How Do You Raise a Prodigy?

November 29, 2012

From the New York Times:

Drew Petersen didn’t speak until he was three and a half, but his mother, Sue, never believed he was slow. When he was 18 months old, in 1994, she was reading to him and skipped a word, whereupon Drew reached over and pointed to the missing word on the page. Drew didn’t produce much sound at that stage, but he already cared about it deeply. “Church bells would elicit a big response,” Sue told me. “Birdsong would stop him in his tracks.”

Sue, who learned piano as a child, taught Drew the basics on an old upright, and he became fascinated by sheet music. “He needed to decode it,” Sue said. “So I had to recall what little I remembered, which was the treble clef.” As Drew told me, “It was like learning 13 letters of the alphabet and then trying to read books.” He figured out the bass clef on his own, and when he began formal lessons at five, his teacher said he could skip the first six months’ worth of material. Within the year, Drew was performing Beethoven sonatas at the recital hall at Carnegie Hall. “I thought it was delightful,” Sue said, “but I also thought we shouldn’t take it too seriously. He was just a little boy.”

On his way to kindergarten one day, Drew asked his mother, “Can I just stay home so I can learn something?” Sue was at a loss. “He was reading textbooks this big, and they’re in class holding up a blowup M,” she said. Drew, who is now 18, said, “At first, it felt lonely. Then you accept that, yes, you’re different from everyone else, but people will be your friends anyway.” Drew’s parents moved him to a private school. They bought him a new piano, because he announced at seven that their upright lacked dynamic contrast. “It cost more money than we’d ever paid for anything except a down payment on a house,” Sue said. When Drew was 14, he discovered a homeschool program created by Harvard; when I met him two years ago, he was 16, studying at the Manhattan School of Music and halfway to a Harvard bachelor’s degree.

Read the full article, “How Do You Raise a Prodigy?” by Andrew Solomon (New York Times, Sunday Magazine, October 31, 2012).

Drew Petersen is Bachelor of Liberal Arts (ALB) degree candidate at Harvard Extension School.