Child Prodigies Are Getting Younger and Younger, But What Happens When They Grow Up?

musical stairs
A child dances on an installation of a musical staircase designed like a piano at a train station in Osasco, 28 km (17 miles) west of Sao Paulo, January 10, 2013. Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

It's said that you're only young once—and sometimes not even that.

"Canada's piano superstar is 8 years old," proclaimed the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. earlier this year. The superstar in question, Kevin Chen, passed the country's piano teacher exam and is studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Five-year-old Ryan Wang, a fellow Canadian pianist, has performed at Carnegie Hall. Ten-year-old pianist Laetitia Hahn has been delighting German concertgoers with her Chopin and Beethoven for over three years. British 9-year-old Alma Deutscher started playing the piano at the age of 2 and the violin at 3 and now composes operas, having acquired an early taste for the trade by writing Nokia ringtones. Conservatories in Europe and North America report an increasing number of preteens who turn up for auditions flawlessly performing repertoire previously considered the domain of 25-year-olds.

Welcome to the awe-inspiring age of underage marvels who rattle off Chopin's tricky études as well as entire piano concertos. "Musicians are doing more advanced things at a younger age than ever before," says Yoheved Kaplinsky, a professor of piano at the Juilliard School in New York City and head of its pre-college division. "It's the Olympics syndrome: Records exist in order to be broken. Today kids are recording the Chopin études at the age of 10. When I was young, nobody played them until they were adults."

The trend is most obvious for the piano, though string players are also showing impressive skills at an ever-younger age. In a nod to the youthful trend, the prominent Van Cliburn piano competition recently announced that it will add contests for 13- to 17-year-olds. The American Protégé competition already features a category for players from ages 6 to 10, and next year New York's Kaufman Music Center will hold its second International Youth Piano Competition, open to players ages 7 to 17.

"Today most young musicians winning competitions are Asian," notes Murray McLachlan, a teacher at Manchester, England's famous Chetham's School of Music. "They dominate music making at both the school and the conservatory level." With China reportedly having 30 million young pianists, the fact that a number of them are winning competitions may not be surprising. But, says McLachlan, an acclaimed performer, Chinese children succeed at the keyboard because their families value the work ethic that piano playing demands. An increasing number of Chinese prodigies attend European and American music schools and conservatories.

Move Over, Beethoven

There have, of course, always been prodigies. Six-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dazzled 18th century dukes and monarchs with his skills on the keyboard and the violin, and already had several compositions under his belt. Daniel Barenboim, the Argentinean-born pianist, performed in Vienna when he was 8, and Anne-Sophie Mutter, the German violinist, made her international debut at 13. But they were true prodigies, young musicians who combined technical brilliance with promising artistry. Today, by contrast, there are so many young star performers that age alone seems to mark their value. Would Kevin be performing on the CBC, and Alma on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, if they were 15 or even 10 years old? "The danger is that we're creating machines that can play any piece at any speed," says Gabriela Montero, the celebrated Venezuelan pianist, who was herself a child prodigy.

"It's a worrisome trend because it highlights early achievement rather than substance and artistry," says Kaplinsky. "I see 16-year-olds who are lamenting the fact that they haven't performed at Carnegie Hall yet." But the age race is hardly surprising: It's much easier to measure years than artistry, and it makes for better headlines. On a recent visit to China, one leading impresario listened to several young virtuosos seeking European concert representation, among them a 9-year-old. Against such competition, a 10- or 11-year-old almost seems like a loser.

In the 1996 film Shine, Geoffrey Rush plays David Helfgott, the British pianist who as a teen buckles under immense pressure to succeed and suffers a mental breakdown. That's an extreme reaction, but prodigies don't always go on to great success as adult artists. In fact, childhood success has little impact on a musician's career. "Early accomplishment means nothing in the long run," says Kaplinsky. "Child musicians delight audiences because it's fun seeing somebody so young doing so much, but some of them burn out." That may provide some consolation—or schadenfreude—to those 16-year-olds who've yet to play Carnegie Hall.

For those who lack artistic goals and have simply mastered the technique to wow parents, teachers and audiences, the fall from child star to teenager will cause anguish, along with anger at mums and dads who took their tiger parenting too seriously.

The proof of the real talent of prodigies is whether they'll blow audiences away with their performances in 20 years' time. Mozart went on to have a pretty respectable career, and Barenboim—now also a conductor—remains a titan of the music world, as does Mutter.

"The transition from child prodigy to adult artist is a very difficult one," says Montero, who made her concert debut at 8 but gave up playing the piano 10 years later. "As an artist, you have to have something to say, but you don't have anything to say if you've spent your life in a practice room." Armed with life experience and an artistic voice, Montero returned to the keyboard at 20.

Kaplinsky says that conservatories should support early achievers only if they exhibit artistic potential as well. "We've had kids come in to audition and play note-perfect, but we felt there was a musical vacuum behind their performance and didn't offer them admission," she says. Juilliard occasionally offers a place to a young musician who's not technically brilliant but shows artistic potential.

Nevertheless, with 9-year-old virtuosos now run-of-the-mill, it may take more than practice, practice, practice for future prodigies to get on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Most musicians would agree with Montero, who calls musical performances without personal interpretation simply a "numbers game of faster and younger."

"Obviously, musicians have to work hard, and the younger the better," says McLachlan, "but the main thing is to be in love with music."

There is, in other words, still hope for those 14-year-old stragglers.