Violin prodigies - how do they start?

May 19, 2020, 1:06 PM · 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?

Replies (59)

May 19, 2020, 1:20 PM · 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.

Talent is 100%, definitely a thing.

Now, to explain a bit more: talented people often do practice more than the untalented, but that's because they get encouraging results when they do. If you had to practice 200 hours just to screech out Twinkle, you wouldn't be very motivated to practice very much in the future, would you?

And of course, talent comes in many forms. It's not one big factor, but rather a bunch of small ones that accumulate into a cohesive whole. For example, many kids have learning disabilities. If you come across a child with zero learning disabilities, they are generally going to be more "talented" than the other kids, simply because they will learn things faster. Or, if a child's brain naturally picks up on mathematical concepts, that will also make many musical concepts easier to learn. Or, a child with excellent natural flexibility in the joints, as well as efficient neural pathways that fire off quickly and accurately. Or, higher strength/endurance. And what about having a shoulde/clavicle structure that makes the instrument easier to hold?

You can imagine that a child that wins the genetic lottery and has *all* of the above things, as well as many others I didn't list, is going to learn 10x, or perhaps 100x quicker than a child that has none of those things.

I'm not sure why there's this culture of talent denial, except perhaps that too many people use a lack of talent as an excuse to not practice enough?

May 19, 2020, 1:42 PM · 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.).
Edited: May 19, 2020, 2:02 PM · 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.
May 19, 2020, 2:01 PM · 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.
May 19, 2020, 2:51 PM · 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! ;)
May 19, 2020, 3:21 PM · "How is something like this possible?"

"For your consideration:" Another theory could be a retained skill set from a former life carried forward into this incarnation. (Cue: Rod Serling)

May 19, 2020, 3:29 PM · 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.
Edited: May 19, 2020, 3:47 PM · 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.

And I too do not understand the culture of "talent denial". It is readily acknowledged that not all people are exactly the same, either physically or mentally, so why couldn't one person be better suited to a particular task than another?

May 19, 2020, 3:37 PM · 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.
Edited: May 19, 2020, 4:07 PM · 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.

Regarding Erik's final paragraph though, I can think of several explanations for questioning the importance of innate talent vs hard-work other than just making excuses for not practicing.

One source of this idea is experts themselves. I've heard of numerous accounts of experts in various fields, whether it be sports or music, pushing back against people attributing their success to innate talent by pointing out how much work they've put into practicing. I get the impression that they feel that by attributing their success to talent, people are not giving them credit for all the hard work they put into getting where they are, so that's their motive for denying the talent narrative. While I think these people are being honest, I also think it's possible that they aren't aware of how much of an advantage they may have had over other people due to innate abilities.

Another common motive is a reaction against people maybe attributing too much importance to innate talent, creating the impression that anyone who doesn't have enough of it might as well not bother trying. In this case, the motive for denying or at least downplaying the "talent narrative" is to encourage people who want to learn to play to keep working at it.

Finally, I think it's also true that even if you accept that innate talent plays some role, it's hard to tease apart nature vs nurture to figure out how much of a role it plays in any individual case. There are a lot of environmental factors that have some amount of difficult-to-measure effect, which is enough cast doubt on any confident assertions about the relative importance of innate abilities vs nurture. I think reasonable people can conclude that while they’re certain that both innate talent and nurture play some part, it’s hard enough to measure their relative significance that it’s better to just focus on what people can control, such as how and how much you practice.

Edited: May 19, 2020, 4:45 PM · 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.

I suppose if you're going to become a prodigy you must be willing to practice. Where does will come from? I suppose from within ultimately but certainly influenced by external forces - friends and family. In fact, the parent may be very willing to encourage their son or daughter to practice more; their will in turn influences or shapes their child's will.

A budding prodigy will also need a good teacher and a working instrument, both of which seem to be the product of circumstances. If there are no good teachers or instruments that are readily available and affordable, then it might be more difficult to advance quickly. But circumstances have a way of changing and people have a way of adapting, often very quickly.

May 19, 2020, 5:36 PM · Both talent and hard work can only get you so far. I think motivation and environment are equally important factors.

I don't think it is necessarily talent, but a collection of innate skills and abilities (physical and otherwise) that tends to be advantageous for violin playing. For example, little kids who can memorize easily tend to advance faster. Little kids with good ears (which may be due more to circumstance/language acquisition than genetics) also do better. And no matter how "talented" the child, none of it comes together unless the parent is willing and able to keep the child directed.

