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  • Michael Milgraum

Alma Deutcher is a thirteen-year-old musical genius, who lives in England. She began playing the piano at the age of two, followed by the violin at three. At four, she was composing and improvising on the piano. At age six she composed her first piano sonata, soon followed by longer and much more complex orchestral works. She now can take four notes, selected at random from a hat, think for a minute and then perform an improvised piano piece, with multiple sections, which sounds like a fully polished work. Her music is strikingly beautiful, and it is almost hard to believe that such depth of emotion and expression could emerge from one so young.

While these feats are outstanding, they are not what is most compelling to me about Alma’s story. What has caught my attention is how her parents responded to nurture and encourage this uniquely gifted child.

There are many stories of musically talented children who had years of intensive training, including extensive hours of practice, and experienced parental pressure to “be the best.”  Such parental attitudes are usually not for the sake of the child, rather they invariably serve the parents ego. Alma’s experience has been entirely different. She exhibited a passion for music at an extremely young age, and her parents responded by giving her lessons, but there is no indication that her accomplishments arose out of either parental or instructor’s pressure.

Alma’s accomplishments arose not out of striving, but rather out of play. Allow me to explain. Alma has always had a very active fantasy life, including an imaginary country with its own language and inhabited by composers of beautiful music. In Alma’s relaxed reveries the compositions from this far away land would come to her, and it was this very music that she used as the basis for her works. As a young child, Alma had an intense need to act out characters from this fantasy land.  She would dress in an extravagant costume, knock at her front door and expect to be ushered in by her parents, who were to welcome this royal visitor. Then she, still in character, would perform for her parents. Alma’s mother says she sensed that it was very important for Alma that her parents “play along” with her fantasies, giving Alma the space to express and share them with the family.

The point is that what has made Alma’s creativity shine has not been extensive drilling in skills, but permission to be a child and let her imagination roam. In fact, Alma herself says that when she tries hard to compose, nothing emerges.  Rather, she has to find a relaxed state (usually in play or sleep) to access the beautiful music that pours forth from her.  To this day, one of her inspirations is a pink jump rope, given to her by her grandmother, which she flips and twirls, while skipping around in her yard, and, in the freedom of that movement, Alma gets new ideas for her compositions.  A prominent conductor commented on how effortlessly she can compose and arrange music, saying “It’s like play to her.” Yes, play indeed!

Alma says that she never gets nervous at concerts, only excited. If you observe her play, you can actually witness the distinction that she is making. She exhibits none of that physical tension of someone who is terrified of making a mistake or fearful of the judgments of others. She knows what she can do; she loves the music she is playing; and she wants to share that beauty with others. Her head and body sway along with the music that she is immersed in, and it is clear that she is playing not just for others, but for herself.

Playing for herself—I think this is the most important lesson Alma has to teach us. As parents, we need to always be aware that our children are not our own constructions. Rather, we need to understand children as they are metaphorically described in the Chumash—zerah (a seed). The nature of a seed is that it has its own destiny, a certain shape that it will become, based on its own hidden, inner code. We can nurture that seed, give it the right conditions for growth, even influence aspects of its growth, to some extent, but we need to respect that it will ultimately grow according to its inner plan, which is, in many ways, independent of our dreams or expectations. When Alma is “playing for herself,” she is resonating with her unique “inner code” that she was destined to become. Her parents’ willingness to give her the freedom to fantasize, play and explore, as well as their expressed interest in her fantasies, gave her the rich soil in which she has flourished.

Alma’s story not only reminds us how to be good parents, it also teaches a vital lesson about creativity and the richness of the spirit. As stressed and worried adults, we often lose sight of the rejuvenating and healing power of play. No doubt, we often do need to strive and responsibilities abound. Nonetheless, we still need to make a space for creativity and beauty in our own lives. A parent’s worry and stress often gives rise to conflict in the home, elevated anxiety in children, and a variety of physical ailments. We need to make space for our own fantasy and playfulness and find a way to express these aspects of ourselves. There are countless avenues for this, including singing, musical instruments, dance, painting, writing, drama, etc. Engaging in these activities feeds our creative selves, but being consumers of these arts also helps us to remember and nurture our creative and playful selves. Team sports, I believe, are another important way to keep our playful self alive.

Alma is the daughter of a linguist, named Guy Deutscher, who is originally from Israel. When she was a very young child, her father conducted a little experiment on her. He was curious if she would naturally learn to call the sky “blue,” without anyone actually saying that to her. He believed that the unique blueness of the sky was, in our culture, labeled blue not because of perception but rather because of a language convention. His prediction proved to be correct. At first, Alma did not answer his question as to what color the sky was. Eventually, at a much later time, she said it was white.  How apt—the child who was never instructed on what to label the sky was the very one who has soared higher than anyone could have imagined.

Many people compare Alma to Mozart.  Alma’s response: “I don’t want to be a copy of Mozart, I want to be Alma and write my own music, not Mozart’s.” That says it all: Alma’s story serves as an inspiration to listen for our unique inner song and express it without shame.

Michael Milgraum, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Kensington, Maryland. He provides individual, couples and family therapy. He can be reached at (301) 980 3997.           

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