noun: prodigy; plural noun: prodigies
1. a young person with exceptional qualities or abilities.
“a Russian pianist who was a child prodigy in his day”
synonyms: child genius, genius, wonder child, wunderkind

We’ve all seen them on YouTube – the tiny child at the vast piano playing technically and musically advanced repertoire. We marvel at their prowess, their facility and, more often than not, the extraordinary fleetness of their little fingers, as they rattle off Chopin’s most challenging Etudes or entire piano concertos.

Musical prodigies are not a new phenomenon – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn were all described as prodigies – and so these modern “mini Mozarts” are following in a long tradition.

Daniel Barenboim, himself often described as a “child prodigy”, has suggested that these remarkable children are prodigies only in the eyes of their parents, and it’s true that some parents regard a special aptitude in a particularly young child as a sign of “giftedness”. This is in part due to a certain “Olympics syndrome” – a competitiveness amongst parents to push their children to greater things and to compete against other children, and their parents.

Why do prodigies, and specifically musical prodigies, fascinate and provoke so much awed attention? Fundamentally, it’s the incongruity of seeing a child, especially a very young child, engaging in what is generally regarded as an adult activity for which substance, maturity, emotional depth and artistry are essential ingredients. True prodigies are able to function at an advanced adult level in a facility such as music, maths or chess before the age of 12, and so we marvel at these talented young people who seem to demonstrate, at their tender age, the heights of human achievement.

Meanwhile, others may display a cynicism towards prodigous children: the critic Philip Hensher has commented that “serious art music could never be written by a child”, and some point to the fact that young children lack the requisite knowledge, emotional intelligence or life experience to bring interpretative depth, meaning or insight to the complex music they play; that they simply imitate others. For some, the parading of prodigous children on chat shows and talent contests, where they might be required to perform “tricks” such as improvisation on random notes pulled out of hat, is akin to watching a circus act.

Whatever one’s view, there is no question that prodigies and gifted children are different. Many are homeschooled, which immediately sets them apart from other “normal” children (whatever that means). For some, the school system simply cannot fulfil their needs: exceptionally gifted children need specialist support just as children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia do, and some child prodigies also have Attention Deficit Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Asperger’s. A heavy responsibility may thus fall upon the parents of prodigious children to ensure they thrive, are supported, allowed as normal a childhood as possible, and avoid burnout. Equally, parents who do not support their child’s talent may deprive that child of the life he or she craves and is happiest in, which can lead to problems later on.

The latest “new Mozart” is Alma Deutscher, an apparently very bright and sweet British girl, who plays the piano and violin to a high level, and who, more remarkably, had by the age of just 12 composed concertos for violin and piano, a full-length opera and numerous other works. Her love of “beautiful music” is evident in her own works which hark back to the “galant” style and the romantic music of composers such as Schubert and Tchaikovsky. Alma herself sensibly dismisses the comparison to Mozart, but it’s a convenient tag for those who find her fascinating or marketable. Her musical abilities have been widely praised by leading musical doyens Sir Simon Rattle and Zubin Mehta, and also Stephen Fry, but also criticized for their derivative and unadventurous character. Yet when you listen to Alma Deutscher’s music it is perhaps exactly the type of sweet, tuneful romantic music one would expect from a girl with a vivid imagination and a penchant for elaborate fantasy, who perhaps has had little exposure to more avant-garde music.

The anxiety over children such as Alma Deutscher is that they are missing out on a “normal childhood” and that as a consequence of too much exposure may burn out in their teens or twenties, and then fade into obscurity. As well as parental support, there is a responsibility on the media, artist agents and concert promoters to ensure prodigious children are not cynically exploited and are allowed to mature and develop as artists. The transition from child prodigy to grown up artist can be difficult, especially if one has spent much of one’s childhood confined to a practice room instead of playing with other children, and the older the child, the harsher the criticism, and the harder the fall from grace.

Of course, the real challenge is whether the child prodigy can truly stand the test of time and is enjoying a successful career 20-plus years later. Notable examples include Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, and Anne Sophie Mutter. Others simply retreat from the limelight into a contented ordinary life. One can but hope for happiest outcome for prodigious children like Alma Deutscher…..

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Young musicians take to the stage alongside leading professionals

The SCO Mahler Education Project

Sunday 3 March 2019, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

“a unique opportunity for aspiring young musicians to learn from and perform alongside top professionals” – JOY LISNEY, conductor

On Sunday 3 March, the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (SCO) will give a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the last symphonic work he completed and one of the most iconic pieces of the 20th century.

