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L to R: Chloe, Anna, Naomi, Josiah, Noah, Pearl, Melody (background), and Elijah de la Motte in their living room in Harlem. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

The von Trapps of Harlem

Can ten earnest kids playing Bach become the next Kardashians?

When I enter the de la Mottes’ home—a three-floor, red brick townhouse in Harlem, around the corner from the Apollo Theater and down the block from a Verizon store—the somber thrum of a double bass echoes upstairs. 

I’m greeted by Amber, 43, who looks plucked straight out of an old-timey hearth catalog in a pleated emerald skirt and white blouse, her long, red hair pinned back. She leads me to the dining room table on the first floor where five kids are bent over laptops or workbooks. Marc, 45, her husband and the patriarch of their 10-child clan, is making salsa nearby in the bright, open-plan kitchen. A toddler, Moses, crawls around his father’s feet, entertaining himself with a lime. 

“Growing up, three kids seemed like a big family to me, and that’s what I wanted,” Amber, herself an only child, tells me. She and Marc—they got married when she was 19, he 22—ended up with 10 of them, and, oh yeah, everyone except Moses plays a string instrument. Amber and Marc homeschool all their children. The older seven practice classical music three hours every day. 

“I didn’t feel like I had real direction as a teenager. I would watch TV and eat ice cream during the summer,” Amber says. “I thought learning classical music would be a better way for the kids to sink those hours that I spent watching reruns.” 

Let’s get this part out of the way. Josiah is 20, and plays the violin. Pearl is 19, and plays viola. She got a full ride to Juilliard, which is why the family picked up and moved from California to the East Coast last summer. Elijah, 17, plays cello. Naomi, 14, violin. Noah, 12, double bass. Anna, 10, cello. Chloe, 8, violin. Enoch, 6, violin (though they’re thinking of switching him to viola). Melody, 4, violin. Finally, little toddler Moses is expected to be either a cellist or a bassist—and yes, they’re open to having more. Marc tells me, “It’s like, ‘Yeah, why not?’ ” 

The entire family lives in the top three floors of a building they found on Zillow, which is owned by a tech exec who left town. They do about three loads of laundry per day in the stacked washer-dryer that’s tucked into a closet by the kitchen, and go through at least four bunches of bananas per week. Their Instagram—they go by “The Happy Caravan,” and Amber manages all the accounts—has 181,000 followers and they have another 77,000 on YouTube

It’s like if the von Trapps lived off Malcolm X Boulevard and were trying to make it big on TikTok. 

But the road to the social media big leagues can be rocky. Referring to their TikTok commenters, Marc massages his temples and peers at me from behind a MacBook.

“They’ll say ‘I’m getting Duggar vibes,’ ” he tells me, referring to the Christian family with 19 kids who hit it big around 2008 with a TLC show, before falling from grace when the eldest, Josh, was accused of child molestation in 2015 and then charged with possession of child pornography in 2021. The de la Mottes don’t have cable but Amber bought and watched all 10 seasons on DVD. 

Marc and Moses de la Motte. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

Marc went to college for graphic design, and he still takes on freelance projects. Amber, who has a teaching degree, is a full-time mom. One day, Marc hopes to focus 100 percent on the family band—and brand—traveling with the kids to festivals around the world and booking lucrative gigs and deals.

The de la Mottes want to be one of America’s Big Families, whose ranks include the Kardashians (hot, rich), the Duggars (super religious), the Gosselins (sextuplets), and the Roloffs (dwarfism). The second eldest boy, Elijah, was on America’s Got Talent in 2020, but those shows don’t tend to favor arrangements from classical musicians. (For his performance, Elijah played Ariana Grande on the cello.)

“I’ll get comments that we’re taking advantage of the kids, or that we’re a cult, or that we shouldn’t have kids if we can’t house them properly,” says Amber, who adds that she’s been called both “neglectful” and “overbearing” by commenters online. 

“You can’t win.” 

Recent online snark accused her of crowding an already overcrowded planet, child abuse, exploitation—because the kids busk all over the city, including on subway platforms—and “performative parenting.” Yet Amber knows that’s the price of admission to fame. “There’re so many great musicians out there, but if you don’t know them you won’t go see them,” says Amber. “I want the kids to have a personal brand.” 

Plus, with social media, she says, “You don’t need a producer to put you in the limelight.” 

There was a company a few years back, one that makes pilots for shows and then shops them around to networks like TLC, interested in making a reality show about them, but it fell through. “We weren’t fringe enough for them,” Amber tells me, while the older seven gather in the living room with their instruments for a quick recital (Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins”). The producers were always asking them about their religious beliefs, she says. They wanted her family to be more extreme. 

