Saturday, January 18, 2014

Six Year Old Virtuosos Don't Impress Me

A six year old boy or girl comes out on stage in formal attire, bows to applause, sits down at the piano, and proceeds to play some lightning-paced, dizzyingly complex, technically demanding sonata. She plays it flawlessly, finishes with the theatrical elevated hands on the final note, and rises to a rapturous ovation. The youtube video gets millions of hits, and the little tyke shows up on Ellen later that week saying that she plays piano because "I don't know, I like it."

This is a massive fraud. There is no such thing as a six year old virtuoso. I have a computer program that can play back sheet music when the sheet music is scanned in. Is my computer a virutoso? No. Neither is the kid. My computer's playback has perfect precision. It also can be tweaked with instructions for tempo and crescendo and such, so the playback won't sound entirely robotic. So why doesn't my computer get to play Carnegie Hall?

For the same reason that the kid also shouldn't get to. A computer executes instructions, without passion and without artistry. It has no life experience, it has no emotional maturity. It has no way to connect with the music on any level beyond the superficial. It can plumb no emotional depths. It can offer no fresh take, no intimacy, no playfullness or humor, and no pathos. It's a machine.

The six year old kid is flesh and blood, but he shares most of, if not all of these same deficiencies. The child can follow instructions and be a fine mimic, but is utterly incapable of real musicianship. Consider a piece like Wagner's prelude to Tristan. It's a work that uses the nonverbal language of music to communicate emotions of maddening, perpetually unfulfilled desire - a totally consuming desire for something just out of reach. It builds and builds until it the desire itself becomes a strange kind of ecstacy. The climax of the piece is practically sexual. The piece is written for orchestra, but Wagner wrote a perfectly servicable piano reduction. So let's sit the six year old virtuoso down in front of this piece, and try to coax a great performance out of him. It's impossible. The kid lacks the emotional knowledge and maturity to even begin to wrangle with Tristan's prelude. The kid, technical keyboard whiz that he might be, could certainly master all the notes. He might even, with careful coaching, learn how to mimic a great performance of the Prelude. But hey, so could my computer. As I said, it's a fraud.

Kids, surprise surprise, are good at learning things. Evolution equipped them well. A kid can learn 3 languages through mere exposure in the same time an adult would struggle to learn one. If you sit a kid of 3 or 4 down in front of a piano and embark upon a frustrating campaign to get him proficient, and you force him to submit involuntarily to a thousand hours of practice, and you persevere through his tantrums, you will end up with a six year old who can muscle his way through Prokofiev's Piano Sonata no.7. Hooray. But it doesn't mean he's a genius. It means you successfully shackled your toddler to a Yamaha. And when I say you made him submit involuntarily, I say it because, let me go out on a limb, six year olds generally have no interest in playing Prokofiev's piano sonata no.7. But the joke's on you, tiger mom, because the performer you've struggled so hard to create is simply a mimic. You've confused mimicry with artistry. I might go to a circus to see if the clown can juggle 10 plates without dropping any - that's the idea of plate juggling. But I don't go to the concert hall to see if the performer can get through the Prokofiev without making an error. I go to make some kind of intimate connection with the music. And I need a performer who is an appropriate conduit for the music. Someone who understands it and can tease out all its nuances while making the performance indelible and personal. And little Gunnar or Mason doesn't have those chops. But you don't get that do you? To you it's plate juggling. Good thing you forced him to sit on the piano bench for years while his friends were being creative and playing outdoors.

And that frankly is what I see when I see the six year old in the concert hall, sitting at the piano, legs dangling. I don't see a precocious prodigy, or a budding genius. I don't even see an artist. I see a kid who had the bad luck to be leg-ironed to a piano bench during years when his emotional and intellectual development would have been better served on a playground. I see a trained monkey.

Here's my advice to the tiger moms. Piano study (in moderation) is time well spent. We can agree there. But keep the music and the skill level age appropriate. This means playing children's ditties at age 6, not Rachmaninoff. By age 8 it can be a Mozart Minuet, by 10 the Sonata in C. This is not only easier music that doesn't demand hundreds of practice hours, but it's music that's emotionally accessible to the child. Training and study should of course include technique, sight reading, and all the other proteins of good musicianship, but it's also important to teach the theory of performance. Why do we perform? What does the artist bring to the music? What are we giving to the audience? This is the part that's entirely lacking in the normal tiger mom curriculum.

By the time the little squirt is 18, he/she would have the ability to handle the technically demanding stuff, but also would be mentally prepared for the real rigors of performance. The groundwork will have been properly laid.

Until then, spare me the youtube sensation, the talk show appearance, and the IQ score boast. You're not the proud parent of a gifted child, you're the confused parent of an unlucky child.


Anonymous said...

Damn...why so much hate in you?

Anonymous said...