This is my son on registration day at Juilliard. We are so excited.

But not surprised.

That’s what happens when you work this hard. You are not surprised.

I am told it’s rare for a kid to get into Juilliard on the first try. Kids audition for three, four, five years before they get in. And that’s what we would have done. So we sort of, in the back of our heads, thought this is just what we are doing. We are excited that he only had to audition one time to get in.

The commitment did not come easily. And each step of the way I’d ask for reassurance. When I was trying to decide if we’d drive 8 hours to take cello lessons with Gilda Barston, I asked the person who first told me my son had talent: Jean Dexter. I said, “Aren’t there other teachers as good as Gilda who are closer?” And she said, “No.”

When Gilda told us we’d have to drive twice a week, I said to her, “I feel crazy doing this for a seven-year-old boy.”

She told me, “Well. If you don’t want to drive here, you could just move here.”

When he was eleven, and I told people we were moving from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to take lessons with Amy Barston, nearly everyone in the cello community said, “That’s a great idea.”

Parents who are cello parents say “we.” Parents who are not cello parents say, “Don’t you mean your child, not you?”

But I mean we. The sacrifice a parent makes to get a kid to this spot is huge. Which is not to minimize a kid’s sacrifice. Mine has given up a normal childhood. He started driving 8 hours a week to the Music Institute of Chicago when he was six. By age seven it was 16 hours a week.  The year he was nine we spent more than 60 days in a hotel. The year he was ten he had status in the frequent flier program with American Airlines.

He traveled so much for cello that when he joined sports teams, he couldn’t play the games because he had cello on Saturdays. He had bags under his eyes every Wednesday because his cello class on Tuesday was for high schoolers so it ended at 10pm. He went to sleep with headaches. He skipped meals because of sores in his mouth.

I was the family breadwinner and the family cello parent. I took conference calls between cello classes, and I did webinars from the piano teacher’s studio. I ended up in the hospital from stress, and I hired a driver. And if you think cello lessons are expensive, they are nothing compared to a full-time driver.

People are not shocked by their own achievements. People are shocked by luck. But luck isn’t what changes us. Being brave enough to give up a lot to get what we want is what changes us.

Here is the story of the gradual acceptance of an overwhelming goal:

July 2011 – I took my son to cello camp when he was six years old. Six hours of cello classes a day. I told my family we’d definitely come home early. But we didn’t.

July 2011 – I tell the orchestra teacher, Carol Ourada, that my son is too young and we are not going to attend her class. She says, “Just stay! He’ll learn fast!” I still have no idea how he knew what to play.

August 2011  – As promised, cello camp shows me a new perspective: My son was the only kid who watched TV during the breaks. All the other kids practiced.

August 2012 – Wherever we go we take the cello. And look for someone to practice with him. The teacher screams at me: “YOU have to learn to practice with him!”

November 2011 – The deeper we get into cello the more rigid the rules. No trying out new songs until the teacher says ok. No bad bow holds. No jumping around in the lesson.


June 2012 – This level of commitment would not be possible without a group of other parents and children doing the same thing. I start to see end-of-year recitals as a celebration of community.

October 2012 – I read that specific details a child includes in a drawing reveals how the child sees the world. My son draws a self-portrait that includes his own ear drums.

November 2012 – I have no idea what I’m doing when we practice. I discover Elizabeth Means, who practices with him each day during our trip to New York City.

December 2012 – I start to notice patterns among kids who gave up their childhood to be great at something. Families relocate. Parents divorce. Coffers are empty, or bankrupt.

April 2013 – I start working during our drive so I get in enough hours to make enough money. I reorganized all my work so the majority of it is can be done on the phone.

May 2013 – As he’s getting ready to play at a black-tie event, he seems grown up and focused in a way that shocks me. I vow to do all I can so he can be a performer.

May 2013 – In Chicago for a recital. I buy a scooter so he can play around like a normal kid. On way home I faint from stress. He rides along in the ambulance.

August 2013 – I read it’s important to downplay talent. I say, “You’re a hard worker!” and “I love you because you’re you, not because of cello.” He says, “That’s not true!”

November 2013  – My son sees kids making friends at school. He wants to go to school, but he realizes that actually, he has no time for school.

February 2014  – I worry I am not spending enough time with my older son. I keep telling myself music is about more than playing music so it’s ok to invest so much time.

February 2014 – We start seeing a child psychologist to help with the pressures of cello. It’s a tossup as to who the psychologist is helping more: me or my son.

