I’ve gone off American comedy serials on television, partly because they’re re-runs most of the time, and also because the storylines and punchlines are boringly predictable in a very ‘American’ sort of way.
So it was quite by chance that I happened to catch a snippet of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, Season Two Episode Four. I got interested because I began viewing it at the point where Raymond is sitting at a piano bench with his mother, getting a music lesson.
So very briefly, in this episode: Raymond’s little daughter Ally storms off huffily from a piano lesson with her grandmother (Raymond’s mother) and announces she won’t be going back ever. Her mother Debra acquiesces quite tamely, but Raymond, usually laid-back about most things, thinks they shouldn’t give up so easily. In order to inspire his daughter, he resumes lessons with his mother that he had given up (it is not quite clear why) in mid-childhood. And another parent-child, teacher-pupil dynamic begins to play out.
Raymond’s mother berates him for having forgotten so much, and vents her frustration by saying he could have gone far had he stuck with it in his youth. And Raymond begins to blame his father for not having encouraged him in his crucial years, pointing him towards sport instead. The father responds by saying that as Raymond ended up being a sports correspondent and making a living from that, he ought to be grateful.
Raymond’s mother then tells him that Raymond himself was to blame for having stopped playing, not his father. And she let him, because she didn’t want to pin her hopes on him, the way her own mother had done with her.
And to thicken the plot, Raymond’s older brother Robert is generally resentful even in adulthood of the (to him) disproportionate love and attention showered upon Raymond by their parents. He quit piano because, of all the silly reasons, he would suffer from nose-bleeds and stain the piano keys.
So although this is fiction of course, we have several parent-child situations, some of them teacher-pupil as well. Chronologically we have Raymond’s grandmother and mother (example A; the demanding, over-expecting parent who overwhelms the child by setting the benchmark unreasonably high). We have Raymond’s mother and Raymond (example B; the parent/teacher who loves music very much, but doesn’t want to ruin the child’s childhood years as had happened with her). Then there’s Raymond’s father-Raymond (example C; the parent who privately thinks of music and the arts as frou-frou nonsense and wants his child to throw and catch a ball instead). Debra-Ally is example D; the new ‘enlightened’ parent who feels that if a child wants to give something up, then it’s entirely up to him/her, even at a very young age. And lastly we have Raymond-Ally, example E; the parent who somehow knew he could have been fairly proficient at music had he persisted and wants his own child to have a better chance.
This episode of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ is titled “Mozart”. It is probably lazy, stereotypical labelling (“if it’s about the piano, why not call it Mozart?”) but it would be interesting to look at the dynamics within the Mozart family as well. What sort of father/teacher was Leopold Mozart to his genius son Wolfgang Amadeus and daughter Nannerl? And what sort of father was the great Mozart to his own two surviving children Karl Thomas and Franz Xaver Wolfgang?
More is known about Leopold and his gifted children. Being a gifted composer, conductor, teacher and violinist himself, Leopold was quick to spot the ability in both his children (Nannerl was seven and Wolfgang three) and before long was taking them on extensive and exhausting concert tours. Once Leopold realised in particular what a child prodigy his son was proving to be, he sublimated his own career to helping the advancement of both his children. Historians are divided regarding the motives behind Leopold taking his children on tour and wanting to retain a modicum of control even in their adulthood, but others take a more sympathetic view.
Sadly, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s own surviving two children were born too close to his own demise (the second, Franz Xaver, was born five months before Mozart died) for him to have significant involvement in their music education. And as both sons stayed unmarried and had no children, the Mozart bloodline died with them.
So: who is a ‘good’ parent among all the examples cited above, at least when it comes to music education, or, more broadly, fostering their child’s application at a young age to a particular pursuit? All of us have the best of intentions for our children or (if we are teachers) for our pupils. But we have to safeguard against foisting our own expectations upon them or trying to live out our own unfulfilled life ambitions through them, and stifling them in the process.
At the other extreme, a laissez-faire approach, where there are no expectations at all, and it is deemed unnecessary to guide or encourage the child about anything, that they will ‘find their way’ somehow, is to my mind over-indulgent.
Do you recognise yourself (or someone you know; a friend, acquaintance, relative) as either the parent or child, teacher or pupil in examples A to E? The list is not exhaustive, of course.
The majority of the musicians I know and who’ve come here on tour have told me of loving, nurturing relationships with their parents and teachers. But there are a few who have been in dysfunctional ones; some have persisted despite it, a few have been scarred and some have quit.
I know of a young woman who got to the level of concert pianist, and then chucked what seemed like the beginning of a promising career to study to be something else. She might not admit it to herself, but her decision was at least in part to escape the stifling control and expectations of her own mother and teacher.
There is a gifted jazz musician who speaks disparagingly of his young son, calling him “no good” within earshot. Perhaps the father thinks this is ‘tough love’ or reverse psychology, but when I see the pain in the son’s face each time he hears the putdown, I think of it as cruelty.
It is easier to articulate what is ’bad’ parenting or teaching than what is ‘good’. But I think that if love underpins the dynamic, coupled with an intuitiveness that can only come with the wisdom brought by time, to know when to nudge and when to back off, and to nurture and give the child the best possible opportunities when s/he shows genuine interest and progress, then we cannot go far wrong.
(An edited version of this article was published on 1 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)