Toby Dorr: Hello and welcome to Fierce Conversations with Toby, the show where we talk about the hard things. I’m Toby Dorr. In today’s episode, we’ll explore the world of music and life choices. Our guest today is Lisa Plasse, a musician who composed, arranged, and played the flute and the theme song for this podcast. Hi Lisa. Thanks so much for joining us.
Lisa Plasse: Hi Toby. Thanks for having me.
Toby Dorr: I’m just delighted to have you here. Music is something that is not a very big part of my life and I’d like it to be more a part of my life, so I’m really excited to learn more about music. First, let’s start off with what’s your favorite color and what does that color say about you?
Lisa Plasse: It’s always been pink. I find it to be very playful. I love all shades of pink. It doesn’t matter from the light to the bold, I find it nostalgic. It just really takes me back to my childhood. It just reminds me of my bedroom and, you know, just the way my mother had decorated it in white and pink and it just takes me back and it gives me comfort.
Lisa Plasse: I mean I tend to wear dark colors because I’m a musician, so I’m always dressed in black or dark blues. But my go-to is pink.
Toby Dorr: I love that. So, can you tell us about a crossroads in your life that pushed you in a different direction?
Lisa Plasse: Sure. It was when I was little. I had just turned eight years old, and I was meeting my friend at the school playground just to play on the swing set. And when I got to the school, I heard some music and it really intrigued me because you know, back when you were little, you think summer? Nobody’s at school. Why would there be any sounds coming? So, I, of course, was curious right away, and I peeked in and the vision – I still have it as clear as the day that it happened. It felt almost like a horror story. Tell You’re walking down a corridor and you’re not sure what’s happening. But then I started peeking into the classrooms and I saw these kids that were playing instruments. And I just kept looking in one classroom after the other and then finally I saw what I didn’t realize was a flute at the time, but I saw this long, thin silver instrument and it sounded so pretty, and I quickly ran to find an adult to find out what’s going on and why aren’t I part of this? So, the band director said, here’s a packet. Take it home to your parents. I ran out of the school, told my friend I gotta go. I have stuff to do, and I ran home, gave the packet to my mom, and she said, we’ll have to talk to your father because this is very expensive and you know, back in the seventies she told me $200 and you might as well set a million dollars to me because that just seemed like a lot! So I thought, oh, there’s no way they’re gonna go for this. And my father came home, they were looking everything over and then he turned to me, and he said, well, it just doesn’t make sense to rent it. And for that instant, I thought my whole world came crashing down. But then he said, we’re gonna have to buy it. And I was like, what? And he said, yeah, it just makes more sense to buy it. And then he filled out the paperwork and a week later I got the flute and I’ve never looked back.
Toby Dorr: Wow
Lisa Plasse: That’s been, you know, a major crossroad in my life of deciding on what I wanted to do.
Toby Dorr: And you took that flute and you went to your room and you played and tried and played and tried, and I think one time you told me you didn’t make a sound come out of it for six months, but you didn’t give up.
Lisa Plasse: I didn’t. I tried everything and there were times that I thought, oh my God, I’m wasting my dad’s money. I can’t even do anything with this. But I kept going at it and the best thing of it all is that my band director said to me, you know what? I see the determination. You can’t give up. You will get a sound. He said, for whatever reason, you’re gonna get that sound. It’s just taking a little bit more time. And within a month or so after that, I finally started getting the sounds. And once that started, I just never stopped.
Toby Dorr: There was no stopping you.
Lisa Plasse: No, and, but it was a great life lesson because it, it really taught me at an early age how not to give up and not to walk away from something that’s challenging, but also the kindness and understanding of my band director, which showed me that patience and understanding. So now as a teacher, I have that same feeling and the same effect on my students by saying, you can do anything if you try, no matter what. You just have to get past the hump and do it. And I think that’s what’s really made it beneficial for me when I work with people.
Toby Dorr: And you have your own music studio today, so tell us a little bit about what your life looks like.
