CHARLOTTE, NC (Cristina Bolling/The Charlotte Observer) - He was Donna and Jason Dansby's first child, so they didn't find it particularly odd when 2-year-old Drew spent hours listening to Mozart CDs or memorizing 26 melodies on a push-button alphabet toy.
And when, at 3, he begged for a violin, it seemed … normal. Don't most young kids love music and fixate on things, whether it's dinosaurs or hitting balls off a T?
On his fourth birthday, the Dansbys took Drew to his first lesson, and he brought home a tiny violin that he practiced alone in his room for two hours straight the next day. When he asked to add the cello six months later, they thought, "Why not?"
Neither Donna nor Jason had played an instrument past high school band, but by the time Drew was 7, Donna sensed Drew might need more. But what?
She reached out to Alan Black, the Charlotte Symphony's principal cellist. He was known never to take on students so young, but she emailed him, attaching a YouTube video of Drew playing Breval's Sonata in C Major.
He remembers watching the entire video on his computer, stunned, then picking up the phone immediately.
"I'll take him."
But neither Black nor Drew's parents could have predicted what the next decade would bring for Drew. Now he faces the biggest decision of his young life – and his parents again face the question: How do you help a kid like Drew?
His parents: 'What do you do?'
There's an obsession in our parenting culture with speedy achievement. We choose activities for our preschoolers to specialize in, and search for signs that our ordinary children could be exceptional.
In her new book, "Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies," Ann Hulbert describes the lengths some parents will go to cultivate and capitalize on their children's gifts.
"Ours is an era, as a popular adviser of parents has put it," she says, "when Lake Wobegon-style insistence in above-average children is 'yesterday's news,' overtaken by an anxious credo that 'given half a chance, all of our children would be extraordinary.'"
But that was never the Dansbys' style.
Jason is an IT applications analyst with Duke Energy. Donna is a stay-at-home mom with an engineering background. Though she grew up playing competitive tennis and dreamed of being a tennis pro, neither she nor Jason had a talent anywhere near the spectrum of their son's.
They were adamant about not centering their family life around Drew's giftedness or confusing their identity with his.
They weren't going to go into debt for music lessons, nor would they search for ways to make him an internet sensation. "People would say, 'You should get him out and let people hear him,'" Donna recalls. "We just didn't see the need to push."
They reminded him often: You're doing this for fun. You can quit anytime.
And when Black would emerge from a lesson with Drew and gush about how well he was progressing, Donna would try to usher her son into the car quickly so he wouldn't hear. She felt awkward when Black would try to explain Drew's talent.
"It's just one of those things where you hear it, but I don't have anywhere to put that information; nowhere to hang it, because I'm not a musician," she says. "If we go play tennis and I see a (gifted) kid out there, I know what that means. That's my language, where I understand where that can go.... But music? That's nice. What do you do?"
There was another, far more serious, reason why fixating on Drew's musical gifts wasn't an option.
At age 2, he had been diagnosed with a life-threatening peanut allergy, and he'd gone into anaphylactic shock three times before he turned 4. Every time he left the house, Donna worried he would come in contact with peanuts – residue on a doorknob, the whiff of a sandwich on someone's breath – that would put him in danger.
And so when she followed him around to youth symphony events or music camps, it was more to maintain his safety than to be a helicopter music mom.
"He's this kid who's got all these amazing gifts and talents, but he's got this disability that is more important than any of that," Donna says now. "Just ingesting one thing can kill him. I guess it keeps my thoughts on other things."
His teacher: 'I'm in awe of his ability'
For Black, who has been teaching students for more than three decades, the heavy thoughts early on were different.
He realized quickly that Drew would be his once-in-a-lifetime student. The responsibility weighed on him.
"I didn't want to screw him up," Black says.
At first, he told the Dansbys that Drew would need to drop the violin if he wanted to study with him – the bowing techniques for the two instruments are far different, and he worried the violin would mar his cello playing. But Drew loved violin too much to quit, and after awhile, Black saw no reason to force him to pick one instrument.
During Drew's late elementary school years, there were weeks when he barely practiced. Normally, Black could sniff out within 30 seconds if a student hadn't practiced since the last lesson.
With Drew, he could never tell.
Drew ping-ponged each year between playing cello and violin in the elite, audition-only Charlotte Symphony youth orchestras – it was a running joke between Black and Ernest Pereira, Drew's private violin instructor and director of the youth orchestras, that they'd one day arm-wrestle for Drew.
Now, Black calls Drew's mastery of both instruments "ridiculous."
This summer, Drew will head to New York, then Asia, with the National Youth Orchestra, one of the most competitive youth orchestras in the country. He made NYO history this year by auditioning on both cello and violin – nailing both so solidly that he became the first ever to be given his choice of instrument.
