I Don't Want to Be Like My Mom

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In my early 20s when I started soul searching, I was asked this question:

Among those closest to you,
who are you most like?


I’m very close to my family of nine. And although my six siblings and I have a very tight bond, as I thought about my answer, I didn’t feel I was most like any of them.

My dad? Nope, complete opposites.

The last person...was my mom.

During this time in my life, I think we both could agree that our relationship was rough.

I wanted to fly like a bird. She wanted me to stay in the nest.

I wanted to be my own person. She’d remind me whose daughter I was.

She disciplined me with all she knew and used every tool in her box to keep me close (like I shared in my carrots & tears story).

I didn’t like my mom.

I didn’t like how she controlled me.

I didn’t like how she would call my workplace to make sure I was there.

I didn’t like how she had a comeback every time I stood up for myself.

I didn’t like how I would crumble in front of her.

I didn’t like my mom.

“I don’t want to be like my mom,” I told myself. I desperately did not want her to be my answer. To make sure, I started listing all the qualities and values of my mom.

 Mom & me prepared for the MN State Fair.

Mom & me prepared for the MN State Fair.

She’s proactive, always looking to be prepared, productive, and efficient in any situation.

She’s a jack of all trades.

She’s kind to everyone, even when she shouldn’t be.

She gives generously, even when she has little.

She's the last one to rest after a hard day's work.

She's humble.

She’s silly when you least expect it.

She's spontaneous.

She doesn’t hold on to grudges for long.

She’s got big lips.

She’s open to others’ ideas and suggestions.

She loves to travel.

She values a clean home.

She seeks for ways to make others happy.

She loves deeply and unconditionally, even when it’s not reciprocated.

“Damn it,” I thought. “I’m most like my mom.”

Disappointed, I brushed the thought aside and ignored the answer. I chose not to revisit the question.

“I don’t want to be like my mom,” I told myself.

Fast forward nearly a decade later. Today, I can humbly say that I feel the complete opposite.

With age, I’ve come to realize what my mom means to me and how blessed I am to be her daughter. I see why my mom had to be the way she was to raise the woman I am today.

 Mom's first trip to Hawaii.

Mom's first trip to Hawaii.

I love my mom.

I love how she guides me when we talk.

I love how she knows how to reach me with trust.

I love how she comes back at me with words of support when I’ve fallen.

I love how when I crumble in front of her now, it’s because I miss her.

I love my mom.

In all its irony, I now think:

"I want to be more like my mom."

I’m in tears as I write this, because these tears represent our turbulent, yet beautiful journey together as mother and daughter.

It represents an undying love, unsummoned forgiveness, and infinite abundance.

So I hope as you read this, you’re able to reflect on your own journey with your mom. More importantly, I hope you’ll communicate your reflection to her in celebration of Mother’s Day this year.

I will be.

I just need to figure out how to say all this in Hmong now. :)

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia

I Wasn't Supposed to Be A Singer

  May 2011, Lenoir, NC - Photo by Kong Lor

May 2011, Lenoir, NC - Photo by Kong Lor

On April 22nd, 2018, I gave a speech and watched students cry in response at a special university event.

The topic? Success.

Coming home afterwards, I felt compelled to share a part of the speech with you. It’s an important part of my journey as a singer, and one that I’ve never openly shared with you until now.

When I saw students crying in the audience on Sunday, I knew I needed to publish something from this speech. With that, my intention is to encourage and inspire others who may have or are currently going through what I experienced in pursuit of our dreams and success.

So here goes.

Ua Laib

A chord struck in me when I saw the title of the event, “Kuv Ua Laib (I Am A Gangster/I Can Do It).” Growing up, the phrase, ua laib meaning “gangster” was one that I didn’t like to hear at all. I was raised early on in life to tsis txhob mus xyaum ua laib, meaning “don’t become a gangster.”

And then growing up as a young Hmong American female, it became tsim txiaj meaning “be good,” in the most basic terms.

“Tsim txiaj nawb! Koj tsis pom luag cov ntxhais lod? Lawv tsim txiaj laid! Cas tsis xyaum li luag?” “You better be good! Don’t you see other people’s daughters? They’re good! Why can’t you be like them?”

