Prodigies, Child Actors, and Wide Receivers: Biomechanical Borrowing During Development

In order to introduce biomechanical borrowing from an individual’s perspective, please allow me to offer my own experience as an example

I peaked as a musician– relative to my peers– around age seventeen, eighteen. Although I wasn’t a prodigy (someone who performed solo professional concerts as a child), I was regularly performing chamber music with prodigies by the end of high school– including recitals with a pianist who was already world famous (with concertos performed with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra etc, and a fast-selling recording on a major classical label). If there had been a seven round NFL-style draft for music conservatories, I would have been roughly a top fifteen pick– not a prodigy (top five pick) but someone who was thought to be able to play at that level shortly.

My first year at conservatory followed this same trajectory– I was the only non-junior/ senior/ grad student cellist placed in the upper orchestra (including performing a concert as principal). And after my freshman jury*, I was given a special award, with additional merit scholarship money added.

*juries are the equivalent to a final for music performers- you play an audition from a specified set of repertoire for the faculty of your area (in my case the string faculty), and are given a grade/ score. Score high enough and you can get special awards/ recognitions. Score low enough and you’re put on probation, with a follow-up probationary jury the following semester. Fail the probationary jury and you’re expelled.

During my sophomore year, the tendonitis that had been lurking at the periphery of my system lurched into the forefront. By my senior year, I could play only ~1 hour a day, despite years of physical therapy 2-3x weekly (plus acupuncture, massage therapy, steroid therapy, Tai chi, 3x weekly swims, and seeing all the best musician-affiliated doctors and trainers). After my junior jury I was nominated for the highest award a performer can receive from conservatory (a sort of honorary degree), with an extra-long recital– to be given in the concert hall generally reserved for guest artists/ faculty– as fulfillment of this degree. However, during this recital, I had to stop and take a ten minute break between the first and second movements of my final piece just to be able to finish. And the encore I had planned– a Spanish flamenco dance which I had arranged for five cellos, to be performed with my closest cellist friends (who had traveled with their cellos to come perform with me)– had to be cancelled. I was denied the honorary degree, with the reason cited being my inability to finish the recital without unnecessary pause.

If there had been a seven round mock draft for grad school, I probably would have been a second or third round selection- someone who had shown he could play at a high level, but who had also struggled with persistent injury issues.

I was lucky enough to be granted a fellowship for my masters, and spent the next couple years studying the Feldenkrais Method and finally learning how to be healthy while playing. And I had a successful performing career afterward, in the sense that I could pay my bills performing in a very difficult and competitive industry. But my career ended up looking a whole lot more like Cody Latimer’s (doing certain things well enough to continue to be employed in a competitive field), than like the DeAndre Hopkins I was assumed to become.

One anecdote sums up my career trajectory very well. At age seventeen, I performed concerts at a festival where a very well-known and well-regarded piano performer/ pedagogue was in attendance. Ten years later, this same pianist came backstage before one of my concerts to tell me “I’m so excited to see you perform- you were so talented as a child!”. During the obligatory post-concert backstage visit she said, with obvious disappointment in her eyes, “it was so nice to see you”.

So how did someone with every possible advantage– great connections, top schools, and the best teachers– fail to live up to expectations?

The answer is biomechanical borrowing. And to explain the advantages and disadvantages of biomechanical borrowing, it helps to take a look at child performers.


Prodigies and Child Actors

In the performing arts, it’s generally considered that the biggest hurdle towards a successful career- particularly as a solo artist- is in gaining initial recognition. Once a person’s face/ name becomes well-known, their career is generally going to continue, even if their skills decline. I saw this firsthand when a performer who won a major international competition (decades earlier) gave a concert I attended. The concert was so sloppy that I was entirely embarrassed for him (as were the other musicians I knew in attendance). But the audience gave him a standing ovation. And the man continues to work, despite an obvious decline in his skills. Audiences always favor names/ faces they recognize over ones they don’t (barring some sort of scandal).

The same can be said of actors. Famous actors will always be able to find work. Their overall relevance may rise and fall, but it’s rare for a famous actor to simply fall off the map completely (again barring some sort of scandal- Mel Gibson, etc). Once a person is widely known, their career is generally secure.

And yet, this same principal fails to apply to musical prodigies or famous child actors. These performers have already overcome the biggest hurdle and gained face/ name recognition. Their careers should be set. Yet, of the five prodigies I knew as a teenager, only one is still a successful solo performer.  The others are: a hairdresser, a physician, a pop performer, and inarguably the most famous one as a child (the pianist I mentioned in the opening- the one who was world famous with a top-tier concert career and a best-selling recording) is primarily an adjunct professor at a conservatory.

This same type of ratio can be seen with child actors. For every Drew Barrymore who successfully transitions to an adult career, there are several Macaulay Culkins– child stars who fail to successfully navigate this transition and become adult performers, despite holding every possible early advantage: fame, money, and connections.

Why is it so hard for successful child solo performers to become successful adult solo performers?


(Part 2 will look at the advantages and disadvantages of biomechanical borrowing, seen through the lens of child performers)