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How You Get to Carnegie Hall, Part 2


It was Lulu’s turn! There is no rest for the Chinese mother, no time to recharge, no possibility of flying off with friends for a few days to mud springs in California. While we were waiting to hear back about Sophia’s competition, I shifted my attention to Lulu, who was eleven at the time, and I had a great idea: As Mrs. Vamos had suggested, Lulu would audition for the Pre-College program at the Juilliard School in New York, open to highly talented kids between the ages of roughly seven and eighteen. Kiwon wasn’t sure Lulu was quite ready technically, but I was confident we could get up to speed.

Jed disapproved and kept trying to change my mind. Juilliard Pre-College is famously intense. Every year, thousands of high achieving kids from all over the world—especially Asia and most recently Russia and eastern Europe—try out for a handful of spots. The kids who apply do it because either

· their dream is to become a professional musician;

· - their parents’ dream is for them to become a professional musician; or

· - their parents think, correctly, that going to Juilliard will help them get into an Ivy League college. The lucky few who are accepted into the program study at Juilliard every Saturday for nine or ten hours.

Jed wasn’t crazy about the idea of getting up at dawn every Saturday to drive to New York (I said I’d do it). But what he was really worried about was the pressure-cooker atmosphere and sometimes dog-eat-dog mentality that Juilliard is famous for. He wasn’t sure that would be good for Lulu. Lulu wasn’t sure it would be good for her either. In fact, she insisted that she didn’t want to audition and wouldn’t go even if she got in. But Lulu never wants to do anything I propose, so naturally I ignored her.

There was another reason Jed wasn’t sure Juilliard was a good idea: Many years ago, he’d actually been a student there himself. After graduating from Princeton, he’d been accepted to Juilliard’s Drama Division, notoriously even harder to get into than their world-famous Music Division. So Jed moved to New York City and studied acting with classmates who included Kelly McGillis (Top Gun),Val Kilmer (Batman), and Marcia Cross (Desperate Housewives ). He dated ballet dancers, learned the Alexander Technique, and played the lead role in King Lear.

And then Jed got kicked out—for “insubordination.” He was playing Lopakhin in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and the director asked him to do something a certain way. Jed disagreed with her. Several weeks later, out of the blue at a rehearsal, she became furiously angry at Jed, snapping pencils in half, declaring that she couldn’t work with someone who “just stands there, sneering at me, criticizing every word I say.” Two days later, Jed was told by the chairman of the Drama Division (who happened to be married to the director Jed had offended) that he should find something else to do. After a year of waiting tables in New York, that something turned out to be Harvard Law School.

Maybe because I think it has a happy ending—Jed and I wouldn’t have met if he’d stayed at Juilliard—I’ve told this story at party after party, where it’s always a big hit, especially after I embellish it. People seem to think it’s cool that a law professor went to Juilliard and knew Kevin Spacey (who was a few years ahead of Jed). There’s also something about insubordination and getting kicked out that Americans love.

By contrast, when we told the story to my parents, it didn’t go over well at all. This was before Jed and I were married. In fact, I had only recently revealed to them the fact of Jed’s existence. After hiding him for two years, I had finally sprung on my parents that I was seriously dating Jed, and they were in shock. My mother was practically in mourning. When I was little, she’d given me lots of advice about how to find the right husband. “Don’t marry anyone too handsome—dangerous. The most important things in a husband are moral character and health; if you marry a sickly man, you will have a terrible life.” But she always assumed that the nonsickly husband would be Chinese, ideally someone Fukienese with an M.D./Ph.D.

Instead, here was Jed—white and Jewish. Neither of my parents found it remotely impressive that Jed had gone to drama school.

“Drama school?” repeated my father, unsmiling on the sofa where he and my mother were sitting side by side, staring at Jed. “You wanted to be an actor?”

The names Val Kilmer and Kelly McGillis didn’t seem to mean anything to my parents, and they continued to sit stonily. But when Jed got to the part about being kicked out and having to work as a waiter for six months, my mother choked.

“Kicked out?” she said, throwing my father an anguished glance.

“Does that go on your record?” my father asked grimly.

“Dad, don’t worry!” I laughed reassuringly. “It turned out to be a lucky thing. Jed ended up going to law school instead, and he loves the law. It’s just a funny story.”

