MARC YU isn't a typical music student. In the space of 31/2 years, he's graduated from a faltering one- fingered rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb to a full-blown concert performance of Bach's Piano Concerto No 5 in F minor. He's mastered a repertoire on the piano and cello that would be the envy of musicians who've dedicated a lifetime to their art. He's committed more than 15 major works to memory and has composed 10 short pieces. His favourite pieces of music are Rachmaninov's second and third piano concertos, even though they make him sad. Like other musicians of his calibre, he dreams of playing with the New York or London Philharmonic Orchestras. However, unlike many musicians of his calibre, Marc is only six years old. Jeffrey Bernstein, assistant conductor of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra (PSO) and a music director at Los Angeles' Occidental College, is in no doubt about the California-born prodigy's talent. 'Marc could be the next household-name pianist,' Bernstein says. 'A lot of music majors don't have his facility at the keyboard. Anything is possible for him.' In the US, celebrity status beckons for the pint-sized maestro. Appearances on Jay Leno and 60 Minutes are scheduled for later this year. Marc's mother, Chloe, who moved to the US from Macau in 1990, works closely with an advisory committee set up by the PSO to help deal with the growing media interest surrounding her son, who is getting used to seeing his face on the front page. At first glance, Marc is like any other boy, with the same interests as other children his age. 'I play soccer, swimming, tennis and ping-pong,' he says. 'I also love to go to the art museum. Van Gogh and Picasso are my favourites artists. And Claude Monet - I almost forgot him.' History is littered with prodigiously gifted children who burn with magnesium intensity only to fizzle out when they reach adolescence or adulthood, as either their peers catch up or they lose interest in their chosen field of excellence. Youthful prodigies are also often driven to succeed by controlling parents. It's a pattern that Chloe Yu is acutely aware of, and says she'll do her utmost to avoid. So, while the 32-year-old single mother does everything she can to nurture Marc's talent, she's adamant that her son will have the final say on how far he takes his musical career. She insists that she's anything but a pushy parent. 'I always try to ensure that he really enjoys what he's doing,' says Yu, whose family are spread between Hong Kong and Macau. 'If one day he turns around and says, 'Mum, I don't want to play music any more' that's really fine with me. As long as he enjoys it, I'll be as supportive as I can so that he can make the most of his ability. But if he's ever unhappy then he'll stop.' There are, however, no indications that Marc is losing interest in music. More often than not, Yu has to prevent him from practising too much at their home in Monterey Park, a largely Asian community in eastern Los Angeles. 'About a month ago he was crazy about Saint-Saen's Piano Concerto No2. He would wake me up at about two or three in the morning, saying 'Mum, please let me practise for half an hour and I'll go back to sleep.' He's been doing that since he was four.' Marc's unquenchable thirst for musical knowledge has been one of the most startling characteristics of his development. It's been that way since his music teacher was persuaded to take him on as a four-year-old, making an exception to her rule of refusing to coach children younger than six. 'After hearing him play, she said yes,' Yu says. 'After the first month he was still working on book one, the basic technique on cello. 'Then I played him the Bach suites played by Yo-Yo Ma and that week he woke up about three or four times in the middle of the night asking me to go to the bookstore to buy him the music so he could learn it. His teacher said, 'No way, it's too complicated, he's still only working on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. But I got him the music anyway and he memorised the whole prelude over a weekend.' The first inkling of her son's musical talent came when he was 21/2 years old. 'He was at a friend's party and he heard Mary Had a Little Lamb and he just jumped on his friend's piano and found the tune. With one finger he just played the whole tune. And that's when I started thinking about it seriously.' Marc was born in 1999, after Yu's marriage to a foreign securities trader she met while working as a blackjack dealer at a Las Vegas casino. The marriage didn't last and now Yu supports herself and Marc via alimony payments. Getting a nine-to-five job to pay the bills isn't an option, she says. 'Finding a job would mean sacrificing him,' she says, gazing at Marc. 'I already have more than two full-time jobs. I'm his mum, his dad, his music coach, his tutor.' Complicating matters further is the fact that public schools in Marc's district of Los Angeles have said they won't allow him to take time off every week to pursue music, leaving Yu with little option but to teach her son at home. 'To see him sit in a classroom six to seven hours a day, five days a week - it would be heartbreaking to put him through that,' Yu says, although she admits that keeping pace with her child is a struggle. 'I have to really work hard to keep up with him,' she says. 'He's very curious, always asking questions. Often I have to spend a lot of time studying, doing research in order to satisfy him. 'If we go to a museum I usually take a notebook and jot down everything that I can't answer. Afterwards, I'll spend hours at the library trying to find books that will give me the right answer. If I don't do that he just keeps bugging me until I get the answer for him.' Like many prodigies, Marc has exceptional abilities in other fields. Academically, he's a fast learner. 'I just started teaching him maths last summer - simple addition and subtraction. He's already moved on to fractions and geometry.' Yet it's through music that his precocity shines most brightly. Hardly a week goes by without Marc leaving his teachers at the Colburn School of Performing Arts shaking their heads in disbelief. 'He had a lesson there the other day and I said to Steven [Cook, Marc's teacher] - do you know that Marc has perfect pitch?,' Yu says. 'He tested Marc by getting him to turn around away from the piano and playing several keys. He guessed them all correctly. So then he played some chords and he guessed them all correctly, too. And then he inverted the chords and asked him to name them all from left to right - and he guessed them all right apart from one.' Maintaining Marc's development comes at a hefty financial cost, however. Yu and the PSO are hoping that private donors and sponsors will step forward to assist with Marc's musical education. 'The easiest thing in the world would be to go down the concert route and have Marc performing every week, for money,' says Alan Slaughter of the PSO committee assisting Yu. 'Nobody seriously thinks that's the way to go. This is a child who still rides his bicycle with training wheels. Our view is that by raising Marc's profile carefully through the media, maybe we can attract other sources of financial support,' he says. Where Marc goes from here only time will tell. His mother hopes it leads to Carnegie Hall, but says that's for him to decide. 'His teachers say he can go as far as he wants to go,' says Yu. 'Ultimately though, it's up to him.'