Cellist Alisa Weilerstein
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein talks music, motherhood, and the key to blood glucose control
Alisa Weilerstein’s first concert involved a cereal-box cello and a nasty case of chicken pox. Her grandmother had fashioned an entire orchestra of instruments from cardboard boxes in an attempt to entertain the sick 2-year-old and distract her from the incessant itch. She hadn’t known that the simple act would lead her granddaughter to a career in music. Then again, she hadn’t known the toddler was a veritable virtuoso.
By age 4, Weilerstein had graduated to an actual cello and gave her first public performance. From there, her career didn’t so much blossom as it did explode: She debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 13, played Carnegie Hall at 15, performed at the White House at 27, and at 29 was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellowship.
There’s another milestone that sticks out in her mind: In 1991, at age 9, Weilerstein was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
After she fell sick—after she thought she’d done something wrong to feel so terrible—she might have worried for her future. She might have wondered whether this new diagnosis would crush her musical career.
But that’s not Weilerstein’s style. “I was precocious in the sense that I knew what I wanted to do in my life,” she says from Berlin, Germany, where she lives with her daughter and conductor husband, Rafael Payare.
So when the doctor told her she’d have a full life—play the cello, get married, have children—she believed it. “My parents, at least in front of me, did not make a big deal of it,” she says. “They said, ‘This is a new reality.’ ”
Part of that new normal involved strict diabetes management. The discipline spilled over into her music, too: “I was forced to be so disciplined with the blood glucose control, and I think that extended to all parts of life,” says Weilerstein, now 34.
Watching Weilerstein play the cello is a lot like glimpsing a sailboat slicing through the water. At first it appears effortless—the glide of her bow, the hummingbird-fast movement of her fingers. But look closer and it’s clear: Creating music is exercise.
“What I do is very physical,” Weilerstein says. “And physical exercise can often lower blood sugar.” Before performances, she remains ever aware of her blood glucose level, wearing a continuous glucose monitor and doing frequent blood glucose checks. Ideally, she likes to go on stage with a blood glucose level between 120 and 150 mg/dl. Too low, and she begins to lose coordination.
To treat pre-show lows, she eats fast-acting carbohydrate, and to counteract high blood glucose, she uses her pump to bolus a small amount of insulin. While she has performed with high blood glucose before, she has yet to go low on stage—a credit to her meticulous self-care.
Still, she can’t plan for everything. “I’m traveling so much that my meals aren’t consistent,” she says. But sticking to a lower-carb diet helps keep her glucose as predictable as possible. A typical breakfast may include an omelet with spinach and cheese, while lunch might be a steak with a salad or hummus and veggies.
Weilerstein was dedicated to diabetes control from the get-go, but she became fastidious the moment she and her husband began trying to conceive. “I had to make it priority No. 1—times infinity,” she says. “Everyone has to be very vigilant with diabetes. But during pregnancy, you really can’t let go for a single second. It’s difficult. You have to be prepared for it.”
Her hard work paid off: She kept her A1C around 6 percent and had a healthy baby girl in 2016.
For all her years in the public eye, Weilerstein has been quiet about her diabetes. “I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, she has diabetes. We need to treat her with kid gloves,’ ” she says.
But by age 26, Weilerstein was ready to talk. “I really wanted to impress upon newly diagnosed families, especially young children, that there’s nothing you can’t do,” she says. “Once you have the right information, this is something you can live with and thrive with.”
Want to hear Alisa Weilerstein play?
Head to alisaweilerstein.com for a list of her albums or to view her live performance dates.