April 2014 – I start to admit that the driving time is hurting everyone in the family. Some weeks we spend more time in the car than practicing.

August 2014 – My son starts piano to help with cello. I tell him we are buying a cheap piano and I am not practicing with him. Months later I retract both statements.

June 2015 – I scale back the goals for my company so I can focus more on cello. I am shocked that the board members encourage me.

April 2016 – Practicing is constantly difficult. When he was younger and bows were cheaper, I broke two. Now I hurl sheet music at the wall. No cello mom is surprised.

May 2016 – The cello teacher has cancer. Our lessons focus on sadness and death.

July 2016 – I worry about overcommitting at too young an age. We spend a day developing plan B.

August 2016  – We travel across the country meeting teachers to figure out what to do next.

December 2016 – We move to Swarthmore to study cello with Amy Barston. Amy gives him four lessons a week and he practices three hours a day.

May 2017 – He applies for Juilliard. At eleven years old, he is the youngest cellist accepted.

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  1. Nan
    Nan says:

    What strikes me in the series of photos is that even when your son looks serious, he seems happy. That’s amazing. You do good work.

    Congratulations to both of you.

    • Nile Whent
      Nile Whent says:

      Wow!!!! This is whatFreams are made of.Super compellibg and inspiring I loved this,”People are not shocked by their own achievements. People are shocked by luck. But luck isn’t what changes us. Being brave enough to give up a lot to get what we want is what changes us.”
      As an aspiring actor living in NYC this fuels my artistic soul to not give up.
      I wish him and the family the Best of Best.I am convinced this young prodigious artist is going to change the world!
      -Nile Whent

  2. Brynn
    Brynn says:

    My son has tested profoundly gifted and began working in environmental activism and legislative diplomacy by 6 years old. HBO called for a reality series at 9. So much of what you write I can feel and we have lived. Relocation, dicorce, money, school, lack of childhood, hours upon hours in a car, yelling matches over practicing speeches, fits of feeling guilty, high end acceptance letter years earlier than others, that is our life too. It is a very weird one. We are definitely a “we” not a him or me. We are also closer than most every other parent/kid relationship. He will be 13 in October, and as we merge into teenage years I know I would not change any of it now.

    Congratulations to you both. It starts to get smoother. I promise.

    • Malingerer
      Malingerer says:

      Get ready for the kid to pull away & act out in some crazy-ass ways. That closeness you two have? It will come back to bite you and your child in the ass. Guaranteed. The child NEEDS to form their own opinions, thoughts, and constructs. Been there. Done that. It’ll all end up ok in the end, but you’re in for a wild ride, like nothing you’ve experienced to date. HBO ‘never called’ but everything else is bang on. Best of luck. And, make sure not to hold on too tight…

  3. Grace
    Grace says:

    Congratulations! How amazing! You (the plural “you”) are inspiring. You guys paid the price for success. There is no short cut to Juilliard.

  4. Maria
    Maria says:

    Sometimes, after one has reached a seemingly impossible goal, after the metaphoric non alcoholic champagne bubbles have settled, there may be a sense of “is this all there is?”. It’s important to set new goals to stay motivated. Meanwhile, enjoy the affirmation of your sacrifices. Congratulations!

  5. Gary
    Gary says:

    Outstanding! I hope the rest of your and your family’s life is happy and harmonious, and that you all (not just cellist son) achieve your best each day. Bravo Zulu!

  6. HonoluluKay
    HonoluluKay says:

    Julliard is an amazing accomplishment. You are understandably proud. How does the farmer feel about this. He has made an huge sacrifice for this achievement, too. We would love to know how he is doing. Again, congratulations to your child!

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      He DIDN’T make a huge sacrifice, he is still on his farm the same as always. Had he made that sacrifice to move with her they’d probably still be together, although since he is an abuser it’s better this way.

      • HonoluluKay
        HonoluluKay says:

        Ohhhhhhh…. I missed that part. I thought you had moved to support your son and he was without his wife within that same support. Never mind. Who cares what he thinks, then!

  7. Ciara
    Ciara says:

    This is a great achievement for your son and you have clearly given up a lot to help get him there, but in the end the achievement is playing at this level — not being accepted or going to a particular college. Unfortunately, attending Julliard doesn’t just require talent or effort. It requires money.

    My stepson got into Julliard (undergrad) this year and was offered a scholarship. He turned down the place. Even with a half scholarship — they don’t do full scholarships — he would end up with a huge debt and he will never make much money as a jazz musician. He didn’t start to play until he was nine. His parents encouraged him but he was the one who wanted to put in the work and do the travel.

