The Marvel of Malik

A young genius at the cello, Malik Kofi eyes a world wide open with musical possibilities. Just don’t call him a prodigy.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

Photographed by Beau Gustafson

“I taught his older brothers cello years ago, and his grandmother used to bring him along when he was still a toddler,” the well-known composer and Alabama Symphony Orchestra cellist Craig Hultgren told me recently when asked about one of his star pupils, Malik Kofi. So what was his initial impression, if any, of Malik at the tender age of three?

“He was always very engaging to talk to,” Hultgren responded.

This I did not expect. I expected to hear that he was cute and smart for his age (true), looked like he was ready to jump in and pluck out a tune on his brothers’ instruments at any moment (also true), or that Hultgren knew even back then that Malik had that certain  je ne sais quoi that made him dream of teaching this child to play (probably, but that’s putting words in Hultgren’s mouth). But engaging to talk to? A three year old? This I had to see for myself. Though better known as a child prodigy cellist who will be profiled in an upcoming PBS special  Little Music Manchild: The Malik Kofi Story, Malik, now 11, is also, yes, an engaging conversationalist.

Perhaps this is not so surprising for a child who began speaking in complete sentences when he was eight months old. Or a child who, at 7, was invited to introduce President Obama at a Boutwell Auditorium livestreaming of the 2009 inauguration. That’s because along with an amazing gift for the cello, Malik has remarkable ability as a public speaker. Watching the video on YouTube, I could only imagine that he could put to shame half the child actors currently trying to make it in Hollywood.

But, alas, there are so many hours in a day—and currently Malik is spending between five and eight of them practicing his first love, the cello. He started taking formal lessons with Hultgren, a genius in his own right who, along with playing for the ASO, has performed solo concerts and chamber music all over the world. “Malik’s talent, work ethic and spirit were remarkable from day one,” Hultgren says. “I have taught other prodigies, but Malik is probably the purest example of a prodigy in the 30–plus years I have been teaching.” (For the record, Malik cannot stand the words “prodigy,” “atypical” or just about anything other than “normal,” in reference to himself. As he sees it, everyone has some kind of special talent, even if they haven’t discovered or cultivated it yet. And Malik is quick to point out that he still has a way to go before he’s fully mastered the instrument…never mind that he is only—if I can be forgiven for saying this once again—11.)

Malik has been raised by his grandmother, Ruby Cox, who not only also raised his older brothers as well—24-year-old twins Reuben and Robert—but homeschooled them. She has worked to maximize their every opportunity, even when doing so meant making sacrifices that have strained the family’s finances. That in and of itself is not necessarily of much importance to Malik’s story, other than to say it ought to shatter any myths that only families of means can produce and support an extraordinary talent like Malik’s, if there is enough dedication—a quality in no shortage in this family. Malik’s brothers temporarily put off medical school to help support the expenses of Malik’s musical training.

Cox saw the chemistry between Malik and Hultgren immediately. “Craig took him as fast as he would go, and Malik ate it up,” she explains, noting that for a couple of years, Malik had to take a break from lessons because money was too tight. “But when we started back up, it was like Malik had just been waiting, and he did incredibly well.” Hultgren began entering Malik in recitals and competitions. Before long, “he finally told me, it’s time for him to go off to music camp with other students his age who have talents like his to see what he’s really made of,” Cox says.

So when Hultgren suggested Malik apply for summer music camps last year, Cox aimed for the top, encouraging Malik to apply to PIMF—the Philadelphia International Music Festival, a two–week program of intensive study with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here, Malik would need to hold his own among the crème of the crème of young musical talent.

“Craig had said, let’s send him to the University of Florida or Georgia camp, just to get his feet wet,” she recalls. “But when I looked those programs up, somehow PIMF just popped up, and I looked at it and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’” Hultgren had his reservations, but Cox held firm. “I said, ‘I know you want him to get his feet wet, but you know what? I feel like he should be submerged.’”

Malik excelled, particularly catching the attention of a Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Ohad Bar-David, who has since become a mentor to Malik. Yet perversely, the experience also reinforced Malik’s sense of normalcy—because among his peers from camp, he is normal. Still, his performance there earned him a personal invitation to another music festival, an extension of PIMF called “Music in the Mansion” held every winter in Miami. The program is not free, with tuition running higher than $1,950 per pupil for six days, but here, Malik received help from an unexpected source. Last year Malik was invited to perform during a Community Investment Network Conference, and for the event he composed his own combination cello/spoken word performance that so impressed a group called the Birmingham Change Fund who raised the money to send him to Florida. Malik and another girl his age were the youngest there.

For the moment, Malik continues his studies in both music and academics. A typical day includes waking up to get dressed and have breakfast before starting his morning in earnest by 7:45 a.m. Then he works on his vocabulary. From the age of eight, he has been studying Barron’s 1,100 Words You Need to Know, a book frequently used by high-school teachers, occasionally middle-school classes, but probably almost never by little children. Nevertheless, Malik has pretty much mastered all 1,100. After that comes math, English and then history—with extra time budgeted specifically for African-American history—followed by science/chemistry. “And then we have the rest of the day to do his music,” Cox explains.

As for the future, Malik plans to move on soon to a full-time music program, applying to top programs such as the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore or the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, whose students often go on to some of the world’s best orchestras or even become top soloists.

Paul Bryan, interim dean at Curtis, points out that while the institute does accept pre-college-age students into its program, they are far from the norm. “At Curtis next year we’ll have around 16 students of our total 172 who are pre-college age, our youngest being 10. These kids are extraordinary. In terms of the audition process, they are expected to do the exact same things as everybody else—there’s no other way to get into a program like ours.

“For a young student, generally one of two things has occurred,” he continues. “In some cases, their parent has made them do it, or there is a drive in this student that is unmatched by 99.9 percent of the population—and that’s true even if their parents have pushed them, because the parent isn’t practicing. The child doesn’t get to the level where they are without having some remarkable internal drive and an ability to communicate musically. Already at a young age they can’t be separated from their instrument. It’s part of who they are, it’s their voice.”

Both Bryan and Hultgren mentioned—speaking in most general terms, not about Malik (whom Bryant has not met)—the possibility of eventual burnout among prodigies…or even just a changing of one’s mind.

“With children so young, what we do find here every once in a while someone comes in at 11 or 12, and they are so consumed with music at such a young age that they simply change so much as a person over the next few years that they realize, ‘I’m great at doing this, but this is not what I want to do.’ And that’s something that can always happen. Other people may judge that and ask, how could you give up this incredible gift that you have? But to have that gift doesn’t mean that’s what you want to do.”

Because one never knows, and because he is, in fact, 11, Malik could become one of those. But having talked to him for a while (I figured out pretty quickly that one day I’ll be proud to tell people ‘I knew him when…’”), it doesn’t take a genius to know this kid is going places. That’s because he is not only a tremendously gifted and dedicated cello player with all the makings of a Yo-Yo Ma—down to an almost otherworldly ability to connect with an audience—but he also has too much to fall back on, in the unlikely case that the cello is not where he makes his name. There is the public speaking (which, I forgot to mention earlier, actually began not at seven when he spoke at the local inauguration event but at age three, when he won a local open–mic competition doing an improvised dramatic recitation of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’).

And if he should instead pursue a life relatively outside the limelight? “I do want to make my career in cello,” Malik emphasizes. “But if not that, there is something else I would like to do, and that would be science and engineering.”

Go figure. But at 11, that’s one thing he does have in common with the “typical” kid—plenty of time to decide. One thing’s for sure: his is a life worth keeping an eye on, wherever the journey may lead.

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