Sep 28th 2023

Piano prodigies: A marvel to behold but still a mystery

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The child prodigy in the piano world is attracting increasing attention of psychologists, pedagogues and pianophiles. For better or for worse, social media and YouTube are turning the prodigy into a public figure. Talented children turn up regularly on videos and popular entertainment shows. It's hardly surprising that viewers are awestruck by blinding technique and musicality that are sometimes equal to that of a mature adult.

But the wild applause, say the psychologists, can be toxic for those unprepared for it. Parents are often blamed for failing to keep a lid on the effects of this transitory adulation.

As their popularity becomes more exaggerated, scientists struggle to predict the number—present and future—of these exceptional youngsters worldwide. At present the estimate are little more than guesswork, and so disparate as to be almost meaningless. One specialist suggests that a child prodigy occurs about once in every 5 million births. Another believes that in the United States, the number is half that, one in every 10 million.

lawson
Michael Lawson

British psychotherapist, Michael Lawson, who has worked with several prodigies and former prodigies, calculates there may be as many as 200,000 piano prodigies active in the world today. “In a sense, they are not that rare,” he says in our interview below. Lawson is author of International Acclaim: The Steinfeld Legacy a new novel of the great pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the prodigy phenomenon is described in some detail.

In his book, Lawson cautions of the danger of uncontrolled careerism among the very young. “After all, if you learn that love is switched on when the spotlight is on you, how will you fare when the spotlight goes out? Feeling good about yourself goes out with it.” And Lawson cites more work under way to understand the how and why of the child prodigy.

Much of the basic experience with true prodigies harks back to Telemann, Mozart and Liszt but Lawson identifies present-day survivors as well, including György Cziffra, Byron Janis, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin, Lang Lang, Alexander Malofeev and Emile Naoumoff.

From China, where piano culture is in its ascendance, piano prodigies such as Lang Lang, Yundi Li and Yuja Wang have become established stars. And as 2009 Cliburn Competition winner Hoachen Zhang says in the current International Piano, as he was growing up, some 40 or 50 Chinese piano prodigies were playing – often hoping to follow the stars into lucrative careers.

In an extended series of emails, Lawson and I attempted to establish the current state of piano prodigies around the world.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

As a psychotherapist, you have worked with several child prodigies. What kind of problems have you explored with them? 

Childhood sets the stage for adult emotional health. This has special relevance for how the world of a child prodigy will carry over into to adult life and highlights the responsibilities of parents towards them. I have found there are some common threads among these exceptional children. As they grow up some unknowingly find themselves disturbed by their early musical success—a possible indicator of skewed developmental foundations that are unique to a prodigy's version of early life experience.

Aren’t the prodigies endowed with special qualities that make them so great?

Indeed, Psychologist Ellen Winner of Boston Collage refers to the basic gift as a “high-performance brain”. Grouping various kinds of prodigy, she says they share certain cognitive and neural characteristics such as a high degree of attention to detail, the ability to focus for long periods of time, and a strong working ­­­­memory.

Do scientists have a grasp of this population worldwide?

First, there is no universal definition of the child prodigy, nor is there a centralized database. But since estimates place the phenomenon in the range in one in 5-10 million, this would mean there are potentially around 200,000 child piano prodigies in the world today. So in a sense, although they are undoubtedly special, as phenomena they are not that rare.

How can public enthusiasm be anything but positive?

For the adoring public, precisely because of their prodigious gifts, prodigies find themselves the object not only of curiosity and wonder, but of exaggerated esteem. For a child to receive such high doses of affirmation, through regular and often ecstatic applause, places them in a spotlight where in my opinion they do not properly belong. Yes, their gifts make them special. But since they are still children, their primary need is to draw esteem from the real and unconditional love of their parents, not from the fickle adoration released by a wunderkind's performance—however impressive.

Do many prodigies really encounter problems growing up through adolescence and adulthood?

Yes, some former prodigies have spoken to me of their struggles with self-worth and identity. After all, if you learn that love is switched on when the spotlight is on you, how will you fare when the spotlight goes out? Feeling good about yourself goes out with it. To expose a child to an excess of applause early appears to overdevelop their taste for adulation and switches on some unquenchable appetites. I have worked with those in whom this powerful sense of entitlement has taken a formidable hold. They feel they are different from others and deserve an almost mystical special treatment.

