Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I Don't Believe in Prodigies

I recently hosted a house concert where 17-year-old Anthony Pfluke dazzled us with his musical virtuosity. His luscious Hawaiian vocals blended beautifully with his 'ukulele and slack-key guitar playing. Every person who attended told me how impressed they were by his skills and how much they enjoyed the concert.


I first met Anthony last year at an 'ukulele jam session in Maui. Led by Jared Santos, this weekly 2-hour event called 808 Uke Jams took place in a cozy one-room church with a green roof. During the break, Santos invited several people to perform, so it was then that I first heard Anthony play and sing. He had been attending this jam session for several years with his parents, and it was there under the loving support of Santos and the 'ukulele community that Anthony's love of Hawaiian music caught fire. I happened to sit next to Anthony's parents and found out that Anthony (at that time 16 years old) had a weekly gig at a restaurant in Kihei. I took my family there a couple of days later and we all enjoyed his singing and playing while savoring fresh malasadas (delicious Portuguese donuts that are a staple in Hawai'i).

During the concert at my house, several people asked me if Anthony was a prodigy. I replied, "I actually don't believe in prodigies. At least not in the way most people think of them." What I mean is that I believe that Anthony got to his skill level from hours upon hours of practicing. Why did he practice so much? Because he is so passionate about music. How did his passion develop? Going to that jam session week after week and being encouraged to explore the 'ukulele had a huge impact on him. Seeing others make music so happily, including his parents who encouraged his playing. He eventually hooked up with legendary George Kahumoku Jr. (4-time Grammy winner) and now spends one day a week at George's farm pulling weeds and hanging out. So Anthony continues to have a outpouring of support from people around him and that keeps fueling his passion. 

Input = output

If a child is immersed in music, if they see their parents and others around them play and enjoy music, they will also develop that enjoyment. The more input, the more output. 

I have seen this time and again with other "musical geniuses" where their environment is so rich even if their own parents are not musicians. The hit musical "Hamilton" whose composer/writer is Lin-Manuel Miranda is a case in point. Lin-Manuel grew up with parents who were not musicians. However, his parents loved music, especially musicals. His parents played recordings of musicals all the time--at home, in the car. His parents owned over 100 records and Lin-Manuel recalls being immersed in music. He also had an older sister that loved rap, which he also loved. Just like Anthony, Lin-Manuel was bathed in music for most of his life and he got to see others around him enjoy music. It is not surprising that musicians of such caliber come from such musically rich environments.

And that is precisely what Shinichi Suzuki talked about with the mother tongue approach. Just like every child learns his/her mother tongue by being immersed in it, every child can also learn an instrument if he or she is immersed in it. That means the child needs to hear music a lot, see others playing music a lot, and see others enjoy making music. It is also incredibly powerful for parents to see how they do not need to be experts in music or even musicians themselves in order to raise a child to be a musician. Just like language, the younger you begin to play an instrument, the more easily you become "fluent" in playing that instrument. However, for those of us who are adults, it is never too late. I have an adult piano student who is approaching 60 and he has surrounded himself with a musical community that supports and encourages his music-making. Even though he began lessons about 5 years ago, he is able to play an astonishing amount of music.

I recently read a book by Dr. Benjamin Bloom called "Developing Talent in Young People" where it detailed a study of 120 people who are at the top of their professions like Olympic swimmers, tennis players and concert pianists. They probed into these people's childhoods and even asked their parents to give information about all sorts of things including the type of coaches or teachers they had growing up. What was noticeable about the concert pianists is that most of them were not seen as particularly gifted in music. What they all had in common was that their first piano teachers were all warm and caring. Thus, their first experiences with piano lessons were positive and fun. These first teachers were not concert pianists, but they knew how to teach children and they knew how to support and inspire these future concert pianists to love playing the piano. The parents also played a large role by being present for lessons and helping with consistent practicing at home. Thus, in a supportive and encouraging environment like these, the concert pianists were able to develop a passion for music while also learning that practicing can be fun but also a lot of hard work. Similarly, the coaches the top tennis players and swimmers first had tended not to be professionals but definitely kid-friendly, making lessons fun and positive and instilling in them a love of their sport. 

I think we should stop focusing so much on prodigies or thinking about them as spontaneously skilled people. Yes, everyone is born with different attributes that predispose us to becoming better at certain activities. What most people usually don't notice is how much time these "prodigies" spend practicing their instruments. It is the long hours spent on their instruments that makes the biggest difference. So instead, let's focus on creating a musically rich environment where music-making can flourish. Let's surround ourselves with music by attending live concerts, making music with others, and also buckling down to practice. Then we will have the inspiration to fuel the passion that drives our daily practice. And if we share our music with others, we can then inspire others to make music, too.

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