The Prodigy's Journey

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."

For her part, Sarah hesitated before sending her daughter down the same road she'd traveled, but eventually acceded to her husband. "You'll find this with a lot of musician parents," she explains. "We know how hard it is to make a career out of music, so we're not so eager to push it on our kids." Since the decision was made, however, Sarah has been the primary force behind her daughter's musical education.

Sarah pulls out Corelli's La Folia, which Sophia will perform at her next recital. La Folia is a theme and variation, a dramatic and melancholy melody that requires a steady hand and quick fingers. Sophia begins work on her first practice spot. Sarah directs her through the tough passages: "Big sound. Excellent! Let's do it in rhythms. Good. Big sound." In the next room Sophia's brother, Peter, plays cars, wailing a police siren, "wheee-oo, whee-oo."

"Watch your bow. Excellent. Let's do from the double stops, make sure your bow doesn't slip." Sophia plays the measures again. Peter's police chase ends in a dramatic car crash with full sound effects. Neither violinist looks up.

"Watch your bow. Can you just watch your highway? Make sure your bow stays on the highway. There you go. Good. Can you do one more thing for me? Can you add a little bit of vibrato?"

"Mama, I can't do the vibrato."

"Well just try. I want the bow most of all. But I do want vibrato."

After 15 minutes and seven practice spots, mother and daughter head upstairs, and in the cavernous living room they run through the entire piece with Sarah accompanying on the grand piano. Forty-five minutes have passed. Outside the picture window, dusk descends over Minnehaha Creek. Sophia finishes with a flourish and her attention begins to wander.

"Mama, I need a break."

For a space of five minutes, Sophia colors at a table in the extra kitchen in the Kim's basement. Then the system of gentle praise and correction continues for another hour and a half. As the practice wears on, Sophia begins to wear out. She complains that her leg hurts. She complains that she's tired. But even so, her concentration holds for as long as she is playing the violin.

"She has no trouble concentrating for 45 minutes at a time," remarks Ellen Kim, Sophia's teacher (no relation). "Once in a while she acts like she's a little bit tired, but that's it. I don't have to deal with any of those things that you might with a 6-year-old focusing for more than 15 minutes at a time. She just is able to concentrate. And that, I think, is a tremendous gift."

Sarah considers fostering that focus and concentration one of her primary tasks as Sophia's violin coach. In the early days, she worked to establish a routine for practice so that battles wouldn't erupt later over when or where or how long to work. She keeps track of good and excellent behavior during practice sessions with stars and double stars on a chart. "In practice the only thing I really get mad about is if she's not trying," Sarah says. Watching her play, it's difficult to imagine Sophia not trying, even as her attention wanes, worn out at the end of a two-hour session. With her violin in play position, her bowing arm at the ready, she tightens her 6-year-old's bottomless, loose energy into focused concentration. The very core of the child seems to vibrate in tune with the strings of her instrument.

"The prevailing theory concerning infant prodigies is, of course, that they come to no good as grown-ups," Winthrop Sargeant wrote in a 1955 profile of the grown-up violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin. For any number of reasons, the rarefied childhood of the prodigy often produces an unhappy adult. The pressures of disciplined practice are intense. The spontaneous performance of a child gives way to an adolescent's performance anxiety. The single-minded pursuit of one province can leave the grown-up prodigy lacking the typical social skills gleaned in childhood. The relationships between prodigies and their parents are often stormy. And the basic mental and physical changes that occur during adolescence can wreck havoc not only on a child prodigy's sense of identity, but on her entire understanding of musical practice and performance. "You're only a prodigy for so long," as Sophia's teacher puts it, "and then it's really scary out there."  

"It's a high risk activity, there's no doubt about that," says Feldman. The Tufts University professor is one of the few child psychologists in the world studying the developmental aspects of prodigies. His long-term case study of six prodigies, compiled in the book Nature's Gambit, is the only systematic investigation into the phenomenon. "It's certainly not something you would choose yourself or force on your child if you thought that there was much of an alternative," he continues. "Before narrowing, and focusing, and specializing, and devoting all of your attention to the development of the particular area of gift, you had better be sure that that's a justifiable decision."

