on raising a prodigy

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]


Anonymous said...

I share in the author's relief or raising a regular person. I also have a sense of relief that we limit lessons or sports to one and that he's got enough free time to chat or read or play.

Loved your story about playing cello too.

Hannah said...

Did you hear him interviewed on Fresh Air yesterday? His book sounds super interesting...