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The dissonance of music and motherhood

clarinetShortly after blogging about Rachel Power’s important book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, I came across a personal essay by Diana Cassar-Uhl that poignantly illustrates the pain of a “divided heart” that so many artist mothers experience. When you’re devoting time to your children, you’re alienated from your creative work. When you’re devoting time to your art, you’re alienated from your children. When your art is your profession and you’ve spent a lifetime becoming an artist, this dichotomy can be intense — as Diana expresses so beautifully in her essay, which appears below.

This essay originally appeared in ICView, the magazine of Ithaca College, and won second place in the magazine’s 2009 arts and literary contest. Reprinted with permission. (Many thanks to the author and ICView.)

Conflict of Interest
By Diana Cassar-Uhl

I’m contemplating ending my career as a clarinetist. It’s a choice I never expected to face. I thought I’d stay at my job until retirement. Music chose me. I know I could never have pursued anything else without feeling paralyzing regret.

I’m not sure how I got here. One might assume that giving birth to my first child was the turning point that ripped me from my commitment to music, but I experienced a career-defining performance when Anna was not yet eight months old.

About two years ago, at what might have been my last solo recital, another musician was amazed that I, a mother of two young children, could give a recital. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t balancing my career with motherhood the way it seemed I was, that I was losing my mind and felt completely out of control.

My recital program spoke of my past, my present, and my future as a musician and as a human. I had no idea just how connected to that music I would feel until I was giving the performance. It was the first time in years that I wasn’t just playing the notes. I had a lot of things to say — about who I was, what I am going through, and what I desire.

I finished my recital with Appalachian Spring, and it was the stuff dreams are made of. My heart was on my sleeve during those 25 minutes of my life. There were exquisitely musical moments, and the big, sweeping statement of “Simple Gifts” told everyone what I really want — to be simple and free!

I sobbed, right there on the stage. I was filled with joy and sadness and direction and confusion all at once. I crave the simplicity of motherhood, without the shackles of all this “otherhood” . . . the tangible pain that has crept into my musical experience; the despair I feel to my core because I can’t ignore the dichotomy: there are instances of humanity and beauty in my job, but they are overshadowed by cynicism.

This is why I struggle with the difficulties of balancing my hard-sought career with my even harder-sought family. I can’t pretend to feel proud that I’m leaving my children. This negative force brings me frustration and illness. My children are infected with my anger.

I don’t know whether I’ll stay or go. Music has forever claimed a part of who I am. I don’t know whether I’ll find a way to satisfy that need, or if that part of me will go unanswered.


It’s hard to come up with words to ease Diana’s heartache, isn’t it? I think it takes another professional musician to speak with authority to Diana’s experience. About two years ago, I interviewed classical guitarist Berit Strong for the book I’m writing about artist mothers. Because Berit’s words might be of some comfort to Diana — and the rest of us, of course — here is an excerpt from that interview.

Berit Strong: Music and motherhood

Berit Strong, an award-winning classical guitarist, lives in Acton, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children, 10 and 12 years old. She has performed in hundreds of concerts around the world. She also teaches students at all levels, privately and at area organizations.

When her children were first born, Berit took a break from performing. But a few years later, when her children were 1 and 3, Berit received an invitation to play a concerto with a large orchestra. The piece was one of the hardest in the guitar repertoire, and one that Berit had dreamed of playing since she was a teenager — Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Although it would take a year of preparation, she couldn’t say no.

With an infant and a toddler at home, Berit cobbled together practice time through part-time preschool, a few hours of day care, her husband, and capitalizing on any opportunity to pick up her guitar. Sometimes she’d take an evening “nap” and then get to up practice from midnight to 2:00 a.m., or wake up at 5:00 to get some time in before the children work up. “I needed time to memorize really hard music. I couldn’t get that time free of interruption otherwise. And sometimes I’d let them watch an hour of TV in the morning. I tried to be really strategic and practice during every moment of that time. When you want to keep your fingers in shape, just as a baseline, you need to practice your scales for 45 minutes a day. I think with writers, they say your daily output just to stay ‘in shape’ should be 1,000 words a day. It’s the same with any discipline.”

To find enough time in the day to practice scales, learn the new music, get it down perfectly, and memorize it, Berit made conscious concessions. “I got in the habit of doing the house and the dishes at 3:00 in the afternoon. I had this rule that I wouldn’t do any dishes until then. I had to make the most of my biorhythms. Once the kids were occupied, I would practice. I think that made me a better mom than being a goody-goody and doing the dishes in the morning.”

The intensity of Berit’s life during that period made her laugh at the idea of having it all. “When people used to ask me how I balanced my life, I would say ‘You must be kidding!’ There is no such thing as balance. The ancient Chinese didn’t believe in balance; you have to be really intense about your life. Certainly when I was preparing for that concert, balance was a ridiculous concept. I didn’t see anybody, I didn’t socialize. I was getting ready for a concerto. I was happy to sacrifice anything else. No time for jogging, I didn’t promote my career, this was the chance of a lifetime. I once lived in Italy for two years. They think that Americans are laughable in the concept of balance. You can’t have both — it’s really hard to have everything the way you want it.”

