After-School Rockstars: Music Mama Wendy Mitchell’s Best Advice on Finding the Right Lessons for Your Kids

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Rocker moms and dads who want to start their budding Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan, or Ludwig van Beethoven on music lessons — but have no clue on what to do first — should meet Wendy Mitchell of Ridgefield, Conn.

In addition to playing bass and singing in various original and cover bands with her longtime husband Chris, she’s simultaneously raised three (3!) music-minded kids and held down multiple theater-teacher roles (she’s also battled a rare form of breast cancer, while barely missing a beat).

Recently, Wendy was tapped as the director for national music school Bach to Rock’s newest Ridgefield, Conn., location. In this role, she oversees the music program for the school, which, like its name, offers guided instruction and performance opportunities for most major instruments — guitar, keys, violin, bass, drums, etc.

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Wendy Mitchell at the mixing board

With the back-to-school activity sign-up insanity is in full swing, Wendy sat down with Rockmommy to talk about encouraging music-minded kids to thrive, what to look for in a teacher, and how to make practice fun.

Rockmommy: As a musician and mother of 3 — two of whom are talented musicians in their own right — how did you encourage your children in the arts at a young age?

Wendy Mitchell: Immersion— they were surrounded by music from the womb (I used to listen to classical and jazz when I was pregnant and put headphones on my belly to soothe them) so it was only natural for them to love it from the beginning. When my son was two he used to climb into the cabinet to play the pots and pans with the wooden spoon so we got him a small drum set when he was about 4 or 5 and he hasn’t stopped playing since.

Rockmommy: There are so many options for kids today, in terms of music and activities. What factors should you consider when trying to figure out the best option for your child (e.g., age, their attention span and whether it warrants private lessons, etc.)?

Wendy Mitchell: Each child’s personality and learning style is different so there is no cookie cutter formula for all kids. The best program to is one that enables your child to thrive, to feel comfortable, safe and valued, and of course one that’s fun. Music lessons shouldn’t be a chore or something they dread— music education should be a place where kids can come to express themselves creatively. As far as attention span goes, for little ones (toddlers), a program that engages their mind and body is one that will capture their interest and help them to learn the basics of music.

Rockmommy: What are some of the “signs” that your preschooler or young child might benefit from an after-school music program? And how do you decide which one (e.g., guitar, piano, voice/chorus, etc.)?

Wendy Mitchell: If your child is always tapping, moving, fidgeting and humming, chances are they would benefit from getting all that rhythm inside out. To figure out which instrument works best, keep in mind the size and shape of their hands and what they’re able to manipulate. For example, a five-year-old’s hands aren’t big enough to fit around the neck of a standard size guitar. Start him/her off on a 3/4-size guitar from your local music store and see how they like it. For kids age 5 to 6 we generally recommend our Kids & Keys program which allows children to reach the piano on their level (literally — it’s a shorter height). This teaches them the notes of the piano, scales and chords and basic rhythm patterns in a fun and interactive way that reaches them on their level. Kids are given a head set for part of the lessons and learn to match pitches and notes by playing a fun computer game..

Rockmommy: It’s been said that children need instructors who possess similar personalities, or enthusiasm. When hiring instructors, what qualities do you look for?

Wendy Mitchell: MUST love kids. PERIOD. Kids (and parents) can sense when a teacher is amazingly talented but hates their job. It’s hard to fake having fun when teaching kids music. We only hire teachers who are not only qualified but truly have a love and a passion for teaching and helping kids express themselves creatively through music.

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Wendy Mitchell, playing bass with one of her bands.

Rockmommy: Sometimes finances can be a challenge for parents — and the cost of activities can add up. How do you know if a music program or activity is worth the investment (e.g., it has to have great teachers with experience and references, etc.)?

Wendy Mitchell: You get what you pay for. If another music school’s prices are much cheaper than the “going rate” there”s probably a reason why. All of our teachers are not only qualified and come from the top music colleges form around the country but they’re also background checked across a national registry. Parents will know when a music program is worth the investment after they’ve seen progress and excitement in their child in that they want to go to their lessons and look forward to it.

Rockmommy: If your child becomes disinterested after one or two lessons, how can you encourage them to stick it out for at least a few more weeks?

Wendy Mitchell: Learning to finish what they started is a valuable lesson to learn in any aspect in life, especially when they’re young. If we allow our children to quit after things don’t go their way they will want to quit everything— from sports, to jobs, to good habits.

