Marc Yu is a seven year old like no other. While his friends are putting on their pyjamas to get ready for bed, Marc gets dressed for a classical concert, but not to watch, he's going to play. Marc can play more than forty classical pieces from memory.
What is it that makes gifted children so special? Do they just work harder than others or are they born with brilliant brains?
Marc has been invited to play an audition for Vassily Sinaisky, a world-famous conductor, at the LA Philharmonic. Maestro Sinaisky has seen talent come and go, getting the man's ear for ten minutes is a rare privilege for anyone, let alone a little boy.
Professor Ellen Winner, a developmental psychologist, has spent the last fifteen years studying gifted children. When she asks Chloe, Marc's mother, when she discovered his musical talent, she is told t6hat Marc had been at a birthday party when he heard "Mary Had a Little Lamb". He came home and played it on the piano. He was two years old and had never had a piano lesson.
Stories like Marc's seem to defy logic, but science is beginning to shed light on the enigma of God-given talent.
Gottfried Schlaug started playing piano when he was seven years old. He could have had a career in music but, decided to become a neuroscientist instead. Gottfried has scanned the brains of dozens of professional musicians to work out how they produce the brain-power that music demands. He explains: "There's hardly any other skill, any other activity, that would involve this much brain real-estate. The right question would be: which parts of the brain are not active when playing a musical instrument?".
Musician's brains look like they're built for this job; several areas of the brain are bigger than normal. One of them is the cerebellum which takes up only 10% of brain volume but contains more nerve cells than the rest of the brain. This tiny organ works harder and faster than any other part of the brain as it orchestrates thousands of muscle fibres in the body.
Another area of brain that is bigger in musicians is the corpus callosum, a strip of tissue connecting the two hemispheres. It's a mission-critical organ in a pianist who needs to precisely synchronise the movements of the left and the right hand sides of the body. But why are musician's brains different? Are they born or made?
Gottfried has teamed up with Ellen Winner to investigate whether the brain shapes music or music shapes the brain. It is a question that has baffled scientists for a very long time. Is it nature or nurture that makes a genius?
Genie Wiley was kept in isolation for many years, as a child. She was rescued at the age of thirteen but never gained the proper power of speech. This taught scientists that once a critical window of brain development had passed, there was no going back.
A growing brain is both vulnerable and extremely malleable. Marc's mother expoited this quality to teach him one of the most complex languages in the world; Cantonese. Stimulation is essential for a growing brain, by the time as baby is born it has already done 12 weeks worth of listening. Very often, a child's first memory is a melody. Chloe recalls: "By the time Marc started talking, he would hum the same symphonies I had been playing while I was pregnant". Chloe certainly didn't waste any time with Marc's education, but is there any point in starting this early?
In the late 1960s, America was a divided country seething with tension. In the long hot summer of 67 the ghettos of several major cities erupted into violence. Many African-Americans felt excluded from society; denied access to the American Dream. Politicians tried to stem the tide by pouring money into schooling and social programs. It didn't work, disadvantaged children were still being left behind.
A group of psychologists in North Carolina had an idea that they hoped might solve the problem. Joe Sparling and his team wanted to reach children far younger than they had ever done before. The team went out into deprived neighbourhoods and hand-picked 111 new-born babies for a unique experiment. They called it the Abecederian Project.
Kay Gattis was a teenager living in poverty when she got pregnant. Without intervention her son, Meishay, would have been well behind his more privileged peers by the time he started school. Meishay joined the project when he was six weeks old and Joe Sparling would make sure his brain was kept busy.
The researchers had distilled the latest scientific theories on child development into 200 learning games. However simple, each game had a hidden agenda. The children took regular IQ tests and their scores were compared to kids who had not had any special treatment. Craig Ramey reports: "We didn't see any change at 3 months or 12 months. At 15 months, the way the children, literally, saw the world began to change".
The stimulated children were learning faster, spoke more fluently and had better IQ scores than their peers. Ramey: "By 2 years of age, the difference between the 2 groups was dramatic".
35 years after the study began, the results are crystal clear. For the brain there is no such thing as too early. This is especially so with music where starting early is the norm. But, is an early start enough to make a genius? Marc's first public performance was at the age of three. It is only a year since he was tinkling "Mary had a little Lamb".
Ellen Winner believes that gifted children are born with something extra, something that upbringing cannot explain. Could it be that Marc inherited his gift? Is there a gene for genius?
Marc Yu has a rare gift; perfect pitch. Jeffrey Bernstein, a distinguished musician, is intrigued to know just how good Marc's ear really is. To Marc, identifying a musical note is as easy as naming a colour. Only one in ten thousand people have this gift. Perfect pitch doesn't make you a musical genius, but it certainly helps.
Robert Plowman from King's College, London is trying to find the genes that fuel intelligence. He has signed up over 30,000 twins for his research. The children run through a battery of tests designed to probe their intelligence. Young twins brought up together experience the same environment allowing Robert to take nurture out of the equation. He compares the test scores of identical twins who are genetically the same to non-identical twins who are genetically distinct. Any differences in these twins test scores must be down to what they're born with.
Using cutting-edge molecular technology, Robert compares the DNA of the 10,000 samples he has collected, in the hope that this will pinpoint the genes that produce the IQ differences. It becomes obvious that they are not looking for a single gene, but hundreds of genes working together. Robert thinks that these genes do not produce a genius but provide a child with a particular propensity that can then be nurtured.
To say that Marc Yu has a propensity for music is a massive understatement. His whole world revolves around it. He practices for up to eight hours a day, seven days a week and says he loves every minute of it. What started as a propensity has now grown into an obsession.
Gifted children are not just born with an aptitude but, with an iron-will to succeed. Ellen Winner explains: "Really gifted kids drive themselves. I call it a rage to master. Some people don't like the word rage because it implies anger, but I like the word because it captures the intensity".
Marc reaches a landmark in his young life. A little over eight years old and his fingers are finally long enough to span eight keys on a piano. Bernstein: "He's passed this milestone of playing an octave, which for an adult is a trivial task, but for Marc it has been a goal for a long time". Now the world of grown-up music beckons, but as he gets older he will have to meet quite different expectations.
Puberty is a big hurdle for gifted kids, It's not just the hormones that cause trouble. At puberty, the brain has another go at cutting back connections. It's use it or lose it all over again and the part that matures last is the part that a teenager really needs. The pre-frontal cortex, the seat of judgement and self-control, normally only finishes development at the age of 20. With biology and psychology conspiring against him, what are Marc's chances of ever becoming a great musician?
Lang Lang is is one of the biggest stars in classical music today. He started playing the piano, in China, when he was three years old. Now, he fills concert halls all over the world. Lang Lang is the man Marc wants to be when he grows up. Marc is very fortunate, he has been invited to meet with his hero, he has been invited backstage for an audience with Lang Lang. They've met several time before and Marc almost dares to call Lang Lang a friend.
Lang Lang is determined to support Marc in any way he can. Today he has something very special to tell him; he would like Marc to play Carnegie Hall with him in 2009.
CREDITS: The above information came from the UK Channel 5 "My Brilliant Brain" documentary series.
Further Reading and Listening:
|The Art of Lang Lang (Audio CD)|
|The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Children - Sally Yankhe Walker|