I Spent A Night Waltzing With Prodigies

Samson Zhang
4 min readApr 21, 2016

Playing on an average electric keyboard is like trying to see through thick fog on a rainy day. Nothing feels right and you can’t see ten feet in front of you. Playing an upright piano is like racing in an old sedan. It’ll get you from point A to point B no problem, but your performance is definitely limited. Playing a good grand piano is like going to Central Park on a sunny day, with huge lawns under the sky to dance around in and a backdrop of sky scraping glass and metal structures on all sides.

How would a pianist who has been playing on an upright all his life describe a 9 foot concert grand piano? It’s like living in a city next to a waterfall, up on a five-thousand-feet-high mountain, with views for miles and miles and miles under a perfectly clear and sunny and blue sky. Everything — every surface, every sight, every sound, every smell — sparkles and gleams of pure beauty.

Every note carries through the air with impossible clarity and fluidity, flowing from one heart through the hall right into another.

Well, it was anything but monotone, but otherwise I thought this captures it well. Art by artbytheo.deviantart.com

But this story isn’t just about majestic concert grand pianos. I have much to say about grand pianos — in fact I cut out a whole page of writing where you’re now reading this sentence — but this story is about prodigies.

Yesterday, I spent a night waltzing with prodigies.

That’s generally a word I really don’t like. Things such as being able to play piano beautifully doesn’t come from talent, it comes from practice and drilling and getting a good education in music. I grew up around music. I idolized pianists like Lang Lang and Li Yundi, and that and not the fact that I’m Asian or a prodigy is where my love for piano and music comes from. Hard practicing and having amazing teachers for more than half a decade, not just natural talent, is why I can pick up a Mozart Sonata and play it.

At Carnegie Hall, I met an actual prodigy. A guy named Cobie Buckmire, just 7 years old, masterfully playing what just a year ago I might have struggled through. Did he practice hard, long hours to get to where he was, the first prize winner of the Rondo Festival? Of course he did. But he had only been playing for three years; I’ve been playing more years than he’d been alive, but he was easily at my level.

Who knows what magic, what talent, what influence he had in his lifetime that got him here; but soon, as he gets older, the magic will fade away. A 13 year old who can play something incredibly difficult is far less impressive than a 7 year old who can play something moderately difficult; the Carnegie Hall performance is Cobie’s second performance in his career, what I’m sure will be an amazing one as a pianist and a musician.

But off the stage, he was just your average immature 7-year-old.

He wasn’t obsessed with piano; backstage, while he did spend upwards of half an hour flipping through his volume of 19 Mozart Sonatas, pointing out his favorite pieces and passages, after he played he seemed more interested in drawing and folding paper airplanes than anyone that was on stage or talking to him.

And there were many other prodigies I met that night — violinists, cellists, and other young pianists, even one who was performing in his first ever recital (at Carnegie Hall!!!!!), understandably running around backstage screaming to everyone who would turn their head at him: “Are you nervous? Are you nervous?! I’m so nervous!!! This is my first concert!!!!”

But once freed from the stress of knowing they were to perform on the stage of Carnegie Hall in five minutes, they were just kids, wanting to run around and talk with their new friends.

So what’d I learn? You shouldn’t judge someone by how prodigious they are. It doesn’t nearly define who they are. It’s just a part of their lives, just like any other part. And if you’re not a prodigy, don’t be discouraged. It’s a relatively meaningless term; a prodigy is a prodigy one day, and just another teenager or adult the next. Maybe you’ll never be a prodigy, but you can still be experienced and skilled at what you want to do.

Keep being trying hard and working at your dreams, and you’ll have plenty to be proud of.