Catherine Manoukian

January 2013

Classical Music, the Prodigy Obsession, and Ageism

Every couple of weeks or so, one or another of my dear Facebook friends posts a link to some YouTube video of a toddler tinkling away at a piano or scraping away at a violin, usually titled something like “Four-Year-Old Surpasses Horowitz” or “Mozart Reincarnated, and With a Cuter Dress!”. (Okay, maybe I made that last clause up, but the rest of it is dead-on, trust me.) While at first I found these thousands of preschool-age Youtube “stars” amusing at best and tiresome at worst, the more of them I see and the more I reflect on the matter, the more I’m inclined to say that they are both symptomatic and encouraging of a disturbing trend in classical music PR, which has taken the long-standing fascination with prodigies and pushed it so extremely far, that you don’t in fact even have to be a prodigy nowadays to be swept into the machine – you just have to be young.

I brought this concern up with a friend recently, and he rather exhaustedly said, “oh, but what does it matter, surely time and pressure will weed away the ones who suck?” I think my friend momentarily forgot that we were discussing actual children here, who would, inevitably, suffer heartbreak when they finally did realize that they weren’t really better than Horowitz, not to mention the horrible disappointment (and possible rejection) they’d face from the reckless parents who claimed that they were and put them on YouTube in the first place. But that’s a sad problem on a human level. What my friend also failed to realize was that this is a sad problem on the musical level as well: the prodigy obsession is hurting legions of potential future musicians, by pushing them preposterously long before they’re ready into a fleeting, pseudo-limelight, and it’s hurting our musical culture by shifting focus from music onto a completely inconsequential feature of the persons making music – their age.

How are a bunch of YouTube videos harming future musicians? I’ll give you an analogy. One of the activities my husband enjoys doing with our eight-month-old is “playing four hands” on the piano: Johannes bangs on the piano and my husband frames it with a little accompaniment. It’s fun for them, and it’s had all sorts of benefits for Johannes, like reinforcing an understanding of cause and effect (you bang on the key and it makes a sound), giving him some rudimentary exposure to the organizability of sound, and so on. A couple of weeks ago, however, I inadvertently ruined all that, by doing something instinctive to the new parent and applauding after they had finished. Since then, Johannes no longer looks at the keys with curiosity, nor does he look over to his father to try and understand what he’s doing. Instead, he quickly gives the piano one bang and immediately looks over to me, expecting applause. The activity has ceased to be beneficial and has become just an occasion for empty accolades.

When you put four-year-olds in front of a camera while their technique (even if advanced for their age) is still forming, to say nothing of their musical personality, then you’re introducing the applause/fame/PR element to them before they’re a finished product, and that can have catastrophic consequences on their development, because you’ve essentially taken away the only time in their lives when they’ll ever be able to learn and develop in complete peace and with the luxury of not being judged while doing so. Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood: I’m not against performing opportunities for children – I played my own first concert at three and made my orchestral debut at twelve, and none of that (as far as I can tell) harmed me. Most of my colleagues of the same generation have had similar developmental histories. But there was no hyperbolic praise where it wasn’t due and there definitely wasn’t any race for YouTube views. Instead, there was an emphasis on respect for the music and the need to work hard to do it justice. The focus was on the music, not the musician, and most certainly not on the chronological age of the musician. To publicize an ill-prepared child on the internet is insulting to the music, and detrimental to the child, who’s being denied any opportunity to follow a solid, thoughtful, and nurturing road to musicianship.

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Furthermore, has it occurred to any of these YouTube-Video-posting parents what can happen if you base a child’s musical self-worth on their youth? Everyone gets older, and there will always be those who are younger. And then what? Must everyone who isn’t a zygote just give up and descend into alcoholism? In the worst of cases – when the child actually had a modicum of potential – the now adult is left wondering what on earth they have left to offer. It’s like repeatedly telling someone that they have great hair, fabulous hair, magnificent hair, unbelievable hair, the BEST hair…and then cutting it all off. How can that do anything but cause an identity crisis?

The culture of classical music has always had an obsession with youth. What’s alarming about this new brand, however, is both its apparent disregard for actual quality (an artefact of the internet age, I suppose) and the fact that it appears to have gone from being one kind of PR angle to a ubiquitous kind of PR angle. Many decades ago, a soloist might work on their craft not just through childhood and adolescence, but also well into their late 20s, and “emerge” after having built up many years of practical experience and study. The wonderful violinist Zino Francescatti (1902-1991), for example, did his first “world tour” close to his 30th birthday and was nearly 40 before he made his New York Philharmonic debut. Despite having been a prodigy (in the sense of playing very well as a child, not of being a superstar as a child), he spent years playing in orchestras and chamber music settings, teaching, and gaining a real understanding of the complete workings of music-making. Nowadays, this kind of career trajectory would be unheard of: soloists “emerge” at least in their teens, in some rare cases in their early 20s, but beyond that? I can think of only one such case in recent memory.

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It goes without saying that those who are late-bloomers will inevitably lose out. Even more disturbing, however, is that this trend encourages the emergence of a particular kind of musician. This is because, despite our ever-increasing obsession with youth, we’ve still retained our bizarre notion that the young are good with technical things but haven’t the maturity to, for example, play Mozart properly (something that, I think, simply isn’t true). So we make them play showpieces again and again and again. Those who dislike such repertoire and who perhaps have a natural affinity for Mozart are at an automatic disadvantage. And for those who like and excel at it, we keep applauding their fast and nimble fingers and celebrating how young they are, until, very suddenly one day, the child hits a certain age, we make them do a Carnegie Hall debut recital consisting of Mozart and Ligeti, and we tear them apart for lack of maturity and discomfort with the “serious” repertoire. But what did you expect, after years of encouraging the playing of showpieces and applauding it? How can anyone become comfortable with something without actually doing it?

Of course there are many who come through this system unscathed and do well - some even manage to circumvent the trend and do it all on their own terms. These are the lucky ones. But if my suspicion is correct and the obsession with youth is gaining momentum, there’s going to be a great deal of tragic and unnecessary wastage of talent: those who’ll be pushed before they’re ready and will consequently fail to develop to their fullest, those who will peak later than eleven and thus will simply not be given a chance, and those who just don’t fit the expected timeline of career development, for whatever other reason. This is not an acceptable outcome, and that’s why we should be more wary of the “Fetus Plays Better Than Heifetz” videos – they’re throwing fuel onto an already very dangerous fire.

updated: 6 years ago