What makes a prodigy special?

Master pianist Yundi, who makes his UAE debut this month, is one of those incredible classical music outliers who makes the rest of us feel just a little bit simple by comparison. So what sets the truly gifted down that road?

The piano maestro Yundi. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.
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The master pianist Yundi, who makes his UAE debut this month, is one of those incredible classical music outliers who makes the rest of us feel just a little bit simple by comparison. Growing up in Chongqing, he'd already mastered the accordion by the time he was 4. Switching to the piano at 7, he became the youngest-ever winner of the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2000, at the age of just 18. But while such precocious talent is unusual in the world at large, in the top ranks of classical music it's remarkably common. Pick a key figure in classical music and you'll usually find they have a backstory filled with early success. So what are the key characteristics of a musical prodigy? Here are a few pointers.

Musical prodigies aren't just good at music

Prodigies tend to have all-round skills, as the child development expert Lynn Kendal of the UK's Mensa explains.

"Gifted children tend to have an all-round ability and excel in several areas. Talented children have a flair for a particular area. In my experience, those with a musical ability tend to be gifted."

In keeping with this pattern, the US pianist Kit Armstrong could speak four languages fluently by the age of 9, while the Qatar Philharmonic's new musical director Han-Na Chang, an international prize-winning cellist by the time she was 12, also received a philosophy degree from Harvard.

They don't always have high IQs, but their memories are phenomenal

Research by the experts David Henry Feldman and Martha J Morelock suggests prodigies don't necessarily always score highly on IQ tests. Where they radically outperform others is with long-term working memory, a skill defined by the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman as "the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate and process other incoming information". While this is invaluable for their progress, children who possess it often face other challenges. Some research suggests far higher than average levels of autism in the families of prodigies, and that autism and precocious ability may have some connection.

Their parents, while intelligent, aren't all professors

Lynn Kendal notes that "because educated parents are more likely to be aware, their children are more likely to be noticed and encouraged". This doesn't mean that all prodigies come from highly educated backgrounds, however. "My friend [the celebrated child development expert] Dr Margaret Pollack had done some research which suggested that these children occurred where both parents were bright, but not necessarily educated or high achievers."

They practise constantly

Prodigies typically arise in cultures that value constant hard work. A century ago, the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, for whom successful study was one of the few roads to success, were known for their many brilliant child musicians. Today, it is East Asian societies, which teach reverent obedience to teachers and constant study, that seem to produce most prodigies. Pressure and culture alone aren't enough, however. Prodigies' unusual abilities equip them with a "rage to learn" - a desperate need for stimulation that pushes them to work of their own free will.

This can lead them to take matters into their own hands, even making their own instruments. The violinist Joshua Bell, for example, was so hungry to play a stringed instrument that at the age of 3 he was "stretching elastic bands over the dresser in my bedroom and opening the drawers to get different tensions".

Their great promise may not continue into adulthood

Yundi is an exception among former musical prodigies - his precocious skill was only a hint of what he would later achieve as an adult. Most children who show early musical skill will not take this path. Indeed musical prodigies' adolescence can be difficult, as their uniqueness compared with other children slowly erodes. The reasons for this are murky and various. It could be that constant rigid practising blunts some musicians' ability for the intuitive emotional expression necessary for mature playing, or that many simply have an abnormally early development that corrects itself in adulthood. Likewise, some simply tire of the rigidity of the classical medium - both Björk and Tori Amos were musically precocious musicians who later rebelled against classical training.

Yundi plays Beethoven and Chopin at the Emirates Palace at 8pm tonight


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