How the heck?!

March 4, 2016 at 04:43 PM · In light of recent mention of Heifetz playing the Mendelssohn at age six, a year after starting off on the violin and Sarah Chang performing the Bruch for Ms Delay at age 5. Even with heaps of natural talent, how is it even possible to assimilate the huge volume of work required to get to the virtuoso repertoire in such a short time. Scales & arpeggios in various forms, etudes and repertoire to teach shifting, double stops and secure intonation, advanced bow strokes, building speed and rhythm, etc.

It's so overwhelming it almost seems like their teachers went straight from Twinkle to the 24 Caprices. Maybe that's what I've been doing wrong...

Replies (25)

March 4, 2016 at 05:09 PM · All....are created equal in their right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" according to the American Declaration of Independence. It says nothing about equality of ability.

If you ere ever in the presence of one of these tiny wunderkind you will know it - some of them seem to have that amazing bow arm from the very start - and it only gets better with proper training.


March 4, 2016 at 06:12 PM · There are studies that show that the difference between a high-IQ learner and an average-IQ learner is that the average-IQ learner needs 10 times more repetitions than the high-IQ learner to assimilate the skill.

This is probably applicable to violin-playing as well.

My guess is that tiny wunderkind seem to have a natural instinct for the fingerboard. Their brains divide up the space intuitively, and they treat the fingerboard as an organic whole, not a series of positions to be learned. (Note the way that an advanced violinist simply intuits the spacing of notes if given a different-sized instrument or even, say, a viola. Or automatically adjusts to a string being out of tune. Something in the brain learns to calculate the distances automatically.)

My guess is also that they generalize better, or are taught to generalize -- to feel shifts as a general category, for instance. And they have a kinesthetic awareness that helps them to control the bow-arm.

There's much more, of course, and wunderkind no doubt have a combination of multiple gifts as well as the right circumstances in terms of parents, teachers, resources, etc. Note that many of them also have significant general intellectual gifts.

March 4, 2016 at 06:52 PM · I have thought a lot about this with respect to "why did I not learn to play better in college" and have come to the conclusion that "talented" people just know what to focus on, more or less instinctively. Us mere mortals flounder around and slog through each step with many stages of trial and error, some more quickly than others. I was talking with a young and very hard-working pianist friend about her early experiences and she pretty much started off with the Bach Inventions. It's just different for them.

March 4, 2016 at 10:49 PM · "Don't compare yourself to the masters" and "You worry about the quantity and let God worry about the quality" apply here.

Those examples are of genius-level players, and they were born with whatever brain/body ability that allows for quick and accurate learning at a young age. They were in the right households, too. They were told the right things by the right people, and the listened and applied that information studiously. They had the desire, the will, and the focus.

Mozart was one of them along with Mendelssohn and many others.

March 5, 2016 at 04:34 AM · One of the many things that set the wunderkind apart from average is that they hear (understand) better at a very young age. Joshua Bell did mention that when he was young he had some hard time figuring out why other kids play awfully as if they didn't realize it.

This happen in all levels of learning progress, when a student start to listen to themselves there'll be a major boost in improvement speed.

March 5, 2016 at 03:13 PM · To be fair I think Heifetz' father was a violinist and got him a fiddle at two or something. He started formal lessons at 5. But still.

My former teacher started at 8 or 9 and was performing the Mendelssohn a year later.

You can see the requisite components in people around you. Some people just pick up tunes effortlessly. Others can dance to any rhythm and never lose track of the beat. Some people have big strong hands, with thick tendons. Others are born with a built in rest of a shoulder (my teacher had a trick shoulder which if he raised in a certain way it would click into place, only on the left side! He already had square shoulders, long arms and fingers, but also a long pinky the same length and thickness as his index.) Some people are just born to the fiddle, just as some are born to water, or basketball, or whatever. There's an interesting documentary about athletic performance over the last 100 years or so and it turns out there hasn't been vast improvements in ability, just better technology and, where once an average size and build was deemed the ideal body for all sports, increasingly over the years, specialized body types were being channelled to the appropriate sport.

