Saturday, November 17, 2012

Prodigies

I've always been skeptical of the notion of prodigy. I think my default suspicion was that prodigy was the product of unusual focus and a "Tiger Parent" unleashed. The evidence seems to prove that idea wrong. Andrew Solomon, a psychologist who studies prodigies, has written on the subject in the New York Times Magazine. Many prodigies are subjected to harsh, controlling, or even brutal educational methods by their parents:

I once told Lang Lang, a prodigy par excellence and now perhaps the most famous pianist in the world, that by American standards, his father’s brutal methods — which included telling him to commit suicide, refusing any praise, browbeating him into abject submission — would count as child abuse. “If my father had pressured me like this and I had not done well, it would have been child abuse, and I would be traumatized, maybe destroyed,” Lang responded. “He could have been less extreme, and we probably would have made it to the same place; you don’t have to sacrifice everything to be a musician. But we had the same goal. So since all the pressure helped me become a world-famous star musician, which I love being, I would say that, for me, it was in the end a wonderful way to grow up.”

The failures, of course, have a grimmer trajectory.

Other prodigies seem to bloom without any special pressure. Others are obviously self-propelled. Natasha, who began picking out tunes on the piano as an infant, answered one question about her parents:

“What did they do to make me practice?” she asked when I first interviewed her, at 16. “What did they do to make me eat or sleep?”

Some parental accommodation is essential. Musical prodigies need instruments and teachers. It can be extreme, as with Mark and Chloe:

At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.

According to Solomon, prodigious talent, manifested usually in music, mathematics, chess, or athletics, has neurological parallels with and other commonalities with certain brain disfunctions.

Despite the past century’s breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience, prodigiousness and genius are as little understood as autism. “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,” says Veda Kaplinsky of Juilliard, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent teacher of young pianists. “Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are often in denial over everything else.”