The SCO will be joined by the best Cambridge University players, select graduate students from leading conservatoires, exceptionally talented young musicians from the Cambridge area (NYO principals and BBC Young Musician finalists) and guest players from professional orchestras. The concert will raise money for the Voices Foundation.

Prior to the evening performance, the guest players will lead sectional rehearsals (mentoring one section each) and will also perform in the concert.

“there is no hierarchy in this orchestra” – Joy Lisney

Guest ‘mentor’ players include:

Paul Barritt (guest Leader of the Hallé)

Michael Whight (ex-principal clarinet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)

Michael Buchanan (trombone, winner of the ARD Munich Competition and previously principal of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and Scottish National Opera)

Colin Alexander (cellist, BBC Symphony Orchestra)

This promises to be a very special performance and an exciting musical and educational collaboration, with profits going to the Voices Foundation.

“learning through an amazing piece of music, the Mahler 9th Symphony” – Joy Lisney

Sunday 3 March, 8pm

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Tickets £15 (concessions £12 / students £5)


For interviews and other press information please contact Frances Wilson

Seraphin Chamber Orchestra

Founded and conducted by cellist and composer Joy Lisney, the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (SCO) comprises talented young musicians studying in Cambridge and guest soloists. The orchestra performs music from the rich repertoire for strings including lesser-known and rarely-performed works as well as encouraging living composers to write for the ensemble.

Seraphin Chamber Orchestra website

Twitter: @SeraphinCO

Joy Lisney

Praised for her stylish playing, musical maturity, formidable technical finesse and keen advocacy for new music, Joy Lisney is one of the most exciting young musicians to emerge in recent years in a busy career combining the cello with composing and conducting.

She has been performing internationally since her teens, at leading venues including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, St. George’s Bristol and the Southbank Centre, in concerts featuring some of the best known works for cello as well as specially-commissioned new music and her own compositions. Her first string quartet was premiered by the Arditti Quartet in 2015 and she premiered her own composition ‘ScordaturA’ for solo cello in 2017 at St John’s Smith Square as part of the Park Lane Group concert series.

Forthcoming performances this season include the Elgar Cello Concerto and the Brahms Double Concerto (with violinist Emma Lisney), the premiere of her new work for chamber ensemble, and concerts at Temple Music Foundation, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, St George’s Bristol, the Purcell Room, and St John’s Smith Square.

Joy Lisney’s website

Twitter: @JoyLisney




Lauren Zhang (16) has won the 2018 edition of BBC Young Musician with a coruscating performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto. A pianist of quiet poise, the Prokofiev was a bold choice, but Lauren owned it from the very first bars, revealing not only exceptional technically mastery but also acute musical intelligence and insight in a work of striking contrasts, substance and depth. At only 16, Lauren already seems fully formed as a musician, and throughout the competition she has displayed a level of artistry and musical maturity commensurate with a professional performer at least twice her age. Even viewed on television, it was clear Lauren has a special presence, displaying phenomenal power and control but with no loss of clarity or quality of sound. At times it was almost as if she was playing the music for herself only, free of unnecessary gestures or pianistic histrionics, and with an exceptional economy of movement, given the muscularity of Prokofiev’s writing. Thus the music could fully speak, communicate, and  touch us. I can only imagine the electric intensity of that presence in Symphony Hall during her live performance.

Lauren was joined in the competition final by two other exceptional young musicians. Cellist Maxim Calver’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations was rich in witty interplay between him and the orchestra, elegant intonation, and an infectious sense that he was thoroughly enjoying this music. The third finalist was Rob Burton, the second consecutive saxophonist to reach the final of the competition (Jess Gillam, a wonderfully positive ambassador for the instrument and music making in general, was a finalist in 2016). His performance of Paul Creston’s Saxophone Concerto was vibrant, colourful and expressive. All three finalists were worthy winners in a contest where, ultimately, music triumphs.

Maxim Calver, Rob Burton and Lauren Zhang

On the day when previous BBCYM winners, including oboist Nicholas Daniel and violinist Nicola Benedetti, published an impassioned plea in a national newspaper to give all schoolchildren the opportunity to engage with music and learn a musical instrument, it is worth noting that this year’s BBCYM finalists all attend independent or specialist music schools. I know I’m not alone in fearing that with erosion of music provision in UK state schools, music is in serious danger of becoming the preserve of the privileged – either in fee-paying schools or via families who can afford private music lessons for their children.

