The road to Juilliard

Violist Bethlehem Hadgu earns full ride to prestigious music school

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Bethlehem Hadgu (right) with her longtime teacher and mentor, Laura Cahn (left). (Photo by Susan Hale Thomas)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com 

March 28, 2018, was an ordinary day for Bethlehem Hadgu – until it wasn’t.

The T.C. Williams High School senior was riding in the front seat of her mom’s car after dropping off her younger brother at soccer practice. She was scrolling through her phone as they maneuvered out of the crowded parking lot and checked her email. When she saw a message from The Juilliard School in her inbox, she started to scream.

“Are you okay? What happened?” her mom asked, stopping the car in the middle of the busy lot and putting on its hazards.

Hadgu’s eyes were locked on a single word on the tiny screen: “Congratulations.”

It took her several tries to read the rest of the email. When she finally did, her screams of exhilaration turned into tears of joy.

Hadgu had not only been accepted to Juilliard’s four year bachelor’s degree program – she had been named a Kovner Fellow, a merit-based scholarship that covers almost every expense possible for a student attending the school, including tuition, room and board, food, pocket money, transportation and health insurance.

Once she caught her breath, a new thought crossed Hadgu’s mind.

“I was like, now the real work begins. Now, it’s time to work even harder,” she said.

Hadgu’s journey to Juilliard has not been an easy ride. A combination of raw passion and determination has helped her swat down every musical, financial and emotional challenge she’s come across.

Hadgu’s musical career began in fourth grade when the students interested in orchestra were picking out their instruments.

“I chose viola because I like the spotlight and to stand out and I just like attention,” Hadgu said.

The viola is often likened to the alto voice in a choir, compared to the fuller-bodied, darker-toned violin. Hadgu said she fell in love with its similarity to the human voice.

“The fact that it can bring color to black and white and can really speak to you, to your soul – it’s just so close to the human voice,” she said. “It can make you feel ways that another human or any other thing can’t really. It’s just a very electric feeling that I have toward it and a very soulful experience that I’ve always had with it.”

Since that fateful day in fourth grade, Hadgu has grown in her passion and skillset. She wasn’t always, however, the serious musician she is today. During her first years in middle school orchestra, she didn’t take private lessons because of the cost.

Hadgu, along with her mother, father and three brothers, emigrated from Eritrea, a country in Northeast Africa, when she was six years old. Once they arrived in the United States, her family encountered the financial barriers that many immigrants face.

Once she entered eighth grade, Hadgu joined Music Buddies, a mentorship program that partners musicians in the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras with middle school students who are not taking private lessons.

“It gives them a chance to get that one-on-one instruction that they just don’t have access to most of the time,” Music Buddies Program Director Laura Cahn said.

Cahn said a few months into the program, she noticed Hadgu was outplaying her mentor and decided to step in and help with lessons. Despite Hadgu’s amateur technique and secondhand school viola in rundown condition, Cahn saw her potential.

“She’s just so expressive. She has this ability to transform emotions into sound. That is something that’s innate,” Cahn said. “Listening to her play, immediately you’ll have this emotional engagement to her music, and that’s what drew me to her. I saw that in her right from the get-go. It was so obvious.”

When Hadgu’s year with Music Buddies concluded, she was back where she started: full of potential, but unable to afford private lessons. This time, however, Cahn made her an offer – she would provide Hadgu free lessons in exchange for her babysitting services.

“Once she took me on as her student, I really did truly fall in love with the viola,” Hadgu said. “I didn’t think that I belonged in any other field except classical music.”

The more Hadgu excelled in lessons and grew as a musician, the more trouble she had convincing her parents that she wanted to turn the viola into a career.

Bethlehem Hadgu performs in a concert, accompanied by a pianist. (Courtesy photo)

“I had a conversation with her father the first year that she studied with me,” Cahn said. “She’s a childhood immigrant, and her family had aspirations for her to become a doctor or a lawyer or somebody who is successful financially. Being a violist, it can be, but it’s like being an NBA basketball player.”