Might personal relationships be damaged in subtle ways?

Yes. Some one-time prodigies can find themselves emotionally confused when they are no longer regarded with such wonder as special as people now treat them. Such powerful emotional disappointments may well contribute to a variety of malaises, including depression, obsession and compulsion. And yes, this thirst for esteem can worm its way into adult relationships, creating unrealistic expectations of physical and emotional affection.

Where do the responsibilities of parents fit in?

I have found that such problems feed on parental pressure to succeed, and—extending well beyond the boundaries of keyboard gymnastics—in adulthood emerge as the psychologically unremitting and unworkable demands of perfectionism. In this, a musical prodigy, because of the sustained link to performance and esteem, faces emotional dangers in a quite different league compared to gifted children in other realms. We cannot prevent wonderful gifts being given to children, but we can do some things to prevent damaging them in the process.

Do you have a formula or a checklist to guide parents?

Well, we need to be more frank with parents and others about the dangers of exploitation. And also to be more open with concert and social media promoters: that an audience's curious species of voyeurism may unwittingly damage these special young people. After all, what makes a prodigy truly special is that first and foremost a prodigy is a child.

I have the impression that piano prodigies are a relatively modern phenomenon. Is that about right?

First, let's be clear about terms. A prodigy is normally defined as a person under the age of ten who performs in a specific realm at least equal to that of an expert adult. These remarkable children often excel in a diversity of single or multiple non-verbal, rule-based skills, from chess, maths, art, and music, even to particle physics! Musical prodigies and piano prodigies in particular are most often the main focus of public attention. Yet musically speaking, not all prodigies survive childhood.

Here's a typical example of modern-day prodigies: the Italian boy Alberto Cartuccia-Cingolani, please click.

These young pianists seem to be the most visible type of prodigy.

That's why, for some people, the word prodigy is synonymous with a child who has keyboard skills way beyond his or her years, and why the performing wonder attracts such attention.

To what degree are the modern prodigies raising the bar, so to speak?

Piano prodigies can be the product of the lure of social media, and a world of ever greater stimulus, fine teaching and opportunity for children to excel. The backdrop has certainly changed from years past, but I suspect the history of the musical prodigy goes back a long way further than YouTube—in fact to the Greeks in the 3rd century BC. They didn't have pianos, then, of course. But they did have an innovative early form of musical keyboard. It was specially designed for a water pump organ known as the Hydraulis. You can just imagine some bright little Grecian boys and girls wowing the crowds.

Apparently no era has a monopoly on these gifts?

True, there are gifted children in every age, so it is likely that even from these earlier times, the spectacle of little people with dextrous fingers flying up and down the keyboards of their day would have attracted the public interest. And when it comes to more recent history, say from Mozart onwards (who is probably the greatest of all musical prodigies,) it's no surprise to discover examples of nimble young fingers with a mastery similar to an expert adult.

Are we discovering more and more piano prodigies across the world?

Yes, there appears to be an increasing number of innocent youngsters paraded as extraordinary performing wonders. And mostly they seem to love the attention. As do their parents and others—some of them with a fairly obvious eye upon their revenue-raising potential. At the moment, there is no single agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a prodigy—no standardized way to measure musical talent—any more than it's possible to say objectively which are the best recordings of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. (There are 2064 of them and climbing.) So beyond the uncertainty is there any more we can say?

But do we have a sense of actual numbers out there?

According to the search engines, YouTube hosts well in excess of 800 million videos, and it is claimed that over 100 million of these are devoted to child prodigies. The prodigies referred to embrace the whole gamut of unusually gifted children, including science and mathematics, memory feats, chess grand masters, sporting prowess, child actors, as well as singers, composers and instrumentalists. I think the likely answer is no one knows the real number of piano prodigies in the world today, at least as yet. I say as yet, because to collect data and analyse it accurately is a complex task and not as simple as, say, measuring the occurrence of measles. That said, responsible science-led attempts are being made to assess the prevalence of child prodigies as a whole, not to satiate our curiosity but for more worthwhile contributions to the public good.

Do some of these studies involve hundreds of prodigies?

There is for instance a most interesting study by Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University who identified and worked with 200 child prodigies in the United States. These children were assessed on early skills mastery, especially quick learning, and exceptional creativity. That's how as a result of her investigations, Dr. Ruthsatz estimates the world population of child prodigies is approximately 1 in 5 million. Other studies have produced similar estimates. Although the distinguished developmental psychologist, Dr. Ellen Winner of Boston College, estimates approximately 1 in 10 million general child prodigies in the United States.

