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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160 replies
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  1. Bos
    Bos says:

    Good job to both of you. I’m sure Z is going to have a great time. I hope the routine of going over to NY on Saturdays is a lot more fun for you than going over to Chicago was.

  2. Christine
    Christine says:

    This post made me so happy. It’s been such a journey! Thank you for sharing it with us over the years. Congratulations to you both!!

  3. Michael LaRocca
    Michael LaRocca says:

    “November 2011 – No trying out new songs until the teacher says ok.”

    The list of reasons I could never get into Juilliard is every bit as long and predictable as you’d expect it to be, but that one really got my attention. I celebrated getting the hang of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (which I still play and love) by downloading the sheet music for Smoke On The Water (a crap song with a great riff).

    Congratulations to both of you! Juilliard awaits!

  4. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I am so happy for you!!!!!

    I’m running out the door, but wanted to say this…..Just yesterday I read, Lewis Howes, I think….say that what you imagine you will feel like when you reach a huge goal is not what you feel. You actually don’t feel much different, because you’ve been at that vibration to attract that goal for a long time. It makes sense….

    Congratulations!

  5. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    This whole post and all its related posts encapsulates how an ENTJ mom spends her life telling her kids she loves them.

    Your son is a great kid. I’d say you should be proud of him, but of course you already are.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      This is so true! An ENTJ is extremely goal oriented and achievement focused. Its not like this is the best way to parent, but we each parent using the strengths we have.

      The love I’d have wanted as a kid is for my parents to pay close attention to my strengths to help me leverage them as a way to celebrate what makes me special. To me the best gift is helping me set goals and helping me meet them.

      So I feel really good doing that for my kids. But I have to work very hard to accept that my kids do not have the same motives and interests that I do. That has been a challenge.

      Penelope

  6. Patricia Rossi
    Patricia Rossi says:

    Great news,
    Clapping & Cartwheeling.
    Feel like he’s my cub too, as we’ve enjoyed & grown on this journey with y’all.
    Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.
    Patricia Rossi

  7. Susan
    Susan says:

    What an accomplishment! Your son is lucky to have you as his mom -such dedication, it’s inspiring.

    My son sings and I have been feeling more and more lately that I’m not doing enough to support him. Just last week, a music professor grabbed my shoulder after a performance and sternly told me that my son is exceptional and needs to get the best voice lessons “now” before his voice starts to change. J takes voice lessons, but I honestly don’t know how good they are. I just know he’s really only happy when he’s singing and that people sometimes cry when he sings.

    How did you go about finding a really good cello instructor? And how does one do all of this while working full-time (not from home or the piano teacher’s studio)?

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      I think your question and your story are really beautiful and show a lot of love for your son.

      To find the best cello teacher, I’m sure Penelope asked around like a woman possessed and the same one or two names kept coming up. She probably targeted people who attended the best conservatories or, better yet, the gatekeepers of those conservatories.

      But I feel like you know the answer to your questions. You DON’T do this with a full-time job that you need to physically be at. That’s the point of this post. Penelope is saying, “This is what it takes.” It’s a group effort on the part of the parent and the child. And it involves a whole community of people.

      The bigger point is that no one does anything (great) on their own. A single individual might be the focal point, because our culture constructs myths around self-made men who rise to the top. But that is a lie. Here is a look behind the scenes at what it takes *just* to get into the best conservatory in the country.

      I think your real question might be, what if I can’t do this for my son? What does that mean for him, and for me, and our relationship? You know your son best, and you know your working relationship best. Your way doesn’t have to be Penelope’s way.

      • Penelope
        Penelope says:

        I wish I had a like button here so I could like your comment, Melissa. You are right in all accounts.

        Also, Susan, there are so many casualties that I did not write about in this post because I know Juilliard parents are reading it and I don’t want to sound crazy… at least not yet :)

        But here are some examples: I literally ran out of money a few times because I spent everything on cello. For example, we got stranded in Aspen without money. Not kidding. And my older son is angry over how much time I give to cello and he’s a teen so he’s yelling at me about it all the time. And I feel guilt. And I have been so annoying for teachers to deal with that some have charged me extra per lesson because I ask so many questions outside of the lesson.

