The Care and Feeding of Prodigies

Sooner or later almost every teacher gets a super talented student. While a teacher may initially get very excited about such a student, certain difficulties may soon reveal themselves. A prodigy can have one mental maturity level, another and different emotional maturity level all packaged in the body of a small child (a different physical maturity level). You may have to deal with a child who is mentally ten years old, emotionally six and physically four, for example, who may be capable of great things if you can keep all the above in mind and also deal with his frequently strong character.

Teaching any child is is an enormous responsibility but a prodigy is often an even bigger challenge as you have to keep the child playing until his various aspects catch up to his talent, without giving that talent much importance. This requires an enormous amount of long vision and self control on the part of the teacher. The biggest favor you can do a talented child, is to give him a certain humility – that his talent is a gift and not to let his ego grab his talent and take credit for it. He must be praised for what he does, but not be lauded for his talents, i.e., his good fortune. It is like telling a child how wonderful he is because he has rich parents or because he is physically attractive. Your student will get lots of fuss from relatives, friends, and practically anyone who hears him play. He needs you to keep his feet firmly on the ground. His and his parents’ – it’s so easy for parents to get over-excited and ambitious when they become  aware that they may have a genius on their hands. Teachers can exert a lot of  influence here and must use it wisely.

Why? Because prodigies grow up. And then what? One example of poor prodigy management is that many of them quit when they become adults because they no longer feel special. I will never forget a super-talented young girl I once met who told me she was 16 when I asked her age. Her mother later told me that the girl was going to be 17 in two weeks. What normal teenager wouldn’t tell you that she would be 17 very soon, or indeed that she already was 17? To her, becoming an adult meant becoming a violinist just like everyone else – no longer a prodigy and no more fanfare. A child should want to grow up, not want to remain small so she will continue to feel special. A special child may have the potential to become a special adult if handled properly, but if the child gets the understanding from her teachers, parents or surroundings that she is special because she is talented and small, then there will be trouble sooner or later.

The great teacher Elaine Richey once said, “A child may be precocious at the age of five but no one Is precocious at the age of twenty-five.” Precocious or prodigious children are not stupid – they know they have something beyond normal. The trick is not to let them identify with their precocity which may well mean keeping them off YouTube and avoiding making a three ring circus out of them: “I played it (the Tschaikovsky concerto) when I was 14 – this makes me sad,” was the comment of one grown up violinist on seeing a YouTube video of a ten year old playing that concerto. Instead of being happy that she could play such a difficult concerto at the age of fourteen, which is quite a feat, she is now unhappy that she feels she has been one-upped by a ten year old. But when they are both fifty will anyone know the difference? Is there any guarantee that playing a difficult concerto at an early age produces a better musician as an adult?

It seems there is not. Please consider an article on the APS website* about a speech Malcolm Gladwell gave on prodigies, where he discussed the fact that precocity is not a predictor of future success, even with musicians. That a musical child prodigy may mimic adult artists very well but may not be able to make the switch to his own artistry when he grows up. That prodigies are child genius learners who do not always turn into adult genius doers.

Or even this article in the “Telegraph”** about a researcher who has followed various child prodigies and who found that the adult results are often quite different from what one might expect. Of the 210 child prodigies studied by Joan Freeman, author of the book; “Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up,” only six went on to important careers. Those are pretty bad odds.

Or the following article in “The Columbia Chronicle” *** which discusses the neurology of prodigies and states:

“But most young musicians Booth (an impresario) works with do not end up becoming working professionals, in part because the music industry is flooded with young talent but also because their priorities change as they enter high school, he said.

Life is not easy for many child prodigies; advancing into a professional sphere can damage their ability to connect with their peers, and many choose between socializing or practicing their skill as they age. Others can become socially isolated—graduating college at 16 does not guarantee that researching in a lab or performing when they reach adulthood will be effortless.

All this would suggest that it behooves us teachers to remind ourselves and the prodigy’s parents that if a child has a marked talent for one thing, he would probably be very good at something else as well. Therefore, his whole education should be attended to so the child has choices as a grown-up. It is my belief that it is essential to have “Plan B” no matter how talented a child is. What if our prodigy has an injury that stops his pursuing a career? A careless slip of a knife or a playground accident that anyone else might laugh off can stop a career in its tracks. And this can happen at any age. I encourage all of my career bound students to think about this. Some of them have tears in their eyes when I suggest they consider developing the possibility of a career outside of performing, but I would be remiss in my responsibility if I didn’t do this. Life in music has gotten to be so, if not too, difficult and competitive no matter how great the talent.

The important thing is to keep perspective. When a violinist is thirty, is anyone going to know she was fourteen, fifteen, ten, or even six years old when she learned Tschaikovsky? Is anyone even going to care? It is our obligation to our students to make sure that they grow up to be complete and competent musicians, as well as competent human beings in general. And that means teaching the whole student, not just her talent. That means remembering that a prodigy is by definition a talented child, i.e., a work in progress, which means we have the responsibiity of guiding both her and her parents so that the result is a whole and well-adjusted adult human being – who still loves music and plays it, whatever her final career choice may be.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer



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11 October 2017

3 thoughts on “The Care and Feeding of Prodigies

  1. Greg Lawrence

    To date I have only had one student who I would consider a prodigy. But she started with me when she was already 9. I knew in 2 lessons she was destined to be a brilliant violinist. Very mature girl already when she started with me. I personally don’t take on 4 or even 5 year olds. Youngest I will tech is 6. So I have never experienced the 4 or 5 year old phenom. I don’t believe someone needs to start at 3 4 or 5 to become good musicians or even virtuosos. The student I mentioned above is a well grounded person who is now a virtuoso violinist. I taught her no different than I teach any other student. She’s great because she was destined to be great.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      And you were certainly a big help to her by treating her as you would any of your students and letting her fulfill her own destiny. Of course you don’t have to start very young to be a good musician, although Ai think many do. I was only giving an example of the problems a teacher may have to face. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Carol de la Haye

    Oh, what a joy and relief it is to read your well-grounded, common-sense counsel, Eloise! Your overarching compassion and concern for building and preserving the well-being and self-esteem of the pupil, no matter their age or ability, is so refreshingly different from the ego-driven pushing I’ve so often seen from others. You are a treasure and one of the great teachers of our age.


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