Why are scientists unable to count the prodigies?

Such gifts can leave us speechless, for there is, perhaps, something that some of us perceive as almost sacred in the giftedness of a wonderfully skilled and talented musical child. Even though there may only be a handful of true piano prodigies at any given time. Or there may be more who go unnoticed or are not given the opportunity to develop their skills. Ultimately, just as there is no one answer to the question of how many piano prodigies there are in the world today—what we do know, however rare they may be, the greatest of them are both a mystery and a marvel to behold.

Can the unusual talent of a piano prodigy be explained simply by a happy quirk of nature—the luck of the gene?

For me, all that the available evidence suggests is that child prodigies, and in particular the truly and unusually gifted piano prodigies (rather than just the clever kid phenomenon) in spite of the enhanced attention they now attract are in fact very rare. But when it is real it is likely due to a combination of factors, which include genetic predisposition, but also environmental factors, and early exposure to a particular skill or talent.

Why such confusion in studying this phenomenon?

In reference to the piano, most (though not all) of those billed as piano prodigies are not real prodigies at all. They are just clever kids, albeit with a manual dexterity in advance of their years. The ability to tuck your thumb under your hands and play scales and arpeggios, even at breakneck speed, (and many alleged YouTube prodigies can't even do that) does not bear comparison to the achievements of real piano prodigies of the past and present. This becomes clearer when we consider the criterion of musicianship and technique required to be the equal of an expert adult performer.

The champions of the 17the and 18th centuries have never been equalled, have they?

Prodigious musical gifts are reliably chronicled from the 17th century onwards. The earliest example is Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) He was not only a virtuoso young performer on several instruments, including keyboards, but like Mozart (some 70 years his junior) his remarkable ability as a young composer continued to blossom throughout adulthood. By the end of his long life, Telemann had become the most prolific composer of all time with over three thousand works to his name, That's four times more than Mozart, and three times more than Telemann's younger contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750.)

Musical families can breed dynasties. How does this work?

For enthusiasts of the nature/nurture debate, it is certainly true that prodigious gifts can run in families. Bach's family is a foremost example. J. S. Bach (for many, the greatest of all great composers) is not often described as a prodigy, yet from a very young age he had certainly developed rare keyboard and composing gifts. Numerically dwarfed by Telemann, he was still the composer of over a thousand major works. All the more remarkable when we consider how with two wives and twenty children (yes, 20—think of the broken nights!) he had to juggle composing and playing with his family responsibilities.

No family comes close to the Bachs for musical achievement.

True, Bach plus some of sons and daughters (to say nothing of his children's children and their begats) hold the record for a single family of dazzling piano prodigies. Yes it could all be explained genetically, but then, maybe not. Clearly this is an issue to which we will have to return.

Who would you rank as the most spectacular piano prodigy of all?

Unquestionably, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) It's worth noting that while Bach had a love-hate relationship with the piano (he hated the early invention but grew to love its later incarnations) by Mozart's time the design of the piano had come on by leaps and bounds. These new sophisticated instruments became a perfect vehicle for the compositions and performance of the young super-genius. Mozart wrote and performed his first piece for the piano, a minuet and trio in G, when he was just five years old, and by the age of six was a regular performer in the greatest courts of European royalty.

By the time he was eleven he had written, orchestrated and performed no less than four piano concertos—a perfect vehicle for the young player's virtuosity, but which also display to the full his youthful musical inventiveness, sensibility and sensitivity. So although we have no recordings of Mozart the prodigy, it is possible to appreciate from the outer movements of these concerti not only the vigour of his playing, but in the slow movements, the thoughtful expressive qualities with which he must have played.

What about the prodigies who followed Mozart, especially in the Romantic age of the virtuoso?

Probably the most outstanding young master of the keyboard was Franz Liszt, whose playing career was to establish his reputation as probably the greatest pianist of all time. Liszt was a complete musician before the age of ten. And there are others whose achievements from an early age are similarly impressive.

Can you list the very top musical prodigies from the 19th century onward?

Here's my top list.

·      Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) who by the age of eight had memorised all of Beethoven symphonies and could play them each one on the piano.

