Raising a boy wonder
Gavin, signing an autograph. Photo courtesy Mary George.
Several weeks have passed, but Eric and Mary George are still chuckling about the flower incident. Their son Gavin, a 7-year-old piano prodigy, was the star attraction at a performance of the Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra. As he prepared for the show—his first with a symphony—he didn’t sweat the music. Instead, Gavin worried about the ritual: when to bow, the proper way to walk on the stage. “The conductor was just laughing,” Mary recalls. “Gavin has no concerns about the thousands of keys he is going to press.”
Indeed, Gavin delivered a flawless performance, wowing the audience at Denison University’s Swasey Chapel with his talent and precociousness. Then, amid a standing ovation, he was caught off guard. A young girl approached the stage and gave him the traditional bouquet of flowers. Puzzled, Gavin set the flowers down, not realizing they were his to keep. The conductor picked up the bouquet off the floor and returned it to Gavin as they walked off the stage together. “It was one of those priceless moments,” Eric says.
Incongruous moments, however, are nothing new to the Georges. After the show, Gavin signed his name in a flowing script for a steady stream of autograph seekers. He spent the summer learning cursive handwriting to prepare for such an occurrence, his parents say. And three days before the concert, Gavin and his family squeezed into a single evening both trick-or-treating and a rehearsal with the symphony. One moment, Gavin, dressed as a Viking, was pillaging his neighborhood for candy. The next, he was breaking down a complicated orchestral performance with accomplished, middle-aged musicians. “It just boggles the mind,” Eric says.
It’s been a remarkable year for Gavin, who lives just outside Granville with his parents and 4-year-old brother, Max. In April, Gavin made a whirlwind trip to New York City, playing the most famous concert venue of them all, Carnegie Hall, and appearing on CBS’s “The Early Show.” But after the Denison performance, his parents decided to pull back a bit. “He was ready for a breather,” Mary says. “He loved it, absolutely. But I could tell. His body and his mind wanted to move forward without any pressure for a while. . . . As a parent, you know your children. You can tell when they’re stressed.”
Since Gavin’s musical gifts first appeared at the age of 3, his family and teachers have been pulling off an extraordinary balancing act, nurturing his exceptional gifts while also giving him as normal a childhood as possible. Raising any child is a daunting task, to be sure. But a boy wonder presents a unique challenge, to say the least. “I am in awe of his talent,” says his piano teacher, Mary Craig Powell. “It’s wonderful, and it’s a little bit frightening.”
Gavin’s musical journey began with a DVD. For Christmas in 2005, Eric gave Mary an André Rieu video. The Dutch violinist and his big colorful orchestra entranced Gavin, then 2 years old. Gavin, who’d never shown much interest in kids’ programs such as “Sesame Street” or “Barney,” watched the whole two-hour DVD and then demanded to see it again. He’d drum along to the music (keeping perfect time) and practice conducting while standing in front of the fireplace. “I’d never seen him that excited,” Mary says.
About a year later, his parents started Gavin in the Suzuki program at Denison after they inherited a piano from Mary’s brother. Within a couple of weeks, Gavin’s first teacher, Caryl Palmer, discovered he had perfect pitch, the ability to identify a note without any external reference, a rare musical gift he shares with such luminaries as Glenn Gould, Stevie Wonder and Beethoven. When Gavin was looking the other way, his teacher could tap a key on the piano. Gavin could turn around and hit the same one every time.
His sensitive ear stunned a salesman at Graves piano shop in Columbus. After testing a Steinway on the sales floor, Gavin told the salesman the piano was not in tune, pointing out precisely which keys needed work. “The guy basically said, ‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but we were supposed to have this tuned this morning. The tuner called in sick,’ ” Eric George recalls.
Gavin started to pick up music on his own. After family and friends sang “Happy Birthday” to him on his fourth birthday, Gavin, who’d just started music lessons, ran to the piano and played the song himself. “Everyone is like, ‘When did you guys teach him that?’ ” Eric recalls. “No one taught him. He heard it in his mind.” Then he began to play by ear music he heard in old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. “I never thought about it, but that’s probably why he likes ‘Tom and Jerry’ so much,” Eric says.
Gavin’s progress skyrocketed after learning to read music at 4. By the time he was 5, he was playing Beethoven sonatas, and his teacher had moved him to the high-school-age group at the Denison Suzuki program. Around this time, Palmer approached Powell, a former Capital University instructor who specializes in working with gifted children, and asked her to take on Gavin. “She said she realized she wasn’t a teacher for gifted children, and this child was the gift of a lifetime,” Powell says.
