A life less ordinary

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I don't find it hard to be normal," says 15 year old cellist Han-Na Chang. "I am normal." Not that your average teenager would agree. Asked which idols she might pin on her bedroom wall, she names the bearded conductor Guiseppe Sinopoli and cellist Mischa Maisky. She seldom watches films and was reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot at 13 "to improve my mind".

Most child prodigies go to great lengths to emphasise their ordinariness, but the fact is no youthful genius with a diary of international bookings and practice sessions of 5 hours a day can lead a conventional childhood. Nor would they want to.

Chang made her public debut at the age of eight in Seoul and became the protege of celebrated cellist Mstislav Rostropovich after winning his international cello competition in Paris at 11. The jury, while unanimous, had agonised over the decision. "Do you harm her by putting that pressure on her, or should you put her in cellar to mature like a fine wine?" asked her manager Martin Engstroem. But Chang insists she has no sense of missing out on her childhood.

She spends every Saturday at the Juillard School of Music in New York and practises five hours a day, but, she points out, other children spend that much time watching television. During the week she attends a normal school: "It's never an anti-climax to be in the classroom after a glamorous tour, because I have so much catching up to do."

The German violinist Julia Fischer would agree. The 14-year-old made her debut under Luciano Berio at the age of eight and has appeared with Lorin Maazel and Yehudi Menuhin. She is taking things gently with only 15 concerts a year, and her parents are careful not to force the pace: "She goes to a normal school and will take her Abitur (A-levels)," says her mother. "We let her do as many or as few concerts as she wants.

The problems start when the child grows up and has to decide whether to make the painful transition from indulged prodigy to just another adult performer. Some burn themselves out, while others such as the 26-year- old pianist Evgeny Kissin, and Yehudi Menuhin, continue to increase in prestige.

Menuhin made his debut as a violinist at the age of seven and was hailed as the greatest genius since Mozart. Now 82, he is one of the world's most distinguished conductors, a career he has combined with a happy marriage. His secret? Possibly his penchant for transcendental meditation.

At 17, Sarah Chang, described by Menuhin as "the most wonderful, perfect, ideal violinist I've ever heard", is also coping well with the challenge. She has no regrets about the effect of fame on her childhood - she made her public debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at six - although it meant she had to give up her beloved gymnastics to safeguard her hands.

"Outside my music I lead a normal life," she insists. "I love movies, shopping and roller blading and I listen to a lot of rock and pop." Her schedules have always been daunting, however, and she has conducted much of her schooling by fax from hotels and airports. "I tell my parents to tell me what I'm doing next week," she says. "I just go from concert to concert. Otherwise it's a little overwhelming."

Anna Tims