Finding music within life’s difficulties

Playing classical music is not the easiest feat — even when you’ve had formal training and are adept at reading sheet music.

For James Williams, it is even more challenging.

Not only does he lack formal training, but he also has had to overcome obstacles caused by his autism, a condition he was diagnosed with at age 3.

The now 18-year-old, who originally hails from London, said he began teaching himself to play piano when he was attending Weightman Middle School, in Wesley Chapel.

He had a simple motive: He wanted to win the school’s talent show.

And, he did.

Eighteen-year-old James Williams is a Florida finalist in the 2016 VSA Florida Young Soloist Competition. He now will compete for international honors. Shown here, he is playing on the grand piano in the lobby at Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

Eighteen-year-old James Williams is a Florida finalist in the 2016 VSA Florida Young Soloist Competition. He now will compete for international honors. Shown here, he is playing on the grand piano in the lobby at Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel.
(B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

Since then, he has continued teaching himself and recently he was named one of the state’s three top soloists in the ninth annual 2016 VSA Florida Young Soloist Competition.

Winning that contest means that he’s representing Florida in the VSA International Competition in Washington D.C., later this year.

The other two Florida finalists in the competition are Lyudmilla Fuentes, from Polk County, and Jacqueline Blanche, from Charlotte County.

The state finalists were selected through a strict adjudication process facilitated by Tampa Bay professors of music at the University of South Florida and at the Ybor City campus of Hillsborough Community College.

The Florida and International Young Soloist Program seeks to identify talented musicians, ages 14 through 26, who have a disability. The intention is to increase the musician’s likelihood of having a successful career in the arts, according to a news release from the VSA Florida, at the University of South Florida.

The program delivers opportunities for serious music students to showcase their abilities at venues throughout Florida.

In a partnership with the Florida Orchestra and Ashley Furniture, each winner will perform at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg in October at the orchestra’s annual Concert in the Park.

The international award is presented to four outstanding musicians, two from the United States and the other two from the international arena.

Winners of the international competition each receive a $2,500 award, professional development and the opportunity to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Williams has learned to play by listening to music and observing other pianists, on YouTube and in other venues.

He has performed at various events and in competitions.

One highlight so far was an appearance at a conference in Orlando for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, where he performed before Temple Grandin.

Grandin is perhaps the most prominent author and speaker, who has autism. She didn’t speak until she was 3, and her parents, at one point, were told she should be institutionalized.

Williams’ mother — Stephanie Stevens — understands the frustrations that parents face when they have a child with autism.

Williams, like Grandin, was diagnosed at age 3.

“He wasn’t talking. He wasn’t progressing as quickly as he should,” Stevens said.

The doctors were not much help.

“People were very much in the dark about autism” she said.

She was raising her son as a single mother, doing shiftwork in London.

She decided to move to the United States in 2007 to join most of her family members, who were already living here.

Since then, she has married her husband, Ralph, who has been a tremendous source of support for her and her son.

She credits faith for helping her son succeed in music, despite his difficulties.

“People prayed over him, constantly. And, my belief is that it was that power of prayer that has helped him overcome these things,” she said, referring to challenges posed by autism.

Williams, who graduated from Wesley Chapel High School, said he plays piano daily, usually twice a day.

He handles all kinds of musical gigs — helping to raise funds for charities and to earn money.

He hopes to pursue a career that involves music, too.

One of his goals is to use his music to help raise awareness about autism, he said.

He’s also delighted to be named one of the top three soloists in Florida in the VSA competition.

“I felt quite special,” he said. “I was a bit surprised, actually.”

His mom is thrilled, too.

“For him to be where he is now, to me, is a blessing.

“It just shows what you can do, no matter what your difficulties or disabilities, or background – with the right kind of determination and encouragement, there is help, and there is hope,” she said.

She also wants to pass along a message of hope, to other parents who have seen their children struggle with autism.

“I’d say to any parent, any guardian: ‘Don’t be discouraged. There’s always hope,’” Stevens said.

Published April 6, 2016

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