Music came first on Lynda Dawson’s resume, but four years ago she added “mom.” Since then, the Raleigh-based singer-songwriter has found a way to blend those two worlds, bringing her daughters on the road, making music a part of life at home and working to teach other parents and kids how to make music together. We talked to Lynda about how she balances a full schedule with her bands Kickin Grass, the Lynda & Pattie duo and Little Root and life as a mom, and why she thinks music should be a part of every child’s life.
Q: What town do you live in, and what brought you here?
A: I live in Raleigh, in an old farmhouse just outside the city limits and 10 minutes from downtown. I moved here 15 years ago from New Jersey for the music scene, affordable lifestyle and strong sense of community.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, and about your family.
A: I'm a bluegrass/Americana songwriter and musician. I sing, play guitar and perform with the Lynda & Pattie duo, the Kickin Grass Band and my family music project, Little Root. I also teach songwriting camps and workshops, play music for young children and have taught Music Together classes for children age 0-5.
When my first daughter was born in 2010 I thought I might want to give up performing for a while and just focus on raising a family. Instead, the opposite happened and I found myself even more inspired. I realized that I wanted my children grow up thinking it's normal to pick up an instrument and sing and play music with your friends, connect with people at festivals and shows and process our world through music. Passing on the natural language, joy and passion of music to my kids became really important to me as a mom. And likewise, pursuing my own creative path as a songwriter and musician provides me with a sense of self and allows me to be a better mom for my kids.
Claire is now 4 and thinks going to a bluegrass festival is about the best thing you can do on a weekend. She is learning to play fiddle/violin and is constantly singing songs that she makes up. My daughter Ella is 6 months old and lights up with a huge grin whenever anyone sings to her or plays an instrument. My husband, Jamie, plays the mandolin, guitar and bass as well, so there's usually some sort of family music-making in our home every day.
Q: Life as a musician takes you on the road a lot. How do you manage that with small children in the picture?
A: With very, VERY supportive family, friends and bandmates and a good dose of creative problem-solving. Claire went on the road with us a lot in the Kickin Grass Band the first few years, which my husband also plays in, and our fellow bandmates and their significant others have become a second family to her. When Ella was born we knew taking both of them on the road with both of us performing would be a stretch, so the KGB has been on hiatus this year while I focus on touring with the Lynda & Pattie duo project, and Jamie has been able to stay home more with the kids on weekends. And my family music project, Little Root, allows me to play during daytime hours at kid-centric venues and closer to home. I'm sure my mix of musical projects will continue to evolve and change as the kids' needs change too. We also rely heavily on grandparents and family, who take the girls for long weekends or come and stay with us weeks at a time when I teach, travel, record, etc. I'm so thankful that our family and friends really want to be involved in helping us raise our children, and that the girls are building strong relationships at such an early age with them. It's truly a collaborative effort and “takes a village.”
Q: Is it harder now to write songs, practice your singing and guitar, etc., than before you had kids? How do you carve out time (and quiet!) do to that kind of thing?
A: Oh yes. Much harder. But when I do carve out time, I am much more appreciative of it. I have a space in our backyard that we recently renovated, I fondly call it "The Shed." It's a stand-alone practice and writing room, not connected to our house, though it's only a stone's throw from the back door. I go there to be creative, write and practice whenever I can.
I'm not a multitasker by nature — I prefer to focus on one thing at a time — but I've also learned that sometimes it's okay to not be able to give it 100% of my attention and to just sing a chorus into my iPhone voice memos while we're on the way home from grocery shopping, or work on a chord progression on the back deck while Claire is playing in the sandbox and Ella is hanging out on a blanket. I may not get it right the first time, but at least I'm working it out and playing music. The girls enjoy it, too, and they don't mind if I repeat something over and over or try something out on them, and sometimes that interaction inspires me to be creative in a way that I wouldn't be if I was in a room by myself.
