‘I Never Give Up’: Inside the Life of a Child Prodigy

How do parents raise tiny, piano-playing geniuses? We hung out with Curtis "Mini Mozart" Elton and his mom to find out what greatness looks like.

by Sirin Kale
Jan 6 2017, 4:50pm

All photos by Alice Zoo

Piano prodigy Curtis Elton's answers to my interview questions are as well rehearsed as those of any Fortune 500 CEO. You realize why when you search his name online: The 12-year-old's a media pro. There are literally dozens of stories about Curtis, and no less than three profiles appear in one British newspaper alone.

"I'd like to play at the Royal Albert Hall one day," Curtis tells me from the living room of his family home. He likes Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. His appearances on talk shows have led to him being dubbed the "British mini-Mozart," though he says he doesn't like piano pieces from the 1600s on ("it's all detached, no pedal, so there's no story to it really").

But Curtis is unusual. Child prodigies generally avoid the limelight; those who do go public will endure relentless media attention throughout their childhood. Many are ground down by the pressure.

Take Ruth Lawrence, who graduated from Oxford University aged 13, moved to Israel, and has steadfastly refused media interviews throughout her adult life. ("Unfortunately I will decline the request," she replied gracefully to my email, "as I have with all other similar media requests for many years.") Or shy Andrew Halliburton, who found the stress of being a maths prodigy overwhelming and dropped out of university to work in McDonald's.

Despite enormous public interest in child prodigies, relatively little research exists around the phenomenon. Professor David Feldman, a cognitive development expert at Tufts University, is one of few academics to devote his career to studying child prodigies and savants. When I spoke to him earlier, he told me that there was no accepted definition of a child prodigy when he began his career.

"I had to create one," he explained over the phone from Massachusetts. "It's a child who performs at an adult, professional level in a highly demanding field by the age of ten."

Read more: The Century-Long Battle to Disprove the Myth That All Women Want Children

Finding a child prodigy willing to talk to me was proving difficult until I reached out to Curtis' mom, Hayley. We meet at the Elton family home in a north London suburb. A framed photograph of Curtis dressed as Mozart looms over us in the entrance hallway. Beside it is a plaque that reads, "World's Youngest Graduate Pianist." Curtis is waiting for us with his mom, dressed in a white silk suit.

All photos by Alice Zoo

Technically, Curtis doesn't fulfill the criteria of a child prodigy—at least, not according to Feldman's definition. Hayley claims that Curtis is the youngest person in the world to obtain a university-level degree in music, with a diploma from Trinity College London that takes him to a professional level of performance and musical understanding. As he obtained it when he was 11, however, Curtis is one year past Feldman's eligibility test.

This isn't to say that Curtis is not talented: He is, prodigiously. But being prodigiously talented isn't the same as being a prodigy.

I ask his mother whether experts have ever tested Curtis. "I didn't bother," Hayley responds.

Most child prodigies don't end up being successful, recognized, fulfilled, happy adults. Quite the opposite.

One piano prodigy who does meet Feldman's exacting criteria is 15-year-old George Harliono, who performed his first solo recital at the age of nine. Harliono has played with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and at Britain's Royal Albert Hall, alongside famed Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

"I don't think of myself as a prodigy—actually I don't feel comfortable when people call me that," Harliono explains. "I just think of myself as someone who is quite good at what I do. It's kind of obvious really when you think about it, if you do something that you enjoy and you have the support from the people around you, then you are quite likely to be good at doing that thing. I don't think I was born with a special gene or anything like that."

Of course, Harliono—and Curtis—are exceptional. But what happens when a child grows up believing they're special?

"Most child prodigies don't end up being successful, recognized, fulfilled, happy adults. Quite the opposite," Feldman told me earlier. He estimates around three percent of children with prodigy-levels of ability go on to successful careers in those fields.

"There's so much that has to go right, and stay right—typically, for a decade or more," he explained. "Almost always, things don't sustain themselves through such a long period of time."

Families may lack the resources for specialist tuition, or children might not be able to access the teaching needed to take them to the next level. Besides, there aren't that many opportunities for professional success in many fields. For instance, very few chess prodigies reach Master or Grandmaster level—the rest must adapt to normal working life.

Feldman sounded a cautionary note. "It's important not to have the expectation that every time there's a talented child, you're going to have a wonderful story to tell. More often than not, the story is not so wonderful."

Some adults do seem to want to believe that if a child is particularly good at something, they have a 'magical gift.'

With Feldman's words ringing in my ears, I head to the kitchen for a chat with Hayley. Curtis clearly has a real love for playing piano, which Hayley seems genuinely invested in. But it's clear that she anticipates a certain interpretation of this relentless encouragement.

