Sara Sant’Ambrogio Pursues Excellence and Joy

Image credit: Courtesy of Sara Sant’Ambrogio

Grammy Award–winning cellist and founding member of the Eroica Trio

Born in Boston, Grammy Award–winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio lives with a mantra of “Excellence, Passion, Discipline, and Fun.” Sant’Ambrogio first leaped into the spotlight when she was a winner at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. And so began her ascent in the classical-music world, playing with the world’s finest orchestras in the greatest concert halls, music centers, and music festivals across six continents. Winning countless awards and competitions as a soloist, she is currently best known as a founding member of the Eroica Trio (with Erika Nickrenz on piano and Sara Parkins on violin).

And she’s a Solo Mom!

Q: Where does your story begin?

A: I was born in Boston but moved to St. Louis when my father (John Sant’Ambrogio) was made principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony. When I was 16, I was invited to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. They brought in tutors while I was doing all this hard stuff as a teen. I went to [The] Juilliard [School] for college. Now I live in New York City, Upper West Side.

Q: And you are touring with the “Erotica Trio”? [wink]

A: Ha! You are the only woman who has supplied the t. We’ve had so many funny things with that. When we first started, we played at a church in Nantucket, and there was an ad in the newspaper for the “Erotica Trio.” [Eroica means “heroic” in Italian but is most commonly associated with Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, the Eroica Symphony.] Once, somewhere in the south, there was a billboard. They got a bunch of calls, “How dare you put that up where everyone can see it!” “What’s our world coming to?” Our organizer would say, “Madame, I think it’s more of an indictment of the state of your education.”

Q: It would be a great way to get teenage boys interested in classical music.

A: When my trio started, there were no successful women in classical music. People tried to marginalize us as something like the Spice Girls. We played standard repertoire. We weren’t doing anything avant-garde except that we were three girls instead of three middle-aged men.

Even in the late 90s, the Wall Street Journal did a huge article on us: It began by saying how we were at the top of classical music, “. . . which makes it all the more surprising given how much time they must spend at the gym toning their beautiful bodies. . . .” They ended with, “Too bad the Eroica Trio doesn’t realize that, like fine wine, music gets better with age. What will they do when their butts sag?” They came on our tour, and after a performance at Carnegie Hall, as I walked offstage, the reporter asked where I got my hair done. That’s when I knew we were screwed. I said, “Supercuts.” And she was a woman! There is nothing worse than a woman who tears down other women.

Now there are a ton of female classical groups. We broke the glass ceiling.

Q: When did the Eroica Trio start?

A: We started playing together when we were 12. Not only was it the fact that we were three girls, and somewhat attractive, but also we were so young—only in our teens when we started playing big venues. At the time, it was, “This isn’t right.” Now, nobody thinks twice. You have [classical pianist] Yuja Wang walking onto the stage of the Hollywood Bowl wearing an orange miniskirt.

Q: You can’t wear a miniskirt.

A: Then it would definitely be “Erotica.”

Q: How were you able to play cello with a baby belly?

A: The cello was so far away from me it drove me crazy. My back is strong from sitting up straight, but I had a C-section, so afterwards it was hard on my back because my stomach muscles weren’t strong. I went back on tour three weeks after I gave birth.

Q: Tell me about your son.

A: His name is Sebastian. He’s 11, and he’s delicious. If I was only going to have one [child], I’m glad it was a boy. He plays piano and loves acting, singing, and dancing. I tell him whatever he wants to do, do it with his best effort. Pursue excellence. That alone is the reward.

Q: Is that your motto?

A: You can’t control what happens in life, but if you give your best effort, it doesn’t matter what the payoff is, you’ve achieved something. It worked for me. There’s always ups and downs, especially with an artistic career, but if you are passionately in love with it, you can weather the ups and downs. You have inner joy because you love what you’re doing.

That’s what’s so wonderful about classical music. Every day you can get better. There are few fields where you can literally see, on a daily basis, how you are progressing. I thrive on goals, trying to achieve them, then moving the goal slightly forward. I’m always studying. I love feeling that every day I’m a better cellist.

