What nature gave, a 12-year-old hones with discipline


Across a wide plain of Oriental carpet, a child in pink corduroy pants and candy cane turtleneck plays the violin. She plays the sort of music that leaves people momentarily helpless, that makes them remember things they once swore never to forget.

Her 84-year-old teacher bends toward her, the lining of his camel hair jacket dangling, his hand trembling slightly.

"Hold that beat longer, darling, enjoy it," he says in a voice flavored by the warm, sheltering accents of Russian. Later: "Could you make bigger crescendo if I gave you a quarter?"

Hilary Hahn polishes the third movement of the Saint-Saens concerto she will perform next Saturday with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The 12-year-old from Rodgers Forge is the youngest soloist to appear with the orchestra in recent memory, say BSO officials.

Hilary travels to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia twice a week to build her skills and her repertoire, to fuse her extraordinary gifts with extraordinary music. She receives not only the wisdom of her teacher Jascha Brodsky -- one of the world's most renowned violin instructors -- but also the wisdom of his teachers: Eugene Ysaye, the 19th century Franco-Belgian violinist, and Russian Efrem Zimbalist, the icon on whose former carpet she now stands.

There's always more to learn. As her violin produces ribbons of sound that seem to flame, she stands straight as a pencil, ponytail barely flicking.

"I wish you would move a little more, darling," Mr. Brodsky says. "People have eyes as well as ears."

She bends gracefully into the next passage. Steve Hahn, Hilary's father, sits to the side, recording Mr. Brodsky's comments and absorbing one of the most exclusive music scenes in the world. It's his daughter's second year at Curtis, the school of Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Gary Graffman, Richard Goode, Eugene Istomin and Anna Moffo. Because the conservatory's charter stipulates that tuition is free for all who attend, international competition is fierce for its roughly 160 spots.

Youngest in school

When Hilary was accepted into the conservatory's bachelor's degree program -- Curtis has no preparatory department -- she was the youngest in the school.

She still is.

The violinist, who turned 12 last month, is 4 feet 8 inches, 75 pounds and strong -- she works at improving her upper body strength every other day with chin-ups and sessions on a rowing machine.

She has a high forehead, skin like cool marble, a sprinkling of freckles. Her long curly hair has the subtle browns of winter landscapes. Her eyes are somewhere between green and blue. "Aqua," she insists.

Her fingers are long, tapered, supple, like her father's. The pinky finger on her left hand is about a quarter-inch longer than the one on her right hand; Steve Hahn calls this finger a violinist's dream.

Recently, Hilary began to use a full-sized violin, an 18th-century Viennese instrument on loan from Curtis, although she still uses a three-quarters-size bow.

She practices four to five hours a day -- about the same amount of time many 12-year-olds spend watching television.

"Sometimes I like practicing, sometimes I don't," she says. "But I like the result. . . . I hardly ever get discouraged. Maybe right when it's very hard to get something done correctly, but then the idea flashes through of how to fix it. And I get encouraged. And other ideas flow."

At Rodgers Forge Elementary School, which she attended through fifth grade, Hilary got straight A's. She's done almost as well with Calvert School's Home Instruction Department, the tutoring system she has used for two years. As an eighth-grade student, she's writing dialogue, studying about the Mormons and the Gold Rush, working fractions and learning global wind patterns.

She misses art teacher

What she misses most from regular school, she says, is her art teacher. Hilary paints, cross-stitches, designs wall hangings and has some good ideas about Popsicle sticks. She also talks about ballet and swimming, her 18-year-old cat Naomi, her friend Ann Donahoo, a PBS show about otters (the Hahns bought a television set only this summer) and her books -- especially fairy tales and anything by Madeleine L'Engle.

"Hilary likes everything," her father explains. "Performing is what she likes best, and the violin is her vehicle."

No one guessed she was musically remarkable at first. Hilary exhibited none of the popularized symptoms of musical precocity: no infant arias, no tuneful obsessions with xylophones, no inspired cutlery thumping. But she clearly was unusual.

"As a baby, we could always take Hilary to restaurants," her mother, Anne Hahn, says. "She would sit in the high chair and become totally absorbed with something like a piece of parsley. As a young child she had no trouble concentrating for long periods of time."

"She was 5 when I met her," says Klara Berkovich, the violin teacher whom the Hahns call Hilary's "musical mother."

"She played me a song with four lines that was a minute and a half long. Five and a half years later, she played a solo recital with a program that took more than an hour.

"Gift of nature"

"So what happens in these five years?

