At a glance:
- Prodigies are believed to be a product of innate aptitude that is then cultivated through a lot of practice.
- Why are our reactions to the failure of child prodigies a sense of schadenfreude?
- There is something we might all learn from children, whether they turn out to be prodigies or not.
When, in October, Alma Deutscher took to the stage at Beijing’s Poly Theatre, the audience might well have let loose a collective gasp. This would not have been caused by the music, though the recital did include a number of Deutscher’s compositions. Rather it would have been by this elfin performer’s youth—Deutscher is only 14. She composed her first sonata at age six and her first full-length opera at 10. She plays piano as well as she plays violin, which is to say, very well indeed.
In some cultures, such a premium is placed on educational attainment that the number of children estimated to be receiving private tutoring has increased by a third over the last decade, according to UK-based education charity The Sutton Trust.
Notions of ‘hot-housing’ children and ‘tiger’ parents have entered the common discourse as though pushing children to know more and to do more—and do it all more than competently—is an entirely natural thing. And, of course, more so in these super-competitive times, every parent thinks their kid is a genius.
But Deutscher is a veritable child prodigy, “a force of nature”, as the esteemed conductor Sir Simon Rattle has called her. “[She has] a sense of phrasing which many people two or three or four times her age would be lucky to have. This is not something you can teach. I haven’t really seen anything like it.”
Indeed, the fascination we have with child prodigies stems, ultimately, from their freakishness: their bucking of the norms that see these gifted kids attain a superlative skill that’s usually attained much later on in life and after having put in many years of consistent effort. If wisdom comes with age, a child who is able to write a concerto, become a chess grandmaster or tackle advanced calculus seems to be an almost supernatural phenomenon.
This aura of the uncanny that surrounds child prodigies— clinically described as someone who demonstrates professional abilities before the age of 10, who’s not just talented as a result of hard work but who’s at the extreme end of giftedness in one area— is underscored by the fact that the psychological, behavioural and personality traits that these rare people share are little understood. And they are rare: by one loose estimate, somewhere between one in five million and one in 10 million children.
“Almost all of the kids we see on YouTube aren’t prodigies. Reaching the level of a true prodigy is very rare,” says Professor Gary McPherson, director of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne and editor of the book Musical Prodigies.
“Prodigies hold such fascination because the average person in the community can’t explain them. It just seems so foreign and distant to what we can do ourselves. Because the average person can’t explain prodigies, they tend to believe that they are a ‘differently packaged individual’ or that they were born to do this or born very differently from the average person. It’s a mystical, almost impossible thing to conceptualise how well these kids can play or compute at such a remarkably young age.”
It’s certainly unclear how this happens. Much as everyone is understood to be a product of nature and nurture, so prodigies are believed to be a product of innate aptitude that is then cultivated through a lot of practice—for which, of course, you also need parents with the readiness, time and often money to encourage this; innate because child prodigies have been identified as young as two years old, too soon to have practised much more than ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and not pooing in their pants. As the Baby Einstein craze suggests, the idea that prodigiousness might be created is all too intoxicating.
Sure, prodigies intend to have above-average IQ, but prodigies are also shown to have a deep attention to detail and an unusually good memory: Shakuntala Devi, born 1929, could memorise the run of an entire deck of shuffled cards at age three and would later perform mental calculations faster than the earliest computers; she entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1980 for the fastest mental multiplication of two 13-digit numbers (28 seconds, including the time it took to write out the 26-digit answer).
Unlike the merely highly gifted child, there’s also likely an obsessive, compulsive quality to the child prodigy. Whereas most children want to slack off in favour of Lego or TV, child prodigies really really want to play that piano or draw or ponder maths problems. In fact, they’re likely to be interested in this to the exclusion of almost everything else. Early indications from studies being done at Canada’s McGill University reveal that there may be some genetic mutation behind all this too.
“Potential or aptitude—predicting that you’ll be good at something before you start learning—is a very different concept from assessing achievement, [which is] actually being able to do or demonstrate something,” explains McPherson.
“Identification of a prodigy is difficult, but a number of things often come together. Parents start to see their infant doing things that are well above their age level, and often this involves an intellectual component like being able to mimic someone or remember details. Another thing is that the child falls in love with learning very quickly and sometimes before formal learning starts. This love, this deep, intrinsic desire to learn, drives their early learning.”
Further understanding may yet reveal why it is that child prodigies tend to have talents focused around ‘rules-based’ fields the likes of music, maths and art, or why—as McPherson suggests— one might draw a line between the child prodigy who plays piano exceptionally well, and the one who does that and composes for it too.
While they may have mastered an adult domain, child prodigies rarely become genuine creative geniuses—breaking and remaking the mould, giving a discipline a new dimension. Indeed, child prodigies often do not even sustain their exceptional talent into adulthood. They show a gift for their subject, but much less so for life in general. They drop out, grow bored, feel painted into a corner, change tack into mainstream fare.
Again, it’s not entirely clear why this is the case, though obviously being an exceptional child brings with it the pressures to maintain that exceptionalism and the social isolation too. It’s School Swot Syndrome writ large. The self-confidence, resilience and patience required are the kind of qualities, indeed, that typically only come with maturity.
Of course, there’s some dark satisfaction in seeing such strange and outlier talents fail in life; a schadenfreude on juveniles who break with our comforting understanding of how things work, notably that kids are not meant to be smarter than grown-ups. This reaction reflects our ambivalence about child prodigies.
