From Whence We Came

From Whence We Came

When we think of how a creative artist becomes a creative artist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining that person in a vacuum during their formative years, making career choices without any context as far as what other forces in their everyday life may have shaped these decisions. Indeed, even when composers talk about their beginnings, their remembrances tend to focus on events in their school life, either in high school or in college, or events that occurred during their private lessons or instrumental practice sessions. While instructors, other students, performers, and musical inspirations can all have a strong influence on a young composer, there is an important ingredient to the successful evolution of a composer that is many times overlooked—their parents.

In my composer interviews so far, I have heard relatively little about each composer’s parents other than what they did and how their careers may have affected where the composer grew up. While most parents of the composers I’ve talked to were not musicians, there are exceptions. Lisa Bielawa, for example, lived in a house where her father, Herb Bielawa, would be composing all the time (he taught for many years at San Francisco State University), and she grew up thinking that writing music at the piano was something just as normal for a kid to do as finger-painting or working with clay. The fact that Lisa did not consider composition as a career path until years after she began her university studies hints that while her creative instincts were supported at home, she was not unduly pushed to follow in her father’s footsteps.

We have all met musicians who come from a family of musicians, just as we have met those who are the first in their family to go down the creative path; the constant is not necessarily the vocation of the parents themselves, but their support. Whether or not a young composer’s parents are overtly supportive with active encouragement and by helping to find learning opportunities for their child or covertly supportive by simply not dissuading their young creative artist from a career in the arts, the importance of the role parents play cannot be overstated.

In my capacity as an educator, I meet many parents who are either bringing their children to a campus visit or to a composition camp or concert, and most of them tend to have this curious demeanor to them that is part “Wow, this is cool!”, part “How did this happen?”, and part “Oh my god, what do we do now?”. What these parents may not even realize is that by simply being there, by supporting their child in creative life decisions, they are laying the groundwork for success.

Obviously a great many things have to go right in a person’s life in order for them to have a successful career as a creative artist—the most important of which is their own inner drive and passion for their art that can be neither invented nor extinguished. But the support of that person’s parents, be it emphatic, implicit, or tacit, is an important and integral ingredient to that success as well.

What stories do you have pertaining to your parents and their influence on your career? Or what stories do you have about your own child who composes?

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3 thoughts on “From Whence We Came

  1. Rob Deemer

    I realized after I posted yesterday that I may have glossed over an important aspect to this issue, which is the (hopefully rare) example of active discouragement by a student’s parents/family to the idea of pursuing a life in the arts. This is touchy as hell, but I can say this: if someone is truly passionate and dedicated to their dream, chances are likely they’re gonna get there even without the familial support system, so it’s probably a good idea to help them rather than hold them back.

    I’ve had a few friends & students who really wanted to go into film scoring – where having a successful career is ludicrously difficult – and I usually took the “tacit support” method…I didn’t dissuade them, but I went out of my way not to encourage them either, since I knew from experience how hard it was for all but the most dedicated. Five of them are now successfully ensconced in the industry in both Los Angeles & New York, and I have no regrets about not encouraging them at all, because at the time I felt looking unsupportive was a better risk than sending someone into the lion’s den with rose-colored glasses.

    At some point we all have the opportunity to help someone on their way to their own career, and it is a tough balance to know when to support their choice and when to give suggestions to the contrary, but ultimately it is their own life, and subsequently their own decision on which path they follow.

  2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Rob, this is an interesting question, because it points at the larger issue of how one’s community values the arts.

    My father is a classical guitarist responsible for dozens of commissions and even more premiers. My mother is an actress specializing in early 20th century modernism, among other things. They are also both professors. I grew up watching performances of Beckett, Sam Shepard, and Chekhov, and hearing Lucier, Brahms, and Britten. There was no push for me to become a musician, but picking it up felt as natural as turning on a TV. I was also fortunate to attend a small, progressive school where the arts were given star treatment. Playing Rachmaninoff for a student audience earned me more applause than any of my compositions recently.

    I suspect that for many artists the shadow of their parents’ values hang over them throughout their career. For me, it is with respect and admiration that I am keenly aware of my parents’ presence in my artistic life.

  3. Joanne Forman

    Alas, I never had a kind word from my parents, much less encouragment. When I decided to be a composer at 16 (remember being 16?)I unwisely told them; their instant reaction was “Girls can’t do that.” Also, since I hadn’t started composing at 3?4? like Mozart, obviously I had no talent. They never stopped sneering until they (fortunately for me) died in their mid-50s.


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