Cahn told Hadgu’s father that she couldn’t promise that Hadgu would become a successful violist, but she could promise that she would be happy.

“I know as a parent, the biggest thing I wanted was for my children to be independent, of course, but also to be happy and love what they do. And he understood that part of it,” Cahn said.

Once her parents were on board, Hadgu’s musical career reached a new crescendo.

She was accepted into the National Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Fellowship Program as a sophomore in high school – an unheard-of achievement for a musician who has only been under private instruction for one year.

Hadgu said being accepted into the program was one of her greatest musical accomplishments. It took her a while, however, to get her footing. 

“The first year was really hard for me because I was in a different kind of division,” she said. “Everyone had always been taking private lessons since they were four. Parents of kids were pretty wealthy and could afford to pay for private lessons and $10,000 instruments. … I thought I just was not as good as them and I didn’t have the potential to be that good, frankly because they had better opportunities.”

Cahn helped Hadgu when she could by giving her rides to rehearsals and advice on what financial resources were available to her. She said her role in Hadgu’s life shifted from teacher to mentor as she helped her acclimate to the world of classical music.

“Classical music culture is pretty hard to navigate for somebody who hasn’t had exposure to it,” Cahn said. “And she was just getting higher and higher and higher into this world and just had to learn how to navigate it.”

Besides Cahn, others saw Hadgu’s unbridled potential and helped her bridge the financial gap. Over the years, she’s been awarded several scholarships for summer music programs and been given two high-quality violas for free. Her latest is a $6,000 instrument from Day Violins, a shop in Chantilly, Virginia, whose owners wanted to contribute to her education.

Thanks to her supporters, Hadgu spent the rest of her high school years studying with the best musicians in the industry at youth orchestra and various nationally renowned summer programs. When it came time to apply for college, she began practicing harder.

“Senior year came and I was panicking,” Hadgu said. “I literally had no social life probably the first eight months of my senior year because I was just so entrenched in working hard, practicing, learning my repertoire, my music for college, getting all the money gathered for flights, the application fees.”

Hadgu applied to five schools: Eastman School of Music, New England Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music and The Juilliard School.

“I was holding my breath,” Cahn said. “I tried to convince her to apply to a back-up school, to apply to schools that were not Juilliard – that’s like applying to Harvard and Yale. And she didn’t.”

Once she made it through the video round of auditions for all of her potential schools, Hadgu spent the month of February traveling to each of them for in-person trials.

Bethlehem Hadgu performs a viola solo. Her teacher and mentor Laura Cahn said Hadgu’s biggest strength is her ability to convey emotion in her music. (Courtesy photo)

“She was definitely under some stress,” Isabelle Lefmana, Hadgu’s friend, said. “She had so many auditions going on. It was kind of scary, but knowing her, I knew she would get through it, and she did, and she did really well.”

After auditions were over in March, Hadgu spent a month waiting and frequently checking her email. In the end, she was accepted to all five of the schools she applied to on full-tuition scholarships, including first choice Juilliard. 

“I honestly wasn’t too surprised [when she was accepted],” Lefmana said. “She’s really determined, and I knew she could make it into Juilliard. Everything she’s done in terms of music is more than I’ve ever seen anyone else do, in my knowledge. To become a music major from practically nothing, it’s kind of amazing.”

Hadgu said there was never a question of whether she would go to Juilliard or not. The school’s credentials, the teacher she would be paired with and the financial aid were too much to pass up, she said.

Hadgu heads to New York City to start school at the end of August. She said when she graduates in four years, she hopes to embark on a successful musical career and earn a spot in a professional orchestra.

She said, eventually, she might want to teach viola at a school like Juilliard.

“Maybe she’ll play in an amazing string quartet, maybe she’ll be traveling the world and giving recitals,” Cahn said. “I don’t know where she’s going to be, but I do hope that she gives back. I think being a black musician in classical music is very powerful, and it can affect a lot of people, and I hope that she’s able to give back to the community and give hope to other kids, too, that anything is possible if you work hard enough.”

– mschrott@alextimes.com

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