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Musical prodigies whose public careers begin as early as age 5 face a "mid-life crisis" by the time they are teen-agers, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit).

What often results, says Jeanne Bamberger, an associate professor at mit's Division for Study and Research in Education, is that a child of promise, emotionally unequipped to face the pressure of success, drops out of public view. "While many musically prodigious children do go on to become acclaimed artists," she says, "one doesn't ordinarily know of the others because they tend to keep their pasts hidden.

They carry with them a deep sense of failure, even though they sometimes achieve success in other fields, at least by ordinary standards."

Ms. Bamberger is herself an accomplished pianist who also teaches music theory in mit's department of humanities. Her preliminary report on the cognitive and emotional development of musical prodigies is based on numerous interviews with "grown-up" prodigies.

Her subjects tell her that they felt a powerful need as children to understand their musical abilities. And they speak of their earlier abilities "as a kind of intimate contact with their instruments through which they could bring a piece of music to life," she says.

But with the onset of the crisis, "decisions that were previously made quite spontaneously [and] di-rectly in terms of action on their instruments became problematic, self-conscious, and seemingly without clear direction for resolution."

She speculates that prodigies have highly developed "figural" capacities--the "smart fingers" that enable some people to find and shape musical coherence "through the kinesthetic sense of a composition in relation to its performance on an instrument."

What they may lack, however, is knowledge of the "formal" properties and procedures of music that are usually expressed in the symbols of notation and theory. Thus, she speculates, the prodigies acquire "relatively limited means for externalizing, reflecting, or thinking in formal terms about what they know how to do so well."

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