Farewell, Dear Dream

When Macy Robison and I walked on stage in Long Beach last month, I didn't want to admit that this was probably the last time we would be performing together at Time Out for Women.

In late 2008, I had encouraged Macy to create a cabaret-style recital (see pg 20 of Dare, Dream, Do).  She subsequently invited me to accompany her on the piano.  Though it had been decades since I had played seriously, as we collaborated, my love of music began to re-emerge.  Macy then invited me to go into studio to record Children Will Listen — an emotional roller coaster of a day that, happily, ended well.  And, in February 2011, she and I performed, for the first of several times, in front of 1,500+ people — a thrilling experience.

It's not that Macy will stop singing.  She will continue to pursue this dream of hers.  When she moved from Boston, she serendipitously found another accompanist, Jan Mason, who plays professionally. (Enter slight pangs of totally immature jealous that amps up the sadness — does Macy still like me? Even though I know she does.  She is one of my closest friends.)

But here's the thing.

For me, this particular dream is now complete.  I love music again.  I LOVED accompanying Macy, creating magical moments that moved thousands.

But to hang on would be unfair.  Her new accompanist is a better fit for the next leg of Macy's journey — Jan not only plays better than I do, she lives around the corner, not across the country.  Meanwhile, hanging around would keep me from pursuing my next dream.

In order to find another piece of who we are, we may need to discard a little bit of who we are right now.

A poignant, immutable truth.

Thank you, and adieu, dear, wonderful, dream.  And thank you Macy for inviting me along.

We really do dream best, when we dream together.

Do you have a dream to which it's time to bid farewell?

What dream would not have been possible had you not dreamt with another person?

HBR Blog: The Essence of a Great Presentation

I've posted at HBR about playing piano for Macy Robison as a follow-up to my post about recording her CD.


What I didn't say on the HBR post, but will say here is this:  accompanying her was one of the musical highlights of my life.

What happens when you Send Perfectionism Packing?

Guest blogger Jen Thomas wrote brilliantly about perfectionism Louis XIV Lives Inside My Head.  One of my favorite quotes was:  I have got to somehow stay on speaking terms with perfection but not let that beautiful conversation drown me out.

What positive things have happened when you've let perfectionism go?

Grateful: Day 8

It's true that my playing the piano for Macy Robison as she performs Children Will Listen:  Reflections on Mothering at Time Out for Women beginning on February 4, is incremental.

But it wouldn't have come about if I didn't know how to play piano.

I first started playing after I saw The Sound of Music; so inspired was I, I plunked out Do-Re-Mi.   Because I started tinkering at three, I don't remember what it's like not to be able to play.  In other words, I can't really imagine a me that doesn't play.

Source:  istockphoto

Because of my “what is” skill, I occasionally accompany gifted vocalists like Macy Robison. In collaborating, we have a wonderworking experience of giving utterance to emotions/feelings that simply can't be conveyed through the spoken or written word.

When my music helps others to feel something they couldn't otherwise feel, to believe something that they may not have quite believed about themselves, I feel connected — and jubilant.

What did you learn to do as a young child — whether playing the piano, or riding a bike — that you can't remember not knowing how to do it?

Hold Your Dream Close: What I Learned in the Recording Studio

On a sunny and warm September morning, I walked into a recording studio for the first time.  The building exterior was non-descript, but inside there was shelf upon shelf of musical instruments, lots of recording equipment, and a grand piano. I was there to play piano for Macy Robison‘s cabaret-style recital Children Will Listen, in advance of her Time Out for Women (TOFW) performances in 2011, and I was “pinch-myself” thrilled.

I had accompanied Macy for several of her live performances, but I'm not a professional musician.  In order to get the best recording possible, I expected the TOFW producers to hire a professional musician, one who could easily “out-scale and arpeggio” me.  But neither they nor Macy opted for a professional, they wanted me.

