Potential vs. Prodigy

March 30, 2011 at 12:19 AM ·


As a young, aspiring violinist myself, I've always studied the nature of prodigies. However, I still can not fully understand what it is that sets a violinist at the local symphony, a soloist with local orchestras, and Sarah Chang or Jascha Heifetz so distinctly apart from each other in terms of genetic potential. Can't anybody just become a sensation through proper instruction and many hours of practice starting from a young age?

Replies (34)

March 30, 2011 at 12:24 AM ·

Well thats certainly my plan :D

Lets see, first: set back the clock 50 yrs... next....

Sorry to be rather facetious, I just couldn't resist.  Its even worse if you are an older, returning violinist: there is an assumption of incompetence - I mean how do they know I did not have the Prodigy Gene and just didn't use it the first time round?

Oops there I go again.... 

March 30, 2011 at 01:26 AM ·

Elise, if you take the world's population, I beleive their are many potential Heifetzh and Oistrakh's who have never touch a violin of their life : ) but could have been as good in the same context as them and with the same passion.

March 30, 2011 at 01:37 AM ·

Looking back never helps. Look forward.

March 30, 2011 at 02:03 AM ·

In my opinion, just play. The music rests in your mind and in your heart. The difference between talented and prodigy is the daringness of the heart and mind to let what is in your soul out. In my mind it seems that I am standing with my back to a giant cliff, and everytime I close my eyes, I feel myself falling. I always open my eyes, but it seems like my music is at the bottom of the cliff. I just have to be brave enough to let myself fall and let the music catch me.

March 30, 2011 at 10:53 AM ·

John, if you take any group of people and give them identical training (whether basketball, crossword puzzles, or violin playing), I think you'll find that some will attain a higher level than others.

How to predict which will excel? Perhaps in the future, if there is sufficient interest, they will discover the "propensity to become excellent at playing the violin" set of genes. ;-)

For instance, no matter how much you practice, and how much training you have, you may never be as skilled at deception as someone who is born with the "politics" gene. LOL

March 30, 2011 at 11:10 AM ·

 i don't think prodigy the term is necessarily a different category, but simply a label and these days it is used very loosely, since calling someone a genius is perhaps too much, high achiever not enough of a zing.  it is all those writers' fault:)   everyone touching the violin has potential; prodigy is someone with more realized potential at a younger age, like rebecca black for instance, haha.

i think it is mix bags of factors.  once in a while, we read some kids with some neurological dysfunction with the side effect of being super tuned in with composing or piano or something.  some adult hit his head and on recovery, a force pulls him toward and deeply into music.

when we grow up, we always wonder what happens with a kid that runs much faster than others without necessarily having trained for it.  someone scores very high on a standardized test to everyone's surprise, without showing much intellectual brilliance in normal day life.  

then we have the other phenom, namely, products of hard work over long term as compared with regular kids doing regular work.  we see that very often with violin, esp those young ones at 6-7 when they started the instrument at 3-4.  

but rarely we see kids with the following:

starting early

self interest

supportive environment (parent, teaching, practicing)

being recognized by makers and shakers in the field of interest.

healthy mental and physical makeup.


i think you need all of above to fully explore this prodigy thingy.

ps.  we keep a pond of kois in the backyard.  some of them are 2 feet long now.  from day one when they were babies, one fish stood out.  he has a wider mouth than others and during feeding, as if prearranged by consensus, he is always the first one to eat.  years later, guess who is the biggest guy in the pond?  so, as david puts it, goldie has the propensity to be an excellent eater:)  he is a prodigy.  not only that, goldie's development went further than his prodigy years, unlike most of you violinists:)

March 30, 2011 at 12:42 PM ·

I think everyone has potential.

A prodigy is one in a billion, literally.  Way too many young musicians are labeled as prodigies, when they are most definitely not.  I can think of dozens right now that are considered prodigies yet are no more than just talented, somewhat technically proficient individuals.  I am sure you all can think of some too.

Honestly, when someone goes and labels another person as a prodigy, especially stage moms, i get pissed off.  Usually my interest is piqued but I just realize that, most of the time, they're just average.  Maybe above average, most of the time below average.

Everyone has potential.  And, I hate to sound like a jerk, in most cases, someone who is labeled as a prodigy is not a prodigy.  Unless they can play like Midori or Heifetz.

March 30, 2011 at 03:16 PM ·

I tend to think that talent probably lies on a continuum from 1) none, to 2) some, to 3) an average amount, to 4) more than the average, to 5) above average, to 6) very high level, to 7) genius. The problem is when, where, why, how, and how much to draw the line. Add to that are factors such as parental involvement, the right teacher, timing, opportunity, inner motivation, and you have a mixture that is hard to qualify or quantify.

