What makes a child a prodigy

Barely out of short pants, Blair Milton is astonishing professors in his fourth year at McGill University's Faculty of Music. What sets this 12-year-old apart? It's partly a gift of birth, partly an almost inhuman love of work and partly something else—a kind of stubbornness that he has displayed since infancy

Ken Johnstone October 21 1961

What makes a child a prodigy

Barely out of short pants, Blair Milton is astonishing professors in his fourth year at McGill University's Faculty of Music. What sets this 12-year-old apart? It's partly a gift of birth, partly an almost inhuman love of work and partly something else—a kind of stubbornness that he has displayed since infancy

Ken Johnstone October 21 1961

What makes a child a prodigy

Barely out of short pants, Blair Milton is astonishing professors in his fourth year at McGill University's Faculty of Music. What sets this 12-year-old apart? It's partly a gift of birth, partly an almost inhuman love of work and partly something else—a kind of stubbornness that he has displayed since infancy

Ken Johnstone

WHAT MAKES BLAIR MILTON a child prodigy?

His professors at the McGill Faculty of Music state that he has perfect pitch, a sensitivity of the ear that enables the listener to hear every sound in terms of a musical note; it is a quality which great musicians from Mozart to Horowitz have been known to possess and it is a priceless asset when allied to musical knowledge and sound technique.

They say that he has an apparently unlimited capacity for work, and that he actually loves it.

They say that he has a formidable power of concentration that enables him to shut out all distractions when he tackles a particular problem.

Blair Milton is twelve years old.

Two such eminent musical authorities as Dr.

Alexander Brott and Dr. Kelsey Jones, both of the McGill Faculty of Music and outstanding musicians in their own right, look on Blair Milton as a child prodigy. They should know, for they teach Blair in their classes at McGill University, where he is currently studying the violin, the piano, harmony, solfège, conducting and composing. He is entering his fourth year at McGill Conservatorium and his marks have never been below' eighty-nine, touching as high as ninety-eight, an almost incredible achievement for an adult, let alone a small boy. Along with this heavy musical schedule Blair does his academic schoolwork; but he compresses a full day’s classes into the forenoon, with grades that range between Excellent and Very Good. This year he graduated into high school,

writing scholarship examinations to boot.

Some of his teachers have felt Blair’s parents have forced the boy to accept a cruel workload. But, in fact, his parents didn’t have a great deal to do with it. From the time he was four and a half, when he threw' a tantrum because his parents threatened to cancel his first concert debut for his own good, Blair has shown an amazing eagerness for hard work. When the Miltons first arrived in Montreal, they learned that Blair was suffering from high blood pressure. Three months after he began his strenuous double work schedule — public school in the morning, university in the afternoon—his blood pressure dipped to normal. His school grades were Excellent and he was happier than he’d ever been before.


It could be that Blair’s unusual qualities are inherited. His father. William Milton, who has been blind since a bout of rheumatic fever when he was twelve, was one of the first sightless students to graduate from a sighted high school (West Hill in Montreal), then became a field secretary for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto, where he established a reputation as a first-rate organizer. Sent to Montreal three years ago as provincial superintendent. he mastered the French language in a few months and quickly demonstrated his ability there as an organizer. He plays the piano, though not brilliantly.

Blair’s mother was Elizabeth Bingham, a Vancouver girl who met William Milton in the Toronto office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. She had graduated from the University of Toronto and, with her Associate certificate from the Royal Conservatory of Music, was a music teacher by profession. She had taken a second job as an office worker at the Institute so that she could make extra money to pay for flying lessons. She got her pilot’s license, too, before she married William

Milton. Then, later, she caught a rare disease called nontropical sprue; today, a slight, fraillooking woman who must maintain a diet exclusively of bananas to keep the disease in check, she nevertheless displays an iron determination about Blair’s career. At least two of Blair’s particular qualities then could have come from either side of the house.

There is some indication, too, that his phenomenal ear might have been inherited. His maternal great-grandfather was widely noted in his section of Alberta for his skill with the violin. Self-taught, playing strictly by ear, he w-as the virtuoso at every country dance in the district back around the turn of the century.

This boy who does so much, and from whom so much is expected in the future, is an averagelooking youngster, tall for his age at five-feetfive-inches, weighing 115 pounds, with wavy light brown hair that goes straight up in front, gray eyes, a strong nose and a pair of buck teeth that are currently undergoing harnessing. His expression before strangers is of modest assurance; he has a firm handclasp and his manner is quietly deferential. There is nothing

about him of the spoiled young brat, but he has a curious air of purpose that can be mildly disconcerting on chance meeting: Here’s a young man who knows where he is going and will surely surmount any obstacles that come between him and his goal.