Ua laib and tsis tsim txiaj were the taboos of my life.

As a young child, I was very conscious of staying within my parents’ expectations of tsim txiaj and txhob mus ua laib. So conscious, the notion of tsim txiaj had found a place in my subconscious mind and built a home there, even as a legal adult.

  With SASU, Performers, & Guest Speakers, April 22, 2018 at UW-Green Bay

With SASU, Performers, & Guest Speakers, April 22, 2018 at UW-Green Bay

Music & College

In college, singing was the biggest secret I kept. My parents knew I sung as a hobby. But amongst everything else in my life, whether I wanted to or not, I always found my way back to singing. It was even in college when I released my first album as an undergraduate junior.

It was a love affair, but I couldn’t choose music as a career.

I knew that it would be deemed as tsis tsim txiaj. It would go against my parents and even my elders’ wishes for me.

Coming home one weekend, I found myself in a rare situation. My dad doesn’t know or ask much about me and my siblings. With us, he usually doesn’t talk about us; rather he talks at us.

This day was different.

“Pajnyiag, koj twb mus kawm ntawv ntev npaum no, koj yuav mus ua dabtsi? Koj yuav mus kawm ua dabtsi?” “Pagnia, you’ve been studying for this long, what are you going to do in the future? What are you studying to become?”

I knew we’d have this talk one day. And despite my love for music, I had already prepared the perfect response.

“Dad, I’m going to be a teacher.”

It was the only thing I felt that I knew and that my parents would understand as a profession. Stoic and nearly expressionless, my dad replied:

“Zoo. Kawm mus ua ib tug xib fwb zoo. Lwm hnub thiaj nrhiav tau hauj lwm ua.” “Good. Becoming a teacher is good. That way in the future, you can find a job.”

I was surprised. This was the first time in my life that my dad actually agreed with my decision. At last, I had met his expectations. I was tsim txiaj.

But my tsim txiaj-ness did not last long.

Lost, Frustrated, & Depressed

It was my toughest and final semester of college. It was then that I knew I was not going to be a teacher. But I had just told my dad two years earlier that I would become one. There was too much at stake. I couldn’t disappoint my parents.

When the semester ended, I followed through with my word and graduated with an education degree and put away singing as a career.

For a couple years after graduation, I went back and forth between substitute teaching and performing across the world. Am I a teacher or a singer? Who am I?

I was lost.
I was frustrated.
I was depressed.

So I came up with an idea: move out to the east coast to join my sister Nancy. She clearly lived a great life, and I wanted a piece of that. I wanted to explore the world and find myself. You know, figure out who I really am.

But word got around to my parents.

One day, in tears, my mother calls desperately begging me not to move. “Koj tsis hlub koj txiv wb lod? Koj twb ua tau haujlwm hauv zos no thiab los sad? Cas yuav mus nyob deb tag npaud?” “Don’t you love your dad and me? Can’t you work here in town too? Why are you moving so far away?”

Everything you imagine a mother could possibly say to keep her child close, my mom said it all. And again, being tsim txiaj was top of mind. I didn’t want to do anything wrong in my parents’ eyes. So I made being tsim txiaj more important than fulfilling my desires.

Brokenhearted, I moved back with my parents.

Carrots & Tears

One summer day, I found myself scrubbing carrots. Dirty water flying everywhere. My parents are skilled, hardworking farmers who sell produce at local farmers markets, and those of us who live in their home have a full-time job come summer.

All of a sudden, tears began to fall.

They’d been accumulating for years, but I didn’t know that. In that moment, I was so upset. The phone call my mom had made to me months earlier was replaying in my mind. And I had blamed her for my current life.

What happened? I spent nearly 18 years of my life going to school and doing what my parents asked of me. I was tsim txiaj. I didn’t mus ua laib. But why was I unhappy?

Obey

Despite the questions and the blaming, truthfully, I was most upset at myself.

I let others take over the steering wheel, and I chose the backseat of my fast, moving life. For all my life, I had given others responsibility to run my life. And I had no clue how I’d find the courage to change all of that.

Shortly after that summer, I did something about it.

