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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 2

Child Prodigies: A Poisoned Paradise?

by Lucie Renaud / October 1, 2000

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Some children are endowed with such extraordinary talent that there seems to be no accounting for it. Mozart is often cited as a case in point. However, he is not alone in the pantheon of musical prodigies. Paganini, Liszt, Beethoven, Rubinstein, Wieniaski come to mind, and more recently Yehudi Menuhin and Yo-Yo Ma, not to mention Canadians such as André Mathieu, Shauna Rolston, and Alexandre Da Costa, all of whom displayed exceptional musical gifts at a very young age. Some prodigies seem like well-trained circus animals. Others absolutely amaze us, not so much because of their sheer talent or confidence, but because of their far greater ability to move us with their musical sensitivity.

Parents make a big difference

While hereditary factors apparently have little to do with precocious genius, there is a clear connection between the parents’ involvement and the child’s accomplishments.

Parents can help (or hinder) the development of a child prodigy in an infinite number of ways, ranging from the attentive but not too pushy to the downright obsessive. Cellist Janos Starker often tells the amusing story of his mother, who used to make tiny sandwiches and leave them on his music stand so that he wouldn’t have to get up and look for a snack. She even bought a parrot and trained it to say one thing only: “Practise, Janos, practise!” Given the results, perhaps we shouldn’t criticize this rather original method. Much less amusing is the story of pianist Ruth Slezynska, who made her début in 1929 at the age of 4. In her autobiography she tells how her father made her practise 9 hours every day. He tolerated no mistakes and hit her at the least wrong note. At 15 she suffered a major breakdown that put an end to her career.

Prodigies face real dangers

The dangers lying in wait for child prodigies are very real. Cellist Yuli Turovsky, conductor of I Musici of Montreal, talked to us about the problems. His group will accompany the young prodigy Maria-Elisabeth Lott (see inset) at the end of this month.

“Sometimes” he says, “it’s difficult to resist exploiting the immense potential of such children. It seems as though God has given them an extraordinary head start at birth. Often, however, when they become adults and try to understand the process of musical creation, they simply can’t manage it.
The transition from prodigy to adult artist is difficult in many cases. I’d say only 1 in a 100 becomes a true artist. Take Anne-Sophie Mutter for example. After an almost total silence of nearly two years, she’s back performing strongly and is now embarked on a brilliant career.”

Teachers have a duty

The teacher’s role in developing a child prodigy is essential. He or she must act as an advisor and balance the young musician’s workload sensibly between technique, phrasing, and interpretation. The teacher must also watch over the transformation of a marvellous machine into a well-balanced adult. Adolescence, frequently a period of painful upheaval (even for normal children) can often become a nightmare for musical superstars.

“The children are used to being considered exceptional, but often when they reach adolescence, other musicians, whom they’ve always considered inferior, catch up. At a particular level everyone can master the battlehorses of the repertoire,” Turovsky explains. “The teacher must know when to push the child but also when to hold him or her back, even if parents or agents apply pressure that is occasionally unhealthy. It can be devastating to realize that you’ve done everything as a child and there are no more challenges for you as an adult.”

Turovsky notes another important area where prodigies may be missing out. “Often they have concentrated on their instrument so much that they haven’t had time for cultural experiences like going to museums or the theatre or studying literature. They are eating themselves up and are unable to renew themselves intellectually or emotionally.”

A magic touch?

Some teachers seem to run veritable prodigy factories. Why is this? The answer is simple. In many cases, the fact that one prodigy has passed through a teacher’s hands causes other parents to beat a path to his or her door, believing that the teacher has some magic formula. Juilliard’s Dorothy DeLay is one such magician with violin prodigies. She has trained Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Nigel Kennedy, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Sarah Chang, and a number of other stars. DeLay insists that her pupils practise a minimum of five hours every day, not counting orchestra or chamber ensemble rehearsals. In reality, the aspiring violinists work at their instrument 10, even 12 hours a day, so it comes as no surprise to find phenomenal progress in a short period of time.

Prodigy geography

Interestingly enough, there are certain geographical areas that produce an astounding number of prodigies. Most of the great violinists of the early decades of the twentieth century came from Russia or Eastern Europe including prodigies such as Efrem Zimbalist, Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, and Jascha Heifetz. “All these violinists were Jews,” notes Turovsky, who is himself a product of Russian conservatories. “The parents saw that encouraging their children was a way of improving the whole family’s living conditions. Jews didn’t have the right to live in capital cities unless they were talented musicians. It was the dream of all parents, a way out, a gateway to the West.”

Lately Asia seems to be the preferred source for prodigies. Eastern society has a tradition of profound respect for accomplishment through very hard work and of boundless veneration for the teacher as such.

Turovsky also believes that the study of classical music continues to be a preferred route to Western culture. “The novelty of it counts for a lot,” he feels. “We often reproach Asian musicians for having astonishing technique while remaining musically very superficial. I’m convinced that this is because this type of music has not yet entered into their blood, their genes. Yet they show a fantastic capacity for expression when playing old melodies on folk instruments.”

A spark of genius, intense study and practice, parents who are very much in the picture, totally devoted teachers are all part of an equation that is sometimes explosive, and one in which it’s often difficult to maintain a healthy balance.

We may well wonder whether being a child prodigy is a blessing or a curse!
[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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