Tag Archives: voice

George and Nathaniel.  Names of two American boys growing up a decade apart.

One white.  One black.  Both pianists. Each came to be known by different names. The former was an orphan from New York.  The latter a preacher’s kid born in Alabama.  Music eventually brought the two together.

Rather than finish high school, Nathaniel Adams Cole (1919-1965) decided to take his music career to the next level.  His mom – the church organist – had taught him how to play as a boy. She had an impact on her whole family; four sons all pursued music careers in the 1930s and 40s.  Inspiration surely also came from the likes of Louis Armstrong, one of the many music icons Nathaniel would sneak out to see perform in nearby clubs.

Making a living as a jazz pianist and big band leader, he eventually formed his own band per the request of a club owner. They called themselves the “King Cole Swingsters,” taking a cue from the nursery rhyme: “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.”   Singing was never his goal, but once he got started, people raved about the voice of Nat King Cole.

1946 saw the debut of the 15 minute radio show King Cole Trio Time, and a number of hit recordings followed. Notably, he even got a TV show in 1956, The Nat ‘King’ Cole show on NBC.  After six months, they doubled the show length to 30 minutes. And six months after that, it ended. Despite an array of big name musicians trying to help recruit a national sponsor, the financing wasn’t secured. Shortly thereafter, Cole made the poignant remark that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” (‘Madison Avenue’ is a term sometimes used in reference to the advertising industry as a whole.)

Much of the country was afraid of the dark. When Cole bought a house in an all-white community of Los Angeles in 1948, the home owners’ association informed him that they didn’t want any “undesirables” around. His response?: “Neither do I.  And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” He was greeted with a burning cross from the KKK on his new front lawn.

Interestingly, Cole initially avoided much involvement in the civil rights movement or racial issues.  He didn’t want to shake things up, and he even performed for segregated audiences into the fifties – much to the chagrin of peers who longed for him to use his platform to effect change. He eventually did just this, contributing to the Montgomery Bus boycott in ‘56, and helping coordinate efforts for the 1963 March on Washington, among a number of other political and social initiatives.

Jump back a few years to the packed out Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles.  It is 1947. Cole’s delicate vocal style has attracted someone to try to connect with him.  Someone who wants to share a piece of music.  Cole’s manager passes it along to him, and in short order Cole was performing it in his shows. In 1948 it was recorded.  The composer was not seeking fame.  In fact, he was hard to find at all.  There’s not really an address for “under the first L of the HOLLYWOOD sign.”

George Alexander Aberle, born in 1908, had been adopted at age nine and raised as George McGrew in Kansas.  He made his way to California in the 1940s, building on his career as a jazz pianist and band leader – just like Cole. He reached a different audience though.  Aberle played piano at a health food store and raw foods restaurant.  (I would take that job! When our local co-op recruited feedback on their expansion plans, I really should have suggested a piano.)

Following eccentric ideologies and lifestyles strongly emphasizing back-to-nature living, organic vegetarian diets, beard-growing, sandal-wearing, and deep thinking, Aberle and other followers of this lifestyle at the time were termed “Nature Boys.” He even changed his name to eden ahbez, insisting that God and Infinity are the only words that should be capitalized. (He was known to friends as “ahbe” – pronounced “AH-bee” – which, ironically is our oldest daughter’s nickname.) 

As one of America’s early hippies, ahbe roamed the countryside of California, at times making his home, as mentioned, under the famous sign above Los Angeles. “Mostly he slept where he gardened.” (see article below) This is where he was found when the publishers and media wanted to make deals and tell the world the story behind this hot new song.  “Nature Boy” was a No. 1 hit for eight weeks.  Imagine, this nomad of a man, being reviewed by Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines – simultaneously!  He actually had a number of songs that Cole and others recorded over time, as well as his own 1960 solo EP Eden’s Island.

Below is a powerful excerpt about the song, from a 1977 Los Angeles Times article written by Pearl Rowe, ahbez’s sister-in-law. The article gives a keen description of this unique man – it’s worth a read.