I moved out. I started to accept my desire to singing professionally and seriously. I let go of my parents’ wishes. I released the fear of no longer being tsim txiaj and all the consequences that would follow from family and society.

Honestly, I can’t remember exactly how it all happened. I don’t have a “how-to” list for you. But this time, I did something different.

I obeyed my intuition - the deepest, truest part of my soul.

My dear, I know you just didn’t stumble upon this blog post. You're meant to be here. So if you don’t remember anything I wrote, I hope you’ll take this with you in pursuit of your dreams:

You can never escape the truth of who you are and what you want to do in this life. It will hit you in the face again and again until you answer to it. Until you obey it. So if you want to succeed, to fulfill your dreams, you must obey your intuition.

 

YOUR TURN: Can you relate to my story? When was there a time when you went against your own intuition? What happened? As always, please leave your thoughts in a comment below. I, along with all my readers, love learning from you!

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia

Pagnia Xiong Featured on Tomme Suab Blog

Tomme Suab, a Chippewa Valley based music blog, shines light on Eau Claire, Wisconsin native and music artist, Pagnia Xiong, in their latest post. 

From her music influences to her thoughts on the lack of Hmong American music artists in the Chippewa Valley, Tomme Suab shares a beautifully written piece highlighting not only Pagnia's unique story, but also the Hmong American experience. 

Read the blog post here.

Listen: Raw, Unedited Version of "Kom Koj Pom Kuv" (with Tears & All)

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One of my all-time favorite things in the world is watching an artist create. If I could be a fly on the wall while another artist produces work, I would.

I love getting a look at what goes on in an artist’s mind and heart. I love seeing her vision come to life.

Seriously, like...

How did inventor Thomas Edison choose the shape of the light bulb?

Why did composer David Foster choose the F5 note for Celine Dion to belt in “All By Myself”?

Or why did designer Joanna Gaines choose a navy hood range for an all-white kitchen?

I know I’m not the only one who wonders how artists think and create. You, yourself, may have wondered how I think and create songs. If so, today’s your lucky day.

Today, I want to share with you how a very special original song of mine from the "Plhis Suab" album came to be.

“Kom Koj Pom Kuv” was unexpected.

It was 2014, in the early morning hours of a weekend. (Yes, some of the best ideas do come while the rest of the world sleeps.) It was a quiet night. No crickets. No one around.

The instrumental track I had discovered was at least four years old and had somehow ended up in my hard drive. I don’t compose music, so I knew it came from one of my music producers. (Mr. Shu Lor, to be exact.)

And it fit the mood perfectly. The track didn’t feel like a powerhouse song. Nor a dance jam. It felt like I was supposed to sit down. So I did.

With headphones on, I sat at my office desk with an audio recording software open on the computer. I had lowered the microphone to reach just the nasal cavity area, so it could comfortably be between me and the edge of the desk.

As I hit ‘record,’ I asked myself to go to a place in my memory while listening to the first few seconds of the music.

How does this song make me feel?

What memories come up as I feel the feeling?

Immediately, a sense of sadness and hope came to me at the same time. It took me back to a period when giving love was not a promise that I would receive love. When love you seek is unrequited. 

Though this time in my memory had long past, I could still remember how I felt during that period of my life.

With no lyrics, no melody, no script, this came out. Unexpectedly.

Tears fell.
Sentences didn’t make sense.
Truth came forth.

And just like that, the wound reappeared. Like it hadn’t healed after all those years. Like I was that woman from years ago, once again.

I instantly knew this was going to be a special song. So I sent out a take to Pa Kou, my older sister, who introduced me to Sunday Night Love Songs on 94.1 FM as a child. That night, she couldn’t stop playing it.

You see, the songs you’ve loved from my past albums have all been created similarly to this creative session.

In 2006, the melody and verses of  “Nyob Ib Sab” rolled off my tongue while sitting down with a guitarist.

 In the studio with Tchoua, 2016

In the studio with Tchoua, 2016

Same for “Cia Rau Txoj Hmoo.” In 2008, it came to life when my brother, Tchoua, visited me and played one of his original piano pieces.

And each time, I knew I had something special. I wasn’t trying too hard. Words became music. Music became words. And it felt just right.

