The Myth of Precocity

Musico-scientific omnivore Brian McLaren points me to an interview with Malcolm Gladwell that debunks the significance of child prodigies. Gladwell was a child prodigy athlete who, as a teenager, found that his native talent was actually little better than mediocre. Becoming fascinated by the phenomenon, he studied it and found that the correspondence between remarkable early achievement and adult success in a field is actually almost statistically insignificant:

…the young Mozart’s prowess can be chalked up to practice, practice, practice. Compelled to practice three hours a day from age three on, by age six the young Wolfgang had logged an astonishing 3,500 hours — “three times more than anybody else in his peer group. No wonder they thought he was a genius.” So Mozart’s famous precociousness as a musician was not innate musical ability but rather his ability to work hard, and circumstances (i.e., his father) that pushed him to do so.

“That is a very different definition of precociousness than I think the one that we generally deal with.”

A better poster child for what precociousness really entails, Gladwell hinted, may thus be the famous intellectual late-bloomer, Einstein. Gladwell cited a biographer’s description of the future physicist, who displayed no remarkable native intelligence as a child but whose success seems to have derived from certain habits and personality traits — curiosity, doggedness, determinedness — that are the less glamorous but perhaps more essential components of genius.

The classical music world would do well to keep this in mind. We have a lot of brilliant composers going unperformed because their breakthrough came in their ’40s – while we are relentlessly subjected to lousy music by composers who wrote a seemingly precocious piece once in grad school. Penderecki comes to mind – has he written anything worth sitting through since the ’60s? And was his Threnody, penned at 26, anything more than a frisson of novel sounds? Therefore we are subjected to his uninsightful conservative mimickry, his pseudo-portentous Lisztian paeans to the chromatic scale, forever, as he racks up music awards a handful at a time? In classical music, precocity is an ironclad predictor of adult success – only because no one ever notices if you don’t live up to your early promise.

I actually had an experience similar to Gladwell’s. I was the “math genius” of my high school. I would occasionally look at an algebra problem and the correct answer would fly into my head, after which I’d have to work it out and prove it was correct. I’d catch my trigonometry teacher’s mistakes. My teachers all urged me to go into math until I got into calculus, where it abruptly became apparent that my talent for all higher-level math was pedestrian at best. (Turns out, the math I had facility in was exactly the type needed for working in just intonation.) The difference between me and some of our Pulitzer hacks is that I am not enabled to inflict my mathematical expertise on the world just because of some deceptive early successes.

(By the way, don’t just take my word on Penderecki. Even his bio in Grove Dictionary expresses doubts: “In 1998 he wrote in a foreword to a catalogue of his sketches that he felt he was getting close to the essence of music. By implication, these views are somewhat dismissive of his music of the 1960s, arguably his most distinctive contribution to 20th-century culture. Penderecki is a composer who has consistently engaged with the issues of the outside world, sometimes with piety, often with apparent anger and never without passion. Nevertheless, his stylistic shifts have often raised more questions than answers.”)


  1. Peter says

    Two comments, Kyle:
    First, Einstein’s personal history supports your argument in another way. His story usually gets told in terms of the clever theoretician, wasting his day on mundane tasks in the Swiss patent office, while spending his evenings working on new theories of physics. In fact, his work in the patent office, investigating and approving new electrical devices and machines for synchronizing clocks, had immense and direct bearing on his physics theories. He stayed in the patent job 11 years, repeatedly refusing very attractive offers from academia — not the reaction of a bored patent clerk. Moreover, he had grown up as the son of an electrical goods manufacturer, working for his father in the factory, and even late in his life was still inventing (and filing his own patents for) new electrical devices. This is a guy who liked to tinker with electricity!
    The sociologist of science Peter Galison has argued that this personal interest in electronics and clocks was crucial to the development of his theories. See Gallison’s book: “Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time” (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2003).
    Second, it sounds to me that you could have made a good algebraist. Not all mathematics consists of calculus, thank goodness! Indeed, even set theory is just one possible base foundation for the subject, and not even the only one found so far. Category theory provides another, more algebraic, foundation.
    KG replies: Your faith in me is flattering. But I did try to bypass calculus by taking ring theory, and found that I just couldn’t keep up with the math majors. They were competent at careful, step-by-step logic, and all I had were good looks and lightning intuition.