“It was a song that touched everyone.  Even the disenchanted buck-hungry stopped to listen and wonder where they had missed the final pay-off in their lives.  It was strange for those days of Cole Porter-like sophistication.  But it grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came, a time when no one could find answers so they hopefully clung to the sweet philosophy of someone who had come from nowhere and soon belonged everywhere.”  From the Los Angeles Times calendar – Sunday July 24 1977.

“…It grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came…”

ahbez was once asked about his perspective on race relations in America. He answered,

“Some white people hate black people, and some white people love black people, some black people hate white people, and some black people love white people. So you see it’s not an issue of black and white, it’s an issue of Lovers and Haters.”  source

If ahbez had had his way, the lyrics for this song would have been “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just to love, and be loved.”  Poetically not as fitting, but it does eliminate the implication of a deal being made.  As ahbez said “To be loved in return, is too much of a deal, and there’s no deal in love.” source

In February of 1965, Nat King Cole died of lung cancer at the age of 45. Thirty years later, in March of 1995, at the age of 85, eden ahbez died after a car crash.

Between the two of these men – the eccentric mystic vagabond, and the famous jazz professional – one white, one black, both socially ‘othered’ – is a snapshot of diversity and unity and collaboration and unexpected success.  The strangeness of it all is rather endearing.

“Nature Boy” by eden ahbez

There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea

A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he 

And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and Kings
This he said to me:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.”

Listen to our recording of this song:


featured image: elijah macleod via unsplash.com

Wikipedia –
Nat King Cole

eden ahbez

Nature Boy


Today’s song is in a rather different form than what we intended. Actually, what would have been really perfect for this week would have been, as our brother-in-law so aptly suggested, the song:
baby it's cold outside.jpgThis sign hangs in our back hallway. I always like to keep it up a bit past Christmas as the winter continues, but yikes this week’s polar vortex was a doozy.  What was it – a 23 year record?  I think we Minnesotans should all get badges, or certificates, or some sort of award just for living here.

That isn’t our song for this week though. Our song is “You Raise Me Up,” made famous by Josh Groban. You get an inside peek at a more rough version than we had set out to produce.  Ups and downs and sideways brought us on a detour of a journey.

These weekly songs and emails have become an axis for us, centering our focus and helping us learn more about the people with whom we share our music. Even though perfection is intentionally not one of our goals, we do usually like to give something that is free of, well, counting aloud. But that is what you get here – more of a rehearsal run through. It was the scratch track that we listened to for recording the separate tracks to combine a la technology.  Oh technology.  The words of this song have grown into something intensely personal for us this week and the thought of scrapping it all was ridiculous.  The crazy thing is that the quality of the sound was better in this quick simple sit-down-and-sing recording than all of the fancy things we were trying to do to make it greater.

Technology wasn’t our only trouble.

A deep darkness enveloped me. The tears flowed and screams flew and everything looked impossible.

As time passed, as dust settled, and as teeny tiny slivers of the suggestion of an inkling of a possibility of the shadow of hope eeked their way toward me I began to breathe a little more.

I was down. I probably will be again some day.
I was weary. That’s inevitable.
I was troubled. There’s always something.
My heart was burdened. The weight is just too much to bear.

So I sat. Slept. Drove. Sat some more. Slept some more. Waiting. Waiting for it to pass, for the fog to lift.

This week Nathan met me.  My mom met me.  And in them, God sat with me.

As my breaths became deeper and my steps became surer, I was met again.  I’m not one to always tout the “no such thing as coincidence” line, but you have to admit that this morning could not have been a more perfect time for this particular podcast meditation that I selected.  We had already planned on releasing this song. We had endured the bumpy road of the recording snafus and personal wreckage. As I listened, on my yoga mat, I was stunned at the timeliness.