Upon entering the studio, I was eager, but relaxed.  The calm was short-lived.  Within minutes of  meeting producer Tyler Castleton, who also composed In the Meantime (one of the songs we were about to record) and audio engineer Mike Greene, the taskmaster in my head (maybe you've met her/him) started in on me:  “Tyler and Mike are professionals.  I'm not.  They are going to think I'm lousy.  I am lousy.  I'm going to let Macy down.  This is supposed to be about her and her dream and it's becoming about me.  How selfish.  Why did I think I could do this?” Sound board Mike Greene StudioInside the recording studio, where the photo shop for your ears happens

The first song we record is Tyler's In the Meantime.  It's a new arrangement.  I've been on the road.  I haven't practiced.  It's not in my fingers.  I play badly.  We try Grateful.  Also a new arrangement.  I continue to play poorly.

After several lousy takes, I put everything on pause.  I'll practice these tonight.  Let's move on to something we've polished.  A first take of Just a Housewife. A second take, and then another.  Ah… better.  I'm not accustomed to multiple takes.  In a performance, you get one shot and then move on.  In a studio, the first performance is a warm-up, and you keep warming up, until you've recorded the song 5-6 times.  Once you get the hardest parts recorded, you breathe easier, because you know that a great audio engineer can string together the best of the takes.

Next we record Children Will Listen, When I Grow Up, the easiest piece by far, which I also play poorly.  The taskmaster in my mind has backed off a bit, but feels compelled to remind me she's there.  On to two of my favorites, Simple Little Things and I Won't Mind. The playbacks sound pretty good.  Macy quips — “If I can listen to myself over and over again, and not hate it, then it's probably ok.”  By the way, her singing isn't just ok.  She sounds fabulous, especially given that she's six months pregnant.  Macy's telling a story not only with her words, but with the richness and texture of her voice.  She's also unflappable.  If she's nervous, she's got an impressive poker face.

Macy robison recording children will listenMacy Robison at the microphone, about to deliver up some magic

Things continue to improve after lunch.  Around 4pm, day one is complete.  We've run through every song at least once.   There are some good takes.  I'm no longer mortified.  In fact, I think we're both confident the album will be good, a lovely post-Time Out for Women memento.

There's only one little problem.

As I wrote in The Stories We Tell Ourselves, I loved the piano as a child, but by the time I was a teenager, music had become a drudgery.   Since moving to Boston, as I accompanied/collaborated with Vanessa Quigley, and then Macy, my love of music had re-emerged.  I began to remember that I loved piano; to cherish my talent.  But that afternoon, as I walked out of the studio, I could feel the happiness slipping away, sadness seeping in.

Whitney piano recording 2010
Me at the piano, slogging

But I'd lost this dream once. I couldn't let it happen again. I had twelve hours to get the dream back — to get myself in a place where I could walk out of the studio on day two, brimming with, not bereft of happiness.

I got to work. I practiced In the Meantime and Grateful in the hotel lobby.  A little embarrassing.  But when you're fighting for something, you do what you must.  And then I really got to work. I reviewed what I'd written in my journal, and reinforced what I'd written by reaching out to a few trusted friends for pep talks.

Here's what I needed to remember:

Whenever piano becomes about performing — of proving something — of being perfect, I rarely play well.  Like Sisyphus, I can never roll the stone up the hill of my expectations.  Even if I could play perfectly, the lesson I've learned from Lady Galadriel is that when we seek adulation, we despair.   Perhaps too that's what the biblical passage about charity was trying to convey: when what we do is about connecting with, rather than impressing, others, we will succeed, regardless of how many “mistakes” we make, because charity never faileth.

As Day 2 dawned, I had neutralized the taskmaster by planning on mistakes, lots of them.  More importantly, my focus shifted from me to Macy, to providing a foundation upon which she could build in order to communicate, in a way that words cannot, how important mothering is.

And everything changed; the joy was back.

