Galen Gardner navigates new territory to nurture her son’s musical gifts
Born and raised in Nantucket, Massachusetts, Galen Gardner is now the town’s elementary school physical education teacher. A Solo Mom for the past 13 years, Gardner finds herself in the fortunate yet precarious position of raising a child prodigy, whose creative needs exceed the opportunities available on the island.
Performing since he was eight years old, Gardner’s son, Ivan Schwieger (15), has accompanied her on weekends to Boston for the past five years, where he studies violin at the New England Conservatory of Music. With full custody, Gardner has worked hard and given up much to provide this opportunity for her son.
Q: When and how did you discover Ivan’s talent?
A: He would tell you he only plays violin, but he tinkers on piano and played tuba, baritone horn, and French horn in his school band. His guitar debut was in third grade at a Nantucket club called The Box. His teacher asked him to sit in. He had the head going, and the guitar. . . . It was hysterical.
Q: How did he land on violin?
A: As a teacher myself, I constantly question what works, so Ivan was my personal lab. When he was very young, I decided no TV and always had the radio on NPR or classical music. We became devoted fans of the library and played with blocks and beans and anything that inspired [his] creativity.
When I asked Ivan what instrument he wanted to play, he said tuba or cello—anything big. I called the local music school, and they had an opening in violin. Right away his teacher told me Ivan probably had perfect pitch. He could hear the notes perfectly and clearly.
Q: How did you encourage him at this point?
A: His next teacher found different venues for her students to perform. In third grade he started to get local awards, including a Nantucket Community Music Center merit award. He was invited to perform at the concert, and Susan Jarrell, the founder, gave him a check for $50. It was an honor.
When his teacher decided to leave the island, I panicked. I’d heard about the New England Conservatory Prep School in Boston, and she insisted it was for him.
I agonized in my single motherhood, How could I do this? Will he be good enough? I was born and raised on an island. I was afraid to drive, afraid of the city. The idea was “Mt. Everest,” and I was one little person.
Parenthood in general makes you vulnerable, but as a Solo Mom you must be fearless. I felt like I was in a box with four walls and I couldn’t get out. So I decided to reinvent how I see things; I’m not going to see this box. Instead of [thinking] I’m too small, I can’t do this, it became, I’ll call the school, start with an audition, take it from there. We made the appointment. I bought a GPS to find our way. And on and on [we went], one step at a time.
We made it to the school, and the halls were full of music. Ivan ran from practice room to practice room with an ear-to-ear smile. He’d found his home.
I stood outside the audition room with my fingers crossed. When we got the e-mail he’d been accepted, I cried. He was in fifth grade, and he’s been going every weekend since.
Q: How has your experience affected your views on parenting and education?
A: I feel there’s a lot of backlash anecdotally from peer-group parents, “You think your kid is so great.” This is the wrong thinking. We have all sorts of students in all areas that are great or middle of the road, and we certainly don’t pick apart students with special needs. But high-achieving students have needs also, and they can’t fully realize their potential if they aren’t given the chance.
We tend to give high achievers more work, which isn’t what they need. They need challenging work. I strongly advocate for this. We need more intellectual capital in the United States.
Q: What does supporting talent entail as a mother?
A: It’s really hard for a child to develop a love of something if the parent doesn’t show the same love and devotion as well.
When Ivan first got his violin, we took it out of the box together; figured things out; noodled around with it as a family. You need to be part of the process until they are old enough to embrace it on their own.
This past summer, he was able to attend Meadowmount School of Music for seven weeks. I thought my heart would break—but he loved it. He made good friends. It was a great experience. On the island, you are surrounded by water. If you have something that makes you different, like a talent, it can be even lonelier. Thanks to the Internet, he’s been able to stay connected to his tribe from Meadowmount.
Q: How do you both see his future?
A: He sees music as his future. He’s a freshman, so it’s time to start thinking about these things. I was reticent because he also has a brain for science and math. But I’ve come to the conclusion that when our kids are young, we drive, but when they get to high school, it’s time for them to have their own ideas. If you are a good navigator as a parent, you let them have input. He wants to be involved in music—as a soloist. Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t want to be Tom Brady?
Q: Besides your son, what are you most proud of as a Solo Mom?
A: Before my divorce, I had eight years of turmoil involving a land/inheritance issue. It all worked out but, right after, my marriage broke up. I remember going outside, looking at the stars, and thinking, Why me? Then one night I decided to focus on all the little kindnesses people had offered me. It meant so much.
I’ve been inspired by the book The Art Of Possibility [Penguin Books, 2002] to redraw my life. You have to redraw the box, find passion, light fires, be a couple steps ahead—and I’m proud that I was able to pull it off and do all I’ve done.
I think Ivan realizes I gave up a lot to make this all happen. But he gave up a lot, too. He enjoys himself but is respectful of his instrument, knows the value of his education, and realizes that the little money I had from an inheritance went to buying his violin. At one point I had to sell our house. But I asked myself, What’s more important: Chaining yourself to a house or building a life for your child?
Q: Favorite solo-parenting tip?
A: Tempo rubato. It’s an Italian musical term referring to “expressive and rhythmic freedom,” and my favorite symbol for the role of a solo parent—a constant state. It’s all about fluidity, creativity, and emotion.
Watch videos of Ivan Schwieger playing the violin.
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
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