Whatever one may feel about music competitions (and I tend to agree with Bartok’s view), BBCYM is a wonderful celebration of young people’s music making and should be an inspiration to all.

(Header photo by Greg Milner)


Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

Music was an inseparable part of my life from the very beginning. I heard it from the day I was born, beginning with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Just as most people don’t remember when they learned to speak, I don’t remember when I learned to make music. The act of performing music came entirely naturally to me. My first interest is music, then comes the piano. I always enjoyed music more than anything else, so I always wanted to make it my career.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Most important were probably my piano teachers: Lea Agmon and Yuval Cohen. My recent musical thinking has been heavily influenced by several workshops I attended with Leon Fleischer.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge has always been keeping up with my ever increasing standards. Today I’m highly critical of recordings that once seemed to me stellar artistic achievements.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

In general, the performance I’m most proud of is my last one. But this ties in with the previous question. As my expectations of myself increase every day, performances I used to be proud of a few years ago strike me differently today.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

The composer to whom I feel closest at the moment is Beethoven. I played his works extensively, including solo works for the piano (like the cycle of the last three sonatas), chamber works, and concertos. I don’t want to create the impression that I’m specialising. In the next two recitals I’ll be playing in London are works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and Ravel – and not a piece by Beethoven.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I don’t have any guidelines for making repertoire choices, and I tend to avoid programming pieces with some common factor – a recital of “last sonatas” for example (I realise these clever extra-musical organising principles are quite fashionable today…) My programs consist of selections of compositions I’m working on at the moment. My only guideline is that the programs be balanced and make sense in musical terms.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I haven’t performed at enough venues to say which one is my favourite. Generally, I like venues with an intimate atmosphere, where there is an easy and sympathetic give and take between performer and audience. This is why, among others, I don’t do competitions, where the mood in the hall is judgemental and potentially negative.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I find myself nowadays listening more and more to music that is not for the piano. I very much enjoy opera, chamber music and symphonic works. My favourite pieces to perform change all the time. Right now they probably include the works of Beethoven, among many others…

Who are your favourite musicians?

I cannot say. I don’t rank and I don’t think in ranking terms. Moreover, they are simply too many to list…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The one that is yet to come.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I don’t have a set of aphorisms at hand. My advice is to be curious and open to new ideas, both musical and cultural, and to question generic advice. (I don’t think the next Richter will come from reading my blog.)


What is your most treasured possession?

A wonderful coffee machine. My mother got it as a New Year’s present, but I’m its primary employer.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Writing blogs?.. (Not really, although it is a form of relaxation and it forces me to clarify issues I haven’t given enough thought to.)


Ariel Lanyi, born in 1997, began piano lessons with Lea Agmon just before his fifth birthday and made his orchestral debut at the age of 7. Since then, he has given numerous recitals in London, Paris (including Radio France), Rome, Prague, Belfast, and regularly in concerts broadcast live on Israeli radio and television. He has appeared as a soloist with a variety of orchestras in Israel, and has participated in the Israel Festival, Prague Music Performance, Tempietto Festival in Rome, the Ravello Festival, and the Young Prague Festival. As a chamber musician, he has appeared with members (including leading members) of the Prague Philharmonia, the Czech Philharmonic, and the Israel Philharmonic, among others.

In 2012, Ariel released Romantic Profiles on LYTE records, a recital album featuring Schumann’s Carnival Scenes from Vienna, Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H, Brahms’ Fantasies Op. 116, and Janacek’s Piano Sonata I.X.1905.

Ariel has recently participated in three workshops with Leon Fleisher: the Beethoven and Schubert Institute in Prague (2013), the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in Lübeck (2014), and the Menuhin Festival and Academy in Gstaad (2014). He played in masterclasses for renowned artists such as Richard Goode, András Schiff, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, Thomas Adès, Andrei Gavrilov, Yefim Bronfman, Paul Badura-Skoda, Ivan Moravec, Imogen Cooper, Pascal Devoyon, Angela Hewitt, Dénes Várjon, Mitsuko Uchida, Jonathan Biss, and others.

Ariel studied at the High School and Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, in the piano class of Yuval Cohen. He also studied violin and composition, and was concertmaster of the High School and Conservatory Orchestra. Currently, he studies as a full scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Hamish Milne.