Despite the sacrifices, Berit made it work, and focused on the positives. “I didn’t feel guilty because I had really good daycare and my husband was really great. Well, maybe I had a little bit of guilt, but not much because I knew I was a better mom. I was watching them carefully, though, because they were so young, and if you have a workaholic mom, who knows what will happen. It was a finite amount of time, but it was really hard. My husband was really supportive, even though he’s not a musician. He has no vision of what I have to do and how much work I have to do. And there were times when the kids just wanted Mommy. I think there were a couple of instances when the kids were screaming and I had to practice. It was expensive, too. They paid me, but I had to get extra time at daycare. But it was worth it. It was an investment in my career.”

And then, after a year of work and stress, it was all over in a few hours. “When the concert was over, my life really did go back to normal, and I am more of a stay-at-home mom. Being a musician, you get depressed and sad when the concert is over — something you worked so hard for is over in 35 minutes. It was a great moment, but it was over. When you go to a museum, pieces hang there for years. But with a concert, that’s it.”

Today, Berit is still performing, but hasn’t advanced in her career as much as she might have. This was another conscious choice, and an adaption. “I haven’t gotten my first commercial recording out yet. I might be kind of burned out. It’s a wavy thing. It’s hard to keep going sometimes. How can I be a happy person and perform? Classical guitar is so detail oriented — I’d rather play something easier.”

So Berit has found a new outlets. “I keep dreaming of finding more time to be creative. I’m performing more on the viola de gamba now. I met this instrument in college — my husband got me one three years ago. It’s an early music instrument of the 1400s, sort of an early cello, but it has frets and six strings. It’s easier, in a way. I can sit down and sight read and have a blast — it’s really hard to do that on the guitar. I play in two early music groups. We have metal bass strings and gut strings, really gorgeous. When you’re in the guitar world for so many years, it’s nice to have to an instrument that I can sustain — a bow — there’s something about the sound that gives me strength, especially in dealing with my parents. It makes me feel very good. It’s important to have an instrument that you like. My dream is to be better at the gamba.”

For schedule, Berit can usually push for a finite period. “I can go really hard for two or three months. If I worked really hard, had a few concerts, I’ll take two or three weeks off because it’s better for my ear.”

Despite peer pressure, Berit is satisfied with the choices she’s made — for now. “I don’t think that fame is really important. Before children, I was performing in Europe and everywhere, but in terms of quality of life it’s pretty cool to hang out with your kids and watch them grow. I could have chosen to be all over the place, performing and recording constantly. I didn’t want to push myself like that. My colleagues are doing it, but I’d rather do a good job as a mom. I love traveling and meeting people, being taken to places that no tourists have ever gone to. I do want to go back to that, one day.”

For women in similar situations, who can’t travel and focus on a performance career in the way that they’d like, Berit recommends teaching. “I’ve been teaching for 18-20 years, and I think teaching is great. It’s a baseline for your creative identity. You don’t want to lose that completely. I make money, it keeps me in the music world, and I’m telling the students what I need to hear myself.”


Voices from the chorus? If you were Diana, might you feel buoyed by Berit’s story — or deflated?

Afterthought: I believe that my son, who is a freshman at Ithaca College School of Music — Diana’s alma mater — will probably never experience the division that Diana faces. One day he may have a child, but I don’t think he’ll ever consider hanging up his guitar, no matter how much he falls in love with his offspring. Somehow it’s just different for dads. Even artist fathers who are committed caregivers and are deeply involved in their children’s lives don’t seem to grapple with the “choice” that mothers must face. Men are for the most part “allowed” to follow their creative genius wherever it takes them without being accused of abandoning their children. They also don’t seem to feel that leaving their children behind “by choice” is frequently synonymous with having their hearts ripped out. And of course, they don’t seem to carry the blame when there are no clean socks and the fridge is empty.

Why is that?

[photo courtesy aussiegall under a Creative Commons license]

Cathy: Music to soothe the savage breast

In eons past, before the advent of my own set of children in my life, listening to music was a huge part of my writing process. What kind I listened to affected the mood of what I wrote. What mood I wrote in was enhanced by the music I would pop into my tape player — boom box of old. Now, my kids are noisy, especially my young S. His is a world of noisemaking used to cope with the onslaught of noise the world makes and which he finds difficult to walk through without making his own to tune out the rest. Therefore, whenever I have time to myself (ha-ha), over the last several years since his noisemaking started, I have bathed myself in quiet.

In working on my longer project again, I have rediscovered that music can be a great influence on the writing, and very inspiring. I find my main character’s mother is and hums Mozart’s “A Little Night Music.” His father is Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” or “Modern Jazz Quartet, In Concert.” Years ago, when I started writing this book, I was listening to Miles Davis’s “A Kind of Blue.” Now my main character walks his dog to Shubert’s “Trout Quintet.” Sometimes I poke around the internet for jazz or acoustic folk and rock selections on college radio webcasts or streaming audio, whatever the correct term is. Thinking about what I listen to for writing has made me very curious to know what you all may be listening to, or not when you are creating. So I’d like to propose a conversation:

What do you listen to when you are creating? How does what you are listening to affect your creativity?

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