At first glance, nothing about Elli Choi gives away her incredible talent. Like any nine-year-old, she runs up the stairs two steps at a time, greets me with a disarming smile and dashes off.
Her friend, Sarina Zhang, 15, follows with a more interested look and a self-conscious smile. Behind them their mothers walk in, with a purposeful stride and restlessness that belies their polite smiles.
Elli and Sarina could be the girls next door. They insist their lives are not in any way special and refuse to tag themselves as the ‘child prodigies' they have time and again been referred to as.
Face to face with the two girls, I find myself recalling Amy Chua's recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the voracious debate it sparked on parenting philosophies for prodigies.
Stunned by the author's revelations and intrigued by what goes into the making of a prodigy, I settle down for a conversation with Elli and Sarina as well as their mothers, Young-eun Choi and Sherry Zhang.
Would they be as obsessive as Chua? Are their girls subjected to some of those ‘Tiger Mom' treatments as part of their pursuit of excellence? Did the girls feel pressurised to perform just to meet the standards expected of them? Have they got so used to the spotlight and adulation that simple pleasures like hanging out with friends don't matter?
We meet at the Reuters Building in Dubai Media City where the sixth floor has been transformed into a music station for the Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra. Elliand Sarina are special invitees of its founder, Riad Kudsi, who conceptualised the Emirates International Peace Music Festival for Young Virtuosos. Both the girls love the idea of coming to Dubai, both having been here before.
The two girls have an Asian-American upbringing. While Elli plays the violin, Sarina is proficient in the cello and the piano. Both have won several awards and attend the pre-college division at the coveted Juilliard School in New York, the top performing-arts training ground in the US.
Taking a cue from an observation made by US sports psychology consultant Alan Goldberg that few kids have the capacity to achieve spectacular goals on their own and ‘what drives children are their parents', I attempt to draw out the psychology between mothers and their prodigy daughters.
Elli's mother is a professional pianist. When her daughter turned three, she felt it was time for her to learn an instrument. Elli opted for the violin and was enrolled into the Suzuki Method, which places more emphasis on ear training instead of note reading. Fortunately for Elli, her first music teacher proved a perfect mentor.
When Elli was four, she was invited to perform in the Korean symphony orchestra at Seoul - her first solo concert. Recalling that evening, Young-eun says, "I was worried she would fall asleep [due to jet lag] or complain of a tummy ache, or just say she didn't feel like performing! But when she went up on the stage, she gave a flawless 30-minute recital that I was proud of. After the performance, she came to me and said, ‘See, I told you I could do it'."
At five, Elli won a concerto competition at the Strings International Music Festival at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Soon, a principal violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra expressed her intention to work with her.
Every few months, Elli flew to Pennsylvania for lessons. At this time, the family decided to try Juilliard, which has about 300 youngsters in the pre-college division. After a series of stringent audition tests, she was taken into the school, which charged $8,400 (Dh30,828) for 30 Saturdays of instruction.
For one year Elli would fly every weekend with her mother from San Diego to New York to attend the exhaustive Juilliard classes. The schedule involved waking up at 4.30am on Fridays to catch the 6.30am flight to New York. Each trip would cost them about $1,500. All day Elli would work at the violin - music theory, ear training, private lessons, ensembles. On Sunday morning, Elli and her mother would fly back home.
The commuting left them with time for little else and the family eventually decided to pack their bags and move to New York so Elli could pursue the programme at Juilliard, attend regular school without too much disruption, and get some quality personal time as well.
Today, although only in third grade, Elli has already charmed audiences in most major cities around the world and is regularly invited on television shows.
Sarina's story is somewhat similar. A San Diego girl, Sarina's mother would play classical music to help her sleep when she was young. Sarina grew up listening to her brother practising the piano, and by age four was ready to learn herself.
In less than two years she mastered everything her mother could teach her and began taking private lessons. When she turned seven, she took to studying the cello in addition to the piano.
Like Elli, Sarina has moved to New York to pursue music at the Juilliard School. Unlike Elli though, Sarina does not attend regular school. Instead, she is enrolled online, which helps her keep pace with her travels for performances.
Sarina has won several prizes and her performances have been broadcast in the US on National Public Radio. She has also been featured on the PBS television show From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall.
"I feel the awards just happened, I don't really think about it or tell people about it. Let's just say if you told me to list the awards, I won't be able to do that," she says with an endearing smile. "None of those concerts really mean anything special. To me, the best moments [were] when I was still in San Diego, before I went to Juilliard. My teacher would have these concerts where everybody would play a minute. There would be some 100 kids, and it used to be a lot of fun; I miss those times. Now music has become something that needs much focus…I am prepared for that though."
Sarina's mother, Sherry, has heard about Amy Chua, her book and the furore it created. Curious to know whether she subscribes to Chua's ideas on parenting a prodigy, I ask her what she thinks about the book.
"I have read extracts and I don't think the opinions expressed by the author are representative of everybody in the Asian community, At least, I didn't have to use extreme techniques to discipline my children. I would never force anything on Sarina. My philosophy has always been to discover my child's interest and support her. At the same time, I also encourage her to practise, but don't do that forcefully."
Sherry, however, does agree with the point raised by Amy Chua in her book that no child naturally yearns to ‘practise, practise, practise', which mastery demands.
