Eleven Questions for a Fifteen-Year-Old Musical Prodigy
Musician William Leathers Pushes Towards his Goals
William Leathers is a 15-year-old musical prodigy who currently attends Oakville Trafalgar Secondary School. He is a highly accomplished trumpeter and pianist. Since 2013, he has performed with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO) where he is the only Black musician. William has played on many stages, including a recent concert at Jamaica’s Devon House where he was accompanied by some of Jamaica’s legendary musicians. This performance resulted from an invitation by an aide of former Jamaican prime minister P.J. Patterson who heard William perform at a Toronto concert. William is highly committed to learning his craft and this leads to a busy schedule. For instance, during the month of March 2016, he played in a masterclass conducted by one of the world’s top classical trumpeters, Häkan Hardenberger; travelled with his trumpet teacher, Dr. Chris Cigolea, to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he performed in a masterclass given by that institution’s classical trumpet professor, James Thompson; and, sat in on a masterclass conducted by Mark Gould, a classical trumpet professor of Juilliard School of Music. Encouraged by his parents, Mississauga resident William has great ambitions for a career in music.
Recently, the Lifelong Leadership Institute (LLI) invited William to respond to a few questions. Here, in his own words, is what he had to say.
LLI: Tell us about your current plans to complete your high school program?
WL: In my elementary school, Fern Hill Oakville, I was allowed to skip a grade, and at the same time, I was allowed to work ahead. Therefore, I graduated a year early with four high school credits: Grade 9 Core French, Grade 9 Informational Technology,Grade 9 Academic Math, and Grade 10 Academic Math. When I entered high school in the fall of 2014, I was already ahead, so today in grade 10 I have 21 of the 30 credits that I need to graduate from high school. My plan is to graduate with all of my high school credits by the end of Grade 11.
LLI: What kind of career do you imagine for yourself?
WL: My goal is to study as many aspects of music as possible. I’d like to study conducting, performance in piano, trumpet, and voice, and I’d like to be a classical and jazz soloist. I plan to complete my PhD in music. Afterwards, I’d like to travel the world performing.
LLI: You are highly talented in both the trumpet and piano. Which is your preferred instrument?
WL: I cannot choose. They are both very important and precious to me.
LLI: Who or what inspired your passion for music?
WL: When I was about four years old, I used to watch Oswald the children’s TV cartoon series. The main character of the show, Oswald, was an octopus that played the piano.I wanted to play the piano just like Oswald. As I watched him play, I could see the colors of the notes coming out of the speakers. I wasn’t aware then that everybody did not see music in color the way I do. Later, I learned that I had synesthesia. Synesthesia, from the Ancient Greek word, “syn”, meaning “together”, and “aisthēsis”, meaning “sensation”, ‘is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes’. There are 64+ types of synesthesia; I have a number of them, but the one that gives me the ability to see music in color is musical synesthesia. Some famous musical synesthetes are Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, Billy Joel, Franz Liszt, Duke Ellington, Jean Sibelius, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After begging my parents for six months to allow me to play the piano, my mom finally found a piano teacher willing to take me in at such a young age. Five to six months after my first lesson, I entered the Peel Music Festival at the Grade 3 level and won. So, the answer to who inspired my passion? I was inspired by a cartoon character, Oswald!
LLI: For the past three years you have performed with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO). What was your most memorable moment playing with this orchestra?
WL: Actually, I have a few memorable moments. One was the first time I got to play side-by-side with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) at Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto. Another was when I played lead trumpet in Mahler’s First Symphony at the 2015 Spring Concert at Koerner Hall, Toronto. I really enjoyed the opportunity to play the Henri Tomasi Trumpet Concerto in the Häkan Hardenberger masterclass in March 2016. However, my most memorable TSYO memory came after my audition at 12 years old, going onto the orchestra’s website three days later to see my name listed as a member of the TSYO. That was a great day for me.
LLI: During March of this year, you travelled to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and met a number of influential educators in your field of music. Tell us about your current career plans and how your trip to Rochester influenced these plans.
WL: This past March was an exceptional month for me. On March 10th, I had the honor of playing at a masterclass which was conducted by one of the world’s top classical trumpeters, Häkan Hardenberger. A week later, I traveled with my trumpet teacher, Dr. Chris Cigolea, to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where I performed in a masterclass with another phenomenal trumpeter, one of Eastman’s classical trumpet professors, James Thompson. I also had the opportunity of sitting in a masterclass conducted by Mark Gould, classical trumpet professor at Juilliard School of Music and Wynton Marsalis’s past-professor. At Eastman I also had the opportunity to play an unreleased trumpet prototype which was manufactured by S.E. Shires, and to attend a Baroque trumpet masterclass conducted by Brian Shaw, classical trumpet professor of Louisiana State University. All three professors greatly admired my playing. I plan to do a summer course at Eastman this year. My goal is to go to both Eastman and Juilliard for my B.A., Masters and PhD.