“They want families who, like, only eat foam,” she says. 

Pearl de la Motte practices her violin. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

While Amber admits that the church they attended in San Diego, where Amber was born, and where the couple settled, was “culty”—it was part of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist sect where women are required to wear long skirts and fecundity is encouraged—they’ve since left it. Now, the girls wear pants, and they go to a less strict church in Chinatown. 

“It’s a standard Christian nondenominational church,” says Marc. “We go every week but we never get there on time.” 

Even though it’s a schlep to get to church, New York is working out for them. Their next-door neighbor here is an Olympic fencing champion who runs clinics for neighborhood kids. While busking at Rockefeller Center, Kelly Clarkson walked by and put a hundred dollar bill in their can. David Chan—a world-famous violinist and conductor also from San Diego, who the family has idolized for years—is now a friend. 

Now, one of the girls, Naomi, is making lemon bars. She and Pearl often bake together. Even though Pearl has a paid-for dorm near Lincoln Center, she lives with the other de la Mottes most of the week. 

“I think she was lonely for the family,” Marc tells me. 

Pearl, Naomi, and Noah now all go to Juilliard (Naomi and Noah are in the pre-college program there). Recently, Anna, Chloe, and Elijah were called back for in-person auditions, which will happen in May, for the same program. If it all works out, the de la Mottes will have six children at the school by next year.

Noah de la Motte brings his double bass downstairs. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

After they got married in 2000, Marc and Amber bought a house in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego, where they had roughly one kid every two years, starting in 2002. Growing up, neither Marc nor Amber played instruments. But Amber always wanted to play violin, and went to a meeting to learn about how to put together an orchestra at the church. She started taking violin lessons, and their eldest, Josiah, was mesmerized by the instrument. They bought him a child-size violin from eBay for Christmas in 2004.

“It’s like the world stopped spinning for him,” says Marc. “He opened his present and he was shaking.” 

Their kids are all trained in the Suzuki method before they are out of diapers. Marc and Amber rewarded their kids with marshmallows or lollipops for nailing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” before mastering jigs like “Drunken Sailor,” and finally moving on to Bach. “When a kid has the desire to be a great musician, but they maybe don’t have the chutzpah to get there, the Suzuki method keeps them motivated,” Amber tells me.

Around 2018, the de la Mottes realized their kids were surpassing the caliber of musical instruction available to them in San Diego, especially Pearl. The Breshears, another family (and a string quartet) who trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, encouraged them to move north. 

So the de la Mottes bought a 30-foot trailer in March 2019, then sold their home for just north of $500,000, and moved to the Bay Area in April 2020 in search of more experienced teachers and better opportunities. But Covid had just hit, and the market was bonkers. 

L to R: Naomi, Moses, Anna, and Amber de la Motte. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

It was impossible to find housing, so they paid $1,700 a month for a spot to plunk their trailer in a South San Francisco park. It wasn’t a great situation; it was cramped, the Wi-Fi was spotty, and the park owner wasn’t thrilled about them. “They were immediately annoyed,” says Marc. “We felt there was this anti–big family sentiment,” adds Amber. Worst of all, there was nowhere to practice. 

“To be a top-notch musician, you have to practice every day,” Amber tells me. “But we can’t fit in practice for everyone inside a trailer.” 

So the kids did their scales and learned their scores in crypts at nearby cemeteries (“They don’t watch scary movies, so they weren’t freaked out,” says Amber) and learned new music in parking garages. But when one of the older ones, Naomi, raced Enoch around in a cart in the communal laundry room in the trailer park—a reward for completing his violin lesson with her—it was the last straw for the park owner, who wanted them out. Soon after, they found a two-bedroom apartment in the Lower Haight neighborhood of San Francisco, but found out that the landlord, along with the upstairs neighbors—who were working their tech jobs from home and hated the noise—were angling to oust them from that place, too. 

“We were facing homelessness,” Amber informs me. “Staying housed is like a chess game. You have to stay three steps ahead.” 

Anyway, it was time for Pearl to go to college, and again, her teacher was pushing her to greener pastures, out east, possibly to study with Kim Kashkashian, one of the world’s top violinists, who teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. 

The older kids spent the next year auditioning for music schools. In addition to Juilliard, Pearl got into Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Manhattan School of Music, and the New England Conservatory. Josiah, who had been studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, got into the Manhattan School of Music for his sophomore year. So the entire family moved to New York City in June 2022. They keep their trailer parked near Albany. They now call their Harlem home a “blessing.” 

Until now, they’ve never had more than one bathroom. 

The pantry at the de la Mottes. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

The top two floors of the house are where you’ll find the barracks for the various regiments: Big Girls, Little Girls, Big Boys, Little Boys, and the parents’ room, where the baby sleeps too. Each room has a bunk bed, and the Little Girls have an extra single bed. 

