Child Prodigy, Child Sacrifice

A very well-intentioned friend sent me this Youtube video of a little Japanese girl, Yoshimura Himari, recently performing the first movement of the Paganini Violin Concerto in D Major with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, conducted by the great Vladimir Spivakov. This tiny feather of a girl, who looks like she’s about seven, played it almost flawlessly. So heartwarming. So reaffirming. All those hours of practice paying off with something so beautiful. It brings tears to your eyes, right?

Well, it brings tears to my eyes, but not of joy. Here’s why: Like Olympic-destined gymnasts, toddlers like Yoshimura are one of a small, select handful of humans on this planet who have achieved so much in such a short time. But here’s where the comparison to Olympic athletes diverges. When the gymnasts reach the grand old age of twenty, there are even fewer such athletes. They are truly elite. On the other hand, when child prodigies on the violin reach that age, there will literally be thousands of others who can play the Paganini violin concerto. And for most great musicians, that’s when their maturity as artists begins, not ends. It’s the forty or fifty years thereafter that counts, where their legacy is created.

This raises some difficult questions: Is it worth sacrificing one’s childhood for a few years of celebrity? Clearly, the child is too young to have any perspective in this regard. However, the parents and the teachers do. They’re the ones who supposedly provide guidance and wisdom. What can they be thinking?  What is their calculation? That there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that’s worth depriving one’s own child of their childhood? I know, the parents say “my baby loves what she’s doing.” Really. Compared to what? And whose interests are they primarily interested in? The child’s, or their own?

A common question former child prodigies ask when exiting their adolescence is: Where do I go from here? How is it possible to build upon the fame I achieved when I was ten years old? How is it possible to even match it? Hey, I played with Chicago Symphony when I was twelve, and now they want me to play with New Haven? Where am I going to be when I’m fifty? And if I have any expectations of playing with Chicago Symphony ever again, I now have to continue practicing endlessly, sacrificing my adulthood as well as my childhood. What choice to I have, since I’ve never done anything else?

And what of the musical component? After already having ascended to the pinnacle, how is it possible to get better? I’ve played Paganini, Wieniawski, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps, Ernst. Piece of cake. Those took muscular coordination. But Mozart? Bach? What do I do with them? Too often, the answer is, no clue. Because playing Mozart and Bach takes study, insight, world experience, an understanding of history and culture, an understanding of humanity. All the things that were shunned while they locked you in your practice room pursuing the pot of gold in childhood. And after all that adulation, after all those standing ovations, how must it feel to feel clueless?

And the toughest question of all: When all other roads have been cut off at such an early age, what is left in life when the fame fades? For every Itzhak Perlman, there are a hundred prodigies whose career paths led them in the direction of psychological trauma, anonymity, and worse.

Here’s a success story. A qualified success story. Perhaps the greatest child prodigy of all, Yehudi Menuhin, was able to overcome the hurdle, reinventing himself more as a thoughtfully perceptive musician rather than a dazzling virtuoso (he never did regain the technical skills he had as a teenager), but only after breaking down physically and mentally.

The career of Eugene Fodor, a major prize-winner with dazzling technique in his teens and early twenties, went into a permanent tailspin in his thirties, and he battled drug and alcohol addiction for the rest of his life.

Perhaps the most tragic case was of Penny Ambrose, a sweetheart of a young lady and an immensely talented violinist, who, in 1963 at the age of seventeen, took her own life by turning on the engine of her family car in the garage and asphyxiating on carbon monoxide. Everyone thought the world was her oyster. Everyone except, apparently, Penny Ambrose. As a grieving neighbor was quoted as saying in the St. Petersburg Times, “All she ever did was play that violin. She never had dates or did anything else.”

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So, yes, let us encourage achievement and let us open the arts for young people to enjoy. For a music student, there’s nothing more fun than playing a Schubert symphony in a youth orchestra or reading Haydn string quartets with friends. But let’s not lock our children in isolation for hours every day with the misguided notion that we’re enabling them to get a step ahead of the competition. Let’s not enter them in every competition, either, where if you don’t win first prize you’re considered a loser. Life is competitive enough. Music shouldn’t be. If you want your child to become great, let he or she become great gradually and on his or her own terms. And if they don’t become great–as is the case with 99.9% of us–then at least they’ll have a chance to have a childhood. A chance to be happy.

One thought on “Child Prodigy, Child Sacrifice

  1. I so agree! As a senior piano student in college, I taught “townies.” My teacher was friends with a violinist who played with the Harrisburg Symphony, and she wanted me to teach her friend’s kids. The eldest was 7, then there were 2 boys, one 5(I think) and one 3. The middle child had absolutely no interest and I finally convinced the mother to let him alone. Maybe he’d return to music later. At the very least, maybe he would develop a love of music because he hadn’t been forced as a kid. The girl was talented, and I decided to proceed with care with her, not push her, make it fun, but also make certain she learned the basics of technique — it was her first year of instruction. When the mother told me she wanted me to teach her 3-year-old, I was aghast. I explained that his fingers wouldn’t yet be strong enough, and he needed more time to physically develop. She insisted that he went to the piano on his own. So, I decided on a little compromise. I told her if he wanted to have a little lesson, I’d teach him some songs he could play with one hand. But if he didn’t want a lesson, please not to force him. She agreed. I ended up teaching him “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and then he moved on to playing baseball with his brother. I hadn’t planned to have the girl perform that year, but her mother, pushing her, signed her up to perform at a community recital — then she told me about it. Parents! But I recall the girl did very well, and she herself was happy about it. I’d spent some time, though, talking with her about performance and reasons to perform, preparing for it, etc. She told me that night that she was glad I had told her all that “stuff.” I sometimes wonder what happened with those kids….:-)


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