Here are some of the words that hit me most…

“Expect to be distracted by the earth.”
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
“God might use you to help someone else lift their eyes from earthly noise and chaos to heavenly peace.  How can you help someone else experience what is above?”
“Lord God, help me choose what is above.”
You have been raised up with Christ, so keep seeking the things above.” (Col 3:2)

I want so badly to manage myself well. I want to be productive.  I want to be positive.  I want to be hopeful.  And I want to not fight my war with depression on a regular basis.

Sometimes my mountain is about the size of a step stool, but compared to the hole I just crawled out of I practically scaled Everest. Sometimes my stormy seas are about the depth of a full sink of dishes, but I might as well have surfed a tidal wave.  Sometimes the shoulders I stand on are themselves shaking with sobs.

And in our quaking togetherness we become more than we can ever be on our own.

If this song touches you at all, would you be so kind as to share it with someone who may need a lift? Would you, through this, sit with them and wait?

“You Raise Me Up” (Words and Music by Brendan Graham and Rolf Lovland)

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When I am down, and oh, my soul’s so weary

When troubles come and my heart burdened be

Then I am still and wait here in the silence

Until you come and sit a while with me.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.

You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.

I am strong when I am on your shoulders.

You raise me up to more than I can be.

A couple other songs of ours that you may like:

Better Than I (From Joseph King of Dreams)

The Curse (From Rigoletto)


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click here to play song on SoundCloud
“If With All Your Hearts” from the oratorio Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn

For a moment, I want to say, “Thank You.” You, our audience member, our listener, our reader, are why we do this. Thank you for being on the other side of that screen and for giving thought to the chance that music matters.
We really like you.

This aria comes at a point in the Old Testament narrative where the people were in utter despondency because of the drought that God had brought on the land.  Mendelssohn chose to smoosh together with a dash of creative license, two other biblical texts for this aria’s lyric; Joel 2:12 and Job 23:3.

The two were written centuries apart.  Joel and Job weren’t buddies.  Also, neither context has anything explicitly connected with Elijah’s story.  However, in juxtaposing these two texts Mendelssohn captures something totally human, the internal conflict between our awareness of God’s nature, and our state of being.

This aria swings back and forth between the voice of God and the thoughts of man. God says through the prophet, (actually quoting Joel, my paraphrase) “If you’re all in, I’ll meet you there.  I don’t want you half-way.”  The other flavor present is the prophet quoting Job (again my whine-implied paraphrase); “I wish I could just come talk to you because I really think if you just knew my side of the story you’d understand.”

When we were dating, we help lead a youth group in producing a staged dramatic reading of the entire book of Job.

The story goes like this: God allowed Satan to do lots of horrible things to Job to test Job.  Job’s friends, and even his wife, and Job himself are trying to explain away why all of this is happening and God shows up in the end and says, “I’m God, you’re not going to figure me out,” and goes on to learn ‘em good.

Despite the reality that God’s ways are past finding out, the pursuit of Him with our entire hearts is a good way to live life.  Or at least to try.

‘If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me,
Ye shall ever surely find Me.’
Thus saith our God,

Oh! That I knew where I might find Him,
That I might even come before His presence!

Rabbit Trail Trivia: Mendelssohn wrote the soprano role of this oratorio especially for the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, who some know of primarily from her part of the story line of The Greatest Showman. (Enjoy the movie, but please don’t tell yourself that that is actually what she sounded like. Thank you.)

Coincidentally, the local public school where our kids attend is named after this famed singer.  I find this ironic, considering that the student population now is approximately .000000001% Swedish. Don’t quote me on that. You get the point. Being in the minority is a new experience for us, unless you include homeschooling. But even then, when assessing the ethnic representation in our kids’ respective classes, they were definitely in the majority.

Previous post: Bring Him Home, from Les Misérables 

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In “Bring Him Home” Jean Valjean sings a prayer over Marius while he sleeps that sounds like it’s part lullaby, part heart cry, part reflection on his own mortality.  Valjean is anticipating a horrible battle the next morning with the odds stacked against them.