  2. says

    Having just sat through a performance tonight of a recent Penderecki piece at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, I can concur! As the on-stage MC I had to look interested, but while the performers put on a great show I’m afraid my brain slowly frosted over during the 30 minutes of .. drab .. drabness .. ness ..
    & having seen a recent documentary on him – in which he strolls from his generous villa and shows us his bulging vineyards – i’m sure that the early exposure and subsequent key awards have done him no harm.
    mind you, aren’t there plenty of examples of composers who really only became well-known, or mature, firstly in their late 30s or 40s, and go on to be great names? ligeti, glass, andriessen to name a recent few. & folk like part and vasks were well-bearded and bald long before they scored their record deals.
    even haydn – who went into esterhazy seclusion aged 30 – only really cracked it big time in his 60s!
    i’m just glad that – thanks in no small part to the ‘downtown revolution’ – age no longer need matter (isn’t that one of the lessons?). we have the internet, home recording, the notion of forming our own groups. & i can think of barely 2 people under 35 who are really doing anything that new.
    KG replies: Yes, that’s Gladwell’s point, that some early achievers do continue to make great art, but that the correlation is only somewhere in the 30 percent area and shouldn’t be assumed.
    And age doesn’t matter – as long as you’re good with electronics, can perform your own music, have your own orchestra, are independently wealthy enough to not be consumed by a day job, or are otherwise not in the least dependent on all those organizations which are only looking around for either young or already-famous composers to support. Then everything’s peachy. It’s only the orchestra audiences who suffer, because they get told over and over that Penderecki-like crap is the best new music around.

  3. RES says

    Didn’t Bach say something to the effect that anyone who worked as hard as he did could achieve as much?
    KG replies: Yes, and Mozart insisted that his success came from hard work and careful study of other composers’ music. He hated the divinely-inspired, idiot savant image that his father created to infantilize him.

  4. Chris sahar says

    I expressed the exact sentiments over at sequenza21 site.
    I would add to what makes a person great at what he or she does is a healthy dose of insecurity. And that is hard to admit without resorting the correctives American culture purveys with its corrective books, workshops and seminars — it is those periods when all you thought you knew or all that seemed sure is thrown away. The bravery is realizing Aurelius’ famous quote: “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgemnt of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.”
    By the way as a composer my “heroes” are Hadyn and, to a lesser extent, Stravinsky as both worked VERY hard to achieve what they did but it wasn’t for them because they loved doing it at the end of the day.

  5. melanie letson says

    I am a year 11 student currently studying Penderecki’s “threnody to the victims of Hiroshima”. I would like to state right now that I do not have a big background in music but after stumbling across this blog in an attempt to find info on the man himself and then promptly reading the entire thing with great interest i feel there is one thing missing. There are discussions of how boring his pieces are when performed and i would have to most certainly disagree. When i was first played the threnody i did not know a lot about Hiroshima and yet at the end of it i felt connected to the victims, i had goosebumps all over and was truly overwhemed with emotion. The piece left me wondering, left me wanting more. I also experienced throughout the piece amazing imagery in my mind, the piece painted a picture in my mind, so much detail, so much passion! This, is what i feel is missing from these blogs, Is the point of music not passion, sharing emotions with one another, communicating, connecting? I urge you to get a copy of this piece and sit down, close your eyes and listen, forget the world and just imagine. Penderecki’s passion will overwhelm you.
    KG replies: I’ll happily admit that Threnody is a far more exciting experience than any of his post-1980 music I’ve heard. And I agree that music should be passionate, in every respect. Thanks for sharing your experience.