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7 minutes reading time (1491 words)

Mother (and father) musicians

Having a baby and trying to manage a piano teaching/playing career is a lot like juggling. Just remember: it's OK to have balls dropping all around you sometimes!

The musician's path is a self-motivated one. For the most part we choose how many students to accept, which concerts to take on, what courses to teach, etc. While this vocational freedom is exhilarating and rewarding, the arrival of a new baby can present challenges in each one of these areas, while also affecting one's musical identity. My story includes the challenge of defending my DMA thesis while thirty-four weeks pregnant with my first son. The result? After more than a decade of exciting and demanding piano study in higher education, my life took a monumental shift to one of quiet days with an infant, long nights, and a significant drop in income. The following tips for musicians with young children are based on my own experience in those early years of motherhood. It is difficult, but not impossible to make small strides in your career as a pianist and teacher with a small child (or children) at home. 

Ask for help

Rely on the support of friends and family, swap childcare with a friend, or split duties with your spouse or partner. For example, my husband and I shared childcare in the early months of our son's life so that I could resume teaching on a part time basis when he was very little. An adjunct teaching job at a local university (Trinity Western University, in British Columbia) was not something I was willing to give up! It was a wonderful place to teach piano and pedagogy courses, and I loved the students. When my son got a little older, he spent time on campus under the care of a wonderful friend and enjoyed playing with her daughters while I taught two or three days per week. It was a wonderful arrangement that worked well for all of us. I made sure to schedule my students sporadically throughout the day so that I could practice and prep between lessons. Since then, we have re-located to Goshen, Indiana. Now, my husband spends quality time with our son while I teach and practice three afternoons/evenings a week. It is a wonderful time for them to bond. Additionally, if I need more child-care time than my husband can afford, I do a "child-care swap" with a friend. Free! Plus, our kids enjoy playing together.

Connect with other musicians in your situation

The occupation of a pianist/ teacher is unique in many ways. Most musicians are not provided with maternity leave. This financial stress, along with the natural desire to continue making music, results in unusual demands on your time. While new parents often have much in common to commiserate about, non-musicians may not understand that you have a to-do list during your baby's naptime that includes score study, lesson planning, e-mail communications, and rehearsal planning. Reach out to other musicians with young children and share your challenges and frustrations. Your babies can play and you can laugh, cry, and enjoy some common musical ground. For example, my convocation included three other Doctorate recipients in music. All of us were women, and we all had babies. Needless to say, our conversations that day revolved less around our dissertation topics and more around our sleep cycles. I met a cellist with a child close in age to my own, and we performed together on numerous occasions. It was expected that one of us show up exhausted from being up the night before. Spit up on clothing? Part of the uniform! 


Only accept manageable projects

I used to say, "Yes!" to every opportunity that came my way. Not anymore! I now consider new students, concert opportunities, courses and gigs very carefully. As we all well know, preparing and practicing for these events can be a big commitment, and, with a young one, time is so precious! Projects still have the potential to be rewarding, but they can also rob us of time together with our children. It is a delicate balance. For instance, I sadly turned down an opportunity to perform Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" with a local orchestra because I wasn't willing to give up the hundred hours or so I would need to practice. However, this opened up time to take on other projects, including chamber music opportunities and a few accompanying gigs. These paid more and took much, much less time to prepare for. 

Familiarity can be your friend

The first year of parenthood can involve a profound mental "fog." Piano solo concerts are extremely tough with an infant at home, so it is wise to be discerning when taking these on. The physical and mental dexterity required for large-scale piano works combined with potentially sleepless nights is a tricky combination. (How on earth did Clara Schumann do it?) If it is important to keep performing, perhaps it is best to stick with what you know and rework old repertoire. Muscle memory, mental familiarity, and aural comfort are all extremely helpful during this phase of life.

Connect with your body and soul in a new way.

Yoga, Pilates, Alexander Technique, mild exercise (such as stretching and walking), meditation, prayer, and journaling are all gifts you can give yourself as a new parent. Welcoming a new life into this world is an experience that opens us up, and it can make us incredibly sensitive to ourselves and to others. If we choose, this may manifest in a new physiological awareness that can, in turn, help our playing and teaching. Spending time doing a Yoga or Pilates DVD while your baby naps, or taking an Alexander lesson can be very benefi cial to your overall condition. Also, long walks with the stroller provide ample time to breathe, think through repertoire, plan future projects, or simply just be quiet. What a gift! 

The repeated lifting of a baby/toddler can strengthen the arms, back and shoulders, which can do wonders for one's piano playing. Conversely, this constant lifting can also cause injury. Stretching, exercise, and general wellness practices are especially important during this dramatic time of transition.

Enjoy recordings and go to concerts when you can

You are a musician! Don't forget this when your new repertoire of concerns becomes focused on diapers, bottles, and teething. The profundity of this shift can be disorienting, and perhaps even depression inducing. Using musical events as an opportunity to meet with other musicians, witness some wonderful music, and simply think musically is an important part of taking care of your spirit. A less expensive idea: spend time witnessing some historical musical events on YouTube. (I gravitate towards Horowitz, Argerich, and Montego!). 

Diversify

For a while I took on a position as Music Director at an Anglican church. This was quite far out of my comfort zone. However, it was a welcome position during the early months of my son's life, and it fed my love of simply making music at the piano. The job allowed me to interact with other adults in a musical environment, through directing the choir and working with various committees. The service provided a venue for me to play classical works (which helped keep me sharp), and I even brought my students along to perform their own pieces during the service. Adjudicating festivals is another area that I have pursued. I'll admit that it is painful to be away from my family for even short intervals of time, but it is also invigorating to engage with the musical community in this way. Adjudicating is challenging, thrilling work and brings in additional income. 

Keep open lines of communication with your spouse or partner.

Don't neglect to express your needs. Perhaps you're just dying to sit at the piano for two uninterrupted hours. Maybe you need time at the computer to catch up on communication with parents. Be open with your partner so that your musical, vocational, and emotional needs can be met.

Be present, and grateful

This is something that I will continue to work on for my whole life; to be completely present while I am with my son, and then to be 100% engaged while teaching or practicing. Time with little ones is so precious, and fleeting! They grow up so fast, and to rob oneself of the sheer joy of quality time by mentally planning projects, memorizing music, etc., is not a healthy way to live. Also, musical pursuits demand all of one's mental/ physical/emotional faculties, so it is important to be present there, too. Shifting gears is challenging, but it is part of the work of parenthood.

Finally, accept that the balls you're "juggling" are going to drop from time to time

This is a period of life that is certainly chaotic. Not everything will go perfectly, so don't have unreasonable expectations. With planning, self care, and a sensible approach, this can and will be a time of great joy, discovery, and incredible love, all of which can enrich us as musicians, and even more importantly, as parents. 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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