    He is lucky enough to have a European passport so he will come to Amsterdam to study. Fees at Julliard are around $65K a year including room and board. Fees in the Amsterdam conservatorium are 2000 EUR a year.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      We are in the process of getting our EU membership for myself and my kids for this very reason.

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      Juilliard pre-college, where Z will attend, is much cheaper than the conservatory proper. It’s a Saturday-only program, like most conservatory prep programs, and covers the usual – lessons, theory, ear training, chamber, orchestra – and all-in it’s 11.4K a year.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Congratulations P and Family. Great work and a lovey narrative in the midst of the family difficulties. Hard work pays off.

      Ciara, I feel sorry for your stepson. It is a shame they didn’t give him a full ride. It is such a well regarded competitive institution, and financial barriers should not be prohibitive to those who excel at the arts. I wish him well in his future endeavours.

      A friend of mine has trouble keeping funds in the public art program of a major US city- the council continuously slashes the amount available. I found an article opinion piece on funding the arts for those interested in broader numbers and I hope we return to a time in which it is a priority.
      https://www.juilliard.edu/journal/fund-or-not-fund-shouldn%E2%80%99t-be-question

    • anonENTP
      anonENTP says:

      Ciara,

      I think you are doing the right thing. Any American parent who can get an EU passport for their child should do so if they are concerned about tuition costs for university. Many universities in Europe accept FAFSA applications, and the living expenses will also be lower for countries like Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. A number of those universities teach in English.

      You cannot go wrong with this move. I hold both EU and US passports, and almost went to Europe for my Master degree for this reason. The reason why I didn’t is because I was accepted into an Ivy League for a program in a lucrative field. Although the debt is very high, the pay-off is more than worth it. My internships were excellent (and very quant-heavy), as well as being able to network with first-class professionals. I interviewed for, and received offers, for a number of positions that were more than DOUBLE my pre-Masters salary. I’ll be able to pay off my debt while living a comfortable live.

  8. MBL
    MBL says:

    That is fantastic!!

    I love, love, love the look on your face in the reflection of the mirror for the November 2012 photo.

  9. Sophia
    Sophia says:

    So happy Penelope! You said it would only be 2 weeks to hear, so when there was no news I thought there was no place, which surprised me a lot!

  10. Jay
    Jay says:

    I think I commented on a previous post, confused, asking why was cello just so important?

    – I guess this post explains that neatly!

    Congratulations! Hard won and well deserved victory!

  11. Fiona
    Fiona says:

    Congratulations to the both of you and thanks for the honesty. Simultaneously inspired and terrified by the journey you had to take. But very happy for you both.

  12. Fiona
    Fiona says:

    Also – curious to know what you think of ISFPs v ESFPs in the (classical) music world. Actually, on Myers Briggs in general within the scene. My son (ISFP) loves the violin and still in early stages. Thank you!

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Such an interesting question, and I think about how type affects being a musician, of course.

      One thing I know is that it will not be enough for people to be able to play perfectly. Before recordings were so ubiquitous, kids took longer to learn to play well. And before YouTube you had to pay to see people live to see a great performance.

      Now, with lots of great musicians, and lots of access to great performances, a musician has to have a special je ne sais quoi to make people want to see them live. Music will have to less about amazing mastery and more about amazing connection to the audience.

      This is my very non-musician opinion of what is important for future musicians.

      Penelope

  13. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Congratulations!!! It IS a success for all of you!

    As a reader, I appreciate how you showed us how to walk the walk. Your son has obvious talent, but maybe he wouldn’t have been accepted as the youngest cellist – and on the first try – without all the preparation you put into it. You did this for him. You used your amazing skills to help him. And by showing us the preparation, you showed us how to do the same. Thank you!

    Congratulations on a well-deserved success!

  14. Mary Beth Williams
    Mary Beth Williams says:

    Congratulations dear Penelope. The discipline involved in mastery at this young of an age is a beautiful thing to behold. It took deep commitment, fortitude perseverance and faith and so much more to achieve this. Bless you both ❤️❤️❤️

  15. Olivier
    Olivier says:

    Whoa! Congratulations! At least the breakup with the farmer will not have been in vain. Maybe you can even use this to engineer a face-saving rapprochement with him, as this vindicates your decision to move.

  16. Barb
    Barb says:

    CONGRATULATIONS!! All the hard work your family has endured has paid off!! I am so happy for you and your family!

