His feet don't reach the pedals. His arms barely stretch to the top keyboard. His pudgy little fingers seem dwarfed by the keys. But six-year-old Henry Marinovic of Madison is learning to play the organ.
"I'm actually pretty good," he explained, accurately, shortly after I met him.
He has a piano at home, but the organ at Grace Episcopal Church is so much louder and cooler – all those buttons and stops. His hands wander over the keyboard for a moment, producing a vigorous riff. I ask him if that's a piece of music he has memorized, but his mother Amy says he was making it up. "It's called improvising," Henry says helpfully.
He sits at the organ with Dr. Anne Matlack, long-time organist at Grace, with her playing the right-hand part and him playing the left. It sounds like she's talking with a much older student as she corrects and encourages him. "Listen to how I phrase it… play it slow… figure out each chord, then stop… hold the B while you play the G… as soon as you get 'Joyful, Joyful' down, I'm going to give you the toccata part."
Matlack says Henry has a photographic memory. She describes showing him a piece of music once, then closing the book because she wanted to work on something else with him. But he started playing, from memory, a piece that he had never played before and had just seen for the first time.
The organ is not Henry's only precocious skill. He learned to play chess at the age of three, and now his mother takes him to a chess club on Saturdays, "because we can't beat him anymore."
Amy and her husband Robert decided to homeschool Henry after realizing that in a traditional school setting, there would be "too great a desire to make him conform to a class," Amy said. A virtual school called K12.com provides curriculum and online support, and Amy is the learning coach. Math is his strongest subject–Henry has been doing fifth-grade math, and in the fall will jump to seventh-grade (pre-algebra).
I know a few tricks in math, so I ask him if he knows how to tell whether a number is divisible by 9. He nods, while bouncing up and down, forward and back. "The digits have to add up to 9," he says, leaving me wondering if I knew what a digit was at his age.
An IQ test a year ago was inconclusive, Amy said, because "Henry kept trying to tell her how to run the test."
Henry's three-year-old brother, William, "is a very different child," Amy says – more socially adept, less intense. William is in a traditional preschool program.
I suggest they must have concerns about wanting to let Henry have a childhood. "He's never shown much interest in being a kid," Amy said. "He's an absent-minded professor." He gravitates toward adults more than toward other kids – his approach with grown-ups is, "you have information and I want it, so I'm going to talk to you until I get it."
Both parents are attorneys – Robert works in the city, Amy does real estate work part-time from home, in between riding herd on her kids. She doesn't know what the future holds regarding Henry's education. "Along about January every year, I ask myself, 'is this working'?"
I asked Henry what he wants to be when he grows up. "198 things at once," he said promptly, then started rattling a few things off: "a church organist, a video game designer, a computer game designer, an organ teacher, a mathematician…"
I wouldn't bet against him on any of those counts.
Kirk Petersen works in Madison and blogs at http://blog.kirkpetersen.net.