Kretzmer’s words show a change in Valjean through this song. At the beginning of the song the character remembers God’s provision: “in my need you have always been there.” By the end of the song, however, Valjean is reminding himself of the truth that God has the ultimate power: “You can take. You can give. Let him be. Let him live.”  For Valjean to say “If I die, let me die, let him live” I’m reminded of John 15:13.  “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

I’ve known for a while that the first change that our prayer makes in the world is not to change our circumstances, or others, or God, but our prayer must first change us.  Prayer adjusts our perspective to put us in our place and refresh our awareness of God’s place.

This song begs the question, however.  Am I willing to be the answer to the prayer that I am praying?  Even if it means I lose everything?

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“Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Words by Herbert Kretzmer

Performed by Nathan and Naomi Bird


God on high, hear my prayer.

In my need You have always been there.

He is young. He’s afraid.

Let him rest, heaven blessed.


Bring him home. Bring him home.

Bring him home.


He’s like the son I might have known

If God had granted me a son.

The summers die, one by one.

How soon they fly, on and on,

And I am old, and will be gone.


Bring him peace, bring him joy.

He is young. He is only a boy.

You can take. You can give.

Let him be. Let him live.


If I die, let me die.

Let him live.

Bring him home. Bring him home.

Bring him home.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Hey there.

As we’ve been making some shifts with our business and life over the past few months one of the things we have really loved implementing is our weekly Song Notes email .

Accompanying the release of our recorded song of the week  we have been sending an email with some thoughts and insights about the song, as well as some updates about our personal and professional lives, and of course details about any upcoming performances that Nathan is involved in.  Starting this week, we will be reviving the blog by reissuing the “Song Notes From the Birds” portion as a blog post.  The emails are still the best place to get fun reviews of what we have been up to, both professionally and personally, and the performance information will be kept current on the website, but the emails are the most effective way to be in the know.

Also, If you’re on Facebook, we would love to see you at Nathan Bird Music. Head on over and give us a “like” to see our posts on your feed.

Now, here is this week’s Song Notes From the Birds…


“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Photo by m wrona on Unsplash
Text is at the bottom of this email.

Has your week been as much of an emotional roller coaster as ours has been? It seems that even our community at large has had some particularly intense experiences.

A national crisis continues to play out through the government shut down and heated emotional debates about the border wall idea. And…Jayme Closs escaped and is now safe!

Two separate friends of ours here in Minnesota each had friends of theirs die in a car crash or a hit-and-run. And…Nathan’s sister had a baby!

For a few days this week our four year old was quarantined under suspicion of measles. And…We are hours away from finishing our bathroom renovation that has had our shower unusable for four months! Also, he doesn’t have measles! (Remember that water park we mentioned last week?  We’re pretty sure the water was the culprit for whatever the virus was that plagued our little guy.  Maybe it’s good the pool was only open for one day after all!)

What do you do with the wild extremes of feeling?

If you’ve followed the Jayme Closs story at all, you’ve probably seen some people’s vehement ridiculing of the idea that God has had anything to do with her rescue because if He cared at all He wouldn’t have let the horrible crime happen in the first place. There is some real, deep pain behind those words, for sure.

Instability, hypocrisy, and hurt from those closest to us make for a cocktail of confusion. Who doesn’t long for safety, authenticity, and comfort?

Our song this week is the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” a song that has been significant throughout both of our upbringings and continues to be a favorite.  I think the reason it lands, for me, is because of the pervading message of the ever present existence of things like the seasons, the stars, the sunrise. Something about the elements of nature bring into focus the Beyond that is holding all of this together.

And, perhaps more significantly, nature isn’t really selective. Unlike Olaf’s personal little flurry, typically our experiences with nature are more massive in influence.  A snowstorm can be loved by one and despised by one’s neighbor, but the impact doesn’t differentiate. The sunshine, rain, temperature changes, and flux of the seasons happen to all of us, not just those who deserve it, want it, need it, or hate it.  We are part of a much bigger story than that.