  17. Emily
    Emily says:

    Congratulations! I had been waiting for this post to hear the results of the audition. With everything he did to prepare for the audition I would have been surprised to hear a different outcome.

    At some point could you explain what Juilliard will be like for him as a kid so young? Will you move to New York?

    Also I love the cello and it would be wonderful to hear some of his music, if he/you wouldn’t mind sharing.

    Again, congratulations to him (and you) as a long-time blog reader. :)

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      No less pressure.

      It reminds me of getting funding for a company. Everything leading up to that is about getting funding, but after a day of celebration you realize how much there is to do now that there’s mkney and how fast you need to move before the money runs out.

      It appears to me that being a musician is about timing as well – musicians on their way to professional success hit milestones just like startups do.

      Penelope

      • Bos
        Bos says:

        I really think you have a good perspective on this, PT. A musical career is not something that ends – it’s a mountain with no top. Z got into Juilliard pre-college, but when he finishes high school he’ll have to audition again for Juilliard conservatory if that’s where he wants to stay, and there’s no guarantee. When he finishes conservatory, it’ll be auditions for professional positions, side groups, solo gigs, on and on. This is very much not a finish line.

        I also think you’re very right not to post any of his performances yet, curious as I am to see them. You have a good perspective on what will become a lengthy process of reputation management. It’s very true that more than mechanical perfection is required; the performer has to be compelling somehow for audiences to want to see him in person. Part of that might be nobody seeing his work in less than a complete form.

        I want to encourage you to imagine that you will see something of a respite now. At least you can stop your peripatetic performance quest. I expect that his teachers will want to be guiding his development now, not you, including his performance engagements.

        I know that my son’s teacher, at about your son’s age, told me he’d prefer it if I didn’t come to lessons anymore. Of course this is a nuisance because I can’t count on either of them to write down the names of new books he needs correctly, and my son always brings it up the day before he needs it… but sidelining the parent is part of the child becoming responsible for himself.

        Again, congrats! I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful for both of you.

  18. Jude
    Jude says:

    I love that this has worked out for both of you. It is a truly great achievement and one that you should both be so proud of. Wishing you all the happiness possible

  19. Dana Martin
    Dana Martin says:

    I am always curious as to how a child becomes interested in a specific instrument (cello as opposed to violin, flute, piano,whatever). How did it come about that he wanted to play cello initially?

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I started his older brother on violin when he was three. In hindsight I did this because I wished I had played the violin.

      Of course I knew nothing about playing the violin so it was trial by fire. It is very very hard to play a string instrument and it took us two years of practicing every day to play twinkle twinkle little star. I really had absolutely no idea how to be the teacher, and the parent is pretty much the teacher at that age.

      So when my second son was three I was like, forget it, there isnno way I’m doing this with another kid. But he begged and begged for a violin. Finally I gave in, at age 5. But I dodnmt want the boys to compete with each other, so I put the second kid on cello.

      In his first cello leason he somehow knew how to play the first three songs the teacher showed him. She had no idea what to do with him – we were both in shock. I remember crying in his first lesson. I just knew this was really not normal and that I was going to have to figure out what to do.

      Penelope

  20. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Congrats to both of you! What an accomplishment. 11 and in on the first try-unbelievable. I’m glad you did this little mini review of the years, for yourself…you’ll look back in 5, 10 years and be so happy you did.
    What’s next? Will he be at Julliard until he’s a young adult? How does that work?

  21. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Congratulations! I’m glad to hear your son gained acceptance on the first try. That’s quite an accomplishment. Also, it will allow you to give more focus to your other son and your business. Thank you for sharing all these nice photos. In the department of wanting more, I would really like to see some video or hear some audio of your son performing.

  22. Joy
    Joy says:

    I feel like you’re a friend, I’ve been reading your blog for so long. When I saw this in my email this morning, I actually cried tears of happiness at your news. Congratulations to all 3 of you, what a wonderful amazing opportunity! Best of luck as well!

  23. Fleur
    Fleur says:

    Dear Penelope, I follow your blog from time to time. I was struck by your history and the fact that you left the farmer. I want to say congratulations to you and your son! Take care

  24. Maria Killam
    Maria Killam says:

    Wow Penelope, loved this story with pictures, now I understand all the posts where you were always talking about driving! What an amazing accomplishment for you both! You are committed!
    Congrats!
    xo
    Maria

  25. KK
    KK says:

    Admirable of course but what is the point of all this? If your son is in the top 1% of cello players in the world, what does that mean? How much money will he be able to make from that? Will he be able to support himself financially by playing cello? Will you both be able to “recoup” the financial investment you’ve made?