Sarah knows some of these hazards firsthand. She remembers parts of her childhood in Lawrence, Kan., as a sad time, a lonely time, and she wants to protect Sophia from that isolation. "The kids didn't understand me or what I was doing," she says. "I didn't have very many friends as I grew older. I was pretty much in my own little world." At the age of 12, her parents sent Sarah to the Curtis Institute of Music, and even though she was one of the youngest musicians there, the change came as a relief. "I felt like for the first time I was surrounded by people who were doing exactly the same thing I was doing," she says, "and that was really just the best thing for me."

For other children, it wasn't. "At Curtis, I saw a lot of kids break down," she recalls. Many prodigies fail to make it out of adolescence with their abilities intact. Yehudi Menuhin, the subject of Sargeant's profile, is a case in point. A legendary child violinist, Menuhin seemed to be driven toward virtuosity. But everything he learned sprang from natural talent; his teachers neglected to drill him on the basic skills of musicianship. When he reached his late teens, Sargeant writes, Menuhin "was in the curious position of being a phenomenally talented violinist who, from an academic standpoint, did not know how to play the violin." The violinist dropped out of the performance circuit in his teens, and when he returned to the stage his playing, while it still pleased audiences, never lived up to the promise of his early achievements.

The passage into adolescence is marked by emotional as well as intellectual changes. Child prodigies are often ill-equipped for the transition. "It may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy," writes another child psychologist, Michael Howe. "What is considerably more difficult for parents to do is to bring up an individual who... possesses personal qualities that enable him or her to make satisfyingly productive use of the special mental resources that an early start in life has made it possible to acquire." In short, it's hard, when you're spending hours a day training a musician, to simultaneously teach a child how to live in the world. "In this culture," says Feldman, "there's a strong current, if not a real crystallized value, of being average and normal and having a normal kind of a life. Prodigies don't have a normal life. That just goes with the territory." We shouldn't be surprised that so many child prodigies fail to carry their talents into adulthood, Feldman says. "What's a surprise is that any of them do."

Until Sophia came along, the only student Ellen Kim saw ascend as rapidly was her own daughter, Ariana. "She is my parallel to Sophia," Ellen says. "If I'd had Sophia without having Ariana, I would have much less understanding of what to do." Ariana began lessons with her mother when she was three, and like Sophia, she advanced through the Suzuki program like wildfire. At seven, her father took over her education. At 11, she performed on stage at Orchestra Hall, and toured Illinois and Missouri giving solo concerts. Her parents have been her primary teachers, and they've had their share of conflicts. "With his other students my dad's kind of laid back," Ariana explains. But with her, it's another story. "We get into conflicts a lot. He always says that I have so much talent but I don't use my brain, and I say, 'If I have so much talent why can't I do this?' My dad, it burns him inside because he knows I can do something. He knows I can do it, and I'm just blocking it out, and then he loses his temper and starts yelling and yelling and says, 'You might as well quit if you're going to play like this.'"  

Now 14, Ariana is poised on the edge of adult musicianship and she attacks her performance with a new spirit of determination. She rises at 6 a.m. to practice for an hour before school, and plays for another two hours after her classes at Capitol Hill, a public school for gifted and talented teens where Ariana is a straight-A student. Her quartet plays professionally at parties and weddings any chance they get. She also crams in piano lessons (which she started in second grade), soccer, gymnastics, downhill skiing, and tennis. An energetic and articulate adolescent, she still finds the transition difficult, the decisions and the pressures paralyzing. "I for sure want my occupation to do with the violin," she says. "I'm not sure if it's going to be in a philharmonic. My dad says I'm never going to be a soloist. Maybe in a quartet. Or teaching. I sort of want to do it all."

These are the goals of a realist. The dreamer in her longs to leave the Midwest for the prodigy soloist's training. "I'm still young," she hesitates. "I'm still a teenager, and I have somewhat of an outside life." But the tug of Juilliard and the Curtis Institute is palpable. "It would be so nice and so cool. It would be just totally like a prodigy to go to Curtis when you're 13."

