Boy cellist going through puberty: “Mom! Listen! I woke up today and my voice was a B-flat!”‬

The deeper my son’s voice goes, the more hours a day he practices. And the more hours he practices, the more I worry about what he’ll do in a world where no one pays to hear a cellist play live.

The homeschooler in me believes my job is to create a loving, joyful childhood for my kids. And in that sense I am so happy to have cello music as the soundtrack to our lives. But the career coach in me thinks it’s a disservice to send a kid into the adult world with no marketable skill. I’ve seen what happens to those kids and it’s not good.

I tell my son maybe he should try to study art or learn a language. My son says backup plans are for people who don’t believe in themselves. But he is willing to learn German so he can study with a famous cello teacher there, and directs me and my credit card to the Optilingo site. He says he’ll be a soloist or homeless. I am starting to think the two lifestyles may go together. Even in German.

I look at financially precarious orchestras and on-strike symphonies and find myself suggesting to people in the cello world that classical music looks dead. Many people say that classical music has been “on the brink of crisis” forever but that it’s singular beauty precludes crisis. But people tell me we are in the age of musical creativity. But that sounds to me like the archeologist who told me we are in the age of fish: I’m not arguing it’s not true, I just don’t see evidence of it around me.

Rather, I see we are in the golden era of video. Recently my son showed me hilarious videos of people reading comments from PornHub. You wouldn’t believe how many kids get homework help on PornHub. And in that same sitting my son showed me a video Alisa Weilerstein talking about how she uses the weight of her upper arm to affect her sound.

When my son talks about creating an emotional connection with the audience, I think he has reached an echelon only 10% of people can hear. He is playing cello for the audience that watches Alisa Weilerstein talk about her arm. But I keep thinking he needs to figure out how to play cello for the audience watching PornHub. (Not that there isn’t some cross-over.)

I tell him he should have a YouTube channel or write cello memes or play Taylor Swift songs. He is not interested. And he tells me I’m stupid, which is probably as clear a sign of puberty as a dropping voice.

But then I read about Nvidia, a company that developed software that can create realistic looking people who are not real. And it’s not just people. Horses, trees, lots of things that no one can tell the difference between real and not real. Look at the pictures. It’s impressive.

Soon Nvidia will be able to put snow where there is not snow. As Tim Hwang, of the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund puts it, this software merely serves “to accelerate a problem we already have.” Which is to say that we cannot tell what’s real anymore.

I see that problem already in writing. I fond myself stumbling on computer generated writing more often lately. And Kevin Rose (a real person) writes that we’re all probably better off letting computers write the articles that are data heavy and appreciating the human element in writing that requires it.

So I can see a world where real will be special, and in-person will matter. The tension of knowing if someone will succeed will only matter if it’s live. And the connection we feel to video personalities will dissipate as we begin to suspect the person is not real.

People will want to hear Bach in person, so maybe my son will not starve. More than ever I am thinking there is a future for people who work in-person. Maybe people will also want to hear blog posts in person, so they know it’s real. Then public reading will make a resurgence – though hopefully not until I’m finished sequestering myself at home while raising my kids.

22 replies
  1. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    Though I don’t listen to audiobooks (as I prefer to read, and when I’m painting, I can’t have any sound other than natural white noise), I find the books where the authors read their own book a lot more attractive. It’s more like “in-person”. I may give the audible free trial a go to see if i can stand it.

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    The good news is millennials shell out for live experiences – live performances, hobby conventions, travel, etc. So there must be some way to make his focus on live performance tap into that. You’ve probably seen this article but here it is anyway:

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2015/06/01/nownershipnoproblem-nowners-millennials-value-experiences-over-ownership/#ba423b654062

    Your son’s an ESFP and I bet he’s great at thinking on his feet and getting people to like him, so his path to success will look really different from an NTJ’s, but I’m sure he’ll still be fine. Your son won’t mind being poor as long as he’s having fun, and no doubt he’s great at having fun, come hell or high water.