Macy robison whitney johnson 2010Macy Robison and Whitney Johnson, End of Day Two — Happy

Sometimes dreams begin to slip away.  If and when they do, fight for them.  My friend Cara Quinn, a gifted pianist, who has at times practiced 10 hours a day, is now a mother of five children under the age of 10.  She holds her dream close by practicing every evening from 9-11 after her children go to bed. Amidst the handling the logistics of being a published author and the mechanics of mothering, author Julie Berry holds tight her love of writing by occasionally reminding herself why she writes.

Do you have a taskmaster with whom you contend?   Do you record in your journal what you've said or done in the past so you can refer to it?  Who are your go-to people when you get sidelined and need help getting back in your game?

Are you holding your dream close?  Fighting for it, if need be?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I've practiced the piano about 30 hours over the past three months.

Doesn't sound like much, except that over the past two decades, I've practiced a total of 100 hours, if I'm being generous, compared with the 5,000+ hours I'd logged by my mid-20s.

When I was 8 years-old I practiced an hour a day; I even got up at 6am to do it. I was going to be a concert pianist when I grew up.

By high school, I continued to practice, but just enough to keep from getting grounded.  There were moments in college when I was eager to practice.  When I was learning to play jazz so that I could audition for Synthesis, BYU's Big Band, for example.  But mostly I cosseted myself away for 3-4 hours each day because my parents wanted me to study music.  And so I did.

By the time I had married, graduated, and moved to New York, I was rather done with the piano, and rarely played for a good 15 years, except when asked to accompany the choir or soloists at church.


Source:  istockphoto

Five years ago, I was asked to accompany Vanessa Quigley; she was to solo in a church gathering of 400-500.  I said ‘yes' because that's what we do in our church, but grudgingly.  I didn't know her, I'd never heard her sing.  Duty.  As she and I rehearsed an arrangement of the hymn ‘Oh My Father', something unexpected happened.  Her voice was beautiful and well-trained.  I found myself enjoying playing, collaborating with her.  I even practiced a few hours in advance of the performance.  I had a similar experience with an equally superb musician when I accompanied Macy Robison for a cabaret-style recital chronicling her experiences with mothering.


After decades of the piano being a duty, a drudgery to be endured, why did playing the piano again feel magical?

Is it because:

1. I'm no longer practicing to stay out of trouble or because I'm trying pass a class, but because I choose to?

2. I'm no longer wondering if I'll dazzle the audience with my technical chops (or embarrass myself terribly because I don't have them or I'll forget the music), but rather thinking about how to best showcase another musician, to be as Robin to Batman, the hero of support?

3. Or because I'm preparing to collaborate with another musician, to have a conversation with her and with the audience about making meaning of our life experience?  To help people feel something and believe something about themselves that they didn't feel before?  Ultimately, it's not about Robin, or even Batman, but about how they work together to save Gotham City.

In his book Practicing, Glenn Kurtz writes:

“Practicing is a story you tell yourself, a tale of education and self-realization…For the fingers, as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage….When you sit down to practice (to make a home, build a business, practice a sport, rear children), you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your myth.  You will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more.  The story of your practice weaves all this together.  When you truly believe the story of your practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.”

There have been stories I've told myself about why I practice — some in which I've been the victim, some the hero.

To now write a story in which the struggle has enabled me to collaborate, connect and communicate in a way I hadn't thought possible…

That's a story worth telling myself — and my children — over and over again.

Is there something that you used to love to do that you've set aside?  Have you tried to pick it up again and found yourself discouraged?  Is it possible that you can combine your childhood skills with the ones you've since acquired, to tell yourself a new story — one that is fresh and relevant to you today?

One of the reasons that Macy Robison's Children Will Listen has resonated is that it creates a story that gives meaning to mothering.  Saydi Eyre Shumway's post The Snapshot that Changed My Life similarly accomplishes that, Stephanie Soper's Portrait of An Artist, tells stories about her painting, while Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie's Memoirs of My Mother helps make meaning of her mother's untimely death.

