Andor Földes on being a Child Prodigy

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

The pianist Andor Földes (1913-1992) was one of the great child ‘prodigies’ of the early twentieth century, making his public debut performing a Mozart concerto with the Budapest Philharmonic in 1921 when he was just 8 years old, and entering the Liszt Academy (where he studied with the great Ernst von Dohnányi and Béla Bartók) before he was even a teenager.

Földes went on to enjoy a hugely successful concert and recording career, as well as writing several books, including the seminal Keys to the Keyboard (1950, sadly no longer in print, but an exceptionally wise and notably humane book).

A Warning from a Prodigy

Contributing to an interesting discussion on social media, I recently included this quote from Földes’ book, and thought it worth also sharing here. Addressing the subject of the child prodigy, Földes writes,

That Földes was himself a child prodigy, thrust into the limelight from so young an age, adds resonance to his viewpoint. And though he proved to be that one in a thousand who later found success as a mature performer, he also of course witnessed those many others whom he describes as “less fortunate”.

The Unfortunate Ervin Nyiregyházy

One such was no doubt his slightly older compatriot Ervin Nyiregyházi, whose career has been chronicled by Kevin Bazzana in the book Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy.

As a young child Nyiregyházi won acclaim for his piano playing and early compositions, giving his first public performance at the age of 6, playing at Buckingham Palace at the age of 8, and appearing as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic at the tender age of 12.

By then, we are told, “he had developed a taste for caviar and an unshakable sense of his own importance”.

But Bazzana goes on to chart Nyiregyházi’s tragic decline. Mismanaged and exploited, by the age of 25 he had all but disappeared from the public eye. He became a heavy drinker, married ten times, and was reduced to such penury that he became homeless, sleeping on the subway.

Bazzana sympathetically notes,

A Pause for Reflection

Questions about ‘child prodigies’ lead inevitably to a consideration of how special talent develops, and the best ways for parents, teachers and the wider community to responsibly nurture young players. These are questions which I think we must consider with delicate care and emotional intelligence, especially when it comes to calibrating our expectations of our own children and those we may teach.

True prodigies are rare indeed, but there seems to be no shortage of parents and teachers who are eager to showcase the talents of children by publishing and promoting their videos online. It is wonderful to celebrate the success of young players and great that the internet has made this so easy. Many do so for the very best of reasons.

But I believe we need to exercise a little caution. There is growing recognition that the constant focus on extrinsic validation that comes from living out our lives under a social media spotlight could be driving an unfolding epidemic in mental health problems. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate our priorities, and the decisions we parents and teachers make by proxy regarding the privacy of childhood.

Our easy access to social platforms has essentially made the experience of Ervin Nyiregyházi universally available. There is no telling what videos will go “viral”, when or why, potentially beaming the piano playing of a gifted child onto electronic devices the world over. The only thing missing would seem to be the caviar. Are we not playing with fire?

Concluding his discussion of the issue, Földes suggested back in 1950:

Regardless of the bigger human imperatives, Földes’ experienced voice offers a very sensible rationale for being circumspect in our approach to launching young talents onto any global platform too soon.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.