“To me, singing is easier than breathing. A skill I had to learn in my youth was how to NOT just be singing all the time. I wake up with an earworm (song stuck in my head) every morning, and any given phrase or tone might conjure a song from my throat, like a human jukebox. I am glad that I grew up in churches that put a heavy emphasis on singing, and on teaching the whole congregation how to read their parts. Singing with a group raises beautiful emotions!

My relationship with singing solo has been complex, with conflicting messages coming from inside and outside my home. A series of vignettes with varying weight: my sister pretending she didn’t know me in public restrooms (understandable, but who could resist singing in that delicious echoey space?); being asked to join the choir at every new church I attended; singing Rubber Ducky in 3-part harmony with my sisters while we washed dinner dishes; being chastised by my mom who thought my friend and I were trying to out-sing each other during devotions, simply because we have loud voices; qualifying for regional singing competitions and performances; my mom’s opinion of my university vocal career, “I just don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

Writing this biography has been a big step in liberating my psyche from the mixed messages and my mother’s attempts to make sure I don’t get a big head. I know she meant well, but every time I perform or someone asks me to, I feel like I’m clawing my way through a cloud: something inside me starts screaming that people will think I’m full of myself, that they’ll be inconvenienced by my attention-seeking. I try to tell myself instead that I love listening to musicians, and chances are, people will love listening to me sing! I try to tell myself that just because people pay attention when I sing, does not mean I’m “attention-seeking.” Eventually, the healthy, loving, celebratory messages will outshine the suppression of my youth. I’m grateful to everyone who has celebrated and encourages me to sing. I love working with the various groups and acts in Butte who include me, and I look forward to owning the stage more and more over time, for the enjoyment of all who can hear us.”

Pivotal Youth Influences

“One of the best summers of my childhood involved two things I was constantly craving: socialization and the performing arts. In 2001, right before I turned 13, I attended Murdale Baptist Church’s Summer Week Of Choir. Several groups of kids spent a week doing character-building competitions, learning an entire musical, and competing in Bible quizzes. At the end of the week, we performed the show, “Giddeup Giddalong, Gideon.” I was lucky enough to land a solo, and happily stood up to the microphone to belt out the lyrics.

At some point in my teens, my mom got me a few voice lessons with Pastor Tommy Taylor. I remember he helped me learn more about controlling my breathing while singing, by having me sing laying on my back, with books on my stomach. I later used this trick when I was helping Judy Norbut coach our youth choir at my church in Southern Illinois. Judy did an amazing job of finding hymn and song arrangements that suited our choir of mostly pre-teen and teenage girls. One of my favorite memories was singing out over the congregation from the unused church balcony on Easter Sunday, a song with a descant (a soaring high part over the melody). It was a beautiful emotional experience.

Dr. Fred Pfalzgraf was in charge of rehearsing our congregation each Sunday night service for a long while. He divided everyone up into sections in the pews: Basses, Tenors, Altos, and Sopranos, and walked each group through their part in turn. Then he would combine all the lower voices, then all the higher voices, then put everyone together! We all felt so powerful, learning a new complex language that enabled us to sound like Christian badasses (not that we used words like that). Sometimes he would pull a strong voice from each section to turn around and sing back at the group, so that they could have someone to follow, and it was always such a thrill to be able to help with my big voice in that way. We learned some really challenging music without everyone having to know how to read notation.”