I am struck by how much I don't enjoy, even eschew, being Batman when it comes to piano.  Yet it's important I feel my contribution is valued by the vocalist or musician for whom I playing.  Do you have a context in whicchatboh you prefer less visibility, but still want to be valued?

Should you want to read/listen to more about my college musical experience, click on Tell Your Soundtrack Story: College, Culmination of Childhood Dreams

Macy Robison | Picture Perfect

Macy Robison is a teacher, performer, and photographer. She was in the Music Dance Theater program at Brigham Young University and performed with the Young Ambassadors.  She also holds a masters degree in music education from The Ohio State University.  Macy has performed in professional, community musical theater productions in Utah, Ohio and Boston.  Most recently she has developed a cabaret-style recital Children Will Listen:  Reflections on Mothering which she will perform in Utah in mid-July.


Sometimes I feel like a priest.

I'm actually a music teacher.  For the past ten years, I have taught general music, been a choir director and taught private voice lessons.  When people discover this, they immediately start confessing their musical sins.

“I'm tone deaf.”
“Oh, you don't want to hear me sing!”
“My family doesn't let me sing!”
“I love music, but I just never kept up with (insert instrument here).”

 And most common:

“I would love to sing, but I just can't…”

Sometimes the conversation turns into a debate over my firmly held belief that anyone can learn to sing.  Sometimes I just listen.

I'm also a photographer, but I'm starting to feel like a priest in this role as well.  Photographic sins from both sides of the camera…

“My pictures never turn out.”
“I would love for you to take my family pictures, but I'm not Christmas-card worthy.”
“I always hate myself in pictures.”
“I would get pictures taken more, but it's such a hassle.”

It can be a hassle to have pictures taken.  Finding the outfit. Wondering if the outfit will photograph well.  Worrying about fixing hair.  Keeping that hair looking good.  Stressing over whether your son will pull that crazy face he's so fond of making every time the photographer takes a picture.  Screaming.  Crying.  Fights.  We all know the stories.  We've all lived the stories.

But when you look back at the pictures, do you regret the hassle?  Need to think about it? While you are pondering, I'll give you an example of why the hassle is worth it.

This last Christmas the stars aligned and my family was in the same place at the same time for a couple of days – me, my husband, our son, my husband's son and daughter and their fiancées.  Since the next time we would be together, we would be in wedding clothes, I wanted to get pictures of us together.  I scouted the location, we coordinated clothing, I got there early to set up my tripod so I could be in some pictures.

Everyone arrives.  We're ready to smile and have fabulous pictures taken.  We're braving some unexpected cold, but it's a lovely location.  Just as we start taking the large family group picture – my usually angelic toddler gives us this:

Macy Robison1

And this:

Macy robison2

Here, let's zoom in so you can really experience the fun:


There was no consoling, bribing, joking, or anything else that would get this child to stop screaming and crying.  We finally broke down and gave him his beloved animal, hoping to calm him down to get a few pictures.  But instead, we got this:


So, with no cooperation from the toddler, what did I do?  I kept shooting.  The point of the photos was to document our family.  To show the relationships between us.  To capture our family at that moment in time.  Toddlers cry, kids make silly faces.  But if you keep shooting, you will end up with some fabulous pictures that you love.


Eventually, our little guy calmed down.  Though he didn't crack a smile for the entire day, I ended up with some pictures of him that I loved.  Like this one:


And this one showing how much he loves his big brother and wants to do everything he does.


And finally, this picture of my husband, son and I that my dad took with my camera.


Is this a perfect picture?  No.  To start with, there's a branch coming across my husband's face.  I could remove it with Photoshop, but I love the memory of shouting back and forth with my dad about framing the picture and still ending up with a branch tickling my husband's chin.

Is this my favorite picture of myself?  No.

Do I look as horrible as I imagined I did?  No.  (And isn't that always the case?  When I look at the pictures of myself from 10 years ago when I thought I looked awful and needed to lose 20 pounds, I want to reach into the picture and slap my 1999 self.) 

Do I love this picture?  Yes. 

