Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Prodigies and Career Paths - Essay

We first saw violinist Joshua Bell performing when he was eleven years old at Meadowmount Music Camp in Westport, NY. He played Khachaturian's fiendishly difficult violin concerto accompanied by a solo piano serving as his orchestra. Now, at age 44, he has recently been appointed music director and conductor of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra in England. Bell began playing the violin at age five after his parents discovered he had fashioned his own instrument by stretching rubber bands between the handles on his dresser drawer and was plucking them to make musical sounds. He made his orchestral debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age fourteen. His career path has taken him from an ordinary middle class childhood (sports, school, etc.) to fame and fortune as one of the world's great violinists. He is currently on the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He owns a $4,000,000 Stradivarius violin.

I've been thinking about career paths and limits recently as I watch young bluegrass musicians perform as well as former prodigies who are in mid-career or at the height of their development. I can't speak about the many I'm told of who astounded earlier audiences, performed publicly while still very young, rose to some level of fame, if not fortune, only to crash and burn, never to be heard from again. As with any other pursuit, most young musicians who demonstrate a talent eventually reach a limit well below the professional level. Some continue to play at a recreational level while others lay down their instrument to chase some other enthusiasm. We have watched any number of gifted athletes, perhaps a good analogy to musicians, who excel at their sport's equivalent of little league, rise in the rankings, and then, recognizing they've gone as far as they are able, happily settle into becoming good club players or members of the company team while they apply themselves elsewhere. We all have limits.

We appear to be gifted with a high number of very fine young bluegrass musicians these days. We also are bombarded with books, computer programs, CD's, and other promoters of personal development ranging from Dr. Phil to NPR exploring the current urge to over-parent in order to prepare a child for Harvard or the major leagues. Sports parents, beauty pageant parents, academic achievement parents, and music parents stand behind, or sometimes prowl the sidelines, not-so-quietly supporting, urging, promoting, harassing and (perhaps) exploiting their children. I watch these people and their offspring with a more than a little bit of cynicism and a quite jaundiced eye. While I sometimes marvel at the skill and virtuosity of these musical prodigies, I hold my applause (and often my shutter finger) preferring to watch and wait to see where these young people will be in fifteen or twenty years. After all, even Mozart finally left home and his amazingly ambitious father to earn fame on his own before dying at age of thirty-five.

I want to walk up to the parents of performing children and ask them questions like, “How's the college fund coming?” “Have you established a trust fund for their benefit with your children's earnings?” “Have you encouraged them to develop and find other interests in their lives?” “How much to do children's earnings from their efforts support the family?” But I don't do that; I only wonder. We see former child prodigies like Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Chris Thile, and others. They tell us that we can achieve great things through our music, becoming self-supporting or even achieving wealth and fame. But we know little about those damaged people who've totally withdrawn from music after smashing their heads against the ceiling of personal, performance, and psychological limits.

Their are possible career paths beyond performance which can develop for a musician and which allow staying in music, or at least remaining involved with it:
band sideman → band leader → producer → record company owner
child prodigy → traveling soloist → band owner → multiple Grammies and fame
virtuoso musician → recording engineer → producer → recording company owner. I'm sure many other such paths can be imagined. When we start on such a path or imagine one, we probably don't include: child prodigy → unrealistic self-expectations → crash and burn → bitter disappointment → quitting music, but this is, indeed, a realistic, if not an almost certain eventual outcome.

Therefore, it becomes important, perhaps even essential, that young virtuosos be encouraged to develop broad enough interests so their lives can more assuredly be directed towards more options and greater levels of success. The tendency of young people to become obsessed with a single pursuit and to burn with the fire to achieve it, plays into this problem, too. I don't want to underestimate the importance of a child's motivation in the larger scheme of things, but its the place where parents need to be helping their talented kids explore options and put music in a larger perspective. Parents need to be teachers and guides to as well as rooters and promoters of their children's future paths while they allow the kids themselves room enough to succeed or fail on their own, and we all must eventually fail at something. We often learn most from finding our limits and then allowing the truth of that failure to help us grow and develop. I've been particularly intrigued at the progress of one young band where all the children have remained in public school, while at least one member of the family band has gone away to college to live in the dormitory and follow other interests while developing their musical ones, too. I'm always impressed when the hovering parents remove themselves from the band, having recognized that the kids have both surpassed them and need to find their own way.

And so I wait, watch, and worry about the futures of these young prodigies. I particularly worry when the children are home-schooled, because this has the potential to keep the parents in complete control and remove the opportunity for their children to participate in the rough and tumble of daily interactions with those who are different from themselves. And, in the end, we need to have options in today's world. We need to understand the connections between things, and we need to follow our passion as far as it will take us while remaining open to opportunities and changes of direction as they present themselves. The ceiling is always there, for everyone. How to make that realization acceptable rather than disastrous is the big challenge. How to move on while keeping ourselves together as human beings confronts us all.