    • Wendy
      Wendy says:

      Also, I think virtual reality will replace videos. But it’s probably going to be a while before that happens.

  3. shelli
    shelli says:

    Penelope, We are going through the same thing with our eleven-year-old who is a pianist, so I really sympathize with your concerns. Since my husband and I are not musicians, it’s been a shock and a huge learning curve to figure out how to help a musically gifted child. We bought him a grand piano, and we’re on the third teacher now. We know that to succeed in the music world, he has to be one of the best, which is quite difficult to say the least. We talk to him about all the different careers he could go into with a musical background, but we’ll support whatever he wants to do. He does have some other interests, and we’re homeschooling him. But mostly he’s focused on learning the music, and that’s as it should be. So I think you’re doing the right thing. Both our boys are very young, and there will be time to do something else, if it comes to that, especially with our help. But if they are to succeed in their current goals, they just need to put all their concentration on the music. I am happy for your son and wish him the best of luck. Good luck to you too.

  4. Bos
    Bos says:

    I don’t believe we’re headed for a world where nobody plays to hear a cellist play live. Reports of the death of classical music have been exaggerated. I believe we’re headed for a world where the super-wealthy keep string quartets on retainer, like in centuries past. Maybe little Z can be a pet Farinelli to an oiligarch from the ‘Stans.

    The civic virtue that used to keep orchestras alive in America has almost been extinguished, and more orchestras in America will fold (despite the conservatories graduating more and more musicians each year), but that will not be the death of classical music. Classical music will survive, though it may survive in peculiar ways and only on the backs of millions of crushed dreams.

    If PT’s son goes to Germany to study he’ll have to beat out a whole lot of Chinese kids who are doing the same thing. Germany continues to support music and music schools, because civic virtue isn’t dead there yet, but the Chinese are moving in in droves. Asian ambition is keeping classical music alive.

    Puberty is a mysterious time for a boy musician. My son threw himself on the couch and cried when his voice started changing. He had been planning to sing Maria for auditions and we had to transpose it because he was no longer a tenor. As soon as his voice finished changing (dropping all the way to a reliable D2) he got right back in, and now we’re in the period where his range and support grow in tandem. The soundtrack to our lives is now him singing Sinatra. Things could be worse.

  5. Terese
    Terese says:

    Thank you for the article with links. I found Splinter; which I find fascinating. I am an “old fashioned” 60 year old woman that recently retired. My mission is to reinvent myself in the “Brave New World”. There is so much to learn. It’s funny – my job included taking spreadsheets and converting them into documents. I like the new approach, though I would probably still want to add some human insight (color) to the final version. Which, I guess, just goes to show you that as long as you love to learn and discover new things you will always find a way to make it. Your sons (both) will do just fine in life. They both like to learn new things and participate in the world. They will find their way – hopefully they will find MANY new ways – life changes and evolves. As long as you can change and evolve with it you will always find a way to thrive.

  6. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Go to Prague and watch the masterworks live everywhere this summer. It is my favorite city in the world where you feel like your brain is being pampered.

  7. Erin
    Erin says:

    Once I’m divorced and settled into this new life, I want to write a book (or a few). Maybe I’ll even write one with the my kids. They already paint with me, anyways, and the stuff i make with them gets loads more attention than what i make solo. It’s bc it’s fun. Ppl respond to the fun.

    In a few years, when they’re not in diapers, I dream of slowly driving around the country to book readings and signings with my girls. In person. I don’t know how practical this is, but I don’t care. It’s a dream. And right now I don’t need to dream practically. I’m already drowning under practical decisions every day, like: if I can’t change the fact that Matt is leaving, what choices can I make to soften the blow? It’s exhausting. And depressing. I need to believe that there is life after this. And not just survival, but a life rich with meaning and connection and curiosity and hope.

