Thursday, December 10, 2015

Failing to Be a Prodigy

On rare occasions the Globe and Mail publishes something intriguing (the rest of the time it is the merely predictable). In today's paper is an essay on a teenage son complaining to his mother that she didn't "make him a prodigy." Heh! Well, hey, dude, neither did my mom, nor, I suspect, did anyone's mom. Here, go read the article, I'll wait. "Indulging my son’s every whim wasn’t enough to make him a musical master."

The whole essay is rather entertaining, but I want to pick out a few bits to comment on:
“Why didn’t you make me a prodigy?”
What’s that now? I was driving my 17-year-old son, Fox, to yet another interminable water-polo session at the suburban behemoth that is a locus for every budding swimmer, diver and gymnast in a 50-kilometre radius when he petulantly tossed out this gem.
“You can’t make a prodigy,” I responded. “They are literally freaks of nature.”
He looked out the window as we passed the site of his one-time guitar lessons and exhaled, shoving his chin into his palm. “Yes, you can. If I had started playing violin like some other kids in the school orchestra, when I was 3, I would be a prodigy.”
When I was eleven, my mother signed me up for piano lessons that I kept forgetting to go to. I didn't find the repertoire very interesting. She was an old-time fiddler and so I grew up surrounded by music making, but I didn't get captivated until I was in my mid-teens and heard some 60s pop music. Then I wanted to play the drums, or guitar. By age seventeen I was playing bass in a band and doing gigs. It literally never crossed my mind that my mother could have, whatever her wishes, "made me a prodigy." As far as I could tell the essential elements were to be born in a major urban centre so you could hook up with the right teachers and musicians and, most importantly, work your ass off. Cf the early years of Eric Clapton, for example.

That "work your ass off" part is the most interesting to look into. I think that it is why anyone would work their ass off that is the critical question. Obviously this young lout has never been interested in anything outside his own ego enough to actually work at it--or so I surmise from the article. This is an odd passage:
The thing is, when your kids are prime prodigy age, how are you supposed to know what they’re into – besides Froot Loops and Teletubbies? There is enormous pressure on kids today to be not only good, but excellent. He is a bright, interesting kid, isn’t that enough?
Most really young children are not "into" much, as she notes, other than Froot Loops and Teletubbies. But a genuine prodigy would be an exception. The most prodigious prodigy we know of was Mozart who started teaching himself piano when he was four because his older sister Nannerl was being taught. By five little Wolfgang was already composing and by seven he was touring Europe and composing some pretty decent music. By nine he was writing concert arias with orchestra and by eleven he had written, not one, but two operas. In my experience, there is no doubt if you are in the presence of a real prodigy. You mostly just have to hand them a musical instrument and get out of the way!

But that little phrase "Froot Loops and Teletubbies" sticks in my mind. I wonder if, by providing our children with a very "child-friendly" environment we are not limiting them in some way? I don't have any children of my own, so this is pure speculation, but the child prodigies I know of were born into families deeply involved with artistic or intellectual pursuits and that is what the children plugged into. If they had Froot Loops and television and video games and iPads and the whole panoply of diverting trivialities that children grow up with now, would they have even had time to realise that there were things that interested them enough to work hard enough to master?

This is the aria for soprano and orchestra, "Conservati fedele" by W. A. Mozart, composed in 1765 when he was nine years old. The soprano is Hannah Schwartz.


David said...

Bryan, another of your compelling blog posts. Your comments on the "prodigy phenomenon" won't meet with any argument from me. While I was reading, the case of a young Canadian pianist came to mind. Jan Lisiecki is a classical pianist who has been in the media for some time now. In the 2010 CBC documentary [link here: ] there is some interesting commentary about the use of the "prodigy" label. See particularly around the 7 minute mark of the first video segment. Jan had an identified talent that he has fostered/developed with the "work your ass off" approach. He specifically discourages the "P" word. Against the backdrop of the CBC video, it is interesting to read the assessment of the Victoria Times Colonist reviewer here: The review calls for more of the "old soul" that Zucherman discusses in the video.

