60 Minutes Commits Child Abuse

Alma Deutscher - Artist's RenderingI saw that 60 Minutes profiled the child musician Alma Deutscher. I thought it odd. Very accomplished young musicians are hardly uncommon. I had season tickets to the Portland Symphony for a few years and it seemed every other performance featured some “great” 12-year-old on the violin or piano or glockenspiel. So why this child? Well, because she wasn’t just a performer; she was a composer. Oh, my! How exciting!

Now I should point out that I’m not using the word “prodigy” because that was a word that was used a lot about me: I was a “mathematical prodigy.” And I loved math. But I wasn’t interested in studying it 8 hours per day and my parents weren’t inclined to push me to do it. Instead, I spent time playing and drawing and putting on plays and generally doing anything that made me happy. I have a hard time believing any child wants to do one thing all the time. But I certainly can’t speak for Alma Deutscher. Nor would I want to. She speaks for herself, although she’s obviously been coached as much as Marjoe.

A Composer! Of 200 Year Old Music!

I was skeptical. Modern classical music is incredibly complex — even the bad stuff. The best stuff is filled with so much creativity that I had a hard time thinking that a 12-year-old would have much to offer. That was certainly true of Mozart. Nothing he wrote was really great until he was well into his 20s. (That’s right folks: Mozart wrote a lot of dreck in his early years.) Clearly, he had talent. But as with word writers, music writers need experience with life.

But I hoped that the compositions of this little girl were limited or even bad modern classical music. So I went to YouTube and found everything I could. I was sorely disappointed. She doesn’t even try to write anything from the last two centuries. Her music sounds like a precocious child’s version of the music before Beethoven. And that makes me think her performances aren’t anything more than her copying other performers. (That’s almost certainly true because it’s pretty much always true of young musicians; they haven’t had the life experience to add anything to the music.)

Great Composing Requires a Life Lived

Great composers do amazing things with their work. They communicate — in great detail. You might just hear a passage as sad, but they aren’t working in generalities. Many composers are known for putting musical jokes in their work. A great composer will tell you a story as clearly as the best writer or filmmaker.

Obviously, composers must study. Mozart studied counterpoint with Giovanni Martini, and the music he created afterward was far more interesting. But it was still years before he wrote anything I ever want to listen to.

But here’s my point: he was trying to write the music of his time. And this supposedly amazing child isn’t interested in any of the music of her own time. Most of it is no more interesting in the juvenilia of Mozart — which he wrote over 200 years ago!

The Classical Music Industry Sucks

This is not to knock Alma Deutscher. She’s a child. But it is a knock on the people who “enjoy” classical music. And it is a major knock on the people who produce classical music. As for her parents, well, I don’t know. But I suspect child abuse just as Marjoe Gortner suffered — just in a different way. I’d love to read the child’s autobiography when she’s 50.

This all makes me think that this poor young girl has been turned into a trained monkey by her parents and the classical music establishment. Almost everything she plays is something she’s written. I listened to her play a middling Mozart concerto that wasn’t really very well done. (She’s better on the violin than the piano.) Great for a little girl. Savaged by critics if performed by an adult. (She doesn’t seem to have even been told the purpose of a cadenza. And why an audience would applaud after the first movement, is unclear to me.)

There is no Brahms that I can find — much less Debussy — much much less Francis Poulenc — much much much less Elliott Carter! It’s almost all sweet music by the child herself.

What a Real Composer Creates

But I ask you, do you think the child composer of this:

Will ever grows up to be the adult composer of something this creative and great?

Not to mention Roomful Of Teeth.

I don’t think so. She might have. But not with all the adults who used her natural gifts to stick her two centuries before her own time. Sure, she’ll get better. But I doubt she’ll break from the music that made her famous. And at 16, she won’t be so cute. And if she’s lucky, she’ll have enough money that she can just quit.

Abused Child: Alma Deutscher

60 Minutes brought her on because they (and most classical music “lovers”) know almost nothing about classical music. Because they could have brought on someone like Masha Diatchenko, who at 15 actually seemed to understand the music she was playing. She didn’t seem like an abused trained monkey:

And listen to her at 23-years-old!

Maybe it’s an American thing. But I weep for Alma Deutscher. She’s being abused. And if she doesn’t know it now, she will soon enough.

Afterword

After reading this, I read the child’s Wikipedia page. It’s interesting that it contains not a single criticism, despite the fact that there has been quite a lot of criticism of her work. I suspect part of her marketing team makes sure that any criticism is removed. But there is much in there that makes the case that she is pushing against the prevailing trend against melody. This is preposterous. She has shown no sign of even being aware of current trends in classical music — or even trends over the last century.

Darius Milhaud once said, “Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.” I think modern composers know this. They don’t need to be taught by a precocious child. If they can be, modern classical music is over. But I don’t think it is. I think this child will have no effect whatsoever on the art of classical music. She might drag down the quality of what people listen to. Most classical music “lovers” may finally admit that they only like the music that doesn’t offend their archaic tastes. But the art will move along because of people like Caroline Shaw, even if most listeners aren’t sophisticated enough to enjoy it.

8 replies on “60 Minutes Commits Child Abuse”

  1. Marie P Thomas says:

    sour grapes. sorry for you.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Sorry for me that I spend my time listening to great classical music and don’t get all wet over a child composer who composes… like a child? I think sorry for you that you would put so much stock in this child. Don’t you like classical music? Can’t you tell the difference between great classical music and mediocre classical music?

