Building A Child Piano Prodigy
Think you have a child piano prodigy on your hands — or simply want to encourage your son or daughter to explore piano and music? Here are some tips for providing encouragement to budding a budding piano genius.
Parents, I know what you are thinking: people who play piano are either born with a given superb talent, and the rest are doomed to a constant struggle without enjoyment. I believe that is simply false, because whether you’re a genius or a simple person, piano is one of the best activities that everyone can learn. And it’s FUN!!
Now, rest assured, I do NOT come from a family of musicians. In fact, no one in my family tree played piano or a musical instrument. FACT!
Now I know people say that “it’s in my blood and nature to want to play piano, because so many other people in my family play an instrument,” but I believe that natural skill, and indeed, becoming a piano prodigy can be something developed over time. Of course, some have a wonderful innate talent and skill adept at piano and music. But most others, with the right guidance and instruction can enjoy themselves immensely and make extraordinary progress.
What makes a child prodigy? Are they really a different breed of human altogether, or have they just gotten better faster than the rest of us?
The Piano Prodigy Riddle
The fluffy, surface-level nature of most child prodigy stories might have something to do with just how little we actually know about the phenomenon. Beyond a basic agreement that prodigies possess levels of ability before their 13th birthdays that learned adults often don’t, there is much debate over how and where prodigiousness originates in children. Prodigies are most common in the areas of math, science, music, and competitive games. This is partly because of the strict parameters and repetitive nature of these disciplines. (There are far fewer examples of literary prodigies. A child prodigy may be able to master the finer points of iambic pentameter, but he or she would be unlikely to write with the depth and experience of a Shakespeare.)
It appears prodigiousness is not genetic, nor is it necessarily even a reflection of intelligence. Kit Armstrong, one of several children profiled in Andrew Solomon’s 2012 New York Times piece “How do you Raise a Prodigy?”, may be a classic example of a child who is “globally gifted”. Armstrong learned to count at 15 months, began composing music at age 5, attended college at age 9, and dabbles in things like physics, chemistry and mathematics for fun.
For every child in Armstrong’s mold, however, there are just as many whose abilities skyrocket in one specific field even while lagging behind the norm in others.
In her book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, developmental psychologist Ellen Winner explores two such sets of unevenly gifted children: Students enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, who at ages 12 and 13 are able to score in the 700s in SAT math skills but show large discrepancies in verbal abilities, and children enrolled in The Nueva School for academically gifted children outside of San Francisco: “Academically gifted children are sometimes so uneven in their scholastic profiles that they are learning disabled in some domain. The Nueva School has plenty of these children, and they receive a great deal of individual attention. Typically these children excel at abstract verbal reasoning and seem very bright and motivated outside of school, but they encounter serious problems with school tasks. They may have dyslexia and have difficulty learning to read, they may have serious problems with math, or they may have perceptual-motor problems leading to number reversals or difficulties in handwriting… Sometimes these children also have an inability to focus and attend, and they are classified as having an attention disorder.”
Drew Peterson, another prodigy in Andrew Solomon’s story, didn’t speak until he was three and a half, just a few short years before he was playing at Carnegie Hall. Solomon quotes piano teacher Veda Kaplinsky of Julliard: “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities…Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s.”
While certain mental disorders can accompany prodigiousness, having A.D.D. doesn’t necessarily make you a prodigy. As we strip away these potential arguments for the cause of prodigiousness, the real debate begins: Is it innate talent or can it be learned?
Can It Be Learned if It Is Not Innate?
Ellen Winner’s book is considered controversial for her assertion that the gifted, and at the extreme the prodigious, are “born with it”. Even the most efficient and dedicated of the average kids can only go so far by comparison, she claims. Unfortunately, the “it” that Winner refers to is something that’s even more vague than inherent talent: It’s a mixture of precociousness, individuality, and what she calls “a rage to master”.
Perhaps Winner should have consulted Julian Lage, subject of the 1996 documentary Jules at Eight. Lage was considered a child prodigy on guitar, a term he diplomatically disapproved of in an interview with VOA News’ Sue Logue: “Younger musicians, my contemporaries who have been called child prodigies, they feel slighted because it does undermine the work ethic, the thousands of hours you put in just to be able to produce a sound on your instrument.”
Rasta Thomas, a 27-year old dancer featured in the same segment on prodigies, goes even further in his dismissal of the idea that he has some kind of innate talent: “I think if you give any seven-year-old the training I had, you will get a product that is at the top of its game. I have had hours and hours and a million dollars invested into the training that I received.”
In Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, the overall jests draw heavily on the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in concluding that skill mastery is a matter of consistent deliberate practice over time, and not innate ability.
Ericsson’s study of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music found that there were no experts that just “showed up” without completing the requisite hours of training. Nor did he find that there were less “innately-talented” players who could not equal the ability of more “innately-talented” players by practicing deliberately and consistently. In the cases of most child prodigies, it’s clear that this process is just begun at a much earlier age. Geoff Colvin offers the examples of Mozart and golfer Tiger Woods – child prodigies thought to have “the gift” who, more concretely, had demanding fathers who doubled as their demanding teachers, and got them started by the time they were three years old.
And yet, we can’t throw Winner’s theory completely under the bus. Some prodigies begin their journey with a ruler on the back of a hand from a stern teacher, while others surprise their parents by picking out lullabies on a family piano, expressing a preternatural understanding of the instrument that no one seems able to explain. These cases create the ongoing debate over inherent talent versus learned ability. Could the explanation be something simpler, though? Something that all prodigies share universally?
