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Prodigy label can help ... or hinder

| Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

Anyone who thinks Richland singing sensation Jackie Evancho performs on "America's Got Talent" to win the TV show's $1 million prize has it wrong.

What the 10-year-old really wants is a pony, and her father has promised her one if she defeats the three competitors standing in her way Tuesday night.

"I made the mistake of saying, 'If you do great, we'll get you a pony,' " said Mike Evancho, 40, father of Jackie and her three siblings. "Most parents are safe when they say that."

Lisa and Mike Evancho quickly are realizing they're as different from "most parents" as their daughter is from most of her classmates in the Pine-Richland School District.

Some call the Eden Hall Upper Elementary fifth-grader a prodigy, likening her potential to that of stars such as Julie Andrews.

Just as no one criterion distinguishes someone as a prodigy, there is no guarantee that renowned talents at such a tender age equates to future success.

How Jackie's family cultivates her ability and contends with her fame likely will determine whether the soprano translates her precocious talent into a career as a performer who can put her signature on the classical-crossover style she loves to sing, said Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University.

"People think that because you can do something really well young that you're going to get the virtuoso level," she said. "In the field, we talk about how rare it is because it takes something more. It takes creativity, and making that transition can be tough."

Prodigies and gifted children say they know what she means.

'Trapped' feelings

Extraordinarily talented children sometimes feel "trapped," which can lead them to experience a sense of failure, said author Alissa Quart, 38, of New York, who learned to read by age 3 and wrote a novel by 7 but rejects the label of prodigy.

Quart wrote "Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of Gifted Kids" to scrutinize the maze of expectations prodigies navigate. She interviewed prodigies, gifted children and their families, including the mother of a boy with 160 IQ who started college in Colorado at 10 and committed suicide at 14.

"Being trapped into something at an early age is really a problem," she said. "If you wanted to become something else, it was really hard for them to do."

Jackie Evancho can do whatever she wants, her parents say. Since she was a toddler, Jackie told them she wanted to be a singer. Her parents discovered her voice nearly three years ago as she sang along with "Phantom of the Opera" on DVD.

"We would support her no matter what route she took," Mike Evancho said. "Even if she wants to hang up singing."

He isn't worried that his daughter will change personally.

"She has such a good foundation, those concerns are not at the top of my list," he said.

'Be very protective'

There are other concerns to consider, according to music education experts. Young singing voices are fragile, said Andrew Thomas, director emeritus of the pre-college division at The Juilliard School in New York City.

The acclaimed performing arts school doesn't accept children younger than 14 into its rigorous program because their voices and vocal chords are changing, Thomas said. Singing too loud or too often, or performing a repertoire that is too demanding, can harm young singers.

"Particularly with a young voice, my (colleagues') motto is 'Do no harm,' " he said.

Jackie said her voice feels strong.

"My voice cooperates well (with opera)," she said.

For inspiration, she looks to soprano Sarah Brightman and emulates her on-stage mannerisms.

"My advice to the parents is to invest in training and be very protective -- and certainly not to treat this as an idea of earning $1 million, though that would be a nice side effect," Thomas said.

The Evanchos said they hired entertainment lawyers and a financial consultant. If Jackie wins, her parents plan to keep the prize money in the bank until she's old enough to need it.

"We want her money protected, so when she enters her dangerous years, she doesn't blow the money," her father said, referring to Jackie's teens.

As Jackie grows up, it's important to explore other disciplines, said Hilary Hahn, a violin prodigy who performed her first full recital at 10 and earned a bachelor's degree in music at 16.

Hahn, 30, of Lexington, Va., said she and her teachers used each show as a lesson that let her "grow as a musician" rather than only as a performer. She listened to her teachers when they told her to go to museums and study other art forms.

"You have to be a well-rounded person to be a well-rounded musician," said Hahn, a two-time Grammy winner who will release her latest album Sept. 21.

More advice

Keeping Jackie's life as normal as possible is wise, said Lenhard Ng, a mathematics professor at Duke University in North Carolina.

At age 10, Ng earned a perfect 800 score on the math portion of the SAT-I, a feat considered to be a "remarkable achievement" when a high school junior or senior does it, according to a 2006 article written about Ng in Gifted Child Quarterly published by Northwestern University.

"I never really felt any pressure to be in math; it was something I wanted to do," said Ng, whose father worked as a theoretical physicist.

"I think it's really important that, if you have talent at a young age, to know that there are other people who are like that out there," he said. "I think it's pretty easy to feel isolated."

It's easy to be taken advantage of, said Bob Rosenthal, a Dallas-based piano store owner who hosted a homecoming celebration last year for pianist prodigy Jeffrey Ou, a 2009 "America's Got Talent" finalist.

Ou lost to country singer Kevin Skinner. Skinner's website lists performance tour dates this month and next at fairs and festivals in Ohio, Maryland and Virginia.

Rosenthal said Ou didn't have an agent and his parents weren't involved in guiding his performances, which hurt his chances. The show's producers "tried to make him into Elton John or something," Rosenthal said. "That's not Jeffrey. Jeffrey is just a pure classical pianist."

Ou, in an e-mail, said he enjoyed his experience with the show and advised Jackie to be herself and "embrace every moment."

"My advice to this young lady is to have someone who represents her interests," Rosenthal said of Jackie. "Otherwise, the fame could just fizzle."

Additional Information:

Past prodigies

A few famous names who started as kids:

Mickey Rooney: The actor turns 90 this month. He began performing at 17 months in his parents' vaudeville act.

Julie Andrews: The actress and singer was an accomplished soloist at age 11 and sang in the London Hippodrome at 14.

Shirley Temple: She won a special Academy Award at age 7. Time magazine called the child actress a prodigy in 1936.

Michelle Wie: She qualified for an amateur golf championship at 10 and later became the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur Public Links.

Bobby Fischer: He learned to play chess at 6 and became a grandmaster in 1958. Fischer died in 2008.

Source: Tribune-Review research

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