There are undoubtedly young violinists of various levels of talent that are considered prodigies or not. And there are undoubtedly people who have nothing to do with the violin who probably do have exceptional talent that is hidden.

As Stephen Jay Gould (the famous paleontologist) once said, "I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."

March 30, 2011 at 03:21 PM ·

The "prodigy" business is just that--a BUSINESS.

Also there is a voyeuristic fascination among adults, to watch young children perform music well.

Compare these two:

Youth Soccer

Youth violin recital.

Strangers don't go to youth soccer matches.

But thousands of strangers flock to recital halls to see the young Sarah Chang. Josh Bell, etc etc.

The skill level of the best youth soccer players is just as high as the violinists.

Why is this?

One's real talent potential in music isn't really known until you grow up and the "child prodigy" credit is gone. Then you are judged merely as any other player--on your musical presence.

March 30, 2011 at 03:30 PM ·

"For 37 years I've been practicing [the violin] 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius." - Sarasate

March 30, 2011 at 03:45 PM ·

There are probably a few genetic factors that come into play in creating a prodigy.  One would be the ear: some kids are naturally much more sensitive to minute variations in pitch than others.  Yes, this is a skill that can be learned, but if you come into the world with it in place, you're at an advantage.  Next is probably fine motor control.  The kid who has more of this at an earlier age again has a head start.  The most important inborn trait would be single-mindedness and perfectionism.  The kid whose basic outlook is, "That was pretty good! Now let's go ride bikes," won't progress nearly as fast as the one who won't stop until the passage is perfect, not once but 100 times in a row.

Whether this last attribute comes naturally to the child or is imposed on him or her from outside is where it all gets interesting.

Other factors come into play, as others have pointed out: mainly, access to excellent instruction and the presence of adults who know how to work the system to the kid's advantage.  The kid who has these advantages plus the inborn or genetic makeup to maximize the opportunities is the one you'll hear about.

March 30, 2011 at 03:54 PM ·

This got posted a while back, :)


March 30, 2011 at 06:00 PM ·

 Brian is correct: prodigies are extremely rare. Mozart. Menuhin. Sarah Chang. Many prodigies do not go on to have careers in music. An interesting read on this subject is the book Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives by Claude Kenneson

Young kids who play advanced rep are often called prodigies by press or parents, in order to attract attention (search violin prodigy on Youtube, but wear ear plugs!) Most of the hotshot young players today are extremely gifted and hard-working, but few are bona fide prodigies. But that doesn't really matter, does it? When we listen to a mature performer do we really care what they were doing at age 10 or 12? Are their mature performances not more interesting and nuanced than those of their youth? 



March 30, 2011 at 07:18 PM ·

All those unrequited violin prodigies....

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard."

March 31, 2011 at 02:50 PM ·

 perhaps others have a tighter definition of prodigy, that the term can only and shall only apply to a few with whom they are most impressed in the history of violin performance.   says who?

i think the fact speaks for itself that the term is used more loosely-not necessarily incorrectly-to apply to youth who have excelled in areas beyond or far beyond the average of their peers.  sure, everyone agrees that the sarah changs are undoubtedly prodigies,  but i have no problem labeling brian or caeli with the term prodigy. 

they have worked hard on the instrument; they have distinguished themselves already in relatively short span of time with a massive amt of violin expertise; to them, the sky is the limit.  

why is it that they have to be compared with sarah chang and be put down a notch; why can't they be evaluated with every kid that has touched the violin and appreciated how far they have come?

sick mentality, that is why.  you may think you are being realistic, but in fact you are helping to make an invisible ceiling visible.  no thanks!

according to me,,the word origin of prodigy comes from the word produce :).  those kids have produced in abundance, in their own prodigious ways which do not fit any outdated, smelly modes:)


March 31, 2011 at 09:01 PM ·

Even prodigies need to work hard to reach the highest level. Call me crazy, but I believe that where talent exists, hard work will trump the apathetic wunderkind every time. I really believe the insatiable appetite, the drive to achieve, is what matters most. It's not just a matter of who practices xx hours each day; a kid could practice from dawn 'till dusk, but it's all for naught without the right focus.

Some kids are quite adept at hitting their own ceiling, whether it's imagined or real. Whether it's fear or an issue of self-esteem, they just don't go further. (I was one of those kids.) Nobody has the right to tell any of those kids that they'll never be *this,* nor ever achieve *that.* It's up to them. There are always people who, intentionally or not, will attempt to erect a ceiling, artificial or otherwise, and the remarkable success stories are the ones who either use that to drive harder, simply ignore it, or just fail to notice any ceiling at all. The sky is indeed the limit for them.

