When will I eat breakfast?" This question came from eleven-year old Irene during a recent interview with a family seeking piano lessons. The mother called me wanting to transfer Irene and her eight-year-old brother to a new piano teacher so "We can get our life back." Both children had studied from the age of five at the area's most prestigious music academy with an excellent teacher, so I asked the mother to explain further.
"We need a teacher who can come to the house and give the children lessons before school. Irene is becoming a committed ice skater and Andrew is on traveling swim and hockey teams. Each one needs to free up afternoon time not only for those activities, but also for play dates and some down time."
I hesitated, because they were requesting that lessons begin at seven a.m.! At this later stage in my career, I have only fifteen carefully chosen students, and I travel to their homes. I never thought I would do this, but it has simplified my life. No one forgets to come to a lesson or fails to bring books; I can help students carve out a space for their lessons and practice (the piano must be in tune with good lighting and no media or animals nearby); I can charge more because I travel; I have down-time between lessons; my retired husband can work in peace at home. But seven o'clock in the morning?
The mother went on: "My husband and I want the children to continue to have music in their lives, but we want to turn down the pressure. They would like to play in the school talent shows and for friends and family—maybe an occasional recital."
Again, I hesitated. Did these words mean, "We want the children to stop practicing and just have fun," a sentence that often spells death to progress and means the eventual end of lessons? Was I being hired as the stopgap teacher?
Despite the red flags, I decided to go ahead with the interview. Irene and Andrew were delightful children who played their Suzuki Book Minuets and Gigues beautifully. Their assignments included theory, sight-reading, scales, etudes, lesson book material, and an occasional nod to Taylor Swift and Harry Potter. Excellent teaching seemed present, and I said so.
Conversation returned to the family's need for an early morning lesson time and a teacher who could come to the house. The mother encouraged her children: "Just think of it! You would be able to go to all your hockey practices, Andrew, and on Tuesdays you could even have a play date! And Irene, you could move to the next level skating class. On Thursday evenings you could stay home and just hang out!"
Clearly, this mother, a busy physician herself, was trying to move life in the right direction, but it was after this encouraging speech that Irene piped up: "When will I eat breakfast?" Her mother answered, "Well, you know the time from 6:30 to 7:00 when you and I just hang out together in our pajamas? You could get dressed and eat then." My heart sank as I watched Irene's smile fade. I guessed this early-morning time alone with her busy mom was something Irene valued highly.
I have written much about the pressured child and family, so part of me hesitates to get on my soapbox one more time. In my community, however, the problem is only worsening, despite parents who are aware that life is spinning out of control. I have begun to see the issue as an American problem, one that affects all levels of society.
In the United States we value the individual. We celebrate our right to pursue our personal dreams, to become President, a rock star, a concert pianist, an NFL sensation, the next Steve Jobs. To that end, we raise our children to develop their talents, to work hard, to achieve. Nothing is wrong with any of these values and motives, but I think we often forget our right to pursue happiness.
What is happiness? Certainly, accomplishment brought about by hard work can bring happiness and satisfaction, but it can also bring physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. In addition, happiness that is dependent only upon an outside judgment of our achievements is sometimes fleeting.
What brings reliable inner happiness? To that question I only have more questions, and I imagine them in Irene's eleven- year-old voice: "When am I going to take a walk by Lake Michigan and watch the gulls dive for food?" "When am I going to curl up with my cat and read a book I choose—with no one asking for a report?" "When am I going to hang out in the kitchen learning how to cook?" "When can I ask a friend to come home with me on the spur of the moment?" "When are you going to have some time to just be with me, expecting nothing?"
Other cultures view life differently. When my daughter was in high school, in the midst of her own relentless pursuit of achievement, we welcomed a charming exchange student from Catalan into our home. One afternoon Bella took me aside and asked me a question: "What did your son do wrong that meant he had to be sent away to school?" At the time Ben was a sophomore at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
I said, "What do you mean? He hasn't done anything wrong."
"Oh," Bella replied, "in my town in Catalan no parent would want their child to go away from the family unless they had been bad. Don't you miss your son?"
"Of course," I replied, "but he needs to be able to go to a good school and to pursue his interests to the highest level."
Bella looked surprised, "What does that mean if he can't be near his family, if he can't have the fun of being with you."
Ouch! I took in Bella's words and began to adjust my wishes for my children. I continued to value their achievements and to give them the support they needed to succeed, but I also tried to simplify my own work life so I had more time simply to be with them. I wish I had done it a lot sooner. I still struggle to keep balance in my life. To that end I thought long and hard about teaching at seven in the morning.
In the end I decided to take on Irene and Andrew as students. Music obviously means a lot to them and to their parents, and I hope to help them keep it in their lives as a release and sustenance and not just another accomplishment. After their lessons end at eight, I take a walk along the lake and watch the gulls dive for food.