Extraordinary Desire: How Child Prodigies Are Made

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden

Image by Flickr user David Simmonds

Image by Flickr user David Simmonds

When I was just above child-age, and not at all close to being a prodigious musician, stories of musical child prodigies seemed to pop up like clockwork.

There I would be: 12 years old, just having finished struggling my way through the opening to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” with typical rookie angst, when I would walk into the family room to see my mother watching some 8-year old on 60 Minutes blasting through “Flight of the Bumblebee” with a huge, shit-eating grin on his face.

At the time, these stories seemed to exist only to provoke my prepubescent jealousy. They certainly didn’t provide much insight into child prodigiousness. They were merely more snapshots of kids doing the darndest things.

Petty jealousy has dissipated (somewhat) with maturity, but I’m still curious as to what those stories so consistently left out. What makes a child prodigy? Are they really a different breed of human altogether, or have they just gotten better faster than the rest of us?

The Riddle of the Prodigy

The fluffy, surface-level nature of most child prodigy stories might have something to do with just how little we actually know about the phenomenon. Beyond a basic agreement that prodigies possess levels of ability before their 13th birthdays that learned adults often don’t, there is much debate over how and where prodigiousness originates in children.

Prodigies are most common in the areas of math, science, music, and competitive games. This is partly because of the strict parameters and repetitive nature of these disciplines. (There are far fewer examples of literary prodigies. A child prodigy may be able to master the finer points of iambic pentameter, but he or she would be unlikely to write with the depth and experience of a Shakespeare.)

It appears prodigiousness is not genetic, nor is it necessarily even a reflection of intelligence. Kit Armstrong, one of several children profiled in Andrew Solomon’s 2012 New York Times piece “How do you Raise a Prodigy?”, may be a classic example of a child who is “globally gifted”. Armstrong learned to count at 15 months, began composing music at age 5, attended college at age 9, and dabbles in things like physics, chemistry and mathematics for fun.

For every child in Armstrong’s mold, however, there are just as many whose abilities skyrocket in one specific field even while lagging behind the norm in others.

In her book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, developmental psychologist Ellen Winner explores two such sets of unevenly gifted children: Students enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, who at ages 12 and 13 are able to score in the 700s in SAT math skills but show large discrepancies in verbal abilities, and children enrolled in The Nueva School for academically gifted children outside of San Francisco:

“Academically gifted children are sometimes so uneven in their scholastic profiles that they are learning disabled in some domain. The Nueva School has plenty of these children, and they receive a great deal of individual attention. Typically these children excel at abstract verbal reasoning and seem very bright and motivated outside of school, but they encounter serious problems with school tasks. They may have dyslexia and have difficulty learning to read, they may have serious problems with math, or they may have perceptual-motor problems leading to number reversals or difficulties in handwriting… Sometimes these children also have an inability to focus and attend, and they are classified as having an attention disorder.”

Drew Peterson, another prodigy in Andrew Solomon’s story, didn’t speak until he was three and a half, just a few short years before he was playing at Carnegie Hall. Solomon quotes piano teacher Veda Kaplinsky of Julliard: “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities…Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s.”

While certain mental disorders can accompany prodigiousness, having A.D.D. doesn’t necessarily make you a prodigy. As we strip away these potential arguments for the cause of prodigiousness, the real debate begins: Is it innate talent or can it be learned?

Nature vs. Nurture

Ellen Winner’s book is considered controversial for her assertion that the gifted, and at the extreme the prodigious, are “born with it”. Even the most efficient and dedicated of the average kids can only go so far by comparison, she claims. Unfortunately, the “it” that Winner refers to is something that’s even more vague than inherent talent: It’s a mixture of precociousness, individuality, and what she calls “a rage to master”.

Perhaps Winner should have consulted Julian Lage, subject of the 1996 documentary Jules at Eight. Lage was considered a child prodigy on guitar, a term he diplomatically disapproved of in an interview with VOA News’ Sue Logue:

“Younger musicians, my contemporaries who have been called child prodigies, they feel slighted because it does undermine the work ethic, the thousands of hours you put in just to be able to produce a sound on your instrument.”

Rasta Thomas, a 27-year old dancer featured in the same segment on prodigies, goes even further in his dismissal of the idea that he has some kind of innate talent: “I think if you give any seven-year-old the training I had, you will get a product that is at the top of its game. I have had hours and hours and a million dollars invested into the training that I received.”

Regular readers of Scientist may recall references to books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, which draw heavily on the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in concluding that skill mastery is a matter of consistent deliberate practice over time, and not innate ability.

Ericsson’s study of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music found that there were no experts that just “showed up” without completing the requisite hours of training. Nnor did he find that there were less “innately-talented” players who could not equal the ability of more “innately-talented” players by practicing deliberately and consistently. In the cases of most child prodigies, it’s clear that this process is just begun at a much earlier age. Geoff Colvin offers the examples of Mozart and golfer Tiger Woods – child prodigies thought to have “the gift” who, more concretely, had demanding fathers who doubled as their demanding teachers, and got them started by the time they were three years old.

And yet, we can’t throw Winner’s theory completely under the bus. Some prodigies begin their journey with a ruler on the back of a hand from a stern teacher, while others surprise their parents by picking out lullabies on a family piano, expressing a preternatural understanding of the instrument that no one seems able to explain. These cases create the ongoing debate over inherent talent versus learned ability. Could the explanation be something simpler, though? Something that all prodigies share universally?

The Missing Ingredient

Lang Lang at the piano.

Lang Lang at the piano.

