Mothers In Jazz” is a new series, started by vocalist Nicky Schrire. The initiative aims to create an online resource for working jazz musicians with children, those contemplating parenthood, and jazz industry figures who work with and hire musicians who are parents. The insight of the musicians interviewed for this series provides valuable emotional, philosophical and logistical information and support that is easily accessible to all. “Mothers In Jazz” shines a light on the very specific role of being both a mother and a performing jazz musician.
Svetlana Shmulyian is a New York-based vocalist whose sound blends swing, straight-ahead jazz and original material. A recipient of awards from Jazz Road/South Arts, New Music USA, and Chamber Music America, she has recorded and performed with musicians including Sullivan Fortner, Pasquale Grasso, Endea Owens, and Wycliffe Gordon. She is a founder of the award-winning jazz appreciation program for young audiences Swing Makes You Sing. Svetlana lives in New York with her three children, aged 13, 14 and 18.
LondonJazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career?
Svetlana Shmulyian: I went to Manhattan School of Music with a veteran pro athlete who was, as I was, pursuing a second career – and who was also a parent. He shared the following advice: include your family as much as possible. That could include taking them along on tour or including them in your performances, sharing what you are working on and more as opposed to building a completely separate isolated world of your professional artistic pursuit which does not include them.
Try not to think of your life and your art as separate from being a mom. Building a separate world is easier in the short term but it may, in the long term, undermine both. Incorporating components of your parent identity in your art and your work schedule, and your artist identity in your parenting, is one of the ways you can lead an authentic life. You may need to be super-creative to do this well and balance is not easy to achieve but it is also worth striving for.
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LJN: What information or advice do you wish you’d received but didn’t (and had to learn through trial and error or on the go)?
SS: Extreme organization (a constant work in progress for me)! Being a parent and artist is having two full time jobs that constantly clash in real-time. Your day gets constantly interrupted – half-sentence, half-task – you can not possibly do this on a whim. Embrace lists, alarms, digital or paper calendars, whatever floats your boat. And be ready to work twice as hard.
It takes a village to have a professional career while parenting, especially for musicians who work at odd hours and play the ‘long game’ (having us at times leaving the house for work without an apparent immediate financial return). A supportive partner, family nearby, hired childcare if you can afford it, is everything – and planning is the key.
Creating a physical space for yourself as an artist. As a parent you constantly get interrupted – which makes it incredibly difficult to think, create and to finish that booking email. You have to create temporary physical boundaries, lock yourself in the ‘office’ (just like a person who goes to a traditional office for the day does). When I was at Manhattan School of Music I rented a tiny shared rehearsal space in Brooklyn just so I could have complete isolation in which to practice, create and think. Basic as it was, it was my creative ‘oasis’.
Being an artist is an all consuming pursuit. It is often a natural state for an artist and this mindset is highly regarded. But this mindset is at odds with the need to be fully present when you are with your family. Love is an action word – being fully present in action, thinking, feeling with your family is as important as just simply physically being there.
LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:
SS: Prioritize your physical health to ensure longevity and effectiveness as a parent as an artist. You are doing two jobs as a musician and parent, both of which have an enormous impact on your physical health ( long plane / car rides, late or sleepless nights, late meals, etc). Walk to the venue from the hotel, pack a late dinner at the venue for tomorrow’s lunch, walk around the hotel on tour to get steps in. Back health is essential – once / twice a week pilates has helped me tremendously to heal from back pain, which is a typical musicians’ curse. Doing nothing is worse than doing something.
LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/touring/gigging:
SS: Rolling (vs carrying) gig bags. Sneakers for before / after gigs (if heels for the show).
Travel light, carry-on only if you can. Send your luggage / merchandise to your tour destination (and back home) and / or get rid of half of your luggage on multi-leg tours. UPS suitcase mailing rates are incredibly reasonable.
LJN: Best general travel/gigging/tour-with-child advice:
SS: If you are on tour with the kid, include activities for your family (i.e. exploring the town by bike, museums, parks) vs just have the trip be me-centered. It becomes a very memorable experience for us, together and strengthens our bond as a family.
LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions?
SS: Not living in the proximity of a major metro area / jazz center is a significant detriment being any working parent. Especially a working mom. Especially a jazz musician. The greenery of suburbs is amazing – but having to commute to a place of work takes time out of your work and time out of your family. This is even more true for the jazz musicians, where a lot of work is centered around larger metro areas and also because jazz is an inherently participative genre where informal participation (“the hang”) can be so helpful for building genuine connections with members of the local scene.
However, the ‘hang’ itself, wonderful as it may be, at times becomes a prerequisite of work, which creates a non-inclusive workplace. I have heard some club owners proudly recounting how “this young cat has been hanging out every night for a year and he now has a regular monthly gig at my club”. Aside from a vaguely cultish expectation which makes little economic sense (in that you must forego all other work in order to earn 12 gigs), such expectation excludes most people who need to earn a living and have other obligations – a large category of whom are parents, especially mothers, of young children.
It has been well documented that the COVID pandemic disrupted both work and home life and had parents stretched really thin. Parents were acting as caregivers, teachers and providers all at once. That said, it has also been well documented that mothers were particularly affected, often as a simple matter of economics (as lower level earners). This, along with catastrophic transformations of the music industry, which pushed musicians to an even lower level of earnings, has had a devastating effect on the work and life of mothers who are also jazz musicians. Many of us are still recovering.
I am finding out now that in many ways, it is easier to be a working mother (in any profession) when your kids are little. Teens need you much more in a deeper way. It is easier to outsource physical support – there is no replacement for emotional support which is needed much more so when the kids reach their teen years. Being there to drive your teen to activities is a meaningless task but conversations you have with them on the way to their piano lessons can be essential and even life-saving.
LJN: What boundaries have you set for yourself as a mother in jazz (could be related to travel/touring, riders, personal parameters, child care decisions, etc.)?
SS: Becoming a parent, among other things, makes you viscerally aware of (and more at peace with) the circle of life and, consequently, of life’s finality. I am trying to focus on doing less, and for things that I do to mean more (and make more economic sense). This is both a “need” (in terms of maintaining financially sustainable living) and a “want” (for my artist soul and mental health). This manifests in various ways – in balancing days / hours at home vs days / hours on the road; accepting vs rejecting certain offers, making sure I am home for important family moments, ensuring reasonable riders that protect my health and professional longevity.
The greatest challenge of being a working parent, and a working artist in particular, remains maintaining a balanced life and accepting that it will always be a walk on a tightrope. You will always feel pulled in both directions, feeling that your family life is compromised when you are pursuing your art, and that your art is compromised when you are away from it. While such dissonance is unpleasant, it also creates forward motion as this duality constantly keeps you on your feet and also feeds you in unparalleled ways – as life is measured not in years but in lived experiences. Such duality is like a puzzle that, to me, when it ‘clicks in’ in just the right way, it creates a balanced, happy and fulfilled life.