Motivation is also a big part of it. Kids who are motivated tend to advance much faster because they immerse themselves in all aspects of the playing. They just do MORE.

If I commit the cardinal sin of comparing my two living children, both of whom most people would consider reasonably talented for their ages, I have one who is motivated and one isn't. Both have excellent ears and memories. The one with the weaker fine motor skills early on (he could play Vivaldi a minor before he could tie his shoes) is actually by far the better violinist; the one with the stronger fine motor skills is an amazing artist and decent violinist. I really think the major difference between them was motivation and desire. Having said all that, I can definitely see that my son's innate strengths fit violin playing better than my daughter's, and his early successes may have contributed to his sense of motivation. It's easier to be motivated when you are succeeding.

I've seen some of the true "prodigies" and I would divide them into two categories: those who practiced 5+ hours a day since age 3, and those who are fortunate enough to have natural assets that fit the violin well. Surprisingly, it isn't always easy to predict which ones will end up doing better. Lots of the massive practicers do burn out, but some find balance in their lives eventually. Some of the naturally talented ones struggle with discipline because most things come easily to them. Each is a challenging and different path.

May 19, 2020, 6:17 PM · 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.

I'm not sure I would consider a prodigy just talented- I think it's a combination of factors. An innate ability to pick up quickly, then to learn thoroughly, focus, parental support, good teaching, manual dexterity, desire to play, etc. etc.

For the rest of us mere mortals, when we have a deficiency in one category, the other has to make up for it. Less talent requires a far better teacher, less parental support requires way more personal drive, etc. I see it kind of like an equation. In David's example of trying to train some people, their cognitive ability or manual dexterity might have been so bad that none of the other variables were enough to push them to the level they needed to perform their duties.

Edited: May 19, 2020, 6:28 PM · 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."
May 19, 2020, 6:38 PM · 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.
May 19, 2020, 7:47 PM · 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.

Some examples:

1) Supportive parents

2) Adequate maternal nutrition and hormonal balance while developing in the womb

3) Early mental stimulus

4) Getting lucky with a good teacher early on

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To address Julie's point when she stated: "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."

"Grit" is also something I consider a talent. So many people act like the ability to work through difficult things is something that you can just *choose* to do, but it's really not. What if, for example, when I try to force myself to do an extra hour of practice, my brain starts getting sleepy, and the extra practice just turns into reinforcing mistakes? Meanwhile, there is another person out there who can just decide to practice more, but unlike me, their brain's acetylcholine levels stay more stable and that extra hour of practice actually works for them? See, that's a talent. It's not something I have control over.

May 20, 2020, 4:28 AM · There are "gifted" children.

They have the other learning curve. And the most difficult thing for them to learn how to work hard. And how to put your efforts, because everything goes easy.
I am 35, and I still push myself hard, and talk to myself when i need to do an assigment which is not exiting enough.
Because i never pushed myself when was a child. I could do 3 times more than others. In every subject. I could read the text once and repeat it. I could multiply 3digits numbers in my head, and i could give the answer to any other challenge before the teacher finished to read the task. But i am word-blinded to compensate my skills. ))) as you probably see from my writing.

But talented children are gifted children with internal desire to do something specific with a pleasure. It can be anything: sports, musics, art, math. Etc.

If you see a child who learns fast, but practice 30 min a week, you should know, that he/she gifted, but not talented.

May 20, 2020, 4:33 AM · Thanks for this highly interesting discussion, so far!

I have seen a YouTube video by Perlman, where he mentions these extremely young aged talents. He claimed not to have been that kind of prodigy himself, by saying when he was a child, he sure was talented, but you could hear that there was a child playing.
I can totally believe him without assuming he would underestimate himself. There is another video of 12 y/o Joshua Bell with a Dont etude - you can see a dedicated, talented student, but not a soloist, yet.

It is clear that for becoming a succesful soloist, it takes many factors, and you have listed them all, above. Extremely early technical perfection is not a necessity, though, as it can be acquired by means of hard and good work by those who exceed some certain threshold of talent. In the end, it doesn't matter, of course, when we listen to Perlman playing the Brahms concerto if he had been able to play it at age 10, or not.

But I would like to turn the discussion's direction a little more toward one of my initial questions. What can we learn from the prodigies?
I meant to refer to those few only who are really technically at an adult level while still being children.
My father used to have such a piano student. She could play the hardest virtuoso pieces flawlessly before she graduated from high school. She used to win second prizes in high level youth competitions, regularly. Second prize, because she was so brilliant, technically, but had no particular musical expression. My father once asked her how much she practised, and she said, 45 minutes a day. She just wasn't very interested in music. She could master the technical difficulties, plus must have had the brains to memorize lots of music. After high school, she studied to become a school teacher for other subjects. She just wasn't interested in music, so much.
Of course, there are students that are envious of such "waste of talent", because they are so passionate about music, and yet have to struggle so hard.

