New Kind Of Prodigy: Jourdan Urbach, Violin Virtuoso, Raises Millions For Medicine, Dabbles In Film Scoring

Jourdan Urbach rehearses at the Pierre Hotel prior to a ceremony where he will receive the nation's highest public service aw
Jourdan Urbach rehearses at the Pierre Hotel prior to a ceremony where he will receive the nation's highest public service awards, the Jefferson Awards, Tuesday, March 6, 2012 in New York. Urbach is a violin prodigy who has channeled his musical talents to raise more than $5 million for pediatric medical research around the globe, headlining benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and other venues. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Upon first meeting, the virtuoso violinist and nonprofit leader Jourdan Urbach seems like a less eccentric, real-world version of Max Fischer in "Rushmore."

Both have an absurdly long list of decorations, awards and leadership positions -- the fictional Fischer was editor of the yearbook, president of the French Club and director of the beekeepers' society. He wrote a play to get into private school. He tries to get an aquarium built on the baseball field.

Like Fischer, Urbach has lived a life of overextending himself. But unlike Fischer, the 20-year-old Urbach got impeccable grades in school and boasts the academic intelligence of someone far beyond his years. He was also a bona fide child prodigy, picking up the violin at 2-and-a-half and becoming proficient enough to turn "pro" five years later.

But don't you dare call him that. 

"Nothing pisses me off like pigeon-holing," he said over lunch at a Manhattan diner. "I like to do everything, and I haven't even told you everything I love to do. It's not anybody else's job to take that away from me."

He doesn't want to be great at one thing, he said, he wants to be "the best" at all things. Some of those things include -- but are not limited to -- playing the violin, writing film scores, sea kayaking, researching in the field of neuroscience, running a nonprofit full-time, raising money for other non-profits, mountain climbing, tech consulting, music consulting and public speaking.

He was worrying about being pigeon-holed at an age when most of us hadn't yet removed our training wheels. At 7, he began playing concerts around the country, frequenting Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. At 11, he started at Juilliard, and six years later he was aiming to go pre-med at Yale, before eventually switching back to music composition, which he calls his "true love." He graduated early from Yale and is about to start at New York University, where he'll earn a master's in film scoring.

But though he played hundreds of gigs as a child, he never earned a dime from one until very recently. That's because the money he made went toward the organization he founded, "Children Helping Children," now re-titled "Concerts for a Cure."

That organization has raised over $5 million to fight pediatric and neurological diseases. Along the way, Urbach also helped raise hundreds of thousands for other causes, like multiple sclerosis, hearing loss and music education, and has picked up awards for humanitarian and public service.

"I was Jourdan Urbach and I was gonna do everything all the time," he remembers thinking as a child. "One of the other things I do is I work for the U.N., did you read that?" 

He's also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations.

Urbach often finishes your sentences, providing details you weren't even sure you were thinking. His mind moves fast, so it's hard to keep up. In that sense, speaking with him can be exhausting, though it's difficult to remain anything but consistently impressed. A standard New York exchange about the benefits of a subway line becomes a spirited mathematical discourse. 

"I'm quantifying the benefits of the F Train," he says, as if he's done all this before. "On the F you can transfer to the C or the 6 based on what side of the city you're on. I'm pretty thrilled."

Urbach also won a research prize from the American Academy of Neurology for his contributions to multiple sclerosis research, and has conducted research at Harvard Medical School's immuno-genetics lab and Yale School of Medicine's neuroscience lab. 

And now, along with The Ohio State professor and prodigy-expert Joanne Ruthsatz, he has co-authored a study linking child prodigies to autism, which was recently published in the journal, Intelligence.

The study focused on eight gifted young people in various creative fields and found that half had reported family members with an autism diagnosis, concluding that prodigies may have a "moderated autism" that "actually enables the prodigies' extraordinary talent." 

The link between prodigies and autism traits is strong, Ruthsatz said, but it's not necessarily their IQs that make them able to excel. Rather, each prodigy scores off the charts in "attention to detail" and exceptional working memory. 

"Jourdan started talking very early, he was reading by 2, and then playing violin by 3, [then] working at Harvard at a lab in the summers," she said. "What surprises me most about these prodigies is their benevolence."

Indeed, Ruthsatz has been studying child prodigies for 15 years, and what amazes her is how unlike their fictional, movie counterparts they tend to be. Most prodigies depicted in film, she says, are shut-ins, constantly working and preparing, with some overbearing parent constantly monitoring their practice hours (see "Shine," "Magnolia," etc.) But Ruthsatz said it's usually the children who are pushing themselves, using talents they have in their blood.

"For some of the children, their parents are involved, but for many they are leading the charge so quickly that their parents are just holding on with their fingertips," said Ruthsatz.

Most prodigies also have an extraordinary capacity for altruistic work, Ruthsatz said. One prodigy she worked with started an organization to feed the hungry, while another raised money to purchase thousands of computers for low-income residents in their local community. Then there's Urbach's work.

"The amount of sensitivity and moral advancement [in prodigies] is very advanced," she said. "They're very sensitive to other people."

Interestingly, Urbach's brother Alec also has a joint sense of artistic talent and philanthropy. At 16, he served 240,000 children through his own nonprofit, Giving from the Ground Up, which works toward literacy in third world countries, and hopes to be a professional filmmaker. 

So is there something in the water with the Urbach family? Do they paint their walls a certain shade of blue or feed them extra meals or fewer meals or more spinach or daily vitamins? 

"I guess there's a well-sung concept that children like this have to put in all of those hours, are doing it from the time that they're crawling, working constantly, all of that," said Urbach's mother, Deborah. "The truth is: I can only speak for this singular child, and this child had [that talent] to begin with."

At Steinway Hall, meanwhile, Jourdan Urbach practiced his program with pianist Karen Beluso, who has been playing with Jourdan since he was 14 . The two of them have logged hundreds of gigs together since then, though she admits that "college got in the way a little bit."

He plows through classical, jazz, and more modern pieces, as well as his own multi-disciplinary original stuff. Urbach had already memorized a piece they'd started playing two weeks earlier, and was frustrated that he'd missed a note.

Toward the end of a rehearsal his girlfriend, Liv, a harpist two years his senior, dropped by. The two have lived together since getting out of Yale and Jourdan says if they didn't live together, they'd never see each other. 

It's all part of the big equation of Jourdan Urbach's life, one he deals with through Post-it notes rather than Google calendars. Though one variable perplexes him more than most.

"I don't know why she's stayed with me for so long," Urbach said of Liv. "I truly believe I'm a terrible boyfriend. I go back and quantify, and I don't really add much to the relationship."

Watch Jourdan Urbach's TEDx talk:

CORRECTION: This article originally quoted Joanne Ruthsatz as saying Jourdan Urbach began studying at Harvard at 9 years old, when he didn't actually start at Harvard until his teenage years.