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From America’s Got Talent to NYC: Elijah de la Motte

If you have ever thought “America’s Got Talent should feature a cellist,” we agree! In fact, season 15 featured the then 14-year-old cellist Elijah de la Motte. At the Cello Museum, we enjoyed watching Elijah’s performances on AGT and on YouTube with his musical siblings.

From America's Got Talent to NYC: Elijah de la Motte

Screenshot of cellist Elijah de la Motte competing in America’s Got Talent.

Since performing on America’s Got Talent, Elijah has continued to be an inspiration, having been featured on From the Top and the VSA International Young Soloist Awards for musicians with disabilities.

We sat down with Elijah, now a senior in high school, to learn about this musical journey and his future musical ambitions.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


America’s Got Talent

Elijah de la Motte AGT Screenshot

Screenshot of cellist Elijah de la Motte competing in America’s Got Talent.

Jonathan Simmons [JS]

Thank you so much for talking with us today. I know you’re taking time out of your busy schedule with auditions and everything. First, I’d like to ask you about America’s Got Talent. That’s one of the first ways we heard about you. Could you tell us a little bit about it? Whose idea was it to enter?

Elijah de la Motte [EdlM]

The whole thing was kind of embarrassing looking back at it. An agent reached out and told me I should audition.

I showed up, and I auditioned, and obviously my mom was super supportive and wanted me to do it. So then they said they were thinking about it—and then I got a phone call that said, “We want you on the show.”

We drove from where I was living in San Diego to the convention center in Pasadena, and I played. I was a little nervous—you can see in the video [that] I’m a little bit shaky. But it was a fun experience.

It was definitely very stressful because of COVID. You were still allowed to have a few people together, [but] there was no audience. It was just the judges, so it was not like what you were used to, because there’s no energy from the crowd. So it was awkward. But meeting Terry Crews and speaking to the judges was cool. I mean, it always looked fun. It wasn’t ever a huge dream of mine, but it was fun.

JS

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience either way.

EdlM

And then, of course, I got roasted by TwoSet [Violin] a couple years back, which was pretty embarrassing. That made it worse.

JS

Was that the America’s Got Talent or something else?

EdlM

I mean, it’s kind of cool. But yeah, embarrassing. Because I think it’s another couple million views.

Prepared with Popper, Forced to Play “7 Rings”!

JS

How did you pick the music that you played?

EdlM

I wasn’t allowed to choose, because they don’t want people playing the same song multiple times in the same season. So they just gave me Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.” My mom’s Christian, and she took one look at the music video, and it was a little bit like, “Oh, maybe not,” but then she [decided], “Well, I guess it’s [ok since there are] no lyrics—it’s instrumental.” So we made our backing track. I was originally going to play Popper’s “Polonaise de Concert” that I was working on back then. And they’re like, “No. How about not?”

So my mom and I worked on a backing track. Then, a couple days before the audition, they sent their professional backing track to me, and it’s in a different key! Absolutely nothing like what I had rehearsed. As a classical musician, you know, that’s tough. So I just kind of scrambled to come up with something. I had two days to prepare what I played. That’s basically how that came about. I was kind of forced to play it. But it turned out okay.

Highlights of the Experience

JS

That’s impressive that you did that on two days’ notice! Did you have a favorite part of the experience?

EdlM

Yeah. I mean, honestly, just speaking to Simon Cowell. That’s always cool. Sofia Vergara, all those different stars. It’s very cool. I’m a huge fan of Terry Crews, too, so that was cool.

JS

There you go. You got to meet some of those stars out there!

EdlM

As a classical musician, you generally aren’t hanging out with that kind of crowd, so it’s kind of cool we got to meet people like that.

A Learning Experience

JS

Would you say that’s the biggest influence that America’s Got Talent had on you? Was there anything else?

EdlM

I saw a small boost in my social media but the main thing was getting to meet the judges. It was also a bit of a soul-searching experience, because I made it past the first round [and] for some reason I was very emotionally attached to being able to move forward through the rounds. So [the judges] gave me 4 yeses. But with Covid, they did a very truncated version of the show. Everything was just shorter—everything.

I was asked to submit videos, and I kind of procrastinated because [I felt] I probably wasn’t going to get to the live round anyway. And then they had already found everybody they were looking for, so I didn’t make it—I missed my window. I was really sad about that, but I realized, “You know what? I’m going to be okay. It’s just America’s Got Talent.” I think I’ve matured since then.

