Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

Prodigy or Parent?

Are prodigy children real artists?

In this video, Stephanie discusses the talent of so many "prodigies" that we sometimes spot in the world of music. Is this real talent?

Released on June 7, 2017

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Stephanie together, of course, with Virtual Sheet Music. Now, before you get too comfortable, I'd like you to put me on hold and look at the links that I've put below to be found in the written script of the video. In that way, we'll be in sync for today's discussion. You can either watch the entire link or just a fraction, your choice. So put me on hold now.

First video:

Second video:

So you've watched the links and you'll have gleaned that today's discussion deals with the precocious talents of wee creatures who've only just recently got out of their nappies. In America, I believe you say diapers. Now, I don't know about you, but my first sensation when I see these tiny tots is uncomfortableness. Firstly, I have certain misgivings regarding the displaying of one's children anyway. It's a type of exhibition that, for me, conjures up the idea of the performing monkey, a creature who neither gives consent to said performance nor in any case is capable of giving consent, as this requires knowledge-based discernment. And how much knowledge critical thinking capacity does a three year old have anyway? So ultimately, I find this type of display forced and frankly, un-child-centered.

So the next question is: what's the point of this type of performance exactly? Is it just for parental pride? Is it for all of us to enjoy the music of miniature human miracles? Is it for us at a collective level to admire and wonder at child geniuses? Well, regarding the latter points, we've got to be careful at using terms like miracle and genius anyway. These are terms that do seem to be overly used and glibly applied in this day and age, particularly as regards music. With genius being defined as, "Extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity," and that comes from Merriam-Webster. And without wishing to enter into a very complicated debate so often riddled with personal, unobjective opinions, I think at the very least, we've got to be very careful when assigning such descriptions both to adults and children. Call me semantic.

In any case, these musically-gifted children, impressively capable at a physical level, have natural inadequacies at a musical level. So an actual fact, their main gift is in the physical manipulation of their musical tool. For the trained musician, it's actually really easy to hear this as musical expression can be quite shaky, and in children so young, isn't this as it should be? And also, maybe this is a part of the attraction of listening to them. This reveals the importance of physicality as regards to your instrument, in relation to your instrument.

You can be extraordinarily musical but not be able to manage yourself physically to reveal this. And likewise, you can be absolutely amazing, and that's where the music starts and stops. Balance between these two factors, of course, is the key here together with this idea of interpretation. And this belies a minimum amount of no, not music history although music history obviously has an important part to play, but life experience. Music should reveal the gamut of human conditions and emotions, life, death, tragedy, comedy, and everything in between. So one must have contact with this even if only indirectly. So here, the importance of education, life experience comes to the fore. For surely, the more you know and understand about the world, the more emotion thought you can put into your art no matter what said art may be.

So clearly, children do have, and little children at that, have a natural disadvantage. Going back to the first point I made earlier of parental pride, isn't it natural that a parent would want to shout to the world the wondrous talents of his or her children? Look at Mozart's dad for example, whose sergeant major treatment at the expense of all else, incidentally, of his children led to enormously talented individuals and not just in music. He was maybe something akin to the tiger mothers of today, or is his approach toward one's children simply personal ego? The idea of producing something miraculous for the world to consume, something that directly reflects upon the genius parenting skills of the father, mother, or maybe it's just a person who's found his or her true vocation in parenting where neither needing a race nor a promotion. The demonstrable skills of said children are the equivalent of career satisfaction.

I, of course, have no answers to any of this. What I will say is that living through the miraculous abilities of one's children seems an odd way of parenting, not least because it is a relationship based on a child's ability at maintaining a certain level. What happens to the parent-child relationship when the apparent gift becomes normality or when achievement ceases to happen, a sense of failure in the child, a sense of failure in the parent who staked everything on this little individual? Who knows. What we do know is that children are gifts, but for them to be gifted requires enormous amounts of parental intervention and shear hard work both for the parent and for the child. For most of us, we can neither financially afford to consider this nor would we want to anyway.

After all, us adults are lifelong learners too. Denying absolutely everything in the name of our children would surely leave us ultimately damaged and in turn compromise our abilities as parents both now and in the future. So what's your opinion on all of this? Have I missed out on some salient point? Am I a mother with no philosophy whatsoever when it comes to music education or indeed education generally? Or are there points where we overlap? Please drop me your thoughts, comments and ideas here at VSM and help get the conversation cracking. Bye for now.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Dan * VSM MEMBER * on June 8, 2017 @8:32 pm PST
Some info regarding the girl in the second video.

The following link is the girl being tutored.