In the hallways there are jumbles of clothes hanging to dry, music books flung on stairs, ring lights, tiny shoes, and clusters of music stands. There are a few hardcore Star Wars fans in the group, so books and Lego sets from the franchise litter the floor of a small office, which doubles as a practice room. Downstairs, half of their new kitchen is filled with books: C.S. Lewis, Dr. Seuss, Olivia. Elijah, 17, is reading Lord of the Flies.

But the massive dwelling—which has 4.5 bathrooms, 5 bedrooms, and a backyard where basil and flowers grow in the summer—is a stretch. Living in New York is expensive, and the de la Mottes aren’t exactly trying to score 12-person reservations at Balthazar. They eat a lot of burritos, and pay rent—which is $9,800 per month—using the funds from the sale of their house in Lemon Grove. 

“You’re catching us mid-jump,” Amber tells me. “The cost of living is high, but as far as classical music goes, it’s the ultimate here. The teachers don’t mess around.” 

Anna, Marc, Chloe, and Moses de la Motte. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

Very large families like the de la Mottes are a rare phenomenon that’s becoming rarer. In 1976, 40 percent of mothers had four or more children, according to Pew. By 2014, only 14 percent did. Women, if they get married, or have kids at all, are doing both later, and have fewer kids when they do. 

Meanwhile, according to a new Wall Street Journal report, the percentage of people under 30 who say having children is important to them has dropped from 29 percent in 1998 to 23 percent in 2019. Values such as hard work and religion have also fallen dramatically out of favor. The only priority that has grown in favor is cold, hard cash: 43 percent of respondents cited money as “very important,” up from 31 percent in 1998.  

“I think it’s sad that the world has changed so much that being in a big family is no longer normal,” says Amber, when I asked about how people react to their tribe. She told me that sometimes, after church or on the way back from busking, she’ll look around the train and notice that her kids are the only ones on board.

The de la Mottes are not tradcaths, or neo-homesteaders. They don’t even identify as pro-natalists—those, like Elon Musk, who see it as a moral imperative to fight declining birth rates. Neither Amber or Marc had even heard of the movement. And yet, Marc says, “You can’t sustain society without the next generation pushing us along.” 

The big families that do live in America tend to gravitate toward places where there is room for extra fridges and sprinter van parking, or where the culture of the place endorses it, like Salt Lake City, Utah, which is mostly Mormon (Utah’s average household size is 3.08, the largest in the country, according to U.S. Census data). 

In 2023, New York is the last place you’d expect to see a clan of 10 kids marching the streets. But Amber says they’re more at home here—there are more tourists, and big, Orthodox Jewish families—than in San Francisco, where Marc said the people, especially the newer tech types, are more “judgmental.” 

Pearl de la Motte in her room. (Alex S. K. Brown for The Free Press)

On my second visit to see the de la Mottes, again in early March, I ask Marc, who is now making pesto, if Pearl is a prodigy. He shrugs. “It’s just really hard work,” he says. “Pearl is driven to do this. If you call that genius, then it’s genius.” 

Like all homeschooled people I’ve met, Josiah and Pearl are curious and precocious. They look you in the eye when they talk. In his room upstairs, Josiah shows me the collection of R. M. Ballantyne books his parents bought him when he was eight. “He was popular in the nineteenth century with young people,” he enthuses.  

One floor up, Pearl is draping muslin on a dress form, a gift one of her sisters bought her for Christmas. She’s making an underdress for a modern adaptation of a chemise à la reine, a French garment from the eighteenth century favored by Marie Antoinette. 

“But why?” I blurt out. 

Amber: “Because it’s cool!” 

Marc tells me he doesn’t necessarily hope his kids will have as many kids as he does, but he doesn’t want factors like a career getting in the way of them having families. He thinks our current individual-first, success-obsessed culture is a big problem in the world today. 

“We all have one appointment, which is death. You have to think: what are you leaving behind?” he says, while trying to fix a pepper grinder that the baby had attacked. “A pile of money? A software program you wrote?” 

It’s noon, and two of the younger girls, Anna and Chloe, are loading up their violins into cases and zipping up their red puffy jackets while Marc pulls on a hat; they have a music class nearby with a Juilliard teacher. Noah needs to practice arrangements by Mozart and the Brazilian American composer Clarice Assad for an upcoming concert, also at Juilliard. Pearl is turning to her music theory homework. 

“Life and family is why we’re here,” Marc tells me. “I think people are starting to wake up to that.” 

Suzy Weiss is a writer for The Free Press. Read her piece about what happens when college cheating becomes the norm here.

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