ACPS elementary music teacher Laura Cahn saw a determination and talent in her young viola student that she says was probably a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for a school music teacher. Her student, Bethlehem Hadgu, grew from a timid and inexperienced school music student to recently win a full-ride to Juilliard. The soon-to-be T.C. Williams High School graduate talks with her mentor, teacher and friend about their incredible journey together.
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(LC) I will never ever forget Bethlehem just because right from the get go, she demonstrated an incredible drive and a tenacity and a level of grit that was really unusual for an eighth grader, particularly for someone who hadn’t really played their instrument for very long.
I remember there being a point when I would walk in the room and Bethlehem was playing better than her mentor, because I know her mentor started to feel a little uncomfortable.
And, so, I remember at the end of the school year encouraging her. I said, “you know you really should take the audition to be in the youth orchestra. You could come back as a mentor and flip the script here. You would be great working with kids and I really think you are incredibly talented.” I remember pushing her to want to audition and she kept giving me — she’s like — “no, I don’t want to. What if I mess up? I shouldn’t go.”
It’s kind of an atrocity that music is only accessible to people who can afford these ridiculous private lessons with professional musicians, and we’re talking could be up to a hundred dollars an hour, and for someone with the level of talent that Bethlehem has to not have the opportunity just seemed wrong.
So I tried to cut her a deal and I said, “I’m willing to teach you. I need a babysitter. So you can come babysit for me and here are the rules … you gotta practice and if you show up and practice like we can make this work.” I remember her showing up for her first lesson at my house pouring in sweat. And it was hot that day. It was like like 90 degrees outside. She walked probably walked about three miles to get to her lesson.
She took her lessons very, very, very seriously and she wrote down exactly what to do and what to say. She’s an excellent student and she wanted it. She wanted it really bad. She was probably practicing an hour or more a day when she started, and then, as the year progressed, was going to closer to three or four hours a day and that’s the kind of time you need to do to put in to become a professional musician. So, the goal at the end of that first year of her lessons was that she was going to audition for this NSO youth fellowship program. What’s fantastic about the fellowship program is it’s free private lessons with an NSO musician plus chamber music and just exposure to this crazy classical world that is a culture of its own. And for a student who hasn’t had exposure to that, to be able to navigate it, I mean you need all the experience you can get to be able to make it. She auditioned for this program and she made it in. And I was like completely beside myself. It is completely unheard of for a student to study, I mean really. She’d taken lessons for a year. So after a year of private lessons, she made it into the fellowship program. And she calls me, she was just elated. But then like probably two weeks later, she’s like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I was like, “what do you mean you can’t do it? It’s like the same thing.” “Like should I audition for youth orchestra? Ah, I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m gonna show up.” And I just wanted to just shake her and be like are you kidding me down like the NSO fellowship program is a program for, I mean these kids that get in the program have started playing when they were five or four and so by the time they’re a junior in high school you know they’ve got ten years of playing under their belt and they’ve been intensely trained with their parents and everything else. And Bethlehem barely had, you know, a year of private lessons, as an older student no less. It was it was remarkable. I still don’t know if people understand how remarkable that is. So, she made into this program and we got her a viola.
(BH) They had a Potter’s violin giveaway every year. They have it every year for someone who really deserves it and can’t afford to buy one themselves and it’s like a really decent instrument and I applied for it at the end of music buddies so that was like around when she started to become my teacher.
(LC) Yeah, because the viola she had, although it was lovely from ACPS, it was a school instrument and it had been well loved, and it just wasn’t at the right caliber to be able to do what she needed to do. So we were able to get her a free instrument which was great. So, she had her instrument, we had a year private lesson she made it into this program and then she was telling me that she doesn’t know if she’s gonna do it. I was like, “Okay, let’s just rewind for a minute. Like why, why would you not do its program?” What did you tell me? What was the reason why?
(BH) It was because I was so used to being like the biggest fish in the pond. I was like I was just too scared to be around like people like who’ve been doing it forever and like are better than me it’s a really big change, too. It’s like being the best in your school orchestra and going to the program and now being like the worst player there.
(LC) Yeah, but you know this is the this is the best place to be if you want to learn.
(LC) Those are the conversations that we had. And the other conversation that we had was how am I gonna get there. How am I gonna get to get to the Kennedy Center because everybody’s parents drive them there.
