Sunday, May 16, 2010

Parents Living Lives Through Children

My wife Marjorie and I have a lot of things in common, but perhaps one fact stands out more than anything: we probably wouldn't have ended up in the field of music had we not had an obsessed parent. In her case she didn't have much choice as her mother was determined to make her a great violinist. My father didn't have such power over me, but I liked to be able to please him. He would spend eight nights a week, to loosely quote the Beatles, listening to me practice and take out his violin whenever I felt like playing duos with him (which was almost daily). One thing led to another and I became a violinist although my true calling would have been elsewhere. It is no wonder that our children, although well trained in music and most gifted in it, were never encouraged to think of it as a profession. We want them to be happy and successful in life and yet appreciate and love music, something a professional musician doesn't necessarily do, no matter what they claim.

Over the years and decades it has been interesting to watch the dynamics between a parent and a child. It can vary from not caring or understanding at all, to being quite supportive, and all the way to being the main force behind a child's "interest". The latter is mainly a mother-daughter situation although I've had my share of nutty fathers as well. One had read a book on Paganini's life and after that would lock his son in his room for 8-12 hours, expecting to hear non-stop practicing and ending up with a great virtuoso in a couple years. I think (or hope) that the boy learned the old trick of recording his practicing and then playing it back while doing something more useful or fun. It worked with my father during the weekends when he expected me to forego all the playtime with friends. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder with the longest available tape ready. With the 9.5 cm/sec speed it gave me an ample opportunity to leave the house, yet keep the old man happy. I was into high fidelity recording early on and had great equipment, so there was no way he could tell the difference between the real thing and my recording. I was finally caught when Dad was enthusiastically listening to my practicing behind the door and I walked in from the outside at the same time.

But those Übermothers and their daughters… I love seeing a healthy loving relationship, with support not only in music but in other areas as well. As parents drive their younger children to lessons, it is natural for them to stay and listen, unless they live close enough or prefer doing errands during that time. Usually when the teenager gets a driving license they start showing up on their own, a healthy sign, although I'm not always at easy with a thought of a 16-year-old navigating through traffic by herself. However, I dread mothers who show up with daughters plenty old enough to be on their own, writing notes or behaving like they are taking the lesson instead of their offspring. Often these mothers are musicians of some sort themselves, and can think of nothing better for their daughters than to follow in their footsteps, hopefully achieving something the parent wasn't capable of. Given the fact that these parents should be aware of how glum the employment prospects in the field are nowadays for new graduates, it never ceases to amaze me why they don't see the whole picture. Musical talent often skips a generation or two and even if the youngster is capable of learning the skill well, it might not be the job that would keep her/him happy. 

I grew up among music lovers and very capable individuals who loved music above all but did something else for living. There were doctors, dentists, judges, heads of big corporations, even priests, you name it. My own dentist was a very decent cellist and horn player who free-lanced almost every night. My father had been close friends with his violinist father, also a dentist and the nicest man. Even people in the professional orchestras had jobs on the side. One of my favorites, the solo oboe of what became the Helsinki Philharmonic, was a beekeeper and sold a lot of honey. His specialty was packing it in tubes: I always got one when he came over to play in my dad's orchestra. We may well be heading back to that direction again, not necessarily a bad idea, as it would be an affordable option in today's world.

Of course mothers who live through their daughters interfere with every aspect of the girl's life. Many are very active in the school's PTA and befriend teachers, to assure good grades and preferential treatment. They also get involved in school and youth orchestras, putting pressure on the conductors to use their "younger sisters" as soloists and get placed in the front of a section. Some even follow their daughters to college, relocating in a city near the school, sometimes even leaving their husbands behind. These young ladies are going to have a heck of a time getting used to reality when they finally are forced to face it. They may get married and even have a child, but their parent will become a mother-in-law from hell. I remember touring with a great talent who shall remain nameless. She played fabulously but even during rehearsals her mother sat with the baby in the hall. The husband was nowhere to be seen. A remarkable violinist, her name has disappeared from the headlines. Perhaps she learned to abhor the life her mother had designed for her, not an uncommon scenario. Another one was a rather famous name as a Wunderkind and earned a lot of money in soloist fees. After turning 18 she wanted to have access to her account, in order to buy a car. But darling, there were all kinds of expenses… In other words, all the money had been spent, her account depleted. The daughter put away the violin, only to dig it up a decade or two later in order to eke out a living as a free-lance violinist.

To many parents it seems a natural thing to live a new life through their children. It does, in most cases, destroy the growing experience for the child, and the future will likely not be as rosy as the mother or father had envisioned. We as parents believe in what our 22-year-old calls "hand-off care". Our daughters know that they have our love and support, but also that they are expected to be responsible for their actions, mistakes and successes. So far we have reason to be nothing but proud. Something in our philosophy must be correct. And yes, they love us in return and will continue to do so; I have no doubts about it.
Photo © Richard Walker/ImageNorth