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The Vulnerable Age

Why do some child prodigies flame out when others soar? At 17, Conrad Tao knows he could go either way.


Conrad Tao, age 20 months, in 1996.  

The story of Conrad Tao’s life in music begins the way tales of early talent often do: At 18 months, he toddled to the piano and started picking out “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Last month—a whole childhood later—Tao strode onto the stage of ­Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall and plunged into Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, a desperate wartime work shot through with terrified epiphanies. No 17-year-old should be able to do justice to one of the most bleakly adult pieces in the literature, yet he played it with aggressive charm and flashes of genuine wisdom. It’s been a long arc from nursery rhyme to war sonata, traced by uncountable hours of repetition, solitude, and focus. Now he has more unpredictable forces to deal with: people.

A few days after his recital (he’ll perform another, including the Prokofiev, at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church on March 29), we’re at his family’s apartment, in the small room with a big piano where he spent most of his boyhood. He’s a Columbia freshman, and his dorm is a block away, but he comes home every day to practice. Perching on the piano bench, always ready to swivel and play, he describes the musician’s inner life.

“People underestimate how emotionally exhausting it is,” he says with a news anchor’s neutral precision. “There’s a risk that you can only feel intensely through music. Especially for young people, it’s hard to do something every day that demands complete surrender.”

The pressure to feel, powerfully and on demand, can be brutal. Tao has made it through the first steeplechase of prodigyhood, avoiding the kind of TV appearances that catapult an 11-year-old to celebrity (as they have the tiny opera singer Jackie Evancho). He has reached the delicate age when young musicians no longer play to please their parents and teachers but must renegotiate their relationship with their instrument and find new sources of confidence. They also have to confront a life of relentless exposure, jet lag, lonely hotel rooms, and families they see mostly via Skype.

Tao’s parents are both Chinese-born and finished their Ph.D.’s at Princeton in 1989. They were about to return to Beijing when the government crushed the protests in Tiananmen Square, and they stayed in the United States. Mingfang Ting became a professor of climatology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Sam Tao launched a career as an engineer at Alcatel-Lucent.

When Conrad was 2, a piano teacher told Ting that her son was a prodigy, and she went to her local library to look up the word. (She came up with Prodigy, the ­Internet provider.) Soon, she had no choice but to absorb the full import of her child’s gifts. When he outgrew his teacher in Urbana-Champaign, the family moved, first to Chicago and later to New York, where Ting got a job at Columbia and Sam Tao transferred to Lucent’s New ­Jersey branch. Conrad enrolled in Juilliard’s pre-college division and studied with Yoheved Kaplinsky, the headmistress of the school’s brood of mini-musicians. By the end of eighth grade, school was intruding on his musical regimen, so his older sister, then a Columbia student, recruited friends as tutors to help him through a distance-learning program he could follow at home. Conrad completed high school without meeting a fellow student or attending a single class.

“We were monitoring the social aspect of his life very carefully,” Ting says. “We didn’t want him to be an awkward person. But he wasn’t. The hardest part was that we had to go to the office, and he was home alone a lot, even though we were constantly checking on him by phone.”

I first met Conrad when he was 13. Listening to the recording of that interview now, I’m struck by how similar he sounds to his college-age self: serious and slightly formal, but not weird. “I start practicing at about 8:15,” he reported. “I get in four hours at the piano and two on violin. It keeps me busy, which is nice. I try to give myself some free time too, and I use that for composing. My day ends at 11 p.m.” Already, he was working out the fine points of a future career. “I don’t think I would have the ability to travel as much as Lang Lang, but I’ve thought about what would be a more acceptable schedule.”

For a parent, it’s frighteningly difficult to know how to handle such volcanic talent. The writer Andrew Solomon, whose forthcoming book, Far From the Tree, is about the effect that extraordinary children have on their families, compares being the parent of a prodigy to raising a kid born with a disability. “As a parent,” he says, “you have to become an expert in ­areas you didn’t know anything about and make decisions on issues you didn’t know were even questions: If I support this, am I going to isolate my child? If I don’t, am I going to cut off the things that could make my child happy and fulfilled?

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