(LC) And I said, “You’re gonna take the bus and then you’re gonna get on the metro, and you’re gonna go.” And she’s like, “I can’t do that. I’ve never done that before.” I was like, “You gotta get over this. We just gotta do it.” So we got on the bus. We took a trip down to the Kennedy Center and we talked about which bus to take.
(BH) With her kids!
(LC) Yeah, she came with us, my four-year-old was then probably a baby then. Yeah, so we went to the Kennedy Center, we like walked around and kind of checked out the place and hopped on all of the busses.
(BH) Yeah, that’s the only way I knew how. Yeah, after she taught me.
(LC) That enabled you so much freedom, I think, in other ways, I think you were more willing to navigate the city, to go see concerts and rehearsals, and be able, it just opened up more access. Which is, again, my biggest problem with classical music. It’s just, it’s like this ivory castle. It’s impossible to penetrate if you don’t have the connections and you don’t have the means to be able to do it. Which is why I think it’s just so important to make sure everybody has an opportunity to access it because it’s an awesome, awesome world. And it’s really, I mean, I know you probably are starting to … she’s totally in love. I love watching kids fall in love with music. I’m so glad that she did it and I’m so glad that she jumped in there.
(BH) Yeah, my first year was hard. I remember, I got a new teacher. I wasn’t her student anymore. William Foster, and I told him the first two months, it was still hard for me from transitioning from him from her to him because he was just so hard on me and he never complimented me. She always did. She was…
(LH) … way too nice.
(BH) He never complimented me, and as the year went by, I started to do chamber music. Chamber music is like playing with other people in the program, I realized how I was not as good, well not as good as the other kids, and then I told my teacher I don’t think I didn’t belong to this program. I told William Foster that. I remember that lesson I like started crying for some reason because the transition was just so rigid for me. And he told me, “No, you’re so talented and you deserve to be in the program more than anybody else here. The great thing about you is that because you have that kind of background where you don’t get the quick access as the other kids you don’t take it for granted.” And that was one of the biggest things he told me I remember that year. He’s the reason why I got through that first year and kept going was because of him.
(LC) You’re not there to have somebody tell you you’re good. You can’t do it for somebody else it has to be for yourself. You know his job was to give you information and there’s been an evolution. There has to be an evolution in your psyche to be able to handle that. And I will tell you, it does not get easier, it never gets easier but that’s what it’s required to be able to get to the highest level. You have to be able to take it and you have to be able to use it. And, you’ve just done a miraculous job of embracing that … and taking it … you take everything. And that’s why I love it. I love the fact that she doesn’t take you for granted. You know I can’t stand working with kids who don’t appreciate all of those things that you say or have to offer and I think that’s one thing about you that will carry you forever and ever and make you the greatest musician because you could appreciate them and you understand that really it’s a gift there. Information is a gift, whatever package it’s wrapped in. You kind of have to take it.
(LC) Yeah. She has this notebook that is like the most tattered little notebook, just filled with pages of all the notes she’s taken from every single lesson. She writes everything down and was incredibly reflective of all this information. It’s so refreshing to watch somebody actually become good at something. Like good. Not just good. Great, you know. Becoming an expert in. I think that’s what I think something that’s pretty awesome I feel like I’ve been your emotional support. I haven’t necessarily been her playing teacher. I’ve been like the hand holder a little bit. I think every Monday I drive her to rehearsal. Every Monday I pick her up and we go to orchestra. So we had our once-a-week drive where we would rehash all of these things that have happened and all these people she is meeting. And, “where am I gonna go to school. I just don’t know. Where do you think I’m gonna end up?” She’s like, “I’m either gonna go to Curtis or Juilliard.” All these schools that are like $80,000 a year and are the most elite. This is like saying I’m going to go to Harvard or Yale you know. And for most people most parents would probably just be like, oh my gosh, like why don’t you just apply to Mason for just a back up. Seems like a good idea. But,I knew for sure they’re gonna give her money to go to school because I could not have led her down this path without the window, without the light at the end of the tunnel, where I knew she was gonna be able to go to school and it wasn’t gonna sink her family, it wasn’t gonna sink her dreams … I just, that on my shoulders was really hard.