The thoughts of her farther:

I am so touched that she enjoyed the music so much, and her father is doing a wonderful job, although you can also sense the stress and the struggle in the second video link. I think the reason behind all these hard works and disciplines, at least for most Asian parents, is the love they have for their children.
Dan * VSM MEMBER * on June 8, 2017 @8:07 am PST
No sweat, no gain. If a young child can enjoy the pain and the rewards, then why not grow with him or her. (Don’t get me wrong, if the child does not like it then try again when he or she gets older.) It is very delicate when dealing with my young children, knowing when to keep the pressure and when to let go. It is a blessing to grow with them, and I think eventually it’s the bonding a parent wants to show off, not the performance.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on June 12, 2017 @1:32 pm PST
So sorry Dan not to have replied sooner (also to your other emails and links). I love how you've got so involved in this topic. The next time I do a video in this vein, I'll turn to you for advice! As you say, delicacy is the key when dealing with young kids but likewise, it's a delicate thing the relationship between child and parent. One thing's for sure - there's no right or wrong on this when you've factors such as culture and the expectations/personalities of both parent and child to consider. Looking forward to hearing from you soon Dan. Steph
fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on June 7, 2017 @5:35 pm PST
Dear Stephanie, I am always surprised that these tiny tots are Orientals. I don't know why, but I assume it is the parents who are forcing them to stay at the piano a lot longer than they would like. I have seen a parallel situation in the equetrian world. I don't know if this happens in England, but in the US they make britches for tots to accomodate the diapers! And these babies are shown in lead lines, on tiny Shetland ponies. You should see how pitifully proud are the parents to walk away with a blue ribbon. As I mentioned previously, my mother was a pianist, and I started piano at age 2 and 3 months, of my own will, however she put a limit of how long the daily lessons were, maybe not more than 30 minutes. What I think of that little 3-year old girl is a rather mechanical performance, just like you said, she cannot be capable of showing any feelings. I have been playing that Clementi sonatina since I was maybe 9 or 10 years old well, at least I know I can play some 5th level pieces! I thought it would be more like a 2nd level. Thank you for another great conversation.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on June 12, 2017 @1:40 pm PST
Fulvia, mi fa sempre piacere sentirti! Love the parallel with the equestrian world (of which I know literally nothing - I love horses but they kind of scare me at the same time!). Wow, you were a pianist of your own volition at 2 years old. That's impressive, but not the piano-ing so much as the fact that you had the mental capacity to make such a choice. This is, I'd have thought, quite rare and rarer still in this day and age where the average tot is put in front of the i-pad 'babysitter'. Alla prossima, Steph
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on June 7, 2017 @3:18 pm PST
Hi Stephanie, first of all, these children play a lot better and faster than I ever will. They even have already some good phrasing of the music, and the Bach part from the boy in video 1 is really impressive. When sticking to the baroque or classical era, they're on the safe side, as you do not need to carry too much on the emotional side to get a pleasant output. They obviously even can read the score to some extent.
Now for sure I have a problem with parents pushing these children to perform on video and make some monkey spectacle out of them, but as long as they really like to play like this, I really see no point in holding them back.
The danger of starting so early at such a high level, is that they will at some time in the coming years might have some lack of a challenge, and will lose interest.We humans do need challenges, and when all the technical challenges will be met, will they switch to new musical and emotional challenges.? Or will they drop off ?
I also notice some cultural bias in asian countries to drive children into performance acts, in music or in sports, that seem to happen more often than in our european world at least, although it also exists her. It feels like Asia feels it needs to catch up with our dominant cultural model. But not all of them will turn out to be the new Mozart, chances are none of them will. Maybe we'll get a few Yo Yo Ma's or Mitsuko Uchida's in the process (whatever the music instrument of their choice will be).
Stephanie Lewis - host, on June 12, 2017 @2:02 pm PST
Hey Paul, yeah, I'd agree with you about not holding these kids back but 'reining' in on the parental temptation to turn these kids into a 'Circus Act'. I'd also agree to some extent about personal 'challenges' in music although given the 'stratification' you find in the arts generally (at a technical, artistic, historical, cultural and emotional level - probably left something out here!) I don't think the challenge ever abates really (but that, of course, is another discussion!). You've a point too about the Asian community - they seem to have a work ethic which we've forgotten. Am I wrong in thinking, too, that parental respect is still the basis of the child/parent relationship in Asia whilst we in the West democratically give our children a part of the decision making process so that they by-pass parental expectations and get what they want i.e. tv/ipad (sounds sooo like me and my daughter!!!). Thanks Paul, I now know I'm a bad mother. Steph PS I am, of course, joking!
Dick * VSM MEMBER * on June 7, 2017 @5:41 am PST
Stephanie, you give an eloquent voice to the thoughts many of us have had for years! Bravo.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on June 12, 2017 @2:07 pm PST
Hi there Dick. Oh my word, I'm not sure the discussion actually concluded anything at all - the various responses generated from the video attest to this - but it's great to know there are people interested in music and who recognise its importance in providing our young with some kind of culture. Given the hold the 'market' has on our young as regards music education (if you can call it that!) I'm just relieved there are so many people who actually care about the topic! Cheers Dick, Steph
David willmore on June 7, 2017 @2:28 am PST
I note that both your examples were of Asian children . They have different ethics to us and children are force educated for long periods often studying til 10 pm. Would we really want to force our children to do that? Are they going to continue after they have left home or is it just whilst they are forced to do it. You need to want to study music or any of the other arts for that matter! And as you say it is a lifelong study!
Stephanie Lewis - host, on June 12, 2017 @2:19 pm PST
Hi David, thanks for getting in touch. To be honest, I didn't deliberately set out to have Asian kids as examples - it sort of turned out that way (maybe I didn't do enough internet searching!)! I think you may be right about the Asian culture/mindset though this will also be tied up with the personality and expectations of both parent and child. Generalisations are simply impossible to make in this topic and hence, right or wrong becomes an irrelevance...and that means the discussion can continue! Cheers David, Steph
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