I am currently reading a fascinating book that has left me completely inspired. It is called ‘The Artist and the Woman’ and tells the tale of the life and work of Clara Schumann. Before I began reading this book, I’m ashamed to say I knew very little about her. I knew that she had composed a little, she was the wife of Robert Schumann and she was a very close friend to Johannes Brahms. I am delighted to discover that this formidable woman is the very embodiment of how to make the impossible possible! As a youngster, Clara had every moment mapped out for her by her Father. Clara’s Father was a piano teacher and instilled in her a strict routine of daily habits – piano practice (of course), journaling (although he initially wrote much of it for her in the early years, often talking extensively about himself!) and long walks. Her childhood was full of strict rules, dogmatically enforced with extremely high expectations. Where most would have cracked under such acute pressure, Clara not only rose to the challenge, but excelled as a touring concert pianist throughout her life, she also somehow later became a loving and devoted wife, a caring mother, a devoted friend and mentor to Brahms and a glorious composer!
Clara lived at a time when women were often seen on display in society but had no way of earning money or status for themsleves, society demanded that their husbands, brothers or fathers provide for them. Yet here was a woman who was so hard working, driven, intelligent, spirited that she succeeded in her own right at a time when her career should not have even been possible or socially acceptable. Don’t forget that after Robert Schumann died in 1854, Clara was left to provide and care for their seven surviving children as a working single mother.
In my own experience as a musician-mother, there are many days that feel like all the balls could drop at any moment and that the line between success or failure is balanced precariously on a knife edge! While I try to be organised and pour as much of myslef as I possibly can into my children, there are certainly sacrifices that have to be made in order for me to get my job done. I cannot walk onto stage with a child hanging off my leg, (although I’m sure they’d like to try!). I also need to be sufficiently prepared which requires hours and hours spent away from my beautiful boys. As difficult as that sometimes feels, I keep telling myself that the way we live sets an example for their ever watchful eyes and ears. So the saying goes, ‘Children do what we do, not what we say’ and I sincerely hope that my boys can already sense both how much I love them, and also how passionate I am about my life’s work. Everyday I get hurtled from one end of the day in a blur of lunchboxes, score-study, play-dates, practice, swimming lessons, rehearsals, laundry and office admin. Recently though, I have been thinking about Clara’s example and I remember that this life that I’ve chosen is possible, even if it does involve a precarious balancing act most of the time!
When we visit schools, like we will do tomorrow, one of the things we try to impress on the children after a performance is that each of them has their own superpower, the ability to learn! We introduce the idea that every single day is an opportunity to improve at something and that quite literally makes anything possible. We tell them to ignore the negative feelings that quickly overwhelm us when something seems hard – there are so many days that feel impossible as a musician, especially early in the learning process with a new piece. And we constantly repeat the message that what seems impossible on day one, can ultimately feel easy, effortless and even thrilling with enough sleep and repetitive, determined practice.
Over the last two decades, teaching children from all background and very different abilities, there has been one thing that has constantly surprised me and my students – children are often much more capable than they themselves even realize. Children are too easily underestimated, they are sophisticated people and just like adults, they need to feel like they matter to the world, like their lives can make a positive contribution. There have been so many times when I have seen the total joy shine in a student’s face when they hear their own progress, when they realize that they actually can do something that they once thought was impossible. We must inspire children to keep trying. Inspire them to be “response-able”, to realize that if they keep trying every day over a longer period of time, feeling and understanding their own progress is so rewarding. If we give children the tools and the chance to help themsleves who knows where thier superpowers will lead them, just look what Clara Schumann managed to achieve!