(BH) Yeah, and that was the thing with my parents. Me being an immigrant and coming from Eritrea to here, my parents only had one job, and that was to give me a decent education. My dad was actually educated. He went to a university in England. But he was working for the Eritrean Embassy traveling around so I lived without him for three years in Eritrea. So it was just my mom and my three brothers who bullied me all the time. There was so much political crap going on. We left as political asylees. My dad brought all of five of us from Eritrea to here. And my parents were like, “Look, we did so much for you, you have one job and that’s to take advantage of your education and make a life for us, because you don’t want to live like us you know, living paycheck to paycheck, we just don’t want you to have the life we have. And the reason we brought you here is for that for that job.” And for me to bring on this music education, or like being a musician. “What are you doing? Why would you do this like I brought you here for a reason and that’s to be a lawyer or a doctor.” You know, the typical Eritrean dream that you want for your kids. It was really hard for my parents to really process what I wanted to become and that was a professional violaist. “We know you’re not gonna make much money and it’s such a narrow field, very competitive, more competitive than medicine and we just don’t want you to go down that kind of path where there’s no safety net or anything like that.” So that first year my freshman year when I started taking lessons with her, I remember that there was a student recital that year at the end of the year for a thing and they were like you’re not going because they saw my grades, because I’d been practicing all of the time and I didn’t have much time to look after my grades.
(LC) So I would get on you about that – I was like you don’t have a luxury of like having one or the other. You have to have both.
(MH) Yeah, so my brother ratted out on me. He got my report card and told my parents. My parents were like screaming at me. We were arguing the whole time and I have to get to this recital, it’s in 20 minutes. “You’re not going. Look at your grades. We brought you here for that?
This is ridiculous.” Then Ms. Cahn had to call my dad and talk to him. I remember a couple days after, we went over to her house together and we had this conversation.
(LC) We had, that was a good conversation when your dad came over.
There’s a leap of faith in doing these things. Music is not a guarantee. You don’t have a guarantee. I mean you know that. What I had to explain to him was that if you love what you do, you never have it, lead to have a happy happy child, and I think at the end of the day, as any parent would, that’s what what you want for your kids. You want them to have a happy life and to love what they do. And I think your dad understood that. I said, “she has a legitimate shot at this.” I said, “I wouldn’t lead her down this path if I didn’t think that that was true.” I said, “however, I agree with you she needs to keep her grades up. And if she doesn’t keep her grades up, I want to know about it because I’m gonna make sure that she does.”
(MH) There was like kind of a cultural barrier between music and what they believed for me, having a real academic education rather than music.
(LC) My big concern was okay sure she’s gonna get in and it’s gonna be $80,000 a year and how on earth could I have told her family that she can do this and then tell them it’s $80,000 a year? It would just sink them. I just I couldn’t. And I’m like please, just apply to these other schools and she wouldn’t. She didn’t do it. She wouldn’t do it. And I was having a panic attack about this whole thing. The college auditions — getting that together was kind of a thing.
(MH) Especially all the travel arrangements.
(LC) Well there was the travel, all that stuff’s a lot of logistics to manage, because if you’re not used to doing things like that this, it is a long way to come from having to take the bus from TC to the Kennedy Center. Go. Go. I’m so waiting for you to land in Berlin and have to find your way honestly, or land in Vienna and find your way to the Musikverein. It’s gonna happen. I was having a panic attack for you about the recording because her college pre-screening for Juilliard was due in a week, and she’s like, I want to record it the day before and get it in. “Oh my god, why are you doing this?”
(MH) And the pre-screen is the first round of auditions, so there are two rounds.
(LC) You have to make the pre-screening. Forget the other ones.
(MH) You make a video of yourself playing the required music and you send it in and they either approve you or don’t approve you for the live audition. So.
(LC) Yeah, well so she calls me and she’s like, “do you have a camera? I can use my IPhone.”
(MH) And these kids are like using professional recordings.
(LC) Right, I was like, “you’re not competitive if you’re gonna pull out your iPhone.” Fortunately she booked a room at the Kennedy Center. She had an accompanist. I’m like, okay, at least two things are done you just have to find the equipment. So we were fortunate enough ACPS came through on that one. So, she had to do it all at once.There was no backup plan and I’m like freaking out. She didn’t apply to Indiana. She’s gotta get into Juilliard. So she she just she laid it down. She took one take. Did you take one take of the Schubert?
(LC) She took one take. One take of the Schubert. There was nothing wrong with that recording. It was spectacular. I almost cried. I couldn’t do that. There’s no way, which is remarkable. We had time to spare. We left early. Yeah, she got it done in four hours. And then she got in, she got all her pre-screens came through. She got in, accepted everywhere, and so then she was off to the auditions. You want to talk about your New York audition?