For me, when I have felt pretty (except it’s really not at all pretty) hopeless and empty in the faith department, it has fairly consistently been something about nature and the presence of beauty that has coaxed me back to considering hope for tomorrow.  I’ll be honest, my peace doesn’t always ‘endureth’ all that long, and I am not one to enjoy musing about the ‘dear presence’ of the Lord that ‘cheers and guides’ me with his ‘never failing compassions.’  Maybe some day I can say those words without feeling really weird, but for the time being I will settle in with the comfort of the thought that all of this mess of life is actually being seen and felt and heard by Someone, because every . single . day . the sun rises.

“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Words by Thomas O Chrisholm, based on Lamentations 3:22-23
Music by William M. Runyan (1870-1957)

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father!
There is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;
As thou hast been thou forever wilt be.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

[chorus] Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided —
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

[chorus] Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided —
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Ties and Slurs and Jobs

I’m not not talking about clothing accessories and inebriated speech…just yet.

When reading them little black and white dots on top of all them lines, aka music notation, it’s really easy for beginners to confuse ties with slurs.  Both are graceful arcs between notes. The actual shape of the lines can be identical.  The purpose is very different, however.  Ties are about rhythm.  They connect the rhythmic event of one note to the rhythmic event of the same note later on and tie the two together in one rhythmic event. Slurs denote how a series of different notes should be played.  Slurs are drawn over a series of two or more notes that are different than one another but who share the same melodic idea.

Sometimes life and work is like reading music notation.  It looks like it’s black and white and you just have to make music out of it.  However, if you misinterpret the notation you’re going to fall flat….and on your face.

There’s so much that I love about being self-employed and in music.  The thrill of hearing my volunteer church choir lock into their chord.  The joy of hearing my voice students creating gorgeous music to express themselves. The fun of casting a vision for a new concert production and seeing it come to fruition through collaboration with a dedicated team of various talented friends.  I love it all.

Brian Tracy, in his book, Earn what You’re Really Worth says that income security can only be guaranteed when you do something that is A. Important, B. in Demand, and C. where you are Irreplaceable.

I know that music is important.  I know that my music performance/instruction/production is in demand and has been growing consistently over the past five years.  I’d like to think that I’m irreplaceable.

So why then am I looking for full-time work? Well, there’s a few.

  1. Work/Life Balance. Teaching thirty voice students at five different teaching studios has been exciting to have a somewhat regular flow of monies, but it makes for a difficult work/life balance.  The emotional cost to my family has been greater than the financial reward.
  2. Growing family, growing needs.  Yep.  Number 4 here we go!  We’re very excited to meet this little addition in October.  I’ll be more excited if we’re able to move into a different home by the end-of-summer.
  3. Self-Employed and you want a Mortgage?  Despite growing my own business for the past five years and experiencing some really cool successes/expansions with teaching/performing/producing, all I need is a couple of pay stubs at a new job and I’d qualify to buy a home for my family.  #thanxhousingmarketcrash

SO.  I’m looking for work that allows me to capture more of the value of my experience in a full-time W-2 “real” job.  The music won’t stop.  Don’t you worry.

After telling a friend of mine about my job hunt, he said that he was sad at the thought of me in a tie and a cubicle.  I understand that I don’t fit inside that box very well.  I’m hoping to God I get to do something that I’m passionate about where I can work with people, care about a cause and finally get paid to be the creative vision guy.  But most importantly, I welcome the tie if it comes with some economic security for my family.

I’m just going to read it as a slur and make it part of my melodic line.

My Christmas with Cantus

This is the weird and wonderful story of how my one and only Christmas with Cantus led me to meet tenors David Walton and Aaron Humble who are joining forces with me for my upcoming “A Three Tenors Christmas” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.  