·      Clara Schumann (1819-1896) who following her debut in the Leipzig Gewandhaus at the age of nine, became one of the leading pianists of the 19th century.

·      Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) who at his concerto debut at the age of ten, asked the audience to choose any one of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas which he then played from memory.

·      The great Polish pianist Josef Hofmann (1876-1957) who made his debut at the age of 6 and at 10, played 52 concerts in 10 weeks on his first tour of America.

These and other contemporary figures such as György Cziffra, Byron Janis, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin, Lang Lang, Alexander Malofeev and Emile Naumoff rank as survivors. They started their performing lives as prodigies, were known not only for their early mastery of the keyboard and their astonishing technique but also for their musicianship, deep sensitivity and musical insight.

You said there were exceptions in the present day. Some young players of exceptional promise and achievement. Who do you have in mind?

Musically speaking not all prodigies survive childhood, in the sense that they peak too early. Of several possible choices, however, I would draw attention to two successful international artists who have bucked that trend. One is the Russian, Alexander Malofeev, and the other is the Bulgarian pianist and composer, Émile Naoumoff. Both as young people were exceptional, piano prodigies. Today they have emerged unscathed as wonderful mature piano artists.

MALOFEEV

Early in his piano prodigy life, those from Alexander Malofeev's inner circle decided to post regular videos of the young player on YouTube. This now provides a unique facility for anyone interested in the emergence from their childhood beginnings of a truly great player. It is possible for us to chart his progression as an already outstanding technical and musical talent to the exceptionally mature and exciting young artist he is today. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3oN2IQAMo8)

NAOUMOFF

Émile Naoumoff, now 61, was the last pupil of the great teacher Nadia Boulanger. He was an astonishing prodigy in every way. I know, because I was also a pupil of Nadia Boulanger when Émile was 9 and I was 19. We shared a practice studio in the Palace of Fontainebleau, where I saw him practice and noted his extraordinary musicianship, and musical sensitivity.

Did you ever witness Naoumoff in an early public performance?

Once in a masterclass by the great British pianist, Sir Clifford Curzon, Émile was at the piano, and I was sat between Curzon and Mlle. Boulanger. As Émile with exquisite sensitivity played the F sharp minor slow movement of Mozart's 23rd piano concerto K488, Curzon, clearly moved, leaned across me and whispered in Boulanger's ear: "Where does a young boy gain such deep experience of life? I can't play it like that." There was no doubting it. The young Naoumoff was a truly musical prodigy!

Today as well as a comprehensive discography, Naoumoff plays with the world's premier orchestras. Typical of his own musical ingenuity is his own piano concerto version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which was premiered with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. under Mstislav Rostropovich.

 

What is your explanation for their survival?  

To put it simply I think it has a lot to do with wise parenting and great teaching—teaching (whatever else it does) that constantly reminds its pupils that the music comes first. As Boulanger once said, "If we don't follow the rich unfolding of the music deeply in our own soul, how can we ever expect our audience to grasp the height and depth of what we are presenting to them."

Psychologists are busy studying the "new Mozarts". Books and essays on the subject proliferate. As a psychotherapist, what common denominators do you find among them?

For non-scientists, it appears as a mystery where this natural aptitude for music comes from. Yet studies do suggest that prodigies have certain genetic markers that are associated with musical ability and may play a role by influencing the development of the brain's auditory cortex, which is responsible for processing sound. Behaviourally, early exposure to music helps develop those neural pathways that are necessary to develop musicality and skill. Yes, piano prodigies also typically practice many hours a day. This could be because they simply love music and the instrument, or maybe the extensive practice functions as a vehicle by which to gain esteem from their parents and others. Or a bit of both. Extensive practice helps a young player to develop technical skills and the ability to memorize music.

What are the psychological origins of self-esteem?

Piano prodigies are driven by a passion for music and a desire to achieve excellence. Garnering of esteem in itself can also be a factor. Some of the worse examples on YouTube where piano-happy kids are treated by the audience to a potentially toxic overdose of foot stamping, lung capacity cheering and mad applause. American entertainer Ellen typifies the excessive adulation that could confuse a youngster such as 7-year-old Anke Chen.

 

 

They might have a gift of innate musicality?

