The Burdens of Young Musical Geniuses

Samuel Johnson was 13 when his life changed forever.

The young cello prodigy won the Sphinx competition for African-American and Latino string musicians.

"It was completely incredible," Johnson said. "I was competing against people that are coming from big schools, competitive areas. When they said I won, I didn't believe it. You know, I was stunned."

He toured the country, playing sold-out concerts. He had cello lessons with Yo Yo Ma, and met famed musicians Itzhak Perlman and the late Isaac Stern.

And behind every great young talent is usually a very involved parent -- in this case, Gretta Johnson, Samuel's mother.

"I am the one who pushes it," she said.

Samuel is one of nine adopted children in a financially strapped family.

"The whole family had kind of invested all of our time and resources so that he could do what he wanted to do," Gretta said.

Adolescence as a Road Block

Her talented young son seemed to have the world at his feet, but his smile masked deep unhappiness. As Samuel hit his mid-teens, his skyrocketing career didn't seem as fun as the carefree life of his peers.

"The fact that they could just go to school every day and hang out and be on the basketball team and the football team," Samuel said. "Just having a normal every day life -- and I think for me I always wanted that, always longed for that."

Samuel's good looks attracted plenty of girls, and he began to stay out all night. During a critical point in his development, he was leaving the cello behind.

"Adolescence is probably the most critical time," said Dr. David Feldman, a professor of child development at Tufts University. "If the talent can be sustained through that period, the chances are much greater that that child will have the opportunity to continue in that area as a young adult."

Unable to control Samuel's behavior, his parents sent him to a wilderness camp and then to a yearlong boarding school. When Samuel returned, he'd made a momentous decision about his music.

"I decided that it was something that I was going to put on the shelf indefinitely," Samuel said. "I felt like I shouldn't be in that spotlight. I shouldn't be there unless I had a more secure feeling with who I am."

Dealing with Parents' Expectations

Telling his parents was the hardest.

I was "really hurt and really angry with Sam that he would throw it all away," Gretta said.

"Our relationship has been strained a lot," Samuel said. "Even to this day, it's still strained."

What once seemed wonderful was now a burden to the Johnsons. That's a struggle that Vanessa-Mae Nicholson (who uses only her first name professionally) knows well.

Vanessa-Mae began her career before she hit her teens, playing classical concerts. She then branched out as a crossover artist, even playing with Janet Jackson.

Now a successful 27-year-old woman, she still remembers the sacrifices she had to make.

"It was just a nonstop treadmill, from age 15 to 20, of just promotion and recording and touring," Vanessa-Mae said. "And that was nonstop. And I don't think I saw any of my school friends for five years, basically."

When she decided to stop having her mother manage her career, the sacrifice extended to her personal life.

"It was very tough," Vanessa-Mae said. "And we haven't really spoken for the last five years or so."

Different Paths, Painful Choices

For Samuel Johnson, the right thing was to stop the roller coaster ride.

"Music is something that I'm learning to really enjoy for just the sake of playing music. Not the things that come along with music," Johnson said.

For Vanessa-Mae, the right thing to do was to continue the journey.

"I'm so lucky that I have found a profession that actually, to many people, is just a hobby," she said. "But I get to do that every day, and I love it."

Vanessa-Mae and Johnson took different paths that both lead to painful choices.

"What we can learn from prodigies and learn about ourselves," Feldman said, "is that for any of us, prodigies included, to have the opportunity to do in this world what we might be able to do with our gifts and talents and abilities is a very challenging process."