Lisa Plasse: I opened my music studio back in September of 98. So, we’re actually coming up on our 25th anniversary, which I can’t even believe. I started out as a band director, and I was teaching, but it was extremely time-consuming and then having young children. I knew that I needed to make a change and have a more flexible schedule, so I opened up my music studio and we teach instrumental and vocal lessons. I do a lot of projects with the studio in terms of going out as a music director for different shows. I’m hired as a musician to perform at different events, so it allowed me that flexibility so that I could still do what I love. I could still make a living at it, and I be accessible for my kids. Which was the most important thing for me is being there as a mom.
Toby Dorr: That was a great solution. I know I discovered myself through journaling in prison, and I know that you journal daily too, so how important is that practice for you?
Lisa Plasse: It’s really important. It’s basically my form of therapy. I get to put down all my feelings. I don’t have to say them out loud because then I can look back and think it through, especially if I have an issue that I’m trying to work out or any conflicts that are happening with other people, I just have to really put it down on paper and it just helps me process. Plus, it’s, it’s a great record of my life.
Toby Dorr: Yeah.
Lisa Plasse: Life gets chaotic. Sometimes you blink and 10 years went by, and you sometimes forget those little details. So, it’s nice to go back, open up a day and just remember what I did that day. And, um, I’ve been much more vigilant since the pandemic, because I used to write on a regular basis, but not every day. And then once the pandemic started, I write every single day now just to record my thoughts.
Toby Dorr: I found that when I handwrite something, I feel like it connects to my heart and when I sit at the computer and type it more comes from my head. So, I just really think there’s power in the written word, and I hope we don’t ever get away from it.
Lisa Plasse: Yes, I have to write it down by hand first for it to be real. A lot of the process of anything that I do writing-wise, I always hand write it and then I go to the computer because you’re really right with that. When you type at the computer, it is just coming from your head. There’s really no emotion. I feel almost attached to it, put that pen in my hand, I have all these feelings come to life.
Toby Dorr: When you’re typing, it’s like you’re watching it come, you know you’re not feeling it. You’re not birthing it. It is a big difference. I mentioned to you last fall that I was gonna do a podcast and asked if you might do a theme song for my podcast. And you were happy to do it. And I just love the theme song and everybody I’ve played it to is just in love with it. So, tell me how that kind of came together in your head.
Lisa Plasse: Oh sure. This is, I mean something that took a while because I had a couple of different ideas in my head. You know, based on getting to know you as a person and the things that you liked and some of the things you were talking about. So, as you were discussing what your podcast was gonna be like and how it was morphing and changing, I was doing the same thing with the creative process for the music. First I started out with something that was more ethereal and you know, fantasy-like, and then I thought, you know what, no, that’s not the message that I want to give her. And then I was thinking something more orchestral, more strong, like a symphony of some type nature, you know, to give you. And I said, you know what? That doesn’t even fit. And then one day I was just driving to the studio and this little baseline just popped into my head and I said, oh my God. I literally pulled over and had to hum it into my phone so I didn’t forget. And then I got to the studio, and I was like, all right, let me write this baseline down. Then I went to the piano and started thinking of the piano line. So, the idea is that the baseline is that introduction saying, Hey, I’m Toby and I’m here to talk to you. The piano comes in and says, yeah, what can I do to help you and make this a smooth transition? And then I put the flute line in to mix it up and shake it up and say, no, no, no, we’re gonna get fierce now. And so that’s the idea of the flute coming in and just shaking it all up. So that it’s not this calm melancholy thing. We’re gonna shake it up, we’re gonna have the fierce conversations, we’re gonna get down to business, and we’re gonna get our message across. So that’s how it all, you know, evolved. And, and it just, and once it came, it just, within three days, I had everything completely done. It took me a few months because I was working on a couple of different shows, so, I always had it in the back of my mind and I had dozens of little jingles that I had written down in my book, but that one, when it came, I was like, this is it. This is the one.
Toby Dorr: I love it and I love knowing the story behind it too, because now when I listen to it, I think, oh yeah, here we go. We’re starting out. It’s all nice and calm and now we’re gonna shake it up. And I just love it. I just am so thrilled to death that you are able to write that for me.
