Performing Parents and Their Teens : Putting It All Together

Singers who have chosen to mix performing with parenting know that the road can be rough, yet when it comes to teens, new challenges always come to the fore. The teenage years are famously fraught with both angst and drama. Combine that with the intensity of a professional singing career, and you get a very complex and exciting life.

Although teens seem more independent, they actually require more time for talking and processing their emotions, values, and goals. They are also involved in their own events and activities, which can clash with the demands of a performing career. Right at the time many singers find their careers taking off, their teens need more time and attention than ever.

How do singers with teens make it work? And how do teens feel about their singing parents? To find out, I interviewed professional singers from all levels, regions, and specialties—from mainstage opera roles to oratorio and chamber work to recording movie soundtracks. In the midst of many challenges, these families also tell of a life full of music, support, and close bonding where all share common goals and values.

The Parents

For parents seeking that elusive balance, the challenges are many. Scheduling tops the list, especially when both parents sing or perform. Even with the latest calendar apps, trying to keep track of multiple people’s events is challenging enough. Attending them all? Next to impossible.

Missing events, unfortunately, comes with the territory. Almost every parent interviewed had missed an event due to rehearsals, performances, or travel. Guilt about being gone, especially on special days or during teen drama, is tough. “It’s always a challenge to make time to remain a part of my son’s life,” explains tenor Hector Vasquez. “The teen years are fraught with all kinds of issues—school work, social life, girlfriends, etc. The timing is never right when you’re getting focused for a performance and a teenage catastrophe happens. It’s exponentially harder when you’re on the road.”

Soprano Cynthia Lawrence concurs. “When schedules are crazy and the homework and emotional issues can’t be dealt with one on one,” she says, “thank goodness for Skype or webcam communications.” Technology helps keep communication lines open, but parents still have to be available to listen. “Keeping communication open and staying patient and involved are needed across the career board, no matter what a parent does,” explains soprano Marie Te Hapuku.

Thankfully, the very difficulties of the lifestyle can bring families together. Many teens have traveled extensively with their parents, learning languages and meeting famous people along the way. And all of the parents interviewed spoke about the deep music appreciation and other life lessons that their children learned through watching their parents practice and perform.

The Teens

When asked how their parents’ performance life has affected them, almost all said it was just normal for them. Music is always swirling around, with parents singing constantly and even blasting opera in the car.

“I know a lot more about music and I’m a more creative person than I probably would be,” explains Shannon Calkins, Lawrence and tenor Mark Calkins’ 16-year-old daughter. “I’ve met friends and I am also a lot more confident because of how my parents deal with their careers. And our family all does way too many concerts for our own good!”

“I’ve seen my mom die over 10 times,” reports Te Hapuku’s son Kit, age 15. “That should say it all.”

Several teens mentioned that their parents “signed them up for stuff” like singing in the kids’ chorus of La bohème and how at first they didn’t like it, but then they ended up having a great experience. A passion for music is almost unavoidable as is the ear training and exposure to great art. But also inescapable is parents who are gone . . . performing.

Although the teens and young adults all said that their parents worked hard to attend their events and concerts, they understood that their work meant that they had to miss some things. “They’ve missed many holidays and a few birthdays, I believe, but not really many concerts,” says Shannon Calkins. “But we do so many of those that it doesn’t really matter! We miss seeing each other during the day and night at home a lot because of rehearsals as well. For the holidays and birthdays, though, of course, I wish they could have been there—but as long as I have them now, then that’s good enough for me.”

Music, Music, Music

Love of music was a common thread for all of the teens and young adults interviewed. Coming from such a culturally rich environment, they could not help but learn to love music and other forms of creative art. “Growing up, I found it annoying when my mom would listen to classical music in the car, especially opera,” says Julia Di Fiore, 19, daughter of mezzo-soprano, Linda Di Fiore. “But as I grew up, I enjoyed it more and more, and now I listen to it daily.”

Although all interviewed appreciate classical singing to some extent, not all of them like to sing. Two teens said they don’t like to sing because they think they aren’t “any good,” while another three enjoy singing but aren’t sure about singing professionally. The others emphatically have “caught the bug” and plan to follow in the “family business.”

“I am mad about singing,” shares 18-year-old Camille Snow, daughter of tenor Steven Snow and music teacher Katy Snow. “It can be any style, from any time period, with any vocal range. . . . There’s something so much more intimate about singing than playing piano or brass. I’ve performed on both, but neither brought the music as deep into my being as singing does. You have to have such a respect and love of yourself and your body because you are your instrument. I think it teaches beautiful lessons you can use your whole life.”

But beautiful can still be embarrassing. Being a teen is tough enough, but when you add parents that are “crazy, loud, opera singers” to the mix, it can get quite interesting. “I think every teen goes through a phase where they find their parents embarrassing, whether they are performers or not,” says Camille Snow. “Sometimes, a parent can just say ‘hello’ in public and that’s enough to bring on a blushing storm fierce enough to rival any tomato. So add into that picture the lively personality of a performer, and you don’t necessarily have a teen’s ideal situation. Still, my parents never embarrassed me so badly I couldn’t get over it, and now that I’m older I can realize that most of my embarrassment was probably just a result of my adolescence, not their behavior.”