On Performing

JS

I have a question for you relating both to America’s Got Talent and performing in general. Obviously, it’s a high-stress situation. How do you handle the nerves, and do you have any ways that you like to use to energize an audience and feed off of their energy?

EdlM

As a kid, I was always really good at feeding off energy from the audience. Young players have a lot of emotion and charisma, and it’s less tamed. I would always feed off of the crowd’s energy, and I would try and emit feelings and emotion. As I’ve grown older, it’s become harder.

I am trying to work as a more mature player, to be able to calm [my] nerves and try and tell myself it’s not as big of a deal as I’m making myself think it is, even though college auditions and stuff—it’s pretty big! But I’m just going to try my best.

JS

Your journey reminds me of that of Yo-Yo Ma. He said when he was a kid he had no nerves, and then [as he grew older] he became self-conscious and had nerves. And now he’s to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore.

Starting Out & Musical Family

JS

You’re not the only musical one in your family. When did you start playing cello? I heard that you could already play Suzuki songs by age 2 or so.

EdlM

Our mom began playing the violin at about age 22, and it was always a passion of hers. But it’s hard to learn as an adult.

She always had this dream that we would become professional musicians, and so she started us at age 2 or 3. I started when I was 2. Some of my siblings started when they were 3. We all either started on violin or cello. I was on the cello, and the rest of my siblings were on violin. It started with my older brother, then my sister, and then me.

My mother chose the cello for me because I have some high-frequency hearing loss in one of my ears from birth. So that’s kind of how my playing the cello came about.

We did Suzuki; about age 10, I finished that. My mom would work with me. She basically just spent her whole day working from one kid to the next—sitting down, sometimes [saying] “No, you’re not doing this right,” and she’d point to the music, and [give us] candy to get us to want to practice. But she’s always been dedicated to that.

Now my brother is at MSM (Manhattan School of Music). He’s going to be finishing his final year of his bachelor’s next year. My sister is at Juilliard, and I have some siblings in Juilliard Pre-College.

On Choosing A Music Career

JS

Are there any pivotal moments when you decided, “hey, I actually want to do this [as a career]?”

EdlM

Around age 12, for some reason, I was just inspired. I remember practicing 4 and a half hours [a day]. It was really scummy practice, I think, because it wasn’t well thought out. But I was very passionate about it, and I would practice hours a day.

That inspired [me to think], “Okay, I want to do this again,” so I would practice a lot. In my teen years, I got a little bit comfortable [while] I went to the San Francisco Pre-college. and I didn’t practice. I still did a couple hours a day, but it was just a little bit. I don’t think, I practiced properly. I didn’t really have my soul in it at that point.

My family moved to New York because my sister got accepted to Juilliard, and I was auditioning for Pre-College. That didn’t happen, [but] some of my siblings got accepted.

Metronome

I thought, “You know what? Wait. I need to step this up.” So it was 4 hours, 5 hours a day, practicing [slowly with the metronome at] 40 BPM—double stops, everything. I auditioned for Pre-College again. I played better, but I don’t think I was mature enough.

My sound was very surface. I couldn’t really get the gritty sound next to the bridge that was necessary for some of the pieces I was playing. Then you have younger players who are maybe just better. There were only a few spots, so I didn’t get accepted again.

I’ve been trying to [work on] technique, slow practice. Now I’m doing college auditions, and we’ll see how that goes. There are a lot of great schools here in New York and across the country. I’m going to make a career out of music, if at all possible. I’m never going to give up.

Cellists in the Family

JS

With everything that you’re learning—practicing slowly, double stops—do you pass any of that on and teach any of your siblings?

EdlM

I have one sister who plays a cello. We only have two cellists in the family right now, but I think my baby brother Moses is going to start. He just turned two a couple months ago.

When I started seeing improvements, but I might hear her [my sister] practicing something and be like, “Oh, I think you could do this or something like that.”

[My teacher] is really great. His name is Leo Singer. The way I met him was that I was seeing Richard Aaron for a lesson, and he told me, “Yeah, you need to work on technique. I’ve got this technique guide who, over the summer, you just take a couple of lessons a week.” I took two lessons a week.

Favorite Music

JS

I’ve heard you play a ton of music—everything from standards of the cello repertoire to arrangements with your family. Is there anything in there that’s currently your favorite?

EdlM

I’m a huge fan of John Williams, so anything that we arrange by him. We’re also big movie fans because as kids we weren’t really allowed to watch a ton of movies. Now that we’re older, we like Marvel, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, all those sorts of movies. Any music from that—popular movie [scores] to play as a family.

