My Family’s “Music Genes”

  • Posted on: 18 October 2017
  • By: Friends of Music

No one should be surprised that scientists have found a genetic basis for musical genius. People have long suspected an alliance between base pairs and base players, chromosomes and clarinetists. How could there not be, given the explosive productions of families like the Bachs, the Haydns, the Mozarts, and the Mendelssohns—to say nothing of the Everly and Allman brothers, the Beach Boys, the Jackson Five, and, of course, the Pointer Sisters?

An aptitude for rhythm, keen listening, singing, creativity, and absolute pitch (as well as a tendency to tone deafness), it turns out, all have strong hereditary components. If you need further convincing, check out a 2014 article from Frontier in Psychology (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4073543/). 

All this got me thinking about my family—particularly about my brother, David Post, who is a psychologist and a classical music composer, and my older daughter, Suzanne Kszastowski, an opera singer. Both of them come from parents who love music, but received little formal training and chose other professions. So how did they produce these musically talented kids? What were some common non-genetic influences?

My brother zeroes in on the idea of early exposure. “Music is a language,” he says. “You have to start very early and hear and speak it all the time.”

We certainly did in our house while growing up. My dad, a physician who took cello lessons for a couple of years, always had chamber and orchestral music or Broadway show tunes whirling about the turntable. The car radio was glued to WQXR; there might just as well have been no other stations. My mom, a sculptor, took up the recorder. Sometimes the parents would invite one or two other amateurs so they could play Haydn’s London Trios or some simple arrangement for four or five instruments.

My brother began lessons on a half-size cello at age 7 or 8, playing duets with Dad—then zooming past his level of competence. Not long after, David would ship off for a couple of summer weeks to the Bennington Chamber Music Conference. At college, my brother majored in psych, but he also worked in composition classes with the so-called radical traditionalist, Ralph Shapey. Later, David studied with Larry Bell of the New England Conservatory and with Lukas Foss whose spectacular career brushed against pianist Lazare Lévy, composer Noël Gallon, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, and many others.

David dug into composing in the early 1990s and has never let up since. He has written dozens of pieces for chamber groups, solo instruments, orchestras, and choirs—amounting to seven CDs and counting—and has had his pieces performed in the U.S. South America, and Europe.

My daughter Suzanne had a different trajectory. An early talker, she began singing along with her mother—an artist and lover of folk music—at age 2. We played albums by Raffi, Tom Chapin, and Tom Paxton over and over and over again until each of us began to doubt our sanity. Suzanne also turned every corner of our small house into a stage and all her toys into dramatic props. She loved stories of heroines caught in sensational plots who sang about their predicaments: Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz, Les Misérables. She loved musicals, especially A Chorus Line. Every time this elfin 3-year-old, dressed in pink tights and leotard, belted out “Tits and Ass,” I was grateful we lived on a secluded street corner.

Suzie caught her big break at age 8. The private school she attended held a silent auction and the only lot we could afford was a chance to audition for the Children’s Choir of the Metropolitan Opera. Our $50 bid went unchallenged. Weeks later, after Suzanne had a few singing lessons from a babysitter, we pulled into the garage at Lincoln Center and made our way to Elena Doria’s studio, where a couple dozen kids fidgeted while waiting their turn. Suzie’s rendition of “Happy Birthday” was apparently good enough to get in. And so began a rough weekly schedule of rehearsals and performances—Rusalka, Turandot, and La Bohème—that often got us home to the suburbs after midnight, setting a bad precedent for finishing homework and a miserable sleeping pattern for Suzanne’s younger sister, then 2.

All that came to a screeching standstill after four years. Suzanne had entered her Desultory Teen Years, and grudgingly took lessons from an uninspiring teacher. She devoted about as much time to practicing as she did to tidying her room.

But with a change of voice instructor who engaged deeply with her students and took them on tour to the Czech Republic and Austria, Suzie’s abilities and commitment to singing lifted exponentially, as she prepared arias to audition for colleges. She found a small but dedicated music department at GW, where her instructor put her in performances at the Kennedy Center, as well as in concerts in Bucharest, Sofia, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo. From there it was straight shot to Northwestern for a masters in voice—and an audition for Chicago’s Lyric Opera, where she has been a soprano in the chorus since the 2008-9 season. Suzanne ascribes a lot of her success to hard work and discipline, as well as passion. "You literally have to put blinders on," she says. "So many people along the way tell you if you think you could do something else and be happy—go do it."

Geneticists will continue to discover amino-acid combinations that underscore the hereditary basis of musical talent—and maybe even a way to create the next Schubert or Schoenberg (heaven forfend!). Meantime, as more and more schools are curtailing or dropping their music programs, it doesn’t hurt to support our kids’ musical passions with private instruction and lots of music at home.