"Do you ever get negative feedback, that you're pushing him too hard?" I ask.

"No, no," Hayley says. "Everyone is very supportive... At the end of the day, if someone is extremely talented, [you] give them a chance."

But given the potential downsides of pushing talented children too hard, why can't Curtis have a normal childhood?

"You've got to get it right, you need a right balance," she replies defensively. "Some parents go mad on academics: They're narrow-minded and think of academics and nothing else. I think you've got to get the balance right."

Curtis Elton and his mom Hayley

"In all of the cases of child prodigies I've studied," explained Feldman, "at least one of the parents is essentially completely devoted to the development of the child's abilities. They put virtually all of their efforts into that process." According to Feldman, becoming a prodigy requires three things: Natural aptitude, parental support, and the right environment (i.e., not living in a warzone.)

Attaining a prodigy-level ability is, in fact, incredibly hard work. "Some adults do seem to want to believe that if a child is particularly good at something, they have a 'magical gift,'" explains Harliono. "I remember when I won a competition a few years ago a lady came up to me and asked if I even had to practice, because I seemed so naturally gifted." He adds, understatedly, "It's kind of weird considering how much I do practice."

I ask whether he believes as many people really are prodigies as claim to be. "Probably not," he responds. "[I'd imagine] it's usually the parents of the prodigy who are making the claim."

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell uses a study by psychologist Anders Ericsson to make the case that individuals must train for at least 10,000 hours to achieve greatness in their chosen field. "I might work on a piece for hundreds of hours just to give a 30 minute performance," Harliono says.

If you have an intelligent child, why would you hold them back?

Despite the fact that evidence points to the importance of practice and rehearsal, many parents may prefer to imply their children have exceptional, inherent gifts that have developed without any parental direction.

"He could handwrite very early; read books very early—before he was three," Hayley says of Curtis. "Everything was early so I knew he was clever. When he started on the piano he played properly, with his fingers, which is very unusual—usually children just bang the keyboard. It became apparent at three."

Listening to Hayley talk, I wonder if she's so keen to emphasize Curtis' natural talent because of the Western cultural aversion towards aggressively pushy, Chinese-style models of parenting. In contour, the prodigy origin myth resembles the lies a whip-thin actress might tell a journalist about loving junk food. We know it's not true, but we prefer to suspend disbelief.

I ask Curtis if he thinks he's special. "Yes," he replies unhesitatingly. "Because I'm rather gifted at the piano, I do a lot of things, and I never give up."

Given all the downsides of being a child prodigy—the loss of a normal childhood, the media scrutiny, the time commitment—it's hard to see why parents want their children to be prodigies. One explanation is prosaic: It helps them get into highly rated colleges and universities.

"It's gotten caught up with the upper middle class college admissions mania," Feldman told me. "You're looking for some sort of advantage for your child over the thousands of other children who are trying to get into the elite places. It seems to me it's sacrilegious, it's corrupt, and I don't support it at all."

Hayley feels differently. "If you have an intelligent child," she argues, "why would you hold them back? That's the thing. You're doing more damage to that child because they'll be bored at school. They've got to do something."

Watch: Maternity Leave: How America Is Failing Its Mothers

"In some cultures," I reply, sitting around Hayley's kitchen table, "children aren't the center of their parents' lives. It's a Western, individualistic approach. Do you see that as an issue?"

"We still go out and my parents are here to babysit," she counters. "When they [Curtis and his younger sister] were much younger, they went to bed really early, so we could celebrate Valentine's Day and birthdays here... No, I haven't missed out on anything, because my parents have always been here to babysit. It's fine."

I push Hayley to tell me how she'd react if Curtis didn't reach her estimation of his true potential. What if he doesn't become a concert level pianist? What if he wants an ordinary, unremarkable life?

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Like President Obama bounding into last-ditch climate talks with the Chinese, it becomes clear failure is not an option."That's like saying, 'Does anyone want to get run over by a car?'" Hayley responds crossly. "It's not him. I know he wants to." She does, however, agree that Curtis' happiness would be more important to her than professional success.

I walk away from the Elton household with mixed emotions. At 12, Curtis appears happy to devote his life to the piano, but I can't help but fixate on Feldman's warning that only about three percent of prodigies achieve adult success.

Wanting the best for your children isn't malicious, but pushing your child to be a prodigy seems misguided. Like a professional athlete with injured knees, training your children to pursue greatness might simply mean they never run far or fast again.

I'm struck by something Alice, the photographer, said to me after shooting Curtis. "He's really good to photograph, actually. Normally people are so conscious of how they're being perceived, it makes it difficult taking their picture. But Curtis went into this absent state."

She pauses, then suggests: "It's probably because he's so overstimulated."