He’s getting his share of those obstacles, too; they’ve delayed him for a bit, but they haven’t stopped him yet.

Blair Milton was born in Edmonton on January 19, 1949, and the only remarkable thing that his mother remembers about the occasion was the weather: it was fifty below zero that day. He was the second of two children. Barry, his brother, had preceded him by four years.

Blair showed an early aptitude for music. At two and a half he learned to manipulate the record player, and he kept it warm with classical records. At three he was playing musical games with his mother. He would go into the next room while she played a random series of notes on the piano. Then he would return and duplicate the run. But when he suggested that they reverse the roles, his mother had to confess that the gift CONTINUED ON PAGE 43

continued from page 22

of perfect pitch w'as his alone. At four he could duplicate any tune that his father played on the piano, though he could not yet read the notes. When his mother sent him to a talented piano teacher at the age of four and a half, she first taught him to read music. He picked it up in an afternoon. He still couldn’t read or write, however.

The child had been taking lessons only six w'eeks w'hen the teacher decided to give

a recital. Blair was to make his debut. But on the morning of the recital. Barry, attempting to prevent his brother from investigating a hornets’ nest, accidently scratched Blair’s eyeball with a fingernail. The child was in great pain, and a doctor was called. But when the parents proposed calling off his debut, Blair threw' a tantrum. They gave in, and he appeared, with drops in his eye to deaden the pain while he played.

Blair played four pieces at the recital, but when he came home and his father asked him how he had enjoyed the experience, he replied;

“It was all right, but 1 wish I had been allowed to play a lot more.”

Then the teacher got married and gave up her school. No other teacher could be found who could cope with a child possessing perfect pitch. Blair’s musical career Continued on page 46

languished until appicaching his ninth birthday, he suddenly asked for a violin instead of the bicycle that had been promised him. His parents scraped together the money for a modest but sound instrument and he started taking lessons. Six months later he entered the Alberta Music Festival and won first prize in the Eleven and Under class. Great things were predicted for him in Edmonton. Then William Milton was moved to Montreal, and new problems arose for Blair.

Elizabeth Milton succeeded in obtaining an audition with Alexander Brott. It was

a disillusioning and stimulating experience. Blair did nothing right. His posture was wrong, his feet wrongly placed, his fingering and bow-work atrocious. Brott threw out Blair’s shoulder rest. The boy held his instrument badly. Criticizing, Brott picked up Blair’s violin to demonstrate a technique. He' played a melody and Blair cried with the beauty of it.

Then Brott turned to the mother. She could expect much from Blair, he told her, but schoolwork must not be permitted to stand in the way of his development as a musician. In music the early years are all-

important; Blair must study hard and he must listen to as much good music as possible. Then Brott turned back to the boy and told him: “I do not generally take young students myself, but if you promise to work hard. I’ll take you.”

Elizabeth Milton and her son felt as though they were in a dream, and they were afraid they would wake up. Everything seemed to be unrolling before them as in a fairy tale.

But then came hard reality. Brott suggested that the child have his afternoons free to study music. The mother applied

to several private schools to see if he could be allowed to attend only in the mornings. She got nowhere, and private tutoring was beyond the family’s means. As a faint last hope she applied to the Protestant school board to see if an exception could be made in their regulations. She found unexpected sympathy from authorities who still remembered William Milton as the courageous sightless lad who had excelled at West Hill high school. Arrangements w'ere made on a trial basis.

So at nine years of age Blair Milton began his strange double education. In the mornings he went to public school and in the afternoons to McGill University. At night he did his homework and he practised.

In music the going was not easy. Brott was stern. He suggested Blair appear at every lesson as though he were about to perform at a concert: once, on a hot humid summer day, he came in an open shirt and Brott ticked him off properly. Even when he practised at home he was always to be properly dres-ed; otherwise, Brott said, when the time came for him to appear before the public the violin would not feel exactly the same to him as

when he had practised, and it might affect his performance. Blair studied the violin and he studied theory. Then, just before the end of his first year, Brott entered him in the Quebec Music Festival — not in his own age group but in the Open Concerto class against violinists of all ages. He finished third, and an exception was made in granting him a diploma. Usually only two diplomas were awarded in that class.