Q: When and how did you become a Solo Mom?

A: I was touring insanely and engaged, but my fiancé’s father had ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis], so we put the wedding on hold. Then I got pregnant. That year, I played 141 concerts worldwide. His father died when I was seven months pregnant, and we had a shotgun wedding at City Hall. Right before I gave birth, it became really clear that there was a problem in lifestyle that wouldn’t be solved.

A friend said to me, “I don’t know why you put up with this.” I was afraid to be a single mom. She laughed, “You already are!” She was right. I was paying all the bills, working my butt off. I took my child with me everywhere, 24/7. So we split up and life got much easier. We were only married a year.

Q: Did being a Solo Mom impact your career?

A: I’m always touring. It’s been over a year since I’ve taken a few days off. I’ve been doing a ton of all Chopin recitals [for her album The Chopin Collection].

The first four years I took him everywhere. If the tour was in the U.S., I’d call a presenter in each city and ask, “Do you, or does someone you know, have a babysitter I can trust?” If I left the country, I’d bring a friend along.

Q: What were some of your initial challenges?

A: If you are a single parent and travel for work, you have to be hyperorganized. When something happens and somebody lets you down, there’s no backup. I do have friends who have always said, “Call if there’s a problem.” You also can never get sick. For any parent, it’s complicated, but for single parents, it’s more complicated.

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, whether we were on a plane, at home, or in a hotel room, we did the same thing at bedtime: 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’d thank God for everything wonderful.

Now he’s very flexible and adaptable, and gets along with people from all walks of life. He’s comfortable with adults, and when people meet him they think he’s a sweet, interesting, and curious boy.

When you are pregnant, everyone tells you how hard it’s going to be. Nobody tells you how much fun it is. The thing I keep thinking is, This is so fun!

Q: How do you handle touring now that he’s in school?

A: It’s a constant juggling act. I started making my tours shorter so I make enough money to fulfill my musical and emotional needs as a performer, but I’m still here with him.

I also have people who sleep over: a former nanny, the daughter of some friends. . . . He’s very secure because he knows that Mom will always take care of him. FaceTime has changed everything. I’ll walk around Vienna FaceTiming him and showing him the sights. He always wants to see my dressing room and my hotel.

Q: What about dating?

A: I have a boyfriend. We’ve been serious for seven months. For a long time I never brought anyone home. Often men didn’t know my son exists. But I’ve known this man for 21 years. My son has known him since he was born. It just happened that, for the first time, we were both single. We looked at each other one night and thought, Oh, my gosh(!) and fell madly in love. Everything that’s happened before in my life prepared me for him.

Q: What moment drove home you were raising a child alone?

A: One of the wonderful things about being a single working mom is there is a certain level of closeness and intimacy with your child that you don’t have as a parental unit. As a single mom, you travel with your kids. If you’re at the airport and they have to go to the bathroom, you take them in the stall . . . [even if you have] to pull out a tampon. . . .

Q: Does he have anyone besides you to whom he can ask the man questions?

A: My best friend is a guy. And [my son] does see his dad sometimes. But I’m still his most trusted source for information because he knows I will always tell him the truth. He was very upset with me last year when he realized Santa Claus wasn’t real. He couldn’t believe I’d lied to him.

Q: Favorite Solo-Mom tip?

A: It changes from year to year. I’m definitely not a morning person, so the night before, I make his lunch, get everything ready for breakfast, put his clothes out. . . . Then we wake up at the last possible second, quickly eat breakfast, run the gauntlet to school, and see how fast we can get there.

Q: What are you most proud of as a Solo Mom?

A: I am proud that right off the bat, I made a conscious decision to never let it get to be too much for me and to always keep a sense of fun and joy in our relationship. That’s what people notice the most when they see the two of us together: how much joy we have, how much fun we have, and how loving we are to each other.

I remember in the first year, I played a concert and it was great, so fantastic. Afterward, I came back to the hotel, and there’s my baby son. I thought, Life is perfect. It doesn’t get any better.

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.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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