By Valerie White Williams
Like many young artists, I thought I would never have kids. My musician husband and I planned on devoting ourselves exclusively to our respective careers. But like many well laid plans, life had another agenda for us. Parenting chose us. We rose to the occasion, and so began the journey of balancing parenting and performing.
Many career singers choose to remain childless for a reason. Pursuing and maintaining a career as a classical singer can be all-consuming. So can becoming a new mother or father. Both can challenge us to the depth of our souls as well as take over our lives.
Many sane singers choose to stop performing while their children are young or in school. It makes sense. You can stretch your energy only so far. But for some of us, the call to perform and improve our craft is too strong. We simply must sing, regardless of the sacrifice, exhaustion, and constant compromises.
I think all singing parents on any level would agree that their lives are full of compromises. To continue to sing and perform while parenting will challenge you in so many ways. Everyone compromises either their parenting or their career, or both. Exclusive devotion is simply not possible. You must make choices and they’re not always going to be perfect. Some of them will be downright difficult to make. Accepting imperfection and change, as well as having a sense of humor, can go a long way toward surviving this balancing act.
When you are just starting out on this adventure the sea of choices and compromises can certainly seem unyielding and difficult to navigate. Whether you are an experienced parent just setting out on this performance path, or just now starting a family, having a road map can assist you to find focus and clarity. I’ve found that the following principles have provided me with guidance on this most important journey. As I have been known
to say, “It’s a crazy life, but someone has to live it.”
Assess your values
All new parents pour through baby books and make plans and visions about what life will be like when the new baby comes. Do you plan to go back to work or stay home, to breastfeed your baby or use a bottle? The choices and decisions can seem endless and often no matter how much we plan, our preconceived ideas can fly out the window once we hold that blessed bundle in our arms.
As a performer, these choices and decisions are even more complex, since they also include traveling, performances on special days such as birthdays and holidays, spending money and time towards a career, and more. Having some guidelines in place as you go will help you assess which singing jobs, performance opportunities, and training will integrate well with your family life. If you are at a loss as to how to start, Steven Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, can be a helpful tool in this ongoing process.
Here is where the art of compromise truly comes into play. Every family needs to agree on the areas in which they will and wonÕt compromise. Some families have rules on how long they will be separated before arranging visits, even if it means using the money made by singing for flying out family members. Other singers limit their performances to local or concert work during the school year. Hei-Kyung Hong, for example, has chosen to sing primarily at the Met, instead of pursuing an international career, so she can stay regularly involved in her children’s lives.
Every singer and family situation is unique. You can look to others for inspiration, but try to discover your own path by discussing these issues with your partner and the people you care about.
Of course, once your values are set with your children, things change! Another baby, changes in a spouse’s job, a move, or simply children growing older can change everything. My children are older now, so I can do much more traveling but they are involved in many extracurricular activities, so other types of rehearsal-heavy singing commitments are difficult. Often it seems that once you get it figured out and working, things change again. Be open to revisiting these values issues often.
Everyone has dreams of grandeur when first starting out. This vision calls us to go onward, to gain the skills and experiences necessary to perform on a professional level. This is another issue every singer must come to grips with, but for performing parents it becomes even more important.
What does success mean to you? Why do you sing? I encourage you to look beyond concrete measurements and consider the more intangible aspects as a way of gauging your success as a singing parent. Artistic growth, inspiring colleagues, challenging music, exciting performances, vocal challenges, and communication with an appreciative audience are but some of the intangible qualities that bring many singers great joy. In the constant world of compromise as a performing parent, having clear reasons for why you sing will help you find the balance and keep you inspired and motivated to grow as a performer.
Your support network (or lack of one)
“It takes a village,” as the saying goes, is even truer for parents who perform. The level of support you receive from your family and social network has a major impact on your ability to juggle a performing career and parenting.
I used to call this concept “Planet Grandma” when I was living in an isolated college town with young children. The concept of having regular help and assistance from a grandmother felt like something from another planet!
Do you have extended family nearby? Do you have church groups, or baby-sitting co-ops at your disposal? Your location can have a drastic influence on your level of support, which is why so many singers (and parents in general) often choose to move closer to family once they have children.
Take a look at your immediate family. Does your partner have a flexible work schedule? Do you have the extra income to pay for nannies or other childcare workers during rehearsals and performances? If so, lucky you! You have what is likely the best situation in which to combine parenting and singing. Sadly, the lack of this important element can cause singing parents to stop performing. The rest of us often resort to finding creative childcare solutions.
Find supportive teachers and mentors
It’s no surprise that the classical singer world can sometimes feel quite hostile to singers with children. The entire entertainment industry is obsessed with youth and marketability, and often sees children as a liability. This is why it is so important that your teachers and coaches be supportive and understanding about your children and your family life. They may have mixed feelings about children and performing, but if it turns into putdowns and invalidation, it may be time to look for a new teacher.
Combining singing with parenting is a tough road and singers need to feel encouraged and uplifted. Look for teachers and coaches who will be honest with you but also respect your values and personal life decisions.
The art of creative practicing
Back in the days of B.C. (Before Children), I remember the blissful, uninterrupted hours I could spend in the practice room. Now it seems like such an elusive luxury, especially if you have babies and small children it can feel next to impossible to sneak in some quality practice time. Many babies find classical singing rather loud and unpleasant, and unless you have a large house or a soundproof room, it can be hard to practice without waking them.
In spite of the obstacles, many singers have learned how to prepare music through creative practicing techniques. If you have the support, scheduling regular practice times can work, but sometimes it’s just easier to practice in several smaller sessions where you can squeeze in a moment or two. Many singers bring music along to appointments and to the playground to work through while their children play. I’ve even done memory and language work while cleaning the bathroom! And of course, the car and commuting offer many ways to work on your craft. Besides singing, I use the time to listen to my lessons and coaching sessions and work on languages. It can often feel overwhelming at the time, but when looking back, I am often amazed at how much music I have learned.
As if you didn’t have enough on your plate as a singer and a parent, now I’m suggesting teaching as well? Well, yes. Many female singers take time off after the baby’s birth and things may be slow. By teaching, even just a few students, singers can keep their technique in the forefront when regular vocal training may be difficult to manage. The growth and ownership of your technique is greatly strengthened when you spend time thinking about how to communicate it to others. If you want to take it farther, NATS and other groups offer networking and performing opportunities. It’s just another way to help you stay in the game.
Create your own performing opportunities
Parents have so many demands on their time that it can be very difficult to commit to rehearsal schedules that may be unaccommodating to family life. Many singers solve this dilemma by creating their own performance opportunities. Some singers simply sing regularly at church. Others start their own opera companies. I have known singers who have created concert series, toured with outreach groups, or performed regularly in recital, all while raising young children. Especially in the intense baby years, it can be helpful to have some performances to work toward, even if they are only feeding your soul.
You have to be a little crazy to continue to perform while trying to be a quality parent. In fact, many people simply can’t understand why you would put yourself through so much stress and pressure just so you can sing in front of people. Others will think you are insane for having children and limiting the scope of your performing career. Quite honestly, it can be a lonely path yet the rewards are great.
Children teach us to be real with our feelings and to be physically present, which brings greater depth and honesty to our performances. Parenting can give you a deeper understanding of many roles, an understanding that childless singers simply cannot comprehend and by continuing to sing, we give our children permission to follow their dreams and passions, too. I think most singers with children would agree with me and say it is well worth the work.
As printed in the February 2007 issue of Classical Singer Magazine.