A few thoughts about children and the classical music industry

The child prodigy is not a new phenomenon. We’ve seen it in every possible incarnation: chess grandmaster, tennis champion, brilliant mathematician, and, probably most famously, musician. At this point I would like to express my extreme gratitude to the universe that I grew up before the advent of YouTube. God only knows what videos of little me playing the cello (with glasses and braces and wearing knee-length frilly dresses and ankle socks) would be circulating around the web, graced by the usual inane comments: “awwww, how adorable!” “Wow. I didn’t know you could get chellos that small!” “OMG. So cute.”

On YouTube, anyone can be a “child prodigy.” Proud parents everywhere can celebrate their child’s talent (or lack thereof, as the case may be) and share it with the world for generations to come or as long as the stuff stays on YouTube’s servers. Poor kids, especially if they really do want to study music and pursue a career someday. YouTube hasn’t changed the phenomenon of the child prodigy, though, and having your videos out there as a five-year-old doesn’t necessarily make you a child prodigy. The classic Wunderkind is still the live performer: she plays in the world’s major concert halls, in the White House, serves as a child ambassador for various causes, lends her face to posters for Unicef, and gets to miss significant chunks of school to accommodate her busy concert schedule.


The question I’m asking is not, why should a kid play in the White House, Carnegie Hall, or be a poster boy or girl; the question that interests me is, why are adults so interested in creating child prodigies, and how does that affect the music world in general?

A child who has talent, musical or otherwise, has an innate love for the activity she chooses. Some children seem obsessed with one activity and pursue it to the exclusion of almost all others. To an adult, this might indicate genius. Maybe it is. Maybe the kid who practices the violin all day of his own free will is a genius. Maybe not. Is it important at this stage? Who are we to decide? Who are we adults to turn a child’s love for music into a marketable product? What does that say about us?

The moment an adult decides that a child’s talent is so great it should be shared with the world, the potential for trouble begins. If the kid really does just love music and spend the whole day with it without being forced to, and God knows that’s rare enough, then the obligation to perform forces the kid into a confrontation with the disparity between playing for the love of music itself and playing because people clap for you and praise you when you do. This is a problem that one eventually has to confront as a professional musician, and it can be particularly unpleasant and disillusioning, not to mention confusing. It’s not one I’d recommend introducing to children too early, above all because a child may not consciously notice the shift from doing something in which the reward is inherent to doing something that produces a secondary reward, namely, praise and adulation.

This can be such a subtle difference that it’s almost impossible to point out with any certainty when it’s happening in a concert, and I’m speaking of adult performers now. Furtwängler spoke exactly 80 years ago about a “classical music crisis”; the occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic. He identified the early stages of the malaise that has now all but completely consumed the frantic, survival-obsessed classical music industry: inauthenticity of expression. He spoke of the dangers of creating and remaining loyal to a canon, and of the responsibility of creating ‘living’ music. Performance was growing steadily away from the creative process that resulted in the works we added to our canon, and both performers and audiences were becoming more preoccupied with all the details of individual performance and less interested in the actual musical material.

The difference between a composer and an interpreter, he said, lies in the fact that an interpreter has a printed score, a finished product, whereas the composer begins from a state of primordial chaos in which anything is possible, eventually finding his way through a series of improvisations to the work as we know it. The interpreter accepts the score as the only possible work; for the composer it is probably still an imperfect expression of the limitless source of musical ‘truths.’

How did I get here from the topic of child prodigies? Well, it’s difficult enough as an experienced adult musician who was not a child prodigy to keep humbly studying works over and over again, to try to place oneself for the hundredth or thousandth time in the composer’s mind and re-imagine a piece until it reveals some new insight or previously unheard detail. It’s like coaxing yourself to fall in love with the same person over and over again, and it’s as rare a quality in performers as it is in lovers.

A child naturally imitates what it sees and hears. How often have you cursed in front of your three-year-old child only to be embarrassed in front of your in-laws a few days later when she repeats exactly what you said, in exactly the same tone of voice? A child learning a musical instrument is naturally an imitator of imitators; in the best of cases she is imitating a master. A child is recreating the recreation of a moment of inspiration. Even if he intuitively understands this particular expression of music, he has not yet developed the ability to explore the diversity of perspectives inherent in every great work. The moment he grasps one aspect of its beauty, if that moment happens to be on stage, the adults around him will herald him as a great talent, and the resulting attention will be distracting and disorienting, an applauding Mephistopheles’ invitation to keep producing the kind of performance that wins such universal approval. It’s more fun, more immediate, and makes more noise.

If a talented child starts to value praise and attention over the connection to music itself, both the child and her audience will have lost something important. The public turns an important work of art into a spectacle, and the child learns to strive for something fleeting and external rather than a real, lasting, internal communion with music and even her own higher Self. If that sounds pretty lofty, well, it is. The reason we keep performing the same works over and over again is because they mean a great deal to us, because they still have wisdom to impart to us even after centuries. Ordinary listeners can’t go to a museum and look at a Beethoven symphony or a Bach cantata as they can Greek statues or Picasso paintings; the equivalent would be studying the score and hearing it in one’s head, an ability usually limited to highly educated music students. We literally revive these pieces every time we play them, and that’s why every single performance is of such unparalleled importance.

If you look around with your eyes and ears open, you’ll see that the whole classical music world has become Furtwängler’s nightmare scenario. It’s all about the individual, whether it’s a child or a twenty-something bombshell or a silver-haired maestro. There are always exceptions, of course, and there’s nothing better than the beautiful coincidence of an authentically seeking performer achieving public acclaim. I’m almost at the end of my rant, and the last thing I want to express is my personal wish for the future of classical music.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating talented children. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a soloist who plays fabulously and looks like a model. But there’s way more to making and understanding music than the glossy magazines that try to make Mozart as sexy as Rihanna would have us believe. It’s pretty hard to initiate a publicity campaign for a long, solitary process that can make you feel like a total outsider, a loser, and a nerd out of touch with the times. But that’s the path that leads to becoming a  real artist, and that’s the dark tunnel out of which books, films, pieces of music, plays, and performances emerge that make a light go on in our heads. It can be fun to watch a six-year-old play a Paganini caprice brilliantly. It can even be inspiring. But let’s not forget what music can really bring about in our lives, the part you can’t tack up on your wall as a pin-up. Let’s keep striving to live music, both as performers and listeners, and not turn it into an ongoing casting show.

5 Responses to A few thoughts about children and the classical music industry

  1. Brilliantly written. Exactly what I have been trying to express to my students, and remember for myself. It’s about the music, and your service to the music. Any other motives are counterfeit…

  2. What a brilliantly expressed and thoughtful piece! You elucidate wonderfully the reasons for our existence as performers and musicians. Authenticity always communicates… and prevails over superficial motivation. As interpreters, our “currency” is an engaged imagination that meets the composer in mid-process…

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