The Vulnerable Age

Conrad Tao, age 20 months, in 1996.Photo: Courtesy of Conrad Tao

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?

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.

That was not the Tao family way. “I couldn’t see why we would want to put his music above everything else in the family,” Ting says. “If we had had to give up so much, I would have said no.” At 13, Tao had evidently embraced the family ethos of discipline, accomplishment, and education, but I didn’t detect toxic levels of competitiveness. Ting had a “soft” strategy for getting him to practice, suggesting when his efforts waned that he might be losing interest in the piano. “So I put in extra hours of work, just to prove that I did want to do this,” Tao recalls now. Solomon sees that pressure as judicious. “My impression was that Conrad’s mother wants him to be a great success because she thinks he would enjoy it, not because her self-image depends on it.”

Living on campus—even if it’s a 30-­second walk from home—has given him access to the one source of inspiration that his childhood lacked: a varied social life. “Being around people has had an impact,” he says. All those messy passions that swirl around a college dorm can be artistically useful. “A few years ago, I would have resented anyone who said that aspects of my playing didn’t seem mature,” Tao says. “That’s a lazy way of dismissing somebody because of their age. But it doesn’t hurt to have some firsthand experience with certain emotions.”

The Vulnerable Age