My grandfather had a ritual he performed with each of his grandchildren soon after they were born. He would strike a note on the piano and eagerly wait for us to sing it back to him. He was hoping, once again, to discover a prodigy in the family.
Grandpa played the violin in a village cabaret in prerevolutionary Russia, and music was his passion. He married my grandmother not because she was the village beauty but because she was the only woman he’d ever met who played the trumpet.
From the moment their first child, a boy, was born, my grandfather began scrutinizing him for signs of musical talent. He would twang a tuning fork close to the infant’s ear, watching for a reaction—and be rewarded with precocious gurgles of pleasure. At the age of two months the baby was listening raptly as his papa played him simple melodies on his violin. Soon the infant began to hum along—in perfect pitch. Convinced he had fathered a prodigy, Grandpa could barely wait to begin his son’s violin lessons, and he ordered a miniature fiddle. At six, dressed in short velvet pants and a ruffled white shirt, the boy gave his first concert at the music school in his native Vilna.
When the boy’s two sisters came along, they both were found to be musical—my mother later trained as a singer, and my aunt became a proficient pianist—but neither approached their brother’s genius.
At eight, because of his extraordinary talent, he was accepted as a student at the conservatory in what was then St. Petersburg, and despite the fact that Jews were prohibited from living hi big cities, his family was permitted to accompany him. By the tune he was twelve he was playing concerts all over Europe.
Ultimately it was because of the young prodigy’s growing fame and the demand for his appearance on an American concert stage that my grandfather’s family was allowed to leave Russia for the United States, never to return, soon after the revolution had begun. The boy was Jascha Heifetz.
Grandpa kept trying with his great-grandchildren too. He terrified my firstborn by creeping up on him to twang a tuning fork in his ear. All of us felt terrible about disappointing the man who wanted so fervently to discover another musical prodigy in the bosom of his family.