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Singer jazzes up Lake Hills Elementary School

Janet Tyson • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:20 AM

Picking, 47, began easing into her career as a professional vocalist, songwriter and musician about 15 years ago. She was living in Long Beach, Calif., and working as a flight attendant for United Airlines.

But Picking had grown up in West Michigan and wanted to return, to pursue music full-time and be near her parents who live in Grand Haven. Several months ago, she realized her wishes when she relocated to Grand Rapids.

“Music is my passion,” Picking said. “I wanted to be living within my passion and to be of service.”

Picking’s visit with Lake Hills students was arranged by their music instructor, Jan White, who last November began teaching them most of the songs she would perform. The Spread the Music Foundation and the North Shore Parent Teacher Association underwrote Picking’s special appearance.

After playing a sort of ukulele processional as the second-graders filed in to sit on the floor, Picking introduced herself.

“So, my name is Susan Picking. Did you know that?”

“Yeah,” the students shouted.

“And I heard that you’ve learned a song,” Picking told them. “It’s an old song and it’s a good song.”

She strummed a few chords of "If I Had a Hammer" by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.

“Does that sound right?” Picking asked.

“Yeah,” the students responded.

“Then I think we all should jump in,” Picking said. “So, sing out like a mighty choir!”

Picking’s voice, at once bright and bluesy, gently harmonized with the children’s singing, which became more confident when they repeated its final verse. Then she announced that she was going to switch over to the piano, which prompted gasps of anticipation.

“Sideways,” shouted a girl in the front row, naming one of Picking’s own compositions.

But it turned out to be a different Picking song, called "Red Shoes," which had a syncopated rhythm and ended with a flourish of chords.

“You know, you can write a song about anything,” Picking said. “And Mrs. White said you might want to know about how I came to write 'Sideways.'”

Picking talked about being stuck in traffic on Interstate 405 in California. She said that even that often-frustrating experience taught her a positive lesson.

“You always think that moving forward is the way to go,” Picking said. “But there is more than one way to get somewhere. Sometimes you need to stay still. Sometimes you need to go backward. Or maybe sideways.”

Picking sang her songs about optimism, love, good humor and learning for each group. By late morning, her voice was feeling a bit stretched, but her spirits were high.

“I love working with youth,” she said. “I want them all to do well, and find their gifts and be happy in this life.”

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