Asian Child Prodigies
Mozart and Beethoven are commonly cited as child prodigies. In more recent times, many Asian child prodigies from Yo-Yo Ma and Abigail Sin to Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son and Eric Lo Shih-kai have produced amazing accomplishments while children. Parents, teachers and intense devotion to practice or training are often highly influential in the development of child prodigies, though the mystery remains whether prodigies are born or created. As Andrew Marshall (2003) writes, “The brains of very smart children appear to function in startlingly different ways from those of average kids. But the question on every parent’s mind remains: Are prodigies born, or can prodigies be made” (p. 1)?
Because many child prodigies are recognized early for their unique abilities or talents, parents, teachers, and training often play an important role in the development of their prodigious capacities. This may be why many child prodigies still living are of Asian descent. As Lucie Renaud (2000) writes, “Lately Asia seems to be the preferred source for prodigies. Eastern society has a tradition of profound respect for accomplishment through hard work and of boundless veneration for teachers and parents” (p. 3). This analysis will provide a biographical account of four Asian child prodigies still living, including their accomplishments and influences responsible for their success. A conclusion will address whether child prodigies suffer more than their average peers from the stress of being exceptionally gifted.
Yo-Yo Ma was born to Chinese parents in Paris. Arguably the world’s most talented and popular cellist, Yo-Yo Ma was born to Marina Lu and Hiao-Tsiun Ma – both of Chinese origin – in Paris in October, 1955 (Yo-Yo, 2007). At the age of seven, Ma’s parents relocated to New York City. By this age, Ma had already studied violin, viola, and took up the cello at the tender age of four. By the time the five-year-old Ma began performing for audiences, his superior ability and talent were evident to critics and music fans alike. When he was eight years old he appeared on American television for the first time, in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Yo-Yo, 2007). Ma’s extraordinary talent was immediately apparent to anyone who heard the young boy’s impressive performances.
Remarkably, by the time Ma was fifteen he had not only graduated from high school but had performed as a “soloist” with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in their performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations,” (Yo-Yo, 2007, p. 1). Yo-Yo Ma was undoubtedly heavily influenced in his musical aspirations by his mother, a singer, and his father Hiao-Tsiun, a conductor and composer. However, the grueling practice, training, and schedule of appearances the young Ma endured made him suffer a crisis regarding whether or not to continue his studies. After studying at Julliard School of Music under Leonard Rose, he attended Columbia University and then Harvard (Yo-Yo, 2007). However, he was unsure if he wanted to continue until being inspired by a Pablo Casals performance.
Despite Yo-Yo Ma’s personal and career crisis, he was already famous and had performed with a majority of the greatest orchestras in the world before he was 20 (Yo-Yo, 2007). Most prodigies prefer to have the best tools at their disposal, whether it is a musical instrument, paintbrushes, or a golf club. Yo-Yo Ma is no different in this sense. His personal favorite for important performances was a “Domenico Montagnana 1733” cello that was crafted in Italy and has the nickname of “Petunia” (Yo-Yo, 2007, p. 2). In a stressful incident, the nearly 300-year-old cello was inadvertently left behind in a taxi cab, but to Ma’s delight the instrument valued at more than $2.5 million was returned in perfect condition (Yo-Yo, 2007, p. 2). In later years, Ma performed with the orchestras responsible for film scores, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha, both in collaboration with famed Star Wars composer John Williams.
Ma’s playing style is broader in range than is typically associated with most classical musicians. One music critic has labeled Ma’s style “omnivorous” and his versatility is one of his most renowned talents (Yo-Yo, 2007, p. 3). Ma has made many notable appearances during his career, including being the first artist to perform at the site of the World Trade Center attacks during the first year anniversary of the tragedy. The names of the dead were read as he performed. One of Ma’s closest friends is Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs, and Ma has performed at many of the company’s keynote presentations. Ma also performed a version of Sting’s “Fragile” with the pop artist at the opening of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah (Yo-Yo, 2007, p. 3).
Ma maintains that his personal experiences as well as his prodigy ones are reflective of the increasing unity of the world’s cultures. In an interview, Ma maintained, “Look at me. Born in Paris to Chinese parents. Brought up in New York. Mother raised as a Christian, father as a Buddhist. Playing Bach at four. Harvard graduate. I’m a perfect example of how culture has gone global.” True to this statement, the Kofi Annan, ambassador of the United Nations (U.N.) designated Ma “Peace Ambassador” in 2006 (Yo-Yo, 2007). Yo-Yo Ma has won 15 Grammy Awards among numerous others and continues to delight audiences worldwide with his prodigious and moving talent. In 1977, Ma married his “long-time” girlfriend Jill Hornor and the couple has two children, Nicholas and Emily (Yo-Yo, 2007, p. 2). They currently reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Unlike Yo-Yo Ma’s privileged economic status as a child, child chess prodigy Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son grew up in abject poverty in his family’s “ramshackle” house in the Mekong Delta (Marshall, 2003, p. 1). Son was born in Vietnam in February, 1990 in what is known as the Kien Giang Province (Nguyen, 2007). Like Yo-Yo Ma, however, Son’s parents were avid chess players, which greatly influenced the prodigy who as a toddler begged them to let him play the game. Son’s parents were delighted and shocked when the toddler they felt would strew the chess pieces around like play toys seemed to know the game. As Marshall (2003) reports, at the age of three “He not only knew how to set up the board, which was crudely fashioned with a piece of plywood and felt-tipped pen…but…He had, by careful observation, learned many of the complex rules of the game” (p. 1). Amazingly, in less than a month Son was routinely defeating his parents without trouble and by the time he was 4-years-old was “competing in national tournaments” against players much older than he (Marshall, 2003, p. 1).
