22 February 2011

Searching for Little Miss Prodigy

In the first chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov makes a passing allusion to the limits of child prodigies. He describes them as “pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters” (Nabokov 25)*.

While I might not phrase it quite the same way, I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. Why is there such a cult around people who display signs of talent at an early age? Well, some of the answer is obvious, and even reasonable: we are fascinated by abnormality. We are fascinated by genius, and the child who sits at a piano making up musical hits certainly seems genial when his peers are busy eating crayons. But what happens at age twenty? Is our modern-day Mozart still, well, a Mozart? What if he isn’t?

Little Sophie Delphis, showing sure signs of early genius - look at the way she holds that stuffed monkey. Photo by Marylène Delbourg-Delphis.

Some people display prodigious talent at an early age; some don’t. Ultimately, does it really matter? In a way, yes – the Wunderkind has an edge. He has, on a basic level, had more time to practice and hone his ability. Part of the reason an obsession builds around early talent is that it takes a tremendous amount of time and learning to become proficient in any number of fields, especially when the body is expected to achieve extraordinary feats, from violin to gymnastics. An earlier proclivity toward a subject simply means more time.

And the fact that he shows more promise, earlier, may very well mean that our Wunderkind will continue to be better than others in his age bracket even when they are no longer begrudgingly expected to stick small objects up their noses for entertainment purposes. He could very well be a genius, possessing such innately superior abilities that they naturally present themselves early on. But he may simply be on a different learning curve, one that will ultimately level out.

via Cartoon Stock.

Two major problems stem from our fascination with prodigy. The first is the Good Modern Open-Minded Encouraging Parent’s obsession with finding talent at the youngest age possible. Do not enroll your hyperactive two-year-old in a ballet class; do not panic if your child is not voted MVP when a soccer ball is the size of his torso. The second is that, specifically in the arts, the quest for Doing Everything Earlier (much like its cousins Doing Everything Faster and Making Everything Bigger) often results, at best, in a proficient but robotically technical understanding. (At worst it results in shoddy technical foundations that can have quite literally crippling side-effects in later years.) Therein comes the frustrating truth of “second-rate musicians with sad eyes.” Creating art means actually living. How many experiences can an eight-year-old bring to a performance? How many can he bring twenty years later when all he has ever known are practice rooms and concert halls?

Some child prodigies are incontestably superior; some are questionable. Most are, if not mystifying, interesting, or at least pretty adorable. But they are not the be all and end all of accomplishment. They are, innately, outliers, and it is not every parent, teacher and mentor’s job to craft a Child Marvel out of every normal, even precocious, boy or girl. It is high time we stopped glorifying half-baked stabs at achievements just because they were orchestrated by someone who hasn’t yet hit puberty.

But, lest I sound too... crotchety, a bit of good clean fun, courtesy of a very young Beverly Sills, who proves you can make the transition from kiddie wonder to adult artist:

*Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1989.


  1. I remember that monkey, and that little girl! And that room, in that fabulous apartment.

  2. I enjoy reading your blog. I have had many of the same thoughts which you've expressed in this entry. :)

    p.s. love the video of young Joan Sutherland

  3. Agreed wholeheartedly. The other aspect of child prodigies is that they need to be born in a well-off family, so that their talents can be fully realized through the expenditure of time and money.