Sunday, June 7, 2009

Prodigy or product?

So, I have a question for all you musicians out there reading. Particularly those of you who teach (or have taught in the past). I got into a discussion not that long ago with a new friend at our new church about whether or not there is such a phenomena as The Child Prodigy. Now in this conversation I embarrassed myself badly by being over-enthusiastic and under-articulate in stating my opinion, so I feel the need for a Do-over. Hence this blog post-- an invitation to you to join the conversation and a chance for me to redeem myself.

Here are my thoughts; I doubt many of you would disagree with me that the term "Child Prodigy" or "Child Genius" is at least waaay over-applied these days. Perhaps it always has been, but at least in modern times every child that seems to show any kind of bent toward music or drama is labeled a prodigy. I would, myself, go so far as to say that there really is no such thing. Barring, of course, the idiot savant or a child who has some other physical characteristic or mental aberration that lends itself to phenomenally improved musicianship in some way. I don't include these because I think one could perhaps accurately call these people Prodigies, but I rarely hear the term applied in situations like that. More often the term is used to refer simply to a young child who seems unusual in their focus and ability. Ie; the six-year-old playing major concertos on their toy-sized violin.

Being the good Suzuki teacher that I am, I believe that environment, encouragement, habits and parental effort have a major role to play in any child's musical development. Again, I would go so far as to say that these play a much larger role than heredity or that mystical Something that people like to ascribe to the Prodigy.

I think that you can take any child and put them into an environment that has produced a musical genius and that child will be become a musical genius. But you cannot take a musical genius and put them into any other environment and have them still develop musical genius.

I think that a child that shows remarkable abilities in the field of music and performance has nothing intrinsic to his nature, nothing mystical in his spiritual makeup that causes this, but rather that his environment has been nurturing in him a desire to excel in his field.

What do you think?


UncleSAM said...

Regarding the idea of enviroment, I aggree--even to the extreme that precisely similar enviroments produce precisely similar results. But to clarify the extent of what we mean by "enviroment", we should say that artistic developement begins in the womb and is effected by every subsequent experience, sensory and emotional. Seemingly insignifcant occurences can radically change the course of their emotional lives and drastially alter the results of two artistic minds nurtured under very similar conditions.
This is not to say that as teachers we must be constantly vigilant to the uniformity of a student's education experience. We are not, after all, averse to artistic diversity. And besides, as teachers who spend a few hours with these children once or twice a week, we cannot possibly compete with the myriad of other transient but devastating little events that occur to alter their lives.
The object of our educating is to give students the discipline to express their artistic ideas freely; the object of the parents' educating (other than to do the "legwork", enforcement of practice) is to give them something true, honourable, and lovely to express.

Herb of Grace said...

(hah, I had a feeling this would bring you out of the woodwork, you lurker, you)

Thank you for your thoughts!

Matt and Laurie Beardsley said...

I totally stink at debating. Really. Mostly because I think what I think, because I do, and I really stink at figuring out the reasons why, or caring enough to figure out the reasons why, or having any remote interest in the logic behind my opinions (and sometimes others' *sheepish look*).

That said (basically so I don't have to defend my, not that I don't want to, just because I probably can't).

I have to say that I don't know if this actually applies to the idea of a prodigy or not BUT..... I definitely DO NOT think you can take any child and put them into an environment and have them simply become a product of that environment. I think at some point some kind of love and desire that just doesn't exist for every person in everything. For example, take my husband, who has a propensity for music, photography, art related things..... you could have put him in any environment that nurtured any art form and yes, he would excel at it. But I think that is because the love and desire, the flair for it is already there. I do not love music. But I played because my parents did.

I was good when I in high school, good enough to win honors and be selected for important ensembles, but I never loved it, or enjoyed it. I still don't and I never will. It's not something that is in me, and you could have put me in the warmest happiest, most nurturing and fun even, musical environment and it still wouldn't have been there for me. I know that's true because I feel it. I feel the lack.

So I don't know how to explain something like that except for a feeling.....

I'd love to hear your thoughts on that though.....

So I guess, taking that into consideration, I think that "prodigy" is a combination of the trained talent, which I'll give you, I agree could be produced under any circumstances, but I think to cross the bridge from "talented" child to "prodigy" is where an innate love and gift is present (something that not all would have).

I'm sure you've seen this little girl, but I was channel surfing the other day and came across this clip on T.V.

I don't know what I was expecting when I heard that a 7 y.o. violinist was going to play..... but she wasn't what I expected. But what was more..... was that in listening to her interview, she talked (genuinely!!) about loving to practice, and that if she had $100 to buy anything, she'd buy a new violin (awwww!). I don't think that can be trained, or created..... I think that genuine love of something has to be there for the "prodigy".

So there we have it.... If you just want to hear Elli Choi play, skip ahead to 5:30.

Herb of Grace said...

Laurie, I see your point, and honestly this is probably the strongest argument against my own point.


The flaw in your logic is this; did your parents LOVE music? Did they provide passion as an example as well as the training and encouragement and all the rest? So perhaps you are a perfect example of a product of your environment. That is, your environment provided information and teaching, but not passion. Therefore you, the product, are well-taught and proficient, but not passionate.

But I give you that this desire is the one thing that I'm not quite certain is merely a product of the environment. That may indeed be the legitimate test of the prodigy versus the product.

Thanks for commenting :)

Matt and Laurie Beardsley said...

