Violin prodigies - how do they start?
With prodigy, I specifically mean technical prodigies, even those who lack great musical inspiration.
I have read somewhere that the main difference between a normal student and a prodigy is that (s)he has spent more time practising. I cannot fully believe this. Yes, someone who is very motivated and has good teachers, will spend lots of hours practising in a very effective way and thus improve a lot over the years.
But there exist many kids (watch YouTube), who really have a better violin technique at age 10 to 15 than most normal professionals, and they sure hadn't lived long enough to have had the chance of tens of thousands hours of practising.
A friend of mine once had a girl starting to learn the violin with him. After their first lesson, she was able to play with ease in a five tone range. After three months, having lessons only once a week, she played the famous Rieding concerto, all movenments. Then, she emigrated, and my friend never heard of her, again.
He just showed her what to do, and she simply did that, and never forgot.
How is something like this possible? Has anyone of you more experience with such kids? What is it that makes it so easy for them? Would you think they could play any instrument without any effort? What can we learn from them?
The simple answer is that those who claim talent isn't really a thing and is just a product of hard work are either liars, or have only been exposed to talented people and thus have no reference points.
I object to the word "talent" because it is empirically imprecise, yet has social meaning, sort of like "culture" or "race." That has nothing to do with whether or not some children or people have a preternatural aptitude for violin playing. I think Erik provided a really good description of the aptitudes of those children who excel at violin (mathematical intelligence, a physiology suited to violin playing, joint flexibility, good reflexes, etc.).
It’s a combination of talent, hard work, and good training. People can object to the word talent all they want, but it is a thing. Did anyone actually teach NFL players how to run 4 second 40 yard dashes? Can the average person do that even if they tried really hard? The human brain can take in much more at an earlier age. Practically every world class musician started before the age of 8. I find with people who started violin later on in their teens or 20’s, there’s always some kinks in their playing that never seem to go away and an inability to develop enough left hand agility, as hard as they try, even with good teaching and hard work.
Some Great musicians started later albeit not many. The principal cellist of the Ny Phil began cello at 12 and didn’t get private lessons until age 16. Karen Tuttle started violin at 14 and by age 25 was head of the viola and chamber music departments are Curtis. So late starting is not a death sentence.
I agree absolutely with you two, Erik and Nate. There are many types of talent that will achieve success on the violin. There are many types of talent in life. If one is a teacher of any type of subject this is extremely apparent. All the other usual suspects, of course play a role: practice, teachers, opportunity, parents, etc. But talent is talent and to be admired or envied (or even sometimes by us jealous types, despised! ;)
"How is something like this possible?"
Talent does exist, but I'm not sold on the idea that it's genetic as some cynical souls like to believe. What a child is exposed to in the very, veeery early years of their life has a huge impact on what kind of skills they can develop later. I think a lot of prodigies are a right-place-at-the-right-time sort of deal.
I agree with Erik. In my business, I have been involved in training people who tried really hard and were extremely dedicated, but never could, or took years longer to get the sorts of outcomes which others could get right away, or even be cognizant of the differences.
Cotton, does every new-born behave the same, prior to being exposed to any cultural or opportunity influences? The answer is simple. Ask any maternity ward doctor or nurse. They do not.
I mostly agree with what Erik wrote. I also agree with Jocelyn that "talent" has an ambiguous meaning in practice, so it may be better to use "innate talent", or "preternatural aptitude" or something like that just to be more precise.
I agree that's it's hard to measure innate talent. I think there are a couple of crucial factors at play though from the very beginning: one is will and the other is circumstances.
Both talent and hard work can only get you so far. I think motivation and environment are equally important factors.
Talent, or innate ability (whatever you want to call it) plays a role for sure. But every teacher can attest to the child who picked up the fundamentals very easily, then hit a wall when it got a little harder. As a student, it took me a while to learn technical fundamentals, but I picked up concepts based off those fundamentals very quickly.
As the Chinese saying goes, "There are many roads to the mountain top." Talent, motivation, opportunity, luck, left, right, up, down, it's all an enigma. I really care how anyone started out. It's easy, it's hard, money, poverty, pushy parents, self motivation, it's a mixed salad. Kurt Vonnegut said it best. "You can or you can't, and you do or you don't."