(MH) So, I went to New York with my dad. He’s like, “it’s just an audition. Why are you taking it so seriously?” Obviously the perspectives were so different. From knowing the music world, and he doesn’t, but he was just like, “it’s not even that big of a deal. It’s just ten minutes of your life. It’s just nothing. Those people are just sitting there to hear you play. Don’t be nervous.” That was literally my best audition, because for some reason, I was not nervous because I just saw them as people. And they’re just people who want to hear me play. So it’s not that big of a deal if I mess up. I just want to have fun because it’s Juilliard. I’m like in the best school. I want to embrace what I’m doing. So I left really happy and everybody was smiling at me. So, I left the room and then the college representative comes up to me and says, “congratulations.” But he doesn’t say you got in, because he can’t because it’s like not legal or something like that, whatever. So, he just says congratulations. There was a viola lunch after which is like a lunch for all of the viola teachers and all of the people who auditioned that day. And then, Samuel Rhodes who’s the founder of the Juilliard Quartet comes up to me and I didn’t even know it was him. I thought was just some old guy.
(LC) These are like legends.
(MH) Yeah, but he comes into the room, and he and he approaches me and I’m just sitting there because it’s lunch. I was eating my sandwich, on my phone, and then he comes up he’s like, “your audition was just outstanding.” Blah, blah, blah. I didn’t know it was hime. I thought it was just some parent just complimenting me. So then he walks away and then I’m like, with my friend, she’s like, “who’s that?” So I look up the faculty and I was like, “oh my god, that was Samuel Rhodes talking to me! Oh my gosh!”
I remember March 26, I was in my car, with my mom, obviously not driving, when we dropped off my little brother at his soccer practice. I’m looking at my phone and I look up Juilliard and I opened my application. It says congratulations and I started screaming and my mom is like, “what happened? what happened?” She puts the car hazards on and gets out of the car and so I keep reading. I keep reading. And then I see the Kovner Fellowship. They were this couple who donated sixty million dollars to Juilliard. I think it was the biggest endowment ever given to a school.They give this money to people who have had the best auditions at Juilliard and see potential leadership in the arts for a future in their careers. Full tuition, full room and board and this is so unbelievable! And you get money for transportation, money for like your strings and stuff, personal expenses. I’m like, “oh my gosh!” I started crying. My mom was like, “oh I’m god!
A scholarship! You don’t have to take loans!” So, at the end of your senior year, for undergrad, you go look for like jobs.You go on tours for all these orchestras that you want to audition for because at the end of four years, you should be ready to audition for stuff. So, that was really cool.
(LC) You know I’ve spent so long trying to tell her that stuff like this doesn’t happen
(LC) Nobody walks away without any loans. Nobody walks away without any loans. Once you walk through the doors to college, this is a fresh start for everybody. You know, we’re all, and it’s true! These were all true things I mean to have her get to the place where I knew she was gonna be okay, and then it all worked out, and like, I mean I’ve been dragging this person to this path, to this jungle of just, this crazy world and to know that I got her to the place where I promised her family this could happen. It was incredible. I didn’t know and I knew what I didn’t know until it actually happened and I made me feel like, it made me, I until it actually happened and I made me feel like, it made me, I mean there aren’t enough words express how proud I am of what she’s done. She’s done this. I mean this is just, she, she dug deep, and she worked hard, and she’s very talented. And very expressive. She’s a beautiful, beautiful musician. It’s very rare to have students in your career, where they go far beyond anything have that is probably a once in a lifetime. So it, I just told her she just can’t forget me she’s famous.
(MH) She says that all of the time.
(LC) And also, one thing I really do believe and I want you to always remember is I want you to pay it forward. Because there will be someone else out there, and you can walk past them and you could say, they’ll figure it out, or you can do something about it. And it’s gonna require giving things that you, you’re just gonna have to give, and you’re not gonna necessarily, and it might not work out for them, but you don’t do it for the Juilliard scholarship. I mean, I guess you hope that that’s why, but that’s not why. I did it because I felt like your talent deserved it. That you deserved it. And that everybody should have the chance. And so going forward, make sure that when you meet someone, it’s gonna be like an eighth grader with an attitude, but you just stop for a minute and give it what it deserves. It’s been, it’s been an awesome experience.