Child Prodigies of Classical Music

Prodigy Umi Garrett is now 18 years old. She was the Category A Grand Prix winner, at age 10, of the II Chopin International Competition in Hartford, Conn., in 2010.(UmiGarrett.com)

Motivated from within or without?

By Jani Allan

May 1, 2019 Updated: May 2, 2019

There was always music in our house when I was growing up: operas and piano sonatas and string quartets. I still remember the sound of the needle poised on a record making the noise of hushed applause before the music started.

When I was 4, my mother asked me if I would like to learn to play the piano. I replied that I would teach myself. She immediately set about finding me a teacher. A series of teachers, really, as I was deemed a prodigy; I moved up the totem pole of tutors.

My mother’s ambitions for my concert-pianist future coursed through her veins. My last teacher was Professor Adolph Hallis. Professor Hallis accepted only exceptional pupils.

His other star student was Marian Friedman. Marian was talented, diligent, and dedicated. I could tell. I would be sitting on a tapestry couch in the waiting room, waiting for her to be released.

When I was 10, I played with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. When, at age 14, I was selected to play at the Young Artists Concerto Festival, I started having pre-recital nerves. I also resented the four hours I had to practice the piano every day. Prodigiousness in childhood does not always predict adult eminence.

Marian went on refining her brilliance. She is described as a “connoisseur’s pianist” by The Boston Globe. In the Globe’s July 13, 2005 article, it was reported from Rhode Island that Mark Malkovich III, general director of the Newport Music Festival for 30 years, celebrated his 75th birthday with a present to himself: getting Marian Friedman to play a recital.

She is extremely low-profile.

At What Price?

Stories of child prodigies in the classical genre have a long history and include the greatest composers in Western history.

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 6, he performed on the harpsichord for The Empress of Austria.

Maria Theresa and her family looked at his chubby, dimpled hands moving precisely on the keyboard and were charmed. When he finished the performance, the story goes, he ran up to the empress, climbed up on her knee, and kissed her.

She returned the kiss, enchanted by his character and his talent. He was giving piano and violin recitals. It is said that at the age of 3, he had perfect pitch. By age 5, he had composed a concerto and by 8, his first symphony.

Mozart’s father, Leopold, was probably the original pushy parent, forcing him to perform all over Europe. Few know that Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl), was also a prodigy, but her destiny was marriage.

Mozart seemed to cope with the great expectations that come with precocious talent.

Others haven’t.

Violinist Niccolò Paganini was locked in a room and forced to practice, a regimen that, some said, helped him to develop a drinking problem by the time he was 16.

Niccolo Paganini portrait by ean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres" width="855" height="1200" /> Some child prodigies develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the pressures they suffer. A portrait of Niccolò Paganini, 1819, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. (Public Domain)
Niccolo Paganini portrait by ean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres” width=”855″ height=”1200″ /> Some child prodigies develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the pressures they suffer. A portrait of Niccolò Paganini, 1819, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. (Public Domain)

Some prodigies thought to have “the gift” had demanding fathers who doubled as demanding teachers.

Lang Lang is a Chinese concert pianist whose accomplishments include performances with the Berlin Philharmonic at the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, a White House state dinner, and sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. From the age of 2, Lang Lang would sit with his father, Lang Guoren, who made his son practice up to four hours a day. As Lang Lang grew older, he practiced eight hours a day. Growing up in Mao’s China, the father’s own dreams of musical success were smashed. He wanted his son to be the musician he was never allowed to be.

Did his determination border on psychological or physical abuse? Lang says no. He and his father wanted the same thing: for Lang Lang to become a globally famous musician. “I was never forced to play the piano,” he said in a China Daily article.

Genius as an Abnormality

What are child prodigies? Are they completely different human beings? Apart from agreeing that prodigies possess levels of ability that most adults never can, we still don’t know where prodigiousness originates from. The debate of nature versus nurture continues to rage.

Writer David Shenk goes as far as to argue that prodigiousness is not in fact genetic.

Scientists continue to debate the origins of prodigiousness. General intelligence, working memory, or even a form of autism could be responsible, they argue, as NeuroNation reports. Piano teacher Veda Kaplinsky of Juilliard said to The New York Times: “Genius is an abnormality and can signal other abnormalities … ADD or OCD or Asperger’s.” Scholars argue that Mozart himself was on the autism spectrum.

Child Prodigies Today

There is a long history of child prodigies in the classical music genre. Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Mendelssohn are just a few.

But in recent years, a growing number of prodigies of increasingly young ages are reaching a global audience. China has an estimated 30 million young pianists and 10 million young violinists, The New York Times says. And Newsweek reports that Chinese prodigies are attending European and North American music schools and conservatories.

According to Murray McLachlan, a teacher at Cheltham’s School of Music in Manchester, England, the success of the Chinese at music competitions is unsurprising. McLachlan observed, in the Independent, that this success derives from the rock-solid work ethos of their families.

“Musicians are doing more advanced things at a younger age than ever before,” Kaplinsky said, in Newsweek. “Today kids are recording the Chopin études at age 10,” she said. “When I was young, nobody played them until they were adults.”

Chopin,_by_Wodzinska" width="640" height="863" /> Chopin’s études, considered some of the most challenging pieces in the piano repertoire, are now being played by children. Portrait of Chopin, 1835, by his fiancée Maria Wodzinska. (Public Domain)
Chopin,_by_Wodzinska” width=”640″ height=”863″ /> Chopin’s études, considered some of the most challenging pieces in the piano repertoire, are now being played by children. Portrait of Chopin, 1835, by his fiancée Maria Wodzinska. (Public Domain)

It’s the Olympic syndrome: Records exist in order to be broken.

Umi Garrett, who was 8 years old when she played Liszt on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” displayed the commonality of prodigious children: an extraordinary desire and dedication.

She told Ellen that she would play the piano “all day long” if she could.

Choosing a Path

This begs the question, should I have cut short my own classical music career?

I was 18 when it was decided that I would go to the University of the Witwatersrand to study for a bachelor’s degree in music.

At the last minute, I changed my mind about doing music and enrolled for a degree in fine arts instead.

Wits School of Arts in the 1970s shines like a diamond in the dust bunnies of my memory.

I’ve come to understand that the ultimate achievement of any human being is love. We need to love what we do. If we hesitate, then we need to rock with the waves and invent a new way of being in the world.

Jani Allan is a South African journalist, columnist, writer, and broadcaster.