If you tuned in to this year’s Grammy awards, you would not have failed to witness the extraordinary performance of 12-year-old jazz pianist Joey Alexander. The short solo performance, which earned him a standing ovation, was without doubt the cherry on the cake of this young musician’s short but remarkable career thus far.
Joey is completely self-taught, and apart from a brief, yet unsuccessful attempt to interest him in classical music, he has never had a teacher. Playing by ear at the age of six, the first piece he recalls learning was a jazz standard by jazz icon Thelonious Monk. By the age of seven he was playing with professional musicians in his hometown of Jakarta, Indonesia, with his rapidly growing reputation as a musical prodigy eventually leading him to New York. Invited at the age of ten to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Centre, Joey opted to play his own original arrangement of Round Midnight by Monk, thus showcasing both his phenomenal technique and profound understanding of the jazz idiom. Audience members were understandably blown away by the young musician’s maturity and creativity, and this marked the beginning of what has become a highly successful US career for Joey, who already has one Grammy-nominated album and a busy touring schedule to his name.
The label ‘prodigy’ has understandably been given to this remarkable talent. What is interesting in Joey’s case is his seeming awareness of the pitfalls that carrying such a label can bring, and in a show of extraordinary maturity, he has indicated that he would prefer not to have to wear and bear it. In an interview for the television show Asian Dreamers in 2015, Joey explains, “A lot of prodigies, they are good, but they talk about their age. Whether my age, or younger than me, they always talk about their age. But for me I want to focus on the music, and let the music speak by itself.” This is a sentiment he’d previously voiced on the US Today Show. When the host remarked, “I know you don’t really like the term ‘jazz prodigy’, do you?”, Joey replied, “I just like to be as myself, as a jazz musician. I know many people call me a prodigy…I mean, ok, thank you, but I still want to be called a jazz musician.”
So why should Joey be wary of such a well-fitting label? Since his first public appearances at the age of seven, Joey has attracted a significant amount of media attention, with a focus on his young age. Youth however is quickly lost, and the effects of this loss can be devastating for the once-prodigy, who will often suddenly find themselves competing with others on equal ground for the attention that used to come so freely. The transition during early adolescence from prodigiousness to adult artistry is often a struggle for the one-time prodigy. Joey appears to instinctively predict the question that the psychologist Jeanne Bamberger asks about the prodigy’s “mid-life crisis”: What is it like to face becoming a grown-up prodigy?
Just a quick skim through the comments left for Joey’s YouTube performance videos is evidence enough of the projections of his online audience members. He is described as a “prodigy”, a “genius”, a “gift from God.” Some commenters go so far as to refer to Joey as “the modern equivalent of Mozart in the jazz idiom”, “the next Mozart”, or “an angel from Indonesia.” Being compared to one of the greatest musical minds in history, or having the weight of the expectations of an entire nation on such young shoulders is obviously daunting, and would explain in no small part Joey’s desire to have his musical abilities placed at the forefront of any discussion, with his age left firmly in the background. Keeping the music as the focus is an excellent strategy to allow him to develop his musical career with as little pressure as possible.
What is our role then, as media producers and consumers, in placing such importance on age, and much less on the musical merits of the child as performer or composer in his or her own right? In the words of Joey, and for the sake of other young and aspiring musicians like him, should we not let the music speak for itself? When asked what he wanted to do next, Joey responded, “I just want to keep playing…For me, the most important thing is to keep playing the music.” For him to be able to do so, he first has to successfully weather the “mid-life crisis” that he will most surely experience in the near future. For the transition from prodigy to adult professional to occur, it is in our best interests as music consumers to allow him the freedom to grow both physically and musically with as little pressure and as much support as possible. Focusing on “Joey as musician” above “Joey as prodigy” is certainly the most effective way to ensure that he will have a long and prosperous career “playing the music.”
Featured image credit: Piano by Will Powell. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.