“But now you say he’s working for the government,” my father said accusingly. I could tell he had a picture in his head of Jed in a booth stamping forms at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

For the third time, I patiently explained to my parents that Jed, wanting to do something in the public interest, had left his Wall Street law firm to work as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of NewYork. “It’s really prestigious,” I explained, “and it was such a hard job to get. Jed took an eighty percent pay cut for it.”

“Eighty percent!” my mother burst out.

“Mom, it’s only for three years,” I said wearily, starting to give up. Among our Western friends, saying that Jed was taking a pay cut to do public service always brought “good-for-you’s” and pats on the back. “If nothing else, it’s important experience. Jed likes litigation. He might want to be a trial lawyer.”

“Why?” my mother asked bitterly. “Because he wanted to be an actor?” This last word she spat out, as if it carried an indelible moral stain.

It’s funny to think back on that now and how much my parents have changed since then. By the time I was thinking about Juilliard for Lulu, my parents idolized Jed. (Ironically, by then the son of one of our good family friends had become a famous actor in Hong Kong, and my parents’ view about acting had totally changed too.) They had also figured out that Juilliard was famous (“Yo-Yo Ma!”). But like Jed, they didn’t understand why I wanted Lulu to try for the Pre-College program.

“You don’t want her to be a professional violinist, do you?” my father asked, puzzled.

I didn’t have an answer, but that didn’t stop me from being stubborn. Around the time that I submitted Sophia’s CD to the piano competition, I submitted Lulu’s application to Juilliard.

As I’ve said, raising kids the Chinese way is much harder than raising them the Western way. There is simply no respite. Just as I’d finally finished working with Sophia around the clock for two months on her pieces, I had to turn right around and do the same for Lulu.

The Juilliard Pre-College audition process is set up in a way that maximizes pressure. Applicants Lulu’s age have to be prepared to play three octaves of major and minor scales and arpeggios, an étude, a slow and fast movement of a concerto, and another contrasting piece—all by memory, obviously. At the actual audition, the kids go into a room, without parents, and play before a panel of roughly five to ten Pre-College faculty members, who can ask to hear any part of any piece in any order and stop them at any time. The Pre-College violin faculty includes big names like Itzhak Perlman and the New York Philharmonic’s concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, as well as some of the most prominent teachers of young violinists in the world. We had our eye on a teacher by the name of Naoko Tanaka, who, like Mrs. Vamos, was in the highest demand, with students from all over the world clawing to get into her studio. We knew of Miss Tanaka because Kiwon had studied with her for nine years, before going off at the age of seventeen to study with Mrs. Vamos.

It was especially hard to help Lulu prepare, because she was still maintaining that she would never in a million years do the audition. She hated everything she’d heard about it from Kiwon. She knew that some of the applicants would fly in from China, South Korea, and India just for the audition, which they’d been working toward for years. Others would have auditioned before and been rejected two or three times. Still others were already taking private lessons with PreCollege faculty members.

But I hunkered down. “It will be your decision in the end, Lulu,” I lied. “We’ll get prepared for the audition, but if in the end you really don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.” “Never not try something out of fear,” I would pontificate at other times. “Everything I’ve ever done that’s valuable is something I was terrified to try.” To improve productivity, I hired not only Kiwon for many hours a day but also a lovely Yale undergraduate named Lexie, whom Lulu came to adore. While Lexie didn’t have Kiwon’s technical ability, she played in the Yale orchestra and genuinely loved music. Intellectual and philosophical, Lexie was a wonderful influence on Lulu. She questioned things. She and Lulu would talk about their favorite composers and concertos, overrated violinists, and different interpretations of Lulu’s pieces. After their conversations, Lulu would always be motivated to practice.

Meanwhile, I was still teaching my courses at Yale and finishing up a second book, this one about history’s greatest empires and the secret to their success. I was also traveling continuously, giving lectures about democratization and ethnic conflict.

One day, when I was in an airport somewhere waiting to fly back to New Haven, I checked my BlackBerry and saw an e-mail from the sponsors of Sophia’s piano competition. For a few minutes I was paralyzed, terrified of bad news. Finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I clicked the button.

Sophia was a first-prize winner. She was going to play at Carnegie Hall! There was just one problem: Sophia’s Carnegie Hall performance was the evening before Lulu’s Juilliard audition.


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