Young music prodigy aims for a classical career
March 1, 2018
What do teenage music prodigy William Leathers and Wolfgang Mozart, one of the world’s most gifted classical musicians, have in common?
They share the same birthday on January 27 and the young Canadian trumpeter/pianist is on course to end up in music’s illustrious realm as a classical and jazz soloist.
Graduating a year early from Oakville Trafalgar High School, Leathers is preparing to enter university later this year to pursue classical trumpet performance studies.
He’s already auditioned for the Eastman and Juilliard Schools of Music and will visit the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia on March 5 for his last test.
“After the auditions, I will wait to see which schools select me and which has the potential for scholarships,” said Leathers. “I will make my decision based on that.”
Located in downtown Rochester which is the home of the world-renowned Rochester Philharmonic, Eastman offers a uniquely inspiring array of artistic, scholarly and creative opportunities. Juilliard, situated in New York City, is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading music and dance schools while Curtis is among the world’s leading conservatories with the lowest acceptance rate among American colleges and universities.
Leathers also had another reason for choosing the three American universities.
“The teachers at those institutions played a huge role in my decision making,” he said. “Juilliard has Mark Gould who is one of the best known trumpeters of his generation, James Thompson is professor of trumpet at Eastman and, in my opinion, one of the best teachers out there and David Bilger at Curtis is one of America’s best trumpet players. He is also someone I have done a master class with and I love his teaching style. To have any of those three should set me on a good path.”
The music journey started at four while Leathers was watching ‘Oswald’, the animated television series. The main character -- Oswald was a large, round, blue octopus -- played the piano.
“I wanted to play the piano just like Oswald,” recounted Leathers. “As I watched him play, I could see the colours of the notes coming out of the speakers. I wasn’t aware then that everyone didn’t see music in colour the way I do.”
He was later diagnosed with synesthesia that’s a condition where input in one sensory stream gives rise to experiences in another unstimulated sensory stream. One of the most common forms is grapheme-color synesthesia, where looking at or thinking about letters or numbers written in black elicits the experience of color.
When Pharrell Williams listened to ‘Earth, Wind & Fire” as a kid, he saw burgundy or baby blue and a ‘D’ note looked like dark blue burlap while a ‘G’ was light blue satin for the late Duke Ellington.
There are over 60 permutations of synesthesia.
Nearly six months of incessant pleading to learn to play the piano paid off when Leathers’ mom – Jamaican-born Donna Leathers – provided her son with a music teacher. About five months after his first session, he came out on top in the Peel Music Festival Grade three level piano competition.
Howard Leathers inspired his son to pick up the trumpet at age seven.
A multi-talented trumpeter and singer, the family patriarch was an instructor in Morocco’s King Hassan II Royal Moroccan Air Force Band.
“I used to listen to my father practice at home and I wanted to be just like him,” said Leathers who started reading and writing before the age of two. “He still teaches me, but he’s a jazz player and I want to take the classical route.”
It’s for that reason that Dr. Chris Cigolea was brought into the fold to hone Leathers skills. He’s the Guelph Concert Band music director and conductor and a trumpet instructor at the University of Guelph.
The trumpet has superseded the piano as Leathers’ favourite instrument.
“On a piano, you can’t start a note soft and end it loud,” he pointed out. “You can, however, do that on the trumpet. I just feel like there is more you can do with notes on a trumpet. The sound of the instrument reflects my voice more than the piano does.”
Three years ago, Leathers caught the attention of former Jamaica Prime Minister P.J Patterson.
So impressed was Patterson with the young man’s performance at the Calabar Old Boys Association (Canada) summer benefit luncheon in Brampton that he invited him to appear at the 134th Devon House benefit show in Jamaica.
Patterson was the honourary patron for the charity event that featured Dr. Myrna Hague, considered Jamaica’s’ First Lady of Jazz, and reggae singer Tarrus Riley.
“A member of the former Prime Minister’s entourage asked for my email address and within days, I had an invitation to perform,” said Leathers, the only Black musician with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 2013. “I had the distinction of playing with legendary drummer Desi Jones and his band and that was quite a feat. He and the other accomplished musicians on the program didn’t care that I was 14 years old. They only cared about music. I called a couple of tunes which they already knew. In the little rehearsal time, we got it right and everything just went great. It was also my first visit to Jamaica and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.”
At around the same time that Leathers fell in love with the piano, he developed a passion for helping the less fortunate.
A World Vision advertisement on television showing people in the world who don’t have enough to eat was the trigger.
“Seeing those people that were struggling really didn’t sit well with me,” he said. “I asked my mom if we could take some yogurt out of the fridge and send it to those people. I was just four at the time and she explained to me that that won’t work. My mom helped me to start working with World Vision. I asked schoolmates, friends and family members for money to contribute to the global campaign.”
When he was seven, Leathers sponsored a girl who shares the same birthday with him.
His goal is to attain a PhD in classical trumpet performance and become a soloist.