Lisa Plasse: Oh, well I am so glad that I could do that for you, and I’m so glad that you love it.
Toby Dorr: It is just perfect! So, you create musical programs, direct symphonies, play in concerts, and teach music and voice, but what part of music fills your soul the most?
Lisa Plasse: I thought about that for a while because there is a sense of fulfillment when I get up and perform myself because I do know that I’m affecting the audience. And to this day, I have people that come back to me and say, oh my God, I saw you, and I don’t even remember it because I do so many performances in a year but knowing that I touched them and that they still think about really means something to me. And, knowing that I did that for them, and they were like, I was in such a bad mood, but I came to this concert, and you made my day. So, knowing that I have that impact is really nice. But I think what gives me even more joy is when I’m directing something and I’m working with students or I’m working with an organization and with these amateur musicians, nurturing them and guiding them and then seeing it come together and then seeing the look on their eyes when they’re like, ah, I did it. That’s what gives me the biggest sense of accomplishment because I was able to pass my passion for music onto this person and have them create music that in turn moved an audience. So it’s me passing it along because it’s so much more than just me getting on stage and affecting an audience member. I actually gave somebody the tools to do the same so we can continue to spread that positivity through music.
Toby Dorr: I love that. And I imagine the first time you went out on a big stage to play the flute that you were nervous…
Lisa Plasse: Oh, I’m always nervous.
Toby Dorr: Even today?
Lisa Plasse: Always. Yes.
Toby Dorr: That was going to be my question. When did the nerves go away?
Lisa Plasse: Never. The day it goes away is the day you need to stop. Because the nerves are what does it. It’s what creates that energy. We all get it, all of my friends, we’re all professional musicians and we all look at each other. I mean, we do it like you would breathe, you know? I could be having a cup of coffee and talking to somebody. They’re like, Lisa, you’re on. Okay, put my coffee down. And I go. But the minute I walk out on stage, all of a sudden, I get the butterfly and I’m like, okay, don’t screw up.
Toby Dorr: That is so interesting. I love that the minute you’re not nervous is when you need to quit. I love that. That’s so true for so many things,
Lisa Plasse: Yes! You have to, nerves show that you’re connected because if you start not feeling, then that’s not gonna work well.
Toby Dorr: Wow. I love that. You told us how you came across that classroom with the flute, and you liked the little airy sound of it, but what is it that just ties your soul to the flute?
Lisa Plasse: I think it’s the overall sound. It’s like a sound of freedom. Because when they use the flute, in terms of any orchestral or even in Broadway or Pop, it’s always like this little flitting thing. I always picture like a butterfly. It just represents to me the lightness and the freedom and the flexibility that life gives you. That’s what it is that I love so much about it because it just reminds me of that.
Toby Dorr: I love that. And you can pick the flute out in a group of musicians. The flute stands alone. So you told me once that music is the way you think, so let’s play a little game. What song would you choose to play at an outdoor picnic?
Lisa Plasse: Oh, that’s easy. Any Latin song ever written because it’s just the Latin and me because my mom is from Puerto Rico. We’ll put on things like from Gypsy King, JLo, Pit Bull, Gloria Estefan, it’s just any of that. And we just start dancing and singing along. And that’s what being outdoors. I have different playlists that I associate with different things, and it’s my Latin mix. When I’m outside and that’s what we’re playing.
Toby Dorr: So, what song would you play at a family gathering?
Lisa Plasse: We always, I mean, this is like clockwork. Anytime the entire family gets together, we play Celebration from Cool and the Gang. So it’s just one of those things no matter what, whatever get together, it is somehow we have to play that
Toby Dorr: That’s pretty cool. I kind of like that your family has a theme song. Maybe every family should have a theme song. I’m gonna have to think about what my, well, I have a theme song now, thanks to you, but you know what my family theme song is? I’m gonna be thinking about that.
So, what song brings tears to your eyes every time you hear it?
