Child prodigies how do they do it

Miraculous talents - small children, great deeds - that's what makes child prodigies tick

Small children, great deeds - that's what makes child prodigies tick

Giftedness is proven to be inherited. But: Without intensive training that starts early, even the best facility rarely develops into a child prodigy. This is where fathers turn into tiger dads.

It is a sensation even before it plays the first note. The violinist Leia Zhu is two heads shorter than all the musicians of the Festival Strings, in the middle of which the girl in Lucerne's KKL stands. Black buckle shoes, white princess dress, girlish hair tied in two tails, the eleven-year-old waits, bobbing in time, for her assignment.

When he comes, you can forget about girls again. The notes on the G string boom like the big ones, the fingers race against the violin bow, and the sounds in Paganini's second violin concerto add to a personal, mature tone. «Unbelievable», whispers a listener in the middle of the music. She might as well have said "miracle". Because Leia Zhu is what is commonly called a “child prodigy”. Outside the stage, Leia's statements are (all too) perfect: “Playing the violin is fun”, the eleven-year-old announced to “Switzerland on the weekend” before her concert.

Pros in the child's body

But what is that, a child prodigy? Developmental psychologist Letizia Gauck sums up the phenomenon that was shown in musicians like Mozart, Michael Jackson and Yehudi Menuhin. And Gauck adds: "Child prodigies is not a scientific definition, because child prodigies are so rare that one can hardly research their development properly."

The more we admire them and the more the media love them: artists and bright minds who are in childlike bodies. Whether on the concert stage, on the chessboard or on the tennis court. They reach a level in their field that should not be physiologically possible at their age. And today, in the omnipresent competition for attention, miracles are a pretty strong currency.

Leopold Mozart recognized this around 250 years ago, who did not waste a day or tour with his son Wolfgang in those early childhood, “until Wolfgang gets old and grows”, as Leopold Mozart feared, “that deprives his merits of astonishment ». Because with these little masters, child and miracle behave inversely: the smaller the child, the greater the miracle.

Perhaps back then, but certainly today, the loud admiration is mixed with the slight suspicion: Is this child a product of parental training? Or even parental drills? Developmental psychologist Letizia Gauck points out: “There is a lot of responsibility in the environment of such a gifted child - but also with us as a society. We all have a choice: do we go to a concert of a child prodigy? Or do we say: No, we don't specifically want to support that. " In the case of Leia Zhu, the all-clear can be given in part: the little violinist attends a public school in Newcastle and has a best friend who also plays the violin. But she is not allowed to appear with Leia: "She has only been playing for a year," explains the child prodigy. Leia herself has been giving concerts since she was four and practicing “two or three hours a day”.

Keyword practice: Everything stands and falls with it. At his performance in Zurich in October 2017, star pianist Lang Lang joked that at the age of three he practiced three hours a day, with four it was four, with five it was five and so on. And while the audience was laughing heartily, Lang Lang stated soberly: "That wasn't really a joke."

Wonder come out!

With many child prodigies, it only comes to light in retrospect that paternal ambition in particular is sometimes drastic. Papa Beethoven used brute force to drill his son Ludwig into a virtuoso - also at night. And Joseph Jackson, father of Michael Jackson, knighted five of his ten children to the legendary band The Jackson Five; He is even said to have administered drugs to the young Michael to delay his voice breaking. Tennis stars like Andre Agassi and Jelena Dokic have written entire books about the violence of their ambitious fathers. So is the dark side of the medal of success: No tremendous achievement without violence?

"You can't beat a child who is not gifted or gifted like that," says developmental psychologist Gauck. Because research is unanimous: 50 to 80 percent of our intelligence and talents are inherited. A child prodigy can only develop if the system is in place - under certain circumstances. Letizia Gauck explains: “Behind every such outstanding achievement there are parents who at least temporarily motivate. Motivation is a minimum requirement. " In good German this means: the parents practice actively and intensively with the child so that the notes or tennis balls are thrown: faster and faster, higher and higher, more and more precise.

The inner engine

But where is the will or even the best interests of the child? Does both go down in silence between Wimbledon and Vivaldi? Letizia Gauck had the opposite experience: "Most of those who make music at this level have an intrinsic motivation." To put it casually, enthusiasm and talent in child prodigies are in the same area. Michael Jackson said - whipping or not - as a ten-year-old: "I don't sing if I don't really mean it." As a six-month-old baby, Leia Zhu also listened to music with stringed instruments on the radio. When the girl was three and a half, she got a toy violin. From then on it went very quickly: As a four-year-old Leia played her first concert in front of 1,000 spectators.

Since then, the course has been set for the little violinist. She studies with Itzhak Rashkovsky in London and attends master classes in Zakhar Bron's Swiss child prodigy forge. Developmental psychologist Letizia Gauck points out: "It is a risk to put everything on one card."

She advocates more childhood miracles: “When children receive so much positive feedback for their performance in one area, it becomes more and more difficult to ask: What else might interest me? Then you have never discovered many other skills and areas that you would also enjoy. " Leia Zhu can laugh about that: "I have many interests: I really like history lessons, literature and creative writing." Nevertheless, the question remains: how much longer?

Here you can read the interview with neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke, who researches the brains of musicians.