But I think what's most important for music is the mental faculties. I know people with no formal training who can memorize tunes after a couple of hearings. One such person I know has whole symphonies memorized, not just the prominent tunes, but all the inner voices. She doesn't have the technical jargon to describe it properly, but she'll tell you when the tonal centre shifts. She'll sing a pitch and say, "now this is the new Do," and take you through the whole movement like that. She can hear the whole score at once and as she's humming one line she'll interject and say, "I wish I could sing more lines at once." What's more, she recalls whole works at once, in it's entirety, and knows how what she's currently singing fits into the whole. She can't name a pitch if you play it, but every time she sings a piece and we play a recording of it she's remembered the pitch and she'll invariably say with some genuine surprise, "hey I got it in tune." She doesn't dance much, but she'll never lose count, even in rhythmically complex pieces, or in jazz with all it's back beats. She doesn't listen to much jazz, but given any improvised passage on a standard she'll say, "hey that's such and such, and name the tune. All of this is uploaded into her brain through her ears. She taught herself to read music as a kid by counting lines from middle C at a piano, but is still relatively slow at it. She took a couple of years of basic private violin lessons. Even with such little training, she 'thinks' using the fingerboard. That is, when she hears any tune, she feels it as notes on the fingerboard. She played in her local youth orchestra, sang in a few choirs, but had no other formal training, just an insane affinity to music and an almost innate sensibility to all it's elements. Crazy.

March 5, 2016 at 03:38 PM · Along similar lines - I have a friend who can remember every move in every chess game he has ever played, or every chess game he has recreated from a list of moves, without effort. Imagine the advantage that this skill gives him when playing others.

I also once played against an international master who beat 50 of us simultaneously, spending no more than five seconds per board, and rotating around the entire group. When I talked to him afterwards, he said that he was analysing all 50 games in his head at the same time (and I could easily believe him). One of the people who lost was the friend mentioned in the first paragraph.

Some people really do have exceptional gifts.

March 5, 2016 at 03:40 PM · I think the media and website biographies focus all too often on the product instead of the process when reporting on the activities of prodigies. Thus, we are left to fill in the blank about the process and assume that you either have "it" or you don't and there is nothing you can do about it. The process a prodigy has to go through to progress quickly depends on a number of environmental factors lining up perfectly and innate talent represents only a small piece. Even what what make any sort innate ability is thought to be the result of thousands of genes working together, so no designer prodigy babies any time soon!

March 5, 2016 at 04:25 PM · I agree you need the proper environment to allow the prodigy to develop. My friend has prodigious musical ability with no formal training. She never had the environment. In fact she was discouraged by her father from pursuing music. But I'd argue, no matter how ideal an environment, it's impossible to manufacture the innate ability. Maybe over the course of 8 to 10 years, if you've started early enough with the best environment the lines become indistinguishable. But having witnessed it first hand and up close, such innate ability is pretty astonishing. The other x factor is attention. There are some kids who just won't stop until they get it. Most kids (people) when you try to show them how to do something more efficiently and effectively will say yeah, yeah, give it back. But some kids will let you teach them, then they'll go back and do it until it becomes habitual. Some kids just practice until they can do it. It's not even a question of like or want, they just do. You can't teach that stuff. As for the rest of us, we have 300 years of theory, technique and technology.

March 6, 2016 at 04:32 AM ·

We can't compete against prodigies: they are just literally wired differently, but I think some of us can come close. The main problem with us is that we are more acceptable to "memory interference" than prodigies.

For example, if I ask you to memorize a 10 digit number, and then 30 sec. later I ask you to repeat it; this may be easy for you. But, if I asked you to remember another 10 digit number and then asked you what it is 30 sec. later, you may have trouble with recall of some of the numbers or all of them. Also, if I asked you to recall the first 10 digit number, you may not be able too remember any of the numbers at all. This poor recall is caused by memory interference.

The good news is we can lessen the degree of memory interference dramatically and therefore increase memory recall, and we can do this at any age. The goal is to strengthen the mind, not just practice practice practice. We get ourselves into a rut of having only one or a few memorizing rhythmic patterns; over time our memory gets weaker or doesn't improve.

Variation (rhythmic) memory techniques, interference memory techniques, attachment memory techniques and pitch recall exercises, will increase speeds for learning good intonation and increase speeds for memorizing and perfecting new material.

March 6, 2016 at 05:14 AM · Never under-estimate prenatal exposure to violin sound! Not all 9 months, but very first audio impressions - the same as what helps kids to learn mother tongue. Apart from that, as other mentioned, genetic advantages... from aural perception and processing to motor functions and above else, natural feedback.

In addition to "nature", nurture kicks in really early... parent violinist and sometimes a great sounding fractional size instrument presents a huge advantage.

In other words - a perfect storm!

By the way, if you watch DVD "God's fiddler" - about Heifetz... when asked about his pupils, Auer spoke about just every one of them, except Heifetz. When asked why he omitted Jasha, Auer replied: "he is not my student, he is God's student."

March 6, 2016 at 06:26 AM · However those such as Heifetz rose to greatness is certainly no trivial matter, no matter what our personal opinions may be. Psychologists have spent a great deal of time and some have dedicated their whole careers to debating how prodigies become prodigies. Look into Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman and Dr. Zach Hambrick for opposite sides of the debate. Some fall in between their viewpoints. Many prodigies even lack longevity and fizzle out at some point.

