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Superstar City Kids Let Their Talents Shine From a Young Age

By Julie Shapiro | December 13, 2012 7:08am

NEW YORK CITY — When Cecilia Gault was 6 years old, her parents signed her up for music lessons, hoping to help her overcome her shyness.

It worked — and then some.

Eight years later, Cecilia has performed before crowds of hundreds of people, singing original songs in a captivatingly mature voice.

"Other people write poems or books," said Cecilia, 14, who lives in Battery Park City and attends the elite Professional Performing Arts School. "My way of expressing my feelings is through music."

New York City is a magnet for talent — and not just for adults, but also kids who want to get a head start on a career in anything from singing to chess to ballet.   

Superstar youngsters juggle schoolwork and friends with hours of rehearsals, competitions and performances, driven by their passion for pursuits that they take more seriously than mere hobbies.

At the same time, their parents try to strike a balance as they push their kids to succeed without overwhelming them with the pressures of competitive industries. Many families also pour financial resources into their kids' talents, sacrificing vacations and other extras to pay for lessons, entrance fees and more.

Dennis Gault, Cecilia's father and a public school teacher, said that rather than spending money on a trip to Disney World, he and his wife, a stay-at-home mom who manages Cecilia's budding career, instead pay for guitar lessons and a vocal coach.

Gault said he's proud of his daughter, who has performed alongside Patti Smith and regularly debuts new material at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village.

"I enjoy her voice, and I enjoy the thought she puts into her songwriting," Gault said.

Every afternoon, Cecilia comes home from school and spends 30 minutes each practicing piano, drums, guitar, bass and singing. Then she writes songs, unloading her thoughts and emotions onto paper.

Instead of love ballads, Cecilia, who describes her music as alternative with pop and rock overtones, tends to write about the more serious issues she and her friends face, including bullying and self-harm. She wrote "Butterfly" for a friend who cut herself:

"Yesterday, she slipped up bad / Fighting the urge for weeks now / Draw me on your arms and let me / Fade your scars away."

While Cecilia is sometimes tempted to hang out with friends instead of coming straight home to practice, she reminds herself that working hard now will help her get signed with a record label and ultimately win a shelf full of Grammys.

"This is what I want to do," Cecilia said. "I know when I'm older I'll thank myself for keeping myself on task."

New York City kids who discover their talents at a young age often find themselves perfectly placed to receive top-tier, internationally recognized professional training.

Madeleine Zoe Haynes, 8, a Financial District resident who goes by "Maddie," won a coveted spot last year in The School of American Ballet, which trains children to become professional dancers in the New York City Ballet and other companies.

"I like it because I like moving around a lot," said Maddie, who dreams of one day playing the role of Clara in "The Nutcracker." "There's a lot of snapping and kicking and turning involved… There's a lot of action."

As one of the younger students at The School of American Ballet, Maddie spends two afternoons a week there, and also takes jazz/hip-hop and technique classes at Downtown Dance Factory, along with piano and swimming lessons.

"It's certainly a time commitment for her — she has very long days," said Suzanne Haynes, Maddie's mother. "She does get tired. She does work hard at all these things. I do ask her if it's ever too much, to tell me, but she doesn't want to give up anything."

If Maddie remains at The School of American Ballet as she gets older, the intensity of the classes will soon ramp up, with hours-long rehearsals nearly every day of the week. Haynes said it would be up to her daughter to decide whether she wanted to continue.

But for now, at least, dancing remains pure enjoyment for Maddie, who likes working through routines over and over again, tweaking the movements until they match her instructor's vision.

Asked if she remembered when she first started dancing — a "Mommy and Me" ballet class about the time she turned 2, her mother said — Maddie thought for a moment and then replied, "I don't think I do."

Spencer Ha, 12, a nationally ranked chess player, also started young, learning the game when he was in kindergarten at Battery Park City's P.S. 89.

"I didn't know I was good at it," Spencer said, "but I knew I liked it."

Within a few years, Spencer was winning or placing in citywide competitions, and earlier this year his team at Chelsea's NYC Lab School tied for first place at the United States Chess Federation's National K-6 Championships.

In October, the United States Chess Foundation ranked Spencer 16th in the country for players age 11 and under (he has since turned 12, but those are the most recent rankings available).

"It's a good outside-of-school sport," Spencer said of chess. "It's not like basketball or baseball. Chess actually makes you think, makes you feel like, 'Oh if I just think of this a little harder, I can maybe get this move.'"

Spencer practices for an hour or two a day, playing against a computer or his classmates, and he always tries to think five or six moves ahead in the game. He hopes to one day become a chess master — though he also wants to pursue a separate career, perhaps in engineering or biology.

While Spencer said playing chess has helped him with his schoolwork, hyper-talented kids can sometimes have trouble tearing themselves away from their forte to do more mundane tasks, like homework.

Moss Robeson, 16, a junior at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts who lives in Prospect Park South, often stays up late into the night composing and recording music. His father rarely interrupts him, even if that means Moss hasn't finished his homework or misses his first-period class.

"It's very hard to go into his room and say, 'Stop playing that gorgeous music and get to bed,'" said Anthony Robeson, Moss's father.

Moss, who writes cinematic compositions that sound like movie scores, began composing when he was about 7 years old, at the same time as he started taking piano lessons.

"It's my favorite thing to do," Moss said. "There's a satisfaction to being a fan of music and then being able to go and make your own…. The thing I like most is the moment when you make something new and realize you have something new."

Moss recently won a school-wide music-writing competition with his five-minute piece "Esplanade," named for a street in New Orleans, which the school's orchestra performed in November.

Moss hopes to compose movie scores in the future, and he spends at least two hours a day at the piano, practicing and creating new work.

Robeson is proud of his son's musical accomplishments and believes he could succeed as a composer. But he said he would also be content if Moss pursued his other interests in film, government or writing.

"I want him to be happy," Robeson said.