Kind of a side comment, but I was thinking about how many highly regarded soloists had one or more parent who was a musician- but also, how many highly regarded soloists had children who were fine musicians, but never to the standards of their parents.
I should mention that when I speak of "talent," I don't just mean the genetic components. To me, talent is basically just anything that the student doesn't have control over, but contributes positively to their success.
There are "gifted" children.
Thanks for this highly interesting discussion, so far!
Regarding Emily F.'s discussion of getting the bow hold correctly--Simon Fischer has a blog on Violinist.com in which he discusses a violin student he met at the age of 14 who had started at 12 and was playing Lalo flawlessly. He went on to muse about those students who, when given a bow, hold it correctly and without tension, immediately. Fischer's clearly an amazing pedagogue and has experience with lots and lots of students presumably at the highest levels, and, from the blog, he doesn't even seem to know what to make of those who get it right away.
How do they start? First (and probably most) of all, they have parents who are willing to pay for violin lessons from a very young age.
The nature-vs-nurture argument will always be there. Proving or quantifying one vs. the other is a problem that will not be solved within our lifetimes.
There is a confluence of genetics, personality, parenting and the family environment, and luck. There are some children that are generally brilliant. I point to the soloist Corey Cerovsek and his sister as an example. Cerovsek is clearly brilliant; by age 15 he'd completed both a BM performance and a bachelor's in math at IU (with Gingold at his teacher). Three years later he'd completed both a DMA and a math PhD. I don't know that he's necessarily talented specifically at the violin, so much as he plays the violin using his superior brainpower. (His sister is, if I recall correctly, similarly accelerated in her learning, but a pianist.)
"My daughter is not a prodigy by any stretch of imagination or definition but she too could play Vivaldi a minor concerto years before she could tie her shoe laces. Her RH violin techniques are very much behind her LH abilities."
Gordon, she plays the piano too and she is a better pianist than a violinist at this point but she refuses to give up violin. She wants to play all the big violin concertos and virtuosic show pieces. When she plays Bach on the piano, it sends chills up my spine but when she plays Bach on the violin, it is an entirely different story. She isn't horrible at playing the violin; with enough practice and help from her (way overqualified) teacher, she plays everything in tune and in time but I don't get that feeling that she is being "possessed" by the music. Once in awhile, she does get into the zone and she sounds amazing but if it only happens 1/10 times, does it really count?
"Oboe might be overkill." I guess we'll spend the rest of the day unpacking that one.
It’s interesting to ponder how many potential prodigies have never touched a violin. If every child was handed a violin at a very early age, violin prodigies might not seem as rare.
In addition, I imagine that a kid who shows a lot of early aptitude could also have their potential crushed by bad teaching (particularly abusive or indifferent teaching) and lack of parental interest (or worse, parental annoyance). These things are not so rare. Where I grew up, the public music school teachers alternated between verbally haranguing students when they made mistakes, or expressing resentment of students when they achieved minor accomplishments. One public orchestral director used to blow her cigarette smoke in my face. It was pretty common to hear of boys who played the violin whose fathers ridiculed them for it, or parents of kids of either gender who didn't want their peace and quiet disturbed by all that screeching. Most kids didn't play past grade school. Any rational kid would realize the smart thing to do is to quit.
My wife played clarinet as a kid, until she figured out that playing the clarinet wasn't "cool", LOL. She had also had some piano and guitar lessons, so she joined a rock and roll band, put together by their rural 4H program. (One of the many 4H program options at the time, including raising a cow.)
@Kiki White, don't feel bad -- we're still working on bow hold with both kids, about 5 and 9 years in! And lots of college kids are still working on bow hold.
I think bow hold almost has to change as you grow up because your hand changes. Boys' hands especially can get much thicker, heavier. My hands are quite different now than they were when I was 20 years old, which is about when I stopped growing vertically.
I suspect that every adult starter who reaches "Bruch level" is someone who could have been a child prodigy given the opportunity to start learning as a young child. They're not common, but maybe not all that rare -- I've encountered at least three in community orchestras I've played in.
Ahh, the Bruch Level. If only I had talent.
Interesting point, Matthew, maybe there were a lot more prodigies around if they got into contact with the violin. We will never know!