Rockmommy: Often times, parents expect teachers to work miracles — but if a kid doesn’t practice on his/her own, that can affect results. Given this, what advice would you offer parents?

Wendy Mitchell: I’d say that a parent has to be on board and follow what the music teacher suggests in order to get the most our of the program. All parties must be on the same page.

Rockmommy: How do you encourage children to excel at music, while not putting too much pressure on them?

Wendy Mitchell: Practice, practice, practice! Michael Jordan, Arianna Grande, Gabby Douglas or any star athlete or performer didn’t get to where they are without hard work, dedication, and practice at their craft.

— Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.

5 Exercises to Strengthen Those Toddler-Carrying, Guitar-Carrying Arms

Rockmommies know all about arms, and the importance of keeping them strong. But even if you’re used to carrying one or two 30-pound tots at the same time (haha!), back pains and strains can come when you least expect them.

To help you improve strength and muscle tone while reducing risk of pain and injury, our resident rock mama and personal trainer Sharissa Reichert, who sings and plays washboard for Milf & Dilf, has created a five-minute video you can do anytime (like when your kid naps) and pretty much anywhere.

Disclaimer: These exercises are not intended to replace the guidance of your physician or healthcare provider. If you’re starting a new exercise program, be sure to consult your doctor first.

Happy workout, mamas!

Book of Love’s Susan Ottaviano on Motherhood, Music, and Moving Forward

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Before we became moms and memorized the lyrics to nursery rhymes, many of us had other musical ambitions. But only a handful of us enjoyed rockstar-like experiences and a bit of commercial success.

Book of Love’s lead singer Susan Ottaviano is one of the lucky ones.

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Susan Ottaviano of Book of Love

In 1986, the year that brought the world “Top Gun,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and the sexy-fun Robert Palmer hit “Addicted to Love,” Book of Love emerged from the underground NYC club scene with its self-titled album.

The band, which, in addition to Susan Ottaviano, includes co-founder Ted Ottaviano (songwriter/keyboards/vocals), Lauren Roselli (keyboards/vocals), and Jade Lee (keyboards/vocals), quickly gained a cult following in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But for Susan Ottaviano, another type of creative endeavor eventually took center stage, when, in 2003, after nearly two decades of steadily making albums, and accumulating a string of hits like “Boy” and “I Touch Roses,” she became a mom to her own little boy. The period after that was, in many ways, a creative blur, as Susan tried to find balance between raising her son, engaging in her artistic and musical endeavors, and working as a freelance food stylist.

This summer, Book of Love embarked on its 30th Anniversary Tour — in celebration of its 1986 album — with all of the original lineup. (If you haven’t, check out the 30th Anniversary Collection on Soundcloud).

In early August, Susan took a break between sold-out Book of Love gigs to chat with Rockmommy about music, creativity, and motherhood. I found her to be warm, personable, and filled with an immense amount of wisdom — see for yourself, in the exchange that follows:

Rockmommy: You’ve been performing on and off with Book of Love for 30 years! How are things going?

Susan Ottaviano: “We’ve gotten back together a bit over the years. We did an album back together in 2000 … and different comebacks felt differently. Sometimes it felt like, ‘do we need to keep doing this?’ or ‘Is this what the world wants?’ or ‘Is this really moving forward?’ You always want your life to be going forward, whatever that means. During some of the ’80s revivals it didn’t feel as good for us. We might have just been lumped together with some of the bands from the time period and that didn’t feel good for us, so we had some stops and starts. This time around we were much more focused about what we wanted to do, and it’s the fans who really inspired us to get back and do this.

Rockmommy: Is it new material and old that you’re playing?

Susan Ottaviano: “We’re doing our classic songs and we’re updating them in the show, and doing a lot of songs we hadn’t performed for many years. In this new album that we have out, it’s a ‘Best of,’ but we have two new songs in it. And we have a new single called ‘All Girl Band,’ which is inspired by our roots and how we got started making music 30 years ago.”

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Susan Ottaviano and her son.

Rockmommy: How has the crowd changed — or has it? — since the 1980s/1990s? Are you pretty much playing to fans in their 40s and 50s, or their kids?

