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Pint-Size, but Grand on Piano

At 6, Marc Yu has conquered the masters. He dreams of greatness, of Carnegie Hall. And his mother is at his side, every step of the way.

June 22, 2005|Nora Zamichow | Times Staff Writer

If a genie ever granted him three wishes, Marc Yu knows what he would want. He'd ask to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic. And he'd like to play at Carnegie Hall.

Marc plays Bach's Piano Concerto in F minor 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. He is scheduled to play at the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood and to perform with the Capistrano Valley Symphony next month.

Marc is 6.

His grandparents, emigres from China, had wished Marc would play soccer and Game Boy and watch 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 bluejeans and wire-rim glasses. When he thinks something is funny, he wrinkles his nose and flashes a wide, gaptoothed grin.

He stands 46 inches tall and weighs 40 pounds. His hands are too small to reach 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 piano.

Marc is a prodigy. He began piano at age 3 and cello a year later.

"In Marc's case, he could be the next household-name pianist," said Jeffrey Bernstein, director of choral music at Occidental College and assistant conductor of the Pasadena Symphony. "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 fall. The 2 1/2 -hour sessions usually ended about 10 p.m. 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," the conductor recalled. "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 age 10. Coached, everyone wonders, or born gifted?

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

Prodigies learn not just faster but more independently than peers, Winner said.

But for these gifted children, a parent's role is also critical. In Marc's case, his mother's life is so entwined with his that they have practically braided into one.

"I don't know where he begins and she ends," said Suzanne Duarte Jones, Marc's kindergarten teacher. "But he's definitely a driven little boy."

Most prodigies don't become famous adults. In their teens, child prodigies often face a crisis. They are no longer pint-size musicians playing Mozart. Suddenly, peers have caught up.

"You're in a different world, and you're not as special as you once were," said Mac Randall, 33, a writer and former prodigy who started reading at age 2, began using a typewriter at 3 and wrote his first play when he was 4.

For every former child prodigy like cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Sarah Chang, scores wash out. Some lead satisfying lives teaching or playing, and some quit.

Chloe, 33, knows the odds, but she believes that her boy will beat them. She remembers Marc turning to her when he was 3 and announcing that he wanted to be a musician; every step since then has been to achieve his goal.

Periodically, Marc awakens in the night. Sometimes it's because he has heard a new piece and can't sleep because he hungers to hear it again. He once woke Chloe at 4 a.m. saying he needed to practice a Bach prelude that he had just learned.

"Not too many people can be that persistent and dedicated," Chloe said. "With that attitude, I think he'll succeed."

What if he doesn't?

"Hmmm," she said. "I haven't really thought about that."


Marc may be destined for dorkhood. He has no interest in popular music. He scorns video games. And at his first recitals his mother dressed him in a pink suit -- because a feng shui expert told her that pink, purple and red were Marc's lucky colors.

If you ask Marc about TV shows, he stares blankly. He does not watch television. At friends' houses, he sometimes turns off their sets and scolds them for watching too much.

But ask who his favorite painters are, and he rattles off three: Picasso, Kandinsky, Van Gogh.

In kindergarten, he would like to use earplugs for music class, but teachers won't let him. His hearing, he says, is so crucial that he doesn't want to risk possible damage while the boombox loudly plays children's songs and classmates sing and bang tambourines and drums. In Marc's world, this is not music, it is noise.

"Most kids like classical music," he said, "but unfortunately, they don't have the chance to learn it."

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