Sun, Apr. 11, 2004
At 12, this genius of music, math and more is wowing 'em
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Music Critic
Kit Armstrong isn't your average genius.
True, at 12, he's the youngest student this year at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, playing the piano like an old master, already writing symphonies and string quartets. But his hands aren't yet big enough to comfortably reach an octave on the keyboard.
Yes, he's taking classes in advanced mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. But he never graduated from high school. He ran out of courses that were age appropriate, his mother says.
Kit's towering talents in music and the ease with which he absorbs new concepts have led some to call him a latter-day Mozart, but his teachers dismiss that comparison with a wink.
"Mozart didn't do math, and he didn't go to university when he was 9," said one of Kit's piano teachers at Curtis, Eleanor Sokoloff, 89, who has been molding young artists at the school for 68 years and admits to being particularly smitten with this one. "I've had a lot of children, but this one is different. I mean, let's call him what he is: He's a genius."
"He looks like a child, but he plays like a master," said Claude Frank, the esteemed pianist who is another of Kit's Curtis teachers. "His thinking about music-making is unbelievably mature. He has discovered things in classical music that I have not discovered in 70 years."
Have you heard about this kid named Kit Armstrong? is the question of the moment in the small international community of impresarios who decide which artists land recitals in leading venues and perform with orchestras. His name is already circulating in the wider entertainment industry. He's been on David Letterman, and handlers are busy fielding his many media requests.
He recently landed professional management, from ICM, the New York/Hollywood/London talent agency that represents Jennifer Lopez, Diane Keaton and Yo-Yo Ma.
While many artists woo management, it was Kit who was wooed - after ICM got three calls from panelists who heard his Curtis audition.
He started playing the piano at 5. "But he should have started playing when he was 2," Sokoloff said.
At 2, however, Kit was busy reading Business Week and the New York Times, according to his mother. May Armstrong said she did not suspect anything unusual about her son.
"I did not have a clue of what a child was supposed to be like," said Armstrong, 48, a Taiwanese-born Californian who now devotes herself full time to shuttling her only child to Penn and Curtis for classes, to New York and London for piano lessons.
He started to speak at 9 months. He was able to identify letters and add and subtract when he was a year old.
He speaks Chinese, Taiwanese, English and says that he has already learned and forgotten Russian. When not practicing or composing, he's taking courses in chemistry and abstract algebra at Penn.
All these abilities in so many areas. Where does Kit himself think he'll end up professionally?
"I don't know yet," he said. "I never thought about it."
At the moment, his smallness at the keyboard is a source of endearment. The sounds coming from the instrument hardly seem possible, given the elfin figure seated before it. He has a warm, sincere smile that does not seem to acknowledge his precociousness.
"You sort of just want to hug him and take him home and put him on the shelf, he's so adorable," said Earl Blackburn, his ICM agent.
Curtis, the elite music school on Rittenhouse Square, is by any standards a hothouse of talent. Graduates go on to play in top orchestras internationally, they sing on the world's most-celebrated opera stages. Leonard Bernstein, composer for West Side Story, was a graduate; so was composer Samuel Barber.
So coveted is the tuition-free school that 867 applicants requested a spot for next year; 46 got in.
Though the school is generally for musicians 18 and older, much younger students are not unheard of among the student population. Pianist Gary Graffman, now the school's president and director, entered when he was 7, and wasn't even the youngest ever. Violinist Hilary Hahn, now at the top of her profession, was 10. Superstar pianist Lang Lang was 13.
Most of Curtis' nascent musicians are highly focused in one area. Most arrive at a sense of destiny about their careers well before arriving at voting age.
But Kit is superlatively talented in several areas, an exception among the exceptional.
"The all-around capacity for thinking and learning and absorbing is incredible," teacher Sokoloff said. "All you do is tell him something once. He already has so much stored in his brain - all the musical terms. He knows everything. He doesn't talk to you as a child, he doesn't write a letter like a child."
Kit is neither shy nor outgoing. He speaks in economical, melodic tones - neither showing off his impressive vocabulary, nor hesitating to use just the right word.
Of her son's talent, May Armstrong said: "It's something Kit can be proud of, but not really, because he was born with that talent. It's what he does with his talent that matters."
He has been at Penn and Curtis since the fall, but will he ever earn a college degree? "I'm sure one day I will, but I'm not thinking about doing that yet."
At 12, there's just too much world out there to explore.
"Inside, one is always worried and hopeful," school director Graffman said. "He is spreading himself very thin. Obviously, everything comes very quickly to him, but still, he may decide in the not-too-distant future on one thing or the other. Can one be a great pianist and a great composer and a great scientist? Because they all take a lot of time."
At the moment, Kit's compositions utilize the unpopular serial technique, though he has passed through several phrases.
"My first compositions were really complete gibberish," he said. "Through some unclear transformation, I wrote my Chicken Sonata, and that was my first real piece of music."
Kit was 6 then.
"It's basically a collection of four chicken pieces. In the classical style."
He has been listening to Bartok string quartets lately, and some Stravinsky. For his own music, "I usually write around midnight. That's when I am most productive. Composing gives me great satisfaction. I am just happy to compose."
A cloud of protectiveness cushions Kit as he moves through his unusual life. His mother says she is wary of publicity, granting interviews only rarely. His classmates at Curtis tend to give him the little-brother treatment. Blackburn, his agent, says he is careful not to make the "too much, too fast" mistakes that others have made.
"The things like a Carnegie Hall debut and a recording debut certainly are milestones in any artist's career, as is a debut with the hometown orchestra. They will come when they come."
One good reason for going slowly is that a lot of the piano repertoire is out of Kit's reach, literally. He is technically accomplished, but is also quite small for his age, and he can still barely reach an octave on the keyboard.
"Physically he needs to develop yet, not only in terms of dexterity and facility of the fingers, but even more because he's still so small," Blackburn said. "But the basic core of a great artist is absolutely there."
In the meantime, his presentation - the size, the smile - is powerfully appealing.
"There is no putting on of airs, no façade. It's just simply Kit," said David Ludwig, Kit's composition teacher at Curtis. "He has somehow managed to avoid the attitude that some other 12 year olds - and we all know them - have. It's like that baseball phrase: 'I'm just happy to be here.' "
Kit, his mother strenuously argues, is like "any other normal boy," but the story doesn't quite wash when the boy in question splits his residency between Center City and Anaheim, Calif., where the family is from, with several weeks a year in London.
Sure, he makes paper airplanes. But he also responds to a chirping cell phone by immediately playing back the melody, note for exact note, on the piano.
It turns out to be more than a parlor trick. He not only has perfect pitch, he has an unusually refined form of perfect pitch. He is able to pick out and name 10 simultaneously sounding notes in a chord, his composition professor says.
He likes eating crabs in Chinatown, but also has a taste for Scottish lobster when he's in London. He stays up into the wee small hours composing works such as The Triumph of a Butterfly and Piano Quintet in G, "Bugs."
He keeps chickens back home in California - two at the moment, named Nitrogen and Carbon. "I have found them to be loving and cute and funny."
Curtis teachers often know the moment a student walks through the door that a major performing career is in the offing. But no one at the school is predicting what lies ahead for Kit.
"You never know what will happen with someone that young," said Ludwig, who is the grandson of Rudolf Serkin, the legendary pianist and director of Curtis from 1968 to 1976.
"There are plenty of gifted individuals who end up doing completely different things. He could make a significant contribution as a composer. He could be a composer/pianist like so many others have been. Maybe he'll invent something that will save the world."