In part because I got out from behind the camera.  My son needs to see me in pictures with him.  I have very few pictures of me with my mom. (Something I didn't realize until right this minute.)  I wish I had more.  She passed away suddenly almost 10 years ago.  I know she loved me and loves me still, but I wish I had more examples I could see.  I cherish the few I have.

 I want my son to see our relationship and how much I love him.  And as Saydi Eyre Shumway  put it so eloquently in her post last week – I need to see myself in the picture with him.  See how much I love being with him; become the kind of mother I want to be.


 In fact, in addition to having another photographer take our family pictures later this year, I'm going to start work on a self-portrait series. I've been inspired by amazing photographer Davina Fear's self-portrait series to take more pictures of me with my son.  Not only when we're dressed up in our best clothes, but when we're in our every day clothes coloring together or working on puzzles together.

Coordinate the clothing. Come out from behind the camera. Embrace the hassle.  Document your relationships. Capture who you are — who you want to be.

It will be picture perfect.


For more on the importance of photos, take another look at Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie's post:  she too wishes she had some photos with her mother.  And Saren Eyre Loosli's post with her daughter crying?

There are so many ways to tell our story.  Macy chooses to tell her story through words and images and music via her cabaret act.  There are so many ways.  Take another look at Lizzie Christensen's Recipe Story, Rebecca Menzie (via her mother's journal), Stephanie Soper's painting, my soundtrack story.  Will you tell your story?

Any thoughts on how Macy's approach to photography is allowing her to Be her Own Batman, even as she's Robin?

Celebrating Our Woman-ness

I wonder if you will see these two poems in opposition to one another, or as two sides of the same coin.

After you read them, will you share your thoughts?


The final (and my favorite) song in Macy Robison's cabaret-style recital Children Will Listen is The Story Goes On by Maltby and Shire.  Her rendition gives utterance to the raw joy that I felt as I welcomed children into my world.

So this is the tale my mother told me
That tale that was much to dull to hold me
And this is the surge and the rush she said would show
our story goes on.

Oh, I was young
I forgot that things outlive me.
My goal was the kick that life would give me
And now, like a joke,
something moves to let me know
our story goes on.

And all these things I feel and more,
my mother's mother felt, and hers before
A chain of life begun upon the shore of some dark sea
has reached to me.

Newborn baby

Source:  istockphoto

And now I can see the chain extending
My child is next in a line that has no ending
And here am I full of life
that her child will feel when I'm long gone
And thus it is
our story goes on.


Earlier this year, Janna Taylor shared Mary Oliver's poem The Journey with mereminding me that in the midst of caring and connecting — and especially mothering — it's important to care for and connect to ourselves.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.


Source:  istockphoto

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.


The article 5 Scientific Reasons Mom Deserves Mother's Day is both interesting and affirming.  Is it affirming in part because it was written by a male scientist? (Thanks to @guykawasaki for flagging).

What do you think?  And how do you feel?

Are women both/and?  Or either/or?

It Takes Courage to Tell Our Stories

It is sounds so easy.

When we suffer loss, if we'll talk of our loss with others, we'll more quickly work through, and learn lessons, from the loss.

That's what psychologists who study trauma say.

A different set of psychologists — those who study women in our society — say that talking of our sadness, mourning out loud, if you will, requires us to appear vulnerable, needy even.

Which we are loathe to do.

So, we need to talk, but we don't.

Which is why a blog I read this week was so moving.

What story of loss have you yet to articulate, to make meaning of?

Related posts:

Tell Your Story
Three Cheers for Oxytocin
Belle Liang: Making Meaning in Malawi

Contact Us

Fill out this form and we will follow up to create a customized plan to help you build a smart growth organization.

Media & Press Inquiries

including requesting Whitney as a guest on your podcast

Media & Press Inquiries arrow_forward

Gain insight into growth, adaptability and agility

Download our free resources outlining the Accelerants of Growth—including books, podcasts and TEDtalks to help you move up your S Curve of Learning.