JS

What about your solo cello rep? Do you have a current favorite there?

EdlM

I’ve always really liked Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto in E-flat Major. I’ve always felt a strong connection to that piece. It’s so brilliant, just like, “Pow!” I’ve always loved that piece.

Practice Schedule

JS

Right now, I know it’s a season of life where you’re taking a lot of auditions, you mentioned. What does a typical day look like for you right now? Practicing? Rehearsing?

EdlM

I try to practice two hours in the morning, just because that’s the best time of the day for me to get stuff done. I can’t practice at night, so I practice in the morning. I try to do two hours, and then in the afternoon I do homework. I’m in my senior year, so I have to keep up with that.

My family does street performing because rent here, music lessons…even when my parents are both making income, our rent is crazy. Food for 13 people is crazy. So we do street performing to pay for mainly music expenses.

After that I might do another hour. I try to aim for between three and four hours a day. That’s kind of my day.

Making Music Despite Hearing Loss

JS

I wanted to come back to something that you mentioned earlier [about your] hearing loss. Congratulations on being a VSA International Young Soloist Award winner. Hearing you play so beautifully, it’s surprising to hear that you have some hearing loss.

EdlM

It’s never really been a huge deal, because, as somebody with hearing loss, I don’t know what other people are hearing, so how can I know what I’m missing out on? I’ve just been careful. I wear earplugs. I don’t go to rock concerts. I’ve just been careful, and it hasn’t really affected my playing. It’s never been a huge deal.

JS

And you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, which is awesome.

Future Plans, Inspiration & Advice for Others

JS

You’re in a really pivotal moment right now. What are your future plans with cello as far as a music career?

EdlM

Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve come to realize that—and I’m not just trying to be down on myself—I’ll never be the best. It’s good to be able to step away and really actually look at things. So what are my options?

I want to teach, if nothing else works out. I’ve always thought about that. I mean, orchestra positions are so hard to get. You know, you have to spend maybe 20 years auditioning, and what do you do in between then until you get a spot?

I’m going to have a Plan B, which is, I want to get a bachelor’s in business. I’ve always been kind of savvy in that sense, but definitely, I’m going to play music for the rest of my life. Whether I do it professionally, only time will tell. I’m going to keep working. I’m going to go to school for it. I’m going to do my best to make a career.

JS

Awesome! If you could collaborate with any musician on the planet who would it be?

EdlM

Any musician? There are too many to choose from. The problem with all the great cellists is that I would never quite feel worthy, because they’re the masters of the art of cello playing, and I’m just a student. But something about Mischa Maisky—the energy he gives when he plays. He’s just such an amazing musician. He’s always been my idol. I don’t know about collaborating, but probably Mischa Maisky.

JS

Never say never. It may happen someday!

Let’s say there’s a kid out there who wants to be in your shoes. Let’s say they’re one of your younger sibling’s age. What recommendations would you give them on what to do in the meantime?

EdlM

Practice and don’t stop. I’ve taken some time off [during] different stages of my life, and I just think that if I would have just kept my head down and kept going, how much better could I be.

JS

Excellent advice. That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall. Right? Practice, practice, practice.

Cello Questions

JS

So, since we’re the Cello Museum, we obviously have to ask you about cellos. What is the favorite cello you’ve ever played?

EdlM

I saw this question and thought, “Oh, dear! I have never played anything fancy, ever.” My cello is a good cello. I got it in San Francisco from Roland Feller. It’s a great cello. So that’s my favorite cello I’ve ever played.

I’ve never played on anything fancy, even just to try it. I’ve always wanted to have an electric cello. So maybe I’ll save up my money and one day just do it.

JS

Is there a cello that you’ve heard either live or in recording that you’re dying to try one day?

EdlM

Well, you know the Greenhouse one—I think it’s a Strad? The one with the cutout peg box. My earliest cello teacher studied with Greenhouse. The different stories he told. I’ve always thought, “Wow, that cello is cool.” So that one, for sure.

JS

My teacher plays a Gagliano with the peg box cut out. So that’s interesting.

You mentioned wanting to try electric cellos. Have you ever tried, Baroque, carbon fiber, or any non-standard ones?

EdlM

No, I’ve tried a viola da gamba once, but no, not a Baroque [cello].


Many thanks to the inspirational Elijah for joining us for this interview. We wish him well during audition season and beyond.



How to Follow and Support Elijah



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