What makes a child prodigy? Does it stem from pure talent or specialized, intensive training at a young age? We’ve all seen the viral videos of 4 year olds playing advanced pieces astonishingly well - and reactions are always mixed. On one hand, we want to applaud the accomplishment, but we also uneasily think of the extensive hours of practice this probably required. Then, the comments section becomes a debate between: amazing child prodigy vs. overworked child who’s losing their childhood practicing?
So, I decided to take a look at a couple of profiles of musicians with successful careers who began as child prodigies. What made them stand out as prodigies and how were they able to successfully channel that talent into careers? And most importantly, what effect did environment (parents, siblings, location, etc.) have on this development?
5 Case Studies
A child is considered a prodigy if, at age 12 or younger, display extraordinary talent - enough to be competitive with adults with many more years of training. I looked at the childhoods of 5 prodigies who went on to have successful music careers: Mozart, Lang Lang, Buddy Rich, Joey Alexander, and Michael Jackson.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Pianist and composer, 1756-1791)
Born into a musical family, Mozart was surrounded by music from the start (1). His father, a musician, was set on making musical prodigies of his two children - so Mozart had daily competition from his sister and could, additionally, learn through observing her. He learned violin and piano by age 4, started composing at age 5, and began performing publicly at age 6 (2). Through his father’s intensive and thorough training, Mozart had already accumulated thousands of hours of practice by this young age.
Lang Lang (Pianist, 1982-now)
Similarities to Mozart arise here: Lang Lang’s father was also a trained musician who was determined to make his son a successful musician - which mean hours upon hours of practice from a very young age (3). His methods were very strict, so much so that some saw it as bordering on abuse. However, Lang Lang asserts that he was never forced to play, and because he and his father shared the goal of him becoming a famous musician, it was all worth it in the end.
Buddy Rich (Drummer, 1917-1987)
Rich was born to two vaudevillians who recognized his sense of rhythm at 1 year old (4). He began performing on vaudeville stages at 18 months old as “Baby Traps, The Drum Wonder”. He was on Broadway at the age of 4 and touring at 6. He was a bandleader at age 11. He was completely self-taught and was known for never practicing (as he never had to). He is still regarded as one of the best drummers of all time.
Joey Alexander (Pianist, 2003-now)
Alexander was born to a family of jazz fans (5). He was able to pick out the melody of a jazz tune immediately at age 6, and continued learning by listening to his parents' jazz records. His father was an amateur musician who helped bring him to jam sessions with professionals after his talent was discovered. His parents even disbanded their tour business so he could live near his country’s top jazz musicians and further his education (6).
Michael Jackson (Singer-Songwriter, Dancer, Music Producer, 1958-2009)
Michael Jackson was born to a father who was a failed musician (7). Wanting his children to live his dream, he created the Jackson 5 (which Michael joined at 5 years old). Michael had an extraordinary talent that set him apart from the rest of the group and he became the lead vocalist. The kids spent hours and hours practicing under their dad’s supervision, who was known to get violent if the act wasn’t perfect. Michael remembered his childhood years as unhappy ones (8). At 13, he started his solo career. His rocky relationship with his father and the childhood abuse seems to have contributed to his perfectionism both in his music and, unfortunately, in his looks (constant and dramatic surgeries). He sought the company of young boys through his adulthood, seeming to seek the childhood he had lost.
Similarities and Differences
Of these 5 cases, I see lots of similarities as well as differences. Lang Lang, Mozart, and Michael Jackson are similar in the way that they were all thrown into intensive training from a young age (all under their father’s eye). However, as Lang Lang said, the important thing was that the child wants to do it him/herself and is never forced. Jennifer Pike, also a prodigious talent as the youngest recipient of the BBC Young Musician Of The Year, also agrees. She says, “The number of young people I’ve met with somebody speaking for them, literally forcing them to do this…I am lucky. I have a very inspiring and supportive family” (9). She remembers herself as the one who had to push her teachers to move faster - her drive was all her own. However, it could be argued that children don’t know what they want at that age. Michael Jackson was unhappy and Lang Lang said it was only a great childhood in hindsight - yet, they both became superstars.
On the flip side, Joey Alexander and Buddy Rich were both self-taught - very much what people think of when you say “prodigy”. They truly had an intuition for their craft, nurtured by their parents and their environment, which just blossomed into a level of playing that takes adults decades to reach.
All of them were similar in that parent involvement played a large role in furthering their careers. Whether it was providing performance opportunities, the instruments, and/or the training itself, it is apparent that parent support is crucial. All of these kids had music and performance as a big part of their home life from the start, and many had parents who sacrificed to make their child’s career the focus of their lives as well.
So, nature or nurture? I say a healthy combination of both. The talent marks them and makes them discoverable as a prodigy, but without a more experienced/able hand to guide them, refining their talents and starting a career may be difficult. This includes the obvious like buying/obtaining gear & materials and transportation from place to place, but it is also important to have a home environment centered around and supportive of music and performing.