The day before Blair was to take his first year’s violin examination — it was grade six — in a typical child's fashion he was walking backward on the street outside his home when he stumbled, feil and sprained his left wrist. He said nothing to his mother but went quietly up to his tiny bedroom and got out his violin to sec if he could still finger all the strings. When his mother discovered him ,wo hours later, his wrist was badly swollen. She tried medication and an elastic bandage. Blair clung to his violin, attempting over and over again to reach the farthest string, failing, and sobbing quietly. The mother phoned friends for advice. Everyone agreed that she should postpone the examination appointment. But Blair cried, and insisted: "Em going! Em going!” She wrapped his wrist in the elastic bandage again, and the swelling squeezed through the bandage. A tight-lipped Blair appeared before the examiners and played. He was awarded 98 out of a possible 100 marks, the highest rating ever attained for that examination at McGill. But the examiners spotted the bandage and called in the mother and scolded her. Those hands and wrists were

beyond price, she was told, and they must never be endangered again by sports or silly stunts.

Today the most violent exercise Blair is allowed is walking, cycling and the Air Force 5BX exercises which he goes through religiously every night before bed. Any desire for more rugged activity was dimmed at the start by a double hernia at birth which, though rectified by surgery while he was still an infant, left him vulnerable. He learned to swim last summer. though, and proved himself skilled and enthusiastic in the water.

Blair’s brilliant showing at his first examination together with Brott’s appraisal of the child’s possibilities resulted in an unexpected stroke of good fortune. The parents had managed to scrape together the first year’s fees for McGill, and Elizabeth Milton acted as Blair’s chauffeur, driving him from their Notre Dame de Grace home in Montreal’s far west end to the McGill campus in the centre of the city and picking him up again at the end of the day. (When 1 suggested that this placed quite a strain on her far-fromrobust health. Mrs. Milton replied promptly: "On the contrary, it’s the best thing in the world for me. I have no time for self-pity.”) So, though the first year had brought with it a considerable financial and physical burden, the Miltons could only see the wonderful opportunity offered by Blair’s lucky audition with Brott. They were overwhelmed when Brott then told them:

“I am happy to inform you that Blair is now entitled to a full musical course at McGill University as a result of the kindness of an anonymous benefactor who will remain at all times unknown to you. The fees have been provided for, right up to his degree.”

Blair’s next two years at McGill were equally spectacular, though his burden of subjects was heavily increased. In his second year he added grade seven piano with Edna Marie Hawkin and 101 solfège, a First Year University subject: the first child ever admitted to that course at McGill. In his third year harmony and conducting were added to these. His thirdyear results revealed an equal skill in violin and piano; he scored ninety-three in each. In harmony, a class conducted by Kelsey Jones and composed mainly of music teachers, he wrote a three-hour examination in an hour and a half and scored his lowest mark of the year, ninety. It was the highest mark in the class. His second year of solfège earned him an impressive ninety-eight. In Conducting, a class given by Brott himself, he topped a big class with ninety-four. He was the second child, after Brott’s own son, Boris, ever to take that class.

Blair’s third year sharply widened his musical horizon, in accordance with Brott’s plans for him. He joined the McGill student orchestra, which rehearsed under Brott every Thursday night, and he acquired the practical experience of playing alongside other musicians. And he made his debut as a violin soloist, performing before a women’s club which had telephoned Brott to secure the services of one of his gifted pupils, and had unsuspectingly accepted the nomination of Blair Milton. When the club executive learned from an embarrassed Mrs. Milton that her son, far from being a student at McGill, was still attending public school and that they had undertaken to present a twelve-year-old child to their membership, they were horrified. But after a thrilling performance, the club chairman dolefully remarked: "We'll never be able to afford his fees next time.”

The next four years, according to Alexander Brott, will be the decisive ones for Blair Milton. Academic work, he insists,

must be kept to a minimum to permit a full development of the boy’s musical talent. The Miltons were able to arrange a similar half-day basis for Blair's attendance at high school, but he must keep up his grades if the arrangement is to continue. So now, if Blair continues to display the capacity for work and concentration that he has already shown, and if his musical talent continues to grow, he may well fulfill the expectations of Brott. which Kelsey Jones also shares. The latter told me:

“Blair’s one of those rare ones, all right. I demand completely different standards from him than from anyone else in my class. What I might accept from the others, I don’t accept from him. It’s rough on him sometimes, but he loves his work, and you can’t discourage him. Anything less, though, would he letting him down.’’

