Music and mothering

Many musicians were shocked and disappointed to read the recent comments of the new Oslo Philharmonic conductor, Vasily Petrenko, about women conductors. When asked why he thought there were so few, Petrenko replied that men “often have less sexual energy and can focus more on the music. A sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else.”

The tediously hackneyed assumption that men are unable to control their impulses is easily disproved, and as for “sweet girl”, well, I won’t even dignify that one with a response. What I disliked a great deal more, however, was his next comment about women musicians with children: “When women get a family,” Petrenko opines, “it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as the branch demands.”

Much has been written on the dilemmas of women in demanding careers who also want to be mothers. The tone of these articles never fails to annoy me, not because the dilemma isn’t real, but because they always treat the career-children conundrum as the mother’s problem, not the father’s. Indeed, the fathers are seldom mentioned; when it comes to the cost of childcare, this is always related to the mother’s income, even if she earns more than the father. It’s as if fathers didn’t even exist. This puzzling omission bears very little relation to the realities of modern marriages in my circles.

My feelings about this issue are, of course, related to my dual careers as cello professor and mother. “Opting out” may be fine for the wives of New York stockbrokers, but in my profession, once you’ve left, it would be immensely difficult, if not impossible, to come back. A musician cannot “opt,” because options are few. I expect if your profession was in high demand–plumber? electrician?–you might be able to take a few years away from it and fit back in, but even for always-necessary professions such as medicine, I’m sure skills would lapse and knowledge would get out of date pretty quickly. For an overcrowded, underpaid profession like music, forget it. If you stopped playing the cello for five years, say, I doubt you’d be able to get your chops back, much less your gigs. It’s all or nothing: be a cellist, or don’t be a cellist.

This brings me to a point about women musicians who want to have children. Surely, in the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t have to choose between a music career and a family. I didn’t have to choose between them. The idea of abandoning my beloved, hard-won career was unthinkable, but the idea of purposely not having a family was unacceptable. I love music, but I wanted something that was for me, not for Bach or for Beethoven or for my tenure file.

For previous generations of women musicians, this attitude was not feasible. I’ve met older women musicians who decided not to have children so they could dedicate their lives completely to music. Now, I haven’t conducted a survey, but I don’t recall ever hearing of an older male musician saying something similar. Once, about 10 years ago, I asked a distinguished musician and father of four about how he balanced his top-level performing career with his family life. “It’s very stressful,” he told me. “You can do it; you just have to organize yourself much better you used to.” This sounded encouraging, so I questioned him further. That was when he told me that his wife had been the primary child-carer for 25 years, to the total sacrifice of her own career, and that because of his touring schedule, he hadn’t been there for the births of two of their babies. This admission made me feel tremendously sorry for him, not to mention his wife. Imagine missing those first magical moments of a child’s life! And I also felt conflicted (sad? jealous? annoyed? pitying?) that men’s biology makes for a kind of professional flexibility that will always put them at an “advantage” over women, even if that advantage comes with some terrible sacrifices. Our biology may not be 100% of our destiny any more, but it still determines a great deal of how society functions.

So what’s changed? I like to think husbands have. I know a great many marriages still fall into the traditional, society-approved pattern of husband-breadwinner and wife-homemaker, but most marriages between musicians cannot work like this. Part of it is that the vast majority of musicians earn so little that having a dependent spouse isn’t an option. When two musicians marry, therefore, the relationship must by necessity be more egalitarian.

Nearly two years ago, my husband and I welcomed our little daughter to the world. When we first looked into her enchanting little face, we felt that we would do anything to protect her. Nothing else mattered. Our careers, therefore, simply had to be successful; there was no alternative. (Ironically, the comment about being better organized turned out to be true. There are now synced-up electronic calendars, filing cabinets, To Do lists, and folders full of advanced planning that did not exist in our pre-baby days.) Did my career take a hit after I became a mother? Yes, a little bit, but so did his. We can’t travel as much as we did before, and we have to get more than a little creative with our childcare arrangements if we both have an out-of-town concert or a late-night rehearsal. But egalitarianism in marriage affords us both the chance to have careers, and we wouldn’t have it differently. I think we’ve both continued to grow and improve as musicians, because we’ve been strict about building practice time and other forms of professional development into our schedules, and we’re both ambitious, determined people. Caffeine helps; so do babysitters and good daycare. We don’t regret what we’ve done.

