A family bound by a common strain. The Kolos
Milwaukee — ``There he is! That's our Dan!'' Jean Kolo pointed from inside the car toward the school grounds. A blond boy of 14 in shorts and a blue sweatshirt was holding cymbals and striding in unison with the rest of the Rufus King High School marching band.
In her excitement, Jean spoke as if Dan were her only child to play an instrument.
Actually, he's one of nine Kolo children -- ages 27 to 11 -- who have played everything from bassoon to flute. But the fresh enthusiasm in her voice said a lot about the unflagging love and parental wisdom that have brought the Kolos through some 25 years of richly rewarding family arts activity.
``This is where Dan and his older brother David both study music,'' she continued, as the Kolos' commodious station wagon eased past brass instruments glinting in the noonday sun. The route we we're taking to the Kolo home is one they had traveled ``more times than I like to remember, to various arts appointments,'' laughed Jean's husband, John, who was driving.
``At late hours and bad weather and all kinds of things,'' added Jean.
Is she a performing artist herself?
``No, but I drive well.'' Her answer spoke volumes about the priorities of an arts-oriented family, where meeting logistical demands are half the battle.
But behind all the effort lies the Kolos' cherished vision of the unique role the arts can play in the expanding consciousness of young people.
Whether they turn professional or not, ``it's always a jewel in the children's pocket,'' Jean says, one whose value lies in discipline, self-expression, and a brand of personal achievement that often gives its possessor a special way of viewing the world.
Yet nothing could be less detached than the artistic fabric of the Kolos' family life. For the parents, it's a story of total commitment that has called for personal ``networking'' to locate the right teachers and instruments, working with schools, coordinating a blizzard of family errands, and -- most important -- striking that delicate balance between determined support and loving detachment which is one of the keys to making the arts work in a family.
``I think that as a parent, it's not my business to dedicate the children's life to the arts,'' says John. ``That's their business. What we're really trying to foster in our family is an appreciation for the arts. All I'm interested in is that they get introduced to as varied an experience as they can before they become adults. And then at some point they have to make up their minds if they want to dedicate themselves entirely to one type of activity. I always tell the kids that we're not trying to make you professional musicians. If that's where they end up going, that's fine.''
By this time we had arrived at the Kolo home, an attractive brick and clapboard house on a tree-lined residential street. We headed straight to where the action was -- the combination dining and music room with an upright piano to one side -- and settled around an oval table with a green tablecloth. The Kolos have had many a marathon meal around this table -- talking, planning, hoping, with older kids sharing tips with younger ones about the world of arts for youth. ``Our all-time record is eight hours!'' Jean chuckles.
Among their nine children, there have been at least two potentially professional musicians -- Catherine, 27, and David, 15. Eighteen-year-old Mary is a serious art student looking toward a career as an artist or teacher. And it remains to be seen, of course, what the youngest members will do.
In a pattern not untypical for children in an arts-committed families, Cathy started out on organ and piano, then went to guitar, to flute -- even played a little cello -- and finally settled on the bassoon. Her parents' philosophy not only tolerates such exploratory butterflying, it embraces it.
``Don't bottom-line kids every month,'' Jean warns. ``They will say `I want music lessons,' and they'll buy a clarinet, then lose interest and say, `What I really want is a tuba.' The parents will say, `Oh, no, you tried the clarinet and we put all this money into lessons and we have that clarinet.' That's wrong. David started out on the clarinet, and now the French horn is really his love. Sometimes children do lose interest, but they know deep down within them what they need to play, and it's hard for them to explain why that's their instrument.''
The bassoon was certainly Catherine's instrument. She stayed with it through high school, then became a performance major in bassoon for six years at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. It wasn't until she announced her marriage -- to a jazz musician she met at the university -- that she finally decided not to become a professional.
``Cathy was really trying to find a job playing bassoon,'' recalls Paul, a 20-year-old college student and trombone player, who had joined us at the table. ``But with the expenses of getting a new instrument and the traveling for auditions, and other things, it was very hard.'' Meanwhile, Cathy has ``discovered criminal law,'' Jean explains, and is in her last year of law school. ``But she can't wait to finish, so she can get her bassoon out again.''
Although Paul thinks he won't go on to become a professional trombonist, he feels the rewards have been ``just incredible.'' ``I really enjoyed myself,'' he says, ``especially the senior year of high school, when I was the band president. Then I joined the marching varsity band as a freshman at University of Wisconsin, Madison [UMW]. And that's where I've been playing.''
It was no accident he started at early age. ``It was always all around us that playing an instrument was just something we were going to do,'' Paul remembers, ``because as soon as we were old enough, we were on one. You made your own decision what you wanted to play, but as long as you did something in the arts, that's all my parents were concerned about. They just wanted to keep us involved.'' Paul's memories include the din of music as siblings practiced wherever they could find space in the medium-sized home. ``Any evening you can hear different kinds of music from different rooms,'' Paul notes.
Paul is now studying accounting at UMW. ``I have to look at things realistically and see that I'm really not the best trombone player in the world,'' he says, with a serious but not unhappy expression playing across his face. ``I see players at different universities that are so much better than I am, that spend so much more time at it, are more dedicated to what they're doing. My involvement is for my own enjoyment, basically.''
Turning professional ``is an individual decision on the part of the player,'' he says. ``If they think they can do it, then that's something that they obviously have to pursue on their own. But I think I'll pick up the trombone again, though, very soon. I don't think I dropped it for good. It will be part of my life.''
``Besides,'' adds Jean, ``We need a brass quartet for Christmas.''
For David, the door to professional status is still wide open. ``It's not set in my mind that I'm going to be a professional,'' he cautions, but he has been studying French horn since he was in the third grade, and by sixth grade he was already a member of the high school band. Like his siblings, he recalls that ``Mom and Dad always had pushed us to try an instrument out for a while and see if we liked it, and if we didn't, that was fine.''
If you're going to study music, he says, it helps alot to do so in a family like his. ``Going to my older sister Cathy when she a music major to ask her things was a big help -- an extra reference to have around. She'd help me transpose music and things like that. She'd help me get over the rough spots with advice.''
But David does wish, at times, that he'd had a chance to do more of the things the other kids were doing. ``I make an effort now to be more rounded,'' he observes, ``rather than, say, going home and practicing four hours a day.''
Practicing for 11-year-old Sara -- a student at the Roosevelt Middle School for the Creative Arts -- seems to come naturally. ``She practices her violin at the drop of a hat,'' her father notes. ``All of a sudden she disappears and then we'll hear the violin from up in her room -- or the doors to the dining will be closed and she'll be playing the piano.''
Does she remember how it started? The question brings a laugh from the whole table. It seems she was only three when ``my Mom found out that there was a young people's art program at the college that she went to,'' Sara recalls, ``and that violin was one of the instrument being offered. Mom wanted to know if me, my brother Danny, and my sister Mary would like to get into it, and we all did. I'm the only one still playing.''
Dan, the boy in marching band, once played violin. But he recalls that the orchestra he was in ``needed extra percussion players, so they asked me if I'd like to play timpani. I said yes, and that's when I got started.''
``Except Danny forgot Daddy's golden rule,'' says his father with a grin. ``Anybody who starts playing a drum gets kicked out of the house. Too much noise. Later I found out they can practice without much noise by using drum pads.''
``You see,'' adds Jean, ``nobody has a chance to get a big head. I remember somebody compared family life to rocks tumbling in a tumbler, polishing each other, but you certainly can't get a big ego. There's always somebody to bring you down back to reality.''