The Nation's Pulse

The Littlest Conductor

This Sunday, four-year-old Jonathan Okseniuk will direct Arizona's Chandler Symphony in a lively rendition of Strauss.

By 3.25.11

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He has had only four years to develop his talent but already the professionals are singling him out as an exceptional child, apparently a true prodigy with natural, inborn musicianship.

On Sunday, Jonathan Okseniuk, 4, will take the conductor's baton in front of the Chandler Symphony Orchestra in Chandler, Arizona, near Phoenix, to direct a punchy encore, the Johann Strauss polka "Thunder and Lightning." The players will barely be able to see him over their music stands.

A month ago he was in Torrance, California, where the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin billed him as "guest conductor." Founder-conductor Misha Rachlevsky had seen his original YouTube video that was circulating widely. 'I was totally floored," Rachlevsky recalls. "Incredible." He decided to invite Jonathan to make his public debut with the chamber group.

"People will say he is Bernstein reincarnated," Rachlevsky says in a Facebook video. "He is a precious kid."

Between performances, Jonathan works on his Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Vivaldi interspersed with school homework, soccer practice and trips to McDonald's. He has recently learned to direct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony from recordings. One person who has witnessed his practice sessions says he directs it "flawlessly, with easy flowing of the baton".

I first wrote about Jonathan in this space March 3 before I had been able to identify him. I remained intrigued, however, and eventually tracked down Jonathan's parents in Mesa, Arizona, where his father Edwin works in aviation operations and his mother runs the home raising Jonathan and a younger sister. Neither parent is a musician.

I recently and spoke to his mother, Desiree, about how she is nurturing and sheltering this unlikely talent, a cheerful all-American boy whose first video clip of his conducting talent has attracted 6 million viewers worldwide on YouTube. She seemed in a state of disbelief. "The situation is totally out of control," she said. "We're trying to figure it all out. I'm running along behind but God seems to have his hands on him."

Jonathan's playmates have followed his burgeoning "career" closely, attending concerts and applauding his successes. "Jonathan makes the great music contagious," says his mother. "His soccer coach is there in the front row."

She recalled that Jonathan was waving his arms to music at 8 months, and when he could crawl he would pick up sticks or pencils and actually beat time. "Now, when we go to McDonald's he will grab a straw and conduct something in his head. Music is inside him 24 hours a day."

Jonathan's early blossoming is being watched by conductors who saw the original clip on ChoralNet Daily and elsewhere around the Internet. Judging by their comments, most of them are fascinated but at a loss to explain Jonathan's mature moves on the podium, which seem to have emerged naturally. He is studying violin but he has never had a conducting lesson.

Music prodigies, many of them Asian children, come to national attention periodically and sometimes end up on "60 Minutes" or other network television programs. Jonathan's video clip was featured briefly last fall on NPR but at that stage his identity was not known. The clip had been posted anonymously on YouTube by his parents for other family members to share. Jocularly, NPR warned the rising young conductor Gustavo Dudamel to watch his back.

I spoke to a London psychologist, Paul Thorne, about the unpredictability of precocious talent in the very young. An armchair conductor himself, Thorne was cautious. "Young children are very good at pleasing adults if they want to," he said. "Sometimes they will get very good at what they do for a few years, then drop it altogether and go into sports.'

A survey of childhood prodigies in Psychology Today also struck a cautious note. "Betting on a prodigy … is anything but a sure thing," the article said. "The majority of prodigies never fulfill their early promise." Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University is quoted in the article as saying many such children are "warped by their early experiences." Prodigies need to be prepared for "what happens when the adoration goes away, their competitors start to catch up and the going gets rough".

Jonathan does not appear to be headed for this fate. As his mother put it to me, "I see him being in music somehow for the rest of his life. He's at an in-between stage now. And we're doing what he can to encourage him and shelter him."

Both sets of grandparents are involved in Jonathan's development. He asked one grandfather to build his podium for use in front of the family CD player. His paternal grandfather, Victor Okseniuk, a retired jeweler from Newark, New Jersey, has helped guide his musical taste. Victor told me is an amateur violinist and grew up in Argentina in a musical family of Ukrainian origin. Balalaikas and mandolins were the main musical instruments around the house.

Victor remembers a turning point when Jonathan was just 16 months old. "I put on Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, placed a baton in his hand, and he began real conducting," Victor remembers." He obviously felt the music from inside." A few months later the family managed to take him backstage after a concert and introduce him to violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Jonathan seems to be one of the youngest conductors to be on the provincial orchestra circuit, and audiences cheer him wildly. But where will it lead? "Who knows?" Victor said. "This might change at any time.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.