        Penelope

  8. Richelle
    Richelle says:

    He is such an amazing boy,I love to see him,speak with him,and you are an amazing mom. Will miss all 3 of you!

  9. JM
    JM says:

    Congratulations – how exciting and what an accomplishment! I am curious because you did mention your older son – how do you manage to make sure they are both getting the attention and affection when I think the youngest is incredibly busy with this? As a mother of two little boys, I’m just curious on your perspective. My boys are opposites and I can see the future of being tugged in different directions and also wanting to make sure they both feel loved and important. It’s clear you absolutely adore your boys and are doing a great job supporting and loving them too!

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I can remember some time back Penelope you were asking the question of whether or not you should have two blogs. It required more work on your part to maintain two blogs. I can imagine it wasn’t an easy decision. However, at the time, I and others gave reasons for having two blogs. I’m glad you decided to continue with two blogs. So the following question came to me after seeing so many photos and links to them in this post – how many photos are there and which blog do they link to? There is a total of 26 photos in this post. One new photo at the beginning of this post, twelve photos link to previous posts on this blog (career), and thirteen photos link to the education blog. It’s just a detail I thought I’d share here.

  11. Jim
    Jim says:

    Cngratulations!
    I find it interesting that you would choose cello. Except for a few folks in the world, even the best of the best classical musicians seem to be minor cogs, auditioning to play in orchestras, many of which seem to facing tough financial times. I would think you would encoruage him to be a song writer or such. For a business analogy, it’s like you’re encouraging him to be a really great corporate tax accountant instead of an entrepreneur. Geven your business background, I’m curious what your thinking was? Did you just go with his interests?

  12. Angelica
    Angelica says:

    I am myself a musician-in-training, coming to it much later in life. I can still not practice to the level you describe… and I couldn’t begin to do so as a teenager. I’ve also been a teacher (of children your son’s age). And so I find myself with two heart reactions to this story.

    1) awe that he has achieved so much at 11 and proved he could work so incredibly hard; and

    2) mourning for the lost childhood, and the stress/health issues you describe.

    And I’m really, genuinely curious about something. How did he discover cello and his LOVE for this? How did you (and he) know without a shadow of a doubt, at that tender age, that this was his passion, his life’s work, the things he must do at all costs, happily giving up everything else? I’m not sure I even have that personal clarity at 40!!

    how did you know? how could you recognize it in him?

  13. Thi
    Thi says:

    YES Penelope and Zehavi! You’ve both worked so hard- remember to take a moment to enjoy before reaching for the next goal :)

  14. Emily S
    Emily S says:

    Congratulations! What an amazing accomplishment! I’m so excited for him and for your family.

  15. Lady Blue
    Lady Blue says:

    Penelope! My jaw literally dropped when I saw the headline. I have read your posts faithfully for years now and feel like I’ve been riding along with you on this journey. I am so happy for both of you, wow. This achievement is deeply encouraging to me as I begin to transform in my own life. What a great example that work ethic can be learned, and that resistance is futile when you are gifted at something! I have a knack for enchantment and now know for sure that I should run towards my dreams full force, not away. It is time. What a wonderful follow up to one of your best posts (“What it’s like to audition at Juilliard. When you’re 11.”) which clicked for me in ways that no other motivation/productivity based writing ever had. THANK YOU Penelope! And good luck to you and your son.

  16. Cate
    Cate says:

    Proud for you and your son. Congratulations!

    This period will also be a learning experience – what does it mean to have achieved something big, that you strove for for so long? How do you perceive it and use it to make your emotional life better? I am reassured by the natural human tendency for personal growth. We can rest upon that sometimes.

  17. Ben Parkinson
    Ben Parkinson says:

    Congratulations and thank you for sharing – I’m involved in a lot of performance improvement work, and it’s inspiring to see the dedication required from all in this post. Best of luck for the future!

