Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Comments on the Child Prodigy

A friend sent me the video below of a “child prodigy” with a request that I “comment”.

Here goes.

I would begin with a rhetorical question: is there anything more tiresome, more irksome than a “child prodigy”?

Prodigies: they stand as a reminder of our own mediocrity, and if we could, we’d squash ‘em like the bugs they are. Honestly, is there a story that gives us more pleasure than that of the “prodigy” who crashes and burns when the realities of life kick in during late adolescence?

Hah hah hah. Hah. Ho.

I’d observe that the rarest prodigy is the creative prodigy. You know, it’s one thing to repeat words that have been put into your mouth or play music written by others; it’s another thing entirely to actually write those words or compose that music yourself. To be able to do that, you need real life experience and half-a-lifetime of accumulated technical skills. We are still waiting for the first “great” fifteen year-old novelist. And while it is entirely true that Wolfgang Mozart, Frédéric Chopin, and Alexander Scriabin all composed some first-rate music before they were sixteen, the fact remains that their early music was derivative, meaning that is was based on pre-existing compositional models.

In no way was that last statement meant to demean Mozart, Chopin, and Scriabin. But the fact remains that no artistic pursuit is more difficult than writing instrumental music. Yes, it is a small miracle that a fifteen year-old can produce a polished piece of instrumental music. But not even Mozart started composing genuine masterworks until he was eighteen, and as we all know, Mozart was a FREAK.

The truth remains that there’s no quick and easy way. Even phenomenal geniuses have to work like dogs and continue working like dogs in order to develop and maintain their skills, be they composers or performers. And as a result, history is littered with the decayed remains of prodigies who crashed and burned, who lacked the skills and intestinal fortitude to stick it out and take it to the next level.

So back to the young (5 years old) dude below:

I wish the little fella a sweet ride through life; he certainly has a winning smile and seems to genuinely like the piano. But there will come a time when his contemporaries will catch up to him, and he’ll no longer be a dazzling little prodigy but just another talented kid. At the same time he’ll start hearing something he never heard before: criticism. Criticism from the same adults who were happy to overlook his technical and interpretive flaws when he was a little tyke but not when he hit double-digits in age. Soon enough he’ll have to decide whether he wants to spend the bulk of his waning adolescence and young adulthood in a practice room OR NOT.

Perhaps he’ll decide that his love for and commitment to the piano are the overriding realities of his life and he will continue to work and practice ever more diligently. But in 999 out of 1000 cases, he will crash and burn. He will tell his flabbergasted (and heartbroken) parents that he wants a life of his own. It’s not pretty when it happens, though as someone who spent 24 years teaching music in the classroom – many of those years at the San Francisco Conservatory – I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

In truth, “prodigies” are much less prepared to deal with the realities of young adulthood than the rest of us who were subjected to criticism and competition from day one. So while we may be amused by prodigiously early talent, let’s not take it too seriously. As often as not, it’s the late-bloomers who change the world.


  1. Greenberg is the only guy I listen to, nowadays. As a composer myself (I am just a composer of popular music who tries to learn from the very best) , I can safely say that Greenberg is DA MAN when he comes to lectures about music. You just can’t beat a learned scholar who’s also a wide ranging composer himself.