The Truth About A Child Prodigy
He had tears in his eyes, and Matt Haimovitz knew his dream had come true. He sat facing hundreds of people in the grandiose Carnegie Hall, gripping his best childhood friend--his cello.
That moment would be monumental for any classical cellist or aspiring musician. Years of hard work, practice and training bring a person here by a slim chance, picked out from a pile of other talented musicians vying for the same opportunity.
Matt Haimovitz’s opportunity in the grand spotlight is no different--except Haimovitz was 15, a rarity in the prestigious concert hall. Yes, Haimovitz grew up as a child prodigy. His extraordinary ear for music and talent for playing the cello brought him to the big stage as a teenager, among his childhood heroes: world-renowned cellists.
Audience members and observers marveled at this young boy’s talent for years. To many, he was a phenomenon, a mastermind whose brain was wired to pick up an instrument and play flawlessly. Granted, Haimovitz was a talented child, but what those people didn’t know was how much time, effort and money went into his kind of success. Haimovitz’s music did not come easily nor did it come without repercussions.
Haimovitz, who was born into a Jewish family in Israel, moved with his family of four (he has one sister) to Palo Alto, Calif., when he was only five. He discovered his love of the cello there at age seven. The child, overcome by a burning passion for music, practiced relentlessly with dedicated focus and self-discipline.
Being a hard-working child who focused the majority of his attention on music and improving himself, Haimovitz soon attracted the attention of successful violinist Itzhak Perlman while taking classes from the distinguished musician Pablo Casals. Perlman invited Haimovitz (who was 11 at the time) to play for Leonard Rose in New York City.
Because Perlman made an offer that the talented child and his family could not ignore, the Haimovitz’s packed up and moved to the Big Apple so the family’s career-driven adolescent could pursue his dream.
In the city, Haimovitz’s passion never waned. While attending an esteemed prep school for boys, the young teen would spend his Saturdays taking music classes at Julliard. As would be expected, Haimovitz did not grow up as a “normal” teenage boy. At times, Haimovitz’s social life was stinted, and he mostly associated with his older peers at Julliard.
“I did most of my socializing at Julliard, because I had common passions with those students. The majority of my time was taken up by a lot of studying, not a lot of socializing,” said Haimovitz.
As Haimovitz’s personality developed further in his teenage years, he withdrew into being quiet and reserved, intimidating traits that helped secure his position as an outcast. While the words “genius” and “freak” may have prodded Haimovitz’s sheltered bubble, he focused on the positives in his life including the music that kept him enthusiastic.
Looking at Haimovitz’s atypical childhood from a psychological perspective, his social habits are common among child prodigies. Joanne Ruthsatz, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Mansfield and specializes in the study of child prodigies. She explains that “because [child prodigies] are advanced on many levels, they are often more comfortable with adults rather than other children. They tend to have benevolent behaviors, like volunteering and helping others, but there are some social implications as well.”
Haimovitz experienced this lifestyle as a teen, while his friendships were sparing, but also very meaningful. As a hard-working and busy adolescent, Haimovitz also missed out on many regular high-school activities such as school dances, after-school parties and hanging out with friends. It wasn’t that he didn’t want a robust social life, he simply didn’t have the time and music was too important for him to sacrifice.
Haimovitz’s biggest challenge arose not from missing the junior prom or a high school party, but by the bumpy transition from adolescence to adulthood while being very much in the public eye. The young boy was in the midst of his adolescent years when he began playing with the New York Philharmonic and receiving awards for musical achievement.
“I was at an awkward, vulnerable stage when I made that transition,” said Haimovitz. “When you are already in public, people have a certain perception of you. You are expected to follow the path you have to follow, and that makes it a lot harder to do in a public way.”
Dr. David Henry Feldman, Ph.D, is a professor and developmental psychologist at Tufts University who has studied and is proficient in the subject of child prodigies. In his book, Nature’s Gambit, Feldman asserts that one of the biggest struggles for child prodigies is being thrust into the limelight at an early age, which Haimovitz revealed as one of his own tribulations.
Even though Haimovitz felt pressure from the public to be his best possible self and to meet the expectations of the people in his life, it made him work even harder at his music, and he never lost his passion. According to Feldman, it is common for prodigies to pursue their careers with fervor and hard work because of the desire they have to excel and the love they possess for whatever it is they’re doing. Haimovitz never questioned his choice to pursue music, even if he occasionally wondered about other fields. It always came back down to the music.
Despite Haimovitz’s unconventional upbringing and adolescence, the now 43-year-old has few regrets, and in retrospect, he feels very fortunate. Like many other prodigies, Haimovitz’s brain has always been somewhat “wired” for music, the thing he knows best.
In contrast to his depictions of being a discreet child with social reservations, Haimovitz has blossomed into a vibrant adult who excitedly speaks of his career as if he had just played at Carnegie for the first time. The trick to remaining in love with what he does, Haimovitz explains, is finding new ways to enjoy it while staying true to the old ways.
Through Dr. Ruthsatz’s experience and observations, she has found that most prodigies stay true to their talents and become very successful in their careers.
“Although child prodigies are no longer the wonder kid when they were eight, many of them continue to do what they love at a high level and are typically successful at it,” said Ruthsatz.
Haimovitz is no exception to this. Since his big debut at Carnegie almost three decades ago, the musician has become quite the socialite within the music world through recording music, collaborating with other artists and being a family man.
According to Haimovitz, it is still difficult to see at this point if his two daughters have inherited any of his musical talent, but he does see a musical sense in the girls, who are three and six. Currently, Haimovitz is working on a project called Angel Heart which has been a true family effort. His wife wrote the music, and they are going to perform at Carnegie Hall once the album is completed.
Haimovitz was proud and delighted when his own daughter asked for a copy of the album with her name on it. The musician speaks of his family with pride and almost a sense of thankfulness. After a difficult upbringing and an intense career path, Haimovitz has found peace with people who support him and accept his differences.
Having struggled as well as succeeded throughout his life and career, one of Haimovitz’s greatest visions is for his daughters to grow up with fewer struggles and greater opportunities. Although he dreams for his girls to feel a strong connection to music, he supports them in following their own aspirations.
“Having gone through what I have, the pluses and minuses, I’ve learned that I want better for my kids. I want them to have opportunities but also to do what they want to do,” said Haimovitz.
Haimovitz’s story proves that, although talent plays a large role in the success of prodigies, hard work and sacrifice are the most important components of lasting and gratifying success. Although Haimovitz experienced a rather abnormal upbringing, in the end his story is very much one of triumph, and he has never lost sight of what he loves the most--music. His opinion of music very much holds true to an old Duke Ellington quote, “There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.”
Haimovitz’s biggest goal is to produce that good music for the enjoyment of himself and for others.