I am not cut out to be a swimming mom.  Seriously.  I am a cellist, an artist that uses classical music to parse the profound issues of humankind.  I deal with emotions, both broad and subtle, grand and intimate.  I’m on a journey to refine a skill that I will spend my lifetime trying to achieve, and working on finding ways to convey my passion to others, to convey what is in my soul through my instrument.  I’m a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Music, how can I possibly take on the role of swimming mom??

My daughter, a freshman in high school, is an avid swimmer, so it came as no surprise when she tried out for the high school swimming team last October.  As much as I support my daughters, and love to see them find something they are passionate about, I have to admit, I did not join the ranks of “swimming mom” lightly.  Sports, you see, were the bane of my existence growing up.  I can still hear the class in the middle school locker room after PE, jeering, “Are you still playing your cello?”  I still remember hiding my face at the high school orchestra assembly so no one could see me playing.  Playing cello in public high school circa 1984 was NOT COOL.  I begged my parents to send me to the Interlochen Arts Academy for my last two years of high school so I could be surrounded by other social misfits (no offense to any of my amazing classmates there)!  The high school “jocks” were not the people I was hanging out with in those days, no indeed, we were too busy discussing Brahms and Mahler, and comparing the sound of the CSO brass to the Berlin Phil brass.  We had serious things to discuss!  Who had time for sports??

So, here I am, the mother of an athlete.  This comes complete with 5:30 AM drop-offs at the pool (try that the morning after a Brahms quintet concert with requisite after-party), numerous trips to the sports store for goggles (somehow they are lost with the same frequency my students lose rosin), an endless supply of suits, caps, spirit wear, spaghetti dinners, away meets, drop-offs, pick-ups, snacks, evening practice, weekend practice as well as meets that consist of sitting in the bleachers for several hours while your child swims a 28 second event.  (Note to self: concert black is not appropriate attire for a swim meet and high heels and a wet pool deck do not go together well).  But, as I sat in those bleachers (and I thought the non-Wenger chairs were uncomfortable), a funny transformation took place.  I started to deeply respect and admire these athletes.  The same “jocks” that I feared/looked down upon in my high school days.  I started to notice many parallels to a musicians training, and many areas in which my students could learn from them.

1.     Swimmers measure their progress in hundredth of a second increments.

All too often I see frustration in my students as they try to go from quarter note=60, to 120 over the course of a week.  They wonder why it doesn’t work.  Or they practice slowly and carefully for a week and give up.  The swimmers work for months, daily, just to shave a second or two off their time.  In addition, the swimmers can refer to their exact time in any given event.  They know their times and what they are aiming for.  How many of us know the exact tempo at which we can perfectly execute a passage and the tempo we are aiming for?  How many of us know the exact timing of a skill we need to play a piece successfully?

2.      5:30 AM practice.  Need I say more?

Call it anecdotal, but my daughter’s grades have improved since joining the team.  She said she is more awake in school because her day starts with training.  In addition, she feels good the days of morning practice because it is done early.  I’m trying to imagine what would happen to my students if they had to show up for “practice” every day at 5:20? (Ok, so the building doesn’t open until 7, but still.)  Can you imagine how the rest of the day might go?  Not to mention the discipline it takes just to get out of bed that early.  In my dream world, from the bleachers, my students would report to practice at 7 AM every day for 3 hours.  There would be a coach there to assign drills (“ all major scales, now!”) and keep them motivated. They would all finish together, grab a snack, and head off to class for the day, knowing they hit it hard first thing in the morning.

3.     Swimmers compete individually, but they are always part of a team.

Orchestra and chamber music come to mind here.  Everyone has to pull their weight for the team as a whole to be successful.  It doesn’t matter if you are the best on the team, if you are not supporting, encouraging and helping the rest of the team.  The wins, as well as the losses, belong to everyone.  As much time as we spend working alone in the practice room, eventually we emerge to join the team on stage.  We must bring not only our skill, but our attitude, in order to help the team achieve its common goal.

4.     Swimmers train inside and outside of a pool.

I have always told my students that just practicing is not enough.  They need to exercise, stretch, eat well, sleep well, have hobbies, etc.  I have noticed that this is imperative in swimming, and stressed by the coaches.  The swimmers train in the pool and in the weight room.  They focus on staying healthy and getting enough sleep, and are encouraged to eat well.  They know they can’t compete well if they are tired, unhealthy, sick.  Neither can we.

5.     Repetition.

 “But I have done it already so many times!” This is a common refrain (whine) that I hear from my students when I point out what they need to keep working on.  As I watch, and listen to my daughter talk about practice, I realize that, while repetition is just a part of our daily practice, for swimmers, it’s all they do!  And with four basic strokes, I’m fairly sure the coach doesn’t hear “back stroke, again?” It’s just what they do, day in and day out, every day.  The same thing, until they get better, and then they keep doing it.  Think about that the next time you practice the same shift for the hundredth time.

6.     The letter jacket.

I’ll admit it.  My daughter is excited about lettering.  That jacket, a visible symbol of her hard work that she can wear with pride, is a strong motivational tool for her.  We all like to have something to work towards.  In music there are so few external, physical, rewards, which most young people need to stay motivated.  Perhaps if we had a strong support system of coaches and team practice, it might be a different story.  Professional athletes work with their coaches for their entire career.  What if we could do that?  Perhaps the professors need to be the ones doing this?

7.     Training is planned and regimented.

I’m always impressed with the way practices are run.  They follow a rhythm—distance, speed, tough practices, easier ones, races, send-offs, etc.  No matter what, it is planned out.  How many of us have a planned routine when we show up in the practice room?  How many of us have a plan over the course of a week?  Month? Season?  Something that has a goal at the end?  I believe we could all learn from this kind of planned regime.  The most successful musicians seem to have this going on internally, but perhaps we need to teach it to everyone.


So, here I sit in the bleachers, the swimming mom/cellist, watching these athletes deal with emotions, both broad and subtle, grand and intimate.  They are on a journey to refine a skill that they may (or may not) spend a lifetime trying to acquire.  They convey passion both in the water, and every time they get up to the 5:20 alarm.  And I acquiesce.  I no longer turn up my nose at athletes, as I realize that we, too, are athletes!  (Ironically, my husband is now the Vice President of Real Estate for a national fitness company, so athletics have become the center of our world.)  I have learned new ways to approach the cello for myself and students so we can more effectively train.  But don’t worry, I promise not to cheer from the sidelines at any recitals this spring!