Lisa Plasse: There’s a lot because when you look at classical music in any shape or form, depending on the piece, the layers of it just go through you, especially if you’re in a live concert. And some of them just literally make my heart start racing. I start breathing like because I’m so excited about the music and even when I’m playing it’s hard cause I have to contain myself and remember not to get so excited and remain focused on the music. But things like Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber is one of the most beautiful pieces that I think I’ve ever heard. And it’s just so beautifully written. Appalachian Springs by Aaron Copeland. It’s just this walking out in the fields, it’s like being at one with nature and it’s just the chord structures. It gives me chills, like the minute it starts, I get goosebumps and I’m just from head to toe. I’m just overwhelmed by the song and by the time it builds and builds, I’m tearing up because it’s just, that’s how much emotion it brings out in me. And then there are things like the William Tell Overture or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when it comes in with the full orchestra and chorus. I can’t help it. I’m literally crying. It’s not that I’m in a bad mood or anything, that’s just the way the music moves me and that’s my reaction.
Toby Dorr: You’re gonna have to send me links to those songs because I want to listen to them now. I want to share with you a short little story. I grew up in Kansas City, which is a medium-sized city, and we had the Kansas City Symphony. When I was a kid, every year, all through grade school, they’d load us on a bus, and we’d go to the Kansas City Symphony, and we’d watch the symphony. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t get it. But we went every year and my husband grew up in Downeast Maine on a blueberry farm. And there’s no symphony anywhere around. Well, we were living in Sedalia, Missouri, which is a little town in the middle of Missouri, and they have a symphony in Sedalia. It’s the oldest symphony in Missouri. And they asked me to do a website for them, and in return, they gave me season tickets. So, I told Chris we’ve got somewhere to go tonight. We get in the car and go. He doesn’t know where we’re going. And when we get there and we walk in, he said, what is this? And I said, well, it’s the symphony. And he said, oh. And we sat down, and they started playing. And Chris turned to me and there were tears running down his face. And he said, how have I never heard this before? This year for Christmas, we live in the DC area now, and his son gave him tickets to the Washington Symphony, the National Symphony, and we went for his birthday. And Chris cried when the orchestra started tuning up. Every time we go to a symphony, he cries because the music just reaches him. I think that’s beautiful.
Lisa Plasse: It’s very powerful and it really makes me feel good when I’m able to give that experience to someone as well, by sharing something with them. And, you know, just a short little story, Rent, which was a musical on Broadway – I saw it many times, but I saw it when it opened, and I saw it on the day that it closed. So the day that it opened, I went with my husband. We had just started dating at the time. I don’t think we were married yet, but we went and saw it and it moved me to a level I didn’t even realize possible. And then flash forward 20 years later, I went with my girlfriend and we took her daughter, and we got to one of the moments of the show where it is just gut-wrenching and she grabbed my arm and was crying hysterically and I said, I did it. I gave this experience, you know, because I was hoping, I didn’t wanna say anything. I didn’t…
Toby Dorr: Didn’t wanna spoil the moment.
Lisa Plasse: Yeah. I didn’t wanna spoil it, but I was like, it’s coming. It’s coming. I wonder if she’s gonna react. And when she grabbed my arm and looked at me and the tears were coming down, I was like, she gets it. So it, it’s, it’s things like that, I mean, that’s what gives me pure joy is knowing that I’m able to let somebody feel that.
Toby Dorr: So, what’s your very favorite song to play?
Lisa Plasse: It’s actually a song that I wrote when I was in college. I wrote it in my senior year, for my senior recital. And it was a dedication to my father because he had taken us, he was born in Bangladesh, which was East Pakistan at the time, and then became Bangladesh. He had taken us for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see where he had been born, and where he had gone to school, and basically took us on a memory lane tour. And I met a lot of his family that had never come to America, but I had seen my uncles who had come to America, but they were back there and one of his brothers used to hum constantly just, and I picked that up. The minute I saw him, I was like, oh, he is humming. And I just kept following him around, so if there was back then if there was technology, people would’ve been videoing me watching, running after him. Because he was humming and so I was like writing down little things. And so, as a tribute, I surprised my dad and I put together this piece and I called it Homeland and didn’t tell him. My father was just very, never showed emotion.
