Annie Keeling: Lessons from a woodwind player |

Annie Keeling: Lessons from a woodwind player

Annie Keeling
Annie Keeling compares playing a woodwind instrument to parenting. Playing the instrument too hard causes screeching sounds that would make anyone run away. Similarly, being to hard on your kids, may make them want to run or not listen either.
Photo by Sandra Wattad on Unsplash |

Admission: Yours truly played the clarinet in middle school, high school, and college. There I said it. And today, for some reason, I was thinking about how much parenting and playing the clarinet have in common.

If I blow too hard into a woodwind instrument, it makes a screechy, unacceptable and unmusical noise. Anyone within a mile radius will cover their ears, put on headphones if available, or run as far as they can from the sound.

If I am a blowhard parent — yelling at my child, over-talking, screeching or making some other disrespectful sound — my child will most likely want to run or put on headphones as well.

As you might imagine, not blowing hard enough into an instrument will create either a very small sound or no sound at all. Playing small as a parent can have a similarly small impact on our children’s ability to learn to be respectful and reliable people.

It took education and discernment for Benny Goodman to make that lovely, woody sound on his clarinet. Same with the riveting laments of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone. And, if I may take this analogy one step further, it’s similar to becoming a respectful and effective parent.


Clarence Clemons’ musical background included exposure to gospel music at a young age, taking music lessons, listening to the albums of the greats that had come before, incredible amounts of practice on his own, and then collaborating with others.

For much of parenting we are on our own, trusting our instincts. But we don’t have to do it alone. We can participate and cooperate with a parenting partner; observe and learn from those whom we admire; and seek out parent education and child development information.

Parent education is available through classes, books, podcasts and articles. And for anyone hoping to be a parent — or soon to become one — one of the best actions you can take is to hang out and play with small children — young relatives, friends’ kids, volunteering in schools and daycares or taking a job working with children.

In an effort to nurture empathy in children, some schools are using babies as teachers. In a Washington elementary school program called “Roots of Empathy,” a baby is brought into a classroom to reduce bullying and increase kindness.

The students observe the baby and are coached by the teachers on the miraculous and complex world of the baby. One of the great side-effects of this program is that the kids are learning about child development — something most adults know nothing about when they become parents.


Over time, a woodwind player discerns how hard to blow. While learning, this takes concentration and conscious practice. Conscious practice includes slowing down so the musician can find what actions to repeat and what isn’t working. It’s a skill to listen deeply and stay present with the experience. This is also true for parenting. A growing musician and a developing parent both take in feedback and utilize influences, ultimately making the best choices possible in the moment.

For many, learning this discernment is affected by past influences. Some musicians have been encouraged through modeling, mentoring, exposure or love of music shown by those around them. Their own love of music and talent was nurtured by these influences.

Discouragement works the opposite way. “You’re tone deaf,” or “Your brother is much more musical,” can easily shut down a budding musician.

The past plays an influential role in parenting as well. If our upbringing included respectful, effective strategies used by parents, teachers or influential adults, there is a good chance we will pass those experiences along to our children. Often, though, there was pain and wounding along the way.

In Eckhart Tolle’s book, “Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose,” he uses the term “pain-body” to represent old emotional pain that is carried deep within one’s system. It consists of negative emotions that were not faced, accepted or released in the moment they arose. These pain bodies exist quietly until provoked. A child’s temper tantrum or incessant crying can trigger an explosive response or anger snap in the parent as a pain-body surfaces.

Conscious awareness and practice breaks this cycle. Shining light on the pain-body begins to interrupt this unconscious pattern. The pain-body does not usually dissolve immediately, but once you have brought it into consciousness, the pain-body begins to lose energy and your present perceptions are less influenced by the past.


Along with new learning and growth, whether it’s an instrument or parenting, is the opportunity for compassion. There will always be ups and downs; challenges and successes. Positive self-talk is one way to consciously reduce critical thoughts and increase motivation and confidence. We can teach this to our children as well. Compassion for ourselves and our children is a worthy practice.

While it might be difficult to be the Clarence Clemons of parenting, I encourage you to have compassion for your learning curve as you strive to create a melody to which your family can happily dance.

Annie Keeling, MFA of Grass Valley provides parent coaching and teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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