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Above Parr: Memoir of a Child Prodigy

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When the author was four years old, her mother Margaret filled in the winter days by teaching her to play the piano. One snowy afternoon, something truly remarkable happened: Margaret, an aspiring pianist, was wrestling with a passage in a Debussy piece. Playing with one of her dolls, her daughter interrupted:

"Try a B flat, mommy."

Margaret played on, and as she did, her jaw dropped. This was her first glimpse into the otherworldly musical brilliance for which her child would soon become famous.

Four years later, the shy and unassuming starlet known as "Patsy Parr" was being escorted to her hotel by the Rochester police through throngs of autograph hunters. Not yet ten years old, she had already performed as a soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Massey Hall and the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. June Callwood, of Maclean’s Magazine, dubbed her “Canada’s #1 child wonder in music.”

Ms. Parr went on to become Canada's premiere chamber music pianist—surviving the sudden fame that few children are equipped to handle. However, like so many child prodigies, she grew up feeling that her mother's love depended upon her continued success: "I had the feeling she loved me for what I could do, perhaps to the exclusion of who I was." With remarkable honesty, she ruminates on whether these early experiences might have resulted in the intense performance anxiety from which she would later suffer as a mature artist.

Flecked with humour and personal stories about the biggest names in classical music, from Rudolf Serkin to Pablo Casals, Above Parr incites readers to ask the question: Where is the line between supporting your gifted child and pressuring them into conformity with what you imagine for them? This question is especially relevant now, as millions of parents showcase their musically gifted children on youtube, social media, and televised talent shows.

152 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2016

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Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews
Profile Image for Janice Wright.
6 reviews1 follower
July 14, 2017
An excellent read, with a CD packed full of world-class chamber music by some of my favourite artists. If you're interested in the "behind-the-scenes" world of classical music, or are just plain fascinated by musical child prodigies like Glenn Gould, the brilliant Ms. Parr's book is a must read.
August 8, 2017
Patricia Parr had played her first solo concert at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto in 1944, at the age of seven, attracting praise from the music critics of all three Toronto papers.

She writes: “From the age of eight onwards, I was performing as soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Massey Hall; the Toronto Philharmonic at the ‘Prom Concerts’ in Varsity Arena; the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in the Eastman Theatre, and the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. I held the distinction of being the youngest artist ever to be engaged with these orchestras – although for the life of me I don’t know how, or why, any of this materialized.”

This was, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the book. The gaps in her memory, a result of painfully repressed experiences that "went underground" (as she put it). By 14, Parr had been taken on as a piano student by Isabelle Vengerova in New York, planning to fly back and forth to New York for monthly lessons. But Vengerova was having none of it, and by the age of 15 Parr was living with an aunt and uncle in a suburb of Philadelphia, on full scholarship at Philadelphia’s famed Curtis Institute, “the equivalent of attending Harvard to study law,” as Parr puts it. Vengerova had taught at Curtis from its inception in 1924, whipping into pianistic shape “the likes of Gary Graffman, Leonard Bernstein, Jacob Lateiner, and Lucas Foss.”

Parr’s life journey after the Curtis years is the story of a gradual, and in parts very painful, journey away from the solo piano careers that Curtis (and perhaps most conservatories and the students that attend them) sees as the highest form of their art. It’s fascinating, though, to see how the earliest steps on what was to become her primary musical path can still be traced back to those formative Curtis days.

“In the mind of my mother,” she writes, “you needed to be a soloist to be considered successful. However there are many fine musicians who simply do not thrive under the solo limelight and choose other ways of revealing their talents…[establishing] themselves first as chamber musicians, and then [moving] on to their particular field, whether as a soloist, a teacher, or a recording artist… The experience of sharing musical goals, the rapport you establish with your colleagues, and the insights you receive from playing with them have always elevated my artistry, filling me with the greatest satisfaction…”

As her memoir reveals, that satisfaction reached its peak in her work, for 20 years starting in 1988, as a founding member of the Amici ensemble in partnership with clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and cellist David Hetherington – an ensemble which by its instrumental make-up dictated from the start that they would have to invite “amici” into every concert they performed. Whether she found this niche thanks to the Curtis years or in spite of the Curtis years, readers of Above Parr will have to decide for themselves.
Profile Image for Laura.
2,764 reviews82 followers
July 5, 2017
Not having grown up being imersed in the world of classical music, though I did play the piano as a youth, and not having grown up in Canada, I was unfamiliar with Patricia Parr before reading this book, and interviewing her on KKUP for my weekly music show.

What happened to Patricia, in the early part of her life, would be considered child abuse, by today's standards, or at least I hope so. But, as I told her, there are still stage mothers who are out there, trying to get their child to practice enough, to perform enough, to play enough, that they use the gifts that they were born with, and by dang they will become famous. It is not the child driving this desire. As Patricia said in her book, she was playing concerts since the time she was six years old, because she enjoyed it. She thought it was fun to get out there and play the piano for crowds of people, even playing Carnegie Hall when she was, I believe, nine years old.