Toby Dorr: stoical.
Lisa Plasse: Very, yes. And he was just, you know, nothing really could shake him. I shook him. He was crying.
Lisa Plasse: He came to my senior recital that was dedicated to him. He didn’t come very often because he was working or whatever. So, and not that it mattered, but I said to him, you have to come to my senior recital and I made sure that it was at a time that I knew he could come. And he cried. So, that’s one of the, maybe twice in my entire life that I ever saw him tear up
Toby Dorr: I love that. Can you play that for us?
Lisa Plasse: I’ll give you a little bit of the opening.
Lisa Plasse: It’s a solo flute and I did that on purpose because again, I just love the sound of the flute. I love having it by itself. And it’s called Homeland. And these are all little snippets of what my uncle was humming as he was walking the rice fields. So here’s a little bit of it.
Lisa Plasse: So that’s the intro.
Toby Dorr: I love that. It just amazes me that you could just pick up an instrument and play something without having to look at the music. You know, I gotta write things down and look at them, and so I think that’s just wonderful. I love that. Thank you.
Lisa Plasse: Thank you.
Toby Dorr: I gave my granddaughter a guitar for Christmas, and she was so excited about it for a week and a half. She wore it everywhere she went and she would just strum it and I took her to a guitar lesson at a music studio and she loved it. And the guy at the music studio said I think you’ve got something here she’s gonna catch on really quick. Well then there was a cost of those expensive lessons at the studio, and her parents found a guitar lesson online with about 20 other kids, and it was boring. And, now she doesn’t want to play at all. So, what is the best way to introduce an instrument to a young child and what’s the best age to start?
Lisa Plasse: It depends on the instrument, first of all, because in terms of the size of the instruments, things like a flute to clarinet, saxophone, anything that’s in the woodwind and brass family, they don’t make smaller sizes for them. So, you do need to be a little bit older. Normally the music programs start around fourth grade, fifth grade, depending on where you are in the country. Hands and arms need to grow to the size where they can fit and spread for the different keys. But when you get to things like guitar and piano and violin, viola, cello, all of those things, the nice thing about the strings is that they make smaller sizes. A violin, they can make a quarter size, which is the cutest little violin. They measure your arm length and as you grow, you can grow into the instrument. Piano, same concept is that you’re just working at the center of the piano. You don’t have to worry about reaching the pedals, because you don’t need them. In the beginning you’re learing your piano technique. And then for guitar, they do make child-size guitars, so you can start earlier. In terms of the age, it’s really the strength of the child and how well they can press down the strengths. Some kids have that grip strength at an early age. Some need to wait until it develops. So that’s the one where you have to kind of figure out do they have the strength, to push down.
Toby Dorr: So like in this instance where you started something and then they didn’t want to do it, would you just give up or would you try to reintroduce it a year later or something?
Lisa Plasse: The difference is that you started out correctly by doing the one-on-one, and she lost interest when you went into the group. And the reason being is that you always have to move at the slowest pace, whoever that is. At that level, you can’t keep going ahead because then you’re gonna leave so many kids behind. You kind of have to stay with the people that are falling behind and help them understand and try to get them up to snuff. But then what happens is anybody who’s a little bit more ahead and a little bit more energetic and wants to move forward, they’ll get bored easily. So the one-on-one is really a tailor-made lesson for that person. Whatever pace that they’re working at, you’re able to do that and you’re able to follow with them. You’re able to help them to guide them, and the focus is just on them so that it does make a big difference.
Toby Dorr: I think that’s a good bit of advice. I think that does make sense. So, you’ve written a parenting book and a children’s book, which is really a memoir about your journey with music. When will they be available? I know that they’re just about ready, so maybe this summer sometime.
