Reading The House of Music
one mom's true account of raising a family of classical music 'geniuses'
It is a delight to read the book the House of Music, a beautifully written documentation of the wildly demanding labor of raising SEVEN classical musicians, written by the mother Kadiatu Kenneth-Mason (KKM from here on). This is a family that is currently playing concerts around the world, including a cello solo at Megan and Harry’s wedding. Click over to their website and you can gaze in wonder at the sight of so many talented and beautiful people in one family.
As I was reading the book, every time I brought their story up to other parents I sensed a faint stiffening. The tale of another parent pulling off an amazing feat can feel like an instant challenge to your parenting. -Why aren’t you doing this exact thing? -Why does your child complain wearily at every piano practice? -Why (like me) do you not offer piano to the young geniuses at all? I personally find it hard, when faced with a more rigorous approach than my own, to listen and enjoy hearing about it without immediately assigning the parent to the world of “Tiger Mothers,” overdriven, accomplishment-obsessed parents that draw a quick line through their child’s childhood and write down instead: Ivy League bound. “As for me and my house, we will get into Yale,” I imagine them muttering, completely missing the charming story I’m learning about.
But if you can avoid giving into defensive prejudices, it’s enormously interesting to read about these approaches. One way to step into the picture with them is to note that their firstborn was the original prodigy-like talent. Her natural and obvious musical gifts were what launched them into the world of habitual daily practice, finding music teachers, driving to the tutoring sessions, carving money out of their tight budget for classes, etc. When more children came along, they were each guided into the (now) household habits that had already been lined up for them by the prodigiously talented firstborn. Commenting on this in an interview KKM said “I think all children actually have genius … and it’s all about championing that. What we saw in Isata, our eldest, was incredible facility and we decided to channel it in music.
There are two other things that seemed, after reading the book, to lead them to stick with this pursuit for their children. One: KKM says she saw again and again how much joy they took in their work and the music. She saw them light up from within. Second: she herself had a difficult, ostracized childhood in London as the child of immigrants. I think in her mind, the basic “fun” of childhood culture in England had nothing to offer her children. Anything that would give them a welcoming spot, a society to join that would recognize their gifts, would be a vast improvement from what she had experienced.
I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised that KKM was able to document the erasure of self that comes along with early motherhood. She writes evocatively of dragging herself to make breakfast for toddlers through waves of pregnancy nausea. Then she describes the work and fatigue of supporting her family of growing geniuses and how often it, of course, consisted of the endless cycles of food, tidying, laundry, driving, waiting with them, and encouraging them. Several times she recounts simply going into her laundry room and sobbing for a bit in the face of what her life was at that moment. She writes her memories of those endless days alongside a myriad (myriad!) of triumphs for her children: concerts, honors, awards, recognition and beaming pride in their own work.
Sometimes in parenting narratives you see these memories cancelling one another out. The fatigue is rapidly replaced by stories of the accomplishments. But she manages to relay both memories and tell her story honestly.
At one point KKM remarks you can never be too obsessed with your children. I reflected on that idea for awhile. It is quite counter-cultural at this point to say it, but I think every parent knows it to be true. Even if you believe you carry many other interests and hobbies, the concerns and thoughts of your children are still going to float to the top of nearly every effort. Many parents fight with gusto to maintain other serious interests while their children are young, only to gradually become more and more obsessed with their offspring as they age. Was it better for her that she threw herself into that passion from the get-go?
Amongst the tales of competitions and accomplishments, KKM writes delightfully about the lines between the parents’ world and the kids’ world within their bustling household. She says she tucked them in each every night, blessing them each with “you are the best, most loving, most gorgeous, ten year old in the whole wide world” and then closed the doors, leaving it at that and not chasing them down to be completely silent and asleep under her watch. She knew they stayed up far later, talking into the night. She knows they had ways of avoiding her strict no-technology rules—by learning the password to her computer, and taking turns playing games on the odd days when she left the house to take a different child to lessons. She learned years later that her children had pulled off a weekly movie night without her knowledge. She catalogs these antics ruefully as “the children’s world.” They didn’t cancel out her careful discipline for the family, but she also didn’t obsess over every moment.
Did I have any takeaways after reading the book? Aside from just delighting in learning about this kind, talented, hardworking family and the devoted parents behind them…
Actually my only takeaway was how much the children’s advancement at young ages, in particular ages 11/12/13, reminded me of reading books about people who were able to apprentice at young ages. For example in his delightful memoir French chef Jacque Pepin recounts his first official job at a huge restaurant kitchen, and how he worked his way from the lowest level to the highest, working six days a week for weeks at a time, beginning at age 13. Eventually at age 16 he was the head cook at a small restaurant, and singly handedly planned and executed a town gala at a local restaurant. This was taken in stride and without exclaim.
Our society no longer allows professional challenges like this for our young teens, but the competitive musical experiences described in House of Music sounded similar—encouraging growth and maturity while young in spirit and body, protected from anxiety and risk-aversion in that way that children are naturally granted by having years of life ahead of them.
I first read about this family when Susie linked to a video of them on Susie’s substack. I read House of Music for free on hoopla, hooray.