The Prodigy's Journey

At an age when most children have barely begun to make friends, Sophia Kim sees her whole life laid out before her.

When Sophia Kim grows up, she will marry her best friend Tyler. Tyler and Sophia will have two children, a boy and a girl, and the four of them will live with Sophia's mother and father in the sprawling Edina home where she presently lives. And what will she do for a living?

"I'm going to be a violinist," she says. And if she weren't going to be a violinist, what would her second choice be?


Her nuptials may yet fall by the wayside, but her career plans, unlike the typical child's fantasies about battling fires and saving lives, probably will come to pass. Sophia is a child prodigy, in training to be a professional violinist. In fact, at age six, Sophia already is a formidable violinist.

During the past two years that she's taken lessons at the Jewish Community Center in Saint Paul, she has excelled at a wildly rapid pace. In her first six months of study, Sophia finished off book one of the Suzuki method, learning a new piece of music every week. Now she's just finishing book six, while the children she started with are working on books two or three. She still reads a new piece every week, but no longer are they simple études. Now she's mastering Bach concertos.

If the path from child prodigy to concert violinist seems preordained, it is by no means easy terrain. The very word "prodigy" contains an edge of danger: Its Latin root, prodigium, means "an omen." Psychologist David Henry Feldman, who's spent his life attempting to fathom the meaning of prodigious achievement, writes that "child prodigies are still perceived as unexplained and somehow unnatural occurrences, and they have been greeted over the generations with an ambivalent mix of emotions that accompany the expectation of change: fear and wariness, mystery and myth, skepticism and contempt, awe and wonder."

But Sophia's mother, Sarah, who was a child prodigy herself, depicts her daughter's talent in more practical terms. "She does work hard, because I make sure that she does," says Sarah, who at 33 is now assistant concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. "Some parents who are not musicians who see their child progressing rapidly are just full of amazement and wonderment like: 'How can they do this? Wow that's so fantastic!' With Sophia it's kind of like: 'Well that's great.' But I just expect her to do well."

In the practice room in the Kim family's basement, Sophia tucks her tiny violin under her chin and practices a new three-octave scale. Sarah looks on, her own instrument balanced against her right leg. Sophia's plump fingers skillfully navigate the miniature finger-board. She rocks slightly from foot to foot. The more engrossed in the music she becomes, the more her expressive face reflects the challenges and surprises of her own playing; with the twitch of an eyebrow, she acknowledges every perfect trill and every sour note.

The Suzuki method that Sophia studies treats music like language--as something you pick up on your way through childhood. Like all Suzuki parents, Sarah attends her daughter's weekly lessons. Less typically, she spends on average two hours every day drilling Sophia on the scales, études, and concertos that make up the Suzuki repertoire. The long hours of practice, and the fact that Sarah knows exactly how to make a violin sing, go a long way to explain Sophia's proficiency. "The idea that a prodigy does what he or she does effortlessly through some kind of stroke of the gods is absolute nonsense," the psychologist Feldman says. "The greater the gift, the greater the investment in the gift. It's true in every single case."

Sophia's new scale demands a number of complicated shifts, which are exactly what they sound like: precise and delicate movements of the hand up the strings into the violin's higher register. A well-executed shift results in a seamless tumble of notes--no break in rhythm, perfectly in pitch, inaudible to all but the most attentive listener. But one of the shifts eludes Sophia. She plays through the scale to the note she can't achieve, fumbles for the pitch, and stops. She begins again at the beginning. And again. Five, six, eleven, 12 times she repeats the scale, feeling for the elusive note.

Sarah sits quietly, occasionally nodding, watching Sophia's fingers and her bowing hand, sometimes in the full-length mirror behind her daughter, sometimes in the flesh. "Recently I started seeing this perfectionist in her," Sarah worries. "Part of that scares me. I don't want her to become so much a perfectionist that she can't play anything because it's not perfect."

After 15 false starts, Sophia finally finds the pitch she's after, and effortlessly completes the final run. She lowers her violin and her look of focus dissolves into a cheerful smile, gapped where baby teeth are missing. She bounces into her mother's lap and pokes out her tongue, then plants an affectionate, wet lick on Sarah's face.

It was her father who first insisted Sophia learn the violin. A surgeon, Sunny Kim decided it would give Sophia skills that would transfer into other areas of life. "I thought it was a good challenge for her and a way to discipline," he says. "Kids often have trouble concentrating." Sunny likes the idea of his daughter learning his wife's profession. "It's very good that parents can teach their skills to their children. Doesn't matter what trade it is," he says. "I wish I could teach my son how to do spine surgery, but it's illegal."

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