Balancing Career and Family

By Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

Dear Edna:

My name is Zoe Sorrell and I am a second-year flute student at the Oberlin Conservatory. Something that concerns me as I begin to consider my life after school is the balance between professional and personal life. I was wondering what advice you could offer as to how one balances their musical profession with their familial responsibilities. As a freelance musician, my life is already often busy and unpredictable, what with gigs and practicing. Also, some of the best musical opportunities I’ve received required moving to far-away states and countries for periods of time. And yet, many professional musicians are committed family members. How can one healthily maintain this balance?  

Dear Zoe: 

Thank you for submitting such an important question to “Ask Edna”. It is great that you are asking yourself this question while still a sophomore at the Oberlin Conservatory.  The topic of balancing career and family has been dealt with very effectively by my colleague, David Cutler, on his blog The Savvy Musician. I encourage you to read it. He writes very realistically, as follows: “Of course, building a great career in music is never easy. Nor is having a family. But the best things in life usually aren’t. And if you’re truly devoted to both visions, each will add fulfillment, meaning and depth to the other.” He goes on to make very practical recommendations , such as choose a complementary partner, live near family, become a master of time management and practice a lot when you’re young. When I spoke to my good friend and colleague, Mary Loiselle, who is a Personal and Career Development coach and also Director of Career Development at the Curtis Institute of Music, she emphasized that the best preparation for building career and family in the future is coming to grips now with who you are, what your core values are, what lifestyle seems most attractive to you, what pace works best for you, and what you hope for in both your personal and professional life. This kind of self-reflection seems like a very good exercise for someone in your stage of education and career development, since you can arrive at some valuable conclusions before opportunities start rolling in and you run the risk of feeling that you should accept everything that comes your way. When you reach the point of choosing to settle down with a spouse or partner, spend as much time as necessary to feel reassured that you share the same vision for career and family and that you are both prepared to be flexible. Discuss ways in which you anticipate being able to help one another achieve your goals. (I have been told that some couples switch primary parenting roles over the years, giving their spouse or partner greater freedom to concentrate on their career.) Speak openly about your potential willingness to relocate for the sole benefit of only one of you. Try to seek out role models who can share with you the challenges they faced and how they dealt with them. Until then, I suggest you accept as many attractive offers as you feel you can, especially if they involve travel and working in new communities and environments. That will help to confirm your likes and dislikes and your adaptability to life in the fast lane. 

In preparing this column, I spoke to several mothers, one of whom plays in a very successful string quartet, along with her husband.  They have two young children. She told me that although they feel artistically fulfilled and have handled it well, it is by no means easy. It is also not inexpensive. They have relied both on a nanny and close family members to travel with them or to babysit at home when the older child started school. When leaving a child at home, they avoid successive concerts of longer than three or four days. Some parents have found Skype to be a helpful way to stay connected with their older children while traveling.  If you choose to join a chamber ensemble, you can state from the outset that should you eventually start a family, you will not want to be away from home for more than a set number of days. 

In my opinion, the most important thing is to remember that you are always in a position to exercise total control of your career and to stand firm and decline opportunities that create too much conflict. A prominent artist who I used to manage blocked off all family birthdays, his wedding anniversary, and school year vacation periods as non-bookable dates. He never made exceptions. Perhaps that may seem like a luxury, suitable only for someone well-established in their career. I think it is undeniable that respecting and cherishing family milestones adds meaning and joy to a hectic performance life and helps to maintain a healthy approach toward life’s priorities. A few days ago, I spoke to a manager colleague who told me that one of her clients, a conductor, canceled three weeks of work around the time his wife was due to give birth to their first child. She gave birth after all three weeks had passed! I applaud the artist, who is still building his career, for giving up the work. He has clearly sorted out his priorities and although some orchestras may have been a bit inconvenienced and he is out some money, I am sure he didn’t jeopardize his career in the least bit. 

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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