When the music calls, a career choice is set

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A son's decision brings back memories of a mother's own choice. And it wasn't law school.

Posted: February 10, 2013

Ilene Raymond Rush

writes and blogs from Elkins Park

A few years back, when I was teaching fiction writing at Penn State's main campus, I'd ask my student advisees a single question: "Can you think about doing anything else?"

It was a question that had been posed to me early in my undergraduate English education by an earnest female professor when I eagerly confessed that I wanted to be a writer of short fiction. While it brought me up short, I have to admit that the question was an honest response to the lousy state of the economy in the mid-1970s.

Of course, jobs for fiction writers are never plentiful. But with employment scarce in the wider market, declaring oneself an English major who wanted to be a writer became a gamble that few people without independent resources should have been considering.

It's a question I've been thinking about again lately, though this time it's not about my career. It's Noah's. My 20-year-old son announced at dinner during winter break that he's definitely decided on his major.

Music, it is.

This wasn't a total surprise. After all, while a toddler, Noah adored Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra circa 1959. So much so that under the maestro's video tutelage, he turned every object in our house into a musical instrument. He had the students at Abington Friends preschool fighting over who would play Mr. Bernstein, conjuring any old stick into a conductor's baton, standing on the highest points of the playground to preside over recess.

And there were other clues. A great-uncle had been concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra for years. His older brother played the saxophone, and the much younger and impressionable Noah was dutifully dragged to his jazz recitals. There were piano lessons, a brief (very brief) flirtation with a quarter-size violin. In high school there was the first garage band, sweetly named Milk and Cookies. In early college, when Noah was still an undeclared freshman physics major, a second band, Yeoman's Omen, garnered good reviews in the college blogs.

All of which was, I admit, a cause for pride. But the basis of a career?

In a music industry where making a living is becoming harder by the hour, was it good parenting to sit by without asking the question that I had asked so many students: Can you think about doing anything else?

My husband and I were torn. We had, after all, met at the Iowa Writers Workshop, starry-eyed over the possibilities of fiction and poetry. My husband had gone on to become a film professor, while I had turned my writing skills toward nonfiction freelancing. We had both taken the law boards, and I had even once enrolled in law school for two days at American University, resigned to study tax law until the acceptance from Iowa rolled in. I remembered the heady sensation of riding on a bus through Washington, dreaming of writing the Great American Novel vs. advising pension plans. Was it really a fair fight?

So I guess you can say that we were lousy role models - for better or worse, we had more or less followed our muses.

Sitting at the dinner table, regarding my tousle-haired son in grunge flannel shirt and faded jeans, wrapped in sincerity, talking about getting an apartment in Philadelphia when he graduates to pursue a career in music, I thought of my time-honored question.

I wanted to ask it, but the words stilled on my lips. There was so much youthful passion, so much belief that things - rent, food - would work out if only he persisted hard enough.

As he talked, I thought of the guitars propped against our living-room couches, the trumpet case resting in the hallway, the drums waiting in the family room. Part of being a parent, I have always believed, is letting your kids lead you a little bit and then trying to catch up to where they are headed. I saw the hard years ahead, the struggle to find a place in the musical world, but I also saw the rewards, the occasional highs, the sporadic fulfillment of the dream.

I remembered the time I opened a library card account in Boston. In the space where it said "profession," I filled in - on the basis of a single published short story in a tiny literary magazine - the word writer. What did that mean against any objections of the hard-nosed world?

"So," I said to Noah. I won't say that my voice didn't betray my trepidation, but I did manage a smile. "Music, it is."


E-mail Ilene Raymond Rush

at mice30@comcast.net.

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