Matthew Whitaker: an inspiration to all
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Applause thunders through the prestigious Apollo theater in Harlem, NY, as the next teen performer takes center stage for the 2016 Amateur Night Holiday Special. A band takes form on the rear of the stage. Musicians’ shadows cast forward in shades of blue and yellow. The bold words “Amateur Night” are projected onto a large screen. Three golden arches lined with lights embody the stage, illuminating the theater with a warm, shiny glow.
Audience members clap, hoot, and holler loudly, welcoming 15-year-old Matthew Whitaker. The Emerson Jr. – Sr. High School student walks onto the stage, his shiny red suit and black-framed glasses shining under the spotlight. The crowd continues to give him a warm welcome as the host, Steve Harvey, gently guides Whitaker over to the piano. The spotlights turn onto the young pianist, and a city skyline projects onto the backdrop. Whitaker’s hands start to play a jazzy, soulful melody. The tempo of the song gradually speeds up until he has a rather steady beat going. Whitaker’s body moves along with the rhythm, taking the audience with him.
At first, Whitaker seems like any other teenage performer, besides one thing – he’s blind.
Whitaker was born three months premature, weighing a mere one pound and 11 ounces. The doctors had told his parents that he had a very slim chance of surviving, but from the start Whitaker was a fighter. In order to live, the doctors had to provide his tiny lungs with oxygen. The treatment resulted in an eye injury and ultimately, Whitaker’s blindness.
While being blind is a condition that might hold some people back, this aspiring musician has let his blindness do nothing of the sort. In fact, Whitaker already has a lengthy resume full of prestigious awards and performances, the most recent addition being his title of first place at the 2016 Apollo Amateur Night Holiday Special. Although Whitaker also plays the drums and the organ, piano is a favorite.
“It allows you to be you musically,” Whitaker simply stated.
EJSHS band teacher, Michael Lione, was thrilled to see such talent rise from the school’s small student body.
“I felt a tremendous amount of excitement and pride that one of our students from Emerson had this tremendous accomplishment. I know many of his band classmates watched and were excited to see him as well,” Lione said with a smile.
Whitaker has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. He’s also taken his music overseas to concerts and festivals in Italy, Morocco, France, and Japan. Whitaker is the youngest artist ever endorsed by Hammond Organ and the youngest Yamaha Artist.
In his own words, Whitaker said he is basically “the musical athlete”. In the music world, being sponsored by Hammond and Yamaha is the equivalent of an athlete getting endorsed by Nike and Adidas.
Playing the piano is no easy task, even for the average-sighted person. Since Whitaker is blind, he cannot see the piano keys or music in front of him. In order to play with the finesse and skill that he does, Whitaker practices several hours per day and has developed a keen sense of listening.
“I learn songs by ear. Sometimes I read it through music, by braille music, which is really different than print music. Different dots mean different things in the music,” he said.
He is such a skilled pianist that if one were to listen to him play, they would have no idea that he is playing without being able to watch the piano, the music or his fingers.
Moses and May Whitaker, his parents, noticed their son’s talent at the young age of three, when he taught himself to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on his first Yamaha keyboard. By himself, Whitaker started to play the song’s melody, and then easily added in the chords. At such a young age, that level of skill is very rare.
“We know that Matthew is gifted so we use that term. We always remind Matthew that his gifts came from God, and they are not his to keep but to share with others … Sometimes when he is creating something new we still get amazed at this gift,” his father said.
Whitaker especially enjoys playing jazz and adding his own flair to pieces. When performing, he always brings an energetic and enthusiastic aura to the stage. He really becomes engrossed in the music, stamping his foot and moving his body to the rhythm.
“It’s great to witness the connection he has with the audience. He feels the audience reaction to what he’s playing and he in turn reacts by smiling or playing something catchy or funny,” his father said.
Even though he Whitaker has played piano at some of the most prestigious theaters and won very honorable titles, he is very humble. He has some advice of his own for any musicians who dream of playing on the world famous stages that have been filled with his music and bright spirit.
“Try your best to [if you’re a jazz musician] think outside the box. Try to play your heart out. For people who are starting, try to figure out which song you’re trying to do. Take your time; don’t rush through it,” he said.
At such a young age, Whitaker has become an inspiration to many across the globe.
“What can others learn from Matt?” his father asked. “All things are possible if you place love and joy into whatever it is you choose to do in life.”
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