I love these moments in creation.

“Kom Koj Pom Kuv” is a special song to me, and to some of you as well. You’ve shared your unique stories around this song with me, and you know very well what I mean, even without explanation.

So thank you for believing in my original music. Thank you for understanding and appreciating an artist’s creative process. Thank you for your support all these years.

Now, I'll leave you with the official version of “Kom Koj Pom Kuv." The full track is available on the “Plhis Suab” album.

Until next time....

Dream BIG,
Pagnia

The First Person Ever to Believe in My Voice

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“The greatest good you can do for another is
not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.”

— Benjamin Disraeli

 

In a recent interview, I was asked about how growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin has influenced my music background.

The first person who came to mind was Mr. Ed Wells.

Or Mr. Wells, as we called him.

He was a special guest at me and my sister’s college graduation party in December 2007. And he and his wife, Lois, had picked out beautiful pink scarves, each wrapped in a box, for us. That was the last time I saw him.

Mr. Wells had known our family and many other Hmong families since 1995, when he started the first and only Hmong children’s choir in the Chippewa Valley, and possibly the entire state of Wisconsin.

I was a fifth grader then, heavily influenced by my peers. Many were Hmong, and like wildfire, word got around about a new community choir just for Hmong kids. I didn't think much about it, but everyone was talking about it, so I joined. All my six siblings and I joined.

The choir was called "New Generation," and Mr. Wells was the director.

At 67 years old, Mr. Wells kept up very well with us kids, some as young as 5 years old. He dedicated his weeknights to mentor and direct us as a choir inside the rooms of churches, elementary schools, and community buildings, wherever we could get a space to rehearse. He asked for and arranged songs that we knew, including Hmong songs like “Hmoob Lub Neej” by Hmong American singer, Cua Yaj. And after many positive accomplishments, he celebrated with us by taking us on our very first trip to Wisconsin Dells, the “Waterpark Capital of the World.”

But Mr. Wells was much, much more to me.

He was the first individual who recognized my voice. That I had a voice - a voice that needed to be heard.

Sitting in the back row, I can remember clearly being given a solo in front of the choir. I was never jumping for joy, but I never rejected Mr. Wells' decision. I was shy and felt unworthy to accept such joy so openly.

There were many peers, some even older than me, who I believed were just as able or more capable to take on a solo. But when Mr. Wells would offer me a spot, I never disagreed. I loved singing too much.

I remember riding in a yellow bus and traveling as a choir across Wisconsin to perform in front of many non-Hmong communities. From high schools in the country to senior communities, I remember it all so well.

On one of these singing performances, I had a solo for “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas, a top song and movie of that time.

As I stepped out of the choir, away from Mr. Wells’ view, to perform my solo, I could only see the faces of the white women in front of me.

"The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends..".

I immediately felt vulnerable and afraid. So much so that I completely forgot the next lyrics. But there was no time to waste.

Quickly losing eye contact and staring into the back window, I made up lyrics. My eyes returned to the audience. No one had flinched. No one had noticed my massive error.

Whew. Close call.

Where did that come from? The idea to make up my own lyrics on the spot, as a young kid, in front of an audience?

As I moved back to my spot in the choir, knowing I had messed up, I nervously looked at Mr. Wells, joining the choir in harmony.

He looked at me and with a warm smile, he lightly nodded.

I may have saved myself and the choir from public embarrassment, but Mr. Wells saved me from self-dejection.


He singlehandedly influenced me as a singer and as a new generation of Hmong singers. 


He gave me opportunities I would have never received had I not join his choir. I wouldn’t have agreed to create a music duo with my sister after the choir dismembered. I wouldn't have had the courage and confidence to compete across the Minnesota-Wisconsin stateline in dozens of vocal contests and where many of the instrumentals I chose to compete with were arranged by him.

And I would have never, ever known that I could sing. Really sing

As a young child, Mr. Wells saw my potential and believed in me more than I believed in myself. He gave me my foundation to music, and literally, helped me find my voice. He singlehandedly influenced me as a singer and as a new generation of Hmong singers. 

From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Mr. Wells. Your legacy will forever live on. May you rest in peace.