Another interesting question is what accounts for those who maintain longevity and go on to become timeless adult creators. Many of those who we still remember after being long dead in various fields weren't even prodigies. It is unfortunate that extreme precocity is nearly seen as a prerequisite to becoming a world renowned violinist. Other areas, or even instruments such as viola, clarinet, literature, or composition are much more forgiving to later bloomers.

March 7, 2016 at 05:52 AM · But I thought we were talking about how a prodigy is able to play Mendelssohn within 1 year of formal training, or learn every major violin concerto by the age of 10...

I don't think psychology or anyone can explain why or how that is, just that it is, and maybe describe what it is. And I don't think it's really important how they got to the state we consider to be prodigious. But maybe in describing the state, that they use more prefrontal cortex or whatever, we can hack our way closer to how they operate, rather than be discouraged.

They're not wired differently (in the sense that schizophrenics are, for example.) I think they just come prewired. Whether that happened in the womb, or upon exposure to a piano or fiddle, it doesn't really matter (unless you're debating nature v. nurture.) What matters is that the prewiring is the thing that allows for better memory and recall, for finding and correcting pitch, for recognizing patterns, for feeling rhythm and pulse, etc. So whereas they use that preexisting apparatus to learn repertoire and musicianship, we try to learn repertoire and work on interpretation in order to connect the wiring and lay the foundation, or at least we try to do everything simultaneously, greatly increasing random connections.

I think that's what Suzuki, Dalcroze, Orff and Kodaly were onto, trying to build the musical apparatus as early as possible. But our culture is not really into building musical foundations, only end results.

March 7, 2016 at 07:08 AM · We could probably better study things like this if studies were less retrospective. Currently, the studies done on prodigies examine them after the fact, meaning it is difficult to tease apart whether their brain "came prewired" or underwent change, or what happened precisely on a day-to-day basis. A less retrospective longitudinal study would be tough, because it would require the intention to create prodigies on a larger scale and documentation of the process over years. I imagine it would be difficult to get a large enough sample size to voulunteer, isolate variables, and be quite an expensive study, not to mention that replication of said study would also be necessary at some point. I think seeking to know how is certainly better than accepting that something "is", but it is certainly easier said than done. That way, either more could have access to such a gift or we could move on and know it is always due 100% to a fluke of nature.

March 7, 2016 at 05:19 PM · Aside from the questionable ethics of studying 2-4 year old children to observe their neurological development for the sake of creating super toddlers, how could you even test for the how and why? There are just so many variables, it's probably as complex as the brain itself. Also, the more wide spread a prodigious ability becomes, the less prodigious the ability... by definition. I think I prefer to just be in awe and wonder.

March 7, 2016 at 06:15 PM · Rocky, should violin music be played during procreation as well?

March 8, 2016 at 12:36 PM · The intent of my post was not so much to question the psychology or neurological process that enable these kiddies to perform so wondrously, but the teaching process.

To master all the skills necessary to perform the romantic concertos one would have to cover many aspects of bowing and left hand technique in just the short space of a year. So would the teaching process have gone a little as follows?

Lesson 1:

Teacher: "Hello little Johnny (4), this is how to hold the violin and bow"

Lesson 2:

Teacher: "Okay, this is how to perform a straight bow on an open string".

Lesson 3:

Teacher: "Wow that was good, this is the major scale in A, D and G".

Lesson 4:

Teacher: "You sure got the hang of that, here are some more scales"

Lesson 5:

Teacher: "Okay now that you've memorized all these major, minor, melodic and harmonic minor scales and your intonation is spot on, let's look at some shifting"

Lesson 6:

Teacher: "Who cares about on-the-string bowing, here's some up-bow staccato"

Lesson 7:

Teacher: "Okay we need to take those positions even higher still, let's try 5"

Lesson 8:

Teacher: "Your intonation and bowing is good I think we need to play some double stops, 4 octave scales with various bowings and arpeggios in various sequences"

Lesson 9:

Teacher: "Now that you've memorized and play all that with superb bow control and intonation, let's forget about the silly pieces and hit some real meaty repertoire"

Lesson 56:

Teacher: "Seeing as you have the Mendelssohn pretty much down now in full tempo, I think we should get Ms Delay on the line"

It's also worth mentioning that Sarah said she practiced for about 30 minutes a day in that first year.

March 8, 2016 at 01:48 PM · hi David, in effect, yes, I really think it would go something like that with prodigies. with the big exception that it is not lesson by lesson or week by week. but these prodigies live day in day out with their instrument. it is well known about Heifetz, Paganini, Mozart that they did basically nothing else than playing their instruments, under the almost constant supervision of a professional (with the three above examples, it was their father).

OK perhaps Sarah Chang was different.