Susan Ottaviano: “We have a very devoted cult following, and they’ve really come back. The fans are mostly over 40 — a lot of them are getting a babysitter and coming to a show. People are coming out and making a night of it. Clubs are interested in selling food and liquor — so it’s a little bit of a different concert than one a 19-year-old will go to. When we were young and didn’t have any money, the idea that I’d buy more than one drink was just impossible! A lot of these places are looking to turn the tables over.

Rockmommy: I read an interview with your bandmate Ted Ottaviano on writing new material. He said, ‘we ended up not really over-thinking it, we just went and flew our own freak flag.’ Would you agree?

Susan Ottaviano: “We basically just wanted to do the music that we wanted to make. As an artist, that’s what you have to contribute anyway. Do what you love, and hopefully others will love it as well. Just do the best that you can — your personal voice is what you have to offer.”

Rockmommy: When you had your son [in 2003], where you were in your music career?

Susan Ottaviano: “You can’t help but miss a beat during that time period. That’s what it’s for. Every working mother feels like they’re doing everything a little wrong. It’s very difficult to juggle a lot of things. Sometimes you have to lie and say, ‘yes, I’m on that’ when really, the baby’s crying or something’s going on. It’s kind of tough that way to compete. But what I think is that it continues to get easier. At the beginning I was sort of sucking up every bit of information about being a parent, about being a mom. Now, it seems as he’s getting older, I move away from that a little bit. I’m more interested in other things as well, now — I’m interested in adult conversation, or interested in people doing more interesting things. In the beginning, having a child really dominates your life.

Rockmommy: When you had your son, did you have to put music or other work on the back burner?

Susan Ottaviano: When my son was first born, I barely felt that I would be able to return to work. I remember crying on the phone to my sister saying, ‘Is it ok if I don’t want to be a rock star or a stylist, anymore?’ I just felt, right then, that I couldn’t handle it. I was so tired and it was all so new to me. But, things change very quickly, and it’s very important for new moms to know that they just need to hang in there. It gets better! You eventually get the life you used to have back. But, you also get so much more than you can possibly imagine!

Rockmommy: Do you relate to your bandmates who don’t have children?

Susan Ottaviano: “It’s impossible for people [without kids] to relate or really understand. Even in the beginning days, I would say to Ted, ‘I’m going to listen to something, but it’s going to take two days!’ It takes all of your in-the-moment brain power.”

Rockmommy: So there was an adjustment period for your band?

Susan Ottaviano: “Yes. I am also a part of another group that gets together to discuss these very issues. We are all musicians and performers and we are all-moms! We got together a few years back and are still going strong. We talk about our art and our kids and we help each other to facilitate our goals. It’s been a major support!

Rockmommy: How are things going for you and your son these days? Is he a musician? Artist? 

Susan Ottaviano: “He loves sports — he’s into basketball, he’s into rap music. He came to our first show about a month ago, when we played in New York City in the Highline ballroom. He’s a great kid. He sat with his cousins and didn’t say much. I said, ‘a few people might come up to you and say, ‘are you Henry?’ and he goes ‘why would they do that?’ He’s just funny!”

Rockmommy: Did you ever feel like when he was growing up you wanted him to sing too?

Susan Ottaviano: “Maybe I was pushed to do things a little bit more, and take on the music my parents liked. I believe your kid’s job is to rebel against you. What we learned so much in Book of Love in the first ten years we were performing is that each generation, they want their own music. It’s part of their identity. I’m more fascinated with what he can teach me, as opposed to me saying, ‘you need to listen to this kind of music,’ or ‘that is bad music.’ It’s like fashion. I’m more interested in what he’s listening to and what he has to say. He is very creative … I thought I’d have a kid just like me, going to The Met, but it’s not like that. He likes Minecraft.”

Rockmommy: What advice would you give to musician parents — most of whom haven’t achieved as much commercial success as you, and have time management challenges when it comes to balancing everything?

Susan Ottaviano: “I think that it’s a question of figuring out a way to carve your time — try to have some separation, and some time you can spend with [your child]. It’s a difficult thing, thinking about ‘how do I get a babysitter?’ But the kids get older and it happens real fast. My life is completely different then it was six, seven years ago when I was trying to make the doughnuts, and running from work to homework and all of that. If you can try to find people to help you and carve out a little time — try to take on small goals — that helps. Try to do just one thing today. Don’t try to take on the world.Try to just do one thing, such as spending an hour on music.”

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.