The child prodigy is not a new phenomenon. We have had them throughout history. Take Mozart and Mendelssohn for example, both of whom wrote music and performed at an exceptionally high level from a very young age.
Musical child prodigies are fascinating.
How is it that they can master a skill to a level that most adults can only dream of, and often before they hit puberty? And talent aside, how does this come about? It appears that not only do they need to be taught their chosen instrument at the highest levels, but they also need to be immersed in that instrument and in music. According to some recent research, it is estimated that Mozart, for example, was given 3,500 hours of musical tuition from his father by the time he reached his sixth birthday! Our contemporary child prodigies are not dissimilar. They will be living music on a daily basis, practicing for hours, probably doing less schoolwork than their peers, and quite possibly having very few friends of their own age.
But the key difference in the modern day world is that these prodigies are now recorded, and at a very young age too. Niu Niu, the Chinese pianist, now 15 years old, was 9 when he made his first recording of Liszt for EMI. But why record so early? Is it really in a musicians interest to put his 9-year-old playing, however virtuosic, down for posterity? And is this really what an adult musical audience wants to listen to? It is more likely that this comes down to the thorny issue of money – a case of ‘ride on the back of the prodigy who, if nothing else, always attracts attention and get in quick before another record company does.’
Niu Niu, the 15-year-old Chinese pianist, is clearly gifted and has a phenomenal technique. His playing of the Chopin Etudes is extraordinarily impressive. But I find myself wanting something more than impressive technique. What I always hope to hear from an artist, is something that I don’t feel Niu Niu has quite developed yet at his young age. Along with a feeling of artistic maturity, I hope to hear an artist’s own individual voice. This is something that is much more likely to come with age and experience.