No, you are totally right. My parents aren't passionate about it, definitely not like a deep deep love, kind of passionate. BUT, I can honestly say that even if they were, I know that I still wouldn't have been. It's just not there. I know it's not.

I feel the lack!!! But again, maybe if they had been.... who knows. It's hard to say what could have been in a situation where it isn't.

So had you seen the little girl yet?

Sherry said...

Hmm...This is a good one that I haven't really put too much thought into previously. But since you brought it up, I figured I'd put my 2 cents in.
I agree with you that the word prodigy is way over-used. And not every talented child who has a passion for his music and has practiced countless hours to be excellent, can or should be called a prodigy. However, that does not mean real prodigies do not exist.
There is a boy I know who is now 16, and got into music later than most "child prodigies". He started by learning 1 instrument, then added a few more. When he was 15, his mother realized he had a natural talent for music and recommended he learn the piano. He did't want to, but once he got a keyboard for Christmas just last year, he took to it like a duck to water. He never had music theory or composition classes, yet he has started composing his own music for orchestras (even instruments he's never played) His mother took some of the compositions to professional, notable composers for them to tell her if they are really as good as she felt they were. The composers were very impressed and couldn't believe he had had such little training and no theory or composition classes. They said he definitely has a natural talent but needs to have a little instruction to learn some proper techniques, etc...
But anyway, I would say that he, as well as some of the other famous musicians and composers from long ago, are definitely prodigies. So in my opinion, they do exist, but maybe are not as common as we make them out to be with over-use of the word.
I hope that made sense. I'd be interested in hearing your feedback on this as well.

Jenny said...

This is a huge subject. I think the big mistake we make (about many traits) is that either you ARE or you AREN'T. The truth is that it's not black and white. You can't look at two people and say "that one is a genius" and "that one is not". As far as I know there is no scale to measure musical genius. We're all on a Bell Curve -- from "can't carry a tune in a bucket" to "prodigy". Most of us are somewhere in between:) I have known some amazing musicians over the years (I'm sure Scott could tell you some stories, too!). Many of them came from completely un-musical homes where it was just the "thing to do" to get the kid piano lessons, and it turned out that the kid was very gifted. I love the phrase "swims like a fish" cause it can be applied to anything. In the case of music, some kids just start playing/singing and "swimming like a fish". A little nonsensical, I suppose, but definitely applicable. If you read biographies of Mozart, Liszt, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, etc. you'll see that they were all different in childhood. Some were in happy, musical families, some were in almost abusive families. But, all took to music "like a fish to water". Just read Mozart's bio -- he was composing concertos by the age of 5! If there ever was a prodigy, I'd say that's it. true belief is that God gives innate desires to each of us, that translate into talents as we grow. They are gifts. And we are all different. Even amongst musicians, the talents are different. Teachers play the role of guide to the earthly side of the talent (learning to read, write, play music). But, that innate side of the talent comes only from GOD. I believe that God gives each of us a passion for something. I'm married to an engineer who building his own motorcycles when he was in elementary school. Obviously, people have innately different passions;)
Like a seed that will grow into a thriving plant and produce an abundance of wonderful fruit, the environment of a child will make a huge difference in how he grows. However, there are plants that will survive in the most horrible of conditions, and there are children who will thrive in what many would consider untenable conditions. It's all about what's inside the kid. Can a parent culture strength in their child? Maybe, or at least an ability to cope with what life throws at you. Is it a necessary element for a child to have a "successful" future? No. If it were, all parents would be responsible for all decisions that their kids make. And that is a real can of worms.
There are those that "play" or "sing". And there are those that are "musicians". There is a difference. Where do you find your identity? Generally, people find their identity in their passions. As Christians, we find our identity in Christ (if we are passionate about our relationship with him). As musicians (secondary to and not exclusive of Christians), we find our identity in our music. As engineers, we find our identity in figuring things out and making them work (which is why we have electricity and running water today!).
Not to diminish the role of the teacher at all...without guides many will never learn what their passion even is! BUT, a teacher cannot imbue his student with the passion (other than the secondary kind that we can "pick up" from being around someone else who IS passionate). I believe it is an innate gift from God. Amen...;)

Debbie said...

I think the environment has a great deal to do with it. But I am not sure any child would be a musical genius given the right environment. I think some kids are just not wired that way.

Hosanna said...

So, I have been thinking about this alot and wondered, today: if environment is everything, why can multiple members of the same family, raised by the same parents in a consistent home environment, turn out so vastly different with different talents and desires, etc. Case in point: my sister Noelle. Often I look at her and think "WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DID YOU DO WITH MY SISTER?!" Because she is so far out there away from Mom, me, or Naomi; even our brothers in every way. Mom tried to "force" her into the "home" stuff; sewing, embroidery, cooking, frilly girlyness...... she has none of it. She is the complete opposite. ?????
I still like to think that God creates each person completely unique and different and gives them the talents and gifts that they will carry the rest of their life. How those talents and gifts are developed and nurtured, and how far they are developed, depends entirely on environment, of course.
And what about predestination - what think you?

Herb of Grace said...

Oh no you didn't! You did NOT just bring up the P word, Hos...

That's a whoooole 'nother ball o' wax.

Laurie said...

Forming thoughts. You got to me and Laurie. But, you know me...I also have a zillion other things on my brain at the same me say, I'm intrigued by this conversation and hopefully I'll carve out some time and my brain can form some of what I'm thinking into "wordable" things :) But for now, this is my comment..."interesting stuff" :)