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Susan Pascale

Why (and How) I Sent My Fourth-Grader to Juilliard (for a Day)

June 4, 2012 at 8:20 PM

I first got the idea for my 10-year-old daughter Jenna to spend a day at Juilliard, last fall. I was visiting the school to help my oldest daughter, Ariana, an 18-year-old violist, settle in to her first year at the renowned N.Y.C. school, far from our Los Angeles home.

Ariana had been born in New York, but even after we moved to Los Angeles, when she was 8, her dream had always been to go back to New York and attend Juilliard. During her childhood, Ariana was relatively self-motivated; I didn’t have to do a LOT of nagging to get her to practice. With a lot of hard work, Ariana made her dream come true.

By the time Jenna came along – 8 years younger than her big sister - our family had relocated to Southern California, where we established a music program in 2001. Jenna was born into the family business. She was surrounded by music, and participated in multiple lessons and ensembles, many days a week. Instead of starting her on an instrument at 6, like Ariana, we started Jenna at 2 ½ on violin (too early, we discovered); at age 3 ½ on piano, and at 4 on the cello.

Jenna had natural ability, and she was putting in a lot of time in lessons, so she progressed well. But she was not motivated to practice. My begging, bugging, badgering and bribery skills went in to high gear. Any and all the practicing she did was all the result of my nudging. I tried every trick in the book to get her to practice, and while they worked for a time, I eventually started to run out of tricks. In short, she was a typical kid, and I was a typical nagging mother.

It wasn’t that I was married to the idea of Jenna becoming a cellist. If she had told me she wanted to quit, that would have been okay with me. She’s also talented at drawing, and could have pursued that. But no, she refused to quit the cello – she just didn’t want to work hard at it.

I admit it: that attitude bugged me. It went directly against my personal philosophy: If you’re going to do an art, whether it’s music or visual arts, I say, don’t do it half way. Go all the way. There’s no “cello lite” in my personal philosophy.

But I was desperate to find something that might inspire her. She was already the principal cellist of our program’s Los Angeles Children’s Orchestra (LACO), and our even higher level chamber orchestra, which is conducted by L.A. Philharmonic violinist Robert Gupta. So there were no advanced peers for her to look up to.

During my visit to Juilliard in the fall of 2011, as I was walking around the school with Ariana, the thought hit me: Maybe THIS could inspire Jenna! What if she came and took a lesson from a Juilliard teacher?

My friend and client Lynn was in a similar position with her ten-year-old son, Sebastian, who studies at our school. He’s our principal bassist, but Lynn, like me, was exhausting herself every day to get him to practice.

The more I thought about Juilliard-for-a-day, and the more we discussed it, the more we liked the idea. I talked to Jenna and Sebastian’s teachers on our staff, both highly accomplished musicians. I asked them each to find a Juilliard teacher who would be willing to give Jenna and Sebastian a lesson.

Our teachers came through, with two world famous cello and bass teachers at Juilliard. We were worried that they would be too famous to teach our children. But because the recommendation came to them through fellow musicians, both teachers were happy to give our children a lesson.

I started working with the kids’ instructors to prepare challenging music. Each child was given scales, etudes, and one piece – just as if they were preparing for an audition. They met with a piano accompanist weekly. They took extra lessons. Their teachers bumped up the practice requirements. Now, instead of bribing them with trips to the local frozen yogurt store or new DS games, we dangled, “Do you want to go to New York City?” We explained to them that New York has a three-story M&M candy store. And yes, sometimes we scared them a bit by reminding them that world-famous teachers would be listening. We played tapes and recordings of those teachers.

What was interesting was how focused all of us became – parents, teachers and both children. We began viewing practice in a new way, with an eye toward reaching a higher level, on a deadline.

The trip finally came. We bought a seat on the plane for Jenna’s cello, and Sebastian rented a bass when we arrived. The kids were so excited when we arrived at Juilliard. Sebastian was particularly impressed with the retractable turnstile at the school entrance, and Jenna adored shopping in the Juilliard gift shop. (She bought a chic dancer’s tote bag with the school name emblazoned on it.)

The lessons themselves were wonderful. They’re famous but these teachers were also kind, unpretentious people who had a real knack for communicating with children.

Jenna learned that there are different approaches to the cello, physically and musically; her teacher offered new ideas that Jenna found interesting and fun. And just being in the Juilliard environment made an impact; she knew she was in the presence of greatness and seriousness. The teacher’s reaction to Jenna was overwhelmingly positive. He told us she had all the makings for success in music, including enthusiasm and parental support. And he said that he looks forward to seeing her again in a few months.

Sebastian’s mother Lynn, felt similarly. “When Sebastian started playing for the teacher, he was trying so hard to do everything right. The teacher’s message was, ‘Relax and feel your own weight.’ He showed Sebastian how to use his body to center everything. The teacher as also pleased with Sebastian’s progress. He said, ‘You’re doing great, your teacher is doing great, stick to what you’re doing!’”

Along with the lessons, we all toured the school, attended a quartet master class and a student recital, and ate lunch in the cafeteria. The bass teacher invited Sebastian to attend a student performance the following day, and to visit him at the Aspen summer music festival. Another thrill for Sebastian: His small instrument made a big impression in the Juilliard lobby: Tim Cobb, the principal bass player of the New York Philharmonic, came over to shake Sebastian’s hand.

Beyond the lessons, both of our kids learned that hard work pays off. Along with the promised visit to the M&M store, they ice skated at Rockefeller Plaza at night, ate at a delicious, bargain Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side, rode the subway, and enjoyed the world’s best hot dogs (according to the street vendor who sold them).

For both children, the experience was transformative. My nudging has been reduced; Jenna has plunged into the whole idea of being a cellist. She’s practicing in a more serious and detailed way. She’s now interested in fixing sloppy shifts and scratchy sounds; and she’s now eager to perform in recitals.
I also see a change in the way Jenna and Sebastian lead their orchestra sections. For such young kids, to have so much focus and drive is really special! And it’s spilling over to affect the other kids.

In April of 2013, when our orchestra travels to New York for a return performance at Carnegie Hall, we will definitely go visit those teachers again. The trip met all our goals. But maybe there’s still one question: will all this help get Jenna or Sebastian into Juilliard for college eight years from now? Juilliard is one of the hardest schools in the country to get into, taking about 5% of applicants for its college division – which is even lower than Harvard. But – hey – it couldn’t hurt!

From Adrian Demian
Posted on June 4, 2012 at 10:12 PM
Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful and inspiring experience.
I am just speechless and somehow very happy after reading your post. I wish the children all the success in the world and, with the support of such wonderful parents like you and the great and approachable Juilliard professors, it is sure they will succeed.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 5, 2012 at 7:13 PM
Why do you think it would be better for her to quit than to do "cello lite?" Sure, the best outcome is more practicing and higher commitment, by her own choice, but she'd never have gotten the chance to do that if she'd quit.
From Stephanie Bodoff
Posted on June 9, 2012 at 2:52 PM
Edgar Meyer is not the principal bass of the N Y Phil. He is an independent soloist and composer.
From Susan Pascale
Posted on June 11, 2012 at 9:10 PM
Thanks Stephanie!
It was actually Timothy Cobb who shook Sebastian's hand :)

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