

Balloons

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Winter 2013-14 Inspire(d)

It’s tough to stay positive in the winter – when it’s edging on four feet of snow outside, the thermometer hasn’t popped above zero in days, and the only fresh vegetable in your house is a month-old potato, the force of the couch is strong. If it’s a blanket that’s made to be worn, it’s okay, right?

Wrong! At least not in the long-term. As Dylan Thomas said: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Use this winter to get happy, inspired, and ready for spring!

Try making some changes and goals that sound fun. It can really work, says Mary Jorgensen, of Decorah-based certified Rising Sun Life Coaching. Jorgenson believes making small adjustments in your day can make a big difference in your life, and we couldn’t be more on board! So we’ve put together a list of inspire(d) ideas to “kick winter doldrums in the shins.”

Jorgensen also added a great tip that we couldn’t resist sharing: “Smile, even for no particular reason; scientists know that smiling generates good hormones, uplifts your mood, and – an added bonus here – prompts other people to smile back, which gives you warm fuzzies to beat the cold.”

We love that.

Make time for YOU:

There really is no such thing as “no time”. There is definitely “little time”, though, so you have to schedule the things you enjoy most – literally put them on your calendar on a time/day that you set, and stick with it. Go to a movie, get a beer or coffee with friends, take a yoga or meditation class (read some tips on meditation here). If it were my schedule, I might get a massage, take a bath…maybe even pencil in a nap!

Move! (No, not south… your body!)

“Practice the best antidote there is: exercise, dance, move your body in ways that generate blues-busting chemicals for your body and mind,” Jorgensen says. We agree, and so do experts at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. An  article published by Mayo connects exercise and stress relief: “Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. If you’re not an athlete or even if you’re downright out of shape, you can still make a little exercise go a long way toward stress management.”

Plus, there’s more!

  • Exercise increases your overall health and your sense of well-being, which puts more pep in your step every day.
  • Exercise pumps up your endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters.
  • It’s meditation in motion. After a workout, you’ll often find that you’ve forgotten the day’s irritations and concentrated only on your body’s movements. As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you remain calm and clear in everything that you do.
  • It improves your mood. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise also can improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression, and anxiety. All this can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.
  • Do what you love.
  • Make a schedule and stick with it.
  • Set realistic, smart goals.
  • Find a workout buddy.

(Be sure to consult with a doctor before beginning a new exercise program.)

At Inspire(d) HQ, we are currently loving spinning, yoga, pilates…and dancing, of course. Always dancing. Oh – and who could forget sledding?!

Play in the snow

Just embrace it. It’s here.
Sledding, snow angels, snowball fights, snow forts, skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmen. I’m already excited!

Shower

Play music while you’re showering

This sounds so simple, but you’d be amazed at how a little music can change your whole outlook on the day. Pick a playlist that is upbeat and makes you nod your head. Now just keep nodding. This is you saying “yes” to your day, even if you didn’t know it!

De-clutter your space:

If you’re going to be inside all winter, you may as well like what you’re looking at! Walk around your house with a basket, filling it with things that don’t have a home. (You might need a pretty big basket. That’s okay.) When you’re done, look around and see if you’ve missed anything. Be relentless; surround yourself with only things you love! Next go through the basket and make piles: to donate, to recycle, to trash, and to keep. Get the first three piles out of your house as soon as possible, then come back to address the last pile. Find solutions for storing these items so they will be easy to find and put away in the future. Then look around at your tidy house and all the things (and people, of course) you love. It’s a happy thing, right?

Livingroom

Move furniture

While you’re in house mode, maybe it’s the perfect time to rearrange! A new living room layout can feel like a new house! Take it a step further and learn a thing or two about feng shui. We enjoyed “Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui” by Karen Kingston.

Read inspiring books.

