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Monica Perz-Waddington:
Interview with Michael F. Hughes

March, 2004 (first published in the Hampshire Review)

Monica appeared with the Ice Mountain Writers on April 23, 2004
Monica's website:

Q – You started piano lessons in first grade. Is that something you were excited about doing, something you really wanted?

I don’t remember asking to take piano lessons. In my family, it seemed that everyone started taking piano lessons in first grade. My parents were both teachers, so I imagine they valued the opportunity for their children to use the creative part of their mind in addition to academic training. I encourage all parents to engender a love and understanding of music in their children as early as possible.

Q – When did you start singing?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t sing. I always sang around the house and in church when I was growing up. Singing is almost like breathing for me. Singing feeds my soul, especially when I sing for others and with others. There have been a few times in my life when I remember being too busy or to ill to sing, and the void has been remarkable. In some ways singing to me is like sunshine to a plant, and that sunshine radiates through me. I think that explains why people enjoy listening and watching me perform. Who doesn’t enjoy sunshine? I think people notice when you are doing something you really love, and that joy is contagious.

As you noticed, the first song and the last song on my CD Truly Loved are “How Can I Keep from Singing”.

Q – Who encouraged you in music as a child, in the family, and outside the family?

My parents supported my musical formation when I was younger – my head spins to think of all the lessons, recitals, and concerts that they financed and all the free taxi service they provided. When I was 10 years old, my mother got me involved in a junior tamburitzan group. That’s where I learned Eastern European folk dancing and singing, and also learned to play a prim, which is a Yugoslav folk instrument similar to a mandolin. My junior tamburitzan instructors where extremely supportive of my performing. As an adult, my biggest source of encouragement has definitely been my husband Dave. Before we started dating, Dave saw me perform at an open mic, and he has been 200% behind me ever since.

Q – Do you remember when you started to think of yourself as a singer, as a performer?

As I said, I have always sung. In elementary school my younger brother won trophies for singing in talent shows, but I never tried. In junior high school I sang in choirs and select ensembles, so my teachers recognized the quality of my voice. I did a lot of Eastern European folk singing and dancing from age 10, and when I was 16 my music director asked if anyone wanted to try a solo. I remember how shocked he was when I volunteered. Though I was a reliable member of the ensemble, I was pretty reserved – not a ham or attention-grabber. He gave me a chance to sing a Slovenian folk song by myself at our annual concert, and I was astounded by how surprised everyone was -- how much they enjoyed my voice and how engaged they were with a song that I couldn’t understand. One mom in the audience said “Monica saved the show!” I just let the song breathe through me, and I remember it being effortless and fun. I enjoyed dressing up in folk costumes and learning different languages. I appreciate the way music embodies culture and collective experience, and transcended the details of a common language.

I started singing at open mics when I moved to the DC area after college. When I was 26, I taught myself guitar so I wouldn’t have to look for accompaniment when I wanted to perform. When colleagues from my office came to hear me sing, they had so much fun they always asked why I continued to work at a desk. They could see a reserved, efficient public health professional transformed into an effervescent, engaging performer. I’ve been told many times that I glow when I sing for people. That is my spirit shining through me because I am doing something I love and believe, using the gifts God entrusted to me.

Q – How did your family react to your desire to perform?

My five older siblings where very sports oriented, so I think having a budding musician in the family was a novelty. I was never encouraged to pursue music as a career, but I could always count on supportive family faces in the audience when I performed. Sometimes I wonder where I would be right now if I had been encouraged to pursue music more seriously. Most of the time, though, I thank God for all the varied opportunities I have had because I did not pursue music earlier. There is a time for everything, and I feel that I am doing what God needs me to be doing right now.

Q – Did you always have confidence in yourself as a singer? Where did that confidence come from?

