Monday, April 19, 2021

Born to Groove, Kids and Music 2: Prodigies R’ Us

Prodigy: a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities. That’s what the dictionary says. Not all fields have them, but them seem especially prevalent in chess, math, and music. And YouTube has plenty of musical prodigies.

Perhaps you’re looking for a violinist, a contemporary Yehudi Menuhin, or a pianist, a Mozart. Soon enough. Here’s Nandi Bushell, a drummer:

She’s got showmanship too, twirling her drumsticks. She’s just one of I don’t know how many excellent child drummers on YouTube.

Here’s a six-year old who goes by the name of Miumiu Guitargirl. She’s primarily a guitar player, but she also plays drums, bass, and sings too.

Mozart couldn’t have done that, the technology didn’t exist.

But he could have performed this. He wrote it. Mysin Elisei plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 3:

How good is the performance? I don’t really know. I’m not familiar with the piece. But I suspect that someone more attuned to classical piano could tell that the performer is not a seasoned professional. It’s doesn’t quite matter though. The child is a remarkable musician.

Even if I didn’t see her the next performer (no name is given) I could tell that this is not an adult. Her voice sounds strained at times, and thin. And I know this aria well enough to know that she misses some slurred triplet figures about two-thirds of the way through (about 2:01).

But she’s committed. As you may recognize, she’s singing “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a notoriously difficult piece which goes unusually high, even for an operatic soprano. The Queen of the Night sings this while she’s urging her daughter to kill the high priest, Sarastro, hence the girl’s dramatic gestures. Play acting? Sure, it’s opera. we have some young violin prodigies. They’re presented by TwoSetViolin, a pair of professional violinists, Brett Yang and Eddie Chen, who have been on YouTube since 2013. What they do is difficult to describe, but they present classical music, with a particular emphasis on violin. They’re comic and have invented a mythical super-violinist named Ling Ling, who practices 40 hours a day. In some episodes they mock televised talent contests, with particular mockery reserved for violinists who claim to play the fastest version of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” In other episodes they’ll watch actors playing violinists in this or that drama and remark on how authentic their performances are.

And they often feature violin prodigies. In this episode we have five, aged 10, 12, 7, 13, and 10, respectively (totaling 52). Brett and Eddie listen to their performances without seeing them. They then guess their ages. When they’re heard all five they add up their scores; the one whose total comes closest to the correct total is declared the winner in this mock contest. The winner then gets to pick a piece that the looser must attempt to perform. The piece must be one of those performed by the prodigies.

Here they go:

Notice their reactions to the playing. It’s a complex juggling act in which they appreciate and acknowledge the abilities of these children and deal with anxieties about their own playing – they are, after all, trained professionals. They are good, but not THAT good. Notice that they tend to over-estimate to over-estimate the ages. They also make interesting comments on the performances, things you might not notice unless you were a violinist.

Prodigy-hood is a well worn cultural trope. These kids are super-human and we are not worthy. Brett and Eddie are playing with that trope and thereby naturalizing the prodigies and reclaiming their own musicianship.

Here’s another TwoSet video, but there are no prodigies in this one. Rather, Brett and Eddie perform Paganini’s well-known Caprice 24, which I first heard as Rachmaninoff had transformed it into Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It is a set of variations, each 16 bars long. Brett and Eddie split the first eight bars of each variation, and then Hillary Hahn plays the last eight. Hahn, of course, is a first tier soloist who was once a prodigy.

There’s a catch. They perform while spinning hula hoops. Brett explains, looking at Eddie: “What’s gonna happen is I’ll play the first part, you repeat it, and Hilary can get the hard parts.” Brett: “Sounds good to me.” They chat a bit, Hillary gets her hoop spinning, the guys catch up, and then Eddie starts. A split second after Hillary starts playing Eddie’s jaw drops and the audience yells their appreciation. She finishes, stops, there’s laughter and applause, she repeats her part. The skill difference obvious. Which is only part of the point; remember, they’re all spinning hula hoops.

Paganini 24 Hula Hoop (with Hilary Hahn)

The performance goes on. They generally pause just a bit after each variation. Eddie almost drops his hoop at one point (c. 2:59). Hillary does drop hers (c. 4:27) – while Brett had moved on to the next variation. They soldier on – if that’s the phrase, perhaps “clown on through” – and finish to much laughter and applause. But, you know, they’re not clowning, not deliberately. They work the performance as well as they can. But the conjunction of virtuoso fiddling with hula hooping is so endearingly demanding that comedy is inevitable.

And what of childhood and prodigies? Try to imagine that last performance where, instead of Hillary Hahn, we have any of the violin prodigies from the previous video. It wouldn’t work very well, perhaps not at all. Hillary Hahn can give herself to the performance as an adult in a way that none of the children could, not even the oldest. Hahn has a place in the world and is secure in it, as are Brett and Eddie. Her participation allows us all to affirm that we are in this together. The prodigies are still growing. In that context performance their childhood still sets them apart, it may even exaggerate the distance.

That is the danger of prodigious ability at an early age. It can be off-putting and isolating. When Brett and Eddie react to the prodigies in the first video they are reacting to performances. There is no interaction between them and the performances. In the second video, the three perform together, in the same space, before the same audience and ultimately to the same applause. Yes, the audiences reacts to Hahn differently then she reacts to Brett and Eddie; no one is surprised about that. Think of that surprise and laughter as a gift, from her to them in some sense, but really, from them to us all.

Prodigy Bonus

In this video we see TwoSet follow the progress of YoEun Seol from 2 years and 8 months to 4 years.

Here we see her on television with Henry Lau, who has done a series of videos with young musicians. She’s eight years old. Notice that he fixes some food for her at about three minutes in.

Note: Part one in this series: Three examples.

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