  18. Pamela
    Pamela says:

    So amazing! What an incredible story! Like a few other commenters said, I feel a little bit like I know you and can be proud of your family’s accomplishments. I teared up at my desk! Pretty dang awesome, P. Good job with your kiddo. :)

  19. John
    John says:

    Surprised to hear he’s the youngest cellist. I’m a NYer so know several kids in the program who are younger. In fact from Jullaird’s site:

    What are the ages of the Pre-College students?
    Some students enter the Pre-College Division as young as 7 years old. Wind and brass players tend to be older. Students can stay in the School through their senior year in high school.

  20. Divakar S Natarajan
    Divakar S Natarajan says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience of being a good parent – which is an extraordinary thing.

    Thanks also due to my dear friend @ginsterbabe who is also a fabulous mom to her four kids and an astonishingly tireless musical and creative person.

    It is on @ginsterbabe’s twitter that I found the link to your blog.

    I am a little saddened to learn that the road to excellence often involves divorce.Such a shame,but not surprising.

    Very few people are as conscious,turned on and formidably energetic as you-and my friend @ginsterbabe are!

    Otherwise, what greater joy than to labour to raise accomplished children.

    I too,am privileged to come from a family that has since generations, been in the orbit of great Indian classical music.

    My aunt Dr N Rajam is recognised as one of India’s finest musicians.She plays the violin and comes from a family of great violinists.

    When my daughter was two and a half,I took her to my aunt’s parents-who were great musicians,violin makers and fantastic parents-to seek their blessings.

    My aunt’s father took a look at my tot and suggested she get started on her music.

    “Leave her with me”, he said.

    I smile, as I input this.

    I was too besotted with my little one to accept his offer.

    Personal tuition from one of the greatest gurus of his time!

    While I can’t say my daughter took to music,we have had, over the years of her growing up,conversations on practise and learning and excellence such as those you have mentioned.
    Today she is a young lady working with one of the powerhouses of innovation in your country and I love to
    revel as a dad!

    Thanks once again for your blog.

    Love and blessings from India to you and the boys.

  21. Annie
    Annie says:

    This is amazing. It’s interesting for so many reasons.

    First, that your son is an ESFP, which I don’t at all associate with being driven in such a singular way. Do you think it was essential that you are an ENTJ?

    And if a child doesn’t have a clear gift like your son demonstrated from day one, what does it look like to teach goal setting and attainment? How much external input is appropriate versus inner drive? How does the chemistry between patent type and child type come into play. Etc.

    I think I’d actually love a Quistic course on this.

    Well done.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I do think personality type is essential. I’m sure lots of different types of parents and kids take this path. But I see a huge preponderance of ENTJ among all parents of high achieving childre because it takes a vision and obsession with goals to navigate new terrain independently.

      And I see a lare number of S types playing instruments at a high level. You absolutley must be able to stay focus on the moment. And that is boring to most N’s.

      Penelope

  22. amanda
    amanda says:

    If things are about creating money then you need to bring your kids from school. Because there’s no correlation between a’s and b’s and earning.

    There’s plenty of correlation between being internally motivated and earning lots of money. School is all about supplying exterior motivation. One more reason to consider your child from school if you feel childhood ought to be preparation as a high earner.

  23. Steph McCarthy
    Steph McCarthy says:

    Joy, joy, such a lot of joy hearing this. This is a truly happy time and I hope you revel in this and both attract more and more … just know you are worth it.

  24. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    Congratulations! Amazing! And even surprising… I read your blog regularly but had no idea of the extent of what you were doing to foster his studies and talent. Just goes to show… a blog is not the real and full picture of someone’s life.

    Sign me up for his first CD!

  25. Anne
    Anne says:

    Wow. Must be nice to have so much money and resources. That’s all I could think while reading this post. Sacrifices, yes, but most of us never have the means to make these sacrifices of money in the first place.

  26. Sarah.
    Sarah. says:

    Such an interesting chapter in the book that is your life. Have you written a post on how or why you picked cello in the first place?

    Looking forward to reading more. Thank you for sharing.

    Besos Sarah.

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