Lang Lang is a Chinese concert pianist whose accomplishments include performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, at the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2011 White House state dinner, and at sold-out shows in Carnegie Hall. Now 31, Lang was also a well-known child prodigy, who won international awards and gave nationally televised performances before the age of 13. His autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, has been translated into 8 different languages, and was adapted for young adult readers under the title Playing With Flying Keys with the help of author Michael French. French can’t speak to what goes on in the mind of a prodigy, but he can comment on the work that forges one.

“From a very early age, maybe as early as two, [Lang Lang’s father] put him in front of the best piano he could afford- which wasn’t much,” French told me over the phone. “He would sit by Lang Lang and make him practice 2, 3, 4 hours a day, and as he got older, 5, 6, 7, even 8 hours.”

Sound familiar? Like Mozart, Lang Lang’s father was also a trained musician. In Mao Tse Tung’s China however, Lang Guoren watched as his musical dreams were wiped away, sometimes by force. He was determined to see his son become the musician he was never allowed to be.

Some say that his determination bordered on psychological and physical 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 told Andrew Solomon. “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.”In a separate Chinese news interview, Lang Lang was quoted as saying: “My father was very stern and strict with me but the point is, I was never forced to play the piano.”

What allowed Lang Lang to accept and ultimately forgive his father’s harsh teaching methods is what Michael French believes all prodigies have in common.

“They have to love it. They can’t just be rote learners.”

As a scientific concept, “love” may not carry much more weight than Ellen Winner’s ‘rage to master’. Call it “obsession”, though, and it fits nicely as the “O” in the “O.C.D.” diagnosis Veda Kaplinsky sees many child prodigies receive.

In truth, the one commonality found across all cases of prodigious children is not the presence of extraordinary intelligence, innate talent, genetics, or even types of parenting, but extraordinary desire, and the dedication it allows them to bring to their chosen field of study.

Lang Lang could not consider his father’s teaching methods abusive because in the end, he was only pushing him toward what he already loved.

“What did they do to make me practice?” asked Natasha – another prodigy interviewed by Andrew Solomon – in an echo of her interviewer’s question. “What did they do to make me eat or sleep?”

Winner’s book (which, to its credit, is chockfull of solid case studies of gifted children) tells the story of Kylee, a two-year old boy obsessed with numbers games. As with many prodigies, Kylee’s spark was not that he was immediately adept at doing long division and calculus from day one, but that he had an irrepressible interest in his pursuit, leading to proficiency much earlier than anyone would have imagined. In fact, a prodigy’s desire is such that their understanding often outpaces their knowledge. i.e. they figure out what they are doing even before they figure out why they are doing it that way.

“Through a computer game, Kylee discovered prime numbers. In this game, the player sees a grid partially filled in with numbers and must fill in the grid with other numbers of the same kind. On one occasion, Kylee faced a grid partially filled in with prime numbers… By chance, he picked a prime number for one of the empty cells. When the computer told him that this choice was correct he picked out all the other prime numbers by trial and error. He then memorized all the prime numbers and said he knew how they were all alike. For every ten numbers, he could identify the prime numbers. No one taught him a rule for this, and his amazed parents did not know what rule he was using that was allowing him to identify prime numbers so effortlessly.”

Grow Your Own Prodigy (Proceed With Caution)

With due respect to Ellen Winner, child prodigies can be grown. We have no effective measurement of what was within Mozart’s, Tiger Woods’, or Lang Lang’s head as a child, but we do know what their daily routines consisted of: hours and hours of dedicated, deliberate practice under watchful eyes.

By Lang Lang’s own admission, the process of growing an expert can be treacherous, and it likely won’t take if the pupil doesn’t have the desire and will to follow the path to expertise. We rarely find experts that say: “This took me years and years of hard work and dedication to accomplish, and I hated every second of it.”

On the contrary, there are stories like that of Andrew Halliburton, who turned his supposed childhood prodigiousness in mathematics into a fruitful career at… McDonald’s.

“I always felt I had to live up to that genius moniker, I never once thought I could,” Halliburton told The Guardian for a story on child prodigies.

Once Halliburton’s abilities in mathematics were recognized, he was fast-tracked through his studies, as one might expect. This, culminated in his early entry into a university that he found disappointingly easy. Halliburton dropped out in his first year, got his job at McDonald’s for a reality check, and had been there for five years at the time of the Guardian profile in 2010.

Michael French believes Lang Lang’s success is a product of his love and dedication, but also uncommon support and opportunity. When Lang Lang was a child, his parents sacrificed to afford the best piano and teachers they could. During a period of estrangement from both his father and his craft in his early teens, his teachers and peers were there to steer him back towards music.

“Every time he might have stepped off the path into temptation [to quit], he’d get inspired again.”

Ken Noda – once a piano prodigy himself – believes inspiration must be refueled in order for a child prodigy to become a thriving adult.

“Young people like romance stories and war stories and good-and-evil stories and old movies because their emotional life mostly is and should be fantasy. They put that fantasized emotion into their playing, and it is very convincing. I had an amazing capacity for imagining these feelings, and that’s part of what talent is. But it dries up, in everyone. That’s why so many prodigies have midlife crises in their late teens or early 20s. If our imagination is not replenished with experience, the ability to reproduce these feelings in one’s playing gradually diminishes.”

Perhaps then, the best question is not “Where do child prodigies come from?” but “Where will they be going?” The support they receive and the life experience they gather on their journey will go a long way in determining whether they become a transformative human being, or just another child able to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on television.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Music: Making it, Listening to it., October 2013. Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Sign up for our Email Newsletter


  • E-news and Updates

    Subscribe to Trust Me, I'm a Scientist Find me on Facebook Find me on Twitter Email Trust Me, I'm a Scientist