The public began to learn about Gavin’s incredible abilities. In December 2009, Gavin played before a crowd of 1,000 at a concert at Otterbein University to benefit the veterans group Honor Flight. Autograph seekers mobbed him after the show, even though he only knew how to print his name at the time (the event inspired him to learn cursive).
To help Gavin connect with other talented young people, Mary started to post videos of her son on YouTube. Gavin noticed several of the other musical prodigies on the website took part in a competition sponsored by the American Association for Development of the Gifted and Talented. She sent in a DVD of him playing two songs and, three months later, Gavin was named one of the winners of the international contest. He and his family flew to New York City, and Gavin played Men-delssohn’s “Venetian Gondola Song No. 2” before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall. He also represented the event on “The Early Show,” where Gavin, missing his two front teeth, charmed host Harry Smith with his skills and enthusiasm. “Harry was talking to him after the song when they were on a commercial break and Gavin said, ‘I want to play another one! I want to play another one!’ ” Mary says. “So he set it up so Gavin could close the show out. Gavin was so excited.”
What separates Gavin, Powell says, is his unique combination of gifts. In addition to his sensitive musical ear, Gavin is an exceptionally quick learner blessed with physical abilities and tools well beyond his years (he has unusually large hands). “Some children have some of these gifts, but he’s got all,” says Powell, who’s been teaching piano for 50 years. “So many things that you work and work with students to help them form and develop are already there.”
But his most remarkable talent might be his mature musical artistry. “Sometimes he brings tears to my eyes,” Powell says. “He did that this morning. I almost cried.” Gavin played at her Columbus home a relatively simple piece by the American composer William Gillock, something he’d practiced just once before. “It was so beautifully done, and it pulled at the heartstrings,” she says.
Powell tries her best to temper her comments and avoids comparing Gavin to other students. But it’s still hard for her not to get carried away. “Sometimes I just think he’s been reincarnated from Mozart or Chopin,” she says with a laugh. “I do not believe in reincarnation, mind you. It just feels like there’s a great musician inside of him and a very mature musician for his age.”
Musical prodigies aren’t treated so great in popular culture. They’re often portrayed as eccentric, socially awkward misfits pushed too hard by abusive parents. Think of Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1996 movie Shine, which told the story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose promising career was derailed by a mental breakdown.
But in her 13 years researching prodigies, Ohio State University professor Joanne Ruthsatz has developed a much different profile. She’s tracking the lives of nine prodigies in music and art, and all are thriving. No turbulent lives, no overbearing parents. They’re more mature than most, but they seem just like other kids until they tickle the ivories or whip out the oil paints. Ruthsatz mentions her first prodigy—a gifted pianist from New Orleans. After wowing an audience at a large venue, the then-6-year-old boy asked Ruthsatz if she wanted to play in a sandbox with him. “I’m sorry to paint such a Pollyanna picture for you, but that is the truth of it,” says Ruthsatz, who approached Gavin’s mother in December about participating in her survey.
Moreover, all of Ruthsatz’s prodigies are self-propelled. No puppet masters are behind them, making them practice piano until their fingers bleed or brutally critiquing their work. Their own passion pushes them. The prodigy from Louisiana, for instance, so aggravated his parents with his constant practicing that they made him put on earphones so they could enjoy a little peace and quiet. “People want to believe that this couldn’t be something the child wants, but it totally is,” says Ruthsatz, an assistant professor of psychology at the OSU campus in Mansfield.
Indeed, Gavin fits the description. “He’s got more passion for music than any child I have ever seen,” Powell says. He loves a challenge (“fast and difficult—that’s what he’s drawn to,” says his dad), and his parents say he’s most happy when he’s playing music, especially for other people. And while his parents and piano teacher worry about burnout—and do their best to avoid putting pressure on him—his insatiable drive makes it hard to hold him back.
No standard game plan exists for educating prodigies. Ruthsatz says her sample is all over the board: home school, skipping grades, special academies, a normal track with supplemental learning. “Think about it,” she says. “Prodigies are so rare. There’s not enough data that tells you this is the way to do it.”
In Gavin’s case, his mother upended her life to cater to him. Gavin suffered from colic as an infant, crying incessantly for hours. He got over the affliction at four months, but then a horrible case of separation anxiety took hold. When Mary returned to her job as a teacher of gifted children in the Westerville school district, Gavin would scream and refuse to eat or sleep. After weeks of agony, Mary couldn’t take it anymore and quit her job to be with Gavin full time. “He just felt more from the time he was born,” Mary says. “He just had so much emotion and feeling inside of him.”