But Blair senses that the rough-spoken Jones likes him, and he returns that liking with adoring admiration, as he docs with Brott, whom he hero-worships. It was a real test of his affection for Jones that he was able to overcome the shock of turning on the radio one night to hear that gifted musician in a jazz program. For Blair currently believes that music begins and ends pretty well with Bach. Beethoven. Handel and Mozart. Tschaikovsky and Richard Strauss he abhors though he is intrigued by twelve-tone and atonal music. But jazz, never!

"He’ll get over that,” says Jones confidently.

He probably will, too, for Blair Milton has managed to get over a lot of things in the course of his musical education. First was the attitude of his schoolmates, who look him for a freak because he came only half-days and spent the rest of his time studying music. Blair was labeled a “square." But unfailing good temper and intense concentration on his work has blunted a lot of the shafts aimed at him.

1 hen he had to learn two different attitudes in his work. At school he is a twelveyear-old with a normal twelve-year-old’s behavior. But at Mctiill his attitude must correspond with that of his adult fellow scholars; he is more mature in his behavior. In both places, though, his manner is marked by intense concentration.

A very even temperament has proved a great asset to Blair in his daily program. His mother swears that when he is working he is the happiest person around. It is only when he is forced to miss a class, or a rehearsal is called off or some other obstacle comes between him and his work that he becomes “contrary.” But since he works most of the time, he is in good spirits most of the time.

He has a gentle sense of humor. One day when I visited the Miltons. Blair was working as usual in his bedroom. David Otstrakh’s performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in C» Major. Blair’s assignment for this year, was playing on a tape recorder. (He was saving the surface of the original record.) I dropped in to inspect the room, equipped austerely with a single bed. a bureau, a tiny table at which Blair was working on some music, a violin stand and a mirror on the wall beyond the stand to enable him to study his posture and manner as he played. In a tiny corner were crowded the record player and the tape machine, with Oïstrakh pouring forth Mozart.

“I hope you won’t sound just like a copy of that when you play it," 1 said jestingly.

Blair gave me a slow smile. “I think you’ll be able to tell the difference." he said, ruefully.

He reads a lot for relaxation, particularly biography, history and medical subjects. He admires Hinstein and Albert Schweitzer particularly, and he is currently reading Bertrand Russell’s “Wisdom of the West.”

Many of the problems of a child prodigy. however, rest with the parents to solve. William Milton told me: "Having a boy like Blair is a great responsibility, but it is also a great source of pride and happiness. We are determined to do our best to help his musical career." To Elizabeth Milton belongs the task of keeping Blair on a disciplined program and at the same time minimizing his personal problems and keeping his feet on the ground. Only constant supervision, she says, enables him to meet his heavy daily program. She has to act like a minute-minder, making sure that he doesn’t stay too long on each subject, watching for signs of fatigue, and providing restful diversion when it seems necessary.

Blair’s brother, Barry, although he has already given considerable indication of painting talent and takes art classes under Arthur Lismer at the Montreal Museum of Modern Art, is much more of a “regular boy" than Blair, with a love of sports and outdoor activity. Barry, according to his mother, does a great deal to keep Blair in contact with reality. He gives his younger brother no chance to develop a swelled head, refers to his practising as “that scratching,” though he resents any outside criticism of Blair’s interminable concern with scales and exercises.

But apart from his musical talent and great powers of concentration and capacity

for work. Blair is a normal healthy boy of twelve. His appetite is good; he loves meat, fruit and milk, dislikes pastry and fancy desserts. He is particularly partial to steaks, and though he never eats before a performance, he likes his steak, milk and fruit afterward. His immediate concern is to become the owner of a small but aggressive dog “which won’t complain all the time when I practise," but his mother has warned him that the choice is between a dog and a new violin case.

Blair has his favorites in music: Bach ranks first among the composers; Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter are his favorites on the piano; and Menuhin, Isaac Stern and David Ofstrakh on the violin.

On the advice of Brott, Mrs. Milton takes Blair to every musical event for which she can buy, steal or wangle tickets. One of his deepest disappointments occurred when he had to take part in a routine concert on the very evening that Oistrakh performed in Montreal, after his mother had fallen heir to two excellent tickets.

I talked to Alexander Brott about Blair Milton, and the maestro told me soberly: "Definitely the boy has a great potential. Our task is to allow him to express that great talent on as wide a front as possible. Too many times these child prodigies are excellent in only one aspect of music at the expense of all the others. In contrast, Blair shows an aptitude in all departments. Everything he does he likes to take over and make his own. He will probably always play, conduct, and write music, though the violin is his most immediate love right now.

“I would like to see him get his bachelor’s degree in music. Then he should go abroad, absorb the cultures of the older civilizations and learn from them. When he returns, his real battle will begin." ^