As the orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Summer fades out an air of anticipation builds. Then the solo violinist takes over, swaying with feeling, his expressive eyebrows marking each dynamic change—a picture of poise and maturity. This could be a top-class -performance in any of the big classical venues. Except that the soloist has a half-size violin, and he’s only 4’4″.
In April, 10-year-old Christian Li became the youngest ever winner at the prestigious Menuhin competition—the so-called Olympics of the Violin. When I spoke to Li after his performance, he grinned gleefully as he recalled overhearing an older competitor mutter: “How embarrassing it would be to lose to a -10-year-old!” Li shared first prize with 11-year-old Chloe Chua. All six finalists in the Junior category were 13 or under—“very unusual,” according to the head of the competition, Gordon Back. “Are they all getting younger and younger?” I ask. Back mulls over my question. “It feels like they are. I started the violin at 11. Now people are starting at a younger age.”
Musical history is littered with precocious talents. Mozart began performing the clavier at the Austrian court aged only five, and was later hauled round Europe’s capitals by his overbearing father. Michael Jackson confessed to feeling so terrified of his disciplinarian father Joe (who died in June), he would be physically sick. But while it’s easy to feel sympathy for these little lost boys, would they have become the geniuses they undoubtedly were without the determination of their families? Did they sacrifice their childhoods for the sake of our entertainment? And what of those pushy parents?
Tonya Harding, the disgraced figure skater who was involved in a conspiracy to injure her rival Nancy Kerrigan, was bullied into success from a young age. In the recent film I, Tonya, her terrifying mother, when challenged, has no regrets: “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it,” she tells her adult daughter. “That’s the sacrifice a mother makes! I wish I’d had a mother like me instead of nice.”