    If you’re determined to be in the top 1% of something why not go for football or something more lucrative?

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      This seems like a silly comment, KK. Have you ever noticed that football players are all really big? That’s not something they chose; that’s genetics. Have you seen a picture of PT’s kids? They couldn’t be professional football players no matter how hard they tried.

      My kid could be a professional football player, size-wise. He just turned 13 this month, and he’s 5’11 and over 200 pounds, with maybe another six inches to go. The coach at his school would like him to join, but he doesn’t want to hurt his fingers. He’s a musician.

      Why is this a better choice than football? Life is long. Most would-be football players fail to make it, and their consolation prizes are obesity, brain damage, and crippled knees. You fail to make it as a professional musician and you’re still a great musician who can play and sing until you die.

        • Bos
          Bos says:

          The number of professionally employed cellists is a couple orders of magnitude greater than the number of professionally employed football kickers, but you do your math and I’ll do mine.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      When genius and passion align for a particular talent, you can’t just choose to swap it for something else. Do you know many professional football-playing classical music prodigies out there? The answer to your question is because he loves cello, not football.

    • Grace
      Grace says:

      Your question is basically: What is the point of success if you don’t recoup your financial investment? I think that’s missing the point. Penelope’s son loves playing cello at the highest level. He can’t imagine life without it. Money is not something an 11 year old should think about. Money is not something anyone should think about too much when making huge life decisions.

      If a person makes decisions based on money, then don’t have kids at all. They are very expensive and a rather poor return on investment.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Um, her kid just got into Julliard. It seems like rather poor assessment to complain that he should be doing something else with his life.

      He’s also an ESFP so he can buy and sell you If he wanted to, meaning if his life goes in the direction that music is mainly a hobby and he then needs to become an investment banker or sales executive- he will be A OK. So, I really wouldn’t worry about her sons prospects as, again, an 11 year old who was just accepted into a very prestigious music school.

  26. Ian
    Ian says:

    Ohh, congratulations to both of you! That is fantastic beyond words. And the photo timeline is wonderful. I just would have liked to have seen the latest one in chronological order too.

    To KK: not everything in life is about money. And besides: do you suppose Joshua Bell is struggling financially? Was Pablo Casals out begging on the street between gigs? What do you suppose Louis Armstrong’s “real job” was?

    Congrats again, Pen, to you and – really – to your whole family for everything they’ve put into this and sacrificed for it. Bravo!

    • KK
      KK says:

      If it’s not “about money”, what is it about?

      We agree that musicians occasionally become rich and famous.

      • Penelope
        Penelope says:

        If everything is about making money then you should take your kids out of school. Because there is no correlation between good grades and high earning.

        There’s lots of correlation between being internally motivated and earning a lot of money. School is about providing external motivation. Another reason to take your kid out of school if you think childhood should be preparation for being a high earner.

        Penelope

    • BW
      BW says:

      “not everything is about money” is used to justify way too many poor decisions. That said, the young cellist is following the only possible path to his dream, with tremendous support from his mom. They deserve credit for this achievement.

      Now, what’s next? Moving back to New York?

  27. Chryselle D'Silva Dias
    Chryselle D'Silva Dias says:

    Congratulations, Penelope! This is such great news and the light at the end of that long tunnel of hard work and endless drives. Good teachers make all the difference. I co-founded an El-Sistema inspired music charity here in India and this post also made me sad because cello teachers (good or not-so-good!) are like gold dust here. You just can’t find them for love or money. We have underprivileged kids dying to learn, we have the instruments, but we don’t have a cello teacher. I look at your boy and I read about everything you and your family have done to further his dream and I wish to God that we’ll have those opportunities and those teachers here someday. Good luck and I hope to read of his progress here.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      His teachers have all said that we have to wait until he is really good. Whatever that means. But when there is something public on YouTube, I’ll let you know!

      Penelope

      • me
        me says:

        Oh yes: Please do have him record something and post it on YouTube ! He’d have all of us readers as his very own groupies.

        BRAVO ! ! !

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Ah, well I would really love a “sneak peak”. Didn’t he record something with a rock band or something a few years ago?

      • Wendy
        Wendy says:

        The teacher means “either until he is so good that he won’t often get mean, critical comments on his videos that will discourage him, or until he is old enough to have the maturity to not let those comments bother him”.

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