"I agree with the writer that children at a young age do not know what is good for them. They need to be told about the choices to make, to practise, and to strive for excellence. I always teach my child that if she happens to be interested in something, she must work hard to perfect it. I don't believe in half measures."
I remind her that Chua champions the revered Chinese custom of "eating bitterness," a term for the intensely disciplined labour that fuels high performance.
"In disciplining my child... I believe that if I don't point out her shortcomings, it might harm her in the future. So, in this regard I agree with Amy Chua but I would certainly not do it the way she does. I agree with a lot of her theoretical explanations, but not her approach."
Sherry Zhang's pragmatic attitude to child-rearing could perhaps be the reason that prompted her to deactivate Sarina's facebook account twice.
Sarina admits that occasionally the pressure does get too much but she has a good friend at Juilliard with whom she can share her thoughts. "We both have the same problems. I confide in her that it sometimes gets too much for me. But I must say that even if there is huge pressure, I am not forced to do what I am doing."
Was the pressure confined to meeting audience and teachers' expectations alone? Did the girls have to cope with any other form of stress?
Says Elli: "Of course, there is the tension of meeting your mom's expectations although I wouldn't call that pressure! I think that if I don't do it right, it could ruin my life; I feel I have a huge responsibility towards people, I just cannot disappoint them and so I need to keep practising... If there is one wish that a fairy would grant me, I would ask to never disappoint anybody."
Elli's daily routine is structured: Wake up in the morning; leave for school; return by 3pm or 4pm; homework; have a snack; leave for Juilliard; practise; return home at around 11pm; have a wash; and off to bed. On weekends, she goes to Juilliard by 8.30am and returns at 7pm.
"Everyone else has some expectations but they don't put it into you, It's usually my mom's expectations that I feel compelled to meet," says Sarina. "I feel scared I will disappoint her; I care about that the most. She has sacrificed a lot and obviously hopes for my success. But I keep telling myself I think it's important I keep my own standards and I work towards it happily with no pressure."
And in order to keep up those standards, Sarina sets aside an average of seven hours a day to practise.
Do the two ever have any time that they call their own, when they can do the normal things that girls their age do?
Elli says she has never wished she could have normal routines like the other girls because she "enjoys the fame all too much. I feel great around people, they treat me special and it feels good that all my hard work is paying off. But also know that I can't get these things for free, I need to keep playing the violin to get them."
And Sarina? "Well, I do hang out with my friends on Saturdays. But in New York young people hang out all day. I see them and feel it's a waste of time... If I hang out every day then the future is uncertain; it's not worth it."
Amazed at the children's determination, I wonder how they would take failure or a change of mind in pursuing their instruments. Would it devastate the mothers after all the compromises and investments of money and energy?
For Elli's mother, it has never been important that her child perform all over the world or people should know her. "To me that is not success. Music to me is joy. And I want my child to enjoy that. When she stands on the stage to perform, I want her to be happy and make others happy. If Elli ever tells me she wants to stop playing the violin, I am prepared for that. I would probably give her a week to think her decision through and then help her look at something else."
Sherry says that although she is prepared for the day when Sarina might say she wants to give it all up, there is some part of her that will also feel let down. "If after 20 years, my daughter continues to play the instrument, I would be very happy and call that her success. I always tell her that it does not matter what she does, but it does matter that she does well whatever she chooses to do. And, if she says she would like to go back to regular school, I would be fine with that. But I would also tell her that it is not as if she can go back home and watch television because that won't happen."
Do the parents have any expectations of ‘payback' from their daughters?
Sherry is quick to say, "Payback? No! My husband and I believe that whatever we do for her is out of our duty as parents. We don't expect anything from them. But what I do expect is respect; it is very important that she continues to respect us."
Have the mothers ever felt guilty about pushing their children?
Says Young-eun, "Surprisingly, Elli often tells me, "Ma, can you sometimes force me to practise?' However, as a mother of a child with exceptional talent you need endless amounts of patience. It is also difficult to maintain that fine line between forcing and encouraging a child. A little bit on the other side and it could lead to disastrous consequences. This is the hardest part; so a mother needs to be strong and reasonable in her attitude and keep telling herself not to cross the line."
And Sherry? "If telling them to work hard or practise is being pushy or forceful, perhaps I am guilty of it. But I do that for her good. I think on some level I yearn for appreciation as well because I have put in [a lot of] effort to support Sarina. Unconsciously, I feel I am a part of what she is doing."
I ask Sarina what she would like to tell children her age. "Always look on the positive side and believe in yourself, especially if you want to be famous. There is always someone better than you, and if you are not thinking the right way, you will not get anywhere. You also have your parents adding to your pressure, and if you don't tell yourself ‘Okay, I can do this', you won't get anywhere. It's very important to keep a healthy state of mind.''
By the way …
In her best-selling memoir about raising two daughters, Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, advocates an authoritarian style that pushes kids through discipline, diligence and relentless drilling with little time for fun - no sleepovers, play dates or sports.
Chua labels it ‘Chinese parenting', though she acknowledges that other races and ethnicities employ the same approach. She argues that Western parenting does not push children hard enough and is overly concerned with their self-esteem.