The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Decoding the piano.

Music tinkles throughout our house, from the piano that had long sat idle, until recently. Ainan has taken to playing music, on its black and white keys. This, however, is a bit of a surprise.

Five years ago, when Ainan was six years old, we tried to introduce him to the piano. We secured for him a piano teacher, of Chinese descent. For several months, Ainan duly took piano lessons. However, he chafed under the regimen. He didn’t like the order of it, what he perceived as rigidity and repetition. He became uncooperative towards the lessons. In due course, we stopped inviting his teacher because it had become clear that the relationship was not working. Ainan was unwilling to learn in the style that was being imposed. He rebelled against it, in his own, quiet way...of simply not doing what was asked.

We found this a surprise at the time, since Ainan liked to compose his own tunes on the piano, even at that early stage. Perhaps that should have been a clue to us as to his real interest: he wasn’t, then, interested in the mechanics of piano playing, but in the art of composition. Had his lessons focussed on the latter and attempted to evoke that behaviour, perhaps we would have had better results and more cooperation from him. Unfortunately, we didn’t come to that understanding then.

So, it was a great surprise to me, to find Ainan playing the piano, on his own, in the front room, a few weeks ago. The tune was complex, evocative and somewhat elusive. It really surprised me that he was able to play such a tune, after five years of not touching the piano.

“What is it?”, I asked.

“It is the music to Portal 2.”, he said, matter of factly.

I understood then, what that meant. Ainan had reconstructed the music to the videogame, by “reverse engineering” it, on the piano – using his ear, to judge which notes were to be played, in which order. I said nothing, but this fact quietly impressed me – for it said one thing, clearly: he had to have a clear memory of the music in his mind, whilst he did so, for the PS3 player was in another room, quite far away, and could not be heard from the piano. Ainan was expressing his memory of a piece of music, through the piano, by playing it, in real time...without any lessons more recent than five years ago.

A few days later, I heard more family music playing. It was Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. Ainan played both hands (as he had with Portal), different notes on each, rendering Moonlight Sonata accurately.

Again, I was struck by what he was doing. He was taking an internal memory of a piece of music, to the piano and reconstructing it on the keyboard – then playing it, in real time, with both hands as they should be – without any music to guide him, for none could be played near him. Furthermore, Ainan has never learnt to read music, so he was not playing Moonlight Sonata from the page...and, indeed, there was no music to play it from.

All of this struck me as very revealing of who Ainan is. He would much rather work out the piano for himself, than be taught how to do it. When we tried to have him taught, he rebelled – but when we left the piano alone, quietly, in a room...he eventually found it, sat at it and began to play.

Ainan enjoys the act of autodidacticism. He would rather teach himself, than be taught. He would rather decode the piano and how it works and is played, on his own, than be taught how to do it. This act, embodies his profoundest nature, very well. In seeing him play the piano, without prompting, or lessons, we are seeing Ainan at his truest, deepest, self.

This recent development reminds me of how Ainan taught himself computer programming when he was six years old. He also reverse engineered it. He sat down at a computer keyboard and typed in statements that he thought might represent VBS (Visual Basic), commands. He watched what the computer did as a result and learnt, thereby, what each phrase did, and how the computer responded. He kept on typing and trying phrases and syntax, until he had, overtime, reconstructed the programming language, for himself and deciphered how it worked. He did this without any programming lessons – he just worked out how VBS worked, on his own. Thus, it is with the piano, recently: he has simply decoded it for himself.

Seeing how he learns, and how he teaches himself, I do wonder at the necessity and value of traditional education. Ainan’s achievements show that a child can teach himself essentially anything, on his own, by trial and error and experience of the thing itself. Ainan also shows himself to be rather better than a typical child, his age, at learning. Could it be, that traditional education is not helping people as much as it should? How is it that Ainan’s self-directed tinkering, can be superior in outcome – as it typically is, with him - to all that careful inculcation and “well-crafted” traditional lessons?

The lesson here is that some children, at least, are able to learn without the aid of traditional schooling. Indeed, as Ainan shows, in some cases, such children PREFER to learn without the aid of traditional schooling and find traditional schooling to be an encumbrance against which they rebel.

I am happy that Ainan has rediscovered the piano. I am happier still to note the way that he has done so. I am left, now, however, with a conundrum: having seen him play the piano on his own, should I encourage him to get lessons...or should I continue to leave him to his own devices? Would he now be responsive to tuition, or is it his own interest that propels him and propels him alone?

For now, I will let him tinker on, in his own way. In the meantime, I will ponder the question of whether to intervene, or not.

Posted by Valentine Cawley

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:32 PM 


Blogger Sher said...

wow he's playing by ear!

you should definitely get a teacher for him, but teacher selection requires careful assessment on your part for the teacher needs to be someone who has a view to equipping him with the technical skills in order for him to compose.

that is, the teacher probably needs to be someone who will listen to what he wants to play - rather than enforcing what he/she believes ainan should play - and then teaching him the techniques to make that piece come alive.

and if ainan questioned the way beethoven wrote the moonlight sonata, for instance, the teacher should be open to a discussion.

you'd need an enlightened coach :)

10:49 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. Teacher selection would have to be very carefully done indeed. I am actually wary of it. I have learnt that Ainan is allergic to regimen and any kind of imposed order - especially anything repetitive. He hates to have to keep doing the same thing. So, some teaching styles would be really unacceptable to him. In fact, most teachers, who approach piano as a training exercise, would be rebelled against, by him.