This brings me back to Vasily Petrenko, a man only a few years older than me, and a married father of one. It may be presumptuous to suppose that his wife has given up her career to care for their child, and because I don’t know their situation, it hardly seems fair to criticize him for male privilege that he may or may not have. There’s been an outcry in Norway and all around the world over the sexism of his comments, but because he hastily retracted them and claims it was a misunderstanding,  I doubt he’ll have to resign. The whole episode made me think of a sign carried by an elderly protestor at a recent march for women’s rights: “I can’t believe we still have to fight for this s—.” 

I can’t either.

Crowd energy

After a well-received concert last week at the wonderful McCall Music Society SummerFest 2013, an audience member approached me, pink-faced with excitement. She had adored the concert, she said, and had a question for me. “Does having such an enthusiastic audience have any effect on you, as a performer?”

I considered this. There are certainly few more gratifying sights to walk onstage to than a packed house full of grinning, loudly clapping, palpably excited audience members. Even if one has a crashing case of the don’t-wannas that evening, that kind of energy can lift the spirits tremendously.

The opposite of this is when you walk out to a bunch of bored faces, or a mostly empty hall. In these cases, I sometimes wonder if I ought even to take the repeats, just so everyone can go home sooner. Lacklustre audience energy is particularly perplexing when you feel that you’ve played rather well. There’s that silence after you finish, which fills you with terror, even though you know that the most likely reason they aren’t clapping is that they’re not sure if it’s the end. Then one or two half-hearted, limp-handed claps. You think to yourself, “Perhaps they didn’t like the concert,” and you go home, or to the pub, feeling a bit put out. If only people knew what a boost to the morale nice loud applause can be.

Applause is infectious: when one person starts doing it, other people tend to follow. When I’m an audience member, I always clap loudly out of solidarity, except if the performance was dreadful. To me, it’s part of the audience’s participation in the concert. Concerts aren’t just artifacts deposited on the stage for a bunch of people who are as passive as the furniture. We’re all participants: equal but different, you might say. This is where classical musicians could learn a few things from rock musicians. Classical concerts are quiet-ish, polite-ish occasions. Rock concerts are deafeningly noisy and full of screaming, dancing, applauding fans who sometimes faint with overwhelming joy at the sight of their idols.

This idea led me to think about the religious services of charismatic fundamentalist churches that I’ve sometimes seen on television (and, during my student days, played for). Although the music is typically dire and the preaching laughable, the congregation is entranced. They sway from side to side with their arms in the air, bursting into emotional displays or speaking in tongues. People with chronic illnesses are pronounced healed as they get up out of their wheelchairs or fling away their crutches. It’s as if the energy of the crowd turns ordinarily mild-mannered people into shrieking fanatics.

This kind of mass hysteria is nothing new. Consider the funerals of Ancient Rome, where moneyed families would hire professional mourners to keen and wail loudly during the ceremony. I can only assume that this was because ordinary mourners might be too buttoned-up (or whatever you do to fasten a toga) to have a really good yell themselves, but the professionals’ noisy energy could provoke them to louder lamenting.

Thinking about the Romans inspired me with one of my brilliant entrepreneurial ideas: an employment agency for professional classical music applauders! The clients (performers themselves, concert societies, hall management and so on) would provide free tickets and a small honorarium to the applauders, and in return, the applauders would just about go mad with enthusiasm for the concert, clapping and bravo-ing and leaping to their feet at the end. As coordinator, I’d be paid about $10 per applauder, with an average of 20 applauders per concert depending on the size of the hall. The performers would love it, because the zesty energy of the applauders would inspire them to greater energy in performance. The audience would love it, because they’d feel like they’d been part of something really marvellous. The concert societies and managers would love it, because I’m sure it would increase ticket sales.

Of course, this would never happen. No one has $200 to throw around just to get a good round of applause. But it’s pleasant to daydream, isn’t it?