The one thing she can't imagine is a life without music. "I've thought about quitting and how it would be," she admits, "but I don't think I could do it. When I don't practice I feel terrible and depressed. If I go a day without practicing even, I feel so horrible. I feel so guilty. My dad always says, 'Your violin's crying.'

"I could never quit. Not only that I've worked at it for 11 years. Music is my life. It's in my body. It's in my heart."

It's even in her disjointed dreams, when she remembers them. "I'll be sledding," she says, "and then I'll be at Carnegie Hall, and then it will be a hot summer day and I'll be swimming."

When Sarah was pregnant with Sophia, she filled her days with Mozart. She performed his Mass in C Minor with the orchestra, rehearsing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, and performing nights during the rest of the week. The violins never take the center stage in the mass. They are the driving force beneath the voices, relentlessly pushing the melody forward. From the melancholy opening strains of the Kyrie, to the denouement in the final Benedictus, the strings anchor the soaring flights of the soloists.

Long after the blush of his celebrity as a child prodigy had faded, Mozart carried with him the burden of his early fame. He is said to have remained an infant well into adulthood, unable even to cut his own meat at supper. His father composed a lifelong symphony of guilt and grudges, guarding his son's talent jealously as Mozart grew up, cutting off ties when his son married.

The Mass in C Minor was Mozart's attempt at reconciliation: a gift of love to his wife, a eulogy for his first-born son who died during its composition, but above all, an attempt to regain his father's approval. The mass was uncommissioned, one of the few pieces of music sprung entirely from his own passions. Against this backdrop, the haunting minor progression of the opening bars pleads. And with his skill, with the passionate power of his own talent, Mozart undermines his objective--the plaintive beauty of the music is forgiveness itself. However this talent was wrought, whatever price was paid, the pain is canceled by the soaring voices, the father's guilt absolved. Mozart abandoned the work unfinished.

It is fitting that this piece, written by one of the world's most celebrated child prodigies, should have filtered into Sophia's fetal consciousness. She responded in the womb to the music with her feet, kicking when the voices soared. The crisp and metered violins of Mozart mingled with heartbeat and blood pulse, an amniotic music box, a second womb enveloping the child inside.

Once her child was born, Sarah set about to reverse the mistakes of her own childhood. Parents are revisionists. Seeking to undo the missteps of our own parents (and inevitably introducing new mistakes in the process), we rewrite history with the blood of our offspring. In the dramatic case of musical prodigies, parents frequently wrap their own dreams and ambitions around their children, a tight little driven bundle. Speaking from experience, the conductor Lorin Maazel, who had conquered the podiums of every major U.S. orchestra before his voice changed, recently told a reporter that the "relationship of the performing prodigies with their parents, teachers, and managers reminds me of young circus performers."  

Having been a child prodigy herself, Sarah Kim manages her own child's childhood with unusual insights and predictable blind spots. "I think my parents overprotected me. They wouldn't let me play baseball or anything else that would hurt my hands. They didn't develop me in any other way except the violin. And maybe it wasn't intentional. They just wanted to focus on one thing. Their philosophy was do one thing and do it well, instead of doing 10 things and doing them half-baked."

Though there is a hint of pride in her voice for her parents' philosophy, this is the mistake Sarah vows not to repeat. Sarah pursues Sophia's well-roundedness with the same systematic determination and patience that serves her on stage. She taught her daughter how to read at the age of three and today Sophia reads at the fifth-grade level, polishing off the condensed illustrated classics that Sunny bought for her, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In summers there's gymnastics and soccer. But Sarah doesn't seek a balance in Sophia's activities so much as a counterbalance to the demands of music: "I will make sure that she does get some extracurricular activities--not too much, but just enough that she doesn't feel isolated."

When the elder Mozart discovered his son's miraculous talent, the father poured his frustrated ambition into his son. In one European tour, the child brought in 50 times the salary Leopold Mozart made at his modest post of Kappelmeister in Salzburg. His son's performances (and his daughter's--as a child she was considered as adept a player as Wolfgang) elevated the obscure, struggling musician into the company of kings.

