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Corey and Katja Cerovsek Are Musical Marvels—but Don't Call Them 'Prodigies'

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Josef Gingold, former concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, distinguished professor of music at Indiana University and coach to the world’s fiddling elite, remembers the first time he heard Corey Cerovsek play. The boy was 7. He carefully tucked a tiny ¼-size violin under his tiny chin. Gin-gold sat by impassively; he has heard many a wunderkind in his 35 years of teaching. Then the child began to play.

“It was remarkable,” recalls Gingold. “This child, he is wonderful. I’m telling you. This kind of all-around brilliance I’ve never seen in anybody.” Accompanying Corey on the piano was his sister Katja, then 9. “She is extraordinarily talented in her own right,” says Gingold. “They give me such joy I can’t tell you. They make this old man’s heart soar.”

“I’m a kid,” says Corey Cerovsek, now 13, and 66 pounds (including braces) of indignation. “I hate the word ‘prodigy.’ I really hate the word ‘genius.’ It makes us sound like a different species.”

The problem is, it’s hard to talk about the Cerovsek siblings without using the forbidden words, considering the fact that both children are studying at an advanced level at Indiana University, that they discourse with their elders in German and English on almost any subject imaginable and not forgetting, of course, their exquisite musical talent. Between them they have soloed more than 20 times with major symphony orchestras. Last year Corey played with the Toronto Symphony before Queen Elizabeth.

Corey has this to say of the Queen: “She looks grouchy, but she’s real nice. She asked me the usual kinds of questions.” Questions, no doubt, about what it’s like to be a P—— or a G—–.

If so, Her Majesty would not be the only one thus intrigued. “It’s very strange,” says 38-year-old Sophia Cerovsek, the children’s mother. Neither she nor her husband, Helmut, an Austrian-born engineer, reports any previous incidence of genius in either family, although Sophia is an amateur musician and a former vocal student. “I’m a Catholic and never believed in reincarnation,” she says. “But Corey is so intelligent, it used to scare me. He knows things he’s never been told or read about.”

“I didn’t know what to make of these children, to be blunt,” says Helmut. “We love them and try to give them what they need to develop their special gifts from God.”

These gifts first became apparent 14 years ago when the Cerovseks were living in Vancouver, B.C. One day, to entertain Katja, then 2, her mother played “Old MacDonald” on the family piano and sang the words in German. The child promptly clambered up to the keyboard and repeated the song.

Corey’s chances of matching his sister’s abilities at first seemed dim: Following a difficult birth, he spent the first three weeks of his life in a coma. But by age 4, he had taught himself to read and write. After a miniature violin was given to him for Christmas when he was 5, he breezed through eight musical grade levels in one year.

Today, at 16, Katja has begun to show the characteristic reticence of adolescence, while Corey is more than willing to apply his intelligence publicly to just about any subject known to man. “If you want to discuss Einstein’s theory of relativity, fine,” he has said. “If I’m talking with a child, we’ll talk about Michael Jackson.” To a reporter he talks about typewriter correction fluid. Noticing a white spot on an otherwise blue shirt, Corey volunteers the chemical composition of the white fluid, how it was invented, when, why and by whom. When that topic is exhausted, he chats happily about home computers (he is using one to write a novel and create his own language) and the compression ratio in a Volvo engine.

Although the Cerovseks refuse to submit the children to IQ tests (“l don’t want them labeled,” says Helmut), they have not stinted on their education. While the family lived in Canada, Katja and Corey completed all the performance and course requirements for the University of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Both graduated with highest honors. Then, when Corey was invited to study with Gingold a year ago, the family loaded all its worldly belongings into a U-Haul and drove 2,300 miles to Bloomington to enroll the kids in Indiana University and its School of Music.

The family seems to be acclimating quite nicely. Helmut commutes to an engineering job in Indianapolis, and the Cerovseks’ pleasant suburban home sports a sun-dappled living room equipped with twin Baldwin pianos. When not at school or practicing her musical instrument, Katja, like any self-respecting teenager, is learning to drive the family car. Corey has a tree house—where he plans to install a parabolic microphone to pick up the sounds of animals in a nearby wood.

Last spring Corey attended his first basketball game, at Indiana’s Assembly Hall. Within five minutes he had extracted from his companion everything he knew about the game; by halftime he was analyzing the match-ups and computing free-throw percentages. By the time the game entered its second overtime, Corey was computing the various mathematical possibilities for a Hoosier victory—in short, he was acting in character. But then, as center Uwe Blab scored the tie-breaking basket for Indiana, Corey Cerovsek yelled, Corey Cerovsek screamed, Corey Cerovsek jumped up and down—just like the rest of the 17,000 hoop-happy fanatics in the stands. For this moment, at least, he seemed not like a P—— or a G—– at all.