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Child's Play at a High Level

Musical prodigies are the budding Mozarts of the 21st century, but the odds are against most students reaching Carnegie Hall.

February 01, 1998|Kristin Hohenadel | Kristin Hohenadel is an occasional contributor to Sunday Calendar

NEW YORK — Inside Room 530 at the Juilliard School of Music, Dorothy DeLay is in the midst of cultivating her latest miracle: a 9-year-old violinist named Rachel Lee. The child is dressed in a pinstriped jumper, white ankle socks and shiny black patent leather shoes. Her long hair is drawn back with a velvet bow.

In a barely audible voice, she announces: "I'm going to play Mozart's Sonata in G major." Then she lifts her half-size violin purposefully to her chin and begins to play by heart, her eyes cast mostly at the floor or stealing glances at her bow arm, to keep it straight.

Nearby her mother, Karen Lee--eyes closed, head bowed, her face resting on her fist--listens intently. In the corner, Miss DeLay, as she is always called, makes pencil notes on the score. Rachel plays the music brightly, as it was intended, but she does not play like a child. Her fingers are nimble and lightning quick; her violin is indeed singing.

"Thank you!" DeLay says when Rachel finishes. "I liked the way you played that," she adds with a note of relish, casting a beam of her high-powered charm toward the child, who swallows a whispered thank you, nods and drops her hands respectfully at her sides.

The beloved guru of choice for aspiring young musicians, DeLay, 80, has for more than 40 years coached some of the world's greatest talents, including violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Midori, Gil Shaham, Nigel Kennedy and Sarah Chang.

DeLay says that Rachel Lee, a Korean American fourth-grader who moved from Chicago to New York in 1996 with her family so she could study at Juilliard, is "one of the most talented students" she has ever seen walk through the door of Room 530. That's why she introduced the youngster to Neale Perl, executive director of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society and organizer of its annual Prodigy Series, which Rachel opens Saturday. Designed to showcase musicians Perl hopes will be "the great artists of the 21st century," the series continues through April with 15-year-old cellist Alisa Weilerstein from Cleveland and 13-year-old pianist Arthur Abadi from Rancho Santa Margarita.

It's difficult to pin down a precise definition of what a musical prodigy is, but DeLay and others who work with talented kids offer a variation on this theme: a child with a rare and precocious ability to execute technically advanced pieces of music, rendering them with an expressiveness that would seem beyond their grasp.

But just how precocious and how talented and at what age? Mozart was a sensation at age 5. Yo-Yo Ma played for Pablo Casals at 7. Yehudi Menuhin debuted with the San Francisco Symphony when he was 8. Midori performed with the New York Philharmonic at 11.

La Jolla's prodigies have their own credentials: Abadi performed with the Pacific Symphony at age 6. Weilerstein gave her first public performance just six months after starting cello lessons, at 5. And at age 8, when Perl first heard her play, Rachel Lee made the 55-year-old music administrator cry.

Whatever a prodigy's talent and early accomplishments, all roads do not necessarily lead to Carnegie Hall. The most promising children may become the next great artists, or they may settle into the more ordinary roles of orchestra member or music teacher. They may burn out or lose interest and abandon music altogether.

"Most prodigies don't make it," says Ellen Winner, a developmental psychologist at Boston College who studies gifted children. Far less than 1% of all children have what can be called prodigious talent, and only a fraction of those will end up forging impressive solo careers. Of the 330 students now enrolled in the Juilliard Pre-College Division (not all of them considered prodigies), only three have recording contracts at major labels: 17-year-old violinist Sarah Chang, 15-year-old violinist Han-Na Chang and 15-year-old pianist Helen Huang.

On the gray December afternoon of this her first interview, Rachel Lee betrays no interest in the fame that could lie ahead. Instead, every fiber of her 9-year-old self seems just to want to play music and "play good." She comes home from school every day and makes herself practice ("One thing that helps me work is to keep my school clothes on," she says). Her favorite musician is the late Jascha Heifetz, despite the Spice Girls worship among her schoolmates ("They will, like, insult Beethoven," she says with a pained smile. "They say that guy's old."). And she has to constantly meet her own high standards.

"I don't really think of myself as a prodigy. I just play," she says.

Just a violinist then?

"I don't think I'm a violinist yet," she says, without noticing the look of surprise on her mother's face, "I'm practicing to be one."

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