Until we meet again... 

Love,
Pagnia

Special Note: To former New Generation choir members, you'll find Mr. Wells' obituary here.

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while,
leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”

- Flavia Weedn

My Sisters Take Over My Instagram!

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Hello beautiful!

So we’re halfway through Women’s History Month, and I think it's time to share with you the most important women in my life.

An associate director in student affairs at a university.

A makeup artist in the city of angels.

A portrait photographer.

A pastry baker at a popular bakery shop.

They each have a title, but are so much more than their occupation.

Sooooo much more.

To begin with, they are the single strongest influence on who, why, and how I am where I am today. 

And I'm humbly blessed to have been born with these four women as my biological sisters. 


"They are the single strongest influence on who, why, and how I am where I am today." 


I know you know me through my blog, performances, online posts, and music. I also believe that you can learn a lot about someone based on who she surrounds herself with.

So if you’ve ever wondered who I am outside of music, definitely follow me and my four sisters on Instagram!

Starting next week, we’ll be taking over each other’s Instagram accounts, and are excited for you to learn more about sisterhood and our individual selves!

(Fingers crossed, no humiliating moments about me will be shared.)

Click on each image below to follow each sister.

Next week, may you get to learn more about me through the eyes of the four most important women in my life. And may this also inspire you to celebrate the amazing women in your life!

(Sigh) Now, I’m all warm and fuzzy inside. Thank you so much and happy Women’s History Month!

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia Xiong

Watch: "Never Enough" Cover Video

Why I'm Still Single

  Photo by Pa Chia Xiong Photography

Photo by Pa Chia Xiong Photography

Somewhere along my life journey, I had undervalued the significance of a young child’s upbringing.

I thought that a human being’s life really started and mattered only when they became young adults. That anything before that is irrelevant, as childhood experiences are often forgotten and simply left in the past.

Boy was I wrong.

I know many of you reading my blog are young Hmong American women, pursuing your dreams, cultivating friendships, navigating multiple roles, and...falling in love.

Falling in love.

That sounds so heavenly, yom?

Peach blossoms.
Pink champagne.
Fluffy clouds.
The works.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day and this month where many of my Hmong sisters are celebrating #selflove, I felt it was time to share my thoughts on romantic love as a Hmong American woman.

 

Pagnia and _____ sitting in the tree
K-i-s-s-i-n-g!
First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes baby in the baby carriage…

 

Growing up as a little girl, getting teased by others with this song made me giggle and have a little hope for romance. As embarrassing as it was, I loved the idea of romance.

But romance was just an idea.

As a young child, I often heard stories of uncles abusing aunts. Uncles cheating on aunts.

I remember sitting next to my younger cousin who was crying on the steps of my grandparents’ house, while hearing her parents fight inside.

I remember witnessing elders negotiate and deliberate a broken marriage between an aunt and uncle, and the way the aunt stood in silence with numb sadness on her face.

Although I was only a little girl, I could feel the pain, the tears, and the sadness in all these lives. I took on this pain. 

As I grew up, these memories never faded and I unconsciously learned that there is no romance in marriage.


There is no romance in marriage.


And being that I’d been raised to become a nyab, this was going to be my life too, one day.

It didn’t matter how many times I got an ‘A’ on my report card. Most of my worth, determined by the adults in my life, came from being compared to female cousins, friends, and even my own sisters.

How well do I cook?
How early do I get up?
How hardworking am I?
How well can I speak to elders, in Hmong?

Being a nyab meant I would be married. And marriage has no romance, remember?

So as I got older, I associated all of this with pain. And I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.

I put marriage on the back burner, and instead, simply pursued romance. I could at least achieve that, right?

  11-year-old Pagnia

11-year-old Pagnia

But I discovered that I had unconsciously come to believe that so much of the pain I saw in those marriages were caused by men.

The numb sadness on my aunt’s face.

The tears flooding my younger cousin’s.

I had indirectly learned that women are not safe in marriages. If I were to marry a man, I would not be protected by him. I would need to protect myself, and the best way to do that is to remain single. I can date, but I can never go further than that.