That part of the book was fascinating, as she looked back at a time that she said, later in the book, she could barely remember, events that she had to refer to from old clippings from newspapers and diary entries.

The second part of the book, with her adult life as a chamber player (chamber music refers to music done by several musicians that would fit in a room or chamber), was a not quite as interesting, though by that time she was, apparently quite famous, and so for people from Canada who were familiar with her work, they might have been more engaged in what she was saying about her later life, and how she felt. I have to admit, she did pick on some interesting things, such as how in one place in Mexico, the piano was put together just before the performance, so she didn't get a chance to even reherse on it before the performance began.

All in all, and interesting look at what happens to a child prodigy, and what is left over from a very difficult childhood.

Thanks to Netgalley for making this book available for an honest review.
Profile Image for James Cory.
1 review
July 26, 2017
I truly enjoyed the book. The following is more of a reflection than a review:

Although framed as a musical memoir, Patricia Parr's book (implicitly) poses the following question for her readers to consider: "How do you raise a prodigy?" Or, in her words, how do you support your gifted child without pushing them into a life they don't necessarily want?

We live in ambitious times. You need only to go through the New York preschool application process, as I recently did for my son, to witness the hysteria attached to early achievement, the widespread presumption that a child’s destiny hinges on getting a baby foot on a tall ladder. Parental obsessiveness on this front reflects the hegemony of developmental psychiatry, with its insistence that first experience is formative.

What are we to do with this information?

I would hate for my children to feel that their worth is contingent on sustaining competitive advantage, as Parr no doubt felt, but I’d also hate for them to fall short of their potential. Tiger mothers, like Parr's, who browbeat their children into submission overemphasize a narrow category of achievement over psychic health. Attachment parenting, conversely, often sacrifices accomplishment to an ideal of unboundaried acceptance that can be equally dangerous.

While it is true that some parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns, others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed. You can err in either direction. Given that there is no consensus about how to raise ordinary children, it is not surprising that there is none about how to raise remarkable children.

So, in the end, Parr doesn't offer a conclusive answer to the question "How do you raise a prodigy?" That's because (a) it's not a book on parenting (not directly, anyways), and (b) there is no conclusive answer. All parenting is guesswork -- difference of any kind, positive or negative, just makes the guessing harder.
July 16, 2017
Patricia Parr is a musician's musician - better known amongst her esteemed peers, and by Canadian classical music enthusiasts, than by the general population (unlike Glenn Gould, who enjoys a worldwide following). The reason for this? Whereas Gould, a child prodigy himself, pursued a solo career that constantly put him in the spotlight, Parr sought out an alternative medium of music making - chamber music - which is less about showcasing the talents of a specific musician, and more about music as "conversation" (requiring the development of skills that are both musical and social). As her career unfolded across seven decades, Parr grew to become one the all-time great musical conversationalists.

Thematically, Parr's book takes this "social" aspect of music very seriously - probably because, as a young child, she suffered the isolation of a brilliant but profoundly shy virtuoso. As she matured, both artistically and as a person, chamber music became her way of connecting with others. As she says in her book, "where words fail, music speaks." This was one of the more powerful messages of her book.

While there were times I wish she would have explored these themes at greater length, ultimately Parr does a great job of posing open-ended questions to her readers. And really, this is what all good memoirs should be doing. Memoirs, which differ profoundly from autobiographies, should be suggestive - allowing us to make up our own minds. This, among many other reasons, is why I think Parr's book works very well as a memoir and is definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for Paul Emond.
1 review
July 31, 2017
Patricia Parr, a celebrated Canadian pianist, professor, and chamber musician, recalls her musical life in her new book "Above Parr: Memoir of a Child Prodigy." Growing up, Pat’s mother wanted her to be a soloist so badly that she plucked her daughter out of school in the fourth grade, making her stay home and practice the piano. And Patricia did.

From the age of eight onwards she performed as a soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Philharmonic, the Rochester Civic Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. She played at Massey Hall and Carnegie Hall. She performed Bach, Clementi, Handel, Schubert, Beethoven, and Hayden — pieces advanced for someone twice her age.

And yet, she was incredibly lonely.

Patricia grew up without many friends. Her parents were affluent but they weren’t tuned into her emotional needs, like friends and childhood play. They wanted fame.

So, at the age of fourteen, Patricia moved in with relatives she barely knew to study piano at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. While there, amidst a flurry of lessons and practice under the esteemed Isabelle Vengerova and Rudolf Serkin, she formed a trio with a cellist and a violinist. Patricia discovered chamber music, and the trio kept playing together just for the pure love of making music. For the first time, she had found friends. Hers is a story about the joys of collaboration, and how music can create a sense of family and belonging.
July 31, 2017
When I was about 6 years old, my parents took me to see "Patsy Parr" - the musical child prodigy who'd made all the papers - play at Varsity Arena. Everyone was fascinated with her, including my parents. Sitting at the piano in our living room, I can recall my mother saying that if I kept practicing, I could become "the next Patsy Parr." I liked the idea, so I cut her photo out of Maclean's Magazine and put it on my bedroom wall. That was probably 1948.