At 12, in 2003, he was named Vietnam’s youngest champion and was a “grand master in the making” (Marshall, 2003, p. 1). It is ironic that many child prodigies are influence by their parents and teachers, because both of Son’s parents are educators. However, even they cannot explain the amazing abilities of their child who they believe could never be trained to achieve his seemingly “preternatural” abilities (Marshall, 2003, p. 1). This extraordinary ability at such an early age is defined by Son as “I just see things on the board and it always made sense to me,” but his skills add to the debate over whether prodigies are born or made (Marshall, 2007, p. 1).
Eric Lo Shih-kai is another Asian child prodigy whose humble origins had little impact on acting as a barrier to the development of his extraordinary abilities at golf. The son of a retired Taiwanese bus driver, at the age of 13 Shih-kai became the youngest person ever to play in a Professional Golf Association (PGA) European Tour event (Marshall, 2003, p. 4). Shih-Kai’s youthful daily routine demonstrates why prodigies are often ridiculed by their peers and can become frustrated over the grind they must endure to be at the top of a career that puts them in competition with talented and experienced adults. He wakes at six, jogs for an hour, and then practices his golf shots until school starts which lets out at four in the afternoon. Then the real work begins: “He heads to the golf course where he spends the next five to six hours on drills, sometimes driving 300 golf balls in a session” (Marshall, 2003, p. 4).
Shih-kai’s father is also his coach, something reminiscent of Tiger Woods but a common teacher/parent influence of many child prodigies. Shih-kai admits he is not like his “normal” classmates and his father says “There is nothing else in his life” but golf (Marshall, 2003, p. 4). Shih-kai shows that a child prodigy may be very gifted, but this does not mean that commitment and dedicated and countless hours of grueling training are not required to fully develop one’s potential even if a prodigy.
Abigail Sin, at the age of ten, is Singapore’s “most celebrated young pianist” (Marshall, 2003, p. 2). Sin is not only a musical prodigy but started reading at two, and she is ranked in the top 1% in Australia University’s international math competition (Marshall, 2003). Despite her intelligence, it is her music that qualifies her as a child prodigy; the youngest Singaporean musician ever awarded the prestigious Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music diploma in “piano performance” (Marshall, 2003). Though she does not have parents who are musicians and it is a tutor in piano, Benjamin Loh, who is her biggest influence, Sin does have what Marshall (2003) maintains all child prodigies share in common; “a single-minded drive to excel” (p. 2).
Sin’s practice schedule is no less grueling than Shih-kai’s golf routine. Her brother, gifted in numbers as well but not music, laments, “She always practices the same thing over and over again” (Marshall, 2003, p. 2). Sin spends a minimum of twenty-five hours each week practicing piano. Born in 1992, she made her debut as a “concerto soloist” in 2002 with the Braddell Heights Symphony, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 (Sin, 2007). While prodigies may be born, once more we see in the example of Abigail Sin that they are also typically driven by an all-consuming passion for the particular gift or ability they possess.
In sum, the above Asian talents are representative of the kind of early talent and ability associated with child prodigies. Yet many child prodigies suffer great stress due to the high expectations placed upon them by parents, teachers, and others. Japanese child prodigy table-tennis star Ai Fukuhara, who started playing ping-pong at three and competed in the 2004 Olympics at 14, maintains she “wants her life back” (Marshall, 2003, p. 5). Fukuhara maintains the grueling schedule she maintains and the bitterness of defeat have left her little life of her own. Yo-Yo Ma’s lesser known sister, violinist Yeou-Cheng Ma, says of her own grueling childhood training, “I traded my childhood for my good left hand” (Marshall, 2003, p, 5). Abigail Sin even admits that at times she would rather “play with Jacky,” her terrier, than practice (Marshall, 2003, p. 5). Indeed, Renaud (2000) claims, “We may well wonder whether being a child prodigy is a blessing or a curse” (p. 4)! For those discussed herein, being a child prodigy has been more blessing than curse. However, for many child prodigies the high expectations and grueling schedule that is different from the lives of their peers can have damaging and long lasting effects. However, despite the mystery surrounding whether prodigies are born or made, it appears they are half-born, half-made, and typically recognized at a very early age like those covered here.