Perhaps the question is unanswerable. Is Jan Lisiecki a prodigy? Was he a prodigy? I think it is fair to say that he was gifted with a talent that is rare, that he has worked very hard to bring to maturity. He has the potential to be a "phenom" without resorting to the BANG BANG school of playing. And... he is Canadian, so there will always be an excess of modesty. Eh.

One thing is clear, there is a big gap between 17 year old Fox and the artist that is Jan Lisiecki.


David said...

An update of sorts on Jan Lisiecki and his prodigy status. Is he developing his playing and artistry? According to this very recent review of a Toronto recital, the answer appears to be yes:


Bryan Townsend said...

I think that he is uncomfortable with the label--as I am--because it focuses away from the music, and the work, and on biography and personality. Sure, he was lucky to have worked with the right people, and to have an obvious affinity for the work, but as he says, he worked hard and will have to work hard all his life. Because this kind of ability is also a kind of responsibility.

But what he, and we, need to recognize is that all this publicity, the CBC documentary, the prodigy label, is all about building a career. It is really all about public perception and nothing more. In other words, do it, accept the praise graciously, but recognize that it has little to do with your real work, which is the music.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up a pianist that was all the rage, being called a prodigy, back when I was teaching in a conservatory in Canada. Despite his obvious abilities, he is now teaching piano in a suburban music school in Vancouver. No international career. Most young prodigies do not end up with the big international career because there simply isn't room for all of them.

Christine Lacroix said...

From an article in the New York Times about Joey Alexander concerning prodigies:
"It is natural to harbor mixed feelings about this phenomenon, and for a critic it’s all but imperative. The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading. All the attention lavished on them can distort the ecology of an art form, even while bringing encouraging news about its survival. And, as with any celebrated young talent, there is a question of intention: Who benefits most from the renown these performers receive? Is there a way to marvel at mind-blowing precocity without stunting an artist’s development?..."
For the whole article:

Bryan Townsend said...

The cui bono aspect is important. Why do the mass media make a big fuss out of so-called "prodigies"? Because it makes for a contrast with the usual "if it bleeds, it leads" cynical exploitation of violence. Coverage of child prodigies is still cynical exploitation, but of a more wholesome product. But the artists involved should never forget that this can give them badly needed publicity, as long as they use it property and don't allow it to distort, as the article says, the "ecology of the art form."

Thanks for this Christine!

Rickard said...

Well, still quite busy with school nowadays but I thought I might chime in here. For sure parents could do a better work introducing their kids to various disciplines, whether it be math or music for instance. I wish I would be introduced to music earlier than I did but of course I have to deal with how things are currently. The only problem is how much work it really is to compose for instance. It's a very time consuming task to become good at it and on one hand time needs to be spent on necessary duties such as school or work and on the other hand there are a lot of interesting things to learn except for music. Personally I find lots of enjoyment in studying at university (electrical engineering, specifically communication engineering master) even if it can be quite tough and demanding at times. I also find enjoyment in video game modding. The tough part is to balance all the activities you are interested in pursuing. I actually plan to do one year extra at university (possibly more depending on if the circumstances will allow) in order to take more courses I find interesting, some of these courses are in the area of acoustics such as "Active Noise Control" and "Human Response to Sound and Vibration", some are in the area of general computer science such as "Algorithms" and "Functional Programming" while others are actually directly related to video game development such as "Computer Graphics" or "Game Engine Architecture". Anyways, back to the actual topic at hand: Generally the earlier someone starts learning something the better. Of course that doesn't mean that it won't be a lot of hard work. And of course kids should also have fun but hopefully learning interesting subjects is not mutually exclusive to fun. For instance music can be a lot of fun if taught the right way and so can programming or even math. Good teachers can make a huge difference. A good teacher will show you why a subject is important and make it fun/interesting. A bad teacher will just bore you. I also think that parents often underestimate kids. A good example related to music is so called "kids music". It makes no sense why the music kids listen to should be simpler. Why not some Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach etc. instead of simple "kids music", I'm sure kids can handle it and will benefit from such exposure. I can imagine certain cartoons or video games also have a dumbening effect (an example specifically concerning video games is that mobile/tablet games tend to be very simple and unsophisticated). Well, enough with my rambling.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for joining us, Rickard. Good to hear about your activities!

Teachers play an important role, of course, but they don't ever produce a prodigy. All they can do is clear a path for them!