Sexual abuse doesn’t define this award-winning cellist
Grammy Award–winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio is perhaps best known as a founding member of the Eroica Trio (with Erika Nickrenz on piano and Sara Parkins on violin). Formed when they were only 12 years old, the three young women were playing major concert venues by their teens. At the time, with no women headlining in classical music, they were considered a novelty. Because of their looks, their all-girl composition, and their youth, they were trivialized within their musical community. But by continuing to play standard repertoire (aka the stuff the middle-aged men were playing) at gifted levels, the three prodigies played their way to a top spot in the classical-music world.
Born in Boston, Sant’Ambrogio began her studies with her father, John Sant’Ambrogio, principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Following a teenage sojourn in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute of Music, she completed her music studies at The Juilliard School and settled in New York City.
A respected soloist in her own right, Sant’Ambrogio tours constantly, most recently performing all-Chopin concerts, promoting her album The Chopin Collection (available on iTunes, Amazon, and her website). And in the midst of her busy, creative, and exciting life, Sant’Ambrogio brilliantly solo parents her son, Sebastian, 11. “He loved Bach when he was in my stomach.” A Solo Mom since Sebastian was just one, she and Sebastian have a deep bond and joyful relationship—with fun being the primary goal.
Q: How do you manage as a Solo Mom while touring so much?
A: You keep it together. For any parent, it’s complicated. For a single parent, it’s even more complicated. Still, it’s doable. If you travel for work, you have to be hyperorganized. I knew from the get-go that Sebastian was going to have to go to sleep no matter where we were, so we had a routine: I’d read him a book, tell him a story where we were the two main characters, then we’d do “Thank God,” where we would thank God for everything that was wonderful. When you decide to have a baby, everyone tells you how hard it’s going to be, that you won’t get any sleep. But the first few years I kept thinking, This is so fun.
Q: You have an amazing attitude.
A: I feel that whether you are single or not, sometimes life can get really hard. But if you can raise a child, especially a boy, to go out into the world feeling really comfortable and confident about professing their love for others, you’ve given them a huge gift. Send them out into the world feeling they are lovable, they are enough, and what’s most important is how they feel about themselves, not what others think about them. If I succeed in doing that—which so far I have, knock on wood—then I’ve really succeeded as a mom.
Q: Is this something your parents taught you?
A: At a very young age, I had some seriously defining moments: I was raped when I was 10 and had a massive amount of sexual abuse from a young age until I was 13. This led me to dabble in drugs. At 14, I overdosed. I woke up in the hospital after having a profound out-of-body experience that changed my life.
I walked away from all of it deciding the answers I was looking for were not going to be there. I didn’t want to be less aware (by numbing with drugs); I wanted to become more aware.
My father is an incredibly warm, loving, and happy person. He was brilliant in an unconscious way. Both of us are huge readers. Neither of my parents knew I was raped until I was much older. But my dad kept handing me biographies and autobiographies about survivors—from Serpico to Holocaust survivors to Papillon—and they inspired me. I thought if these people could survive their ordeals, I could definitely survive mine.
I realized that, for me, I was born to be a naturally joyous and happy person, a really emotionally available person—which is why I am the performer that I am. And I was allowing these terrible circumstances to shut that down until I made a conscious decision that, yes, I was victimized, but I was never going to be a victim.
Q: What I admire about you is that you didn’t let it define you.
A: If you do, then they win. It’s a choice. I often talk to my son about this: You cannot choose what’s going to happen to you, but you can choose how you react to it. And that is actually the essence of what your life will be. Not what happened to you but how you process it. For me, I made a conscious decision to choose joy, happiness, and emotional availability. I chose to allow my heart to grow and grow instead of shut down and shrink. I’ve been blessed.
Q: Does your outlook influence your parenting?
A: The other day Sebastian asked me what was my favorite age. I said “Now.” He asked why, and I told him that every single day my life gets better.
I think that so many of us fall prey to things then allow them to define us. It becomes our identity. In some weird way it seems like it’s easier and less effort to allow this to happen—to just give in. But, in fact, it’s not easier. Happiness is a discipline, like any other discipline. You must choose to look for the joy.
As rudimentary is it sounds, when I was a teen and I felt depression coming on for any reason, I made a list of the things that made me happy. I would go down the list and feel the depression lifting. Now I don’t even have to do it. It’s a habit. It’s been years since I’ve been depressed. And when I start to get frustrated by things, I immediately try to change it.
Q: This is such wonderful advice.
A: I have never shared my story publicly. I have shared it privately, and it has been powerful for other survivors who are losing their way: People who look up to me and admire me. When I share my story, it gives them hope.
I feel it’s important to get it out of the deep dark. When you hide it, which is what all of our natural instincts are and [what] mine were as a child, it becomes your secret and becomes your fault—when, in fact, it is definitely not your fault. I broke my leg . . . I got raped . . . I healed . . . I moved on.
You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you deal with it.
Today is my perfect age. I can only be who I am today. And I am really proud of who I am today, how I moved on, and the joy I can bring people. I was really lucky that I was given the gift of music. I had this special thing, my instrument, which gave me a voice.
Q: When I was young, I processed challenges through playing piano. Now that I’m older, I process them through comedy.
A: It’s so true! When I tell the horrible stories about things that happened when I was young, I make them funny. It’s healing.
Talking about it helps you heal. Laughing about it gives you power.
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
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