  • Tuesday, December 22 at 8:15 P.M. (dinner seating at 6:15) get tickets
  • Wednesday, December 23 at 8:15 P.M. (dinner seating at 6:15) get tickets

Fyi, as of this writing, availability has gone from “excellent” to “good”….so don’t wait too long to get a ticket!



The three tenors rehearse with pianist Herb Johnson.

My life is strange.  I’ve known for some time that anybody who willfully puts himself or herself up on a stage in front of other people is unusual.  Being a man that sings really high in front of people makes me a freak of nature.   I shouldn’t be surprised then, that this story is also strange.  Some call it luck but looking back all I can think is that Someone was orchestrating.

When I was in my last semester of grad school, I met Aaron Humble of Cantus as he was getting a tour of Denver University’s Lamont School of Music before the ensemble’s performance that evening.  I’d heard of Cantus on Minnesota Public Radio but had never been to any of their productions.  I decided I needed to look into this group, and I applied to audition that spring.  They hold annual auditions to attract the top male vocal talent in the nation, regardless of any open positions in the ensemble.  They invited me to come to one of their live auditions. That alone was worth the plane ticket.

Instead of singing for a director, or a panel of judges, you sing for the men of Cantus.  After all of the auditionees had sung their songs, we were invited back into the room and then magic happened. We got to sing WITH Cantus.  As I’d prepared my parts for the music ahead of time I had imagined the sound we’d achieve.  It surpassed all of my expectations.  I flew back to Denver with an even deeper respect for the organization.  I was saddened to hear some time later that there were no open positions in the ensemble, but still very glad to have sung with them, even for a day.

While singing a role in Italy at the tail end of the summer I received a call from Doc Rainbow, director of theatre at my undergraduate alma mater, University of Northwestern – St. Paul, inviting me to come sing the lead role of Father in Children of Eden that fall.  We sold or gave away nearly everything we owned and returned to our native Minnesota, anticipating a one month stay and then a circuit of audition trips out west.  Then, just a few days after arriving in Minnesota, I got a call from Cantus.  One of their tenors had taken a leave of absence and they needed a tenor to replace him for their upcoming “Christmas with Cantus” concerts and was I in town and AVAILABLE!?  I was ecstatic.

Rehearsing with them for six hours a day and learning an entire show in two weeks was a rigorous and rewarding experience.  Getting to perform with them was So. Much. Fun.  My contract included singing on their Christmas with Cantus CD in 2011.  That recording is still a favorite in my household, frequently being chosen by our young daughters as their bedtime music.

In the spring of 2012, Cantus was looking to fill this tenor position with a full-time singer, and I was hopeful that I may be able to join this group for the long term. Though I was bummed that they chose someone else, I totally understood their reasoning. David Walton possesses  a tenor range that I only dream of.  On my first encounter with David, I remembered thinking – just from his speaking voice – “wow, this guy is going to go far.”  Which he has. Find out more about him here.

I’ve been so privileged to have performed with David since then in various productions and was thrilled that he joined me and Aleks Knezevich for the debut performance of our tenor trio last year for Christmas at Wooddale in Eden Prairie Minnesota.

As plans for this year’s Chanhassen concerts developed, we needed to find a new tenor, as Aleks was not available this year.  David suggested Aaron Humble, also a long-time Cantus member who is currently on faculty at Augustana College in Illinois.  He is not only a quick study but brings such confidence and experience with him.  You can find out more about him here.

While I never purposed to create this year’s tenor trio with former members of Cantus, it makes perfect sense that that’s what has happened.  Cantus attracts top male talent to the state and the entire community benefits from it.

I’m thankful for the boldness to take chances.  This Christmas I’m especially thankful for the men of Cantus 2010 who took a chance on me.  I will always be grateful for the institution of Cantus.  It continues to create amazing music with many new voices and creating opportunities that go far beyond the ears that hear them.

(By the way, the 2015 “Christmas with Cantus” series starts tonight!)

Three Tenors (medQ)

photo credit: Bethany Jackson of Twin Cities Headshots