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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Aug-18 > Maestro in miniature

Maestro in miniature

Musical prodigies are getting more common than ever. What does it take for a child to become a world-beater? And what are the chances of messing them up?
Pint-sized performer: Christian Li’s winning performance at the Menuhin competition

As the orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Summer fades out an air of anticipation builds. Then the solo violinist takes over, swaying with feeling, his expressive eyebrows marking each dynamic change—a picture of poise and maturity. This could be a top-class performance in any of the big classical venues. Except that the soloist has a half-size violin, and he’s only 4’4”. In April, 10-year-old Christian Li became the youngest ever winner at the prestigious Menuhin competition—the so-called Olympics of the Violin. When I spoke to Li after his performance, he grinned gleefully as he recalled overhearing an older competitor mutter: “How embarrassing it would be to lose to a 10-year-old!” Li shared first prize with 11-year-old Chloe Chua. All six finalists in the Junior category were 13 or under—“very unusual”, according to the head of the competition, George Back. “Are they all getting younger and younger?” I ask. Back mulls over my question. “It feels like they are. I started the violin at 11. Now people are starting at a younger age.”

Musical history is littered with precocious talents. Mozart began performing the clavier at the Austrian court aged only five, and was later hauled round Europe’s capitals by his overbearing father. Michael Jackson confessed to feeling so terrified of his disciplinarian father Joe (who died in June), he would be physically sick. But while it’s easy to feel sympathy for these little lost boys, would they have become the geniuses they undoubtedly were without the determination of their families? Did they sacrifice their childhoods for the sake of our entertainment? And what of those pushy parents?

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In Prospect’s August issue: Zoe Williams argues that the first thing we need to do if we are to remain in the EU is to tackle the reasons why so many wanted out—namely pay and conditions at home and the impact of unfettered capitalism. Prospect’s Alex Dean and Tom Clark interviewed former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg who says the liberal centre should keep the faith—there is another way to work closely with Europe, but the immigration question is central to finding that solution. Meanwhile, a group of writers including Wolfgang Münchau, Shashank Joshi and Owen Hatherley explain some of the pitfalls, prizes and things you hadn’t thought about when it comes to the UK’s relationship with the EU. Elsewhere in the issue: Former UK diplomat Tom Fletcher profiles the out-going UN human rights chief who is causing a stir by saying the things nobody else would dare. Steve Bloomfield asks what happened to Seymour Hersh—how did the legendary journalist come to echo the thoughts and ideas of Bashar al-Assad; and Phil Ball examines the crisis of male infertility asking: where has all the sperm gone?