He picked violin, but for a reason that offers a glimpse into how Drew thinks: "After last year, I decided I wanted to focus on cello more. This might be my last opportunity to play the violin in such a great orchestra. This might be my last hurrah."
Says Black: "I'm in awe of his ability to meld all these parts of music together and be good at all of it."
This winter, Black created a special performance at Davidson College featuring Drew and 16-year-old concert pianist Keona Rose, who studies in the Juilliard pre-college program. In front of a sold-out crowd, Drew played what's hailed as the Mount Everest climb for professional cellists: Bach's Suite for Solo Cello No. 6 in D Major.
The piece is so demanding, even Black admits he's never played the whole thing. "I'd have to practice a year and go through therapy."
Drew practiced it for two months.
"He plays like he's 40," Black says. "He focuses in a way I've never seen anyone do before."
In the last couple of years, Black has struggled with what to teach Drew, beyond giving him performing experiences and introducing him to new types of music.
"It's become, 'Oh crap – what am I going to do with him this week?' He's learned everything he's going to learn from me... He should be teaching me."
Drew: 'The options are endless'
Drew is now 17, and a junior in high school. He is quiet and thoughtful and clever and funny, and he faces a momentous choice. The kind of choice parents dream of, yet one that can be excruciating when they realize that pursuing some gifts may mean others go unfulfilled.
His teachers say he could move from high school to a serious music conservatory like Juilliard.
Drew isn't tempted. "The prospect of practicing eight hours a day and doing little besides music doesn't seem interesting to me," he says.
He could audition for a professional symphony and go straight into a pro music career, right out of high school.
"Drew certainly plays at a level where it is not hard to imagine him winning a job under the right set of circumstances," says National Youth Orchestra's Doug Beck, director of artist training programs in Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute.
Drew says he's got too many other things he wants to learn first.
Or he could study both music and academics at a major university.
He's touring colleges this spring, and while Donna and Jason realize that they need to help him get in front of the right people on those campuses, they're struggling to figure out exactly how to do that.
"I feel like we're on our own," Donna says. "How much do you let him dream? He might have a way that he can get into these (expensive elite universities) ... he might be able to get full music scholarships, so you don't want to shut that down and say 'You can only look in-state.'
"What if he throws all his effort into these possibilities, and they don't come to be?"
Both Black and Pereira, his teachers, say it would be a loss to the music world if Drew doesn't put music at the forefront. Of the multitudes of kids he has taught, Pereira says, he's told only two to pursue music as a career. "Drew is one of them."
"But it's one of those professions that you really, really have to desire," he says. (The other student he encouraged is part of the renowned Chiara string quartet that tours internationally and records albums.)
One of Drew's mentors is Julian Schwarz. A renowned cello soloist who also teaches at Shenandoah Conservatory and Juilliard, Schwarz says he can see a future for Drew as a cello soloist, composer or member of a professional orchestra.
But only if his heart leads him there.
"Being a professional musician and being a great musician are totally different things," he says. For Drew, "the options are endless – and that's not only because I think he's a fine musician, but because he's such a wonderful human being... There are so many paths, and everybody finds their own path."
Jason Dansby says he wants what Drew wants.
"The cello doesn't have to be a part of his whole life, or at the forefront. It could be in the background someday. ... This could be a season of life," Jason says. "I want for him what will fulfill his purpose in this life."
Donna continues: "I wouldn't for a moment think we've blown a bunch of money or all those hours spent in lessons. He's had so many amazing opportunities."
Three years ago, Drew fell while playing in snow and broke both wrists. He couldn't play for two months, and had to cancel a solo cello performance of the Hayden Concerto, which he was preparing to play accompanied by the entire youth symphony.
"I lost part of my life," Drew remembers.
But he gained a new outlook. Being unable to play forced him to channel his musical tidal waves into composing. And when he broke a finger the next year catching a football, he came to a further conclusion: He was more than the sum of his musical accomplishments.
Over the last few years, Drew's life has expanded beyond his art.
He makes music with other teens at nursing homes, schools and hospitals, through the teen-run volunteer organization Melodic Minors, for which he is artistic director. Its mission is to "democratize music": "It's what musicians do, is perform for people ... You don't know how your music is going to impact someone," Drew says.
He and a friend are creating a community for homeschooled teens, with extracurricular clubs and help in preparing for college. He tutors children every week through a program at Grace Covenant Church, where Jason Dansby is a deacon.
He's soaking up courses like nanotechnology and AP Calculus, and thirsts for even more college-level science and math.
"I want everything I do to have a reason," he says.
It's an outlook he must now apply to the many options before him.
"A lot of people who are really great musicians are so talented in a lot of other things – they don't want music to be their identity. That might be how other people see me: 'Drew Dansby, he's a good cellist. That's it,'" Drew says.
"I don't want that to be true.