Child Prodigies



When I read Poiema’s review in March, this book went on my list of books to be read.  In the distant country of my childhood, I played the cello; a lingering fondness for that instrument permeates my soul.  The fact that the author was also a cello player made me eager to read his work.

About a third of the way through the book I had convinced myself that I really didn’t need to keep this book.  I’m still undecided; I loved parts about music intersecting with life, the grown up child prodigy teaching a young child prodigy.  The back story of the trial for the murder of a Buddhist monk didn’t interest me. There are, however, some passages too wonderful to escape my journal. 

[Maestro’s instructions] That is the way to approach your music.  Every piece, every time you play it, is unique and irreplaceable.  Your should open your ears and heart to every phrase, every note and squeeze every drop of beauty you can from it. Take nothing for granted!

[Reminiscent of Robert Greenberg’s Frame of Silence]  This immediately made me think of the kind of silence I used to love, the instant before I would start a piece and the audience would quiet down to absolute stillness.  I always held the bow over the strings for a few seconds too long, just to relish that incredible vacuum, when a hall filled with hundreds of people could become so quiet.  No one ever, ever sneezed, coughed or budged until I offered release with the first note.

Bach, there can be no doubt, brought classical music to perfection. He expressed his musical ideas with devastating precision and understatement.  Each piece is like a finely cut diamond: clear, simple and almost mathematical in appearance, but underneath the surface what complexity and structural integrity! The possibilities for interpretation are limitless; just as there are countless ways to project light through a diamond, no two performances of Bach can be the same because each musician’s unique personality has its own spectrum of feelings that can be conveyed freely through Bach’s inventions. 
When I was very young one of the reasons I was able to hear a piece of music and then play it right back without having to look at a score was that for me each musical phrase had not so much a color or flavor as a texture

The whole subject of child prodigies fascinates me.  So many prodigies seem very close to prodigals, not in the sense of extravagant waste, but in the sense of being  far away, socially and metaphorically.  During the time that I read The Soloist, I previewed the movie Hilary and Jackie (too dicey to recommend, although the music was gorgeous), about the life of the du Pré sisters, particularly the tormented and fragmented life of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré.  This book and that movie both left me feeling sad: sad for the weight of great giftedness and sad for the lack of appropriate parenting of the children with such gifts.

I’ve always admired and respected Yo-Yo Ma, who has a short appearance in the second chapter of The Soloist.  In contrast to most prodigies, Mr. Ma’s life seems very balanced.   He is passionate about music, but his life evidences an integrity and wholeness that many performers lack.

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3 thoughts on “Child Prodigies

  1. Wonderful quotes! As for Dr. Greenberg, I’m a new fan of his…my family is finishing up his series “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music.” It’s taken us awhile to get through the series, but I’m sorry we’re coming to an end. He’s a great teacher with a contagious enthusiasm for his subject.

  2. That was an interesting connection you made between prodigies and prodigals. Prodigies are fascinating to read about, but I always leave feeling glad I am just an average person with average gifts. The musical quotes from the _Soloist_ were the best part of the book, I thought. And yes, the sub-plot about the jury definitely had some unsavory elements. I had thought to read a different title by Salzman, _Lying Awake_, but I think that one title by this author will be enough for me. 🙂 Thanks for the quotes.

  3. Carol,Interesting; I enjoyed your quotes.  My daughter is not a prodigy but she is a serious musician (violin, hoping to enter music school next fall) so we enjoy reading books about musicians around here.  I agree with you about Yo-yo Ma.  He seems like such a lovely person!  You might enjoy a book  by David Blum called “Quintet”, Five Journeys toward Musical Fulfillment.  Yo-yo Ma is one of the musician’s featured.  I found the book very interesting.  My daughter’s music teacher recommended “Sacred and Profane”; it is a book about Mozart and I can’t remember the author right now.  He says it is his favorite book of all time.  And, have you seen any of Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach videos?  I love the one which features the ice dancers Torvil and Dean.  Highly recommended.

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