The Georges moved from New Albany to the Granville area in 2004 in part because of the excellent schools, but home-schooling turned out to be the best option for Gavin. With her background in gifted education, Mary decided to teach Gavin herself through the Ohio Virtual Academy, an Internet-based charter school. “We never planned to do the online school, but Gavin’s academic gifts came up pretty early when he was 3,” Mary says. He could read before turning 4 and displayed an astonishing memory, a common occurrence among prodigies, says Ruthsatz. His father remembers one evening when Gavin surprised him with his ability to remember the most minute details of a Roald Dahl book he’d just read.
On a Friday afternoon in December, Gavin’s parents meet with a visitor to talk about Gavin’s education. They’re both friendly and charming, but their different personalities also emerge. Mary is intense and focused. “I’m sorry, I’m distracted,” she says, getting up to turn down the volume of a barely audible television in another room. Eric, meanwhile, is the family comedian. As Mary engages in a serious discussion about accelerating Gavin’s learning, her husband, a self-described slacker as a student, jokes, “You can ask my mom. That’s how she raised me.”
Mary laughs. “See what I have to deal with?”
“You can quote me on that,” Eric adds.
“And you can quote my eye roll,” Mary replies.
Eric, the manager of the Huntington bank branch in Granville, is in awe of his wife, who’s home-schooling both Gavin and Max, who’s also turning out to be a good student and piano player. “She’s with them all day: teaching them, making sure they’re doing well, disciplining them, doing piano,” he says. “It’s an amazing amount of work that not too many people would be able to pull off. That’s a huge piece of why this is working.” (Neither Mary nor Eric are musicians.)
Still, it may not work forever. To continue Gavin’s development as he gets older, the family might need to relocate, perhaps to be closer to a specialized school such as Juilliard in New York City or the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But Gavin’s parents are avoiding looking too far into the future. “You have to take it day by day and year by year because his growth is so amazing,” Mary says. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen.”
About a week later, Mary is helping Gavin and Max with an art project. The trio are in their home classroom, spread out on a blanket. Gavin pastes white clouds on a drawing of a seascape while enjoying a snack of fruit and pretzels. The room is bright and warm. Gavin helped paint the rocket, sun and moon on one of the walls. Another wall is decorated with cut-out balloons with the names of books the boys have read in recent months (Little House on the Prairie, The Wizard of Oz, Ramona and Her Father, to name a few). A small stereo playing baroque favorites provides quiet background music.
With a reporter and a photographer visiting, a bout of show-and-tell interrupts the art project. Gavin races to his room and returns with a trumpet, a birthday gift he’s yet to master. He and Max take turns playing with the instrument. The two boys have a good relationship; Gavin encourages his brother’s piano playing, sometimes accompanying Max on bongos.
He spreads out several notated sheets of a piano sonata he’s writing for his mother for Christmas. (Gavin already has completed 11 other compositions.) He’s got two movements done and one to go, though working on it poses a logistical challenge. He doesn’t want his mother to hear any of it, so he has to practice when she’s not around.
Gavin grabs a book he’s been reading for the past two or three days, Sword of the Rightful King, a 368-page novel about King Arthur. He’s up to page 215. “I like books with lots of pages because at least they don’t take me a day to read,” he says. Several other books are scattered throughout the house, and Gavin cracks them open whenever he’s nearby. “He can track three books at one time and take tests on them and get a 100,” Mary says.
Next, Gavin begins his morning piano practice. He works on scales and arpeggios (broken chords). It’s not the most exciting work for Gavin, but Powell emphasizes developing Gavin’s foundation. He sometimes needs reminders to work on these skills, but no outside motivation is required to get him to play new music or improvise songs on his own, both of which he can do for hours upon hours. “Sometimes, I have to stop him because he’s so into what he’s doing that he would do it for so long he wouldn’t get his schoolwork done,” Mary says.
Gavin’s fingers fly across the keys with astonishing speed and precision. He plays a Chopin prelude and a jazzy composition called the “Bumblebee Boogie.” In total, Gavin practices one to two hours a day, with an additional 20 minutes a day or so of sight reading (playing an unfamiliar composition through once and then stopping). It’s an impressive performance. If you define a prodigy as inspiring wonder, then Gavin fits the bill.
But what also emerges is that Gavin is still a kid. Next to the piano is Gavin’s collection of Silly Bandz, and he’s just as eager to talk about them—especially a rare genie one he recently traded for—as he is to chat about music. He’s enthusiastic, funny, sweet, curious (he bombards the photographer with questions about his camera) and loves the kind of stuff most 7-year-old boys do: swords, water balloons, candy, dart guns.
As much as they want Gavin to excel and grow, his family also works hard to protect his innocence. “Really, he’s just a normal child in every way, except for the gifts he’s been given,” Mary says.
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.