Being corrected by a five-year-old isn’t usually cause for pride. But when that five-year-old is your son, and he’s correcting your musical technique on the instrument you both play, well, that’s a bit different.

Danilo Brito, a mandolin virtuoso from Brazil, was that five-year-old. “I remember my father would tell his friends proudly that I corrected him on some part of the melody,” Brito says, speaking through his translator and manager Maria Silvia Braga.

Brito’s father was an amateur musician who played the mandolin and the cavaquinho, a precursor to the ukelele that originated with the Portuguese. He’s the reason Brito first picked up a mandolin, although that’s about as far as his influence went. “My father’s technique is completely different from my technique. Since I was a child I developed the sound — I tried different ways of holding it until I found what was comfortable and what made the sound better. That’s how I developed — not copying my father or taking lessons,” Brito says.

Like most child prodigies, Brito could play by ear from the start. He learned by listening to his family’s collection of LPs of Brazilian music and practicing on his own. By the time he was 12 he had released his first album and was, for all intents and purposes, a professional musician: he regularly played gigs and competitions, even performed on TV. He’s no stranger to Spoleto either, having performed at the 2010 festival behind the Brazilian clarinetist and saxophonist Nailor Azevedo.

Such an early start would seem to lead directly to an early burnout, but Brito, who is now 29, says the opposite is true for him. “Every year the music gets stronger in me. I cannot be parted from the music,” he says.

And you can hear that in his playing. Brito has always been famous for his extraordinary musicality. In reviews of his performances, there’s frequently high-flown talk about souls, be it Brito’s coming through the instrument or those of the audience being touched by the music. He’s been compared to some of Brazil’s greatest musicians, including Jacob do Bandolim (a stage name meaning Mandolin Jacob), a 20th-century composer and musician widely considered to be Brazil’s most legendary mandolin player.

Like Bandolim, one of Brito’s specialities is playing choro, a traditional Brazilian musical genre that’s comparable to New Orleans jazz. Improvisation, speed, and melodic leaps are all characteristics of choro — it’s technically demanding music that is played to sound spontaneous. It is in choro that Brito’s ability to play by ear truly shines. “Choro has a certain freedom for you to add a lot of style and personality. It has a feeling of informality,” he says. “I’m not a fan of the musician who is totally dependent on reading music. These musicians who love choro and want to play choro, if a wind comes by and blows the score away, they are lost.”

At his Spoleto appearance, Brito will play choro as well as some of his own compositions. He’s been a composer and a musician since he was a child. His very first album had one of his own pieces, the first of his that “had any value,” he says, and since then he’s become steadily more prolific. With each record he puts out, there are more Brito originals, but he’ll never stop recording the classic tunes of his country. “I also like to have something of the old composers as well as contemporary composers to make the album more broad — to bring this music to the audience,” he says. He has a deep respect and love for the Brazilian musicians who came before him, people like Bandolim, the piano player Ernesto Nazareth, flutist and composer Benedito Lacerda, and the composer and maestro Pixinguinha. Brito is, in a sense, their musical descendant. “They were the greatest Brazilian musicians of all time,” he says.

This ability to look both backward and forward, steeping oneself in tradition while maintaining a fresh and forward-thinking outlook on one’s instrument, is what separates mere technical geniuses from true artists — lucky for him, Brito just happens to be both. Critics have called him a 21st-century mandolinist, but Brito sees himself in a more timeless sense. “If I was born 50 years ago, I think I’d still sound the same,” he says. “The art must be authentic, honest. You put your personality in, and remain true to yourself. That’s not attached to time, but to style.”