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The Infant Prodigy.


One of the most difficult and trying things in the life of a professional musician is the frequent attack of “infant prodigy.” Hardly a week passes that he is not exposed to a more or less virulent form of it, and no antiseptic or vaccination yet devised renders him immune. He must submit with as good a grace as he may—accept it as a necessary evil and be pleasant about it. These prodigies are as hard to elude as the influenza in March, and almost as common as phenomenal “first babies.” Hardly a State but can boast from one to half a dozen of these doubtful blessings, and no teacher but finds them the most intractable, difficult, and hopeless of pupils to deal with, even when they condescend to take lessons at all, which is by no means always the case; as in the instance of the little girl some years ago, who played for the writer “what the angels told her last Tuesday morning,” and whose mother stated that she did not intend to let the child study, fearing that the spontaneous development of her genius would be warped and hampered by the process.

The type is well defined and recognizable a block away. They all come from little country towns where good music is as unfamiliar as Sanscrit; consequently neither they nor their doting parents and friends have any definite standards with which to compare their crude efforts, or any accurate knowledge, practical or theoretical, of what real music is or should be. They possess an emotional, dreamy temperament, with a strong, instinctive desire for artistic expression, without models, guidance, or clear purpose; they blunder upon a few simple, but sweet, chords on the piano, which seem to them and their friends wonderful and original discoveries, and which are discoveries so far as they are concerned, though they have been the very a, b, c, of music ever since our great grandmothers studied the spinet. These they combine, or rather put together almost any way, in an incoherent, formless, meaningless succession, without rhyme or reason, as one who should make a poem out of the phrases, “How do you do? Pretty well I thank you.” So the tonic and dominant alternate in endless weariness in their so-called compositions, with an occasional trill or straight arpeggio run by way of superlative embellishment, while their delighted friends stand by in rapturous awe and cry, “Behold a composer! A genius!” “We must be careful with whom she studies, if she study at all. This God sent gift must not be tampered with. Mendelssohn was a composer at 10. This little girl writes this wonderful music at 9. A greater than Mendelssohn is here!” They make a slight mistake there. She could not write a measure of it correctly. She only “plays it by ear.” “Inspiration,” of course; but never mind!

At the first opportunity she is taken to some well-known professional musician whose name is supposed to have some weight for his indorsement of her marvelous gifts, and then his troubles begin. Ostensibly he is asked for his opinion and advice, but in reality it is in most cases only the most unqualified and wholesale commendation that is either expected or desired. What is he to do? The innocent child is full of enthusiasm and is doing its very best under its pitiful limitations. The heart of the fond mother is full of this proud hope. Both are sincere, though wofully ignorant. It were cruel to be harsh, and the easiest and by far the pleasantest way for the poor professional is to resist his first impulse to knock their heads together in the hope of knocking some common sense into them, and pass it off with a few complimentary words of a general nature that shall mean little, and send them away rejoicing; thus himself shirking the responsibility and letting the farce go on to its bitter end, for it is sure to be bitter soon or late.

But is this fair to them, to himself, or to his sacred art? No! better to face the situation like a man, and be cruel now, that good may come later, using the knife mercilessly, if he must, for the sake of the possible future. Usually it will do no good, but it may, in some cases, and is his plain duty, no matter how disagreeable and thankless the task. Better say frankly, but kindly:—

“My dear child, you are worse than wasting your time. Any half-trained musician can improvise by the hour infinitely better music than you have made, but would never think of calling it ‘composing,’ or of writing out a measure of it.

“It is to real music just what a 2-year-old child’s babble is to real literature, mere experimenting with the first elements of a language not yet learned. It is sweet to a child’s mother, no doubt; but not very interesting to the world at large. Drop it entirely. Put yourself in the hands of a good instructor for five years at least. Work hard and faithfully, with every faculty you possess strained to the utmost. Then, when you have learned something of musical art, and what others have done with it, if you have any original ideas to express you will know better how to formulate them, and you will know better how to discriminate between the good and the hopelessly commonplace. What you, in your inexperience, have taken for genius is merely the blind groping of your emotional nature for some channel of expression. If you were the first and only musician that had ever lived, it might have some value as a beginning; but remember that tens of thousands have groped before, with a better chance and to greater purpose.

“Music to-day is a well-grown and fully developed art, with established forms and laws, with depths and heights and subtleties of which you do not even dream. You must know it well to use it successfully.

“But be encouraged! The fact that you have been able to do even the little that you have, with such small material and knowledge, indicates that you have a very unusual vein of talent, though it is unworked—that your emotional and esthetical nature is exceptional; in a word, that you possess the endowments of which composers are made; for remember that they are made, they do not ‘just grow’ like Topsy.

“It has been well said that ‘genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.’ It is something more than that, but work is the better half of it, for true genius is a strong bent toward, and special capacity for, some particular line of work, developed by years of toil, fostered by opportunity and favoring conditions, nourished by sacrifice, and watered by the tears of its possessor.

“If you have a real, deep, all-absorbing love for the musical art, give yourself a chance, grasp every opportunity, do the best of which you are capable, learn always, starve always, work always, incessantly, honestly, relentlessly, modestly, and your reward will come. At present you are neither a genius nor a composer, but you may earn the right to be called both.

“Success be with you in the effort, and courage for the thorny, upward path!”

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