by John Garvey
The New York Times recently published a profile of Saul Chandler, a seventy-year old man who now spends most of his time on a boat docked at City Island, a small sliver of land off the east coast of the Bronx. Apparently, he’s a bit of a local legend on an island perhaps that has more than its fair share of local legends. Years ago, the brilliant neurologist, Oliver Sacks, an individual with a bundle of idiosyncratic personality traits, lived on the island. It’s a bit of New York City that has very little to do with the rest of the city but a lot to do with water.
Saul Chandler was born as Saul Lipshutz in Brooklyn in 1947, the year before I was born. He grew up in New Jersey. At a young age, at his grandfather’s suggestion, he began to play the violin at 6 and quite quickly became very good. Soon enough, he was identified as a prodigy—a young person with remarkable talent and skill. He was enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan at 9. Initially, he studied with a woman named Margaret Pardee, someone who he really liked. He comments that: “I was already good. Then I got better. Really fast.” He performed at elite New York City concert sites before he was 11. He was also given an opportunity to study with a man named Ivan Galamian, considered to be one of the greatest violin teachers of the time. Saul appeared to be destined for greatness on the classical music stage.
But, at the age of 16, he had a nervous breakdown and ended his career as a violinist. In the years since, he bounced around a good deal and finally settled down as an actuary—calculating risks. But his true calling came from the sea and he has spent many days sailing back and forth and up and down the Atlantic Ocean. Thus his residence on the boat—where the Times reporter heard his story—a story that is mostly about contentment.
I do want to note that it does not seem that Saul’s parents pressured him into music at the start or that they tried to pressure him back in after he left—in spite of the pleas of his teachers. Saul remained fondly appreciative of Margaret Pardee but he despised Galamian. He says about him: “…he was an idiot. I never heard him play anything. Who was he? I hated him more than anybody.” Thus, the young Saul’s fate was mostly the consequence of the structures that existed for elite musical training. In spite of Saul’s pain, one of the encouraging aspects of his story is that, while there are some musical compositions that he cannot bear to hear, he retains a deep love for music.
Here’s the link to the article. It’s titled “Redemption of a Lost Prodigy’: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/nyregion/redemption-of-a-lost-prodigy.html. It’s worth reading.
Two thoughts prompted by Chandler’s story:
1) Although the article is about a boy playing the violin, the story has relevance beyond musical training. Instead, Chandler’s experience is emblematic of a wide range of training activities that young children are subjected to, with or without their consent but more often than not without their enjoyment, in the pursuit of technical perfection. I’m thinking of activities as varied as gymnastics and figure skating, synchronized swimming and diving, child beauty pageants and all-star cheerleading. In most cases, the training for perfection requires long hours of practice or rehearsal, the subordination to demanding, if not brutal, coaching, the giving up of all sorts of other things that kids could be doing and, most of all, unrelenting competition. It’s painful and heartbreaking and it should not be done to children.
2) To go back to classical music for a moment, one of Chandler’s fellow students at Juilliard was interviewed for the article. He said, “Saul is better off having stopped playing the violin to save his life instead of just keep going to give the world one more great violinist.” I confess that I don’t know how many more great violinists we need. I do know that it would be good if there were a lot more people who could play the violin or other instruments so that they might participate in the creation of beautiful music and if there were many more people who knew how to listen to and appreciate great music. A focus on the cultivation of the talents of a handful will not get us to either place.
(The image above is of Mozart, the most famous child prodigy of all time.)