But lets look at an example from the violin: The bow hold is a very complex thing. Each finger has a very distinct function, ond one cannot really see much of it. You have to learn how it feels to have the right balance between firmness and relaxing. Then, you have to actively use this balance, on the various points of contact with the strings, to shape the tone. The first steps are clumsy, and then, you refine them, steadily.

But how is it possible, that this normally takes maybe 10 years 8or life-long), and for some, it seems to be easy, almost from the beginning?

When really hard pieces appear to be played as if they were easy, I assume, in a way, they ARE easy for these players. Yes, most of them will have practised a lot, but pratising led to far better results than for others. How can we get a glimpse of what is happening there, in the learning process, to take advantage for our own pursuit of improvement?

Edited: May 20, 2020, 9:01 AM · 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.

In response to Susan A.'s comments about memory--there's a research article (I'll see if I can find the reference) that compares a piano prodigy to university music students with perfect pitch AND to ordinary music students of the same age group. The researchers found that musical memory was one of the significant differences between the prodigy and others. A finding that surprised me was that the prodigy had "average" rhythmic abilities. An n=1, but when dealing with small populations, such as the population of prodigies, it's kinda expected.

Edited: The article is behind a paywall, but the reference is below.
Comeau, G. et al. (2018). "Measuring the musical skills of a prodigy: A case study," in Intelligence 66:84-97.

May 20, 2020, 10:32 PM · 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.

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. From my perspective, what separates true violin prodigies from talented, promising young violinists is bow control, something my daughter has yet to develop.

May 20, 2020, 11:18 PM · 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.

To me, the word "talent" implies something intrinsic or innate, i.e., something that doesn't include the effort one expends in practicing or the attentiveness of one's parents or finding a good teacher early on. Talent is not the same thing as luck. (But it's interesting to think about the difference -- what is it really?)

I think talent is real and plays a significant role in whether one becomes a prodigy. How and why -- that's something I believe we're a very long way from understanding. It is often alleged that some overlap between scientific talent and musical talent. Maybe some of these soloist-wannabes can be redirected into careers in neuroscience!

Wanting to subdivide "violin talent" into sub-talents (as Susan has done: better ear, memorizes more easily, etc.) seems entirely valid: A reductionist approach. But each of those likely has a significant innate component as well.

May 21, 2020, 12:49 AM · 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.)

Edited: May 21, 2020, 2:00 AM · "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."

Buy her a flute and a piano. Violin may not be her best instrument. Jacqueline du Pré could play the piano, but it wasn't her best instrument.

May 21, 2020, 3:20 AM · 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?

I used to think we should force her to quit violin and let her try other instruments like harp, flute, and oboe etc but she says she will never ever quit violin even if we stop paying for her lessons. So here we are, 6 years in, still working on bow hold...

May 21, 2020, 5:38 AM · Curious.
I merely suggested flute as a token wind instrument. Oboe too might be overkill. But it looks like the violin is there to stay, unless one day she suddenly switches to piano.
May 21, 2020, 7:11 AM · "Oboe might be overkill." I guess we'll spend the rest of the day unpacking that one.

I bet Kiki's daughter will switch to the piano as her preferred instrument once she comes to understand how much joy there is in accompanying violinists! Just yesterday I accompanied my own daughter's cello recital of the Haydn C Major Concerto. I wish I had the skill for the Brahms Sonata -- for this one I will have to hire a professional.

May 21, 2020, 8:26 AM · 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.
It does seem common in famous prodigies stories that their parents were musicians. Or at the very least had parents who were passionate listeners. (HH?)
It does seem like a confluence of an early exposure and start, environment and opportunity, and inherent strengths, “gifts”.
May 21, 2020, 9:05 AM · 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.
Edited: May 21, 2020, 10:18 AM · 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.)

The band ended up decent enough to have paid gigs almost every weekend, throughout high school. Hard to do on the clarinet, and maybe the violin.

May 21, 2020, 10:58 AM · @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.

But what your child has -- the motivation -- will get her through no matter what. It may not get her to be a professional or a prodigy, but I really think it is more important than any other factor in life. It's good to be passionate and motivated!