March 31, 2011 at 10:10 PM ·

And thats my OTHER plan David :D

Sky's the limit eh?  Say's who....

March 31, 2011 at 10:32 PM ·

 2 quotes from stephen jay gould:

"I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops." 

"We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within." 

April 1, 2011 at 02:02 PM ·

 Like beauty, prodigy is in the eyes of the beholder.  

I have been puzzled by what is considered "prodigy" especially by those who specialize in teaching the youngest students, and by what these same teachers consider lack of promise.  I know a composition teacher who seems to attract this latter category and allows them to blossom into the amazing creative beings they are.  She currently has a wild seven-year-old who recently composed a multi-movement piece inspired by stories about ancient Egypt, for an ensemble consisting of organ, clarinet, gong, violin, viola, snare drum and flute.  This same boy's violin teacher was more concerned by his not bowing within the marks on his bow, than with the content of his imagination.  I also know a teacher who seems to be able to mold the proficient kid into something that passes for prodigy, a stable, brilliant, zippy style of playing.

I believe the teachers see something that resonates with them and which they feel inclined to invest their time and energy into developing, but it differs from teacher to teacher.  I once watched a studio class where a teacher praised the young prodigy, a 91/2 year old girl who had just played the first movement of Lalo, by excitedly saying "Real good beat!" and honestly there was no discernible pulse to be had. But, here she is a few years later soloing with orchestras all over the US. 

Sometimes there is something that especially excites me about a young player's playing. Recently a young cellist (11 years old) played for me and my sons, and something about her sound just knocked my socks off.  Perhaps one day she'll be one of the great artists!  It is fun when someone you have heard as a young player materializes into a fine artist as a young adult. It makes everyone think they can predict nascent genius! 

April 1, 2011 at 02:24 PM ·

 to go along with jennifer's observation, i think there are things out there that is difficult to quantify or even qualify.  

after all, violin performance is a performing art.  some are born with more musical charisma for performance or stage.  they tend to have a presence if you will.   case in point is that some kids play very advanced stuff very well but we yawn.  others play very simple stuff, not necessarily very well, but we swoon over it.

recently, there was that boy who conducted in his living room and then played violin with an orchestra.  i am not blown away by his technical level per se, as many seem to be concerned about.  but his presence in the musical setting looks so natural that it compels me to watch him till the end.  he just looks the part!  just like how we sort out people for a significant other--in the end, it is not necessarily that objective and reasonable:)  (my wife does not come to v.com)

that type of kid will have an advantage because teachers will fight for a joy to work with.  they will nurture him with more care, bother him with some technical essentials to assist him into blossoming into a stage person.

i think the challenge or the trick is for each child to find that sweet spot, not necessarily with violin.  i truly believe there is something very special out there waiting for each child.  just have to help them find it.

April 1, 2011 at 02:26 PM ·

In this context, I think this biography of violinist Mischa Mischakoff may offer some insight:


There was certainly a "cluster" of amazing young string players that emerged from Russia at the same time. They all started playing at a very young age. While some did not later specialize in solo playing, they nevertheless did it fabulously as part of their careers.

A violin prodigy emerged from the Suzuki program in the small California city of Ridgecrest more than 30 years ago. I lived there and was in the community orchestra that accompanied her performances when she was 6 and 7. She returned from big city training and concert success at age 12 to visit her original Suzuki teacher and perform the Mendelssohn Em with our orchestra, following her success with the LA Phil.

We knew her as "Annie Meyers," but she is know today as Anne Akiko Meyers, and was much in the national and musical news a few months ago for her purchase of a special Stradivarius.

Of course she worked incredibly hard from the beginning and received total support from her family, but what distinguished her playing in my mind was her right arm. Young players who are destined for success seem to be able to generate great sound with their use of the bow from very early on - of course they have to be able to play in tune - and fast, too.


April 1, 2011 at 02:53 PM ·

Take a look at this (a young guitar prodigy from North Korea):



April 2, 2011 at 01:04 PM ·


I think many would agree with you, and maybe I do too.  I noticed at the old Encore (CIM's old summer music camp) that the production of a big sound was definitely encouraged and those little bodies who could do it were definitely celebrated.  Perhaps this is the best early predictor of future talent, especially if it draws the attention of notable teachers. 

