Tao’s experience is both extraordinary and surprisingly common. YouTube overflows with clips of miniature performers exuberantly churning out cataracts of music. To watch them is an unnerving experience—the kids are uncanny, adorable, inspiring, and dubious. If Ting had consulted a different source when she looked up her son’s label, she would have found that the Latin prodigium means a portent, usually ominous, conjured by the gods. That undercurrent of calamity surfaces in the roll call of musical prodigies who are musically stunted, flame out, or fade into disappointed obscurity.
There are also those whose lives take more drastic turns. Brandenn Bremmer, a 14-year-old Nebraskan pianist, shot himself in 2005 while his parents were out buying groceries, leaving no clue about why. The British pianist Terence Judd threw himself off a cliff at 22, the year after he gave a phenomenal performance at the finals of the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition. It’s hard to know how much these artists’ unruly gifts contributed to their sad stories—accountants and ski instructors commit suicide too, after all—but there’s no question that some performers crumple under the attention. A psychological breakdown interrupted the career of the brilliant violinist Michael Rabin. “In the years, say, from 16 to 26, everyone in the music field starts to pull you apart,” he lamented to an interviewer in 1971, when he was 35 and theoretically in the clear. Seven months later, he died from a fall, his blood laced with barbiturates.
Society cultivates prodigies as a speculative investment. A certain number will go bad; a few others will grow into greatness. Though Tao’s playing is vivid, immediate, and nuanced, it’s impossible to listen to him now and know whether you’re hearing a 21st-century Rubinstein or a future orthodontist with a nice hobby. But the music business tends to short-sell very young musicians, wringing what it can out of their adorable freakishness, then moving on. Tao’s manager, Charles Letourneau at IMG, has nudged him gently toward the big time rather than shoving him into it headlong.
Tao enjoys several advantages. He’s naturally gregarious, curious, and smart. He’s also a composer. On his debut recording, just out on EMI via iTunes, he plays his confidently poetic Three Songs, which hold their own with a pair of Debussy preludes and Stravinsky’s Three Movements From “Petrushka.” Already, he’s moving into more ambitious compositional forms. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra recently asked him to write an orchestral piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
“Conrad is the kind of musician who is shaping the future of music,” says the pianist Christopher O’Riley, who plays arrangements of Radiohead in his recitals and who hosts the PBS television program about child musicians, From the Top. “These kids have a set of experimental listening habits, and they’re starting to pursue distinctive styles that they’re passionate about.” Tao’s tastes range widely—he’s enthusiastic about John Adams and Björk, he’s turned me on to the eclectic lo-fi band tUnE-yArDs, and I’m still making my way through the reviews he posts on Tiny Mix Tapes. (He likes Of Montreal’s Paralytic Stalks, especially its “gloriously unhinged finale.”) That curiosity should keep him from getting corralled into the all-Chopin zone.
Tao’s greatest strength, though, may be the fact that his parents would prefer him to do something else—become a scientist, say, or a lawyer. “Is it really good for him to do this?” asks Ting. “It’s a tough life. You have to be in good health all the time. Sometimes he has to fly to a city and give a concert that same day, or play a concerto in one city and then fly to a rehearsal in another. He always delivers, but I’m the one who sits there and worries.”
Ting’s hesitations are rational, and they help separate the pursuit of music from the pressure to achieve. “My parents don’t have an agenda aside from making sure that I’m sane and happy,” Tao says. It’s a philosophy violently at odds with the one that shaped the Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang, whose father once told him to jump off a balcony (at age 9) because a teacher had told him that he wasn’t good enough and should forget about music.
Not that Tao’s upbringing was laissez-faire—it couldn’t have been. Successful musicians who were once child prodigies virtually all describe some combination of parental encouragement, coercion, and pressure. The cellist Alisa Weilerstein, daughter of two musicians, toured in a family trio. Yo-Yo Ma’s father made him memorize Bach when he was 4. In many cases one parent gives up a career or drains a savings account in order to further a child’s musical education, racking up levels of guilt-inducing sacrifice that can never be repaid.