May 21, 2020, 3:15 PM · 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.
Edited: May 21, 2020, 7:15 PM · 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.
May 21, 2020, 7:21 PM · Ahh, the Bruch Level. If only I had talent.
May 22, 2020, 5:57 AM · Interesting point, Matthew, maybe there were a lot more prodigies around if they got into contact with the violin. We will never know!

But look at someone like myself: I had very supportive parents (professional musicians, though not string players), and I certainly must have had some above than average talent (average of all people, not of all musicians). I didn’t have really good teachers until college, and I had big technical issues. I still made it into college and learned a lot, there, some of which I could have been taught earlier, under more ideal circumstances.

So, I could have turned out a technically better player with more practicing and a better teacher, but I would have still never have been able to play Paganini caprices really well at age 12, never ever even one of them! And, to be honest, I wouldn’t perform them, today, either.
Lots of kids do play highly virtuoso pieces in youth competitions, certainly not only here in Germany, but most of them don’t play them really well- absolutely no comparison to the great adult soloists.
They all invest so much into it, and yet you hear that they are playing really difficult pieces. And then, there comes along one kid, every few years, for whom all of this is absolutely no problem. I find it so mysterious and inspiring that something like this is possible!

May 22, 2020, 8:36 AM · 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.
May 22, 2020, 10:42 AM · 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'. ;-)
May 22, 2020, 11:49 AM · Poor guy!
Edited: May 22, 2020, 11:53 AM · 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.

"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."

Yes, provided that the adult starter had the same adult-level discipline and determination and other mental skills at age 5 as they did at age 35. Most kids starting violin at age 5 (or even older) barely have the attention span to practice more than 5 minutes on their own before running off. This includes many who grow up to become successful, highly focused professionals in their fields as adults.

I think some children have figured out how to focus and practice very efficiently much earlier than others. Ray Chen and others have said that they were practicing 2 hours a day in middle school, and I believe that.

I've watched adult starters in my family take up an instrument with no prior musical (or athletic) background. The way they practice is very different compared to family members who are highly accomplished in a musical instrument or sport and who are picking up a second instrument later in life.

May 22, 2020, 12:10 PM · 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.
Edited: May 22, 2020, 4:11 PM · 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."

We have a niece who at age 9 demonstrated this ability when she picked up her mother's violin for the first time and what she was able to do had the result of her mother stopping lessons and quitting. The girl kept on, however, had lessons at Roosevelt University, won a competition to perform a concerto with the Chicago Symphony. Although she did some playing as a union "pickup violinist" I think her biggest accomplishment was demonstrating violins for customers at Bein & Fushi. I first encountered her playing in 1972, when she was 16; we played duets and it was clear to me that she was a real wiz. Unfortunately she only met the first two of Lycia's criteria, but she also satisfied Lycia's 2nd sentence. She is brilliant, with a IQ over 180 (how do they measure that?). Her career was in IT and wise investing. She was a self-learner from middle-school on, playing hooky and spending her days at the public library.

The second prodigy I encountered was Anne Akiko Meyers. She met all of Lydia's criteria. She played a solo with our community orchestra when she was 6 and the Bach "Double" when she was 7. A product of the local Suzuki school, she then moved on to LA for more conventional pedagogy. I saw her several times on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When she was 12 she returned to our town to perform the Mendelssohn E minor with our orchestra (as a gift to her first teacher) right after she had performed it with the LA Phil. As concertmaster I had the best seat in the house - as we were playing it entered my mind that she was really "big-time"*** on her 3/4 violin. Then she and her mother moved to NYC where she studied at Julliard with Dorothy DeLay - well the rest is history. Annie Meyers (that's what we called her when she was a little girl) met all of Lydia's criteria.

*** By that time I had had good seats at concerts by Heifetz, Szigeti, Stern, Elman, Zukerman, Friedman and others of lesser fame but at that level. I think I knew what "big-time" was.

May 22, 2020, 12:19 PM · 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."
Edited: May 22, 2020, 2:11 PM · 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).

What that suggests to me is that talent is also related to curiosity. These kids also seem to get great grades in school without hardly lifting a finger. They're distinctly different from the ones who get by mainly by slogging -- by working hard. The sloggers generally have trouble acclimating to a new thing. People wonder, How does a top gymnast get a high school education? And the answer is, they're so freaking smart that they basically do their homework in their sleep. Their minds just function differently -- i.e., better. Likewise I'm not worried about whether Joey Alexander is getting an education (jazz pianist, age 16 with 3 Grammy nominations). He's learning entirely by osmosis.