However during the heat of high school, feeling normal is tough enough for any teen, let alone with performing parents making things worse! “When my mom starts singing in a public area and creates a scene,” relates Jason Chaussee, 16-year-old son of mezzo-soprano, Victoria Chaussee, “. . . for example, when we’re celebrating a family member’s birthday at a restaurant and we’re singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them and she starts singing opera . . . that’s when it gets embarrassing.”

“Occasionally I was embarrassed by my parents, but looking back on it, I don’t really know why,” says Shannon Calkins. “Maybe because I can say that my dad has worn makeup more times than any other person’s dad in my entire school.” And my own daughter, Naomi Williams, 15, says it’s embarrassing when I practice on the nights she has a party.

With the embarrassment, there are also the perks. Amazing travel to exciting locations tops the list. Kit Te Hapuku loved traveling with his mom and younger sister to Tokyo this past year. Tito, 14, son of Vasquez and Cynthia Clayton, agrees. “I love the fun trips and the friends and recognition traveling and performing gives my family,” he says.

Others appreciate getting free tickets for lots of shows and meeting interesting people. And some teens are truly inspired by their parents’ talents. Kit Te Hapuku loves to hear his mom’s voice when she performs and to watch her get into character. Camille Snow appreciates the beautiful lullabies and songs she heard growing up. John Paul, soprano Eden Casteel’s 13-year-old son, enjoys knowing people look up to his mom and see her as a “Singing Zen Master.” Alix Karaitis, tenor Paul Karaitis’ 25-year-old daughter, still loves making her friends feel jealous. “I like telling my friends—even now—what movies and video games my father’s been recorded on,” she laughs.

Challenges and Blessings

Having performing parents is a mixed bag of challenges and blessings. Many teens expressed frustration with their parents’ irregular schedule. Amanda Abel, Holly Seeley Abel’s 21-year-old daughter, remembers dreading every opera tech week because it meant she wouldn’t see her mother all week long. Tito Vasquez says it’s hard when one parent is out of town performing because the extra burden of helping out with his younger brother often falls on him. And at my own house, my teens get tired of having to schedule their social events and sleepovers around our weekend performances.

Some drawbacks are ironically the flip side of the benefits. More than a few teens mentioned that although they appreciate the help and understanding toward their musical studies, too much isn’t a good thing. “When I would practice when I was younger,” Julia Di Fiore explains, “I could barely play/sing three notes without getting some unsolicited feedback. I know they meant well, but you don’t always sound good when you’re practicing, which is why you practice. . . . Even now, when I visit home I prefer not to practice when my parents are around.”

“It’s always good to have another musician around to ask for opinions in terms of what would sound good, as they can always be more specific, compared to someone who hasn’t been classically trained in music,” agrees Ian Daugherty, soprano Joan Daugherty and trumpeter Bruce Daugherty’s 18-year-old son. “At the same time, I think having musicians/performers (as parents) can be the hardest thing. Sometimes opinions can collide, and the way I see it, the way I play music is really my view on emotions—so when my musicality is questioned, sometimes I can take it personally.”

Some Friendly Advice

Many parents had advice for other parents looking at tackling the juggling act of raising teens while performing. Di Fiore recommends traveling with your teen and including them as much as possible in your work. Both Clayton and Abel warn against assuming because your child is older they won’t need as much of your time.

“Teens require different ‘work’ from parents,” agrees Te Hapuku. “Where little kids need a lot of your energy to raise and care for them, teens need a lot of your time listening and more of your energy managing their ever-busy schedules.”

As a young singer, Te Hapuku had the chance to ask Dame Kiri Te Kanawa how she managed her family and career. Te Kanawa immediately changed the expression on her face, became very serious, and drew very close. “I have two things in my life: my family and my singing,” Te Hapuku recalls Te Kanawa saying. “I try to stay close to home when they’re in school and keep the travel during their holidays. I’m not a hugely social person. I don’t go to parties or many social events. My time is for my family and my singing, and that is all.”

Finding that ever shifting balance is key. “Know what’s important in your life,” advises Vasquez. “Keep your priorities in order, especially when schedules are crazy and it’s difficult to keep things in balance. Knowing what’s important really helps you make the right decisions. Your kids are only kids once, teenagers once. I wouldn’t want to miss it for anything!”

“Don’t be afraid to turn down something if it’s not right for your family,” agrees Casteel. And Snow adds, “Remember that you don’t need to conform your life to the expectations of others, especially when it comes to your work-family balance.”

Parents sing because it is both a calling and an avocation. “Singing reminds me who I really am deep inside,” Abel says. “It helps not only ground me, but also allows me to rise above all the worries and troubles and stress of life. Music offers such a sublime connection between earth and heaven. It’s a spiritual experience to sing.”

Sharing this beautiful art form while staying grounded through family allows these singers and their children to grow as artists and people. Although every family must determine their own unique path, the rewards are sweet and lasting for those who bravely take up the challenge.

Valerie White Williams

Valerie White Williams is a Seattle-based singer, voice teacher, lecturer, and writer. A featured presenter at the 2005 Classical Singer Convention in New York City, Williams taught classes on “Promoting Your Teaching Studio” and has since then lectured on vocal health and internet marketing for musicians. Visit Williams online at www.valeriewilliams.net to learn more about her singing career and www.vocalsplendor.com for information about her voice studio.