Grand Achievement
Teen Pianist From Southeast Orchestrates an Unlikely Rise

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 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.

Clifton appears older than his 17 years. He makes more money than his mother, a caretaker for the elderly, by playing on the first, second and fourth Sundays of each month, and leading the choir, at Pilgrim Rest Baptist. He pays for everything, except the roof over his head, he says.

"My sister says I am a 70-year-old man in a 17-year-old body," says Clifton, who has four sisters. They come to his concerts when they can. His mother can't always make it because of work, but she lets him drive her car.

Before Clifton played classical, he played gospel and jazz. Before that, he simply banged on keys. He was 3 when he was sitting in his grandmother's church, watching a church musician at the piano. "There was something about the piano that intrigued me," he says.

A few years later, Shirley Ables-Starks came to the church on Naylor Road. Clifton's grandmother made a surprise announcement: "The next selection is by Clifton Williams!" The little boy was 7. He went to the head of the small church and began to play. Ables-Starks, a music teacher, sat in the congregation.

"He was just hitting the piano," recalls Ables-Starks. "He was determined he was going to play. I asked his mother to bring him over for lessons and she did."

"She heard me play the one or two chords I knew," Clifton recalls. "She saw I had a passion and took me under her wing." She gave him piano lessons at her school. "I learned gospel from her." He went every Tuesday and Thursday after school. And when his mother couldn't pay for the lessons, Ables-Starks told her to bring Clifton anyway. His grandmother gave him his first keyboard, a small portable electronic one. In seventh grade, Clifton entered a piano competition. His mother remembers: "There was this time in junior high and he went to a UDC piano competition and my baby lost. He didn't even know he lost until they sent the papers. I said, 'Baby, you don't have to do this anymore.' "He said, 'No, Ma. I will keep trying until I win.' Then last year, he won. He's been winning ever since. Had it been up to me, he would have quit. I'm glad he didn't."

Thomas Pierre, a music teacher and department chair for fine arts at the Friendship Public Charter School's Blow Pierce campus in Northeast, which Clifton attended, was impressed immediately by him. "I would call him a prodigy," Pierre says.

"He plays extraordinarily well," says Gerald Slavet, executive producer of "From the Top." "One of the reasons Clifton plays so well is he brings such love and feeling for the music when he sits down and plays. Many young people become masters of technique, but you really need to bring the love and your soul into the music. Because, after all, you are feeding the soul of your listener. You can't just play notes, no matter how fabulously you play them, if you want to make music."

Clifton began studying classical music seriously when he arrived at Duke Ellington, where Haewon Moon taught him. Moon, who has been teaching piano for 31 years, says Clifton is someone who has overcome the odds. No piano at home. Starting classical late. Yet he seems to have an innate knowledge. "The musical talent you cannot teach," Moon calls such ability. "He is a very graceful pianist. He has a sense to understand the music as a whole picture. His technique is outstanding. . . . He has beautiful ears. He can exactly reconstruct music."

Clifton practices three hours a day. The physical exertion of playing classical often leaves his hands aching.

"As I began playing more pieces that require physical strength, I began feeling a little pain that was like sending my body a warning, saying you need to be careful." He started exercising more, lifting weights.

* * *

When Clifton was in elementary school, his family lived on Benning Road SE, in a neighborhood that has been the scene of many shootings. Kids would knock on his door, asking him to come play. "They called me Miss Peaches," his mother, 46, a home health-care aide, recalls. "They would say, 'Miss Peaches, why won't your son come outside?' I'd say, 'I guess he don't want to play with the kids around here.' And I didn't make him. He was in that room playing that piano," the keyboard his grandmother had given him. The friend he did have was connected to his music -- Christopher Printis, who is four years older. Printis's grandmother was Ables-Starks. Printis says Clifton had a laserlike focus on the piano, which helped him survive. Even the guys on the street respect you if they see excellence in you. "It's not the nicest of neighborhoods, as you know," says Printis, 21, now a junior at DeVry University in Arlington. A drummer who took lessons at his grandmother's music school, Printis says: "Most people were in awe he could play so well at such a young age. It was really the piano that kept him out of trouble. Instead of going out and doing what everyone else was doing, he was in his room practicing on the keyboard or auditioning somewhere."

Most families have one, the person who makes it. Does everything right to get out. The one who excels. Sociologists have studied the phenomenon, social programs have tried to replicate it. But in reality, nobody knows why one child gets stuck and another escapes.

In his childhood neighborhood, Clifton mostly noticed the absence of things. "I noticed that nothing was happening around me," he said. "People seemed to just be living. . . . It was kind of depressing. . . . I know there are many addicts and problems, but I try to focus on the good."

He remembers hearing shots fired outside his apartment door when he was 13. He raced to his mother's room. She was sitting up in her nightgown. "I asked her what's that noise. She went to the window and I ran after her. She went down to talk to the neighbors. She told me to go back to bed. 'It's okay.' Under my mom's protection, I knew I was safe."

His mother, Cheryl Williams, always told him: "I want you to chase your dreams. Keep going after it."

She wraps her sweater around herself. She is sitting in a metal folding chair at the music school.

"It's no joke. Sometimes my son holds me together. Sometimes, I don't want to go to church. He'd say, 'Ma, aren't you going to church today?' Sometimes he is like the father."

Clifton's father, William Brodis, 49, is serving a one-year prison term on charges of violating his parole. Clifton says he's a good father. "Right now we e-mail each other a lot. I tell him about great things and the scholarship."

Clifton hears from him every other day. Recently, his father wrote: "I'm happy for you. I know you will do good. One thing about you is you are a go-getter. That's a good thing. I wish I could be there for you."

Clifton says he understands. "I love my parents to death," he says. "But I want to do better. I want greater things."

"He can easily admit he doesn't come from a family of money," NPR's Slavet says. "He, himself, talked about the fact his father had been incarcerated and in and out of jail much of his life. . . . He goes on to say, 'I want to be a role model for all people, not just kids my age.' This young man has such extraordinary dignity."

* * *

In Boston on Sunday, the day of the performance, he wakes early, showers, dresses and leaves the hotel for the dress rehearsal. He is to play at 2 p.m. During a broadcast of an interview before his performance, he talks about his father and he talks about wanting to be a role model. Somehow he is not nervous.

Only four students are on the program. They play exquisitely. A harpist, a cellist, a flutist.

Clifton is the last to be called. He walks onstage.

Before he sits down, he closes his eyes to concentrate, "trying to get myself in the mood of the song," he explains later. His fingers fly, spanning the keys, reaching as if his life depended on it. Control over chaos. The sonata climbs and bends and tells the story written by a Russian composer, now played by a kid from Southeast Washington.

When it ends, all Clifton can hear is thunderous applause. "I couldn't see the audience because the lights were so bright," he says. He couldn't see whether the ovation was standing. "I know they were clapping for a while because I had to take two bows."

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