August 16, 2005


Prodigy on a grand scale (Nora Zamichow, July 23-24, 2005, LOS ANGELES TIMES)

Marc [Yu] plays Bach on the piano from memory. On cello, he glides through Vivaldi. He practices at least six hours a day.

He has memorized more than 15 works, including a piece more than 20 pages long. He has composed 10 short pieces.

Marc is six.

His grandparents, emigres from China, had wished that Marc would play soccer and videogames and watched television. They had hoped he'd be, well, like other boys. And in some ways he is.

He loves spaghetti and meatballs. His favorite color is red. He likes to play hangman. He wears jeans and wire-rim glasses. When he thinks something is funny, he wrinkles his nose and flashes a wide, gap-toothed grin.

He stands 1.2 meters tall and weighs 18 kilograms. His hands are too small to cover an octave on the piano. His legs are too short to reach the pedals - he uses a special extender. But when he plays, music pours effortlessly from the instrument.

Marc is a prodigy. He began piano at the age of three and cello a year later.

"In Marc's case, he could be the next household name pianist,'' says Jeffrey Bernstein, director of choral music at Occidental College and assistant conductor of the Pasadena Symphony in southern California. "Plenty of music majors at college don't have his facility at the keyboard. I believe anything is possible for him.''

Bernstein met Marc when the boy and his mother, Chloe, began attending rehearsals of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony last autumn. The 2½ hour sessions usually ended at 10pm. Marc sat rapt. After a few rehearsals, he asked Bernstein for a copy of the score. One night, he played a Mozart piece for Bernstein.

"It blew me away,'' Bernstein recalls. "I never heard someone this accomplished at this age. It's startling.''

History is punctuated by prodigies, children who perform at an adult level before the age of 10. Coached, everyone wonders, or born gifted?

"You really can't make a prodigy,'' says Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College. "Prodigies have a precocity and a rage to master - a very intense drive, a passion.'' [...]

Marc and Chloe live in a tiny two-bedroom home with a stamp-sized lawn in Monterey Park, a largely Asian community 13 kilometers east of Los Angeles. The living room is taken over by two pianos perched perpendicular to each other. Chloe, who is separated from Marc's father, traded houseplants, some furniture and a small refrigerator for the second piano, a used Yamaha. A glass dining table is littered with Marc's maths and writing workbooks and his latest stash of library art books. Bars cover the windows and closed blinds banish the sunlight. There are no toys in this room.

On a recent morning, Marc got up at 6.30am, took a shower and practiced for about 45 minutes before eating breakfast.

He's six and he showers?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 16, 2005 1:17 PM

Typical American? This article gives height in "meters", weight in "kilograms", and distances in "kilometers". This is NOT American, this is abomination!

Posted by: b at August 16, 2005 1:42 PM

He's six and he eats breakfast?

Posted by: Peter B at August 16, 2005 1:44 PM

He's six and he sleeps?

Posted by: David Cohen at August 16, 2005 1:57 PM

Yeah - but how does it sound? Am I the only one who is usually turned off by these prodigies? It certainly is amazing when young kids can play with such technical ability but their performances end up being somewhat of a freak show if you ask me.

Technical ability is only a small part of making great classical music and I find these kids usually lack the most important feature of a musician - musicality. I'd rather hear a less technically adept adult play with some real emotional acuity than hear some kid give a technically perfect performance with all the emotional expression of, well, a child.

Posted by: Shelton at August 16, 2005 3:34 PM


I couldn't find the Times's own version on-line--this is from some Chinese paper.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2005 3:55 PM

notwithstanding b's metric aversion, i was puzzled by just what oj found typically american about young master yu.

in my experience, americans are not typically fond of classical music at all, nor particularly enamored with the cello. definitely not apt to practice anything for six hours a day.

america doesn't typically produce prodigies of any stripe. people with lots of rage and intense drive, to be sure, but not especially passionate.

shelton seems more typically american to me: skeptical, dismissive, curmudgeonly, apt to read things not present into things. did the article mention marc yu's "technical ability" anywhere?

Posted by: lonbud at August 16, 2005 8:49 PM


Not what, who.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2005 8:52 PM

america [sic] doesn't typically produce prodigies of any stripe.

One would have to read no periodical, nor watch any informational TV, to seriously believe such twaddle.

Shelton was neither dismissive nor curmudgeonly.
He simply expressed a preference for an adult's greater emotional range.

Talk about "reading things not present".

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 17, 2005 6:03 AM


No country "typically" produces prodigies. That's why they are called prodigies.

Posted by: Peter B at August 17, 2005 9:21 AM