Esther Brazil - Sparkly Earrings and Tiny Socks: Balancing Music and Motherhood
Mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil writes about her experiences of balancing music and motherhood, juggling sparkly earrings and tiny socks on tour...
A few years ago I reached a new low point in my relationship to my career. It was 2am; I had just returned to my empty house in Oxford (my husband was away on tour), from some distant airport. I dumped my suitcase in the living room, fed the cat, brushed my teeth, and crawled into bed. Then I set my alarm for 4am, to leave again at 5am for the 8am Eurostar for the next leg of the tour. Having just come from France, I was heading back in a matter of hours to save the orchestra the cost of a hotel room. It was a dark moment, setting that alarm, and as I did so, all I could think about was the string of poor life choices that had led me to that point of resentful exhaustion.
Take that kind of tiredness and triple it, and you have the feeling of being a new mother in the arts, dragging your baby along to concerts. But this kind of tiredness is bearable, something you can suffer with surprising equanimity, even cheerfulness, because you’ve made the decision out of love, for your baby and your work. You also bear it because you’re maintaining a career in music, during that crucial, hardest time when disappearing for too long might mean the Powers That Be think you’re unavailable, or (worse) forget that you exist.
My daughter will be six months old at the end of March, and now that I’m out of the exhausted haze of those early weeks I can’t believe I dragged her to concerts from four weeks postpartum. It was back-breaking stuff, and I’ll be happy if I never have to experience it again. When people ask when I went back, I tell them ‘four weeks’, with the swift caveat that I think it was a mistake to go back so soon. And yet - and yet. I’m glad I did it. To my secret shame, this is not because I have some mysterious and exalted Loyalty To My Craft, or a Pure Love Of Art. It’s much more basic: I like doing my job well, seeing my colleagues, and getting dressed in something really nice with some kick-ass earrings that would be out of place anywhere but a white-tie function. Working makes me feel normal, and that makes it worthwhile.
Of course, a big part of it has also been the pleasure of knowing my daughter is hearing me sing, something that’s been unexpectedly moving and interesting to watch. She was with me at every moment during my pregnancy, after all, and I sang right up to two weeks before I gave birth. I want her to keep hearing music -- live music -- as often as possible. Plus, she’s quite good company.
People talk a lot about how every pregnancy is different and every baby is different, and we try to avoid comparing them, because to do so is cruel and unproductive: things get competitive pretty quickly. But I think we forget that every mother is different, too, and this is where we should really avoid comparisons.
I’ve thrown myself back to work because it’s been, for me, a kind of self-care. Feeling like I’ve conquered things makes me a happier person, and being a happier person makes me a better mother. This is not to say it would be the right thing for everyone -- far from it. Every mother’s practice of parenthood as a musician is a combination of several things: what the pregnancy did to her body; how much her baby needs her from hour to hour, and how much she needs her baby; how she feels about herself as a musician; and how strong she is, physically and psychologically, in the face of fatigue and soreness, carting around an infant who, initially, gives very little back.
What a woman decides to do also depends on her tolerance of the utter nonsense she experiences as a female performer, which, after the vastly no-nonsense experience of giving birth, seems so ridiculous that it’s tempting to wash your hands of it entirely. We have to travel, dress up, and be sparkly and charming but also laser-focused on a tricky and subtle craft, all while putting up with musical scrutiny from colleagues and audience, and not a little objectification. This is compounded by a baby, whose existence must be concealed at certain times and celebrated at others: she must be invisible and silent during rehearsals/concerts, but available for adoration during the breaks.
Then there’s the necessity to breastfeed in crowded, cold backstage areas, in concert dress; to organise childcare so often that, in the words of one colleague, ‘you’re basically organising a dep for every gig’. You have to carry a big changing bag with extra outfits, toys, blankets, and a pile of other things in addition to your normal concert paraphernalia. You learn to put on your makeup at lightning speed, and learn to accept a lot of favours, many in the form of having food and tea fetched while you feed the infant.
It’s very easy before you have a baby to judge other musician mummies from afar: ‘oh, well she obviously didn’t go back to work because she wasn’t committed/good enough’ or ‘obviously she could afford to take time off because her husband is a management consultant/diamond dealer/pirate’ or ‘well, she had to keep singing, didn’t she? She was too good to stop.’
What hogwash. It’s much more interesting than that. Going back to singing, for me, was not an act of pure free will; it was (1) realising that I had to do it, and (2) realising that I could do it, even though it was difficult. I needed the money, and, as it turned out, I enjoyed the challenge. When you have a baby in your life, career decisions are suddenly much simpler; what’s right is the same as what you need, and that’s an easy call. It’s a cliché, but you also stop caring so much about what other people think.
I know colleagues and friends who’ve quite happily taken a step back from working when they’ve had a baby, and some haven’t gone back at all. Other friends have barely stopped for breath, taking armies of nannies and relatives with them on tour, indefatigably just getting on with it because that’s what they have to do to stay sane, and the pressures of their opera careers are much higher than mine. At the mid-range concert-career sort of level, I fall somewhere between the two camps: I can work until I drop for a few days, with Beatrice along for the ride, but then I can have a few days (or sometimes weeks) off.
The first few days after a tour are spent mostly indoors, mostly in pyjamas, breastfeeding in bed and watching (currently) The Good Wife, and getting disgracefully behind on emails. When I’ve recovered a little from tour and am getting up at a normal time again, I have a life between gigs that looks utterly ordinary: when my husband isn’t on tour, the three of us go to the park together, and meet people for coffee, and play with toys on the floor, and cook. In the early mornings, I write.
I like the way I’m doing it, but that doesn’t mean it would be right for someone else. It’s just what works for me. And if you can remember that you’re allowed to decide for yourself, then you’ll be okay.
Esther Brazil studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford and the Royal Academy of Music, and is now much in demand as a baroque specialist. A finalist in the London Bach Singer's Prize, she has appeared as a soloist with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Dunedin Consort. She recently made her Carnegie Hall debut in Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists, with whom she also recorded Bach’s B Minor Mass and the solo soprano cantata BWV 199, and was recently an artist in residence with the Accademia Monterverdiana in the Tuscan music festival Incontri in Terra di Siena. She is a soloist on the Dunedin Consort’s forthcoming recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers.