Child prodigies’ agony and ecstasy | Sunday Observer

Child prodigies’ agony and ecstasy

18 June, 2023

A child prodigy is defined in psychology as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain at the level of an adult expert. We have heard of many such child prodigies from different parts of the world.

One such child prodigy was Sarah Chang who lived in New Jersey with her parents. They immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1979. Sarah attended the German Town Friends School in Philadelphia. After some time she also attended the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Unlike an ordinary child, she performed at the level of an acclaimed adult performer. Most people wonder whether such child prodigies are born or made. As a result, child prodigies are viewed with a mixture of wonder and scepticism.

Violin prodigies usually come from Russia or Eastern European countries. Isaac Stern, a great violinist, said that most of them were Jews persecuted in their own countries. They were not allowed into professional fields in Russia. They could perform only on the concert stage. Thus a new theory developed that repression fostered musical geniuses.

The theory has been confirmed by the legendary violin teacher Josef Gingold. He says that Jewish children who were not allowed into professional fields in Russia continued to study at the conservatory which came under the protection of czarina. They enjoyed the freedom of movement in Russia. Jewish mothers who knew the secret encouraged their children to learn how to play the violin. Another reason for the emergence of child prodigies was that they were born in countries that valued excellence. For instance, Japanese children started learning Western music after World War II. Later Korean and Chinese children also followed suit.

Even if a child is born with extraordinary talents, he or she has to go for practice continuously. Some child prodigies used to practise the violin for more than five hours a day. They also had to rehearse specific compositions for another three hours. Altogether, they had to practise the violin for more than eight hours a day. This is the agony they undergo to become child prodigies.

Right genes

Apart from the facts such as being born in a particular country and long hours of practice, genes play a major role in producing a child prodigy. If you do not have the right gene, you will not become a child prodigy however much you practise. J.S. Bach, a well-known musician, had four sons who excelled in music in later years simply because they had the right genes.

Apart from genetic contribution, parents also play an important role in producing a child prodigy. The parents of the violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin were poor people. They took their son to numerous musical concerts. When the child turned four they gave him a toy violin. However, Menuhin was not satisfied with it. Then they gave him a real violin. The child soon blossomed into a violin prodigy.

Some parents play tricks on their children when they want to make them prodigies. When Janos Starker began to practise his violin, his mother used to cut sandwiches into small pieces and place them next to his music stand. As a result the child did not have to get up every time when he felt hungry. When Starker turned 20 his mother played another trick. She gave him a parakeet trained to repeat just one phrase: “Practise, Johnny! Practise Johnny!” All her tricks brought rich dividends. Starker became a violin prodigy!

Piano prodigy

Ruth Slenczynska became a piano prodigy when she gave a public performance in New York at the age of four. In her memoirs written after a few decades she mentions how she became a child prodigy. She says she was virtually forced to practise the piano for more than nine hours a day! Whenever she missed a note, father used to whack her. Most people do not know about such agonies child prodigies undergo.

Child prodigies attract world attention, but they have to pay a price. According to a noted music critic, most child prodigies lack general education. As a result they have a lopsided attitude to life. When they practise a particular musical instrument for long hours without studying any other subject, they naturally neglect other aspects of life. Yehudi Menuhin understood this fact quite early in life and temporarily kept away from the stage when he turned 19. After one year’s break, he resumed his musical career which left a lasting impression on world music.

If a child prodigy is not allowed to do anything other than music, he will virtually become a circus performer. Therefore, a child prodigy should be lucky to have sensitive parents and teachers. A competent teacher knows how to guide his student and when to hold him back a little. Dorothy DeLay, a violin teacher, says child prodigies should not give public performances regularly.

They have to take regular breaks and enjoy life.

Apart from certain child prodigies such as Yehudi Menuhin, we do not know what happens to them in their later life. Michael Kearney was a toddler when he mastered the English language. He was homeschooled by his parents and his intellectual development accelerated at a great speed. He completed his school and college education in double quick time and enrolled at the University of South Alabama in 1992 at the age of eight.

Two years later he walked out with a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology. His name appears in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest ever university graduate. Later he earned two Master’s degrees culminating in a PhD. At 35 he started living an ordinary life. Just like child prodigies, talented children too can enrich society and then we can view them with a sense of wonder.

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