Explainer: Whiz kids: These 11 small fry have big talents
Mozart started plunking out chords on the family clavier at the age of 3, and was composing by the time he was 5. Too bad little Wolfgang was born a couple of centuries too soon to show off his chops in a TV competition, or even on TODAY — but plenty of other talented tykes display similarly prodigious skills today, in everything from music (like Clara Tu, right, tickling the ivories at the tender age of 6) to sports to amazing feats of mental prowess.
How amazing, you inquire? We’re glad you asked. Click on the word "next" at left, or click on "Show more items" and keep scrolling down.
Baby's got book
Elizabeth Barrett was only 17 months old when she wowed the nation in March 2008 by reading sheets of paper held up by TODAY’s Ann Curry. Unrehearsed but unhesitant, the tot clearly enunciated such words and phrases as “flower,” “kangaroo,” “take a bath,” “nice to meet you” and “Good morning, Ann.”
It may have helped that little Elizabeth’s parents, Katy and Michael Barrett of Lubbock, Texas, are both speech pathologists who taught their daughter sign language right along with how to talk. Still, they were both astonished when, at 13 months, Elizabeth read aloud the word “corn” off a cereal box in the supermarket — especially because there was no picture of corn next to it. “I think she has some special abilities,” Michael told Curry.
Nobody argued with him — especially after Curry wrote a new word in script to show Elizabeth. Anticipating that his little daughter wouldn’t recognize the unfamiliar flowing letters, Michael Barrett started to tell Curry: “That’s cursive — ”
“Ba-by,” Elizabeth interrupted.
At age 9, he's a guitar hero
Eric Clapton picked up the guitar at age 13, whereas Jimi Hendrix waited until he was 15. But Tallinn La started strumming at 4 — and by age 9, he was playing licks so hot that even blues legend Buddy Guy called him “amazing.”
“I love playing in front of people because I love to put smiles on people’s faces,” Tallinn told NBC News. But at least one person wasn’t smiling: After officials received an anonymous complaint, the state of Wisconsin banned the boy guitar hero from playing in clubs.
As a result, Tallinn started playing festivals instead. But his father, Carl La, told Matt Lauer that he doesn’t push his son to perform: “Everything is up to Tallinn.” Still, Tallinn insisted that “20 years from now I'll be doing the exact same thing I’m doing now. I’m going to keep playing music no matter what.”
To prove his point, the young — who sports stylish sunglasses and handed Lauer a business card that read “Tallinn the T-Man La” — picked up his ax and played a red-hot rendition of the Jimi Hendrix blues number “Red House.”
Fore! (Or should that be: Four!)
All Todd Haynes had set out to do that day was videotape his 4-year-old son, Nolan, taking a swing with a golf club. Instead, he may have documented the start of a championship career.
To capture Nolan teeing off 80 yards from the pin on a par 3, “I sat up by the green, but I couldn’t see the hole,” Todd explained to TODAY’s Lester Holt. “I kind of watched it go towards the pin and I was like, ‘Man, that’s really close.’ ”
But when Todd went to look for the ball, it was nowhere in sight. Just to check, he told Nolan to look in the hole. When Nolan reached in and produced the ball, “I lost it,” Todd told Holt. “I started crying.”
He was so overcome, wife Tiffany told Holt, that he had trouble telling her what had happened and had to hand the phone to little Nolan. “Mom, I just got a hole-in-one,” the boy told her. “And Daddy's crying.”
And it wasn’t a fluke; in a subsequent 9-hole game with his dad, Nolan shot in the 40s, albeit from tee boxes adjusted for his size. Holt asked Todd what he planned to do on the inevitable day that his son started out-golfing him.
“That's when I move his tee boxes back,” Haynes replied.
He's a college sophomore -- at age 10
Moshe Kai Cavalin likes to tell about the time his father took him to take his college entrance test. The administrators told his dad he couldn’t bring an 8-year-old with him into the test room. His father told them the boy was the one taking the test.
Afterward, the administrators were telling his dad something else — that Moshe needed to be taking advanced mathematics. So when Moshe visited TODAY at age 10, he had just completed his second year at East Los Angeles College, a community college.
“Even though I have a very high IQ, I don’t consider myself genius-smart,” the whiz kid told Ann Curry matter-of-factly. Instead, he attributed acing all his courses — including statistics, advanced mathematics, foreign languages and music — to “willpower and hard work.”
What’s ahead for the pint-size prodigy? “The future’s not for me to see,” he said, “but I intend to be an astrophysicist.” Talk about a kid with stars in his eyes.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Everybody knows the punch line to the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. But that hardly explains how little Clara Tu of Southland, Conn., got booked for three dates at the famed venue in May 2010. After all, how much practice could she have gotten in by the age of 6?
Maybe self-confidence helped. When Clara appeared on TODAY after one of the Carnegie engagements, Matt Lauer asked her: “Were you nervous at all?”
“Just a little,” Clara allowed.
“How do you think you did?” Lauer pressed gently.
“Really good," Clara declared.
