Every so often a new 'child prodigy' appears in the music industry. Many are striking to watch as they perfect semi-quaver runs from Mozart on the piano, or drag our ears through an unemotional Bruch violin concerto, and some are just cute. The media certainly finds them irresistible. And so earnestly do they follow their early journeys in music.
It was at work today that I discovered a new child prodigy. The eight year old Alma Deutscher already has a short opera, an album and a Wikipedia page to her name. She is a remarkably talented musician – and I am not about to try and dispute that – and she is without a doubt unusually 'gifted'. But once her PR manager had pinged details of her album release into my colleague's inbox, it did get me thinking about talent, teachings, time and testament.
When you watch something as unnatural as an innocent-eyed and physically in-developed child tapping out a neat little neo-classical piano sonata movement that she has composed herself, questions do start to swirl. I found myself asking, what actually is talent? What has the past taught us about nurturing early signs of it? What happened to the time (and I mean the experience of years and pain, and everything in between) it takes us to really learn an art? And finally, can we ever identify enough proof to really differentiate between 'normal' and 'special' types of talent? (+ without sounding too cynical, how could you possibly review an album of an eight year old alongside that of a seasoned, experienced and truly exceptional (although normal-due-to-age) performer?)
Very simply defined, talent is 'natural aptitude or skill.' Ok, so we all have that. It may be that you have never felt intimidated by the idea of running fast for more than an hour, or that you knock up a mean stew without thinking about it, or that with your power of small talk you have managed to dispel situations so potentially awkward that you yourself can't work out how you got out unscathed. Whichever it may be, talent is found everywhere. But there is a certain equation that gets everybody talking. Talent + MUSIC. As soon as a young person shows a natural aptitude at music people sit up and pay attention, just in case they are the one to have found 'the new Mozart'. Indeed, having googled all things child prodigy, that is a soundbite that comes up A LOT.
The fact is, all youngsters are drawn to different things and soon imitate them closely. And some happen to be drawn to music. A child is especially likely to be 'gifted' with musical talent if they are brought up in a musical home (there are, exceptions of course). Emily Bear, for example, has older siblings that play piano, harp and guitar between them, not to mention a grandmother who teaches and performs music professionally. It should have come as no surprise, then, when Emily reached up to the piano and played a three-fingered scale at the age of two and a half. But the grandmother nonetheless took that as testament of true genius and called Emilio del Rosario, specialist teacher of music prodigies, straight away. With his input and further lessons with teachers such as Mary Sauer from Chicago Symphony Orchestra soon afterwards, Emily Bear inevitably became a very good pianist.
That's just it. Talent + music + recognition + nurture = prodigy. Emily has received the very best training in technical performance since her early adventures with the C major scale.
It goes beyond that though. She is technically brilliant and no amount of training would produce such skill in a child who is not interested at all. That's not to mention the emotional level that her music has and the fact that she has already composed hundreds of pieces. It is her interest coupled with the time invested in her talent that makes Emily unique. The child has clearly found her calling.
The emotional part is the one that I find the hardest (and most humbling) to get used to. Many of the very young performers do not convey emotion (I would argue for Alma Deutscher's place in this category) and they are slightly awkward to watch for that reason. But some do have it (or are extremely good at convincing us that they do). When you see Emily Bear performing, she is completely 'in' it. There is emotion coming from her performance. And if it is coming out, I find myself wondering how it got inside somebody so young in the first place. I know that the emotion in me comes from the good and bad and long experiences I have lived through. Child prodigies simply have not had exposure to as much experience as their more aged contemporaries. Music as a method of communicating emotion definitively requires a bit of time-earned experience. That is why the ones simply imitating emotion are uncomfortable to watch. And the ones who do seem to achieve some realness and rawness in their gestures are simply baffling. It would take me decades of neurological research to comprehend how music can sound so naturally emotive from somebody so young.
When children who like music are recognised to like it and so nurtured in it, the surrounding people, press and wider media start to worry that they have not been given the chance to experience life as a 'normal' child. Many of course don't, being surrounded by public attention and showerings of praise as they so often and constantly are. Others do though. Or certainly later on they do as they grow into their talented skins age-wise, or fade into the melange of other great musicians around them as time goes on. Glenn Gould, Yehudi Menuhin and Yo-Yo Ma all went on to have 'conventional' recording careers. The balance between 'normality' and nurtured uniqueness is certainly one that must be considered. It is almost painful to watch parents pushing their children into the limelight once they have demonstrated advanced skills in music. That was one of my fears as I watched little Alma talking about her prodigious opera. It is difficult to know what goes on behind the scenes and whether media hype is the result of parental ambition or not. It is something we can merely guess at from the outside.
It seems that most are asked if they feel normal. 'Sometimes' is how Alma Deutscher's answer can be summarised and Emily Bear gave a similar impression. I'm not sure how much the "I'm like Mozart and he's like me" comment from the young Emily was the influence of others. And it made me smile when Alma was interviewed about her extraordinary opera, which she completed when she was seven years old and which was praised by the English National Opera by all accounts. Sharon Thomas, ITV (2012): "How did you compose the music for an opera at seven years old?" Alma: "Well, the overture and the first half, actually came in a dream. So I woke up one morning and I went to my father's office and I said 'I had a dream with really beautiful music inside' so my father put on a recording and I played on the piano and tried to play exactly what I remembered." Out of the mouths of babes, huh?
MUSICAL GENIUSES THROUGH TIME
|Pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) provoked admiration and irritation in equal measure|
|The story goes that Chinese pianist Lang-Lang (1982– ) was inspired to play the instrument from the age of two, having heard Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 featured in an episode of Tom & Jerry | Photo: (promotional)|
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is THE definitive musical genius, having composed his first opera by the age of thirteen and 41 symphonies in his short life time|
|The young Jacqueline Du Pre's (1945-1987) interpretation of the Elgar Cello concerto is iconic, and was indeed legendary as soon as she finished playing the last note|
|Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) is remembered as one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, having made his debut at the age of seven with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra no less | Photo: 1943|
|Conrad Tao (1995– ) is only eighteen and has already released three studio recordings | Photo: Ruimin Wang/IMG|
|Daniel Barenboim (1942– ) at the piano aged of seven|
|French avant-garde composer Edgard Varese (1883-1965) is often credited as being as the 'father of electronic music'|