March 8, 2016 at 01:55 PM · I guess long before lesson 56 Mozart was sitting in the garden, privately telling his friend that his violin teacher was seriously lame...or words to that effect.

March 8, 2016 at 02:46 PM · Sarah Chang was also initially taught by her professional-violinist father, I believe. Midori was taught by her mother. No doubt the 24x7 access to training plays a big part.

March 8, 2016 at 03:10 PM · In order to understand the rapid progress of prodigies, I don't think you can really separate the teaching process from the learning process.

As Jean said, these kids are likely receiving daily guidance, maybe more like tutorials than lessons. But it's not just the frequency of lessons, or amount of time spent practicising on the instrument, which allows for constant progress, it's that their musical mind is always on. So where as for most of us, our mind stops actively processing what we do when we stop doing it, these kids simply go on practicing mentally what they spent 30 minutes doing on the fiddle. Combine that with the quality and the frequency of the guidance and that all adds up quickly.

The progress is probably not linear but rather exponential, but also most likely has many quantum leaps of improvement and gain in skills.

Lesson 1 is probably unnecessary, since the kid just mimics what they see their parent doing (my niece picked up her dad's viola at about 1 1/2, sat inside the case and mimicked her mother playing the cello; it was pretty accurate.)

Lesson 2: they don't need straight bows because they actively seek out the best sound point for the sound that's already in their head

Lesson 3: they may start with one scale for a few days, maybe even weeks, but they don't then progress linearly learning one new key every few weeks, they simply transpose and, bam, they can play in all keys instantaneously

Lesson 4: they're almost automatically playing in all keys

Lesson 5: it's not a question of memorizing scales; the scale patterns are already prewired; shifting also is not a separate skill to be worked on since they have their pitch map to guide their fingers; they don't need to move their arms, be aware of their frame to move into various positions; they move finger to finger, note to note, according to the interval map that's preloaded, so they don't really need to learn to shift per se.

Lesson 6: their hyper awareness to quality of sound (attack, duration, density, release) guides their bowing to explore various ways of using the bow to get the sound that they imagine

Lesson 7: they don't learn positions in linear fashion; they map out the fingerboard all at once

Lesson 8: their sense of tuning is prewired; since they can hear whole chords at once, they have no difficulty discerning the pitches in double stops--they know immediately which finger to adjust; for double stops, 4 octaves, arpeggios, it's all just a matter of realizing on the fiddle and with the bow what's already formed in their minds

Lesson 9: I can't imagine what sequence of repertoire they'd go through from 0 to Mendelssohn; but for them, the difference between twinkle and Mendelssohn is more of a difference of degree rather than kind; I wouldn't be surprised if after 6 months, they just start on Mendelssohn straight away, maybe learning a few lines per day; because of their perfect memory they never forget what they've uploaded the previous day; their minds just keep on practicing what they learned for 30 minutes that day, probably focusing on the tricky bits they just need to unravel; at that rate, they're probably able to upload the whole of Mendelssohn concerto in about 3 months which leaves another 3 months to keep working on the tricky bits and polish the interpretation; they don't know from difficult, so they just keep doing what's put in front of them; they're not self conscious and they don't worry about making mistakes or being embarrassed; they just do what comes naturally and are spurred on by the validation they get from becoming who they already are

Just speculating.

Edit: Sarah Chang learned to play 1 finger tunes on the piano starting at 3; kids with a piano background take to learning strings much easier than those without, I suspect because it organizes their musical minds

March 8, 2016 at 03:58 PM · Many of these prodigies also were, or became, completely insane. Schumann, for example, ended his days in a mental institution, requesting to be an inmate after failing to drown himself - actually quite a sad and tragic tale.

There are hosts of others with questionable sanity such as Erik Satie, Carlo Gesualdo, Alexander Scriabin and many more with links to dark arts, sexual peversions and the like such as Paganini, Warlock and Kotzwara - who actually asked the whore he was with at the time to cut of his penis. Then there is Mozart of course, obsessed with excrement (a condition known as scatology) and who spent much of his life thinking he was a cat.

Leading one to the inevitable conclusion that there is certainly something very different about 'prodigies' - and not in a good way.

March 8, 2016 at 04:08 PM · And on that note...

March 8, 2016 at 04:38 PM · The teacher also needs to have an open mind and throw out what they may think about different age groups and just go with what the exceptional student brings to the table.

March 9, 2016 at 07:34 AM · Jeewon Kim, I hear you, but here's another thing to consider. Sarah Chang still considers it necessary to practice 4 hours a day. That's about the average for soloists, ex-prodigy or not (very many kids can play the Beethoven at 10, that doesn't make them prodigies). Neither does she stand out above the others at the top. I do really say that with utmost respect for Sarah, she is a phenomenal musician and violinist and I love her playing. But the level at the very top is very, very high.

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