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famous at five
there's really no such thing as an adult prodigy
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)
pop culture

So, I was in the subway on Thursday and there was an 8-year-old kid playing Mozart's "Rondo ala Turk" at a very, very fast pace. This is actually a piece I played years ago, as well, only I was in junior high and played it much slower. Much, much slower.

The kid's a prodigy. Or a savant. But I choose to go with prodigy. It happens. Check out the story of Emily Bear, a 6-year-old who plays just masterful piano. She's really good. And just 3 years older than my niece, who's still getting timeouts.

Now, I do have to say that my niece crazy smart (though not because of the timeout thing. Read on).

Sure, I know everyone says their children (or siblings' children) are really smart. Or really pretty. Or something to set them apart. The truth is most children, by definition, are average.

Not my niece, though. Just this morning I witnessed her, only two weeks past her third birthday, hand a blunt crayon to my brother, saying, and I quote, "This one doesn't work so well."

That's pretty smart. I'm told I used to be like that. There's a story my parents tell about when I started holding conversations - we were on the beach and a family friend, Bobby Sandler, had come over to visit. And my dad asked me, all of 18 months old, "Do you like Bobby?" And I said, "Yes." And my dad asked, "Why?" And I answered, "Well, Bobby speaks in sentences."

True story.

But I have to admit, neither of these things speaks to what we call true genius. Smarts, yeah. Genius, probably not.

I did date a girl once who had been a child prodigy for violin - she began official study on Cape Cod at the Cape Cod Conservatory as a first grader. And then at the age of 10 she continued her studies at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. We're talking about a girl who could actually see music - synesthesia, they call it. I had the privilege of being able to jam with her on occasion and I can tell you, she's magically talented. (And not in a "Lucky Charms are magically delicious" sort of way.)

However, she's now a talented adult. And there are a lot of talented adults. I'm not saying that she isn't still a brilliant fiddle player (she is), but being a brilliant fiddle player in your 30s is not the same as being a brilliant violinist in 1st grade. To use a different example, it's a lot more impressive being a kindergartner who can beat an adult at chess than being an adult who can beat an adult at chess.

Not that I feel sorry for these people, per se. I mean, that girl on YouTube will definitely have a more interesting childhood than mine. For those of you who didn't watch the whole clip, it turns out her favorite stuffed animal was the one she got at the White House. Now, I've never actually visited the White House, but I would offer pretty long odds against my getting a stuffed bunny there. Unless they sell them in the gift shop. And even then, I'd probably go for a tasteful Barack Obama shot glass instead.

To take a page from history, it's fairly well-known that Mozart was composing music by age 5. What is less known is that it wasn't very good. According to This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitan, it's no coincidence that Mozart's most famous pieces were written later in life (relatively speaking; he died at age 35). And according to Austrian rock singer Falco, he was a superstar, he was popular, and he was exalted because he had flair.

You do the math.

I do not purport to truly understand what these kids go through as they reach adolescence and beyond. I'm told the spotlight is a pretty addictive drug; I can tell you that even the recognition (if not downright notoriety) I receive for writing this column can get pretty heady. But to know that no matter how good you are, you get less special as you get older - that's gotta hurt.

I think we see similar things with child actors, which in a way, is basically the same. These kids hit at least the first pinnacle of success before most of us are even allowed to pick out our own clothes. No wonder so many of them go nuts as they get into their teens. In addition to having movie money and some modicum of face recognition, they're suddenly competing with actors who might be as talented at 16, even if they weren't necessarily on the same level at 6.

Plenty of people with promise never live up to expectations, of course. Some simply rebel against what everyone expects them to be or eschew the spotlight. Others find that they hate doing the thing they're good at. For some, it's a question of financial realities (sadly, the best egg-spinner in the world is still not likely to make more than your average journalism major). And then a lot of people are simply lazy.

The difference is, however, that most of the people listed above can still hit their peak in adulthood. Many of them, athletes excepted, can even decide later in life to make a go of it. I, for one, may not have lived up to early expectations yet, but "yet" is a very important word. I have some irons in the fire, let me tell you.

I don't know if there are support groups for this sort of thing. You'd think there would be - Former Prodigies Anonymous, or something. Maybe not anonymous. "Former Prodigies Screaming to be Heard" has a nice ring to it. The Society of the No Longer Special. Something. Obviously, I would not be leading those sessions.

In the end, I think it's safe to say that no one in the family wants to see my niece playing Mozart in the subway. And maybe it's okay that she's not exactly reading Tolstoy at age 3. She can recognize her own name, which I'm told is impressive (and she can tell you that Anna Karenina starts with A). I'd prefer she be happy over celebrated. If she's not a prodigy, she's not a prodigy.

Maybe I can teach her to spin an egg.


A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

more about adam kraemer


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katherine (aka clevertitania)
10.9.10 @ 1:45a

I have to wonder; if such a support group existed, would I have the audacity to walk in the door?

I guess I'd have been a prodigy-light. By age 6 I was reading at a 6th grade level. But then again, my report cards from 2nd grade on were nothing but comments about not living up to my potential. In fact, I have to wonder how I would've turned out if they hadn't kept slapping me with my potential, and my inability to motivate myself to use it fully, from the moment I entered public school.


dr. jay gross
10.13.10 @ 4:24p

I became an adult as a natural progression from my under-achieving youth with a thirst for knowledge (always asking, 'why?') - and that sounds like a repeat of your latest effort at writing....which turned out cohesively, without a beginning or an end. I guess the story isn't finished. Then it must come down to my desire, like you, to be an underachiever weilding a dull crayon.

adam kraemer
10.13.10 @ 4:29p

Or spinning an egg.

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