Child playing piano

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At a recent performance of the bio-play Maestro, about Leonard Bernstein, I was struck by a story from his youth: The great composer/conductor was introduced to making music by a fluke. It seems that when young Lenny’s aunt moved, she could not take her upright piano with her. Too big to be placed in the Bernsteins’ modest living room, the instrument was crammed in the hallway. And there it sat, since this was not the kind of household where everyone gathered together to joyfully sing. Lenny’s father Samuel toiled hard all day and returned home to immerse himself in the Talmud. The only singing was Samuel’s minor-key religious blessings.

But there was that piano. In the hallway. Lenny couldn’t resist. He played notes, picking out songs he had heard at school. And he figured out chords. Then he begged for piano lessons from the local teacher, whom he soon outstripped. You know the rest: Bernstein went on to have a brilliant career in American music as a composer, conductor, and educator.

Which makes me wonder, as I do in the case of all extraordinary talents: What would have happened if he hadn’t had exposure? What if his aunt had taken her piano with her or had sold it or had never owned it in the first place? Would Bernstein, who was a true prodigy, have found another path to music? Would he have been great at something else?

In adult pursuits in life, especially in the arts, childhood exposure can play a significant role. Discovering one’s talents—a term I’m using broadly to include, for example, the argumentative kid who grows up to be a brilliant litigator—often happens in youth and is developed over time. Lots of time, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule for success. But to put in even the first minutes, requires opportunity.

In American society, kids get plenty of exposure to sports, both as spectators and players. It would be hard for a talented athlete not to get training and recognition. But getting exposure to non-sports activities is less common.

Leonard Bernstein headshot

Exposure doesn’t have to come from a parent, but can come from an admired adult, as it did for Stephen Sondheim.

Leonard Bernstein

Sometimes exposure, like in Bernstein’s case, is unplanned. I’ve witnessed it firsthand: When my son Teddy was five years old, he saw his father playing chess on a computer. Teddy loved games, and this one—with its differently shaped pieces that moved around the board—was intriguing. He asked to be taught, and was told he would be … when he turned eight. Not to be deterred, he snuck down to our playroom computer to teach himself. A few months later, he confessed his scheme, and proved himself an able chess player. At the age of 22, he became an International Master. My point is not to brag (well, at least not entirely) but to emphasize that having exposure to the game changed Teddy’s life.

Being born into the right family has produced many great artists throughout history. Mozart was surrounded by music right out of the womb, since his father Leopold was a musician and teacher. As a toddler, Mozart began playing the keyboard, spurred by fierce sibling rivalry with his older sister Nanneri, an accomplished mature musician of seven. Very like the set-up in the Chorus Line “I Can Do That” song, where the younger brother learns to dance by striving to outdo his big sister.

The examples are numerous of artists learning from—and often surpassing—their talented parents. The apocryphal story about Picasso is that when he turned 13, his painter-father turned over his paintbox to his son, in recognition of Pablo’s superior talent. Guess who loved to tell that story over and over? Pablo.

To give you a sense of how common this phenomenon is, here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list; please feel free to add your own examples. Artemesia Gentlischi, Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun, Rosa Bonheur, the Bach family, Mary Shelley, Gwyneth Paltrow, Liza Minelli, Angelina Jolie, Miley Cyrus, Robert Downey Jr., Sofia Coppola, Whitney Houston, Kate Hudson, Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Hanks, both Gyllenhaals, Drew Barrymore, Natalie Cole, Enrique Iglesias, Rosanne Cash, Rufus Wainwright, Arlo Guthrie, Bonnie Raitt, Melanie Griffith, Carrie Fisher, and on and on.

Exposure doesn’t have to come from a parent, but can come from an admired adult, as it did for Stephen Sondheim. His beloved neighbor was Oscar Hammerstein, the famed lyricist. Sondheim has said that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, “I probably would have been a geologist.” Rock on, in a different way.

 

Young Leonard Berstein

But there was that piano. In the hallway. Lenny couldn’t resist.

Sometimes, like for Bernstein, it’s not a person, but an object that sparks the interest. For John Updike, who among many talents was an accomplished art critic, lifelong inspiration came when his mother bought an original painting from Pomeroy’s Department Store. The painting, depicting a Cape Cod sand dune, was an extravagance in the financially strapped household. Updike, even into his late years, felt “an aura of high culture clung to [the painting] and made it holy.”

And if it had not been for the gift of art supplies, the world would have been deprived of the vibrant canvases of Matisse. He was all set to practice law—the profession his practical father had chosen for him—when he got appendicitis. Bedridden and bored, the 20-year-old amused himself with the paints and brushes his clever mother gave him. But don’t take my word for the transformative powers of the art supplies, here’s what Matisse said, “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life.”

Given the serendipitous nature of many of these stories, what’s a parent to do? You can’t expose your child to every possible human endeavor. But you can do more than enroll Sammy or Sally in Little League soccer.

  • Model good behavior. This rule is often raised in the context of reading, but it also holds true in many arenas. Be interesting—garden, knit, cook, fly on a trapeze, listen to different genres of music, sing, play an instrument, paint/draw—and your child will want to be interesting. The lessons may take many years to take root. As a child, my ex disdained his father’s love of gardening: You pull out a weed and two more pop up in its place. And yet the minute he had a patch of dirt in his twenties, my ex started gardening.
  • Expose your kids deliberately to a wide range of activities. If you have a limited budget, use free resources. Take out library books. Go to museums, many of which allow kids to go free or have flexible admission fees. Find free concerts and plays.
  • Use the computer for additional exposure. YouTube has a wealth of old theatrical performances and movies.
  • Make your home a place where creativity is valued. Put art on the walls. It can be posters or paintings that you and your child make (you can easily create your own Jackson Pollocks!). Play music. Dance around. Have your kids put on shows. Cook and bake together. Read aloud to each other.

Most importantly, if your child shows both interest and talent in an activity, have an open mind and, if possible, be supportive. When Leonard Bernstein went off to college, his father felt deeply torn. On the one hand, his son was going to prestigious Harvard. On the other hand, he was in the Music Department.

For fun with the kiddos, here’s a link to Bernstein’s Peter and the Wolf.

An inspiring alternative to a bedtime story once in a while.

 

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