Strings Music Festival: What’s the secret behind child prodigies? |

Strings Music Festival: What’s the secret behind child prodigies?

Jamey Lamar
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Jamey Lamar is an independent classical recording producer and engineer.
Courtesy photo

The topic of child prodigies has fascinated me for a long time, going back to my own musical explorations. I was no prodigy, but once I got into music school, at age 16, I certainly met a few.

People who had started playing their instrument at age 3 or 4 were light-years beyond the rest of us. But the most prodigious of all prodigies was Wolfgang Mozart. He was featured on this week’s concert at Strings Music Festival, which highlighted composers who were prodigies of one sort or another.

Studies on this topic come out perennially, and I’ve followed with interest, looking for consensus on the science behind precocious tykes. Until recently, the scientific debate tended to revolve around nature versus nurture. But unfortunately, there’s a little more to it than that.

One extensive study, led by psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz, found that prodigies scored above the 99th percentile in “working memory” — the part of your brain that calculates a restaurant tip or quickly memorizes long strands of numbers. This trait is all nature and for what it’s worth, the musical prodigies in her study scored the very highest in this area.

Another, perhaps more important trait, is what the developmental psychologist Ellen Winner calls the “rage to master.” This is exemplified by poster-boy Mozart, who was so obsessed with music as a kid that every daily routine was accompanied by a special tune he created for it. And he spent hours at the keyboard practicing. When a kid is so engrossed with their overriding passion that they lose sense of the outside world, that’s the rage to master.

Those thousands of hours that prodigies put into their special talent are what Malcom Gladwell was talking about in his book “Outliers.” He popularized the notion that people who performed at world-class levels had put in a minimum of ten thousand hours.

More recently, researchers have done meta-studies showing Gladwell had vastly overstated his premise: he focused on repetition, whereas the factor truly at play is a particular kind of very deliberate practice. 

So, yes, prodigies are born — but then, they’re made. And, to be fair, focusing on the seemingly spectacular virtuosity of the very young can mean missing an important point.

If you go

Upcoming events

  • 7 p.m. Saturday, July 27: Romantic Music of 1900
  • 8 p.m. Sunday, July 28: Mipso
  • 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 30: Suzanne Vega
  • 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 31: A Night in Vienna: Winds and Strings.

Tickets available at 970-879-5056 and Half-price tickets are available for every classical performance. Just buy in-person at the Strings Box office located at 900 Strings Road.

Sure, Mozart could play violin and keyboard instruments at an astonishing level when he was very young, but his first symphony (which he wrote at age 7) isn’t exactly a masterpiece; it’s more like a very good imitation of what symphonies sounded like in those days. He still needed time to find his voice as a composer. I mean, he didn’t really start cranking out timeless masterpieces until he was, like, 15 or so. Sheesh.

Wednesday’s concert featured other prodigies as well. Besides Mozart, there was also a string sonata by Giacchino Rossini, which he composed when he was 12 years old. And you heard one of the richest and most beautiful string quartets in the repertoire, by Guiseppi Vevrdi. He was filling in for the church organist when he was nine.

Jamey Lamar is an independent classical recording producer and engineer. He works with artists, ensembles, composers and music festivals around the country and internationally to produce recordings for labels like Naxos and broadcasts such as American Public Media’s Performance Today. He is also a frequent radio host, podcaster, preconcert lecturer and program annotator. This season marks his 12th with Strings Music Festival. 

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