One of my many roles is Music Teacher for the Willow School.  As part of that job I get to read articles on early childhood education.  One in particular, by a man named Trevarthen, has me thinking a lot about myself as a performer.

Colwyn Trevarthen is a Scottish psychologist and scholar who has written extensively on the musicality of infants and the purpose of music in the development of babies and very young children.  In his article “Music and the Intrinsic Motive Pulse”  (Musicae Sclentae, Special Issue 1999-2000, pp. 156-215) he talks about the idea that babies use musical language specifically to forge a bond, most often with their mothers.  The mother and baby share a musical back-and-forth dialogue that helps create a foundation for their relationship and the baby’s development as a speaker and learner.

In the course of the article, Trevarthen cites some research that made me dizzy.  The interaction between mother and baby is so vital, it can’t be faked.  The baby isn’t just mimicking the mother’s coos, sighs and singing, but already has a will to connect and is actively seeking an expected response.

Several studies were done.  In one of them, a mother is asked to play with her baby, but then to all of a sudden make a “dead face” and go unresponsive to the baby’s “chatter.”  When mothers did this, it was only a short time before the babies exhibited severe distress at their mother’s failure to respond to them.

Even more interesting, when mothers were pre-recorded talking babyese, and these videos were played to live babies, the babies were not fooled.  At first they responded well to their mothers, but when they did not experience a genuine back-and-forth interaction, they lost interest.  This is seen as evidence that the babies are expecting a true conversation of sorts with their mothers, and are not simply copying what they see.

It so happens that babies who do not receive this kind of mother-baby talk from their parents experience problems later in life.  Mothers who for whatever reason are not interested in their babies, due to mental illness, post-natal depression, alcoholism, etc. generate severe distress in their children.  The effects can last for decades.

My mother was ill for most of my life.  I do not know what our interactions were like when I was a baby…I certainly won’t fault her for any intentional neglect.  I suspect that for a variety of reasons she may have been unable to muster the enthusiasm for parenting that
I needed.

In relation to this, I am struck by my own incessant need to reassure myself throughout my life, writing tons of music and listening to it constantly.  Considering how much I’ve written, I have shared it very rarely with an audience.  I crave the audience response, but rarely do the work to get in front of one.

I’m beginning to wonder if this paradoxical behavior is indicative that my true priority is to have that mother-conversation with myself.  Maybe I’m trying to restore something that I can never get back.  Maybe all the writing and song-writing is me seeking that response, from other people if possible, but from me at least.

It’s a very sad thing to contemplate, that poor little kid I was, expecting a reaction from my mom, and not getting one.  It’s even sadder to think about a 20, a 30, a 50 year old man still looking for that response from himself, or anyone he can get it from.  It almost feels like an addiction of some sort.

I’m glad at least that my compensatory behavior was productive instead of destructive.  I could have found so many other ways to compensate.  I feel like it’s mostly luck that I ended up producing rather than ingesting.

Even so, it still drives me a little crazy to have written so much and shared so little.  I have often wondered what was stopping me.  Now I think I have an answer.

I wrote it for me, to connect to myself.  But if I want to use it to connect to an audience, I’ll have to take an awful risk: They might not respond to me.

That would really hurt. To put something out and get nothing back would devastate me the way a baby feels with a Mom’s “dead face.”  I don’t know if I could go through that again.

The stakes seem terribly high, even in my writing where I’m protected from immediate rejection because I can’t reasonably expect a lot of feedback.  The question remains for me:  Now that I know this about myself, would it be healthy to attempt to perform and get the feedback I’ve always craved, at the risk of being disappointed again?  Or should I just continue to try to nurture myself, even if it’s exhausting and potentially futile?

What do you think?

Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To get a free book on marketing tips for passing out fliers, getting on your own radio show, and writing a blog people will read, please go to and subscribe.


Marilyn Feingold October 22, 2019 @07:27 pm

I think you nailed it. What a child misses can't be replaced. We often spend our lives trying to fill in for what me missed. Some people react by giving up. You have certainly had enough confidence to continue to grow and develop as a musician/writer and human being. I have noticed that some of the greatest writers, composers, musicians had great tragedy in their lives. I believe they were deeply creative because of their pain.

Becky October 22, 2019 @05:18 am

Grief manifests in many ways. What you've so graciously shared calls to mind many of the case studies presented in "The Body Keeps The Score" by Bessel van der Kolk. His focus on long term difficulties of children who have been raised by parents with their own enormous challenges is profound reading. Thank you for sharing from your deepest self. You are a marvelous blessing to so many others.

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