“What any completely ordinary child does manage to learn is amazing and I think we’re primed to respond to that. But the fact is that child prodigies seem to be an upending of the natural order and that’s disconcerting,” explains Ann Hulbert, author of Off the Charts, a deep dive into the complex lives of child prodigies from actress Shirley Temple to pubescent mathematicians William Sidis and Norbert Wiener, dubbed The Wonder Boys of Harvard.
“It’s true that child prodigies do tend to be prevalent in domains that don’t demand insight or require maturity, though really the picture of their unbelievable focus, their rule-mastering zeal alone, is fascinating,” Hulbert adds.
“Yet there’s this background of huge resistance to celebrating child prodigies—what’s true and what isn’t regarding what’s said of them, who’s behind the scenes exploiting them, whether they’ve been embedded in a situation by people whose goals might not be theirs and so on. And, of course, there’s a competitive, anti-elitist suspicion of early talent, so when it gets some comeuppance that can somehow feel just.”
By no means do all prodigies fade out sooner rather than later, Hulbert stresses. The mathematician John Von Neumann, who aged six would memorise pages from the telephone directory, would go on to be a pioneer of computer technology and inventor of game theory. While Sidis did all he could to disappear, Wiener became a founding figure in cybernetics.
Yet Bobby Fischer—a chess grandmaster at 15—was suffering from paranoid delusions by the time he was 30 and died in exile. John Stuart Mill, author of Principles of Political Economy, was arguably the world’s greatest economist by the time he was 18. By 20, he’d suffered his first nervous breakdown. It’s hard on parents too.
The aptitude of the parents may be as crucial as that of the child: do they do all they can to nurture their child’s talent or are they utterly befuddled by it? Do they gently facilitate something special in their child or force it to grow?
Mill’s upbringing was practically an experiment in just how much you could cram into a small mind; but then his father, James Mill, was an ardent follower of the mechanistic teaching philosophies of Jeremy Bentham, who had also been a child prodigy.
Likewise, Mozart, off-cited as the go-to example of a child prodigy, may have played piano by the time he was three, wrote his first concerto by the time he was four—oh, and he taught himself the violin at that age too—and was selling-out the 18th century Austrian equivalent of Carnegie Hall by the time he was six; but he also had a father who put aside his own career to promote the lucrative career of his son.
Visit City Island, off the Bronx, and find there a fishing boat builder by the name of Saul Chandler; that’s the Saul Chandler who twice played his violin at Carnegie Hall by the time he was 13, had a breakdown at 16 and later changed his name in an act of reinvention that also saw him put classical music behind him.
“Childhood was lost,” he has said. “They worked hard to turn me into a trained monkey. Anyone can become a monkey. Even a chimpanzee can become a concert violinist. So many of us had talent, then we just disappeared. They never see who they are. They don’t know who they are.”
Small wonder that when, two years ago, the British TV station Channel 4 launched a series called Child Genius—claiming to identify the UK’s cleverest child—educationalists compared it to a circus exploiting children; there was a discomfort with the pressure, the tears, the pushy, micro-managing parents, with there being plenty of rote learning but a seeming lack of original creativity.
The name of Ruth Lawrence—who, aged 10, became the youngest person to be admitted to the University of Oxford and was turned into a national figure in the UK on the back of it—was inevitably mentioned. Now aged 47, she teaches maths at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem; an intellectual heavyweight in her discipline, for sure, but hardly the ‘genius’ modern-day Einstein her father predicted she would become.
“The problem with pushy parents is that their child needs to feel that he or she is learning because she or he wants to learn, not because someone else wants them to learn,” stresses McPherson. “And the child also needs to have a sense of autonomy—that’s a deep psychological need for children—such that they feel in control of their learning, rather than learning controlling them.
Most often the kids are gifted and often reach high levels of talent at an early age, even if they’re nowhere near the level of a true prodigy. But because there is so much reinforcement [from parents and other adults] many of these kids burn out or just go on to something else later in life. For lucky others, their love of the music—as with Michael Jackson or the pianist Lang Lang, for example—carries them through.”
Arguably musical prodigies such as these are more readily appreciated, more readily comprehended by mere mortals too. Mathematical computations can be beyond the understanding of many; and the art works of child prodigies—such as those of Aelita Andre, who turned 10 this year and had her first gallery show at 22 months—can all too often lend themselves to Pollock-esque abstract expressionism. In both cases, it’s down to experts to tell us such feats are impressive.
But even the unmusical can still feel musical talent in their guts. On hearing his first album with Motown, few could doubt that the then 11-year-old Stevie Wonder—quickly rebranded as Little Stevie Wonder to play up his age—was something special. Nor would they be surprised that starting young would rightly see him inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by the time he was 38.
You can maybe see the 16-year-old Indonesian jazz pianist Joey Alexander going the same way. Alexander taught himself to play piano, aged six, by listening to his father’s jazz records, won a major jazz festival Grand Prix just three years later, and two years after that released the only album by an Indonesian artist to top the Billboard charts. And yet, unlike so many of his prodigious peers, there’s none of the gawky awkwardness that attends their talent. He seems to be utterly at ease with himself and utterly engaged with what he does.
As Hubert points out, even if the ruthless competition that some parents now impose on their children can make their childhood less happy and fulfilled than it might otherwise be, there is nonetheless something we might all learn from children, whether they turn out to be prodigies or not. “Prodigies may take it to another level, but we need to remember that all children have that ability to be truly absorbed in what they’re doing without any long-term instrumental reason,” she says. “That’s something we need to learn from them.”