Exploring Characteristics of Prodigies

Innate ability fueled by 'rage to master' is a key driver of young children with exceptional talent

One bright Sunday afternoon, 14-year-old Gavin George sits down at a grand piano in his home in Granville, Ohio, filling the space with the luminous melodies of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux Opus 39, Nos. 2 and 5, and Paderewski’s Nocturne in B major, opus 16, No. 4. Gavin’s playing seems both effortless and all-consuming, as if the instrument is an extension of himself. “He was born for music,” says his father, Eric.

Gavin’s journey as a pianist started early and decidedly. Classical music calmed him as an infant. When he was about a year old, he heard Handel’s Messiah on a Christmas CD and began greeting visitors with “Hallelujah!” As a toddler, Gavin was captivated by a DVD featuring Dutch violinist André Rieu—a gift from Eric to his wife, Mary—and insisted on viewing it repeatedly. His parents enrolled him at three in Suzuki piano lessons. By four, he had learned to read music fluently. When he was just six, Gavin made his musical debut at Carnegie Hall. Kate Kenah, a family friend, recalls seeing him play for the first time. “I was expecting ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ ” she says. Gavin played Beethoven instead. “These small hands, how can they be reaching the keys? And his feet, how are they reaching the pedals?” Kenah remembers thinking. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Gavin George is a prodigy, an individual whose superlative skill in a particular area—math, chess, visual arts, music—soars to a professional level before adolescence. Little is known about the origins of such early mastery, because prodigies are rare and because research dollars tend to be designated for the study of illness rather than exceptional aptitude. Still, a small number of scientists have identified key characteristics. Ellen Winner, director of the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College, and Jennifer Drake, a developmental psychologist at Brooklyn College, have found that precocious artists excel at tasks that require detailed focus and are able to draw realistically and incorporate foreshortening and perspective years before their peers. Drake is now studying a group of 25 art prodigies from around the world—from Malaysia to the United States—to see if she can pinpoint perceptual, behavioral, and personality traits that set them apart from typical children. Are they more open to new experiences, an inherent component of creativity? Do they have heightened visual-spatial skills? “We’re starting to discover what may be contributing to their abilities,” she says.

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