LLI: In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell cites research claiming “once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder” (p39). Tell us about your practice routine and other efforts to be achieve a high degree of skill playing your instruments.
WL: Unless I am doing homework or studying for a test, I am always practising my instruments. Some nights I practise up until midnight or even later. I do leave time for fun stuff like watching a bit of TV or playing with my dog. I also take part in activities at school, including sports. When I am practising, I ensure that I am always using my most effective playing techniques…that is, good intonation and rhythm… whether I have learned from my teachers or discovered them myself. Aside from technique, it is also important to keep your daily practice time sufficient and consistent. One of my reasons for pushing to finish high school two years early is because I would like to spend my “gap” year practising for 8-12 hours per day. Practising for this amount of time per day will be most effective once I put in the right type of work and effort.
LLI: Recently, you performed with a number of well-known musicians in Jamaica. How did that trip come about and what was your experience playing with these musicians?
WL: Last summer, I was invited to perform at the Calabar Old Boys Association (COBA) Gala in Toronto. The guest speaker was an alumnus of Calabar and the longest-serving Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Honourable P.J. Patterson. After my performance, a member of Mr. Patterson’s entourage asked for my email address. A couple of days later, I got an email inviting me to perform at Devon House in Kingston, Jamaica, on November 2015, for their 134th Anniversary Benefit Concert. This was a great honor for me. My mother is Jamaican and I have always loved Jamaica, even though I had never been there. I also love to play Jamaican music, so this was my opportunity to finally visit. Shortly after I arrived, I went to a rehearsal with reggae legend Desi Jones and his band. I walked into the room while he was rehearsing with other musicians, and according to my mother, she said I looked as if I was in a trance. This was because these were some of the most amazing musicians. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Jones addressed me asking what I would be doing and what I needed. I told him, and he and his band were prepared to perform almost immediately. Mr. Jones is one of the best band leaders I have ever worked with. This is an experience I will never forget. He is a musical great, but besides that, he is a very kind, accepting, and encouraging person. My performance at Devon House the following day was one of the highlights of my life, and I hope I get a chance to perform in Jamaica again.
LLI: Tell us about the person or persons who have been the greatest influence in your life?
WL: The people who have the greatest influence in my life are my parents. They insist that it is important to be a great musician, but it is more important to be a good person and to have the right mindset. They taught me that my talent is a gift from God and that when I am given a gift like that, I have a responsibility to share and to use it for the betterment of the human race.
LLI: Can you tell us about a leader who has greatly inspired you?
WL: My inspiration does not come from a specific person, but I am inspired by a number of different people for different reasons. When I was three-years old, I attended a Montessori school. Very quickly, however, I got bored with the things I was doing with my age group and I wanted to do the same work as the older kids who were 6 and 7 years old. Although I was more than capable of doing the work, a teacher told me that three-year olds shouldn’t be doing that, and I believed her.
In 2008 when Barack Obama ran for the United States presidency, I noticed that although Hilary Clinton and John McCain were both older than he was, Obama became the president of the United States of America. From this I learned not to put limitations on myself based on my age, but to understand that although I am young, I have the ability to be a leader. From Nelson Mandela I learned to stand up for what’s right and to remember that no matter what’s done to you, in the end you will come out victorious. In the music world, I admire musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, who pushed himself to not just master one genre, but was able to win a Grammy for both classical and jazz. My father, who was my first music teacher, has taught me how to enjoy playing music as much as possible, how to build my craft, and how to be a life-long student.
Finally, from my family, I learned to stand together and support each other. I have no siblings, but I have friends that have siblings and I’ve seen them fight and argue with each other. However, when I see my mom and her siblings, they are not only siblings, but best friends who support each other and support each other’s children. My uncle Leroy, my mother’s brother, believes in me completely. He believes in me so much that it causes me to believe in myself even more. It was through jamming with him at family parties that I developed my love for reggae music, particularly that of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
LLI: What book are you currently reading, or recently read?
WL: Right now because of time constraint the only books I am reading are the ones for English Literature at school. However, my favorite book was one given to me by my mom when I was nine years old in Grade 5. It’s called ‘Mindset’, written by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. This is a book that I will continuously go back to for inspiration. According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure. These two mindsets play an important role in all aspects of a person’s life. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. Three of my mom’s favorite quotes that she raised me on are “it is better to try and fail than to fail to try”; “failure to prepare is preparing to fail”; and, “a goal without a plan is a wish, and wishes only come true in fairy tales”. These quotes and Carol Dweck’s writing in Mindset are some of the things I live by.
Note: Published June 2016 by the Lifelong Leadership Institute (LLI), Toronto, Canada, llileaders.com