Voice in College

“When I got to college I started actually learning what the heck makes up an individual’s voice, and how to use one. I joined Facebook back when it was only for people with .edu emails (2005), and was eventually a member of the group “What Would We Do Without Dr. Stew?” (which got changed to “Where Would We Be Without Dr. D?” when she took her maiden name back after a divorce). Dr. Susan Davenport took over Southern Illinois University choirs fresh off of conducting choirs at Texas Women’s University- taking them all the way to Carnegie Hall in New York City. She was a strong leader, feisty and loud and stern, and the sort of teacher who would stay after class to listen to your woes. I learned about tone, blending, listening to the singers around me, sight-singing music I’d never seen before, proper use of vibrato, how to stagger breathing for a continuous choral sound, and so much more. My choral books were covered in witty quotes and sarcastic remarks from a year full of rehearsals and shows under Dr. Stew’s direction. I progressed from the 80-person community and student choir to the 30-student only choir, and got to sing in the 16 person choir a few times, but didn’t improve enough to make it into the 8 person choir at that school. Shucks. My voice teacher at SIU was Dr. David Dillard, and he coached me through a lot of first-time vocal performance experiences.

The second time I went to college, I attended Liberty University, and studied under Dr. Adelaide Trombetta. She helped me understand the difference between Alto and Mezzo-Soprano, and staged me as Carmen in an opera scenes showcase. I originally attended SIU as a piano performance major, following in the footsteps of a boy I’d been in love with since I was 9 years old. As a piano major, I was taking the typical course load of 15-20 credits, but some of those credits didn’t follow the standard hour-for-hour rule. Choir (mandatory) was only 1 credit, but it took up three two-hour class periods a week. Piano lessons were anywhere from 1-4 credits, but I usually practiced 4-8 hrs a day, simply because of the magnitude of sheet music I was learning. At Liberty, I switched majors to vocal performance, after I realized how much faster I could learn 8 vocal songs than 8 piano songs. The switch was also motivated by my growing awareness that I was never going to be a famous piano player by any stretch, so really, by college, I had acquired all the tools necessary to keep enjoying and learning piano for life.

The third time I went to college I was mainly attending to find community. My wusband and I had moved 8 hrs away from my family, and as a piano teacher I didn’t have coworkers to make friends with. We were having a hard time finding a church that seemed interested in including new members, and I finally couldn’t handle being home alone any longer. I enrolled at University North Carolina Greensboro as a vocal performance student, with enough credits for a Bachelor’s already, hoping to just make some friends and get the damn piece of paper. Dr. Nancy Walker took me under her wing and gave me the revelatory information that I have too much lung capacity. I know it sounds weird, but if I take a full breath of air, then breath out half, THEN start singing, I can sing longer and clearer than when my massive lungs are full to bursting.

At UNCG I sang experimental compositions in the New Music Program for John Cage’s birthday, toured in the chorus of the Greensboro Light Opera and Song summer program, placed in the regional NATS competition, and commissioned a song cycle from the composition program for a 24-hour music festival. One of the most precious moments of that college experience, among many beautiful learning and community moments, was when a renowned vocal coach complimented my work during a master class, by telling me that my opera voice sounds like Nutella. “

Scottish Songs

Listen to songs here

“The new music program at UNCG were some of my best friends. I swear that learning to enjoy experimental compositions was a pivotal part of deconstructing from my fundamentalist upbringing. One of my favorite pieces was “And We Make Our Own Truths”, and I would try to get out to see them anytime they performed it. That piece incorporated a few scattered musicians, percussionists, and dancers along with a concrete and metal bridge through the woods- very new “music” to me, and very mesmerizing.

They created an event in 2012 called “Unprepared Music,” where people had 24 hours to submit a concept for a musical composition commission, then the composers would draw one out of a hat and have 24 hours to compose the concept. Then, the original submitters had 24 hours to learn the new composition, before a performance that evening. I submitted a commission for a set of songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Cello, with lyrics in Scotch Gaelic. The next day when I was handed the song cycle, I suddenly realized I had to learn how to read and pronounce Scotch Gaelic! Charlie Rasmussen and I got it together, and performed for the Unprepared Music recital that weekend. I happily have a recording of the song cycle because another cellist, Dr. Roman Placzek, included it in his doctoral recital. A delightful side-effect of commissioning a new music piece, is that for a few years after we premiered the cycle, other Mezzos would call me to ask for advice on how to pronounce the Gaelic.”

