The concept of innate ability

Yehudi Menuhin

I once heard Yehudi Menuhin saying on the radio that if there came to his school for musically gifted children a boy who thought he was going to get all the first prizes, he would soon crush it out of him. I wondered whether he could do that without destroying all the boy's prospects in life.

The fact that such sadistic attitudes to the exceptional can be freely voiced with no resulting social disapproval of the person expressing them is symptomatic of the prevailing climate, and it was this climate which ruined my education and left me in bitter exile from the academic world, debarred from re-entering an academic career in any of the capacities in which I could function successfully by the lack of usable first degree and the difficulty of obtaining one without considerable expenditure of time and money, since society conflates the process of preparation with the taking of the exam paper.

This was the horrific outcome which resulted from everyone’s fear that I might take too many exams at too early an age and be too happy and too successful, as well as appearing too exceptional.

People have sometimes suggested to me that I should set up a high-IQ society; certainly there is great need of one, but any democratic association would have great difficulty in maintaining positive attitudes, since, as the example of Yehudi Menuhin illustrates, even most of the exceptionally gifted have negative attitudes towards other able people.

In fact what I have is a small association of high-IQ people working together for a better and more interesting life in which their abilities can be more fully used.

People have also suggested that I set up a school for gifted children and in fact I would be prepared to run a tutorial establishment at any age level, which I am sure would be remarkably successful, as I used to teach unofficially several subjects at university level and my tutees usually got far better results than they were expected to. I don't suppose anyone would wish to fund such an operation; of course I should expect considerable remuneration for my input into it. But I am just making it public that such an operation could be possible if anyone wished to put up the money for it. One idea I have about this is that pupils should undertake to pay back to the school a percentage of their earnings, and anyone teaching at the school should have a share in the proceeds of the accumulated fund, so that teachers could feel they had a stake in the future success of the pupils to counteract their destructive feelings of jealousy.

Menuhin also provides an example of the fact that not even those who appear to have enjoyed the advantages of being a child prodigy have a generous attitude towards other precocious people. In fact, apart from very rare and partial exceptions, everyone has thoroughly negative attitudes towards precocity. But how far did Yehudi Menuhin really enjoy the advantages which his exceptional musical gifts made possible? A review of his autobiography, approving of his upbringing, said that he was saved from the sad fate of the professional prodigy. Well, what is so sad about being paid money to display your exceptionality, and to have royalty cooing over you? Mozart was not saved from that sad fate and grew up to be Mozart; from infant performer he grew up to the composer of musical works which still rank among the world’s greatest. Yehudi Menuhin grew up to be Yehudi Menuhin; that is to say, from inspired child performer he grew up to be, not the composer of world-famous works, but a professional adult performer, thought by most experts never to have regained his youthful brilliance. Was Yehudi Menuhin satisfied with that? Would he not have preferred to grow up to be Mozart?

The story of his depression in his teenage years is well-known; people enjoy it as a proof that precocity leads to tears, but he is held to have survived this crisis very well and (so the story goes) learnt to do consciously what previously he had done by instinct. This crisis of depression happened when he was approaching an age at which he would be no longer unique. By their late teens many, originally less precocious than himself, would be vying for attention as up-and-coming performers. Did he feel that it had been left too late for him to have the career of astonishing virtuosity that might have been his? Did he find it difficult to feel any motivation to be an adult performer of music, by no means so astonishing a thing as a child performer? Perhaps he felt he had lost contact with his destiny and could not now go on to the next state of becoming a great composer. So he did not grow up to be Mozart but Yehudi Menuhin, a thoroughly respectable person with a talent which was still marketable as an adult performer, and all the right attitudes. One feels there is a lot of repressed anger in Yehudi Menuhin, but he has done a really good job of repressing it.