If you’re serious about your music, and you weren’t a prodigy, you’ve probably felt that you couldn’t compete at one point in your life. It’s a tough feeling when you put your all into music for years and years, and you see a YouTube video of a little girl that doesn’t look like she should be able to read words, flying around effortlessly on the piano.
You’re not alone if you’ve ever felt bad about your progress. Most musicians, yes, even prodigies, often don’t feel good enough. It’s really unfortunate, and I’m here to tell you you shouldn’t feel bad about yourself.
What is a Prodigy?
A prodigy is a child that has exceptional abilities for their age. Wikipedia defines a prodigy as “a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert performer.” I’m not sure I would agree with the last part of that statement. It really depends on what “expert performer” you are comparing to the prodigy. Even though a young pianist like this one is extremely impressive, his playing is not even close to the same level as an “expert performer” like this one. Just because a 4 year old can’t play as well as an adult, though, doesn’t prevent us from labeling them as a prodigy.
It’s a little unfortunate that we have a special label for these talented youngsters. It puts a barrier between them and other talented musicians, and it sometimes is difficult for the prodigy to continue living up to the expectations of their label. I’m going to continue using the word prodigy for the remainder of this article because it’s a term we are familiar with, but realize that “virtuoso” may be a better word to use.
Do Music Prodigies Always Become Professional Musicians?
Being an incredible musician as a child does not guarantee that the child’s talent will carry into adulthood. Prodigies, with few exceptions, don’t sit down at the piano and begin playing incredibly. They are prodigies because they have a desire, or perhaps a parent with a desire, to play music. They practice a lot. They just tend to do it when they’re a young child. They also learn at an accelerated pace because of their age.
Depending on the person, some prodigies will get burned out and choose to pursue something else in adulthood. Make no mistake, though, that plenty of professional musicians were prodigies when they were younger. The age they started and their commitment to music may be the biggest contributing factor to this, not necessarily how good they were as children.
Can Non-Prodigies Ever Catch Up?
Every musician that takes music far enough comes to a point where they play music technically accurately. What I mean by this is that the notes and rhythms in music that you play are accurate to what is written. Prodigies seem to get to this point faster, but prodigy or not, if you study music long enough and are serious enough you’ll get to that point. Students that reach this point have caught up to the prodigy, at least technically. The interpretation of the piece can vary quite a bit from person to person, and a non prodigy is very capable of interpreting a piece at a high level just like the prodigy is.
Prodigies Learn Music Quickly
“How long have you been working on that piece?” is a common question for a lot of music students. It’s a common question because we all want to learn music quickly. You don’t want to have to work on one piece of music for 8 months, you want to finish it in 2 weeks! We want everything now. In a performance, though, does it really matter? The audience wants to hear the best performance possible, they don’t care how long you took to get there.
If you’ve been to school for music, you’ve likely met the students that learn pieces of music much faster than you ever have. Often these are students that were the “prodigies” growing up. The reason music is so easy for them to learn, is primarily because of their advanced technique from learning so much repertoire when they were young.
The technical problems that take the normal student weeks and months to learn were already learned long ago by these childhood prodigies. Although how long it takes you to learn a piece of music is not in the end that important, there are ways to practice that will help the non-prodigy learn almost as quickly, maybe even as fast as a prodigy.
This site discusses many of them that you should read about and apply. You’ll find that the time it takes you to learn music when you apply these ideas is cut down dramatically.
Advantages of Not Being a Prodigy
I don’t want to make any sweeping generalizations because there are always plenty of exceptions, but I’m going to anyways. Take the following with a grain of salt and understand that I’m not saying this is the case for all prodigies.
Teaching Beginners Comes Harder to Prodigies
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you can teach it. Prodigies have a hard time remembering being a beginner. Do you remember learning to walk, or to talk, or even the alphabet? I bet you don’t. When you develop a high degree of skill as a very young child, trying to pass that skill over to others becomes difficult.
Teachers that were prodigies often are confused when their students just don’t get it. We typically associate everything with ourselves, so when a student is unable to learn something it’s difficult to understand because for the prodigy they didn’t have, or don’t remember having, that problem. They played everything well from the get go (as well as their memory serves).
Teachers that were prodigies have a hard time getting past the “make it sound more sparkly!” or “practice it more” into the nitty gritty of how.
You Had a More Normal Childhood
This may or may not be an advantage depending on how you look at it. Prodigies are prodigies because they practiced. That means it limits the amount of time they had to do other fun things like playing with friends or just running around outside. Whether or not you think this is a good or a bad thing really depends on your parenting style. I’m not here to judge, but I don’t know if I would be the person that I am today if I had only practiced growing up.
Stop Trying to Compete
You don’t have to compete to be a musician. There are plenty of people that don’t think very highly about music competitions for good reason. Music is an art. It’s subjective. Many people feel as though competitions stifle the sharing of art. Compete with yourself not with others.
If you’ve ever felt bad about your musicianship just because someone else was playing well at a young age, just stop. Don’t let other people’s success be your failure. Realize that music is subjective, and you can play incredibly well too.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by not feeling good enough? How did you get over it? Did you? Tell us your story in the comments below.