Lisa Plasse: Yeah, I’m hoping early summer, like late spring, early summer. It’s been a blessing and a curse. I wrote all of this during the pandemic when basically the music world shut down for so long, and I had to find something to occupy my time because I couldn’t get into a room or a concert hall like we were, and couldn’t perform. There were a lot of restraints and so all this creativity had to go somewhere. But I have so many projects now that slowed down the final process, but now I’m hoping, you know, with your help, of course, Toby,
Toby Dorr: Yes. Yes. We’re working on it. Yeah. We’ll get them out there.
Lisa Plasse: Yes, I’m hoping so. And I actually have the cover of my one book which is Words of Wisdom. So, this is the one cover, and then you are working on my Mariella and Music cover. I’m so excited. I’m hoping to have that out within the next couple of months.
Toby Dorr: Good. Well, we’re looking forward to reading them. I’ve read parts of them, so I already know, but everybody else is gonna love to read them.
Lisa Plasse: Thank you.
Toby Dorr: What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make?
Lisa Plasse: It was what college I wanted to attend. That was a tough, really tough decision because I applied to five different colleges, two of which were conservatories. No, actually three of them were. One was a high-rated university, and another university was in state. And I chose to go to William Patterson. And it was William Patterson College at the time. One was because of tuition was so much more affordable. I was in state. But I did my research and it turned out that many of my professors had performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and all the local musicians because it was right outside of New York City. My trombone teacher was in the Saturday Night Live band.
Toby Dorr: Oh wow.
Lisa Plasse: For a while he was trying to convert me to become a trombone major because he loved how I played. So, you had these greats that were walking the halls and I thought, oh my God, I’m getting this fantastic education at bargain basement prices. And at the time, I thought it was making a big sacrifice by not going to Boston Conservatory or Hard School of Music. Cause those are the conservatories that I got accepted to. But I came to discover that I got the best education going to William Patterson and I still stand by today because it’s made me who I am.
Toby Dorr: I think that’s beautiful. And you got your master’s degree right?
Lisa Plasse: Yeah, I went or a Master of Arts because I wasn’t sure what track I wanted to do, you know, for music ed. And I was thinking of maybe becoming a department supervisor of music. But then I totally changed. And now I have my music studio.
Toby Dorr: Right. And in your master’s degree you had to learn to play every instrument, correct?
Lisa Plasse: In my undergrad I did. I had to play every single instrument I had to learn them all.
Toby Dorr: And flute was still your favorite?
Lisa Plasse: Still my favorite. Yes, yes. Always. It’s always been my thing. It’s always my go-to.
Toby Dorr: Well, what’s one question you wish I’d asked? Is there something else you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?
Lisa Plasse: No, I, you know what? I actually think you asked everything because you know what a lot of people don’t ask me is what music means to me. But you did, and about what my connection is with music and how I go about my days. So you got it. You hit the nail on the head.
Toby Dorr: Good. Good. I love that. And in this podcast, we’re gonna do something a little bit different. I’m gonna leave Lisa on the screen and she’s actually gonna play the flute part of my theme song in the background while I wrap up the podcast. We’ll see how this works. Nothing like trying something new for the first time.
Lisa Plasse: Exactly.
Toby Dorr: Okay. All right. Are you ready, Lisa?
Lisa Plasse: I am.
Toby Dorr: Remember, none of us is our worst mistake. We all have so much more to offer the world, those so-called mistakes are blessed opportunities learn and grow. Next week, we’ll continue to bring you inspiring stories from people who’ve identified a need for change. are working to make a difference in the world. to our Patreon channel, Fierce Conversations for special access and behind-the-scenes info. Go to patreon.com/fierce conversations, or click on the link in the show notes. 10% of the Patreon proceeds are used to provide new books to women in prison. Show notes also provide a link to purchase my book, Living With Conviction, and a link to Lisa’s websites as well. In my memoir, Living With Conviction, I recount a conversation I had in prison where my friend Lisa told me, “In here we can talk about all the hard things. In fact, I think we must.” And so we shall.
Toby Dorr: This is Fierce Conversations with Toby. Until next time.