For Sarah, the stakes are quite different. With her duties as assistant concertmaster, her rehearsals and performances with her string quartet, and her ambition as a soloist--already deferred until her children are older--her own musical career is in high gear. Her substantial salary, along with her husband's, pays for the enormous Edina rambler, the grand piano, her violins and her child's. For Sarah, raising a child prodigy represents self-sacrifice more than anything, especially if Sophia continues on the track to concert soloist. "If Sophia is going to become a prodigy soloist, she's probably going to have to go to New York," her teacher, Ellen, says, "And I don't know if Sarah's--I mean, it really is almost a matter of giving up your own career." That's not something Sarah is willing to do: "Right now I have pretty much everything I could hope for," she says. "I'm not even sure that I want her to be a musician," she shrugs. "I just want to develop her ability. I just want her to do her best."

This seemingly simple desire on the part of a mother is fraught with dissonance. Music is jealous. "You have to be willing to sacrifice for music," Sarah says. How much of Sophia's childhood to sacrifice is a question that consumes her. "There is always the question of am I pushing to hard? Will that have a detrimental affect on her later?" she wonders. "I don't think that I've pushed her too hard yet. I mean, I've pushed her hard, but not over the edge. So I haven't seen what could really happen. But definitely a child does not know--if you left it up to the child to do what they wanted to do they would go out and play all day long. They do need discipline and they do need pushing by the parent."

It is Monday, the night of Sophia's group lesson. She runs from the bus stop to her home in time for practice. Her mother plays a concert tonight, so the usual two hours gets cut short. Her father comes directly from surgery in a crisp white shirt. Sarah delivers the children to him at group lesson.

The room swells with the laughter and gossip of teens and preteens in overalls and blue jeans. The shuffling of music is broken by the intermittent clatter of bows dropping on the linoleum tiles. Cellos, violas, violins tune to the instructor's A.

Sitting alone and still in all the bustle, Sophia swings her legs above the floor. Two strands of hair fall loose from her ponytail and frame her face like a pair of question marks. A sheaf of music, brushed by an awkward teen's elbow, falls like a leaf from her music stand to the floor. Sophia reaches tentatively with the tip of her short bow to retrieve the papers. Too short to reach either the stand or the fallen sheet music she sits helplessly as the ensemble begins its sight-reading. Sophia looks away from her empty music stand to cast a pleading look at her father. The music moves in fits and starts, while the students feel their way along the black notes. Sophia dissolves into tears, threads her way through the chairs to where her father sits. She buries her face in his white shirt, staining the cloth with her tears while he puts away her instrument.  

Hearing Sophia play, it's easy to forget how young a child she is, until you see her defeated by something as trivial as reaching her sheet music, or falling apart when her mother isn't by her side. The great question that hangs over the child is whether she can stand up to music's demands. No other art, perhaps no other trade, demands as much discipline.

And yet musical performance must appear effortless, inspired. When audiences pay to see a child prodigy perform they pay to see an act of God, music moving through the spirit of the child. The child herself is an instrument that God plays. She is less a circus act than an illusion of miracle, an illusion that crumbles when you peer behind at the musician's arduous labor. "You're only a prodigy until you're 15," Sarah says, echoing Ellen, "and then, either you make it or you don't."

Sarah has made it, which means that when she is on stage, she is able to murder what she calls her demons--insecurity, inadequacy. The ballet dancer has her bloody feet: torn, ugly, and misshapen by the liquid flights of her body. The musician has her demons. And it is those demons that cause Sarah to pause on the threshold of her daughter's entree into musicianship. "I don't know what I hope," she says. "Music is such a tough world, it really is. When I was growing up it was my dream to be a soloist. But then actually when you think about it, is a soloist a really happy person? They're on the road at least three-quarters of the year. They're alone. They live in hotel rooms. They live out of a suitcase, and it's fun for a while, but not when you're 30 and you want to have a family. It's almost impossible to have a family if you want to be a soloist.

"I think there are more things in life than that. There are a lot of things in life to be enjoyed. Definitely my family is number one joy. Music also, but I really can't imagine it without the kids." Peter, who begins violin lessons soon, has an earache and buries his head in her lap. She pauses, and strokes his hair. "I want Sophia to enjoy that, too," she continues. " I don't want her to grow old alone."

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