Cut to 2017. My husband and I are attending a concert at Roy Thompson Hall - there, in the gift shop, I spot a copy of Patricia Parr's memoir. On the cover is the very same photograph that hung on my bedroom wall.

I read Patricia's heartfelt memoir in an afternoon, while listening to the wonderful CD attachment. In fact, the book even situates the pieces in Patricia's life - in many cases, telling the stories behind the recordings, both personal and professional. I enjoyed having a glimpse into her life and learning more about her; about what it was like growing up with everyone watching her - particularly her mother, who was determined to steer her only daughter towards fame and glory.

In the end, it was by rejecting her mother's dream that she came into her own as an artist, and as a person. This is a good narrative - and not just because it's true!
Profile Image for Sarah McNally.
4 reviews
July 17, 2017
Patricia Parr has had an extraordinary musical career. Surviving a prodigious childhood; crippling stage anxiety; sexism throughout her career; the life of a single, working mother, raising two boys all while pursuing a career in chamber performance — this is enough to make anyone's toes curl.

While I did find the beginning of the book more interesting than the second half — particularly as it was the "child prodigy" dimension of the book that caught my attention — I enjoyed reading about how her life unfolded post-adolescence. Throughout her life, she struggled to maintain a balance between what she wanted and what was expected of her as a woman — something most, if not all women can relate to.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the canons of classical music, even if you aren't especially familiar with the sub genres contained therein. The book is accessible and gives great insight into what the world of classical music — and the mind of a great musician — is really like.
August 3, 2017
I devoured this book in a single evening, and I must say, I wasn't disappointed. The candour and care with which Patricia Parr weaves the story of her affluent but oppressive upbringing warms the heart. Many times, I could sense the privacy with which she is accustomed to living - true of any celebrity, who has endured the limelight since childhood. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the narrative unfolds in flashes - fragments of memory and feeling - that connect the beginning and end in a harmonious circle.

It's always a treat, especially for us older folks, when a book comes with a CD - a technology to which we've reluctantly become accustomed. These carefully selected pieces, spanning her entire career, give a true portrait of the artist at work. A good read, a great listen, and definitely worth returning to more than once!
Profile Image for Marta Kovac.
1 review
August 9, 2017
As a psychologist, I've had the opportunity to study prodigiousness in experimental settings. The current body of literature is, by and large, full of holes. What we know in terms of the brain function, social conditioning, and the psychological determinants of prodigiousness leave many questions unanswered. Having the opportunity to glance into the self-told story of such an individual - to learn of how their talents were received by peers, nurtured and (unfortunately) exploited, is illuminating. I highly recommend this book to anyone curious in learning about the subjective experiences, both good and bad, of a bonafide child prodigy.
July 16, 2017
The book hooked me from the first. Parr can, for one thing, write. This isn't an as-told-to or as-transcribed-from-a-tape-recorder effort so typical of entertainers' bios. There are real sentences and paragraphs here, stuff many professional writers would envy. However, the structure of the book impressed me most – a portrait of an unformed child prodigy who imperceptibly becomes an artist. Yet nowhere does Parr ever state things so baldly. Indeed, she remains as humble, poised, and exacting a writer as she is a musician. Good read!
Profile Image for James Gibson.
1 review
August 3, 2017
A great read! Some fascinating anecdotes from the musical world, and a vivid insight into the life, thoughts, and dilemmas of a top performing pianist. A must-read for chamber music lovers and an inspiration to all musicians. The CD included with the book really added a lot to the experience of the book - especially the first piece, Mendelssohn's Concerto in G minor, which the author performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at age 7. Wow!
July 14, 2017
I found this book over NetGalley. Although I'm not tremendously interested in classical music - I'm primarily a jazz fan - the cover and topic both appealed to me. "Child prodigies," how interesting!

The book is accessible and entertaining. Musical child prodigies often suffer neglect at the hands of their parents - and the author was no exception. I found the early chapters on her privileged, but emotionally unsupportive upbringing, both heart breaking and awe-inspiring. Somehow, despite all the pressure, and isolation, and being shipped away to study the piano at the famed Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she emerged not only a world-class musician but a more fully formed and well-adjusted person.

In the Toronto music world, the name "Patricia Parr" is practically a household name - especially for those who grew up attending concerts at the Royal Conservatory, Massy Hall, and Varsity Arena. But I had no idea she'd endured so much on the way to becoming Canada's premiere chamber music pianist. Hers is the rarest of prodigy stories - one with a happy ending (spoiler alert!). I particularly enjoyed the epilogue.
Profile Image for Tanya Dali.
1 review
August 3, 2017
Patricia Parr discusses music and life in this homegrown, down-to-earth memoir about her life. Although she isn't prone to oversharing and maintains a good deal of privacy from the reader, there's something charming about her storytelling - you can tell it's true to who she is. Private, reserved, and a little bit shy.

Interestingly, the emotional distance in her writing is offset by the incredibly intimate musical performances on the CD, consisting mostly of unedited recordings. So, reading and listening, you get a three-dimensional depiction of the author and the feeling that you REALLY know who she is. I recommend listening to the CD while reading for the "full" effect.
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