We live in ambitious times. You need only to go through the New York preschool application process to witness the hysteria attached to early achievement, the widespread presumption that a child’s destiny hinges on getting a baby foot on a tall ladder. Parental obsessiveness on this front reflects the hegemony of developmental psychiatry, with its insistence that first experience is formative. We now know that brain plasticity diminishes over time; it is easier to mold a child than to reform an adult. What are we to do with this information? I would hate for any child to feel that their worth is contingent on sustaining competitive advantage, but I’d also hate for them to fall short of their potential. Tiger mothers who browbeat their children into submission overemphasize a narrow category of achievement over psychic health. Attachment parenting, conversely, often sacrifices accomplishment to an ideal of unboundaried acceptance that can be equally pernicious. It’s tempting to propose some universal answer, but spending time with families of remarkably talented children showed what works for one child can be disastrous for another.
Children who are pushed toward success and succeed have a very different trajectory from that of children who are pushed toward success and fail. I once told Lang Lang, a prodigy par excellence and now perhaps the most famous pianist in the world, that by American standards, his father’s brutal methods — which included telling him to commit suicide, refusing any praise, browbeating him into abject submission — would count as child abuse. “If my father had pressured me like this and I had not done well, it would have been child abuse, and I would be traumatized, maybe destroyed,” Lang responded. “He could have been less extreme, and we probably would have made it to the same place; you don’t have to sacrifice everything to be a musician. But we had the same goal. So since all the pressure helped me become a world-famous star musician, which I love being, I would say that, for me, it was in the end a wonderful way to grow up.”
While it is true that some parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns, others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed. You can err in either direction. Given that there is no consensus about how to raise ordinary children, it is not surprising that there is none about how to raise remarkable children. Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of young people beyond their comprehension.
Lang Lang the Chinese concert pianist whose accomplishments include performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, at the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2011 White House state dinner, and at sold-out shows in Carnegie Hall. Now 31, Lang was also a well-known child prodigy, who won international awards and gave nationally televised performances before the age of 13. His autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, has been translated into 8 different languages, and was adapted for young adult readers under the title Playing With Flying Keys with the help of author Michael French. French can’t speak to what goes on in the mind of a prodigy, but he can comment on the work that forges one.
“From a very early age, maybe as early as two, [Lang Lang’s father] put him in front of the best piano he could afford- which wasn’t much,” French said: “He would sit by Lang Lang and make him practice 2, 3, 4 hours a day, and as he got older, 5, 6, 7, even 8 hours.”
Sound familiar? Like Mozart, Lang Lang’s father was also a trained musician. In Mao Tse Tung’s China however, Lang Guoren watched as his musical dreams were wiped away, sometimes by force. He was determined to see his son become the musician he was never allowed to be.
In a Chinese news interview, Lang Lang was quoted as saying: “My father was very stern and strict with me but the point is, I was never forced to play the piano.”
What allowed Lang Lang to accept and ultimately forgive his father’s harsh teaching methods is what Michael French believes all prodigies have in common.
“They have to love it. They can’t just be rote learners.”
As a scientific concept, “love” may not carry much more weight than Ellen Winner’s ‘rage to master’. Call it “obsession”, though, and it fits nicely as the “O” in the “O.C.D.” diagnosis Veda Kaplinsky sees many child prodigies receive.
In truth, the one commonality found across all cases of prodigious children is not the presence of extraordinary intelligence, innate talent, genetics, or even types of parenting, but extraordinary desire, and the dedication it allows them to bring to their chosen field of study.
Lang Lang could not consider his father’s teaching methods abusive because in the end, he was only pushing him toward what he already loved.
Building Your Own Piano Prodigy
With due respect to Ellen Winner, child prodigies can be grown. We have no effective measurement of what was within Mozart’s, Tiger Woods’, or Lang Lang’s head as a child, but we do know what their daily routines consisted of: hours and hours of dedicated, deliberate practice under watchful eyes.
By Lang Lang’s own admission, the process of growing an expert can be treacherous, and it likely won’t take if the pupil doesn’t have the desire and will to follow the path to expertise. We rarely find experts that say: “This took me years and years of hard work and dedication to accomplish, and I hated every second of it.”
Michael French believes Lang Lang’s success is a product of his love and dedication, but also uncommon support and opportunity. When Lang Lang was a child, his parents sacrificed to afford the best piano and teachers they could. During a period of estrangement from both his father and his craft in his early teens, his teachers and peers were there to steer him back towards music.
“Every time he might have stepped off the path into temptation [to quit], he’d get inspired again.”
Ken Noda – once a piano prodigy himself – believes inspiration must be refueled in order for a child prodigy to become a thriving adult.
“Young people like romance stories and war stories and good-and-evil stories and old movies because their emotional life mostly is and should be fantasy. They put that fantasized emotion into their playing, and it is very convincing. I had an amazing capacity for imagining these feelings, and that’s part of what talent is. But it dries up, in everyone. That’s why so many prodigies have midlife crises in their late teens or early 20’s. If our imagination is not replenished with experience, the ability to reproduce these feelings in one’s playing gradually diminishes.”
Perhaps then, the best question is not “Where do child prodigies come from?” but “Where will they be going?” The support they receive and the life experience they gather on their journey will go a long way in determining whether they become a trans-formative human being, or just another child able to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on television.
Oklahoma Piano Prodigies – Piano TV Super Stars On Their Way to Stardom
On a more local Oklahoma piano prodigy note, here is a FOX-25 TV interview with two of my piano prodigies from Fisher Piano Studio, Gabriel and Nathaniel Parker:
Excerpts taken from writer “Blake Madden” a musician working in the Seattle Washington area and from his article Extraordinary Talent.