      But I suppose you are angry because I wasn’t attacking Alma Deutscher; I was attacking people like you who don’t actually care about classical music. Will you still be a big Deutscher fan when she is an adult? I doubt it based upon everything I know about how child prodigies are treated once they are no longer cute children.

      Regardless, you made no argument. I assume that means you have no argument. And how could you? Again: I did not attack Alma Deutscher. I attacked a classical music industry and community of listeners who don’t care at all about the music. Child prodigies are just a commodity to be used up and discarded. Shame on you!

      • Lover of all music! says:

        That’s rather presumptuous of you. Also, she composes contemporary music! The classical period was a long time ago.

        • Frank Moraes says:

          Actually, everything I’ve heard from here is distinctly Romantic period.

          Given that you seem to like her, why is that not presumptuous? I assume you were doing searches on her and found this article. And it conflicted with your narrative. How presumptuous to call me presumptuous!

          I have a long history of noting just how limited most classical music fans are when it comes to appreciation. So I’m not at all surprised that she’s very popular.

  2. Anonymous Poster says:

    I’m relieved I’m not the only one – but one of about three in the world it seems, who think, as you say, there is, “a child composer who composes… like a child” . This is not to take her down, but to put her into perspective. There is a lot of skill, sure, and talent, and I do think, she loves what she does. But there are quite a lot of young kids who could perform at her level, (or better?) these days, I believe. Flawless, or rather “mistakeless” playing and a nice tone are one thing, but that’s just a part of music – and she is lacking the artistic maturity which make it a true joy to listen. It’s: “Wow, good for her age – pretty – huh – what’s she doing there, okay, she’s just a kid – wow – WEIRD cadenza – okay – whatever – let’s click on a grown up pianist for real music.”
    She was super cute, when she was little, precocious and funny, but perhaps it would be time for her to retire for a while, take classes with some teacher who can help her understand music beyond her present likings, and then return to the stage later?
    I wonder, if she would not be awfully embarrassed as a grown up, if she continued performing and composing (=skillfully sticking together variations of bits of other, well known pieces in a sort of stylistically indifferent fashion?) looking increasingly silly, while people keep letting her believe she is really a great composer.
    Hey, the Beatles had WAY more true creative genius – WAY more! I’d rather compare the Beatles to Mozart for path breaking inventivenss, than Alma.
    I wonder why there is so little critique out there. Perhaps I’m stupid, perhaps musicians really enjoy playing her stuff, perhaps I haven’t listened to her really good pieces yet, but perhaps it’s simply traitorous to good music, to pretend what she does is great art.
    When I want to listen to kids, I listen to choristers, or the Trapp family, or young Judy Garland or some later kid star. But when I want to listen to real classical music I would not seriously choose Alma at present, I’m afraid.
    Perhaps one should class her with people like this Violinist-guy, Andre Rieu and such? People love him, people listen, but it’s not exactly high art, either.
    Alma’s playing makes people happy, so that’s good, but I don’t want those people to go and tell me she is a classical genius and her current music is objectively great – because I’d be tempted to ram REALLY good recordings and composers down their ears in retaliation – again and again and again, until they understand, and can appreciate, and I’d FORCE them to listen to the Berlin Philharmonics and some other good ensembles at exceptionally inspired evenings, so their minds are thenceforth spoilt for any lesser performers until their dying day!

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I think the issue is that no established critics want to take on the heat of “going after” this child. As you can see, one person here has already taken offense to what I wrote. But the truth is, the silence the most of the critical community is deafening. Most people just don’t write about her at all. There is a huge number of reviews of Caroline Shaw’s work. I think that is because there is a lot to say about it. But with Alma Deutscher, there really isn’t anything to say. If huge numbers of people like her, fine. Huge numbers of people like a lot of dreck. It never stops amusing me that the vast majority of music played on classical music radio stations is Romantic era music — stuff that I don’t hold in very high esteem.

      My biggest problem with Alma Deutscher, however, is that I really do think that the classical music industry is committing a crime. I think that if left to develop normally, she could have become great. I fear that is hopeless now. It’s hard to have spent all your formative years getting applauded for composing this kind of music and to ever break free of it.

      But it isn’t the case that “musicians really enjoy playing her stuff.” I haven’t found any examples of this. She seems always to be performing her own stuff. (That’s not true of her opera, of course.) In general, her music is performed by her. And this has the negative consequence that she isn’t near the top of violinists and pianists of her age. So this is another way that she’s being abused.

      Thanks for commenting! I’ve felt kind of alone on this. As you mentioned: I’m not trying to criticize her. But her fame is an indictment of the classical music industry.

      • James Fillmore says:

        I married a piano teacher. (Marriage under construction.*). And she’s quite clear to parents: if you want your kid to be a classical music star, she can refer you elsewhere. She taught at a music academy which was about stardom, not the love of music for its own sake. Fled as fast as her feet could carry her. That place still exists, and it’s still just as horrible, hasn’t changed one iota.

        (* — In Minnesota, we have a saying. There’s snow-shoveling season, snow-melting season, and road construction season. Because when water freezes and melts, well, you know. It f-s up the road and sidewalk pavement pretty badly!)

        • Frank Moraes says:

          It seems an odd with for a parent. For even very talented people, their best outcome is that they end up in the string section of a major orchestra. While being a flutist in a major orchestra is thrilling, I’ve never met a string player that found it any more edifying than I find my professional writing career. (They, of course, find edification outside their paying work — like most people.)

          On the other hand, music education is great for kids. It’s sad when parents foist their own dreams on their children — especially when those dreams are not very realistic.

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