Nearly every pianist competing in the Cliburn Junior started playing seriously before the age of 5. Here’s a look at the childhood achievements of some of the most famous pianists in the world.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Mozart was dazzling the crowned heads of Europe by age 6. He once angered an aristocratic host when he was late for a performance because he was chasing a cat through the servants’ passageways of the palace. But it was Mozart’s early ability to compose that set him apart from the other wunderkinds. His first attempts at composing began at age 3, and he wrote his first symphony at age 8.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Beethoven’s genius was apparent early. When his father realized that little Ludwig could become the family’s ticket to riches, he encouraged the public to buy tickets to hear his amazing 6-year-old son perform (even though he was actually 7 1/2 years old).
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849): Chopin was playing in public by age 7 and began composing shortly after that.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886): Although Liszt’s performing talent and compositional skills were apparent early, he did not make his public debut until the age of 11 and did not become an international star of the keyboard until he was well into his 20s.
Victor Borge (1909-2000): The Clown Prince of the piano, whose early teachers included a student of Franz Liszt, could do a lot more than jokes on the keyboard. He entered the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music on a full scholarship at age 9 and was a well-established virtuoso before he discovered his ability to make people laugh with his artful antics on the piano bench.
Van Cliburn (1934-2013): The legend for whom the competition is named began playing at age 3, under the guidance of his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, who had also been trained by a Liszt student. Cliburn made his debut with the Houston Symphony at age 12 and began his studies at Juilliard at 17.
Keith Jarrett (b. 1945): One of the few pianists who has enjoyed acclaim for both his jazz and classical playing, Jarrett began playing at age 3 and, at age 5, appeared on a television talent show hosted by the great bandleader Paul Whiteman. He is especially known for his extensive work with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and has recorded more than 100 jazz and classical albums and videos over his highly active international career.
Stevie Wonder (b. 1950): Despite losing his sight shortly after birth, Wonder signed his first record deal at age 11 and was featured on the album Recorded Live: The 12-Year-Old Genius. A single from that album, Fingertips, became his first hit. He has won 22 Grammys since.
Lang Lang (b. 1982): The closest thing classical music has to a household name today was drawn to the piano after watching a Tom & Jerry cartoon at age 2. He went on win his first piano competition at age 5, survived being dismissed from the studio of one his teachers for “lack of talent” at age 9 and went on to become a youthful face for a form of music that is often viewed as old and gray.