And it was no idle boast, the pint-size prodigy proved, as she proceeded to perform a flawless and expressive rendition of the classical etude Velocity (Opus 109, No. 10) by 19th-century German composer Friedrich Burgmuller, her feet dangling high above the piano’s pedals.
In an (Ivy) league of his own
So many Ivy League colleges, so little time. That was the dilemma facing Lukas , a New York teenager who, only five years after emigrating from Poland, applied to seven Ivies — and was accepted by every one of them.
All the more remarkable, he had very little grasp of English when he came to the U.S. as a seventh-grader. “It’s quite amazing that the first words you learn in any language are the curses,” he told Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira on TODAY. “Someone should study that at some point.”
In addition to achieving stellar grades, Lukas was co-captain of his school’s United Nations team; founder of its debate team; president of its mock-trial team and editor of the school newspaper. Somehow, he also found time to play soccer.
He declined Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn, Cornell, Georgetown, Stanford and New York University in favor of — who else? — Harvard.
“I feel awful for turning down such great institutions,” he said apologetically on TODAY. “But it’s Harvard.”
Prosthetic puts golf prodigy, 10, in the swing
Bob Watts of the Dorset Orthopaedic company, a renowned developer of prosthetics, was so impressed with Leo’s gift for golf that he came up with a gift of his own — a golf prosthetic free of charge. The silicone sleeve around Leo’s right wrist enables him to insert any golf club into a handle holder that rotates 90 degrees as he swings. The result: Leo quickly doubled his drive distance to 200 yards.
Now Leo dreams of the day he can join the pro tour. And according a spokesman for the Royal & Ancient, golf’s international ruling body, it could happen: “If there are no particularly unusual features of the prosthetic hand I’m sure it would be absolutely fine.” Fore!
He's aiming for the White House (in 2032)
Move over, Michelle Bachmann. Make way, Mitt Romney. Noah McCullough is declaring his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
In 2032, that is. Noah was only 13 when he appeared on the TODAY show to discuss his White House aspirations and, oh yes, plug his — believe it or not — second book, “First Kids: The True Stories of All the Presidents’ Children.”
Noah was an old hand on the book circuit by the time he spoke with Meredith Vieira that day — the pint-size policy wonk had first appeared on TODAY at age 9 to talk about Social Security, and he’d also handled interviews with Jay Leno, Martha Stewart and Oprah.
As for his 2032 platform, Noah fielded questions from Vieira like a seasoned pol, saying: “I don't know what the issues are going to be ... but I’ll try to do the best I can and make sure that I make the decision that is right for the country.”
Sounds like he could go all the way.
10 years, four instruments (plus that voice)
Viewers who didn’t happen to have their eyes on their TV screens when Gabi Wilson started singing her idol Alicia Keys’ song “No One” on TODAY could be forgiven if they did double takes to see where that big voice was coming from. Certainly Hoda Kotb and everyone else in Studio 1A gaped at the 10-year-old behind the baby grand piano.
Aside from her angelic voice, the youngster from Villejo, Calif., plays lead guitar, bass and drums as well as piano. At 9, she was opening for band like the Ohio Players. At 10, she played the legendary Apollo in New York.
Gabi came by her prodigious talent naturally: Her father was a teen-age music prodigy who grew up to lead his own band. “When I was still in my mom’s stomach, my dad and his band used to practice in the living room and I’d hear a lot,” Gabi explained as her parents smiled off-camera.
And aside from her music talent, the small superstar was calm and self-possessed in front of millions of TODAY viewers. “I feel like I’m just in the living room,” she said. And via TV and recordings, she’s probably going to be in a lot more living rooms soon.
A tennis whiz who's shorter than the net
Jan Silva was almost literally born on a tennis court: his mother was on one when she went into labor with him.
And less than six years later, he was still on one set up outside the TODAY studio to demonstrate a tennis game better than most adults play, including topspin forehands, overhead smashes, and a killer one-handed backhand — all with an adult-size racket nearly as big as himself.
Jan’s talent is so staggering that his whole family moved to France so he could attend Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, at the academy’s expense. Still, he's only 5: Occasionally, he has to be bribed with ice cream to practice.
Don’t worry, Meredith Vieira told Jan: “You’ll get ice cream today after this.”
This college prof is too young to drink
You could say Alia Sabur got an early start. At 8 months old, she was already talking and reading. By age 5 she had finished elementary school, and by 10 she was in college. At 14, she earned a B.S. in applied mathematics summa cum laude from Stonybrook University — the youngest female ever to do it.
After earning an M.S. and a Ph.D., she was hired as a professor at Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea. She was three days short of 19 — making her the youngest college professor in history, according to Guinness World Records.
When she appeared on TODAY, Sabur hadn’t started her Korea gig yet, but she had been teaching some math and physics at Southern University in New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “I thought it could be something I do to help,” she told Ann Curry. But though she was old enough to teach in the Big Easy, she was too young to drink in any of its many bars.
But it would be a different story in Korea. Even though the drinking age there is 20 and Sabur was only 19, Koreans compute age differently, considering a child to be 1 year old at birth. Presto! Instant 20-year-old.
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