"First of all, Hilary has the gift of nature. She is musical. And she is a bright child, always with a book. She has loving and intelligent and supportive parents. And they create a home atmosphere with a cult for learning and reading.

"Hilary is silent as a student, not talking much. Well-organized with a long span of concentration. Diligent. I never told her two times the same thing. Whatever I told her, it was done for the next lesson, sometimes with extra."

Hilary began studying violin in the Suzuki program of the Peabody Preparatory Department just before her fourth birthday. She learned quickly. Almost as soon as she began studying with Ms. Berkovich, however, she began to race through the music. It took 18 months for her to master material that usually requires four years.

"Very seldom you have a student like she," Ms. Berkovich says. "And when she was progressing so fast, I would tell her parents, 'I'm afraid to push too much, she's still 6, 7!' Doesn't she complain it's too hard for her?' But it was never too much. I cannot say she was ever overworked."

Ms. Berkovich taught at the Leningrad School for the Musically Gifted for 25 years before she began teaching at Peabody in 1980. In 1989 she was named Maryland-D.C. Teacher of the Year by the American String Teachers Association.

"I know many children who are very gifted. But if the children are not taught how to organize themselves, how to work, how to be goal-oriented, then their talent does not become realized," she says. "Where there is the big involvement of the parents, there is success -- generally talking."

Father's devotion

Grace Yin, Hilary's piano teacher, jokes that after years of scrupulous note-taking, Steve Hahn can teach violin and piano. Steve and Anne Hahn don't consider themselves particularly musical.

Ten years ago, Steve had never heard of the Curtis Institute. Now he can read and help analyze Hilary's music. He has sat through almost every lesson, taking notes, since his daughter was 4.

"I love these people because they are always very calm," Klara Berkovich says.

They are also flexible: With masters degrees in both library science and theology, 42-year-old Steve recently left his part-time job as manager of special collections at Goucher College to help Hilary manage her special gifts.

He provides feedback on her violin practice. He grades her homework. He updates the promotional material that lists her concerts, recitals and awards. He fixes lunch. He figures out how to make the violin's chin rest less abrasive. He drives to and from Philadelphia, ballet lessons, piano lessons, the dentist. Steve and Hilary call their station wagon Homer because they spend so much time in it.

Anne Hahn, 41, supports the family with her job as head of the unit of tax research at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"This is the perfect division of duties for us," she says. "He's temperamentally suited to making up schedules for Hilary, and he has the musical ability to help Hilary out. It all sounds fine to me -- I haven't a clue."

"In a previous generation, it would have been impossible for a father to have done this," says David Henry Feldman, professor of developmental psychology at Tufts University and author of "Nature's Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential."

"There also weren't many girl prodigies 50 years ago. Part of the reason was that it wasn't permitted.

"For Steve Hahn to be doing what he's doing, and for the community to condone -- moreover admire it -- is a radical change so that the Hilarys of this world have a better chance of fulfilling their promise."

"Musically precocious"

When pressed, the Hahns call Hilary "musically precocious." Although she is often introduced as a "prodigy" -- she was recently in two cable television shows on the subject -- the Hahns avoid using the word.

"Calling someone a 'phenomenal infant' doesn't say much," he says. "You want to find out how great you are in terms of what it is you do."

The quest demands so much work that it also requires carefully planned recreation.

A typical schedule for a weekday in Baltimore might include a mile walk around the neighborhood, violin practice, study homework, lunch, piano with Grace Yin to build musicianship skills, violin practice, ballet class with Gemma Veraar at Peabody, dinner, study homework, then bedtime, at 10 p.m., with an extra 15 minutes for Steve to tell animal stories to Hilary.

At this rate she will receive her bachelor's degree in music when she's 17.

Interest in archaeology

"If my career doesn't work out as a violinist, I want to become an archaeologist," she says. "I've read about paleontology, too -- that's dinosaur bones -- but I thought it would be more interesting to do archaeology.

"I guess I just like the idea of digging things up," she says, smiling. "Although I used to be scared of human skeletons."

Hilary says she never has stage fright. She generates a lot of pre-performance excitement, however. Sometimes the energy becomes so difficult to contain that she braces her hands against a wall and pushes.

Her father credits Ms. Berkovich for Hilary's attitude about performing.

"Klara always had the idea that when you perform, you're the hostess. The members of the audience are the guests you invite into your house. You give them the gift of the performance. And kids are naturally generous, they like to give things.

"The idea is that it's important to get the piece across well so that the people can enjoy it more. The fun of it is the fun of sharing something you can do well."

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