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Thank you: musicians recall special ways their parents helped them blossom

“My thanks to my parents is vast,” says Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboist with the Imani Winds woodwind quintet. “Without their help, I would never have become a musician.”

Many professional musicians I’ve interviewed have responded as Ms. Spellman-Diaz did, saying that their parents helped in so many ways: from locating good music teachers, schools, and summer programs, to getting them to lessons, rehearsals and performances on time, while also figuring out how to pay for it all. In addition, there are those reminders (often not well received) that parents tend to give about not forgetting to practice. Ms. Spellman-Diaz received her share of reminders, noting that “at some points, I didn’t feel like practicing. Dad’s going to be thrilled that I’ve admitted that it helped that he nagged me to practice. For decades he has been bugging me to admit that.”

But beyond these basics, when I ask musicians to recall something especially mhelpful that they’re thankful to their parents for in terms of furthering their musical development, the responses tend to focus on how a parent helped them find their own musical way.

Toyin Spellman-Diaz
Toyin Spellman-Diaz as a teenager, during a summer she spent at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Courtesy, Interlochen Arts Academy.

Toyin-Spellman Diaz: The non-musical goal her parents had while looking for a good private flute teacher for their daughter during elementary school had a profound effect on Ms. Spellman-Diaz’s musical future. “They wanted an African-American teacher so I could see a classical musician who looked like me, to show me that there were African-American classical musicians out there,” she says. Her second flute teacher was also black, as was one of the three oboe teachers she had during high school, after she switched instruments. “It absolutely made an impact and is partly why I play in the Imani Winds.” This woodwind quintet of African American musicians was started in 1997 with much the same goal her parents had: to show the changing face of classical music. However, one of her flute teachers was also into jazz. “I think my parents were trying to steer me toward jazz. They would have been really excited if I became a jazz flutist,” she says. But classical music won out, and that was fine, too. “With my parents, it was knowing when to let go and let me find my own voice, my own passion for it.”

Jonathan Biss: This pianist credits his parents with creating an “atmosphere that I didn’t feel I was doing it to please them or because it was good for me. I was doing it because I loved music.” When he was young, he too sometimes needed practice reminders. “But if they said, ‘Go practice,’ which wasn’t often, it was always accompanied by ‘if you want to do this.’ Their point was that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but if you choose to do it, you have to do it well.”

Paula Robison: After she started flute at age eleven, her father realized that she had a special flair for it and “saw a possible life for me as a musician,” says Ms. Robison. He knew regular practice was essential, but he didn’t want to become an overbearing, nagging parent. So when she was twelve, they shook hands on an agreement: she promised to practice at a certain time every day and if she didn’t, it would be all right with her for him to remind her. That went well until one day during her early teens when she was “lounging around on the couch” during the hour she was supposed to practice. He reminded her of their agreement. She says she angrily “stomped up the stairs” to practice and “whirled around and shouted, ‘Someday I’m going to thank you for this!’” And she has. “I thank my father every time I pick up the flute.”

Liang Wang: When asked what he was most grateful to his parents for, this New York Philharmonic principal oboist says, “They allowed me to be what I wanted to be. A lot of parents want their kid to fit into what they think the kid should do. Oboe was an unusual choice. There aren’t many Chinese oboe players.” But he fell in love with the sound of the oboe. They supported him in his choice. He notes that his mother “wanted me to pursue my dream.”

Mark Inouye: When asked about the best musical advice he received as a young musician, Mark Inouye recalls something his father said to him at about age eleven, after a particularly disappointing Little League baseball game “in which I had played poorly,” says this principal trumpet with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The pep talk his father gave him carried over to his beginning efforts on trumpet, too. He says his father told him, “You may not be the one with the most talent, but if you are the one who works the hardest, you will succeed.”

Sarah Chang: “Mom understood I had enough music teachers in my life. The best thing she did was leave the music part to everyone else and be a mom,” says violinist Sarah Chang, who started performing professionally at age eight. “Bugging me about taking my vitamins, eating my vegetables, fussing about the dresses I wore in concerts. . . She was always encouraging, my number-one supporter.”

Headline image credit: Classical Music. Notes. Public domain via Pixabay.

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