This unconscious belief has haunted me since I was a little girl. And I know it's not a good belief to hold on to, 'cause goodness, lub ntuj yeej paub how much pain it's caused.

Today, I am reminded of how powerful the messages I received as a little girl by the adults in my childhood are for me in making important life decisions as an adult Hmong American woman.

And more importantly, I realize how necessary it is for every little girl to see healthy relationships in her life...because I know that little girl in me is still protecting herself.

 

YOUR TURN! What experiences as a young child have shaped your views on romantic relationships? Do you know a couple who is #relationshipgoals? What wisdom would they share with us?

Until next time...

Dream BIG,
Pagnia

The Music Experience That Had Me In tears

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One of you asked:

What is the best experience you’ve ever had?

I’ve been blessed with many, but the first one that came to mind takes me back to 2007.

My sister, Pa Kou was born on April Fool’s Day. It’s so fitting, because Pa Kou adds quite the spice to my life. (If only you knew.) I love that woman.

In our music history as sisters, I'm Team Celine and she’s Team Christina.

  Pa Kou and me at Ho'opika Beach Park, Maui. December 2017.

Pa Kou and me at Ho'opika Beach Park, Maui. December 2017.

So in April 2007, I gifted Pa Kou tickets to see Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics concert at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were both undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it was perfect timing that Christina would be playing nearby during Pa Kou’s birthday month.

At the time, I was a new recording artist who’d just released a debut album, Nyob Ib Sab, nine months earlier. I didn’t understand music composition. I didn’t understand how to properly work with a microphone in the recording booth. 

All I understood was how to sing.

On April 20th, Pa Kou and I sat in our arena seats patiently waiting for Christina to come on. The entire arena became dark. Naturally, the crowd screamed.

And then in near silence, a spotlight fell upon a bright figure on stage. Suddenly, a voice pierced through the arena.

“Birds…flyin’ high…”

In all her glory and belly-bearing diamond hoodie, Nicole Scherzinger, the lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls, appeared.

“You know how I feel…
Sun in the sky…
You know how I feel....”

The vibrations of her vibrato went straight to my heart.

“Breeeeee...eee...eeeee...eee..eee...eee...eee...eee..eeze drifting on by…
You know how I feel...oooh...”

Steady, heart. Steady.

“Aaaaand...freedooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom...is a….miiiiiiine.”

A straight shot to the heart.
Tears jerked out in response.

“And IIIII know how I feel.”

By now, I was on the edge of my seat.
I wanted - no, I needed more.

“It’s a new dawn…it’s a new day...Milwaukee…”

The crowd finally lost it.

“It’s a new life for me,
Woah...woah...woah...woah wooooo….”

I thanked the arena gods for keeping the lights off.

“And I’m feeling...Milwaukee, y’all make me feeeeeeeeel….so gooooooooooooood.”

I pretended I had something in my eyes. I didn’t want anyone to see these tears.

And for the rest of the concert, I would go in search of the same feeling.

Pa Kou didn’t cry. I bet she’s reading this right now thinking, “Oh, I remember that performance. It was nice, but I didn’t feel anything.” (It’s ok. I still love you.) And you may be feeling the same too after this video.

As a lifelong singer and music lover, in any song or performance, my ear drums first go in search of the unique layers of a singer’s voice.

I listen for a story in her voice.
I listen for pain knotted in her voice.
I listen for love scents lingering in her voice.  

And Nicole Scherzinger’s voice alone, in that dark arena, where thousands were engulfed in the vibrations of her only sound, penetrated the heart of my soul. I heard the story, the pain knots, the love scents. It felt as if two eternal lovers had finally found each other...again.

That’s why, in any given (preferably dimly lit) performance, tears can fall from my eyes. It’s why this moment is one of the best music experiences I’ve ever had.

This experience reminded me that the voice, this instrument I've nurtured and learned to love since I was 10 years old, will forever tug at my heart in all directions.

The singing voice will forever have me.

And I’m grateful it’s part of why you’re here. Thank you.

Okay. You have me teary-eyed now. Good bye. 

YOUR TURN! Have you ever experienced a voice or sound that touched you so deeply? How does a voice impact how you listen to music or performances? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Until next time...

Dream BIG,
Pagnia