Any adult starter who reaches Bruch level has quality time to devote to learning the violin. I am of middling-to-low-average aptitude, but since the beginning of the stay-at-home orders my skill level has shot up simply because I practice for 1/2 hour in the early afternoon while my lunch is cooking. Before the stay-at-home order, I could only practice at the very end of my day.
I could have easily been the worlds greatest violinist, had my Mommy and Daddy not steered me more in the direction of mud-boggin' and beer-drinkin'. ;-)
What would it mean if there could be more prodigies? The market (in the US) has a huge oversupply of talented violinists. The stats are pretty dire even for the prodigies who are identified and have all the things in place from a young age.
If there are any "common" features among the various different kinds of "talent," my money would be on concentration. And that also means mental multitasking, but between different skills those tasks will vary.
I think Lydia nailed it with her first 2 sentences: "There is a confluence of genetics, personality, parenting and the family environment, and luck. There are some children that are generally brilliant."
Frankly, who cares where they started? Any string quartet that gets a wedding gig has had some drunk come up and brag he or she (probably a he) used to play a violin. "I was a child prodigy!" They brag, "but I gave it up for football/soccer/computer games/whatever." Then they wander away. So much for that. What really matters is where the prodigies ended up. Like Kurt Vonnegut said, "You can or you can't and you do or you don't."
What I'm impressed with is when I meet a young person who is excelling well beyond his or her peers generally on a musical instrument, but they also somehow teach themselves improvisation, and they sit down at the piano with no lessons and teach themselves that, and they compose music (often not very well, but okay).
Some people are just really smart. And in my experience, this has ranged from a conductor or financial advisor/accountant, to a really brilliant home handyman.
I agree with you, David, that IQ is only one kind of smarts - but it is that and it does cover a lot of areas of modern civilization even if not all areas of being human.
Blue-collar folks who are independent, like farmers often are, who own their own businesses and are responsible for the bottom line, tend to be pretty smart, creative people. Well they have to be, or they'll fail. Farming is hard. What I've noticed, though, is that it's less true of people who are basically someone else's pair of hands, who just do what they're told. They might well have an inner intelligence that one cannot easily detect, or they might be talented at something else that's not their bread and butter. They might be working a "pair of hands" job out of necessity -- probably the majority are. My feeling is that intellect and talent fade if it is not continually challenged in some way. There's probably research on that somewhere.
Can anyone think of a successful soloist or really any high level professional orchestral musician who grew up in a traumatic environment and made it to the top?
Ms. Francis beat me to the key board: Michael Rabin. There is wonderful biography about him.
This Michael Rabin?
Lang Sr then told his son to take an overdose and, when Lang Lang fought back, ordered him to jump off the 11th-floor balcony. The boy brought Lang Sr to his senses by hammering his fists against the wall until they bled, shouting, "I hate my hands!"
Josef Hassid also grew up in a rather abusive environment, I believe. Sometimes what makes a prodigy shine is the abusive, monomaniacal nature of their upbringing. (Note that I am not saying that all prodigies are abused, just noting that it sometimes happens.)
Paul, my daughter is a "my way or the highway" type of musician. Her temperament I'm afraid is not well-suited for being a collaborative pianist.
Beethoven is a good example of someone who learned music in an abusive environment and did well, although he was miserable through much of his life.
Kiki wrote, "Paul, my daughter is a "my way or the highway" type of musician. Her temperament I'm afraid is not well-suited for being a collaborative pianist."
Jocelyn. The comparison with Beethoven does perhaps not carry very well into our modern times. His father was a professional musician, and it was then very normal to force the son to become a professional musician as well. I mean, in the 18th century there were probably also a lot of carpenters, butchers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, fishermen etc who forced their sons to learn the same trade.
Speaking of which, I wonder how many successful soloists or major orchestra players have no musicians (not even amateurs or non-classical musicians) among their close relatives?
Emily, did no one tell you the facts of life? Well, I'll try to help:
Strictly speaking the stork merely brings the baby, it doesn't beget the baby. And then it only finds the baby under the gooseberry bush, so the inference that the gooseberry bush begot the baby would be hasty. So ultimately it's still a mystery to me where babies come from.
But Gordon, you do realize, don't you that a lot of lives start as a result of Pelargogenesis? I'm not kidding, they do, they really do.
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