Psychologists who study prodigies agree on real prodigy's heightened sensitivity to music. Prodigies hear and feel the nuances of music, which allow them to understand and interpret music on a deeper level. They have a strong visulka memory and memorize music quickly and easily. They can also visualize music in their minds, which helps them to learn and perform complex pieces, even away from the keybord, and have a high degree of self-discipling. They are able to focus for long periods of time and work hard to achieve their goals.

Your latest book International Acclaim makes the point that that these gifted children risk having personality problems as they mature. They need to reserve time for "friends and fun"

In the French solfege classes (ear training and musicianship) which took place unconscionably early at 7.30 in the morning, Naoumoff’s concentration was absolute. But when classes were over, he was fun-loving, a genuine child. I can remember the times he used to creep up on me at lunchtime and with his youthful fingers tap out extracts from Mozart Concertos on my back! "Qu'est-ce que c'est M. Lawson? Qu'est-ce que c'est?"  Name that tune! I still smile as I think of that.

How do you define the responsibility of parents?

History is littered with the unwise attitudes and actions of ambitious parents. Take Leopold Mozart and Frederick Wieck. Fathers of Wolfgang Amadeus and Clara Wieck (Clara Schumann) respectively. It is difficult to imagine the young Mozart ever played football with his friends or that Clara Schumann was allowed to play with dolls or visit her friends' birthday parties. This kind of unwise, unloving parenting—where normal levels of love, affection and encouragement become subservient to successful performance—is shaped and ruled by wrong motives. It includes a form of stifling ambition that snuffs out love and the true well-being of the child.

How do you counsel patience in a family that has a prodigy? Your book advises "delayed gratification" as a way of "taming appetites, including the thirst for attention."

Maybe I might be allowed to quote directly from my novel, International Acclaim - The Steinfeld Legacy. The great piano teacher Theodor Leschetisky is in fictionalized conversation with Abramczyk Steinfeld, a one-time prodigy, on the pitfalls of applause.

Leschetizky applauded the wisdom of Abramczyk’s parents, and expressed the opinion that an excess of applause at an early age creates unhealthy inner demands in later life. Abramczyk asked him to elaborate.

"Delayed gratification tames all kinds of potentially exaggerated appetites, including the thirst for attention, or even showing off. It is natural," said Leschetizky, "to give a child a bonbon to celebrate a deed well done. But if we give him the whole box, he will end up wanting more, and, maybe with screams and tantrums, will not rest until he has secured that to which he feels he is now entitled.

Finally a question on demographics. China and India have massive populations. Given the average incidence of prodigies worldwide, won't they inevitably overtake the Western world?

Yes, probably!

 

Michael Lawson is the author of International Acclaim: The Steinfeld Legacy (Amazon)

www.international-acclaim.co.uk

 

 


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EXTRACT: "One of the festival’s best surprises was the glamorous Russian-born Irina Lankova. Her evening was dominated by Rachmaninov and perfectly suited her origins. She has invented a program of music and fireside chats, creating a quick and pleasant connection with her audience. At ease between numbers, she chatted in relaxed manner notable for her erudition. Dressed in a modest ankle-length gown, she was all about music, not showboating. Contrary to several other women headliners in the piano world today, she says “I do not need to eroticize my looks”. ---- Her opening Rachmaninov  Elegie No. 1 cast a silent spell over the Femina Concert Hall and she carried her charm through nearly two hours of graceful pianism. It is not unusual, she told me in an interview, to leave members of the audience in tears. 'I also cry, at least internally, when I play,' she says."
Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Classical guitarist Jose Manuel Lezcano breaks new ground with his first solo CD,  “Homage: Spain & Latin America”. He combines two Scarlatti sonatas and his adaptation of works by Maurice Ravel, Bill Evans and the great Paraguayan guitar virtuoso Augustin Barrios. Mood and tempo jump from the contemplative to familiar classics to dance to jazz. I found the CD so captivating I played it in loop for hours." ----- "Twice a Grammy-awarded  composer and guitarist, Lezcano lives in retirement in the U.S. northeast and teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire where he holds the title emeritus professor."
Sep 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "When I try to understand my life as a critic in the dazzling world of piano music, I am at a loss. We have inherited so much over 300 years that I feel overwhelmed. There is no obvious focal point. What is at the heart of piano world? -- Personally I could not make it through the day without the stimulation of piano performance. My home resounds with music all my waking hours, constantly renewed from the thousand-odd CDs I have accumulated." ----- Picture: The author, Michael Johnson.