Here is a perennial debate in the classical music world: Is it possible for one to go on to become a professional concert pianist without having started at a tender young age? After all, most of the greats began lessons when they were just three or four years old, and often had an orchestral debut by the time they were eleven or twelve, as well as competing in many young pianist competitions (for instance the Stravinsky Awards or Junior Van Cliburn). This, perhaps, is why so many parents give their children piano lessons, even if they themselves are not musically talented—one may find that their child is a prodigy! These prodigies famous the world over, both as young pianists and adults who have gone on to become masters. They started young, and kept going hard all the way through their childhood and into college.
But is it even possible for one follow a similar route without dedicating early childhood to hours upon hours of practicing? Without the reservation of a large part of every day for all those technical exercises to sharpen the fingers? All that time spent learning how turn individual notes into actual music takes years of training and development of the emotions and instinct. Is there even enough time for someone to follow this same path that can lead to international success and acclaim?
I was a late bloomer, musically. Like many other kids, my mom insisted that I have piano lessons when I was young, along with my brother and sister. I learned the basics of music—how to read, how to make sense of the piano. But nothing more. For unrelated reasons, we stopped after just under a year, and when we found a different teacher, I had no desire to get back into music. I was eleven, and I insisted over and over again that I wasn’t musical. Add that to the fact that the piano teacher and I did not get along very well, and I quit. Again. Not a very promising beginning, as far as music goes. I was far more interested in other things like trains, World War II history, tornadoes, and writing fiction.
My mom tried again. Herself a remarkable musician, she found one more piano teacher for us to try. “Take lessons for one year. If you still don’t like it, we can stop.” So I agreed to it.
Turns out all that previous experience gave me a big boost as far as music goes. I started going through the OMTA syllabus, learning everything from theory to scales to classical repertoire. I didn’t quit after one year—piano had become a part of my life. But at this time, I still didn’t care enough for it to consider it as a possible career. At fourteen, most serious piano students are already making up their mind to study music and college—and, having played for ten years, are performing concert-grade repertoire on a frequent basis. As for me, I was still playing student work.
Two things happened right around this time: First, my emotional, romantic side finally woke up. Second, I learned the Moonlight sonata. And then a lightbulb turned on in my mind, an epiphany: This is what is behind all music: it’s not so much about the intellectualness of it (although that does have a place), but all kinds of life experiences, thoughts, desires, hatreds, and loves have a place. Realizing that I could relate to this music, I began listening to classical music obsessively—before, I’d been acquainted with it, and in fact listened to it whenever I did my schoolwork. But now I started listening, really listening. An intellectual as well as a musician, I began to understand the complex theory behind all these pieces—melody, counterpoint, harmonic progression, structure. I even began to compose my own work, a pursuit that has become a larger and larger part of my life over the past three years.
For the first time, I began to think that music might become a career for me, alongside writing. I upped my practice time from half an hour a day, to an hour a day, to an hour and a half, to two hours, to now somewhere between two and three hours a day—basically as much as I can get. I began to look at each song not as work, but as a joy—a discovery into seeing what each piece held in store for me. The likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert held so much in store for me emotionally than they had earlier. And my point of all this is: I would not have appreciated music the way I do now when I was younger. So then, is it really practical or necessary to start at a very young age?
Perhaps not. But as I am not yet a successful pianist, I can’t really say from my own experience that starting five or six years later than traditional pianists do is necessary or not necessary, can I? I need to present some other examples of pianists and even famous composers who did not bloom until they were in their teens or even later.
Perhaps the most famous example is Sergei Rachmaninoff. As a boy, he was recognized as having talent as a composer and piano-player, but try as they might, his family could not get him to focus on his studies, especially when he was a young teenager. They wanted him to go the way of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubenstein, but Sergei, for the time being, seemed to have other ideas. As a musician, despite having been greatly encouraged in music from his early childhood, he did not become serious until he was about eleven—the same time that I was just starting to appreciate music. Fun fact, he didn’t even become a concert pianist until he was in his 40s—up to that time, he spent most of his time writing and performing his own work; it wasn’t until he immigrated to America and needed a way to support his family did he learn a substantial amount of concert repertoire by other composers.
But Rachmaninoff aside, there are many other pianists living now who did not start as toddlers. One well-known example is Murray Perahia. He started lessons when he was just four years old … but, in similar fashion to my story, he did not appreciate music at all. At least, not until he was fifteen, at which time he began practicing seriously. He went on to have a career as one of the greatest concert pianists of the age—and one whom I have been fortunate enough to hear in concert as well (Wikipedia).
And past that, there are others who started even later—Albert Frantz, a Pennsylvanian pianist, did not begin until he was 17. Not only that, but he been told years before that he had absolutely no musical talent and that music lessons were a waste of money. However, he was able to overcome all these things and go on to win a scholarship to study in Vienna. Now he performs regularly, and has recorded two CDs—one of by a notoriously difficult composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan (a contemporary of Chopin), and Liszt’s complete Transcendental Etudes, perhaps the most difficult group of piano pieces in the world. (Daily Drema).
Altogether, then, is it really possible for one to start young? Superstar Asian pianists Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Yundi Li all began lessons at something like two, and came to the West to study in conservatories. Martha Argerich, Arthur Rubenstein, Vladimir Howorwitz, the great artists of a time long gone ... they all started very young. Most pianists do. But perhaps, though I did not, I could forge ahead anyway?
I go to festivals and scholarship auditions, bringing works that I have worked on for months—difficult, concert-level, but nowhere near the top. I sit down to warm up … and then up comes one of these young starters. He starts practicing his own pieces, all of which hugely outclass mine: Debussy’s Images I to my little Prelude La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin; Beethoven’s massive Waldstein sonata to my moderate Mozart, Chopin’s famously virtuosic Etude “Winter Wind” to my Nocturne in C minor—and all of them were masterfully well done, too. It messed me up so much that my following performance was completely ruined by nerves. I felt like the kid who’s no more than a wannabe and isn’t really serious, surrounded by kids who are all probably going to win the Van Cliburn at age 18. It really does feel like a disadvantage.
But I realized something: Like I said earlier, had I started at a younger age, I may have lost interest in music. But now, I think it will stay with me for the rest of my life—I have learned to love and interpret it—and in the process, I think I’ve made more progress in less time than many of those kids who started very, very young. Only time will tell if it will stick … but it did for Murray Perahia … so maybe it will for me too!
In the end, then, I do not think the disadvantages of starting very young are lasting, but I do think the advantages of becoming serious later (as a teenager, or even later) are more long lasting. Not everyone can become a superstar, but that’s not music what’s about—music is about artistry and expressing emotion through sound. Maturity as a musician is directly tied to maturity as a person, and I believe this is the single greatest advantage to starting later, the one that outweighs the disadvantages and cultural resistance.