Besides my limelite with the junior tamburitzans, most of my earlier performing was in choral groups. In big groups, I didn’t seem to need confidence, just fun. In high school I had the opportunity to successfully compete in regional and state choir festivals, which was very affirming. I started singing in church choirs when I was 15, and I’m sure that knowing that God was my director reassured me that I would have everything I needed to get his message across. Similar to the group mentality of a choir, I continue to surround myself with exceptional musicians when I perform. As I enjoy giving my fellow musicians an opportunity to share their talents, they reciprocate with respect and support. You will hear the results of this process in the concert on April 23rd.

I practice my music and I don’t worry about the performance. I know that I give what I have to the audience, and don’t try to be somebody else. I am what God made, and I love the opportunity to share my gifts. I always sing with my heart and soul, whether in a church or on stage.

Q – How do you feel when you perform?

I feel like I am using my life the right way – doing what I love and providing for a great need. I gravitate towards music that lifts up the human condition, and I always feel like the audience feels the same way on some level.

Q – What kind of a relationship are you trying to establish with your audience?

I want the audience to feel relaxed, at peace. I want them to feel safe to laugh or cry, to allow themselves to experience how they feel. I don’t try to be someone else, I only give what I have with truth and sincerity. I suppose the kind of music that I select offers a simplicity and intimacy that can foster unspoken two way energy between me and my audience.

Q – Do you get nervous before a performance, and if so, how do you handle it?

I don’t get nervous in a debilitating or fearful way before I perform, but I do find that I perform better when I have an edge of anticipation before a concert. I’ve noticed that sometimes I get laryngitis the week before a concert, and I usually cannot eat for several hours before a show. Before I sing at church or anywhere, I always say a prayer to ask God to use me as his instrument.

Q – You have written songs and arranged songs. What is your writing process?

I suppose it is not unusual that I start more songs than I finish. With two small boys – Joseph is four years old and Theodore just turned one – I would call my writing process haphazard. I try to write down catchy phrases and fun ideas and collect pieces of paper in a file to come back to when I have time.

Q – Do you have a special place, or certain routine, for your writing?

If time allows, I would like to sit down in the sunshine and write for a few hours, allowing all my ideas to meet paper so they can be organized into a message. Until then, I continue to write down phrases and musical thoughts when I can and keep them in a file.

Q – Do you work on the music or the words first, or both at the same time?

I’ve always gravitated towards the words first. I like playing with catchy hooks.

Q – Do you think about your audience when you start writing a song, or does that come later?

When I write songs for children, I always think about them while I write. I would love to put together a collection of interactive, fun, thought-provoking songs for children. Children are such amazing imitators, I feel a great responsibility to give them something wonderful.

When I write more reflective songs, I think about my own experience and the other people who shared it with me. In that sense, I think about my audience when I write. When I share something heartfelt in my lyrics, I hope that my sincerity resonates with the listener.

Q – You have released a CD called Truly Loved. What was the motivation behind that CD, and what was the process for recording and releasing it?

I didn’t originally set out to make a CD when I started recording songs for Truly Loved. I just wanted to record my feelings at a moment in time. A few years ago I had a miscarriage. The loss deeply affected me, and I lost my ability to sing. I was in a desert, what some refer to as the dark night of the soul. After a few weeks, I managed to croon “How Can I Keep from Singing” in a voice I had never heard before, a lament and affirmation at the same time. I recorded “How Can I Keep from Singing” in my friend Tom’s living room to capture the sound of my new voice. A few weeks later I finished writing the title track “Truly Loved”, and felt that God had given me a very powerful gift to share. As my voice returned, several other songs joined my journey of healing. The result is my debut CD, Truly Loved.

The music on Truly Loved brought me great consolation and peace as I grieved for my lost child. My hope is that the music will also bring peace to all who listen. A friend just wrote and told me that she is giving my CD to a priest who is being deployed as a military chaplain in Afghanistan. The possibility of promoting peace in the Middle East through my music is awesome and humbling. I can always hope.

Let me speak a moment about the need for healing after a miscarriage. One in three women of childbearing age have had a miscarriage. I have received cards from women who had miscarriages 25 and 50 years ago who thank me profusely for the music on Truly Loved, the opportunity to grieve that they never had, the voice that makes them feel like someone else is holding their hand along the same journey. My CD is a huge blessing to me, and I stand in awe and humility to see the ripple effects of healing and peace that my music is having. I praise God for the gifts I have to share and pray to be a worthy steward of God’s message of peace and unconditional love.

