The making of a prodigy

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a weekly series on characteristics of creativity. Previous articles have focused on passion, failure, remixing, improvising and mentoring.

Story highlights

Prodigies show talent from young age -- but to be creative, they have to work at it

Grace Kelly, 19-year-old jazz musician, has dazzled at saxophone since she was 9

Some prodigies burn out or regress; they can be vulnerable, expert says

Expert: Keys to success include providing support, finding mentors to nourish young talent

Newport, Rhode Island CNN  — 

It’s a balmy summer night at the Newport Jazz Festival, and saxophonist Grace Kelly is welcoming an audience of about 500 at the Harbor Stage.

“Hello, Newport!” she calls, launching into “The Way You Look Tonight,” all silky runs and warm phrasing.

As her band members take solos, she smiles, humming along with their playing, a tic reminiscent of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. She dances little jigs. She sings. She basks in the thrill of the music.

Kelly is all of 19.

Sometimes her youth is obvious. Her on-stage patter can have a girlish quality, and at times she appears gangly and uncertain, like a filly finding its legs. And the sight of her with a saxophone – an instrument that appears so appropriate when clutched by a Junior Walker or John Coltrane but awkward in the hands of an attractive young woman – summons the unfortunate scene of a flight attendant in “Airplane!” honking Dixieland jazz in the cockpit.

But when she plays, all that becomes meaningless. She’s jammed with jazz legends, notably fellow sax player Phil Woods, who bestowed one of his trademark hats on her as a sign of appreciation. She’s won several DownBeat Student Music Awards and a pair of ASCAP Young Composer Foundation Awards. In interviews, she’s poised and thoughtful beyond her years.

“I’ve heard the future of jazz and it is Grace Kelly,” musician and NPR contributor David Was once said, echoing critic Jon Landau’s famous line about Bruce Springsteen and rock.

Her talent still mystifies her father and manager, Bob Kelly.

“I don’t know where that comes from,” he said. “With the saxophone, once she picked that up, after the first couple of months, she could play songs. She was in fourth grade.” She was so entranced by the instrument, Bob Kelly recalls, “we had to tell her to go to sleep.”

‘They are precious resources’

It’s a blessing from the gods, this kind of talent, and when we see it in someone young, we marvel at the contrast: a child with the outsize abilities of an adult. The very word “prodigy” evokes otherworldliness, from “prodigium,” which means “sign” or “portent” in Latin.

Grace Kelly, here with Phil Woods, brings an infectious joy to performing. She has been dazzling listeners since she was 9.

“If you look at people who are creative geniuses, and look back, a lot of them are prodigies,” said Boston College psychology professor Ellen Winner, who has researched gifted children and the arts.

“You can say that prodigies are our best hope. They are our future. They are precious resources.”

Early on, a prodigy’s talent is more for mimicry. But at some point, mimicry gives way to genuine creativity – an ability to combine talent and knowledge to make something novel.

Kelly’s sax playing has been dazzling listeners since she was 9. Although she wasn’t named for the actress – her mother Irene married Bob Kelly when Grace was a small child – she already had a creative bent. Before she ever picked up an instrument, her father recalls, she could entertain herself for hours by acting in front of a mirror. Grace recalls singing along with Broadway tunes. But there was something about the saxophone that fulfilled her in ways other instruments she tried, including the piano and clarinet, did not.

Six weeks after her first notes, she was performing for an audience. Her father has a video of it: a slip of a girl sitting on her instrument case, the saxophone precarious on a pillow in front of her, the whole apparatus threatening to topple over – and yet the tone is clear and rich, Grace Kelly nimbly working her way through “Besame Mucho” and “My Funny Valentine.”

A bolt of lightning? Perhaps. Neither Bob nor Irene had much of a musical background. However, young Grace did have relatives on her mother’s side with musical talent, including an aunt who played violin professionally. Moreover, she grew up with music: Her parents played jazz tunes and standards frequently in their suburban Boston home, songs she grew to love.

But talent only goes so far unless it’s combined with hard work and motivation. Fortunately for us, many prodigies have a passion for their interests, often going on to become famous: Mozart, for example, wrote melodies at age 4; Pablo Picasso painted his first oil painting, “The Picador,” at 8; mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss could do equations in his head as a child.

Winner says prodigal talents often come with determination.

“Usually when you can learn really easily in some area, you’re very motivated – you have this intrinsic drive,” she says. “You can’t take a kid with no passion for something and make them work 10 or four hours a day.”

In fact, Bob Kelly says Grace has resisted the “prodigy” label. “She looks at it as the fact she has an intense love and passion for what she does, has loads of fun and puts in a lot of hard work without being told to.”

‘Natural talent only takes you so far’

The trick is sustaining that passion.

Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy whose story was made into the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” gave up competition for several years.

“I realized that even if I became the world champion, it wasn’t going to make me happy,” he told People magazine in 2003. He’s since plowed his energies into martial arts and education, though he still is a spokesman for computer chess games.

Trombone Shorty faced a similar crossroads. He started playing at 4. Now 26, he fronts his own band, Orleans Avenue, and was nominated for a Grammy last year. He’s scheduled to play the White House next week as part of a Black History Month celebration.

