Child Prodigies: Good, Bad or Indifferent

Guitar has been something I have loved for a long time now. The interest in it waxes and wanes, but it has been a consistent part of my life for over 40 years. Some think I am accomplished, but I know better. I have met many truly accomplished virtuosos and music professionals. But we all have something in common: we have worked at the instrument we love with practice and hard work. Many of the pros I know went to conservatories or university where the guitar became their sole focus of study. Working with a great guitarist as teacher, spending hours studying theory, and the raw hours of practicing boring stuff like scales and repeated arpeggios. Learning the techniques is grueling and no walk in the park. But if you are passionate about learning, you do the drills.

So one has to wonder how a small child can become so adept at such a young age. Is it a fluke of nature? I have seen other child prodigies on YouTube, and though I am always impressed, it leaves me to wonder. Well here is one explanation off the comments on HuffPost.

As a former professional guitarist – I can tell you that it is real – and this gives me hope for the world coming when I am gone. This beautiful little prodigy didn’t care about politics or the world when she was playing that tune. She was totally consumed by the music. Music is a language that transcends countries and politics and not even the republicans can stop it. LOL – they’ve tried and failed numerous times in the past.

And here is another quote with a different tone:

Spoiler Alert: It turns out in the end she’s actually a 33-year-old sociopathic prostitute from Vienna who’s escaped from a mental institution. Don’t tell your friends!

I actually have no real opinion. I am just perplexed. It is hard for me, who was raised with a television in the house and a multitude of distractions, to really know what it would be like to  study something I love ALL THE TIME. Guitar was an aside for me as a teenager. I decided to be an artist when I was 9. But I went to a school that wanted me occupied with other things like fake history and useless math. How I compensated was to draw all the time, even in class, to the teachers chagrin. When I look into this little girls face I see intelligence and joy for what she is doing. Can anyone doubt that she will grow to be an intelligent adult? Well this has prompted a little tepid research. Thank the lord for Google. Here is the full link to the following quote from the article Child Prodigies: A Poisoned Paradise?

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: “Practice, Janos, practice!” 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 debut in 1929 at the age of 4. In her autobiography she tells how her father made her practice 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.

The article makes some very good points. One point it makes is “when they become adults and try to understand the process of musical creation, they simply can’t manage it.”  This is the point I have always wondered about. Of course, I did not have the kind of parents described above. Just the opposite. My parents, who were first generation American, came from poor immigrant families. The primary motive for them was survival. Such things as art and creativity did not hold much water in their households. My parents did not even take an interest in what I was doing in school. I signed my own report card for over four years with my mother’s forged signature. She never once asked to see it. Nor my father who was never seen reading anything except the Long Island Press and the TV Guide. Yet all three of their children became educated, and creative outsiders. My brother was a Fullbright Scholar and sculptor. My sister was an accomplished singer and I have positioned myself for Renaissance man status being an artist, musician and writer. And I can tell you that there was no parrot or Irish Setter barking at me saying, “Practice, Bruce. Practice!” (We had an Irish Setter.)

It may be a great thing seeing these little imps putting us to shame because of their early, seemingly “god-given” talents, but I think it is also good to look behind the veil. Leaving a child alone, and just encouraging them in their own discoveries may help them grow into the healthy virtuosos we need in this world. I have met many adults who have said they were “gifted” children and now spend a great deal of time on an analyst’s couch.

In Ken Robinson’s book, The Element, he talks about the need to find one’s own true calling in life. This calling, or one’s “element” is not so easy to find, but it is natural. We are all different, and we all have the potential to fulfill our place in this world. Some of us need to do it as artists and others as doctors, or firemen, etc. And all are important to the maintenance and enrichment of our world. Though I am not so sure I want to see a 6 year old firefighter anytime soon.

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One Comment on “Child Prodigies: Good, Bad or Indifferent”

  1. Diane says:

    I believe in reincarnation so it has always been my belief that child prodigies are just picking up a talent that they had in a previous life. You can see it in their eyes; they’ve done this before. As far as how the parents react to this talent, that’s a whole other story. I had a friend who was a child prodigy (piano) and he said that he was made to feel like a trained seal, where his parents made him play the piano at every family event. As an adult, he gave it up and never played again. He didn’t even have a piano in his apartment and rarely told people that he could play. I would think that if you do happen to have a child who shows extraordinary talent, rather than force them to practice practice practice, you probably should just let them do their own thing at their own pace, gently nudging along the way, if needed. If the talent and joy is there, you won’t have to force them to practice. Then, as they get older, it will be their own decision as to whether they want to fill in the gaps of their musical education.

    And, by the way, that little girl was amazing! And, yes, you could see the joy in her eyes. But I have a feeling that those eyes will be dead 10 years from now because her parents are already showing her off like a prized possession.


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