Butte Big Band/Platinum Street Jazz

“Partially for the community, partially because I missed singing, I j oined the Montana Tech student and community choir for a semester. From that experience someone recommended I get in touch with the Butte Big Band, who had recently lost their lead singer. The entire band has been so encouraging to me, as I got used to singing on a microphone in front of brass, instead of au natural in front of chamber instruments. We hosted a couple Valentine’s dances and other dances in Helena, Anaconda, and Butte before COVID shut everything down, and I’m looking forward to getting the band back together again.

Several members of the Butte Big Band also play in the Butte Symphony. After each performance, when the Symphony patrons gather in the ballroom for hors d’oeuvres and visiting, The Platinum Street Jazz group serenades them with even more music. Each time I got up to sing with them it became a little more normal, and a little less anxiety-inducing. The Platinum Street boys and I, and a few of our friends, from time to time sing at a local tavern- another thing I’m looking forward to picking back up again.”

KBMF Radio Shows

“I moved to Butte to help make an indie film, and when the dust began to settle and I could look for somewhere to relax, I started visiting the Silver Dollar Saloon, which featured a couch, a cat, a woodburning stove, and spontaneous snacks. Turns out, my future husband also visited that bar to unwind. Dark was the founding Music Director and a vital News Team correspondent for the local community radio station, KBMF, and in the early days of crushing on him, I became one of KBMF’s biggest fans.

My love for KBMF soon became independent of my love for Dark. I attended the monthly DJ socials, volunteered for events and projects, and finally did DJ training myself in March 2018. It took a couple of months for a slot to open up for me to have a weekly show, but in the meantime, I covered slots for DJ’s who couldn’t make it, and produced a lot of music shows! Finally, in Summer 2018, I got a primetime slot, Sundays 4-6 pm. And perfect timing, as it had taken me that long to figure out what show Red-Handed Jill wanted to create for and with America’s Most Radio.

The Jolly Roger Radio Show was a kid co-hosted radio program on KBMF in Butte, Montana. Each week the show served as a platform for the voices of the young people of Butte to be heard by the larger community. As the oldest of 7 kids, I can talk with young people like they’re people. I love being a listening ear and provoking interesting conversations about the young people’s worlds, giving older listeners the chance to get to know the next generations.

A lot of things happened really quickly in 2018. Dark and I moved in together, our friends from Zululand came back for a visit (to our house! which needed some quick remodeling!), and we started a radio program with Mokai Malope called Copacetic Conversations. He wanted to get to know all kinds of US citizens, not just the democrats that run KBMF, so we set out on a series of interviews with such folks as: a feminist Trump voter, a libertarian, a pro-lifer, a Catholic priest, some Mormon elders, Antifa Joe, etc. We were out to have productive conversations about difficult subjects, so I set up a Facebook Livestream for the show that enabled listeners to comment and send in questions.

We produced 2 mini-series of Copacetic Conversations, in 2018 and 2019. The second time Mokai went home to South Africa, Dark and I created a sister show called Post-Orthodoxy, a show about changing our minds. Both of us grew up in cultish versions of Christianity, and have learned to recognize cultish behavior in non-religious groups. On Post-Orthodoxy, we work on liberating our own minds from brainwashing, share things we’ve learned with friends of the show, and have lively conversations with viewers. Our goal is to create an outpost in the borderlands beyond groupthink and peer pressure.

Unfortunately, being a show that questions everything and deliberately seeks to dispel groupthink, we weren’t political enough for KBMF, and the board elected to ban all of our shows from the station, and scrub us from KBMF record. With the generous support of our listeners we built a livestream studio in our home, and are well into Season 2 of Post-Orthodoxy, now with the opportunity for more listener interaction, and guests from all over the world. The Jolly Roger has yet to find a new incarnation that is actually beneficial for the youth and safe, but I’m working on ideas.”

More of Ainsley’s Projects