The first round of auditions for Juilliard’s pre-college program is by video. From December to March my son practiced for three hours a day to prepare. At the end of March we recorded him playing Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, by Saint-Saëns, and we sent it off to Juilliard.

The results of the first round came quickly. He made the cut.

The art of practicing is finding a process for repetition without boredom.

Then he practiced three hours a day for two more months. The piece he played is about four minutes long. So it’s probably difficult for you to imagine how he spent three hours a day for six months working on that one piece. But practicing—for anything—is a science.

When he told his teacher he was bored, she told him boredom in practice comes from a lack of engagement. She showed him how to recognize disengagement. Then she taught him to look more closely at each note and listen more deeply with his ears and his heart.

He learned to practice by changing the rhythm of the piece. He learned to play one note at a time with a tuner. He learned to play each measure with a different metronome timing, and then he played the piece so slowly it took 20 minutes instead of just four.

During these insane lessons my son spent one hour on five notes; the more we worked on the art of practicing the more I saw that practice is a method to do anything ambitious and difficult. Through hard work, he learned to create a system and process instead of just focusing on the goal itself.

The best processes speed up the cycle of frustration and recovery.

The first 3,000 hours of cello lessons are learning how to recognize a wrong note and stop and fix it. And now he has to learn how to recover from failure, very quickly, so when he plays a wrong note in competition he can move on immediately. Even though I don’t know if he’s sharp or flat, I do know that if he’s sulking about making a mistake—he can’t focus on not making the mistake.

Resilience is about being able to get back up on your feet on your own, so I teach him not to rely on other people to prop him up. “You don’t need a teacher to tell you how great you are. Tell that to yourself. Right now.”

It’s a hard concept. On different days I tell it to him differently. And then I watch hopefully, because I tell that to people I coach all the time and I know it’s hard, even for adults.

Last Thursday was the big day.

My son is on a mission.

I am on a mission, too. I want to hug him and high-five him and tell him he blows me away with his hard work. But I don’t want to embarrass him, so I take pictures instead.

Until he says, “Mom, put your phone down! You’re embarrassing me.”

Breaking things down into small steps isn’t enough. Make them smaller.

It’s impossible to put all your energy into something really difficult if everything is riding on the result. The people who are the best at reaching big goals have an obsessive drive toward the goal, but also, they are able to break down the process of meeting the goal into tiny, bite-sized pieces and then take pleasure in completing each part.

When someone is unable to relish the small steps, they just stop. Because process starts to seem hopeless if you constantly focus on the end. You have to have a proclivity for hard work (which might be as crucial and inheritable as talent) combined with the ability to take joy in the process itself.

He practices facing the accompanist so they can see how each will play particular parts.

Then he turns his back to her because that’s how it’ll be at the audition. She watches his arm and his head for cues. They don’t have to talk. They both just know that this is what will happen.

He has been eating carefully and sleeping carefully for a week. He reminds me of how I used to work to peak for the beach volleyball season and recover over the winter. And he reminds me of everyone who has ever worked hard for something that is a long shot: He is nervous.

No process works without a coach who deeply understands the goal. 

The teacher has been training him for nerves as well. We scheduled five competitions prior to this audition so he would get used to playing this concerto under pressure. People perform better—in any circumstance—with a little bit of stress. Top performers self-regulate to generate the optimal amount of stress.

The teacher had him run up and down our street to get his heart rate up and then had him sit down to play his piece while his pulse was still racing. And the other day when he came home from a basketball game he wiped his hands all over his face and played his piece with sweaty palms.

Now he gets dressed and he waits. I can’t read music and I can’t tell what’s in tune, but I do know what it’s like to have focus, so we have practiced waiting. In this outfit. I made him stand by our front door, where there is nothing to look at. And I didn’t tell him how long he’d be waiting. And he practiced controlling his thoughts and his nerves.

Finally, here we are, and he looks so grown up to me.

The door opens. He goes into the room, and he plays.

I wait. The kids in the other practice rooms are too loud for me to hear him. So I just think good thoughts.

And it’s over.

We won’t know the results for another two weeks. But we already know that he worked incredibly hard and he grew from each step of preparation.

So he already won. Because now that he’s done this for cello, he can do it for any part of his life in the future.

Update: He got in!

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  1. Keith Williams
    Keith Williams says:

    This is a sweet little article on the process of prepping for an audition… and parenting a kid with a deep musical drive.

    So many young people are now taught to maneuver around disappointment; to avoid competition; to live in the safe median of the bell curve. Everybody is safe there.

    What happens when a young person pours so much of their heart and soul into something that it’d ~really~ hurt to lose? Well, if that kid is lucky, (s)he has a parent or coach who is wise enough to write this:

    “[H]e already won, because now that he’s done this for cello, he can do it for any part of his life in the future.”

  2. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    This is a great post – you have a talent to make it relevant to all. It’s a joy to share your joy as a parent. It’s a joy to hear of your son’s accomplishments, too! Can’t wait to hear how it all goes, but you’re right – either way he already won.

  3. Gigi
    Gigi says:

    I loved this article for so many reasons — the lovely writing and photos for one thing, but also the points about playing through the mistakes, battling the nerves, etc. . My child has played the violin for about 11 years. I remember her teacher telling me when she was very young that though it came easily to her and she would click into performance mode as needed on stage, she was not a “violin geek” and was not going to immerse herself in practice because she had other interests. He was right. Most of the time she did not fight me about it, but practice happened with reminders, not on her own.

    She did stick with it, though, and would not hear of giving up the violin at different points in her life. Then late last year, she said she wanted to apply to a music college. Nope, we said — maybe be a music major at a regular university, but you need a back up. She will be off to college this fall, not as a music major, but she plans to take her violin along and join the orchestra, and perhaps the choir as well. Will she practice without motherly reminders? We’ll see :-)

    For your son — whatever the outcome, I wish him the best. He looks very charming. The photos melted my heart.

  4. Yocheved
    Yocheved says:

    He’s already won so much and has a top teacher and devoted ima so he is set for life!

  5. David France
    David France says:

    SOOOOoo many of my friends were sharing this last week I HAD to check it out! I found myself captivated by the journey and believed it would be an inspiring read for my youth orchestra in Boston. I shared it with them enthusiastically but didn’t realize the real lessons for my youth would be found between the lines.

    They then challenged me to write a response blog and share it. You can read their journey here:

    “The gap between the haves and the have nots isn’t one that can be measured merely by the size of one’s bank account or by the renown of one’s alma mater. While equal access to opportunities sounds noble that access might not make the playing field as level as it appears. If the advantage is in the guise of information the disadvantage becomes harder to recognize and even more difficult to change. In these cases being outside of the loop IS the disadvantage and those in the know take many of these protocols for granted. Penelope Trunk didn’t intend to deceive her readers she just believed the things she left out were obvious to those in her subculture who needed to know them. Anyone who curiously read the article from a spectator’s perspective left satisfied but for my students the parts that were missing were the parts that mattered most.”

  6. Jack
    Jack says:

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  7. Nina
    Nina says:

    As a cellist myself, can I suggest one thing you could do that would be even more supportive than taking loving-mom photos? Carry the cello! So much better for your son to arrive with his shoulders etc in best possible shape. I once saw an adult male soloist arriving to a dress rehearsal, and his wife was carrying his Strad for him – she was a pianist herself but she didn’t have to play that day, so tiring her hands/arms/back was better than tiring his.

  8. jen
    jen says:

    Beautiful. You’re a warrior, PT. I’ve followed your blog for so many years, now. You’ve sacrificed everything for him and soon your apron will be so heavy with all the fruit.

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