Polymaths, Not Prodigies

Polymaths, Not Prodigies

It’s exactly the skill sets I was once encouraged not to cultivate that have proven most important to being a musician.

Written By


The area around Unter den Linden by the Staatsoper is now in full-on “Christmas Walk” mode, replete with the requisite decorations, vendors, and ever-present Glühwein. With all the singing, dancing, and games, it’s something like the small-town fairs I know from the States. The children run around in groups, seemingly unattended and joyful.

In the building nearby, though, I enter to find a very different group of kids, neatly lined up with violins under arm, absolutely still and pensive. I feel a little bit awkward as I pass; after all, I’ve been asked to serve on the judge’s panel for this regional youth performance competition, and the knowledge that I’ll soon be required to numerically rank the musical accomplishments of these 6- to 10-year-old kids makes me feel like a big jerk.

After sitting through a few hours of violin rep, however, I find I’m no longer feeling so inhibited about my role as an adjudicator, in part because through their playing these young musicians reveal themselves not as children, but as little adults. Some even perform movements from major concertos with an adult-sized portion of musicianship and maturity.

Later that night, I recalled my own abortive experiences with the violin. I had studied violin at the age of five, much due to my family’s suggestion and encouragement. But after a few months I decided it wasn’t for me, and my parents fortunately obliged. As I began to get more involved in music as a teenager, my interest in the violin resurfaced, and I decided I was ready for a serious effort. Overall the experience of really learning an instrument for the first time was a powerful and positive one, yet I always remained acutely conscious of having come at it from an odd angle. In my lessons I was routinely reminded of being a late-bloomer, and of how much farther along I would be now if I had simply “stuck it out.”

As I grew older and began to think about going to school for music, several adults whose opinions I respected advised me with variations on this old chestnut: “If you can imagine yourself having a satisfying career doing anything else besides music, then you would really be better off just doing that.” For a teenager with a whole bunch of interests outside of music, this was certainly cause for alarm. Why was it bad to be a well-rounded person who left themselves more than one unique avenue to happiness and self-fulfillment? At the time, I spent a great deal of energy puzzling over these attitudes, and it actually brought me no small amount of concern.

Today, I can see that devoting myself obsessively to the violin at the expense of all other experiences might have made me a better violinist, but I’ve never been more grateful for having other skills and interests I might not have developed if I had. But more importantly, it’s exactly the skill sets I was once encouraged not to cultivate that have proven most important to being a musician. My interest in writing, graphic design, and computers proved absolutely essential to the craft of composing, and my interest in literature, pop culture, and philosophy ensured that I wouldn’t find myself at a loss for what to write about.

I’m all for having music and music education being a part of children’s lives, and, lest anyone infer otherwise, I also feel that serious study and intensive training regimens can be very positive. But the mythos and cult of the prodigy should have no place in this framework. It’s a worldview that leaves no room for so many of us—the adult learner, the amateur, the educated concertgoer or layperson—and instead invites the worst abuses, especially on the gifted child. With options like Orff and Dalcroze classes, there is an abundance of very healthy activities available for children as young as eighteen months.

In the meantime, six years old still seems a bit young to be onstage competing for a cash prize, too young to divert the developing mind from the great diversity of life’s experiences to such a singular goal. Perhaps it is the polymath, not the prodigy who we should hold up as an ideal: that individual whose knowledge and experiences are not restricted to one area of expertise. Sure, few of us are da Vincis, but few of us are Itzhak Perlmans either! Thankfully, it’s not necessary to possess superhuman (or even above-average) abilities in order to enjoy music. I no longer retain any facility on the violin, but when I go home next week you can be sure I’ll commandeer my wife’s old violin at least once and bust out the opening of some old warhorse with more than a few (unintentional) quarter-tone inflections.