For me, music is an art, a matter of imagination and sensitivity to context and sound.  The physical activity of even, fast fingers, control of bow action can be trained in with cooperative students and persistent teachers and parents.  I have seen many who play impressively at young ages, but only rarely have I seen a child who gives a glimpse of his/her individual artistic voice.  Often this child does not develop a big sound early, because their priorities are pulse, or color or phrasing, and no teacher can convince them otherwise.  

Still, when I hear a young cellist fill the room with a single note, I am pretty excited.

March 22, 2017 at 11:32 AM · https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUgLb6THC9U

March 22, 2017 at 03:27 PM · "Everyone has potential."

Unfortunately, in my years of teaching I've seen that many people have NO potential for a skill.

However, I do realize it's not politically correct to admit this.

March 22, 2017 at 04:04 PM · Scott is right. For example, my hands are not very steady for things like drawingN and I'm terrible at it.

But, give me a violin and bow and I can modify my left and right hands and intonation within about a week or two, and have no problems if this was repeated (hypothetically).

March 22, 2017 at 04:12 PM · "Different strokes for different folks" but for many those strokes may not be with a bow or involving music at all. But I think most humans have incredible potential if they can find the proper medium for themselves. I think this is why a "liberal" education can be so important to encourage individual potential and enhance the potential of society.

As far as musical potential is concerned there does come an age for each musical individual when no further technical improvement is possible, and even the ability to create the sounds with artistic interpretation degrades, even though it may still reside in the player's soul. At that stage "improvement" becomes pretty much limited to either playing music never before attempted or playing in new ensembles. We do what we can!

March 22, 2017 at 06:15 PM · Bill Platt: "there is a voyeuristic fascination among adults, to watch young children perform music well."


There is a giant audience for six year-olds playing barely on-pitch on a tiny violin, but these people will never show up for a mature (but not super famous) artist playing real music, because then the familiar audience insecurity will kick in. What is it about? When am I supposed to show I like it? When is it over?

March 22, 2017 at 08:30 PM · The video kyoungmin seol posted is quite impressive--I wonder how much that little girl was practicing a day? If they were keeping it reasonable (ie, under an hour a day for a little girl), then more power to her, she clearly loves the violin and if she enjoys it as play then it's a great way to pass the time. If that rate continues she'll be playing all of Paganini before she's ten, and thus what we like to joke about here will have come to pass.

March 22, 2017 at 09:33 PM · The 10,000 hours theory is very interesting, and I do believe that mastery comes from work. But I do also think there are two additional factors: first is the genetic predisposition to be good at something, anything. Some people are born with better color perception, for instance, so it could be argued that they might be better at art or photography, something like that. Some people are born with perfect pitch.

But I do think "talent" is a combination of a genetic predisposition along with the burning desire to do that thing. Without this kind of desire, people are too easily discouraged. It takes a lot of willpower to put in the 10,000 hours in the first place. Perhaps this is another version of the genetic predisposition - some have it and some don't.

March 22, 2017 at 09:38 PM · Scott Cole, even if someone does not have the potential for a skill surely they can still master it, it will just take much more work. Would you agree with this?

March 22, 2017 at 11:29 PM · 10,000 hours theory.... um. yes, Everyone has potential. however, the amount of potential talent would be different. In my opinion, the effort cannot win the talent because generally, the one who has talent also work hard.

March 23, 2017 at 04:56 PM · "Brian is correct: prodigies are extremely rare. Mozart. Menuhin. Sarah Chang."

Sorry to say this but I don't find Chang to be even close to the same league as Mozart.

I wouldn't list Chang as one of those extremely rare prodigies. If so, we would have a handful of them by generation, which may defeat the point of the term.

March 23, 2017 at 09:08 PM · Haha Scott Cole, I can relate with this on such a deep and profound level. Although I have noticed that, with children, the chances of overcoming basic motor skill problems are much higher than with adult beginners.

Helen Smit: No. Some people really just can't succeed, even in a moderate sense. Their potential on the violin is literally equatable to asking an ostrich to fly.

Students' potential follows the bell curve, in my experience. About 15% of people who try it are truly hopeless (they usually give up pretty quickly though, from a sheer lack of progress), 70% are moderately successful if they put in the practice, but have little or no capacity to become professionals, and the top 15% could become professionals if they tried pretty hard.

Of course, someone in the "middle-class" of talent could become quite good if they gave up everything and practiced an insane amount. But the top 15% only has to try moderately hard to become fairly good and possibly make a career out of it if they really dedicate themselves.

And on the very extreme ends of the curve, there are people whose bodies simply aren't physically capable of playing, and then those on the other end who can play better than me at age 5.

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