Q: You’ve done a lot of work with introducing music (both listening and making!) to young kids. Why is that important to you? Why should music be a part of little kids’ lives?
A: Music is something that is part of who we are as human beings. We access a unique part of our self and make instant connections with our world and with others when music is involved. Our brains connect movement and music, we learn this way, and we remember things this way — both rational and emotional. Music changes our mood, it helps us get through hard times and elevates our joy during good times. In the heightened state of learning and flood of emotions that kids have to navigate every day, music is a touchstone that provides focus and purpose.
I have used music as a tool more as a mom than I could have ever imagined. Trying to get my 4-year-old to change out of her favorite superhero shirt and into her pajamas without a major meltdown? Sing the shirt off and the PJs on. Want my 6-month-old to relax at bath time? Make up a scrubbing song to keep her attention focused on my voice. Need an activity to keep us sane after nap and before dinner? Turn on a CD and dance and sing around the kitchen. Music instantly connects us to what we're doing and who we're doing it with.
I truly believe that all children have the potential to be musical, just like all children have the potential to speak their native tongue, fueled by the encouragement and a rich environment we provide to them as adults. We don't usually send our babies to English class to teach them how to talk, or ask our preschoolers to learn how to read before they learn how to speak--we teach by example, do our best to break it down for them in the context of our everyday lives, leave lots of room for trying and give high fives along the way. This is how I approach music with young kids. Make it a part of their everyday lives and incorporate music as much as possible in accessible ways for them. They're smart little cookies and they'll pick it up if we keep the music going around them. My hope is that if we do this, the adults of tomorrow will have the confidence and ability to create and access their musical heritage whenever needed and use music to build strong lives and communities for their future.
Q: How can those of us with more modest (like way more modest) musical abilities bring music to our own kids?
A: It's about the process, not the performance. Don't be afraid to be off key or out of rhythm; just sing and dance and tap and clap and make up silly songs and belt out old favorite traditional ones with your kids. If you do it, they'll do it. And don't worry about playing an instrument, YOU are an instrument. Clap, stomp, snap or tip-toe in time to the beat; get out pots and pans and have a kitchen jam with the speakers turned up; turn up your favorite song and dance around the room together; pick a simple tune you know like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and change the words to match everyday tasks without even worrying about rhyme: Wash, wash, wash your hands; Scrubbing them so clean; Now we rinse off all the soap; Dry them when we're done. Sing on "oooh," or "la," or "do, do, do" if you don't know the words to a song. Ask your kids for ideas and make up songs together. Go with whatever they say, even if it seems strange to you; let them be creative and follow their lead. It may seem silly as an adult, but to a kid it's learning through play. We call it "playing music" for a reason, even when the professionals do it. It's supposed to be fun!
Q: When you get some time at home, what's your favorite thing to do with the whole family in the Triangle?
A: Going to one of the many family-friendly events in our community, like Kirby Derby Day, Boylan Heights ArtWalk, Raleigh Christmas Parade, etc.
Q: What's your favorite thing around here to do when you get a few hours to yourself?
A: It's a toss-up. Go to the Alexander Family YMCA for a yoga class or catch up one-on-one with a friend over lunch or dinner around town.
Q: What's the best parenting trick you've picked up?
A: Giving limited choices. If I offer my daughter "x" or "y", I'm still in control but she gets to choose for herself. If she chooses something that wasn't in the mix, I just tell her that wasn't one of the choices and repeat them until she chooses. This usually results in happy kid, happy mom.
Q: What's the best advice someone has given you about being a mom?
A: Enjoy each phase for what it is, and live in the moment.
Q: What's your least favorite part and most favorite part of being a mom?
A: My least favorite part is not having enough time to myself to focus and re-charge on a daily basis. I somehow always feel tired. My most favorite part is having loving daughters who put 100% of their trust in me and who I have the joy of connecting with day in and day out. They remind me to take nothing for granted and inspire me try to be a better person, for them.