The Top 5 Child Musical Prodigies

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Most psychologists define a child prodigy as a child who performs at the level of an adult professional by the age of 10. These youngsters provoke awe, envy and—at least in some—concern. While some famous child musical prodigies crash and burn as they enter adulthood, there are plenty more who carry on long after they’ve mastered their craft, redefining genres and changing forever the way their instrument is played.

5 Chris Thile

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Californian Chris Thile was practically born playing the mandolin. Widely regarded as an extraordinarily inventive musician, Thile formed the Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band Nickel Creek at the age of 8. He also pursued a solo career, winning a national mandolin championship at the age of 12 and releasing his first solo album the following year. At the age of 16, he won the Grammy Award for bluegrass album of the year. Not one to rest on his laurels, Thile went on to form the group Punch Brothers and released three albums in 2012 alone. In the same year, the revolutionary mandolin player was awarded the MacArthur genius grant.

4 Booker T. Jones

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Born in 1944 in Memphis, Tennessee, Booker T. Jones learned basically any instrument he could get his hands on. By the age of 8, he’d conquered the ukelele, and the piano by 10. Jones cut his teeth in the music industry playing baritone sax in Beale Street nightclubs when he was 13 years old. He entered professional music at 16, playing baritone sax on Stax Records’ first hit single. His own single came out in 1962 with his group, Booker T & the MGs, one of the first racially integrated R&B groups in the United States. His music career includes multiple Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

3 Midori

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Midori Goto, known publicly only by her first name, was born in Japan to a mother who was also a violinist. Seeing Midori’s interest in the instrument, her mother gave her a violin for her third birthday. The tiny prodigy excelled, giving her first public performance at the age of 6. Soon after the performance, her mother divorced and moved with young Midori to New York. A recording of Midori’s recital had landed with world-renowned violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, who wished to tutor Midori. Under DeLay’s tutelage, Midori became a full-time professional violinist at the age of 16. Known for revolutionizing violin performance, as of 2012 Midori headed up the strings department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

2 Yo-Yo Ma

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Tutored by his father as a young child in piano and cello, Yo-Yo Ma was playing entire Bach suites from memory by the time he was 4 years old. He went on to play his first public concert at the University of Paris when he was just 5. He moved from France to the United States with his family two years later and continued to perform publicly, most notably before President and Mrs. Kennedy at a fundraiser for a national arts center. Ma began his studies at Harvard University at the age of 16 while continuing a professional career as a cellist. As an adult, Ma is the winner of more than a dozen Grammy Awards and is known for his explorations into multimedia performance and crossover music.

1 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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Widely evoked as the epitome of child musical prodigy, Mozart began playing piano at the age of 3, mimicking his sister as she practiced. By the age of 6, he’d performed in public for the first time. Having mastered the piano, clavinet and violin, he went on to compose operas, symphonies, sonatas and violin concertos—all as a teenager. Although Mozart died in 1791 at the age of 35—an age considered young even at that time—he was even before his death considered one of the greatest composers of all time.

Jennifer Mueller has been writing professionally since 1995, when she began writing a bi-monthly column for "This Week in WNC." Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from the Indiana University School of Law.

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