I teach chemistry to undergraduates and graduate students. Of course there are many factors that determine which ones will excel in chemistry -- but the ones that really rise the fastest and the farthest are the ones that show genuine curiosity. These are the ones that really want to understand deeply and know as much as they can, who is asking for extra stuff to read and so on. I've just seen this too many times to ignore it.

Edited: May 22, 2020, 3:25 PM · 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 that a sufficient level of curiosity and interest can have a lot to do with ending up being good at something.

Is IQ measurement related to "smarts"? I was left with some serious doubts about that, after attending my first and last MENSA get-together. I learned a lot more from the home handyman.

May 22, 2020, 4:16 PM · 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.
Edited: May 22, 2020, 5:49 PM · 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.
May 22, 2020, 6:41 PM · 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?
Edited: May 22, 2020, 6:47 PM · Arguably:
Michael Rabin
Lang Lang

But those seem to be more the exception than the rule.

May 22, 2020, 6:50 PM · Ms. Francis beat me to the key board: Michael Rabin. There is wonderful biography about him.
Edited: May 22, 2020, 7:25 PM · This Michael Rabin?

"Michael Rabin was of Romanian-Jewish descent. His mother Jeanne was a Juilliard-trained pianist, and his father George was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. He began to study the violin at the age of seven. His parents encouraged his musical development. After a lesson with Jascha Heifetz, the master advised him to study with Ivan Galamian, who said he had 'no weaknesses, never.'"

And this Lang Lang- "He began piano lessons with Professor Zhu Ya-Fen at age three. At the age of five, he won first place at the Shenyang Piano Competition and performed his first public recital."

These might not have been the best parents, but I don't know that I'd classify these kids in the same category having a drug addicted mom or a dad in prison.

Edited: May 22, 2020, 7:46 PM · 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!"

That Lang Lang.

May 22, 2020, 8:13 PM · 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.)

I'm sure that curiosity is related to achievement but I'll note that it can get in the way of focus and learning in a methodical fashion. My little boy is vastly more interested in seeing what happens if he tries to imitate a soloist's Paganini tricks, and figuring out how he can play notes high up on the violin, than he is in grinding out Go Tell Aunt Rhody.

May 23, 2020, 12:25 AM · 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.

Susan, thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement. I wish I could step back and just be unconditionally supportive but that's really hard to do.

Going back to the original topic, I really think meeting the right teacher at the time and having ambitious parents make a big difference and by ambitious, I mean ambitious, not abusive. I don't think it is wrong to have a big goal for your child(ren) although I get that it can go wrong very fast.

Edited: May 23, 2020, 7:39 AM · 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.

There are two broad types of abusive parenting: the type we usually think of is those parents that have poor impulsive control, punish their children harshly and inconsistently, and abuse the kid to gratify the parents' immediate needs (sexual abuse). The stereotype is the impoverished, drug-addicted parent who beats their infant because it won't stop crying. These kids don't learn impulse-control and therefore they really can't focus on anything long enough to achieve even basic scholastic competencies, let alone learn music at a high level.

The other type of abusive parenting is authoritarian involving harsh, consistent discipline and strict control and vigilance. It's risky to employ this parenting style, because it can backfire. However, it is possible to get your kids to a very high level of achievement in some domain. These parents have very good impulse control, unlike the first type, and are over-involved with their kids. This is the parent who supervises a kid's practice strictly and tells them to jump off the balcony when they make a mistake. These kids see a clear relation between what they do and the consequences of it, unlike kids of the first type of parent, for whom it really doesn't matter what they do or don't do. Without some other source of nurture in their lives (another relative, teacher), kids of authoritarian parents are headed for life-long depression, which may result in failure to realize their adult potential. These are the abusive parents of budding musicians, gymnasts, etc.

May 23, 2020, 8:04 AM · 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."

I know what you mean. Unfortunately, the very best instrument for such an individual is the piano (or the guitar) where the majority of the literature is written for an unaccompanied soloist. You can also interface a piano to a computer very easily and then you can REALLY do things "your way."

But okay. I'll stop pushing the piano. :)

Edited: May 23, 2020, 12:06 PM · 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.
Edited: May 23, 2020, 7:17 PM · 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?
Edited: May 25, 2020, 6:07 PM · Emily, did no one tell you the facts of life? Well, I'll try to help:
I'm not sure I remember it that accurately, but I think the stork finds the baby under the gooseberry bush and brings it to the parents ...
The technical term is, I think, Pelargogenesis (from the Greek Pelargos=A Stork).
May 29, 2020, 4:20 AM · 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.
May 29, 2020, 1:24 PM · 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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