While you’re checking on feng shui books, why not check out some other books that are inspiring/happy/funny? We asked our Facebook friends and readers what books were their favorites – what a great selection we got! Report back if you decide to read any of them! (facebook.com/iloveinspired)

An Awesome Book of Thanks by Dallas Clayton
Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus
The Abarat by Clive Barker
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Little Princes by Conor Grennan
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Bossy Pants by Tina Fey
Be Here Now by Ram Dass
Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen Degeneres
Chapters From My Autobiography by Mark Twain
When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris
The Art of Life: the Autobiography of Dan Eldon by Jennifer New
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl
The Geography of Bliss by by Eric Weiner
Following Atticus by Tom Ryan
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso
A Path Appears by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Reminder: Check with your local bookstore to see if they have what you want to read in stock!

Books

Put Pen to Paper:

Getting and sending mail feels good, and so does letting ink tell your thoughts to a piece of paper. Try it this winter!

Line up a pen pal
Write one thank you note a week
Write down all your crazy ideas in a notebook for future inspiration
Write a letter to your kids to open years down the road (or write a letter to your parents to give to them when you graduate or get married or just because).

HappyList

Make Happy Lists

This is something I started doing in college when I felt a little down or (shhhh) homesick. I would take a piece of paper – it can be big or little – and absolutely cram it with things that made me happy. From coffee to best friends to nice sheets to scarves to fresh snow to chocolate. Usually by the end I was feeling…gasp…happy! I also tucked the lists away. It was fun to happen upon them randomly later – (almost) as good as finding a long-forgotten $20 in a winter coat!

Plan a trip

Sometimes the best thing about winter is leaving winter. If you can’t swing a ticket to warmer climes right now, start planning for a “someday” trip. Make a savings strategy and a folder filled with sunny images. Even if it takes a decade to collect the dough, the anticipation and Trip Advisor reviews will pull you through many a chilly night.

Beach

Look at the stars (they seem even brighter in winter) and learn some constellations:

Roxie has just started shouting MOON at night, and that, we think, is a great way to celebrate this dark, dark season. Look at the moon! Look at the stars! Get out there in that crisp air and breathe it in and just look up. While you’re at it, learn some constellations – it’s fun! Our favorites in the northern hemisphere winter sky are: Orion, Gemini (Benji’s sign), Taurus (Aryn’s sign), Pegasus, and Cassiopeia. Check out the cool astronomyonline.org site to learn more!

Remind yourself how lucky you are

Sometimes it’s annoying to hear “Hey, it’s not so bad,” but generally it’s true. So try to remember it. And believe it.

Make pancakes on a weekday

Pancakes

Drink Coffee/Hot Chocolate/Tea

Okay, that morning cup of coffee makes you feel happy and awake, but a cozy warm drink, sipped with a friend or by yourself on the couch – that’s all about taking care of you.

Bake!

I’m pretty sure winter exists almost purely for baked goods. Few things are cozier than a warm oven sending out delightful wafts of chocolate or apple or lemon or pumpkin or caramel or (you get it)… through your house.

muffins

Take a class (art/language/welding/cooking/knitting/coding)

Check out your area college’s offerings – you can often audit courses, or even simply sit in (talk to the professor first). Also see what your arts organizations, galleries, and museums are up to, or even the local yarn shop or your chamber of commerce. You don’t have to wait until January 1 to tackle a goal or learn something new!

Dance. For real: Dance!

Even if you’re terrible. (You’re not…)

Bring a little color into your house:

I love to have fresh flowers on my table – that shot of color brings a smile to my face every time. But you could also make paper flowers or even a paper heart garland for a wall.

Flowers

Make a new friend

Easier said than done, but boy is it nice to have friends. This new friend can be useful for planning trips, throwing dinner parties, coffee dates, as an exercise buddy or pen pal, or if you need help moving a couch! Pretty sweet dividends, right?

Speaking of Dinner Parties…

Small get-togethers make long winters zip by. Make it a potluck and it’s even easier!

(Check out our the Great Dinner Party infographic!)

Blanket Forts

No matter if it’s one blanket or ten, “all the experts” agree a fort is a good activity. Even better yet, put together a little picnic and dine al tento. (< Totally a word.)

————————

Aryn Henning Nichols loves the first snowfall, but hates the 54th (you know, that one in May). Finding creative ways to get happy has been a life-long goal, and a big part of why she started Inspire(d) Magazine with Benji over seven years ago.