This article in the NYT by Andrew Solomon called "How Do You Raise A Prodigy?" struck a chord (sorry, the pun came too easy).
I started playing the cello when I was 4 1/2. I wasn't a bad musician, but I was far from a prodigy. A little musical ability and no desire to practice long hours everyday didn't get me very far, but I continued taking lessons through high school, attended a highly regarded youth orchestra every week, went to cello and chamber music summer camps (nerd alert), and won a little scholarship in college so that I could continue taking lessons.
But back to this idea of raising a prodigy... There was a girl prodigy (if not a prodigy then uber talented) who studied cello with my teacher. She started a few years after me, and was two years younger. By the time she was eight she was playing, beautifully, Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No. 1 (here's Jackie duPre playing it), a piece I didn't play until my last year in high school. It was always with awe and a little fear that would watch her play in recitals. In high school, she sat first chair in our orchestra and performed the Elgar Cello Concerto (here's Yo-Yo Ma playing it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in '97) in a solo concert backed by our orchestra. She played Haydn flawlessly for Yo-Yo Ma in a masterclass and after she was finished he said, "so, what are you doing tonight?" A joke, of course, that she could take his place in the concert he was playing that evening. I know this because the exchange was written up in the Los Angeles Times. She was that good.
But she also practiced 5+ hours a day. She woke up early so that she could get two solid hours in before school, and then came home to a few more. Her mother would bribe her to practice with the promise of new clothes. If she won a competition she would get a new car, etc. I don't know if she still plays the cello. We lost touch when I went off to college. The last I heard she's quit playing, she'd burned-out.
I don't know if there's a good or right way to raise a prodigy. But I can't help but nod with Andrew Solomon when he finishes the article with this:
"Half the prodigies I studied seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents. Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude."
[Photo illustration by Peter Yang for The New York Times]