    So I keep the dream.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I wanna hop on skype and ask you all about your life and divorce and creating the new life but I feel trapped in between being intrusive because it’s so personal and delicate, and also I feel so close to you and like I know you so why wouldn’t I ask?

      Well, if you wanna skype hollah!

      ALSO! I am taking the whole month of february off. So maybe I can come visit and that will soften the blow some.

  8. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    Robert Tracinski, in his excellent article, What Would It Mean to Win the Culture War, gives a relevant barometer which has implications for future classical music practitioners.

    “The rebirth of the highbrow.

    There was a time when the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts drew a weekly audience of up to 15 million people, nearly 10 percent of the population at the time. Highbrow culture wasn’t just for a small elite but was embraced by a wide swathe of the aspirational middle class.

    Today, middlebrow magazines—there’s hardly anything you would still call highbrow—obsess about the lowbrow ephemera of pop culture, publishing supposed “thinkpieces” about the latest Beyoncé album or the new “Wonder Woman” movie. Similarly, a friend recently posted a question about which decade’s music was the best, offering decades from the 1980s to the present. It simply went without saying that he meant popular music. Could anybody name a serious, Classical-style musical composition produced in that same period? Is there any such composition that has received widespread, mainstream notice? I can think of a very small number that deserve it, but they remain obscure.

    I’m not saying that pop culture is always bad or is never worth talking about. The problem we have today is that it is virtually the entire culture.

    ……….

    When we lost highbrow art and music as an influence on mainstream culture, we lost a sense of high-minded idealism, of aspiration for something better. With that comes the culture of insults and putdowns that you can see any moment of the day on social media.
    …………..”

  9. Allison
    Allison says:

    A friend of mine who is a guitarist, but not in a mainstream genre, sounded a lot like your son a few years ago. He was tired of working in a music store, selling instruments and giving lessons. He wanted to pursue his own music and given lessons where the money came straight to him. His best revenue right now comes from giving online classes via Skype. I’m not sure if your son would be interested in that, but giving beginning classes to peers or others who may be interested in cello is sure to have some sort of audience. I’m also sure folks would love to hear the story of his journey with the instrument and his early (age) admission into Juilliard. These days, there’s an audience for anything.

  10. Vicky
    Vicky says:

    Many people don’t realize that homeless people have amazing skills. Some are homeless because they are drug addicts and alcoholics but some are homeless because their education didn’t fit them for today’s world.

  11. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    There is a long way from affluent to starving.
    Hardly anyone starves unless they really can’t find their way in the world.

    I visited my boyfriend in his studio again yesterday. I was having a packed day of back to back meetings, all work related.

    I just drove from San Francisco again for my training. I am sick of driving. So I stopped downtown and plopped myself in his office for a drink and taking a breath.

    We walked over to the bar across the street and ordered fried pickles and the most perfect beer.

    Then we went back to the office, and my 4 pm meeting texted me to cancel. Perfect. What relief. We had sex to celebrate. I tried avoiding pressing on the rug burn wound from a week ago but was unsuccessful.

    I am laying on the floor and thinking about what success really means to me.
    Yes I want to be affluent and I don’t want small money problems to even be on my radar.
    But the fancy flashy stuff? is that success? what would I do with it if THIS is what I want? Laying on the floor feeling loved, no hurry, a shot of bourbon in my glass after eating fried pickles.

    I keep coming back to the fact that what I really want and what really makes me happy costs too much because it’s time and mental peace.

    And I keep finding myself working hard for reasons to continue to pursue big money in my life. But when it comes to the exchange of time and connection for money…I just don’t want to.

    If your kid is homeless he doesn’t have to worry about leaking roofs and taxes and furnaces breaking.

    And if he is jobless he probably has more time to play cello, which is what he wants after all anyway.