I don't want to spoil his interest by bringing a mismatch of a teacher into the equation. Where are you from? Do you know any enlightened teachers in Kuala Lumpur?

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Sher said...

Unfortunately I think most teachers teach the scales-examination way (ABRSM), where regimentation becomes a norm. This is especially true for classical music.

I'm from Singapore, unfortunately I don't know any teachers in KL.

The other option is pop piano where improvisation is encouraged.

11:04 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Ah. If regimentation is the norm, with teachers...then a typical teacher is not a good idea, for him. It would just turn him off the piano again. It would be better to let him learn alone, than that.

Thanks for the suggestion re. pop piano. I will have to look into it.

Much appreciated.

Kind regards

11:08 PM  
Blogger tearsunderstars said...

Hi Mr Cawley,

Ainan's case sounds very similar to what happened to me.

When I was about 7 or 8 I was tinkling on the electric organ when my parents noticed. They decided to send me to Yamaha Music School for weekly music lessons because they thought it was my brother playing until they saw me. However, as the lessons go by, my interest slowly died, and my mother had to force me to keep practising. I no longer wanted to practise and my parents ended up withdrawing me from lessons and scolded me for wasting their money. However I could not express what was causing my interest to die, but "regimentation" seems to have hit the nail. It could also be that I didn't like the kind of music I was playing.

However, when I was 17 I discovered my interest with another instrument along with classical music. My parents were very adamant about not letting me having music lessons for fear I would give up again, however they relented (rather unwillingly, I guess). This time I had private lessons as and when I like, and I had a very warm teacher who likes to tell stories behind the music that I played. I started practising by myself. In fact I practised so much that my parents were worried that I didn't want to focus on my school work. They are still worried now.

Now I am probably too busy to have music lessons again but I'm still practising hard.

I can't stress enough the importance of the need to be free when learning something so artistic and expressive like music. And of course a really good teacher, who isn't just technically good, but is warm and understanding of the needs of the student. I would suggest to let Ainan be. I mean, I myself would prefer to explore music on my own without any kind of regimented instruction. Of course if he requests for a teacher, the teacher should be nurturing, understanding and give proper guidance.

I wish you and your family all the best.


9:57 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your advice, Tearsunderstars. I think you are right. I shall let Ainan be, for now...he is enjoying his own explorations, so much, it seems a pity to impose any regimentation on it. His own choice of when to play with the piano is probably the best choice.

Good luck with your own musical explorations.

8:21 PM  
Blogger shahru niza said...

hi Mr. cawley,

I have read articles about children, sir, ainan and I found that the child, sir is a very genius and was born as a leader ..

I have conducted some studies of gifted children, and understand some of the obstacles and barriers that had been invaded by a gifted.

as a father who raised three children who have high cognitive level, what are the problems faced by the family to raise them, sir since they were infants until now?

11:28 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The best answer, Shahru, is for you to read over my blog...the answer is in there.

The primary problem is securing suitable educational stimulation for the child. Often this is very difficult and education systems are unaccommodating. It really makes the parents of gifted children suffer.

I wish you well in your investigations.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a musician, I can certainly relate to Ainan's experiences here. Your son (like me) is clearly a systems thinker who thrives on getting the big picture first and refining the details afterwards.

Music teachers, like nearly all teachers, have been indoctrinated with the idea that all students learn one step at a time, hence, piano lessons are structured with that pedagogical approach in mind.

Yes, there are sequential learners who thrive on that approach. There are also those who are put off by it. When high giftedness is part of the picture, the repetitiousness and piecemeal approach of a lesson designed for a more average ability, linear learner becomes not just unhelpful, but postively offputting.

If you haven't done so, I recommend you read Linda K. Silverman's book "Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual Spatial Learner". Reading it, it described the story of my life. I have good reasons to believe it would resonate with your family too.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your enlightening comment 7Sigma.

Yes. I think Ainan is a big picture first, details next, type of thinker. My ears are now, these days, nourished by ever increasingly more complex music, emerging from the front room as he refines his approach to the piano, playing always by ear and from memory of the music. It is very rewarding to note this newly emergent behaviour. He has discovered music for himself and in his own way, more profoundly than any teacher was able to reach him. Sequential learning made him rebel. Being able to work it out for himself, however, has awakened his interest. He is working out the "system" of the piano, on his own, by experimentation and by comparing the sound produced with his inner memory. He is also composing his own material on the fly, too.

Thank you for the book recommendation. I shall try to find it. I note its title: Ainan is very strong fact it might be his greatest strength (don't know, but am estimating)...


9:52 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Rather than teaching your son in the classical way (i.e. the memorization of notes from dead composers), let him create music.

Most piano teachers are plain boring and uncreative, so be open-minded when seeking a music teacher. He/she might be found in unconventional places like lounges etc.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Bob for the advice. Actually, Ainan is spontaneously creating music nowadays - and that is how he is teaching himself piano: he is exploring what a piano can do and what the musical possibilities are. It is a much healthier way for him to you suggest.

The lounge pianist is an interesting idea...thanks for the tip.

10:33 PM  

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