Washington Teen Clifton Williams Lives Through the Piano

Clifton Williams, a junior at Duke Ellington School for the Arts, plays "Diabolical Suggestion" by Prokofiev. Williams will be performing the piece on the NPR show "From the Top." Video by DeNeen Brown/The Washington Post
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

He didn't start playing classical piano until three years ago, when he was 14, much later than other classical students his age, who had already been playing for years. He doesn't have a piano at home and the one he practices on at church is slightly out of tune. Clifton Williams doesn't come from a moneyed family that lavishes him with private lessons and trips abroad, and yet there he is at the top, competing, winning classical competitions. Quietly driven.

Clifton Williams unbuttons his suit jacket, sits at a baby grand and prepares to conquer composer Sergei Prokofiev. The night is young and old, depending on your perspective. The clock says 8:47. But it is a school night. The church sanctuary is empty. And there is Clifton, alone at the slightly out-of-tune piano. Eyes closed. Shoulders hunched. Fingers in a painful fury, chasing music.

"I'm a little nervous, because I'm playing classical," he says. "But not really."

His fingers glide over the keys, seeking the power they can give him: control over chaos. He corrects his posture and summons the scene he wants his audience to feel as he plays a piece by the Russian composer. A piece that, if conveyed with justifiable emotion, if played not just masterfully but also with brilliance, could be Clifton's breakthrough. A junior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington, Clifton has just two days to practice before he travels to Boston, where he will play before a live audience on "From the Top," NPR's popular showcase for the country's best young classical musicians. Washington listeners can hear it at 6 p.m. this Sunday, on classical WETA, 90.9 FM, or watch the video at http://www.fromthetop.org. Clifton recently won a $10,000 scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which partners with "From the Top" to aid exceptionally promising low-income students. The scholarships have helped them buy instruments and pay for tuition. Clifton plans to use the money for music school, travel expenses and a piano.

For the NPR performance, Clifton will play Prokofiev's "Suggestion Diabolique." It is a complicated piece that a panel has selected from Clifton's repertoire. It is a chance to play classical music before a national audience. In interviews leading up to the performance, people have asked him complicated questions. Questions no 17-year-old should have to answer, even if he did have the answers for all that has gone wrong in inner-city neighborhoods.

Questions such as: How does a young man survive far Southeast, a neighborhood that has become a symbol for pathology? How can a young man emerge from the chaos and gun violence? How does a young man whose father is in prison make it over the hill of pathologies and emerge as a rising classical pianist?

"There is something inside that motivates me," Clifton explains quietly, sitting at the piano in Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Northeast Washington. He cracks his knuckles. Playing classical can sometimes be painful. The hours of practice, the difficult precision required by the music. The social isolation of sitting on a bench.

"Playing a song provokes feelings of happiness or sadness," Clifton says as he hits the keys. An explosion emerges. "My piece, 'Diabolical Suggestion,' provokes fear. I want to create a thunderstorm. I want to convey a dark, stormy night. I want it to be scary."

His fingers move rapidly across the keyboard. A flurry. "I'm trying to paint a picture through the music. . . . It's almost as if there is a thunderstorm happening. Houses are falling. It's chaos. I try to put that into the music. I like chaos. Stuff you can't believe."

The keys rumble under his fingers. The music comes out with an articulated intensity. A dramatic cacophony. Clifton finishes the piece. But is it good enough?

He slides off the bench, opens the church door and walks up the street in the dark.

The next day, he is waiting outside Shirley Ables Music Ministry at the corner of 15th and Savannah streets SE, where he has been taking piano lessons for 10 years. Clifton swings his arms back and forth in the careless way that children do. His mother, Cheryl Williams, is late. Clifton, who is always on time, checks his phone. He is uncanny in his promptness. Uncanny in the way he expresses his dreams in complete paragraphs and the way he recites composers' life stories. Their lives weren't always easy either.

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