Recently two forwards of young children doing extraordinary things landed in my inbox. One was of a little boy waving his arms in tempo to a recording of a Beethoven Symphony, and for all those who are not entirely sure what a conductor really does (i.e. everyone) it might seem as if this little boy propped up on a podium in front of a symphony orchestra might actually make them all play together and in tempo.
The other was of Umi Garrett, an eight-year-old going about the business of playing seriously difficult virtuoso piano pieces by Liszt and Chopin in the same way a builder goes about constructing a piece of furniture or a house - objectively, unaffectedly and unselfconsciously; simply doing the job at hand with as little self-concern as possible.
Let me say first that I have never seen a child like Umi, and I think a lot of it probably has to do with her extraordinary hybrid vigor (Japanese/Irish/German and Polish). But a lot of is just Umi - she is obviously a very understanding and caring little person as well as extremely intelligent, and she has a genuine and infectious sense of humour - a sure sign of intelligence.
And another of my friends offered this truism: "Humour is the ability to see two things at once – i.e. the expected and the actual. Or the assumed and the true. Or the generally accepted and the real. It is a factor of intelligence. The most advanced humor is to see one’s own self image vs. the worst truth. Perhaps it’s just her brain, but there is a sense of fun in there too. Slightly wacky. It must be the Irish in her."One of the many friends and relatives to whom I sent the link said: "Wow! She is absolutely amazing. She makes it look fun and the music just flows beautifully, as though it is effortless."
A few years ago another young lady - also eight years old - made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Centre. On the menu was Paganini's Violin Concerto No.1, a staple of the virtuoso violinists' repertoire.
The critic of the venerable New York Times was somewhat at a loss the next day (this is just before the era of digital newspaper setting, and thus reviews appeared - as they had done for 150 years - the very next day; today, in the digital age, it is impossible to get a concert review in the paper till the second day after the event; go figure). This reviewer was quite nonplussed at the technical expertise he had witnessed, but was not quite sure what to make of it all. He ventured the question "What is the difference between a perfectly mimicked performance and an 'interpretation'?" Is there a difference, and if so, does it matter which one you get. He was sure it did matter, and that a mature interpretation was preferable to an unthinking piece of mimicry, but he wasn't quite sure why - or so he said, as a means of being rhetorical.
A few years before that, an LP (that's what they had before CDs for those of you too young to remember) called 'Classical Barbra' was issued with great fanfare and plastered all over the windows of the HMV store in Oxford st. and elsewhere around the world. Barbra was of course Barbra Streisand (who else spells Barbara that way?), and this album contained a selection of Schubert lieder and the like. The album was produced by an unlikely Streisand fan, Glenn Gould, sitting in his preferred position - behind the microphone. The reviewer in The Gramophone magazine tried to be respectful of a big-name artist and appreciative of her nod in the direction of this great music, but, like the New York Times writer later on, was at a loss as to what to say. He didn't like the album at all, but genuinely didn't want to be rude, so he compared approaches by various singers to this music - including such masters of the repertoire as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He ended his piece with, "Perhaps a lifetime of living with this music does count for quite a lot."
A friend just gave me a DVD of Van Cliburn performing the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto in Moscow at the time of his celebrated Tchaikovsky Competition win, already over half a century ago. The Russians went bananas over the unlikely virtuoso - a shy, reticent, gangly six-foot-four toothpick from Texas. And with good reason. This was Rachmaninoff as it should be played - light, fleet, nostalgic, elegant, yet with romantic ardor seeping out of every phrase. The only drawback is Cliburn's inability to shape the dynamics within phrases - the line is always elegant and aristocratic, the pacing perfect, but the variety from note to note in a singing melody is completely missing, producing a flat, static quality. But this performance of Rachmaninoff's famously difficult 3rd concerto was nevertheless indeed magisterial.
Within little more than a decade, Van Cliburn had disappeared from the scene in all but name and persona as the eponymous figurehead of the Van Cliburn Competition. It was wondered whether he could play any more or had been afflicted, like quite a few other American pianists, with some mystery ailment of the hands or psyche. But no, after several decades, he did appear in the odd concert, and there was nothing really wrong with his playing, but it was nothing like the Rachmaninoff playing in the Moscow concerts years before. What could explain this phenomenon? Was it simply that the 23 year-old pianist was 'mimicking' performances of the Rachmaninoff concerto and other pieces as taught to him and coached by his teacher at Juilliard, the celebrated Rosina Lhevinne - who had been a close associate, through her husband Josef, of Rachmaninoff himself. If this was not the case, why could Mr. Cliburn not continue to perform, on his own two feet – or hands – over the years, as one would expect from a finished artist?
The simple truth is, music is a language: it functions exactly as does any language, it behaves in the same way, and it is learnt in exactly the same way. An intelligent five year-old child can learn a foreign language simply by being exposed to it. He has no analytical approach, no understanding of, or interest in, the grammar involved. He or she learns it by mimicking what he hears from the adults speaking it around him or her. The word 'mimicking' is not a criticism; it is what children are supposed to do, what they do best, and the only way in which they can and do learn. If they are exposed to the best, then they will mimic the best. Later on comes self-awareness, and the days of being able to pick up a language - or music - just by hearing it are gone forever. Then other skills must come into play if the young language-speaker or musician is able to transform his talent into something that will have an enduring and valuable impact.
The same applies to learning in all other fields. We cannot analyse when we are young: we can only learn by mimicking, and we have to learn by that method in order to build up our arsenal. Albert Einstein said that "genius consists in knowing how to choose one's sources." Beethoven couldn't have composed his symphonies if he had not mimicked – in the best sense, but nevertheless 'mimicked' – the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn. When his arsenal was thus built up, he could add his own personality – through analytical methods, no longer those of mimicry, which are simply not available to an adult. But the arsenal had to be in place first, learnt the way a language is learnt – by copying those who went before. To quote Einstein again - "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned in school." And in this phase - i.e. from mid-teens on for the rest of our lives – "Imagination is more important than knowledge" (sign hanging in Einstein's office in Princeton).
By the way, one can never tell if an intelligent child who picks up the craft well at the right age – by imitation, the way one learns a language – will make the transition to adult with analytical and imaginative powers. It's a lottery. The eight year-old who played the Paganini violin concerto did go on to an adult career; Barbra never made another classical appearance (although at the time she said that one of the items on her programme - Schubert's Auf dem Wasser zu zingen - was her "all-time favourite song"); and Van Cliburn is a courtly elderly gentleman who presents the prizes at the competition in is name once every four years.
I think Umi is amazingly already in the imagination phase, and as she is such an unselfconscious person she has managed - and doubtless still is doing so - to pick up a great deal for her necessary arsenal in the only way that these things can be done - by listening and imitating. She must have an extraordinary teacher, but she is also open to everything that comes her way, uncluttered by any self-regard. I wish her all the best for the rest of her life.