  12. crljones
    crljones says:

    Just wanted to say something about being a Cellist. Years ago my 2 nieces (cello and violin) took Suzuki and I was dragged to many concerts. They were my sisters kids so I didn’t mind listening as the sawed thru various programs at 5, 6 and 7 – and then I didn’t have to go anymore for some reason.

    Anyways fast fwd to University and they are hooked up with some others and before I know it they are classical trio’s and quartets, jazz and all kinds of stuff happening AFTER CLASS.

    By 2nd year they had the program down cold and were booked playing at churches, seniors and clubs. The money didn’t seem to bad if they were flexible (in a good way!) and they told me they pulled in $200-$300 each most weekends they worked.

    I was impressed. And after the older one graduated I recall her saying she flew into Sydney Australia on a Friday, borrowed a friend of a friends violin and after busking for 10hrs over weekend – she had enough for bus ticket to Brisbane to join her sister.

    So there is something to be said to be motivated, talented and fearless. Something they seemed to learn when I wasn’t looking.

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the question is not what will replace video when it becomes “old fashioned”. AM and FM radio is “old fashioned” and while I will admit it is past its heyday, it has not been replaced by any means by other audio technology including podcasts. Virtual or augmented reality and artificial intelligence are the cutting edge so it may be said these systems will be replacements. What will be successful, though, is a customized multimedia solution that works well and is preferred by the user for a given application and environment.
    I’m thinking along the lines of the Google Arts and Culture app which is written about here – https://www.blog.google/topics/arts-culture/the-new-google-arts-culture-on-exhibit/ – but could be any app that works similarly. The app can be used with a VR viewer and has an associated video channel. Also, the app can be used at an event such as a museum visit to a select few museums to recognize art. So why not have an app that compliments and enhances a live musical performance? There are many opportunities which may be lucrative for the entrepreneur in the music community that employ technology.

  14. Julia
    Julia says:

    “When my son talks about creating an emotional connection with the audience”

    This is purpose and it can be the core of what drives him, whether in cello or any other pursuit, even those that make money. Keep in mind that people with artistic training are highly employable, but they need opportunities to see diverse outlets for their purpose. Right now he’s laser focused, but if he’s smart, as necessity dictates that he needs to work, he’ll see the other opportunities around him and pursue them: music production, music videos, music education, film score writing, sound technician, etc etc etc. Mentors are essential here–more exposure to and role models of options. There are tons of jobs in the arts for artists who keep an open mind. I think that will continue to be relevant, more so than the (likely) idea that people will increasingly crave the real thing (which still accounts for a small number of working concert cellists).

  15. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    Silly. He can teach cello and make a nice living. Or join an orchestra. When you’re a top instrumentalist you get work. It’s the mediocre ones that don’t. He has a marketable skill to the max. Many kids want to learn cello. There are plenty of gigs for top musicians. Our piano teacher charges $70/hr and works at least 8 hrs day. I know teachers who charge $100 an hour. That’s a huge salary.

    • Cai
      Cai says:

      This. There’s so much more to the music world than being a famous soloist. My husband is a professional cellist, and while we’re not exactly living in a palace, he is the breadwinner and provides a good life for our family, completely off of cello and sheer determination. Teaching, session work (aka playing on other musicians’ songs), orchestral work…it’s totally possible. He may need an open mind and a great work ethic, but your son can absolutely do what he loves for a living ☺️

  16. Madison Carr
    Madison Carr says:

    Even if he doesn’t make it as a soloist, playing an instrument is a joy that no money can buy! But regardless, I hope the world is collectively moving towards a future that relishes the authentic and human-made. Especially since the alternative is the ever-feared robot takeover!

  17. Grace
    Grace says:

    Your son has a very specific skill, one that is highly developed. However, it’s not a skill 99.9% of the world values and those that do value it are dying off. However, failure as a cello soloist does not lead to homelessness, it leads to being a private teacher. That would bring in enough money for him to survive. Also, your son could be the cello version of Lindsay Stirling. I think this might appeal to him more when he gets older.

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