Talent will only take you so far, says Trombone Shorty, adding that it's the work ethic that really matters.

Born Troy Andrews, the New Orleans horn player and singer – yes, he’s from the Treme neighborhood – is part of an accomplished musical family: His brother, James, is a bandleader and trumpet player known as the “Satchmo of the Ghetto,” and his grandfather, Jessie Hill, was a New Orleans music scene mainstay who had a national hit with “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.”

And Troy? There’s a picture of him on Wikipedia fronting a group of musicians from Denmark’s Carlsbad Brass Band. He was 5 at the time.

James liked to put his young brother front and center. In the early years, Troy says, the joy of playing with family was enough.

“As long as my brother was on stage, I was OK,” he said. His brother was a father figure; Andrews’ parents trusted James to raise young Troy correctly, even in the middle of the music scene.

But looking back, he says, he realizes there was a time in his teens when he needed to refocus. He was celebrated and talented, but he knew he was still raw.

“When you start playing as young as me, and you’ve been in front of audiences your entire life, this is literally what I grew up doing,” he says.

Shelley Carson, author of “Your Creative Brain” and a lecturer at Harvard University, says such situations aren’t unusual.

“A lot of prodigies tend to burn out, or sometimes they just get discouraged when, during the ordinary process of development, other people catch up with them and they’re no longer special,” she says.

What reinvigorated Troy Andrews was his entry into the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the city’s student arts program, where instructors such as Clyde Kerr and Kent Jordan insisted on the importance of fundamentals.

“They wanted me to get the theory of everything I’m playing, so I didn’t have to guess and play by ear,” he says.

Learning those details deepened his appreciation for music, he says. It’s also strengthened his work ethic: Besides a steady schedule of live appearances, the band rehearses constantly – not just music, but showmanship.

“When we’re ready to do the dress rehearsal, we’ll rehearse in the dark. No lights. The reason why I do that is because I don’t want the band to rely on me for anything,” he says. ” ‘Cause anything can happen – I might stop singing or unplug the mic, just so everybody knows: Keep going, no matter what.”

At one Newport show in August, Andrews led his band through funky instrumentals laced with hard rock, then segued into a Louis Armstrong-esque version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” He demonstrated outstanding breath control, holding a note for what seemed like minutes on end as the audience whooped louder with every beat. And then he finished with James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’,” doing the Godfather of Soul proud with some slick, razor-sharp dance moves.

“One thing I’ve learned in life,” Andrews says, “is that natural talent only takes you so far, and I’ve always wanted to grow.”

‘She’s driving this train’

Nature vs. nurture arguments still rage over how much of being a prodigy is owed to pure talent, and how much is the product of enthusiasm and hard work – and certainly, genetics is no guarantee of creative genius.

There’s a classic story involving the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the dancer Isadora Duncan. According to legend, Duncan wrote Shaw a letter that suggested she and the playwright should have a child together.

“You have the greatest brain in the world, and I have the most beautiful body, so we ought to produce the most perfect child,” she wrote.

“Yes,” replied Shaw, “but what if it had my body and your brains?”

Carson says parents can be their talented offspring’s biggest influences – but they have to know when to push and when to hold back.

“I definitely think that overbearing parents in many cases affect the child’s interest or continued motivation,” she says. “The best way to parent a child like that is, if you notice their interest and enthusiasm, encourage it – but then get out of the way.”

Some parents push too hard. Todd Marinovich was called “Robo QB” for his quarterbacking abilities and drilled relentlessly by his father, a former college football star. But after an outstanding high school career, followed by solid numbers at the University of Southern California, Marinovich faltered in the NFL. A college drug problem turned into a full-blown addiction, and he washed out of the league after three failed drug tests. It’s only recently, after several arrests and some jail time, that Marinovich has found himself – as an artist.

Psychology professor Winner points out that the scale tilts the other way as well: Prodigies often don’t have the kind of support system that struggling children do.

“These kids are very vulnerable,” she says. “People assume they’re not – ‘They’re gifted, why should we throw any resources at them?’ – but these kids have a huge amount of potential and are very vulnerable to being very bored in school and tuning out.” Alternately, having been “groomed as the best,” they might discover others are better and then “tune out because they think they can’t compete.”

So how do you keep the flame burning?

Be supportive, say the experts. Advocate for the child. Find a mentor to expand the prodigy’s horizons. And hang on for the ride.

Kelly’s life is a strong illustration of what works. Her parents found challenging teachers for her early on. They didn’t push, but encouraged her to grow. As her career took off, she redoubled her efforts in high school – graduating two years early – so she could focus on her art.

She entered Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music at 16. She regrets none of the acceleration, noting that she has friends of all ages and that she’s energized by being around such passionate people.

“I feel lucky that I found something that I love, and that it’s started to snowball in a good way,” Kelly said.

Adds her father: “I always told Grace, the day that it’s not fun, do something else. She’s driving this train.”

It must still be fun. Kelly obviously enjoys the spotlight. But more indicative is her creative growth: more songwriting, more arranging, more curiosity, more hard work. Even when she has an off night, she says, there’s but one thing to do.

“I want to go back,” she says, “and start practicing again.”