Q – Are you continuing to write songs?

I always keep a running file of ideas and hope to get to some of them over the summer. Maybe the 4th and 5th graders can help me complete my song about pancakes on Friday…

Q – Do you have another CD in the works, or plans for one?

I’ve thought about doing a recording of my favorite Advent / Christmas / Epiphany songs. I may start recording this year with a goal of finishing in 2005.

Q – How did you get started with Borromeo Housing?

When I moved to Arlington, VA, my first volunteer work was with Borromeo Housing, Inc. They were looking for professional women to be mentors for young homeless mothers and their children. The first woman I mentored left the program. For the next few years, I didn’t have time to volunteer due to my job and part time graduate school. In 1996, when I decided that I needed to make as much music as possible, I organized a fundraising concert for BHI called Music for Moms. We raised $3,000 that year, and over $10,000 for the next 5 annual concerts. It has been a blessing and a thrill for me to be able to help others by doing something I love, making music and entertaining.

Q – How did you get started as a music minister, and what is that like?

As I mentioned, I have been singing in church choirs since I was 15. I do not consider my church role as a performer, but truly as a minister, a servant, trying to meet the needs of others. I have always been humbled by the opportunity to share songs of peace, hope, and consolation with others, whether in church or in a coffeehouse. The first time I sang “The Prayer of St. Francis” at church (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” which is on my CD Truly Loved), the holy hush in the air at the conclusion made me realize that I was truly a part of something bigger than myself.

I love to sing meditation songs in church, especially when I sing songs that can release tears of joy, of pain, or healing. When people react to my music with holy silence, peace, and healing tears, I feel that I have done a good job reassuring people of hope and love.

For the past several years, I have been in a leadership role with my church choirs. Part of my job is to prayerfully select music that enhances the liturgy, scripture, and current events, and part is to prepare the choir to be the instrument that leads the congregation in song. I love the opportunity to pick songs that resonate with others, that relate a message of hope and love in a way that helps people get through the day, to heal, to serve others. I have the opportunity to use the unique power of music to unify diverse people and to touch emotions and the spirit in ways that spoken words cannot. I recognize the unique gifts of all my choir members and look for musical opportunities that allow those gifts to shine through my fellow music ministers. My two church choirs and my two congregations in Arlington are great blessings to me. I take my responsibility as a music minister very seriously and am very conscientious to uphold the trust they give me.

My CD Truly Loved has broadened my music ministry by allowing the healing power of my singing to reach many people and places that I could never reach on my own. The glowing feedback that I have been receiving on Truly Loved affirms my pursuit of serving a need in other people. I would not have been invited to Romney without my CD, and I am grateful for the chance to share my love for music in West Virginia. Although I will be singing a variety of music – contemporary folk, blue grass, pop – I always perform with the same spirit, a spirit of giving, a great respect for my audience, and a desire to touch the hearts of those around me.

Q – What advice would you give to people who are interested in music and writing?

Everyone has a unique gift to share. Believe in your gifts and give time to your talents. Songs don’t get written or learned until you actually sit down and work on them. I try to look for the gifts in other musicians and affirm them, and I always feel the affirmation come full circle back to me.

Q – Where do you go from here? What new things will you be getting into?

I have two fundraising concerts in the DC area coming up in May. One is a fundraiser for a local organization that helps women and children, and one is a fundraiser to build a shelter for abused and neglected girls in the Philippines. It is a thrill to be able to do something I love – entertain – and having the ripple effect be helping the needy. I also love singing with a community / audience that believes in helping others. At the Music for Moms concerts that I have coordinated, members of the audience always comment on the palpable spirit of good will during these fundraisers.

My biggest desire is to continue promoting my CD Truly Loved whenever I have time. I feel that I have only nicked the surface of possibilities on Truly Loved, and I want to get the message of peace, healing, and love in this recording to where it is needed.


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