Don't Call This 12-Year-Old Concert Pianist A Prodigy

Sep 30, 2013
Originally published on October 1, 2013 1:35 am

Musician Emily Bear has composed more than 350 pieces for the piano. She's recorded six albums, performed at the White House and Carnegie Hall, and worked closely with her mentor, music legend Quincy Jones. And get this: She's 12.

Bear is what some call a prodigy: a child who shows extraordinary ability at an early age. This week, Morning Edition is talking about kids like Emily — finding out what it's like to raise a child who's so gifted and exploring some of the science that may or may not explain these talents.

As NPR's David Greene discovered, Emily Bear will happily write a song about anything you suggest — but she'd rather you not refer to her as a prodigy. Greene recently spoke with the musician and her mother, Andrea Bear; you can hear their conversation, as well as some of Emily Bear's playing, at the audio link.

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HOT PEPPERS")

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is a tune called "Hot Peppers." It performed by a pianist named Emily Bear. She wrote the song. In fact, she's written more than 350 pieces, she's recorded six albums; she performed at the White House and Carnegie Hall. And get this: She's 12. Emily is what some call a prodigy, a child who shows extraordinary ability at an early age.

This week, we're going to learn about prodigies. We'll meet some of them and chat with parents about what it's like to raise a child who is so gifted. We'll also hear about some of the science that may or may not explain these talents. Let's begin today hearing more from pianist Emily Bear. She and her mom, Andrea Bear joined us from a music studio in Chicago.

EMILY BEAR: We're in the finest building in the Michigan Loop. And I'm sitting in this like open piano room with a piano. It's pretty.

GREENE: It's pretty? Well, can you play me one of the songs from your new album so I can hear little of your music?

E. BEAR: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SALSA AMERICANA")

GREENE: Emily, that's amazing.

E. BEAR: Oh, thank you.

GREENE: What is the name of that song?

E. BEAR: It's called "Salsa Americana."

GREENE: "Salsa Americana."

E. BEAR: Yes.

GREENE: What are your first memories of music?

E. BEAR: Well, we've always had music around our house. But maybe a couple of my first memories of me writing a couple of songs when I was little, or something like that.

GREENE: How old were you when you wrote that first song?

E. BEAR: Probably my first piece was probably written when I was around three.

GREENE: Is there one of those original songs that you wrote when you were three, that you know that you can play a little bit?

E. BEAR: Well, the one that we have that I kind of know well...

(LAUGHTER)

E. BEAR: ...was when I was four. And it's called "Little Angels" and I wrote it for my sister.

GREENE: Nice.

E. BEAR: OK, here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LITTLE ANGELS")

GREENE: Wow.

E. BEAR: Thank you.

GREENE: Well, Emily, I do want to talk to your mom.

E. BEAR: OK.

ANDREA BEAR: Hi, David.

GREENE: I wonder when you first realize that Emily had such a gift for music.

A. BEAR: I was in denial for a while. There were some signs when she was a year old. If I was nursing her and I would sing a lullaby, she would sing back to me exactly matching, tone for tone, pitch. That was a little unusual. And then before two she was already gravitating and fiddling at the piano. It never sounded like banging. It was always music. It was the touch that you have a piano, it was very weird.

And then we were getting our kitchen painted, and she was a little over two, and the painters were like, wow, who's playing the piano. And I'm like that's the baby.

(LAUGHTER)

A. BEAR: And she'd waddle in. So she started four years and 10 months old with proper lessons. And then months later she was playing at a gala at the music institute. Later we got a call from Ravinia Music Festival asking if she would do a solo concert. So at age five, she debuted with a 45-minute concert mixing classical, jazz and a third original music including the "Little Angel" song you heard that she wrote that week for her sister.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: My goodness, and this was at five years old - that 45-minute performance.

A. BEAR: Five years old.

GREENE: Emily, there's this or that some people use to describe you. And that's...

E. BEAR: Prodigy?

GREENE: You got it.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: What do you think of that?

E. BEAR: I don't like that word.

GREENE: Why not?

E. BEAR: It makes me think of like people that are forced to do something that you want to do it, but someone is making them to do it.

A. BEAR: I don't think any of our -us in our family are kind of comfortable with the word. This has been so organic and so natural and so beautiful. But the word prodigy in our day and age, I think, can be almost overused and also in a negative context where does connotate(ph), you know, this kid that's driven to practice 10 hours a day. And whereas the - honestly, quite the opposite.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: What, you said you were denial for a bit. Was there something scary about seeing your daughter...

A. BEAR: Still is.

GREENE: ...develop?

(LAUGHTER)

A. BEAR: Every day, every day there is wig-outs of joy and just how does she do what she does. And at the other times it's a huge responsibility. I have a husband and a marriage and three children, not one. And in just keeping the balance, all of this, and keeping it healthy and happy, 'cause we're in for the - if this is what she wants to do, the 60-year plan not two-year flash in the pan plan.

GREENE: Andrea Bear, thank you for talking to us. And I don't know if Emily is still there, if she could play a minute of something else as we say goodbye, that would be great.

A. BEAR: You know, there are so many fun things to do with you. She was going to make up songs for you if you made up stories.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Oh-oh-oh, that would be fun.

A. BEAR: Here's Em.

E. BEAR: Hello?

GREENE: So I heard that if I come up with like a little story or scenario, you could play a little song for right.

E. BEAR: Yeah. So would you want me to write?

GREENE: Well, I'll tell you we had to wake up really, really early - like in the dark - to get ready to come and do our show. We walk in, we come into the studio and it's really early and it can be a little lonely. I mean how could you write a song that would kind of be our friends when it's the middle of the night, and we have the kind of bright enough and to this show?

E. BEAR: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Oh, that is beautiful.

E. BEAR: Thank you.

GREENE: Thank you for doing that Emily. We're smiling in the studio because of you

E. BEAR: Bye.

GREENE: That's 12-year-old pianist and composer, but don't call her prodigy, Emily Bear.

On Thursday, we'll hear about the science of prodigies and also talk about what happens when prodigies grow up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.